Fast approaching two full months into the 2017-18 NBA season, the Los Angeles Lakers remain an unknown commodity in the sense that they appear to be playing solid enough defense to challenge any team on a given night but their youth makes them an inconsistent group capable of losing to teams near the bottom of the league.
By the time the Lakers return home from the current road trip, Luke Walton's team will have completed a third of the season, and following the win over the Charlotte Hornets, the Lakers rank no. 8 in defensive rating and first in the NBA in pace. As a whole, the Lakers are playing the way the coach and organization intended at the onset of the season: a team that plays defense, causes turnovers and immediately pushes out on the break.
A handful of losses in games LA could have won have the Lakers sitting on a 10-15 record, but the Lakers are still ahead of the Clippers in the standings and 10th in the Western Conference. Walton's team is still only a couple games back of the eighth and final playoff spot the team targeted at the start of the season and continues to target as the season progresses.
Four of the Laker's next five games come against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors, who have combined to lose only four of their last 30 games. The manner in which Walton has his team playing, though, offers hope that the Lakers can steal one of those four games and stay within touching distance of that final playoff spot. When the schedule inevitably softens, the Lakers can possibly make up ground and potentially finish with a .500 record. That may not be good enough for a playoff berth in the West, but a 40+ win season would be a dramatic improvement on a 26-win season in Walton's rookie year on the bench.
Lonzo Ball has notably contributed to the Lakers' exciting pace and has been playing faster and with more of a purpose in recent games. Meanwhile, the point guard's defense has been a revelation and also contributed to the team's jump from the worst defense in the NBA for two years running into the top third of the league. In addition, Ball is a box score-filler and currently leads the team in rebounds, assists and ranks second on the team in blocks.
Shooting may be a concern, but Ball's ability to play and contribute in a positive manner is unquestioned.
Meanwhile, Kyle Kuzma has emerged as a candidate for Rookie of the Year, as the forward has tabbed eight double-doubles in 24 games, and the former Utah Ute has improved in his rebounding as the season has progressed. Kuzma has three double-doubles in the team's four December games thus far.
Perhaps, the greatest leap forward has derived from the undeniable improvement of Brandon Ingram. The former Duke Blue Devil only hit the 20-point mark twice in his rookie season, but his offense has developed to a far more consistent and threatening level in the 20-year-old's sophomore season. Ingram has topped 20 points in six of 25 games and is currently on a streak of 11 straight games scoring in double figures. Ingram has scored 15 or more points in 15 of the Lakers' 25 games and nine of the past 11 games. In short, he's getting better and more consistent with every passing game.
Following his 18-point outing in Charlotte, Ingram is now leading the Lakers with 16.2 points per game, which is an improvement of nearly seven points per game from his rookie season. In addition, the North Carolina native has demonstrated improvement in his three-point shooting percentage, free throw shooting percentage and overall field goal percentage, along with showing positive trajectory in rebounds, assists, steals and blocks per game. Ingram is also, arguably, the team's best wing defender, and his recent game-winning shot in Philadelphia in a nationally televised game made him the young team's shot maker when the game is on the line.
At the moment, Ingram is the best player on the Lakers—without any qualifications required.
Meanwhile, Jordan Clarkson is emerging as a Sixth Man of the Year candidate and could even snag that award should the Lakers make a late run and snatch a playoff spot by season's end. Clarkson currently averages 15.2 points per game, which is good enough for third on the team, despite ranking seventh on the team in minutes.
Ranking eighth on the team in minutes is Julius Randle. The forward may have up and down nights on the offensive end, but Randle's defensive versatility and tenacity have made him a regular closer for Walton. The former University of Kentucky Wildcat may not have displayed growth in his jump shot, but his per 48-minute stats project out to 26.6 points and 13.6 rebounds per game, which points to the 23-year-old's efficiency on the floor in limited time.
Several times already this season, Randle's energy has taken over large segments of games on both ends of the floors and spurred big runs. He's a unique player that can occasionally change a game on his own, and that's without being able to consistently hit a jump shot.
Brook Lopez and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope joined over the summer. Lopez seemed to struggle in his role early on, but the center has scored in double digits in each of his past four games and is shooting 33.3 percent from beyond the arc in December. Caldwell-Pope's shot selection has been a bit curious at times, but his defensive intensity is impossible to deny. On the perimeter, Caldwell-Pope is the team's best defender, and both Lopez and Caldwell-Pope have contributed to the team's improved defense.
In addition, Caldwell-Pope is the team's second best three-point shooter,36.8 percent, behind only Clarkson, 37.1 percent.
The Lakers have also found minutes and value out of Josh Hart. Hart is a stellar defender with toughness that the team lacked on that end of the court in recent years. The rookie out of Villanova started the season by making only two of his 15 three-point attempts. However, Hart has hit seven of his 10 three-point attempts since and is making a stronger case to get regular rotation minutes with every outing.
Larry Nance Jr. came into training camp as the best conditioned athlete on the team, and his work in the offseason shows in his strength on the defensive glass and simply battling down in the painted area. Walton's occasional experiments with Nance playing at center have not worked out, but at power forward, Nance expects to continue as the team's starter based on his output and contributions on the defensive side of the ball. Nance also leads the team in steals and is neck-and-neck with Ball and Kuzma for team leader in rebounds.
Based on matchups, Walton has looked to Corey Brewer and Andrew Bogut from time to time, and both veterans have helped more than they have hurt the team, but neither of the two NBA journeymen are central to the team's success or failure in the current season. Second year center Ivica Zubac, rookie Thomas Bryant and two-way players Vander Blue and Alex Caruso fall in that same category.
Luol Deng is entirely a non-factor.
Through 25 games, the Lakers have displayed growth, competitiveness and talent. Most importantly, the Lakers are finally playing NBA level defense again, which is the key for the team to be competitive throughout the season and possibly even achieve that lofty goal of making the playoffs.
An unlikely playoff berth would probably result in a four-game sweep to the Houston Rockets or Golden State Warriors, but still, the playoff experience would do wonders for the team's development. None of the Lakers' young core has experienced NBA Playoffs basketball, and failing in the postseason is part of the process of getting better and succeeding in the NBA's second season.
While the Lakers may still be a long shot to make the playoffs, they're trending in the right direction, and the prospect of the purple and gold in the 2018 NBA Playoffs no longer seems like a distant reality in a galaxy far, far away.