It was always going to be a process for the Los Angeles Lakers this season. A brand new team with a handful addition of new veterans, including bringing aboard LeBron James, was always going to take time for the young Lakers, and head coach Luke Walton, to get acclimated to.
The younger guys had never played with a player of James’ caliber, so they have not to learn to play the off-ball slashing style of game necessary to adapt. Nor were they the greatest of shooters. Not to mention, the defense was always going to take time to get up to par because of the chemistry required.
They started 2-5, and rumblings of panic began to go around, including questioning Luke Walton’s job security. We all knew what to expect, but it was inevitable.
And it was fair to wonder if the Lakers’ front office, particularly President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson, would overreact and make a panic move.
But they refrained from doing so, even with the likes of Anthony Davis linked to them, and Jimmy Butler available before being moved to Philadelphia. They wanted to see the younger players grow and see if they can legitimately support James in collecting wins while also increasing their trade value for a potential move in the future.
And it looks like things are finally going as planned. All LeBron James needed was time before the ball started rolling as his past two endeavors with the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers showed.
Whenever James goes to a new team, it’s an adjustment for an entire team, which is why they start slow. The 33-year-old merely wanted to see what he had in this Lakers roster. But, once the comfort level begins to increase, the winning follows.
After starting slowly, the Lakers have won 15 of their last 20 games to push them to 17-10 after defeating the Miami Heat Monday night, good for 5th in the Western Conference and just a single game back of the number one seed (as of Tuesday morning).
Things have started to change in large part due to their improvement on defense. Before Tyson Chandler’s arrival, the Lakers had a losing record mostly because of a 111.3 defensive rating through their first 11 games, which was 23rd in the league. But since his debut on November 8, Los Angeles is 12-4 in 16 contests and have the 4th-best defensive rating in the league.
And with each game, James is getting more support on offense. Kentavious-Caldwell Pope has come on as of late. Lonzo Ball still lacks the consistency needed to be fully effective, but we are seeing more and more flashes from him and his ability. Brandon Ingram is currently sidelined because of an ankle injury, but he was starting to find more consistency.
It’s Kyle Kuzma, however, who is really blossoming recently. On the season, he is averaging 17.9 points on 48.2% from the field but has taken it to another level in December.
In five games this month, the second-year forward is averaging 25 points and 8.2 rebounds while shooting 52.7% from the field, 38.5% from three, and owns an excellent 60.8% effective field goal percentage. In addition, the Lakers have recently been better on defense with him on the court. This all has helped him post a +11.7 net rating for December and +3.1 on the year.
All the talk of needing a second begs the question of whether the 23-year-old can be that guy this season. It was supposed to be Brandon Ingram, but it’s Kuzma who has been the better fit with LeBron James so far.
They have come a long way as a team, and are getting better in the close, grind-it-out games, which is more evidence that the maturation process is happening- something that coach Walton mentioned postgame.
“That’s another win tonight that we wouldn’t have had earlier in the season,” Walton said. “It’s definitely one we scrapped out and found a way to win. To me, that continues to show growth from our guys, confidence that we can find a way no matter what kind of game it is.”
But perhaps the most encouraging thing about all this is that the Lakers still have lots of room for improvement. They still have flaws and weaknesses that they need to clean up but are winning despite all that.
If Ingram can return and take his game to the level we all expected in his third season, Los Angeles will have a dangerous and hungry offensive duo, in Kuzma and him, to take more pressure of James, which will make the team even scarier. And the defense will get even better.
Things are good in La La Land, and it’s just another example of why patience is essential with a young team. There’s nothing to be gained from rushing a process, and we are seeing why.