After performing a front-office housecleaning last February and participating in the draft lottery for the fourth straight season the Lakers have the same record they had at this stage last season.
Their 121-104 Christmas Day loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves dropped their record to 11-21, the same as it was 32 games into their fourth straight non-playoff finish. But those numbers don’t tell the entire story for the Lakers, who Monday lacked starters Lonzo Ball (sprained shoulder), Brook Lopez (sprained ankle) and Brandon Ingram (quadriceps injuries) and deployed lineups they had never used before.
They’re entertaining and they’re competitive and they were in the game well into the fourth quarter on Monday against the much-improved Timberwolves. They’ve benefited from the precocious play of Kyle Kuzma, who had a game-high 31 points Monday, the progression of Ball, who was finding his shooting touch before he injured his shoulder last Saturday, and the ability of Ingram to step up his game from last season.
Jordan Clarkson said he believes they’re a better team than they were at this time last season. “We’re not getting blown out by nobody,” said Clarkson, who scored 17 points in his first start this season. “The score tonight wasn’t indicative of how the game flow was. ... We’re out there competing every night.”
There are glorious moments when the Lakers get it and play up to the level of good opponents, as they did last week in losing two close games to Golden State and beating Houston. But there are still too many times they play down to the level of bad opponents, as they did in losing Saturday to Portland.
They too often let frustration drive their emotions. Their record could be better. It should be better, after four lottery picks. But one of them, D’Angelo Russell, is gone, and the Lakers won’t get a lottery pick at the end of this season. Looking at the big picture, they’re closer to establishing a solid young core. That’s progress, even if it’s not obvious when comparing their record to where they stood at this point last season.
“I think they’ve improved,” Minnesota coach Tom Thibodeau said before the game. “They’ve got guys that have gotten better. They play teams tough. ... They have a lot of guys, you look at Ingram from last year to this year and the way he’s improved, they have a number of guys. Of course, Kuzma and Ball, they’ve got some really good young players.”
Their record isn’t all that coach Luke Walton considers when evaluating where his team is and where it’s capable of going. The numbers have a subtext for him, and they add up to the Lakers being in a better place than they were a year ago.
“It bothers me because I hate losing, but it doesn’t bother me in the sense that I’m upset where we’re at as a team. I love where our group is at. I love the way that they work,” Walton said. “I love the habits that they’re building. I think that our record could be a lot better, and I’m sure a lot of teams say that.
“With the way that our guys continue to work and to compete and to want to get better, and see that carry over into the games, just not being able to close out or come over the hump at the end of the game, that’s just the next step. And that will come when you continue to have the right habits and work at them to a certain level.”
They’ve long had their eyes on the 2018 free-agent class, which will be led by LeBron James. To create space for two “supermax” contracts they’re expected to off-load some contracts — including Julius Randle, another of those lottery picks who were supposed to be their future. Still, there’s no guarantee James or Paul George or another impact player will consider the Lakers.
Rumors about possible trades have filtered into the locker room.
“A very real distraction,” Walton called them. “It’s important to also realize that as players, you don’t have control over how that plays out. So to waste energy thinking about that, to waste energy and time and mind capacity worrying about that type of thing is only going to hurt your own game. ... The good teams are able to not let that disrupt the way they’re playing.”
Are the Lakers good enough to block out those distractions and improve in ways that will show up in their record? “I know we competed,” Walton said after Monday’s game, “which is always, since Day 1 of what we’ve been emphasizing this year, the most important thing.”
At some point, simply competing won’t be enough.