How about them Lakers!

Why the Lakers’ makeover under Magic Johnson is turning glimpses of the future into victories in the present

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The Los Angeles Lakers are coming of age right before our very own eyes. While still a long shot to make the playoffs, these baby Lakers with their dynamic young core are suddenly one of the hottest teams in the NBA.

They have the best record in the NBA since the All-Star break after sweeping their recent four-game road trip and winning their season-best fifth straight game in a row. They’re second in points per game at 121.4, fifth in field goal percentage at 50.1%, first in 3-point percentage at 45.5%, second in boards per game at 49.4, fourth in assists per game at 28.4, third in offensive rating at 116.0, fifth in defensive rating at 102.6, and second in net rating at 13.4.

In fact, since January 7th, the Lakers have been playing like a top 4 team in the Western Conference, winning 17 and losing just 7 games, which is third in the league. They’re seventh in points per game at 111.6, fifth in field goal percentage at 47.9%, sixth in 3-point percentage at 37.5%, first in boards per game at 47.9, fifth in assists per game at 25.1, ninth in offensive rating at 108.6, ninth in defensive rating at 104.4, and sixth in net rating at 4.2.

Much like last year’s New York Yankees, these young Lakers have arrived a full year ahead of schedule. No one expected the Lakers to do much this year. They were too young and inexperienced. For the first 2 months of the season, they struggled mightily with minor injuries and youthful inexperience. After a 9-game losing streak that led to LaVar Ball proclaiming Luke Walton had “lost the team,” the Lakers regrouped and began playing to their potential.

What’s amazing about the Laker’ turnaround since January 7th is that it was fueled by break-out play from every key member of one of the team’s core. Leading the way were Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, the #2 overall picks in the last two drafts and the team’s marquee players. Ball has averaged 11.6 points, 8.1 rebounds, 7.4 assists, 2.6 steals, and 0.4 blocks per game while Ingram has averaged 16.5 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 4.9 assists per game.

While Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram might not be the second coming of Magic Johnson and Kevin Durant, they’ve shown unbelievable upside so far and have the elite talent and work ethic to develop into future NBA All-Stars. The Lakers also got a huge boost from the great rookie performances by two 22-year old role players with four years in college who were the steals of the draft in Utah forward Kyle Kuzma and Villanova two-way guard Josh Hart.

The Lakers also got great play from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Brook Lopez, two vets they signed last summer to short term 1-year contracts. After struggling the first two months of the season, both have dramatically upped their play since January 7th, with KCP averaging 14.0 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game on 46.8% 3-point shooting and Lopez averaging 10.5 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 1.3 assists per game on 37.4 3-point shooting.

But the single major catalyst that triggered the Lakers’ dramatic turnaround was Luke Walton’s decision to start Julius Randle at power forward in place of Larry Nance, Jr. That move sparked a fire that transformed the season and, more importantly, convinced the Lakers to retain Julius Randle as a member of their future core rather than moving him at the trade deadline. Randle’s stellar play since has further confirmed he deserves to be part of their future.

Since January 7th, Julius Randle has been first on the team in points per game at 18.1, first in rebounds per game at 8.8, fifth in assists per game at 3.4, second in field goal percentage at 56.6%. His aggressive and energetic bully-ball style of play has become the heart and soul of these Lakers, who currently lead the entire NBA in pace, rebounding, and points in the paint. Randle’s ascent also changed the Lakers’ strategy at the trade deadline.

With Randle and the team suddenly winning, the Lakers made a trade that could dramatically accelerate their rebuild, sending Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance, Jr. to the Cavaliers for Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye, and the Cavs’ 2018 first round draft pick. While the big takeaways from the trade were clearing cap space to sign two superstars and getting a first round pick, it’s very possible the trade’s grand prize could turn out to be Isaiah Thomas.

Since joining the Lakers, Isaiah Thomas has been dynamic off the bench, scoring a team third best 16.1 points and third best 4.9 assists per game. In short, he has played a lot more like the superstar who averaged close to 30 points per game, led the Celtics to the Eastern Conference championship, and finished fifth in the MVP vote last season than the injured and disgruntled expired contract the Cavs were willing to give up a first round pick to move.

More importantly, Thomas has been on fire since the All-Star break, scoring a team second best 19.1 points per game while shooting 36.7% from deep and dishing out a team second best 5.2 assists per game. His elite play at the point with and without Lonzo Ball has been something the Lakers have never had. Still not fully recovered from the hip injury that sidelined him in last year’s playoffs, Isaiah so far appears to be a perfect fit for this young Lakers team.

With Randle and Thomas both slated to become free agents this summer, the Lakers may have to rethink their grand plan of signing two max-contract free agents this summer and instead look to sign one superstar free agent and use the cap space cleared for a second superstar to re-sign Randle and Thomas, especially if Randle continues to dominate the paint and Thomas continues to show he is capable of playing at the MVP level he played with the Celtics.

Ideally, the Lakers might prefer to re-sign Randle and Thomas to short term 1-year contracts to save cap space to sign a second superstar next summer. But it’s possible the smart move right now might be to lock both players up with 3 or 4 year deals now since they’re so valuable. Those big contracts could be important chips in a trade for Kawhi Leonard and Klay Thompson, superstars whom the Lakers most covet but are unlikely to hit free agency.

What course the Lakers front office decides to take this summer will depend on how the team plays the last 20 games and what opportunities are available in free agency. If the Lakers can finish the rest of the season as well as they have played since January 7th, I believe they will prioritize re-signing Julius Randle and Isaiah Thomas to long term contracts and then go strong to sign the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Paul George to a max contract as a free agent.

That would give the Lakers a starting lineup of Lonzo Ball, Paul George, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and Julius Randle with a bench of Isaiah Thomas, Josh Hart, the Cavs’ first round pick, Travis Wear, and Ivica Zubac. While the Lakers would not have the cap space to sign a second superstar, they would clearly have the blue chips needed in talented young players on good contracts and a full suite of draft picks to trade for another superstar.

In the meantime, the Lakers would have a team that would immediately be a top four team in the West with the upside to become even better in the future because of their roster full of promising young talent. You could even argue that the Lakers’ new roster would already include two current or previous All-Stars in Paul George and Isaiah Thomas and four possible future All-Stars in youngsters Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, and Kyle Kuzma.

The Los Angeles Lakers makeover under Magic Johnson is a year ahead of schedule and turning glimpses of the future into victories in the present. Everything in L.A. is coming up Lakers and promising a return to greatness.

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