The Los Angeles Lakers beat the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday, 125-118. D’Angelo Russell had 32 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 steals. Julius Randle had a 17/14/10 triple-double. The Lakers are now 7-5 on the season and if the playoffs started today, 5 months early, they would be the 7th seed in the Western Conference. That may seem like an overreaction, but if you look at the other teams in the West, the Lakers are probably going to make the playoffs*.
This seems like a remarkable, quick turnaround for the Lakers, but what really happened is that they lucked into The Process that the Philadelphia 76ers are trying to pull off and nailed it without trying.
The Lakers had been really bad for the last three seasons. They tried to contend without a rebuild by acquiring Dwight Howard and Steve Nash in 2012-2013, but it was a disaster. That team went through three coaches and was swept in the first round of the playoffs. The next two seasons, Kobe dealt with an array of injuries, playing in 6 and 35 games while the Lakers went from 45 wins to 27 to 21.
The team bottomed last season, while Kobe went on his ubiquitous retirement tour, winning just 17 games. If you think that was part of some grand plan, don’t. Just look at the way that Scott tried everything he could – or more likely couldn’t – think of to ruin D’Angelo Russell and his other young players.
They lost the Ben Simmons lottery and ended up with Brandon Ingram. Any Lakers fan or executive will tell you that Ingram was who they really wanted all along, but deep down, they know it’s not true. While Ben Simmons is missing most of, if not all of the season, Brandon Ingram is playing steady minutes for a potential playoff team.
*QUICK ASIDE – Here’s how I see the West playoffs shaking out right now.
The Clippers, Warriors and Spurs are locks and can survive injuries to key guys. The Blazers, Jazz and Rockets are in unless something bad happens to Damian Lillard, James Harden, or Gordon Hayward. The Grizzlies are always in. The Thunder and Russell Westbrook have already begun regressing and are going to miss the playoffs. Everyone thought it was the Timberwolves under Tom Thibodeau that would make a leap to the playoffs this season, but despite the entire team learning to shoot over the summer, they can’t win games. Obviously, there’s still a ton of time for them to figure it out, but if you assume Memphis does their usual thing there’s really only one spot up for grabs. Now back to the Lakers…
Los Angeles’ success this season is as much a condemnation of the end of Kobe Bryant’s career as it is a credit to Luke Walton, a talented young core and some veterans acting like professionals. Ironically, without Byron Scott and Kobe Bryant running the team into the ground, none of this would have been possible. Trying and failing somehow worked out for them.
In addition to immediate success in the post-Kobe era, Kobe being around the team kept the Lakers relevant and kept people coming to the games. The Sixers are just one season further removed from their last playoff appearance than the Lakers. Philadelphia has been at or near the bottom of the league in attendance the last three seasons while the Lakers have filled Staples Center to 98% capacity or better. People joke about LA crowds showing up late, but at least they continued to show up. Considering Kobe, the only real attraction the team had to offer, appeared in 40% of the team’s home games (2 home games in ’13-’14, 18 in ’14-’15 and 30 last season) over that time period, that’s commendable.
And now those short-suffering fans are being rewarded with a team that might not need to lure an all-caps SUPERSTAR to contend in a couple years. There is no telling the ceiling of D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, and Jordan Clarkson. Brandon Ingram is still a teenager. Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov-esque veterans will be happy to fill in the holes and play with those guys.
The 76ers have similar, but different, potential with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, but they don’t seem any closer to actually winning basketball games than they did three years ago. Meanwhile, the Lakers have a real team and they have Luke Walton. Brett Brown spent a decade working under Gregg Popovich, but now he’s got so much 76ers stink on him there’s no way he’s the one to turn things around in Philadelphia. Everyone who knew they were involved in The Process has been damaged.
The Lakers accomplished what the 76ers are trying to do on accident. Now they’re a potential playoff team with a bright future in spite of themselves. It’s nice to have a plan. It’s better to be the Lakers.