Luke’s Era: Differences Noticed by Fans and the Media from Last Year’s Lakers (@lakersreporter @serenawinters)

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The Los Angeles Lakers started the season with quite a few things working against them. The odds were initially stacked against them as the sports experts immediately determined that the rebuilding young Lakers would barely win 30 games. They were young, they were inexperienced, they were years away from any of these young players having any resemblance of star quality. They had a young inexperienced coach in Luke Walton who had nothing more than an impressive run with a great team that “anybody could coach”, and finally, the NBA scheduled the beginning of their season to include three games against the Golden State Warriors, two games against the Oklahoma City Thunder, two games against the Atlanta Hawks and games against Spurs and Bulls. They would open the season against James Harden’s Rockets and Jazz. With a few supposed “winnable” games against the Sacramento Kings, New Orleans Pelicans, Brooklyn Nets, Indiana Pacers, Minnesota Timberwolves and the Dallas Mavericks, the NBA would still consider those games that the Lakers would lose as bottom feeders in the league.

With this in the backdrop, we still had last years’ Lakers in our minds and expected that this team would most likely squeak out wins against the bad teams while getting scorched by the playoff contenders and young upstarts like the Timberwolves en route to perhaps a record like 3-15. They would compete, but they would  take the all too familiar “moral victory”, possessing an awful record and telling the media that they are much better than their record indicates.

What actually happened was the Lakers opened the season with a win against the Rockets, to which they attributed to dumb luck and opening day excitement. They proceeded to lose three straight on the road, competing up to the final quarter before succumbing to inexperienced clutch ball.

So the media was vindicated…for the moment. Then the Lakers did the improbable. They came back from double digits to put away the Atlanta Hawks on the road. They returned home and pummeled the Golden State Warriors and soundly beat the Phoenix Suns. After a letdown against the Dallas Mavericks, they came from 19 down to beat the Kings on the road and then embarrassed the New Orleans Pelicans.

Now they were back to talking about the surprise young Lakers. Following a few more wins and losses they entered a stretch that included back-to-back games against Golden State, preceded by games against the Spurs, Bulls and Thunder. They managed to pull off a win against the Thunder on Nick Young’s go-ahead three.

However, the Lakers now met a new setback that has destroyed them in recent years. D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle went down before the game against Golden State and Nick Young joined the injured before the back-to-back game against Golden State. Fans familiar with the last few years were afraid of deja vu. Furthermore, the Lakers now faced a new challenge. They had been blown out in two straight games and lost four of their last five to legitimate contenders.

So the media is vindicated once more? No.

The Lakers regrouped and soundly destroyed the Atlanta Hawks by 15, sweeping the season series and rededicating themselves to defense after a forgettable first quarter.

Now these Los Angeles Lakers improbably sit at 9-9 and sit at 8 (not last) in the Western Conference. The difference between these Lakers and last years Lakers has become increasingly noticeable and everyone has taken notice. But what are these differences?

1. The Lakers Expect to Win. When the Lakers lose, they actually feel that is based on their performance, not because they just lost to a better team. Even in their losses early in the season they made adjustments. In each loss they had come closer and closer to winning the game. The last one against the Pacers, it took Paul George heroics to put the game away. Even in losses to teams like the Spurs and Bulls, they felt these games were still theirs to win. It took Tony Parker clutch play to stop a furious 4th quarter Laker rally. This winning mentality was virtually non-existent last year.

2. The Lakers are NEVER out of it. This season the Lakers have been down double digits to several of their opponents. Each time, they have come roaring back to make it a game. The only two times this did not happen was against the Golden State Warriors and Minnesota Timberwolves. Against Minnesota, they still got down to single digits, and against Golden State they forced Steve Kerr to keep his starters in the fourth quarter as the Lakers pulled within 12 in their last meeting (without Russell or Randle). The rest of the time the Lakers are almost guaranteed to make it a game AND win. Last year the Lakers would have all but given up, over and over again.

3. The Lakers Make Adjustments. With slow starts and injuries, this Laker team never seems rattled. In the first game against Houston, the Lakers gave up 71 points in the first half. The second half was very different as the Lakers tightened the screws on defense to overtake the Rockets and win, only giving up 43. This same result took place against the Kings. The Lakers are currently withstanding injuries which blindsided them at first. However, Luke and staff have managed the help these Lakers once again adjust and get back in the win column. Against these Hawks, the Lakers gave up a miserable 32 points in the first quarter before making adjustments and never looked back. Last year ties into the second point and, quite frankly, the Lakers made zero adjustments.

4. Same Cast, Different Script? Tarik Black is a beast on the boards and is a key component in the Lakers surprising start. He did not play last year. Nick Young is a smart team player and developing into a 3 and D player. He did not play much last year. Lou Williams and Nick Young were type cast as the same type of players and would never coexist on the court. They are setting each other up for plays. The Lakers have picked up some great additions through free agency and the draft, but Luke Walton is getting the most (and he’s not done yet) out of the same players that played on this Laker team last year. The players are empowered. It’s their game to win or lose. They don’t go in fearing they will be yanked out for a bad play.

5. The Lakers are Buying In. Last year, I have no doubt that the coaching staff had great ideas about offense and defense and even James Worthy as a eyewitness can see the team worked on defense and sharing the ball. Time and time again, post-game interviews would speak about what they did in practice failing to “translate on the court”. The major difference between this year and last year is that these Lakers are buying into what the coaching staff wants to do. That is a very powerful component that determines how any team performs. For whatever reason, many of which I’ve highlighted before, the Lakers are making it a priority to implement everything Luke and staff teaches.

6. The Lakers are Getting Easier Looks. The Lakers are 6th in the league, averaging 108 points a game. Last year they averaged 97 and were dead last. Why? This year, any basketball head would notice that the Lakers have an easier time getting into their offense. They work the ball around for a great shot and many of their shots are open looks. It just looks easier, AND easier to watch. Theoretically, once they knock these shots down with more regularity, they will be scoring with even more efficiency. The Lakers had many of these shooters last year. Yet they struggled to get an uncontested shot off. Their offense looked very labored and uninspired. The ball stuck with one player in ill-advised iso instead of moving around. The Lakers this year miss shots because of either great defense by the opposing team or simply because they just missed an open look.

*And as a note, defensively, even though this is far from their specialty, they are much more active, they make key stops to win games and they do allow more points simply due to the pace of the game. 

Which these points being made, even with the odds stacked against these young Lakers to fail and be doomed to experience the horrors of a rebuilding franchise, the Lakers are 9-9. Expectations are rising. The fans are excited. The players are excited. Even as they find themselves down 19, they can turn around and be up 10. Even after losing 2 straight, they will refocus and win the next game by 15. Even as they lose two starters, they find victories from their bench and veterans. In this young season, the Lakers expect to win and to make it even worse, they expect to get better.

The Lakers will need to maintain their dedication to defense and replicate the performance they had against Atlanta for 3 quarters. They will need to replicate the 20 assists (or more) and 9 turnovers (or less) in that same performance. They will also need to continue to pay attention to detail and start hitting open shots with more regularity.

The NBA and sports experts will still find a way to spin it negative. They say they still won’t make the playoffs or they will still be awful when it all settles down. However, The Lakers Optimist says that we don’t know. Right now, the Lakers when healthy can beat anybody in the league. The Golden State Warriors have not beaten a healthy Lakers team this season. Fact. Without Randle and Russell, the Lakers manhandled the Hawks. So, we still approach the remainder of this season with cautious optimism and take it one game at a time.

Tonight the Lakers face another winnable opponent, although the Pelicans have Jrue Holiday and are playing much better as of late. With every game being a test, the Lakers have to show that they are back to winning ways and take this game in decisive fashion. They must control the boards, hit open looks and take care of the basketball. I’m expecting a victory tonight.

Enjoy the game!

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