Are the Los Angeles Lakers Legitimate Playoff Contenders?
The Los Angeles Lakers are one of the NBA's most storied franchises, but they've been in a funk for the last three years.
Over their 69-season existence, the Lakers have made 60 playoff appearances and won 16 championships (trailing only the Boston Celtics' 17 as the most in league history). After that, three straight years of declining win totals (27, 21, 17) and missing the playoffs each year has been highly unusual for them. In fact, it's the first time in the team's history that they've missed that many consecutive postseasons.
But things done changed this offseason.
Low win totals over the last three years have resulted in some pretty prime draft picks. They took Julius Randle with the seventh pick in 2014, snagged D'Angelo Russell second overall in 2015, and then added Brandon Ingram with this year's second overall pick. They also managed to sprinkle in other youthful diamonds in the rough like Jordan Clarkson (the 46th overall pick in the 2014 draft, traded from the Washington Wizards on draft night for cash) and Larry Nance Jr. (their 27th overall pick in 2015) along the way.
The development of the young core had been more or less put on hold last year while Kobe Bryant lived out his retirement victory lap under then-coach Byron Scott, but the Lakers have struck more balance in the post-Kobe, post-Scott era.
Under new head coach Luke Walton and with the guidance of some seasoned veterans, the Lakers are now 8-7 and are a whole lot of fun to watch again.
Older Lakers Luol Deng, Lou Williams, Timofey Mozgov, and Jose Calderon are all involved -- but not to the detriment of their up-and-coming successors. Even the enigmatic Nick "Swaggy P" Young has found a starting role on this team and is thriving in it.
There's perhaps no better evidence of this being a career year for Swaggy than his being on the floor during crunch time against the Oklahoma City Thunder last night and nailing the game-winning three:
Sure, the pass was intended for Lou Williams, but those rather funny circumstances just made the shot fit perfectly into Swaggy canon. The shot may have been haphazard in nature, but it just goes to show how everything's coming up Lakers early in the 2016-17 season.
The most notable change has been their improvements on the offensive end. Last season, the Lakers were 29th in the NBA in offensive rating at 101.6 and 30th in defensive rating at 111.6. Their defense still leaves a bit to be desired with a 26th-ranked defensive rating of 109.8 in the early-goings of 2016-17, but their offensive rating has leapt all the way up to 110.1 (a jump of 8.5 points scored per 100 possessions), which ranks them 8th in the entire NBA.
The big question is: are the Lakers now a legitimate playoff contender or is this just a hot start that will fade over time?
Well, when looking at Dean Oliver's "Four Factors of Basketball Success" -- which tend to be a good measure of whether or not a team's performance is a mirage or sustainable -- there are not a lot of positive signs that point to this above-.500 start continuing:
Offensive Four Factors
|Effective Field Goal Percentage||53.0%||3rd|
|Offensive Rebounding Percentage||24.6%||10th|
|Free Throw Rate||0.213||14th|
Defensive Four Factors
|Opponent Effective Field Goal Percentage||52.7%||30th|
|Opponent Turnover Percentage||13.5%||11th|
|Opponent Offensive Rebounding Percentage||23.7%||17th|
|Opponent Free Throw Rate||0.213||20th|
The fact that they are allowing opponents to shoot a league-high 52.7% effective field goal percentage, in particular, is a big concern.
And our algorithms don't completely buy into the Lakers' early-season success either. They are currently tied to be the 16th-ranked team in our NBA Team Power Rankings based on play so far, but we have them with only a 13.2% chance of making the playoffs. That's the sixth-lowest projection in the entire Association and it trails 11 other Western Conference teams, including the 4-9 Minnesota Timberwolves (33.8%), the 6-8 Denver Nuggets (22.7%), and even the 2-11 Dallas Mavericks (19.4%).
But who knows? Maybe the Lakers keep growing as a unit, get better on defense, and can keep this top-10 offense rolling. Head coach Luke Walton certainly continues to prove that he's a formidable NBA coach and time should only help one of the youngest cores in the NBA to get even better and more promising.
At the very least, the Lakers formerly known as "Showtime" are suddenly fun again and the franchise is finally back on an upwards trajectory. Even if they don't end up being a legitimate playoff team just yet, the team's future is brighter than most, and that's worth an early-season moment in the spotlight.