Last season's 17-win Lakers didn't notch their seventh victory until New Year's Day. Now the squad has a better record than eight teams in the Western Conference and is tied for fourth place. Predicted to win just 27 games this year, these Lakers are clearly better than preseason expectations.
"It wasn't about what people were saying and their opinions," reserve center Tarik Black said. "They're not in the locker room with us. They don't go out and play with us.
"We're going to work hard and take each game for what it's worth, and we'll see what the record says at the end of the year."
Black gave the Lakers 12 points and nine rebounds during just 13 minutes against the Nets, and he's proved to be an integral part of what may be the best bench in the league.
At 50.6 points a game, Lakers reserves score more than any other team's backups, per HoopsStats.com. Lou Williams (15.6) and Jordan Clarkson (14.8) lead that effort. Together, Brandon Ingram, Larry Nance Jr., Black, Williams and Clarkson are not only the NBA's top bench unit but one of the most productive groups overall.
Among lineups with at least 80 minutes of court time, the Lakers' fivesome has generated 107.8 points per 100 possessions (offensive rating) while yielding 88.9 (defensive rating), per NBA.com. Their net between offense and defensive ratings is 18.9, which is third overall in the league behind only the starting lineups of the Los Angeles Clippers (31.8) and Houston Rockets (21.0).
Picture that: First overall is Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, J.J. Redick and Luc Mbah a Moute. Next is James Harden, Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson and Clint Capela. And then the Lakers reserves.
"It's amazing what happens when five guys come together, talk to each other and play basketball for one another," Black said. "It's just amazing what ends up happening."
"They have been great all year," head coach Luke Walton said. "I think the reason that they have so much success is because of how unselfish they play as a group. They get after it defensively, and the ball moves to the open man."
Throughout the preseason, Walton toyed with rotations, moving Williams and Clarkson in and out of the starting group, but eventually settled on Nick Young alongside D'Angelo Russell. The decision has clearly paid off: Young has revitalized his career, and the bench gives the Lakers an advantage against their opposition's second units.
Williams has spent most of his career coming off the bench, winning Sixth Man of the Year in 2015 with the Toronto Raptors. The move was more of an adjustment for Clarkson, however, who started all 79 games he played last season.
"I've sacrificed. Everybody has really sacrificed for this team. It feels good because we're winning," Clarkson said. "I'm giving myself to Coach, the team, all I've got. It just feels good."
On Tuesday, Clarkson and Ingram helped finish off the Nets with starters Julius Randle, Timofey Mozgov and Russell. Other times, Russell has cheered from the sideline, watching teammates like Clarkson and Williams close out games.
Against bigger players like Brooklyn's Brook Lopez or the Sacramento Kings' DeMarcus Cousins, Walton used a taller lineup with Randle and Mozgov. He's also found success against smaller opponents with Randle and Nance at center and power forward, respectively.
"Teams, they really can't plan for us," Clarkson said. "You don't know who is going to finish out the game, you don't know what kind of combinations we're going to play with."
He continued: "We are winning a lot of these games because we can play small ball, we can play big ball. We can get up and down the court. We can grind in the half court with you. Pick your poison, but we're going to attack you."
Bench depth has enabled Walton to avoid burning players out with heavy minutes as well, resulting in fresher legs and energetic lineups late in games. Meanwhile, in 10 of the Lakers' 12 contests, their bench has outscored their opponent's reserves—and the franchise is one of the biggest surprises through the first month of the NBA season.
Lakers Insider Notebook
Randle's Second Triple-Double
In 31 minutes against the Nets, Randle notched his second career triple-double. He scored 17 points while collecting 14 rebounds and dishing 10 assists. (His first career triple-double came during a loss last season to the Denver Nuggets.)
"I'm happy for the young fella," Young said. "He came out doing his thing. To be a power forward and get 10 assists...unbelievable."
"The game is slowing down," Randle said, whose field-goal efficiency has jumped from last year's 42.9 percent to an impressive 55.1 percent.
After the victory, Walton pointed out that Randle can still improve, especially defensively.
"He is continuing to get better and really realizing what he's capable of doing," Walton said. "As good as he played tonight, there were probably nine, 10, 11 or 12 times that he did not get himself involved in the play."
"I could be a lot better," Randle agreed. "I think the team feeds off my energy, and I think that's one of the big things I bring to the game."
Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson was impressed by Randle's performance.
"He's a bull coming down the lane," Atkinson said. "[The Lakers have] done a great job with him."
Ingram Quietly Progressing
Shooting only 40.9 percent from the field, Brandon Ingram has scored in double-digits just three times this season with a career high of 12 points. But numbers do not tell the whole story for the Lakers' 19-year-old rookie.
"He's a winner, and we saw that early on in training camp and summer league," Walton said. "He finds ways to win in drills, and he is not afraid of the moment. He has a great feel for the game.
"Defensively, he is getting better...down the stretch of games; he is almost getting to the point where he is a lockdown defender with that length."
Walton is comfortably using Ingram to close games. He has already asked the 6'9" forward to initiate the team's offense as the Lakers' backup point guard. Ingram is also part of the Lakers' five-man bench unit that has performed collectively at an elite level.
"For his age, playing one year of college basketball, the way he sees the game and reacts to things when he's engaged is pretty impressive," Walton said.
Ingram is humble about the progress he's made, although he's happy to be a part of the Lakers' early success.
"I'm not where I want to be right now," Ingram said. "On the defensive end I've gotten a lot better, but on the offensive end I don't think I'm where I want to be now."
Schedule Turns, Dramatically
The season opened with the Lakers on the road for four of their first five games, all against playoff-caliber opponents like the Houston Rockets, Atlanta Hawks and Oklahoma City Thunder. L.A. managed to win a pair before reaching .500 with an upset of the Golden State Warriors at Staples Center.
That stretch of games pales to what the Lakers will face in the coming weeks.
The team will have the benefit of home court against the San Antonio Spurs, Chicago Bulls and Thunder before playing in Oakland against the Warriors on the second night of a back-to-back. Then they'll host Golden State again just two days later before drawing the Hawks.
The Lakers will next (and immediately) hit the road for four games in five nights with stops in New Orleans, Chicago, Toronto and Memphis. After a brief stop at home to play the Jazz, they'll turn right back around for a one-nighter in Houston.
That is a brutal 12-game stretch that would challenge even the NBA's best. If the Lakers can manage five victories, they'll have a .500 record of 12-12 on December 8. For a team that won just 17 games a year ago, that would be a remarkable accomplishment.
The schedule-makers don't let the Lakers off the hook in late December, however. Starting on the 12th, the team will play seven straight on the road.
The Lakers have been one of the brightest stories of this early NBA season, but their mettle will be truly tested over the next month.
Phil Jackson Insults LeBron James
Former Lakers coach Phil Jackson, the president of the New York Knicks, inadvertently insulted Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James this week. In an interview with Jackie MacMullan of ESPN.com, Jackson said that James' need for "special treatment" may have led to a falling-out with the Miami Heat.
What truly rankled James was Jackson's use of the word "posse."
"You can't hold up the whole team because you and your mom and your posse want to spend an extra night in Cleveland," said Jackson.
James spoke at length on the topic Tuesday (via NBA.com):
We see the success that we have, but then there is always someone that lets you know how far we still have to go as African-Americans. I don't believe that Phil Jackson would have used that term if he was doing business with someone else and working with another team or if he was working with anybody in sports that was owning a team that wasn't African-American and had a group of guys around them that didn't agree with what they did.
James' business partner Maverick Carter also voiced his concerns on Fox Sports Radio's The Herd with Colin Cowherd.
"I think the word is disrespectful and demeaning, and I think that word is oftentimes used for young African-Americans," Carter said, adding, "I would have had no problem if Phil would have said...'LeBron and his friends.'"
Jackson is anything but racist, but his word choice was unfortunate. As Carter pointed out, the same point could have been made with alternative language.
Words can hold different meanings to different strata of society. Staying on the right side of political correctness can be a challenge for a public figure, but understanding why other cultures are sensitive to those terms and, by doing so, building empathy for others is vital.
James comes from humble beginnings and has forged tremendous success both on and off the court.
Jackson may be within his bounds to criticize James, but he should acknowledge his misstep in the language used to do so.
A unique communicator, Jackson did give a semi-response to the controversy, retweeting a link to the Posse Foundation, an organization dedicating to helping develop leadership among America's youth, while helping to provide college access to students.