LOS ANGELES — When the Los Angeles Lakers first convened for training camp in late September, center Timofey Mozgov came with a clear goal (and question) for the team.
"I think we have to go into the playoffs, or why are we playing?" asked the veteran center.
The answer to "why are we playing?" seemed obvious. After winning just 17 games last year, the Lakers' primary goal should've been developing its squad of young, promising players like Brandon Ingram, D'Angelo Russell and Julius Randle. The team had no real shot to compete in the Western Conference.
During its preseason forecast, ESPN.com predicted the Lakers would win just 25 games and finish dead last in the West.
Fast-forward to Wednesday night in Chicago: The Lakers, playing on the second night of a back-to-back, without their starting guard tandem of Nick Young and Russell, overcame a 14-point deficit to beat the Bulls, 96-90.
With the win, the Lakers improved to 10-10—good for ninth place in the conference through almost a quarter of the season.
"The fact that we are [at .500] speaks a lot to the effort that our guys are playing with [and] the trust they have with each other," coach Luke Walton said. "If we can keep playing hard and competing, I am confident we will get the more complicated stuff down as well and then we can make real growth happen."
Walton contends the Lakers are winning because of intensity more so than an understanding of what the coaches want on offense and defense.
"The effort and the competitiveness have been off the charts almost every night for our guys, but we need to get the execution up to par with that," Walton said.
When it comes to Los Angeles' playoff hopes, the team won't catch the elite in the West like the Golden State Warriors (16-2), San Antonio Spurs (15-4) and Los Angeles Clippers (14-5). The Houston Rockets (11-7) are a top offensive group, the Oklahoma City Thunder (12-8) have All-Star Russell Westbrook averaging a triple-double and the Utah Jazz (11-8) are one of the NBA's best defensive squads.
But the Memphis Grizzlies (11-8) are vulnerable. They're now without guard Mike Conley (back injury) for an intense six weeks during which they'll face some of the NBA's best, including the Cleveland Cavaliers, Warriors and Clippers multiple times.
The eighth-place Portland Trail Blazers (10-10) are struggling to find the same chemistry that made them a playoff darling last season.
The Lakers will draw the Grizzlies twice without Conley and the Blazers four times before the season comes to a close. Those six games could help propel the Lakers to the playoffs, considering how close these teams are in terms of records, provided L.A. survives injuries and a heavy schedule ahead.
Of the Lakers' next 13 contests, 10 are on the road. Seven of the 13 are against teams currently slotted in the top eight of their respective conferences. To make matters more difficult, Russell is expected to miss at least the next three games while recovering from a sore left knee. And Young will be sidelined for two to four weeks with a right calf strain—roughly eight to 15 games.
But if the Lakers can get five of the 13, they'll be three games below .500 (15-18) heading into their Christmas Day matchup at Staples Center against the Clippers. Then it will be even more apparent that we need to take this team's playoff hopes seriously.
Including the holiday, the Lakers will next have 49 games left to build playoff momentum (with 21 on the road).
"I think effort will carry you a long way," Larry Nance Jr. said. "The more and more we play together, the more games and months go by—hopefully years go by—and we're all together, that's when you start to see the efficiency that a Golden State has. That's what we're looking forward to."
Meanwhile, the Lakers will need to hold off other challengers behind them in the standings, like the Denver Nuggets (7-11), Sacramento Kings (7-11) and New Orleans Pelicans (7-12). The Pelicans have recently surged with the return of Jrue Holiday and should get Tyreke Evans back soon from a knee injury. The Minnesota Timberwolves (5-13) also seem like they should be a lot better than their record.
The Lakers are clearly a work in progress, but it's not unreasonable to think they can leapfrog the Grizzlies and hold onto at least the eighth spot in the West. To do so, they'll need to get through the next few weeks while playing short-handed and then continue to improve over the rest of the calendar.
Despite the Bleacher Report league-wide prediction that the Lakers would finish with the worst record in the NBA, the team's actual range may be seventh through 12th in the West.
Mozgov seemed overly optimistic on media day, yet the veteran Russian center clearly saw a competitive fire in this Lakers squad that many overlooked.
Lakers Insider Notebook
Lou Williams, Master of Drawing Fouls
In addition to leading the Lakers in scoring at 16.7 points a night, Lou Williams is also drawing a team-high 4.8 free throws per game.
How does he manage to trick opponents into fouling him so often?
"After I hurt my [right ACL in 2013], I realized I wasn't going to be as quick as I once was," Williams said. "I just had to find another way to score the basketball. Guys still respect my ability to score, so I just use that to my advantage."
Many of the coaches and players around the league are smart enough to scout Williams. Yet the fouls still come.
"I understand coverages, so I understand that teams are going to push me right," Williams continued. "They don't want me to get to my left hand. So, if I jab right and go left, you're probably going to cut me off because your coach is going to get mad. You're probably going to run into me and I'm just going to shoot the ball."
Williams is hitting 83.3 percent from the line, along with 45 percent from the field and 39.4 percent from three-point range. He is also impressively getting his scoring done while playing just 23.8 minutes a game, seventh overall on the team.
T-Rob Making Most of His Minutes
The Lakers made roster room for fifth-year forward Thomas Robinson after he earned a spot with his effort through training camp and the preseason. Actual regular-season opportunities had been scarce, but Walton gave him the start Sunday against the Atlanta Hawks, with Julius Randle sidelined with a hip pointer.
Robinson neared a double-double with nine points and eight rebounds in 15 minutes.
"He hasn't really had an opportunity all season," Walton said. "It's nice to reward people who come into work every day and work really hard and don't get the same opportunities as other players."
Injuries have opened a role in the Lakers' rotation over the team's last five games.
"I thought with T-Rob not having minutes until this point, for him to come in and give us the minutes that he gave us was extraordinary," said Williams, after the Lakers' 109-94 win over Atlanta.
Robinson's minutes may dwindle when the Lakers get back to full strength, but in the meantime, his effort and energy have helped the Lakers stay afloat despite playing short-handed.
Instead of starting his best players, Walton has gone out of his way to try to keep the Lakers' five-man reserve unit of Jordan Clarkson, Tarik Black, Nance, Ingram and Williams together. Walton played Ingram 41 minutes Wednesday both as a starter and with the reserves.
"Groups build chemistry together, and that group has it. They have been one of the best groups of five, starters or benches, all season long in the NBA," Walton said. "We feel that we have a big advantage when that group gets on the court together, and that's why we try so hard to keep them in somewhat similar rotations when they are going to be subbing in."
As of games played through November, the Lakers' five-man unit has the fourth-highest net rating (13.9) in the league for lineups that have played at least 100 minutes, per NBA.com.
"I love our second unit," Robinson said. "It's part of our identity now."
Why has this particular group of Lakers been so effective?
"We've got obviously [a] big-time scorer in JC and Lou Will. Brandon has length, can guard multiple positions," Walton said. "Larry and T. Black can switch, and we feel confident with them covering perimeter players. And they're great rebounders."
Black got more to the heart of why the Lakers are working so far this season.
"We give ourselves up for each other. We sacrifice for each other. You see it on the court, open man gets the shot," Black said. "We play defense for each other. You can see it [in] our team. We smile together [and] we laugh together. Man, we love each other in this locker room."