LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Lakers started the season with such great promise, upsetting teams like the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets and Chicago Bulls in the early going. The young Lakers were the buzz of the NBA, at least for a month.
That early excitement has long since faded with the Lakers losing 11 of their last 12 games.
The Lakers will wrap up a seven-game road trip on Friday against the Orlando Magic, ending an unproductive run that has yielded just a single victory. The road has been anything but kind.
"A lot of times on the road, you get away from everything else and it's just you and your teammates. Some bonding and brotherhood can come together," coach Luke Walton said prior to the team's exodus. "Other times a seven-game road trip can wear everybody out and people get on each other's nerves."
It remains to be seen how unified the locker room will be once the Lakers return home.
A combination of injuries, scheduling and one of the NBA's most porous defenses has dropped the Lakers to 11th place in the Western Conference. Still, the Lakers are somehow just 2.5 games behind the eighth-place Portland Trail Blazers (13-18) in the standings.
With 50 games left to play, it's not too late for the Lakers to make the playoffs. Likewise, L.A. may still salvage its 2017 first-round pick—owed to the Sixers if not a top-three selection—should it continue to lose at an alarming rate.
Whichever path they take, now is the time for the Lakers to discover who they are for the 2016-17 season.
The Lakers have played more games than any team in the league at 32. A heavy workload continues through late January, but overall Los Angeles has the fewest games remaining.
Additionally, the Lakers have played the most road games in the NBA at 19, winning just five. Beginning on Christmas Day, the Lakers play eight of nine at home. Outside of an eight-game stretch with seven on the road during February, most of the remaining schedule is at Staples Center.
The Lakers can score the ball in bunches, as they showed building early leads against the Miami Heat on Thursday and Charlotte Hornets on Tuesday, even if they lost both games because their defense was lacking. They also competed in defeat to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday.
At times, over recent games, this squad resembles the one that started the season so well.
Emerging young talents like D'Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr.—along with veterans like Lou Williams, Nick Young, Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng—are finding ways to contribute on the floor.
The consistency hasn't been there but the team has enough firepower on the roster to turn back the season, provided the defense picks up in kind.
Russell can be both a deadly shooter and willing passer. Ingram's defensive length and instincts are off the charts. Randle's creation as point forward in transition has been breathtaking. Clarkson is one of the league's top scorers off the bench at 14.5 points a game. Nance's earth-shattering dunks can stop the internet.
The 19-year-old Ingram "is almost getting to the point where he is a lockdown defender," Walton said, and Randle is "a monster. He's big, strong and quick as anybody in the league."
In addition to Russell's 38.1 percent from three-point range, he's dished his 4.6 assists in just 25.9 minutes a game.
Meanwhile, Williams may be the front-runner for the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year. Young has reinvigorated his career. Both Mozgov and Deng have picked up games in recent contests. Tarik Black and Thomas Robinson have happily done the dirty work, grabbing rebounds and setting screens.
Per the team's PR department, the injuries that have dogged the Lakers in recent weeks should clear up soon, including Black's ankle and Jose Calderon's hamstring. Nance's status remains unclear. Although he has been diagnosed with a bone bruise, his left knee will undergo further evaluation once the swelling subsides.
When healthy, the Lakers had arguably the best bench in the NBA. When the combination of Clarkson, Ingram, Williams, Nance and Black was actually able to play together, it was among the top lineups in the entire league.
If the team can get back on track, it may leapfrog the Sacramento Kings and Denver Nuggets (both 12-17) to challenge the Blazers. It would take a significant turnaround for the Lakers to suddenly start winning again at a high level, but the opponents ahead in the standings are vulnerable.
It's troublesome that Russell has missed 13 games, dealing with knee soreness at just 20 years old. Randle has missed four games, Black eight and Young seven. Nance has sat out four and counting.
As general manager Mitch Kupchak said recently, "We're not quite good enough to endure injuries and still win on a consistent basis."
Are the Lakers good enough to win regularly, even at full strength?
The Lakers are 29th in defensive efficiency at 110.1 points allowed per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com. That's a considerable problem.
The team has an offensive efficiency of 103.3, 19th overall but only two points off from the top 10. The defense is 6.8 points worse than the 10th-best Milwaukee Bucks.
The Lakers simply have miles to go to be a credible defensive squad. A 19-point lead should be safe for a team that can get stops. Yet, L.A.'s individual and collective efforts defensively have been severely lacking.
Individually, Ingram has given the Lakers glimpses of his considerable talent, but the rookie is shooting just 34.8 percent from the field and 26.4 percent from three-point range.
Russell needs to step forward as the team's leader. As the team's starting point guard, his assist-to-turnover ratio of just 1.48 is poor, averaging 4.6 dimes to 3.1 miscues.
Meanwhile, the Lakers are paying Deng and Mozgov a total of $34 million for the season (36.3 percent of the team's total salary), yet together they average just 16.1 points a night. Deng is shooting 39.4 percent from the field.
Williams outscores Deng and Mozgov combined at 19.1 points a game while earning $7 million for 2016-17.
Despite their flaws, the Lakers still have time to change their identity. With an easier schedule, health and a bit of luck, the 2016-17 campaign may still be a success.
Player development is paramount this season. Success in games can help speed up the process, while the grind of losing can impair development and weaken Walton's message. As a group, the Lakers need to show significant growth in the coming weeks, lest they start to think of losing as an acceptable outcome.
Lakers Insider Notebook
Kupchak Recalls Trading Walton
The Lakers drafted their current head coach as a player out of Arizona with the No. 32 pick in 2003.
Walton played with L.A. until 2012, winning championships in 2009 and 2010, until Kupchak traded him to the Cavaliers.
"I know it's a little bit of a sore subject with Luke," Kupchak said. "When I told him about the trade, he asked, 'Where?' and I said, 'Cleveland.'"
"There was dead silence on the other side of the phone."
Walton played 71 games over two seasons with the downtrodden Cavaliers and none with LeBron James, who was in Miami.
All is forgiven. Walton was eager to accept the Lakers position this summer as a first-time NBA head coach.
"A lot of Luke's success is going to fall to the front office and what we do. We love his energy. We love the style of play," Kupchak said. "We like the culture that he's brought to the team and I think you can see that the players have responded."
Trade Restrictions Lifted
The NBA's trade deadline is Feb. 23. It's unclear if the Lakers will be actively looking to reshape the roster before then.
Per the rules of the NBA, a free agent signed during the offseason cannot be traded until the later of Dec. 15 or 90 days. That milestone passed for Marcelo Huertas, Deng, Mozgov and Clarkson. Metta World Peace became trade-eligible on Dec. 22, followed by Robinson on Dec. 23.
Black is the one player who still cannot be dealt. Because he received at least a 20 percent bump in pay while re-signing with the Lakers via Bird rights, he cannot be moved until Jan. 15. Clarkson and Huertas received similar raises, but the team used space under the NBA's $94.1 million salary cap to bring them back. Black was signed after the team had gone over the cap.
Upon waiving Yi Jianlian, who went through training camp with the Lakers, the team dropped back under the cap by $2.5 million.
Given how poorly the Lakers have played defensively, the team should check with the 76ers on the status of Nerlens Noel, who has struggled to find a role alongside fellow centers Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor. Noel will be a restricted free agent this summer.
For the Lakers, Williams certainly has built up value as a trade asset with such a strong season. But the team may be hesitant to part with such an important rotation player. Young has also improved his stock in a bounce-back season.
If the Lakers have buyer's remorse on Deng and Mozgov's expensive four-year deals ($72 million and $64 million, respectively), they may find that teams aren't that interested.
Los Angeles also has a number of trade-friendly contracts. Calderon has an expiring pact of $7.7 million. Both Black ($6.7 million) and Huertas ($1.7 million) have non-guaranteed salaries next season.
Clarkson would certainly appeal to a number of teams looking for a young, athletic scoring guard. Speculatively, Clarkson might be enough to land Noel, but the Lakers may not be willing to part with the third-year guard.