When the previously downtrodden Cleveland Cavaliers won the NBA title last June, it marked a new chapter in league history. A far less spectacular signal of change—but one that should resonate nonetheless—is the fact we now live in a world where the Los Angeles Lakers being a .500 team registers as a significant and pleasant surprise.
The Lakers broke new franchise ground last year, missing the playoffs for the third consecutive season for the first time in their existence. There’s every chance that streak stretches to four years next spring, but right now Los Angeles is a 10-10 team that’s giving every opponent it faces all they can handle.
There are a few reasons the Lakers, whom many had pegged for the league basement this season, have surprised. Two of them, point guard Jose Calderon and shooting guard Lou Williams, are former Toronto Raptors thriving in meaningful roles as steadying veterans on a youth-packed club.
“They know the ropes, they’ve been around,” 22-year-old Julius Randle said of the Lakers’ relative greybeards. “It’s easy to talk to them and get advice.”
According to rookie head coach Luke Walton, words carry more weight with youngsters when they come from fellow players as opposed to somebody holding a clipboard.
“For whatever reason, you tend to listen more when it comes from your peers,” said Walton, a 36-year-old who won two rings during a nine-season career with the Lakers.
Words, of course, won’t go a long way toward winning basketball games if they aren’t accompanied by the appropriate actions. To that end, Williams and Calderon have been a boon for L.A. The former, who won 2014-15 NBA Sixth Man of the Year honours during his lone season in Toronto, is averaging a team-best 16.7 points per game. The latter has stepped into the void created by D’Angelo Russell’s knee injury and has demonstrated the same efficient game he’s been playing for years.
“He’s a very smart player,” Walton said of Calderon. “He gives us outside shooting. He helps stabilize a first unit that’s been a different lineup way too many times this year already.”
Walton’s second statement is a reference to the rash of injuries the Lakers have dealt with— their ability to cope offering another reason to be impressed with their start. Even if his hand hadn’t been forced, though, Walton would be changing things up regularly. Historically, powerhouse Lakers teams won championships with megastar players driving the bus, the equivalent of A-list Hollywood actors shining in a big-budget film. This plucky Purple-and-Gold outfit, however, is like an ensemble cast of character actors demonstrating their chops in relatively limited screen time. In fact, not one Laker is averaging over 30 minutes of action per game on a club where the likes of Jordan Clarkson, Nick Young and Brandon Ingram are all proving their worth.
“If you don’t feel great [on a given] night, you know somebody else is going to come in and do your job,” said Calderon.
Of course, for the Lakers to reclaim their standing as one of the league’s elite teams, superstars will have to emerge. It’s possible Russell, Randle or Ingram could rise to that level one day. And should that scenario come to pass, it will in some small part be because of the lessons learned while cutting their teeth alongside a pair of former Raps.