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Long Live the Interim Lakers

While this year's Lakers have taken steps forward, they will have little bearing on the franchise's future. That said, we can still enjoy this wonderfully weird group.

The NBA is objectively more fun when the Lakers are good—and winning—and pissing everyone off. So it's important to be careful with Lakers praise. Especially in these lean years, it's easy for fans and media to read too much into moderate progress. In the blink of an eye, we go from, "Hey, wait, the Lakers aren't terrible anymore" to talking about next year's playoff expectations, free-agency dreams and promises about a return to dominance. This is the most successful NBA franchise of the past 40 years so I get it. I kind of love it. An imperious approach to the rest of the world is part of the Laker fan charm.

Nevertheless, even as fans in Los Angeles live through the most enjoyable season in five years, it's worth keeping in mind that most of this year's Lakers progress has almost no bearing on their future. Half the players powering this revival may not be here next season, and even the holdovers (Lonzo, Ingram, Kuzma, etc.) could be potential trade candidates as expectations rise and new opportunities emerge over the next few years. 

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That's also why I love this season's version of the team. There are no superstars yet, just mercurial young players and a bunch of placeholder veterans. The Baby Lakers of the past few years have become the Interim Lakers of this year, and they are great.

Take Julius Randle. For most of his career, his game has been inconsistent and full of spin moves that go nowhere. For the past two months, Randle has been barrelling through the rest of the league and getting whatever he wants. He hasn't quite changed his game so much as he has refined everything. Where two years ago he took 20% of his shots in the midrange, this year that number's down to 10%. Last year he took 44% of his shots in the paint, this year it's 56%. And while he began his career shooting 56% at the rim as a rookie, this year he's hitting 74.1%

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He's nimble with the ball and surprisingly clever as a passer, too. And then he puts his head down and he's absolutely brutal when it's time to attack the rim. He's only 23 years old, and there's not really another player in the NBA who scores like this. As his defense has improved and his efforts become more consistent, he's become more effective than anyone could've imagined six months ago. 

Randle is also an impending restricted free agent, and someone who began the year marginalized on the bench. Splitting time between Larry Nance Jr. and Kyle Kuzma, it was pretty clear that his development wasn't a long-term priority. The timing was particularly grim with free agency looming. If Randle was frustrated, it made sense. At one point he wore a sweatshirt to practice that read "PAY ME" and he told a reporter, "You can interpret it however you want." 

That early season angst only makes the rest of Randle's year more incredible. And it's been like that for most of the team. Remember when Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was part of a work-release program and only allowed to play home games? Or when Lonzo Ball began the year shooting 29% from the field? Or when Brook Lopez appeared to be stifling tears on the bench? One bright spot was the Kyle Kuzma revolution, where he had about six weeks in November and December looking like the future of the franchise.


Then there was the LaVar Ball saga, where Ball theorized that Luke Walton had lost the locker room and inspired a week's worth of takes. The Lakers didn't respond immediately, which was understandable considering LaVar's radioactive relationship to the take economy. Nevertheless, the team's silence prompted league insiders to wonder whether the drama was real and L.A. really was ready to move on from Luke.

Walton has led the team to a 20–10 record since. In that span, they've beaten playoff-caliber teams like the Thunder, Spurs, Celtics, Heat, Cavs and Nuggets. They have weathered injuries, shuffled lineups—remember when Brandon Ingram played point guard for two weeks?—and they just continue to play hard and push teams every single night.  

Somewhere along the line Isaiah Thomas showed up too, and he's been a perfectly weird addition to the story. He's been better than he was in Cleveland, while still every bit as self-assured and occasionally ridiculous. Watching him pull guys aside to act as a second coach is one of the more entertaining B-plots to every Lakers game. The younger Lakers have been good about humoring him, at least until Julius Randle drew a line in the sand during the Warriors game.

Randle and Thomas may not be in L.A. next season. In fact, after last June's Mozgov/D'Angelo Russell trade spawned a year of speculation about cap space and LeBron James and Paul George, nothing in the world would make Lakers haters happier than L.A. spending most of that money on Randle and Isaiah Thomas. The latter can't play defense and may not be healthy, so any long-term commitment would be a tremendous risk. 

Randle presents a more complicated decision. He's clearly good and occasionally great, he's young, and again, if this were a team like the Nuggets, the decision would be easy. But if committing to Randle means sacrificing a shot at another max free agent either this summer or next summer, is he worth it? The cap mechanics and timing concerns that'll shape the Randle free agency would deserve a separate column—this article covers it well—but the bottom line is that if the Lakers want to sign two more max players, keeping Randle will be difficult.

Beyond the obvious questions underlying L.A.'s second half—the Randle question, mostly—there is more intrigue that will emerge next year. After this year's steps forward, next season will begin with higher expectations than the team's had since 2013. Is Lonzo ready to deliver for an entire season? How much of Kuzma's success has been real? Can Ingram be an All-Star? Can Walton succeed for an entire year? How good could they be if they get George, but lose Randle and watch LeBron go elsewhere? And what happens if they can't build on this season's progress?

Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka have quietly nailed several draft picks and trades, and they've been smarter on the margins than they'll ever be given credit for, but none of that will matter if the Lakers are in ninth place again next season. This comes with the territory, obviously. The Lakers are graded on an impossible curve because for most of the past few decades, this team has been the impossible standard the rest of the league is measured against. It's why nobody should ever laugh off Lakers rumors. Through different regimes and across generations, we've watched this team make it work too many times to dismiss any possibilities. But I think it's all become a little bit less urgent lately.

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With all due respect to empire building and cap gymnastics—and Magic Johnson dramatically strolling across the court to chat with Rich Paul—the best part of this Lakers season has been watching this team remind everyone how much fun actual basketball can be. 

Randle isn't going to swing a title race, but he is currently getting busy and bodying every big man in the league. Thomas may never be an All-Star again, but don't worry about that, just watch him punk Jamal Murray. Lopez is off the bench and back to hitting threes. Lonzo is back to missing them, and he's playing 40 minutesgame anyway. KCP is allowed to play road games again. Ingram still looks like he weighs 160 pounds, and he's turning into a star. Kuzma may never be more than a sixth or seventh man on a playoff team, but that's why it's great to watch him take superstar shots in the meantime. They all just keep winning and playing hard.

Over the past few months, the Lakers have become the most consistently entertaining show in the NBA. No one has any idea what the they will turn into from here, but in the year before management looks to build something great, it's been incredibly fun to watch these players learn to be good.