Where Lakers and Clippers fit among season’s surprises and disappointments

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James shoots between Charlotte Hornets forward Jalen McDaniels, left, and forward PJ Washington during the first half of an NBA basketball game on Monday, Jan. 2, 2023, in Charlotte, NC (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

LeBron James, splitting the defense of Hornets forwards Jalen McDaniels, left, and PJ Washington for a layup, and the Lakers have been on a roll recently. (Chris Carlson / Associated Press)

There have been plenty of surprises in the NBA this season, which reaches the halfway point this week.

The Lakers (19-22) shook off a 2-10 start to climb into postseason contention despite a rash of injuries to All-Star forward Anthony Davis and key role players. LeBron James, the ageless wonder in his 20th season, continues to play at an elite level.

The Clippers (21-21) have struggled lately during a six-game losing streak after climbing into the top four of the Western Conference standings with a victory over the Raptors in Toronto.

The Times’ NBA crew — Dan Woike, Broderick Turner and Andrew Greif — look at some of the surprises and disappointments of the season.

How do you rate the Lakers’ first half? Anything surprise you or is this what you expected?

Broderick Turner: The biggest surprise is that after starting 2-10 and looking like a rudderless team the Lakers stayed the course and now are in a good position to at least be in a play-in game. Got to give a lot of credit to new Lakers coach Darvin Ham for staying so positive and keeping this team competitive. It’s not a balanced roster by any means, but he has squeezed a lot out of this group despite Anthony Davis being injured yet again.

Dan Woike: Viewed in totality, it has to be considered disappointing. The Lakers have spent zero days above .500 and you’d have to squint really, really hard to convince yourself that this team is headed for anything but an early-ish offseason. But over the last month, from Anthony Davis’ stretch of dominance to LeBron James’ recent play, there’s been enough good stuff to not abandon all hope. If anything, that’s been the surprise — this team’s ability to flirt with great basketball despite its obvious weaknesses. But unless there are some changes, it doesn’t seem like it’ll be anything more than flashes.

Same question for the Clippers: How do you rate them?

Andrew Greif: Even NBA scouts whose business is analyzing the league don’t know what to make of the Clippers’ championship merit after a 21-21 start. If you had told the team’s decision-makers in September that after a 15-month knee rehabilitation Kawhi Leonard would be averaging 20.2 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.6 turnovers while 47% shooting over his last 13 games, it would be reason for a sigh of relief and a sign of good news. If you had also mentioned they would have only played four games at full strength, and were still 21-21, that also might have been considered something close to above-average result.

But if Leonard is gradually building toward his peak, that can’t exactly be said of the team as a whole, which hasn’t displayed any consistency. While injuries outside their control have been the primary culprit, the Clippers at times have also played like a team pinning its hopes that times will be better in the full-strength future without much urgency to show for in the present. The good news? That also describes most of their Western Conference rivals, too.

BT: It’s been a choppy season for the Clippers so far. Their two stars, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, haven’t played together enough because of injuries and that seems to have thrown this team off its course.

dw: In the Clippers’ eyes, it seems like it’d be a success — Kawhi Leonard is back on the court, the team is slowly building toward the playoffs and they’re working through the kind of predictable midseason issues a team with this kind of depth will have to tackle. That being said, it’s looked a lot uglier, especially lately, than they probably thought. With the Clippers, it’s still more about projection than reality.

Which NBA teams have been most impressive?

BT: The Cleveland Cavaliers, to start. Acquiring Donovan Mitchell has made this young team a contender in the Eastern Conference. In many ways, the New Orleans Pelicans have been impressive despite having Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram a limited amount of games because of injuries.

dw: For me, it’s been Denver, New Orleans and Memphis in the West and Boston, Brooklyn and Milwaukee in the East.

AG: It was easy to look slightly askew at Denver in the preseason and wonder whether a team depending on Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., two major contributors coming off major injuries, could win the West. But two-time MVP Nikola Jokic’s stunning greatness has given his teammates time, and now Denver very much looks the part of a contender. New Orleans and Memphis look legit. Seemingly bound for avert-your-eyes-level tanking, Utah and Indiana have instead played entertaining basketball. Boston has been the East’s wire-to-wire standard, but Brooklyn (18-2 in its last 20 games) has without a doubt been the league’s best at first digging oneself into a hole and then climbing out in record time.

Which NBA teams have been disappointments?

BT: The Clippers, for sure. They had been pegged as championship contenders because of a deep roster and having two of the best two-way players in the NBA in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

dw: Chicago and Toronto in the East, and Phoenix and Golden State in the West.

AG: Golden State’s 3-16 road record is baffling considering the team’s road-warrior reputation in the postseason under coach Steve Kerr. Minnesota’s big bet on Rudy Gobert has yet to pay off. By far the most unexpected season, however, belongs to Toronto, the preseason darling that is 17-23.

Will the Lakers make a move at the trade deadline?

BT: The question for the Lakers is whether or not they can make a good enough deal to make them championship contenders. Teams want the Lakers’ two first-round picks, 2027 and 2029, and LA doesn’t seem to be interested in giving up both.

dw: While the Lakers might not find the magical needle-moving deal they’re hoping to uncover, it seems almost impossible to think that they’ll do nothing. The team had interest in Bojan Bogdanovic over the summer and will certainly reevaluate him as one option in the upcoming month.

Will the Clippers stand pat at the trade deadline?

AG: Clippers president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank has been a serial deadline opportunist, making a trade each of the last five seasons in the weeks, days or minutes before the moratorium on trades arrives. Yet it isn’t only that past behavior that suggests the Clippers will make a move — it’s also their ill-fitting roster construction, with a pair of wings on new contracts barely playing in Robert Covington and Amir Coffey, and probably one too many guards for a playoff rotation.

BT: The Clippers have been known to strike deals before the trade deadline. Sure, they could use a backup center, but maybe it’s better to move a role player or two so coach Tyronn Lue can have a set rotation.

dw: They never do — they’ve got a bunch of movable contracts, some interesting young players and a creative front office. I’d bet on a trade.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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