Professional Sports

SPORTS DIGEST: Lakers beginning to show signs of improvement

LOS ANGELES — By the time you read this, the Lakers may have already surpassed last season’s win total.

The Lakers play the Miami Heat March 1 with a record of 26-34. Last season, they finished 26-56. At the start of the season, I thought a 35-win season was a possibility, but I lowered my expectations after a 3-17 stretch that started in November and extended into January.

But since Jan. 7, the Lakers have gone 15-7 and while they have only an outside chance at the playoffs, that 35-win mark is starting to look easily attainable.

It’s hard to say exactly why the Lakers have improved. Obviously, the young players are maturing and getting more suited to the NBA.

Julius Randle has stepped up his game since coach Luke Walton put him back in the starting lineup. He and Brandon Ingram are a good one-two scoring punch for the Lakers. The three rookies Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka drafted last June are all performing well.

Lonzo Ball, the number two pick overall, was supposed to be good. But Kyle Kuzma and Jason Hart have been pleasant surprises. Hart has been starting lately as Ball recovers from a knee injury. Kuzma became the top scoring option off the bench once Larry Nance Jr. and Jordon Clarkson went to Cleveland at the trading deadline.

Isaiah Thomas, who came over from Cleveland in that trade, has been a shoot-first point guard who is shooting his way into free agency at the end of the season. There is a reason the 5-8 Thomas is playing on his sixth team in his seven NBA seasons.

He can score, but that’s because he takes a lot of shots. He doesn’t defend well and he also antagonizes the opposition. Last season with Boston he was one of the top five players in the league, but I don’t see him playing with the Lakers past April.

One player starting to get more attention from Walton is Ivica Zubac, the back-up center from Croatia. Zubac had some moments of brilliance at the end of his rookie year last season, but the acquisition of Andrew Bogut in the off-season caused the Lakers to play Zubac on their G-League team for much of the year.

But the Lakers released Bogut in early February and Zubac is starting to show his skills again. He could be a key puzzle piece and Johnson and Pelinka rebuild the Lakers.

In their 123-104 win over Atlanta Feb. 26, nine Lakers scored 10 or more points and three players recorded double-doubles.

The last time a Lakers’ team had nine players in double figures was in 1987 when some guy named Magic was running the offense.

There is no sense in speculating whether LeBron James, Paul George or any other superstar is going to sign with the Lakers in the off-season.

But the Lakers have improved themselves this year to such a point that they could contend for the playoffs next year with the addition of one superstar. Two superstars, blended with Ingram, Randle, Ball, Kuzma and Zubac and you might have something more than simply a playoff contender.

And then there are the Clippers. If they were a college team, the Clippers would be on the bubble. If the playoffs started today, they would be the eighth seed in the Western Conference, but Denver and Utah are right behind them.

You have to give head coach Doc Rivers some credit for keeping the Clippers this close considering all the injuries he has coached through, not to mention the loss of his two best players from last year — Chris Paul and Blake Griffin — who are now playing elsewhere.

The Clippers moved past Denver in the playoff standings Feb. 27 after coming back from a 19-point third quarter deficit. Six Clippers scored in double figures, but only two of them were starters — guards Austin Rivers and Tyrone Wallace.

Lou Williams scored 25 points off the bench as the NBA’s best bench performer continued to prove the Clippers don’t miss Jamal Crawford coming off the bench. The win against Denver also marked the coming-out party for Boban Marjanovic, the third man that came over from Detroit in the trade for Griffin.

All he did was score 18 points and grab six rebounds in 15 minutes and he did most of that damage in the last 16 minutes of the game.

The Clippers are playing short-handed at guard and forward Danilo Gallinari is injured again and Doc Rivers still is finding a way to keep his team in the playoff hunt.

But this may be the last season the Clippers are the best team in town.

Los Angeles Football Club defender Joao Moutinho was the teams’ first pick in the 2018 MLS Super Draft. The 20 year old from Portugal is expected to play a key role for the Major League Soccer expansion team this season. (Courtesy photo)

NEW TEAM: A new team enters the Los Angeles sports scene this weekend when Los Angeles Football Club plays its season opener as an expansion team in Major League Soccer.

LAFC faces the Seattle Sounders March 4 in Seattle and will play their first two months as a new franchise playing on the road while the team’s Banc of California Stadium is completed in Exposition Park at the site of the old Los Angeles Sports Arena.

The 22,000-seat stadium is expected to be ready for action April 29 when LAFC plays the Sounders.

LAFC is trying to compete with the Los Angeles Galaxy for the L.A. soccer market after Chivas USA went out of business in 2014 after 10 years.

Chivas couldn’t keep up with the Galaxy, which has won five MLS championships, more than any other team.

LAFC has put together an interesting blend of youth and veteran players from 14 different countries, counting the U.S. It will be interesting to see how well they do as a team. Management is optimistic, announcing this week that the team had sold all 17,000 full season memberships for their initial season.

“The passion and enthusiasm of our supporters has truly been special,” LAFC Owner and President Tom Penn said. “Together with our community, we continue to make soccer history in the heart of Los Angeles. There is still a lot of work to do, but I cannot wait to see and feel the electric atmosphere at Banc of California Stadium this spring. There will not be a sports experience like it in L.A.”

The Roldan family from Pico Rivera will probably be in attendance for the home opener April 29.

Brothers Christian and Alex Roldan both play midfield for the Sounders.

The brothers both starred at El Rancho High School before heading up to Washington for their collegiate careers — Christian at the University of Washington and Alex at Seattle University.

Christian was the Gatorade High School Player of the Year at El Rancho in 2013 while leading the Dons to the Southern Section Division III title.

He played for the national men’s team twice last year when he was selected the Sounders most valuable player after scoring six goals and assisting on three others.

Alex was the Sounders first round draft pick in the 2018 draft after starting for four years at Seattle University. He finished his collegiate career with 18 goals and 17 assists.