With Lonzo set to return, Lakers look for growth in second half

It has been almost six weeks since Lonzo Ball played in a game.

While sidelined with a sprained left MCL, the No. 2 overall pick watched Julius Randle play his most consistent basketball, Brandon Ingram flourish at point guard for seven games, Kyle Kuzma detonate from time to time, Josh Hart surprisingly rack up double-doubles as a starter and a young Los Angeles Lakers core growing and enjoying life together.

"The guys learned how to play without me," Ball recently said. "... They know what works: pace and defense."

But just as the Lakers were discovering their groove, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. were traded to Cleveland in a cap-clearing move that brought in Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye and a protected first-round pick. While the trade was a major win for Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka -- who positioned the team to have up to $70 million to spend on two elite free agents either this summer or next -- the Lakers' surging chemistry and play took a hit.

Many of the young Lakers had never experienced a trade deadline deal that cost them not only two of the key components to the marginal success they have had this season, but also two well-liked personalities in the locker room.

That move leaves Ball returning to a Lakers team that has lost three straight and is playing some of its worst defense of the season, surrendering an average of 129.3 points since the trade. The Lakers return to the practice court Wednesday night, and Ball expects to return in the team's first game after the All-Star break on Friday against Dallas (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). The Lakers (23-34) are hoping their prized rookie point guard will turn things around for them once again.

"It's gonna be really fun to have him out there pushing the basketball and putting guys in different spots and giving confidence to other guys," Ingram said. "It's just gonna make our offense even better."

Ball's pass-first, push-the-pace game should be a boost for the Lakers. He gets the Lakers easier looks, and his chemistry with Kuzma could get the rookie scoring forward playing consistently again. However, coach Luke Walton still has some things to figure out as Ball returns.

How will he use Thomas? Will Thomas continue to come off the bench as the offensive spark plug the team desperately needs and perhaps close games with Ball? And how would Thomas, who prefers to start, handle that? Johnson has said that Ball is the team's starting point guard.

"We are both basketball players and know how to play with different types of guys," Thomas said. "[Ball] is a special young talent. He is going to be a special player in this league for years to come. From the outside looking in, watching the Lakers play, he is very good and goes at his own pace, which is a strength to have at a young age.

"He is talented, and I can't wait to get on the floor and compete with him and hopefully win a lot of games."

The first two games out of the break could go a long way toward getting the Lakers back on track. They play Dallas at home before traveling to Sacramento the next night. That back-to-back sends the Lakers into a road swing that has them traveling from Sacramento to Atlanta to Miami to San Antonio -- an eight-day trip that could potentially see the Lakers rediscover their mojo or send them plummeting.

"As a staff, we will spend [some of] the break coming up with ideas as far as what will be the most effective way for us to play with the new roster that we have," Walton said last week. "Go back and watch old footage, brainstorm a couple of different ideas. We will come up with some stuff."

In addition to getting Ball back, the Lakers will be looking for more consistency from Thomas, whose first three games as a Laker have been a roller-coaster ride. He showed flashes in his debut, scoring 22 points, drilling four 3-pointers and dishing six assists. But he was ejected in his second game after just five minutes after tangling with fellow former Celtic Rajon Rondo.

Thomas couldn't find his shot in the third game, missing 12 of 15 field goal attempts and finishing with seven points. Meanwhile, the Lakers defense has regressed since the trade. Walton will likely be forced to adjust his preferred 1-through-5 switching defense -- a pleasant surprise for the Lakers this season when they played at their best -- based on personnel when the 5-foot-9 Thomas is on the floor.

"We've got to get our mojo back," Walton said after the Lakers surrendered 130 and 139 points at Dallas and New Orleans, respectively. "We somehow lost it quickly. ... We're just not playing any defense."

Unlike most teams outside of the playoff race, the Lakers don't own their first-round pick in 2018, so the team's big picture remains focused on free agency and whom Johnson and Pelinka can lure this summer or next. Additionally, management would love to see the young Lakers keep learning what it takes to win with continued improvement from Ball, Ingram, Kuzma and Hart.

And if Thomas finds a way to do what he hopes to -- rebuild his value back to that of the player who averaged nearly 29 points per game a season ago and earn a lucrative long-term deal that likely would come from another team -- without disrupting the Lakers' growth, the remainder of this season will qualify as a success for a team that is just three wins shy of matching its total from a year ago.

"I think we know we can be even better in the second half," Ingram said.