The Los Angeles Lakers are a team and franchise in flux. The Lakers have gone through six head coaches since the 2010-11 season and have won 85 regular season games over the last four seasons combined. Los Angeles finally said farewell to Kobe Bryant at the end of last season, which officially launched a new era of Lakers basketball.
The Lakers have been accumulating young talent over the last few seasons, and now have a promising head coach in Luke Walton to guide the team forward. They have made some mistakes along the way (e.g., the contracts of Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov) and they recently went through a significant shakeup in the front office, which has serious long-term implications. As things currently stand, the Lakers have an opportunity to take significant steps forward as a franchise. However, there is the potential to make some costly mistakes.
Executing the following four principles could help push the Lakers forward as they seek to reclaim their former glory.
Be Honest About the Core Young Players
The Lakers have several young players still playing on their rookie contracts, including guard D’Angelo Russell as well as forwards Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr. Additionally, Jordan Clarkson has three years remaining on his deal at a decent annual salary. Each player has shown varying degrees of promise and appears capable of being a valuable piece to a developing core of talent. However, none of these players have proven themselves to be unquestionable franchise players worthy of max-level contracts. Eventually, each of these young players will be positioned to earn a significant, long-term contract. When that time comes for each player, the Lakers need to be extremely calculated and shrewd, rather than being overly eager to hand out massive contracts to keep their players around.
With this in mind, the Lakers need to continue to evaluate which of these players are franchise cornerstones, and which are simply quality players that do not warrant a max-level commitment.
Walton has seemingly already started this process by benching veteran players like Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng in favor of his young players. In addition, at the trade deadline, the Lakers traded away Lou Williams to the Houston Rockets in exchange for Corey Brewer and a 2017 first-round draft pick. The Lakers need to continue monitoring and executing on moves like these. Moving veterans like Williams generates additional future assets and opens up playing time for younger players to show what they can do, which must be the priority for Los Angeles over the next few seasons.
Clarkson is one of the more interesting talents for Los Angeles. He’s not a true point, is undersized for a wing player and has been disappointing as a defender. However, Clarkson has flashed the sort of skill and explosiveness that grabs the attention of each NBA team. The issue is, at this point, it’s not clear if Clarkson is a player worth making another significant investment in or just a promising, but limited contributor on the wing. This is a question the Lakers’ front office needs to determine before his current contract is set to expire.
Answering this question isn’t particularly easy. For example, on March 12, Clarkson contributed a career-high 30 points, eight assists, six rebounds to go along with 10-11 shooting from the free throw line. This is the kind of performance that leads many to believe that Clarkson could develop into one of the better guards in the NBA. However, at 6-foot-5, Clarkson is undersized as a wing-defender and hasn’t displayed the fundamentals or discipline to make up for this limitations. The result is that more often than not, Clarkson is a liability on defense, which is reflected in his on/off court numbers this season – he has the third-worst defensive rating on the team, per Basketball Reference. Despite his offensive talents, his poor has made him mostly a net negative for the Lakers.
The Lakers have seen flashes of brilliance from Russell, who has both wowed and frustrated fans in his short NBA career. At times, he displays the vision of a player like Chris Paul, and at other times he proves himself to be an underwhelming athlete who is often overmatched by opposing point guards.
So is Russell the point guard of the future? He may be, but it’s notable that Coach Walton has played started Clarkson at point guard recently. Walton offered an explanation for this move.
“Just to see what it looks like when he’s out there running the point guard position against starting groups and what not,” Walton explained. “Part of our evaluation is always seeing how players respond to different opportunities.”
It’s likely too early to tell just how good Russell could be. Russell struggled last season under ex-head coach Byron Scott, who seemingly prioritized trying to make the playoffs and celebrating Kobe’s final season over player development. In just his second season, Russell is showing that he has the tools to be worthy of a significant, long-term investment from the Lakers. But Russell has also been maddeningly inconsistent at various points and has displayed maturity issues, so the Lakers need to continue monitoring his development closely.
Julius Randle has teased with high impact games throughout his young NBA career, including a 25-point, 12-rebound effort against the Utah Jazz on December 27. In addition, Randle has upped his shooting from 42.9 percent last year to 48 percent this year. Notably, Randle is shooting 74.8 percent of his shots from 0-10 feet, per Basketball Reference.
While his shooting percentages have gone up overall, his shooting primarily takes place close to the basket. In the current era, where big men are increasingly expected to stretch the floor with their shooting, it’s imperative that Randle be able to expand his range. He is currently shooting 25 percent on three-pointers, down from 27.8 percent last year, on 0.6 attempts per game. In his third year on the Lakers, three-point shooting, unfortunately, remains outside of Randle’s arsenal. While Randle can put up strong statistics on any given night, the question remains if he has the overall skill set to be a premier player worthy of a significant investment.
Larry Nance Jr. has suffered multiple injuries throughout his young career. So far Nance has missed significant time both in his rookie season and this year specifically because of knee injuries. Nance has played well at times, and even started 22 games for the Lakers last season. However, in 49 games this season, Coach Walton has yet to insert Nance into the starting lineup. So far, Nance hasn’t made a significant statistical leap and it’s still unclear just where his ceiling may be.
Gifted with notable athleticism, Nance has the potential to be a nice contributor moving forward. But the Lakers need to remain grounded in how they evaluate him and refrain from giving him an inflated contract that exceeds his relative on-court impact and future potential.
As for Brandon Ingram, this is just his rookie season and he is barely 20 years old, so it’s much too early to make any sweeping determinations about what kind of player he can ultimately become. It will be up to Coach Walton and his staff to closely monitor and mentor Ingram, to help him develop his body and refine his game. Ingram’s potential is arguably higher than any other Laker, but he has a long way to go before coming close to it.
The Lakers have done a good job putting together a nice core of young talent. However, as these players inch close to their next contracts, it will be imperative for the Lakers’ front office to maintain proper perspective. If a player doesn’t fit or isn’t developing, it may make sense to move them before their respective contract is set to expire – similar to how the Philadelphia 76ers traded Nerlens Noel earlier this season. Committing significant money to players that are unlikely to ever play up to a max-level deal could hamper the Lakers and squander their chance at assembling a roster with the talent and range of experience to return to the top of the Western Conference.
Draft the Best Player Available
No single event would be more helpful than if the Lakers were to get lucky and again keep this year’s protected draft pick. With the league’s second-worst record (they won’t catch the Brooklyn Nets), the Lakers will have a 55.8 percent chance of retaining the pick rather than sending it to the 76ers, who will receive it if it falls outside the top three. Fingers crossed.
In the draft, the Lakers could find a star point guard. Although a point guard may not a constitute a perfect fit for the roster, it’s not clear if any of the Lakers young guards currently represents an untouchable cornerstone. Point guard prospects Markell Fultz of Washington and Lonzo Ball of UCLA are projected as top two picks in the upcoming draft, and each could be a franchise-level talent.
Additionally, the Lakers should take the best talent available and don’t be overly concerned about the fit. For example, in 2003, the Detroit Pistons took European prospect Darko Milicic. Milicic had a decently serviceable career. However, that pick, which was seemingly a nice fit with the Pistons championship core at the time, came at the expense of draft prospect and current New York Knicks star forward Carmelo Anthony.
Too often teams become overly concerned about drafting for need. When a franchise-worthy talent comes your way, the best approach is usually to take that player and figure out roster composition later. Like the 76ers, you can always trade players later to reassemble a roster.
Gamble on Young Talent
By most measures, the Lakers are simply not a good team right now. They have the potential ingredients for success going forward, but the likelihood is they are still a few years away from being a high-level playoff team in the West. Thus, it makes sense for the Lakers to gamble on investing in young talent that may have been overlooked by the rest of the league, rather than investing in over the hill veterans whose respective salaries will likely exceed their production.
This season, the Dallas Mavericks have been rewarded for taking a few chances. Two notable successes include guard Seth Curry and Yogi Ferrell, a mid-season D-League signing. These players have bolstered Dallas’ collection of young talent and are significant contributors to Dallas’ current push for the playoffs. Finding gems like Curry and Ferrell could go a long way towards accelerating the Lakers’ rebuild, especially compared to signing veterans like Deng and Mozgov to massive deals. These sort of inflated deals can hamper a franchise for years and carry little upside.
The Lakers should be willing to pass on these sort of veteran deals, and should allocate their resources towards scouting and acquiring young talents that may have been overlooked. This is especially true since it will help the Lakers avoid taking on long-term salary and it will bolster their collection of young talent.
Create and Maintain a Unified and Stable Front Office
The Lakers already have many of the essential ingredients to be successful going forward. The team has a smart head coach who gets along with his players, a number of good, young players and now, a seemingly unified front office after the franchise instilled Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka as the president of basketball operations and general manager, respectively.
This transition marks the end of a tumultuous period for the Lakers’ front office, which has struggled to work cohesively together since the passing of Jerry Buss.
One illustration of this dysfunction came out in a recent report. ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne recently reported that ex-Coach Bryon Scott and Lakers’ part owner and President Jeanie Buss never spoke.
“I never talked to Jeanie. It just felt like it’d be a betrayal of Mitch [Kupchak] and Jim [Buss],” Scott stated.
It’s clear that the Lakers’ front office has been fractured for years, and has harmed the team as a result. Whether it was Jim Buss hiring Mike D’Antoni while passing on Phil Jackson, or Buss and Kupchak putting on notoriously ineffective free agent pitches, there was always something negative happening in the Lakers’ front office.
As a former high-profile agent, Pelinka expressed recently the importance of unity.
“The one thing I’ve seen with the great organizations that have had success recently [is] that the coach, general manager, the president, the basketball operations folks have to be in lockstep and have to be collaborating and sharing,” Pelinka stated.
This change in personnel and unity in upper management could help make it clear that the Lakers have a clear direction going forward and together can create a winning culture. This perception could aid in attracting marquee free agents. One of the Lakers’ most recent high-profile targets, prior All Star LaMarcus Aldridge, cited a misguided pitch as a primary reason for passing on Los Angeles. Lakers former head coach Bryon Scott explained.
“I think we looked at it more as a business presentation. It wasn’t basketball, and that’s probably where we made our mistake,” Scott said.
With a new approach, the Lakers can potentially leverage Johnson’s legendary status and Pelinka’s relationships with players across the league to give the Lakers a better chance to put together well-rounded roster that features a few star players. However, it will be up to Johnson and Pelinka to be very selective in chasing these star players, and to do so when it makes sense for the franchise. The Lakers have seemingly suffered from a constant desire to bring stars to the team, which hasn’t worked out so well in recent years. This new regime needs to keep the long-term outlook in mind and follow a plan that is reasonably calculated to create a roster that is capable of contending both in the short and long-term.
NBA Daily: Daniel Hamilton Hopes to Stick in OKC
Oklahoma City’s Daniel Hamilton speaks to Basketball Insiders about his time at summer league and sticking in the NBA.
There are usually two main categories of guys who participate in the NBA’s summer league.
The players who are armed with guaranteed contracts are usually looking to expand on their game and test out new skills. Then there are the players who don’t have that kind of security, the ones who are looking for an opportunity to earn an invite to training camp in hopes of securing a coveted roster spot in the NBA.
For Daniel Hamilton, he kind of falls into both of those categories.
Hamilton just completed his rookie season with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He was signed last summer to a two-way contract and he split time between the Thunder and their G-League affiliate, the Oklahoma City Blue. He joined the Thunder’s summer league team in Las Vegas, his third consecutive summer with them.
“I’m working on getting stronger, lowering my turnovers, and continue getting reps up in the gym,” Hamilton told Basketball Insiders. “I’m getting shots up and different things like that.”
Hamilton was drafted by the Denver Nuggets with the 56th overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft but was immediately traded to the Thunder. He didn’t play with the Thunder right away though. He spent the entire 2016-2017 season with the Blue.
This past year was his second in the G-League. He finished the season as the Blue’s second-leading scorer with 16.9 points per game, behind Dakari Johnson’s 23.3. While he was on a two-way contract, he only saw action in six games with the Thunder. Most of his time was spent with the Blue.
“It was good, my first year doing the two-way deal. I had a lot of good times playing up with the pros and going down to the G-League,” Hamilton told Basketball Insiders. “The G-League was real good, being able to just go out and play and work on your game, and get wins as a team. We had a great team this past year, we finished top in our division. It was just a fun experience overall.”
This season was a bit different for Hamilton, however. It was also his first year playing a different position. Up to that point, he’d been a shooting guard. He played shooting guard as a standout at St. John Bosco High School in Bellflower, CA. He was a shooting guard during his two years at UConn.
But the Thunder asked him to do something a bit different when he joined the team. They asked him to play point guard. He used his second season with the Blue to test out playing a new position. He averaged 7.8 assists with the Blue, but also 4.9 turnovers as he got used to being a playmaker. He used the Las Vegas Summer League to continue that adjustment.
“It’s been pretty good. My first year of playing point guard was this past year. It’s just something that I’m trying to get used to. Just trying to stay focused on whatever happens next,” Hamilton told Basketball Insiders. “I think it helped me expand my game, being able to do more than just one thing, to be versatile.”
In Las Vegas, Hamilton came close to averaging a near triple-double. Over the course of five games, he put up 7.8 points per game, 8.0 rebounds, and 6.6 assists. He’s got the skill and physical tools to be a playmaking guard at the NBA level. He’s been impressive both in the G-League and Summer League.
However, it remains to be seen what happens with him come the end of the summer. With the Thunder’s recent acquisition of both Dennis Schroder and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, it brings their roster to 15 guaranteed contracts. They’re allowed two two-way contracts, but have already used one on Deonte Burton.
They’ve got decisions to make regarding P.J Dozier, who was on a two-way last season, and rookies Hamidou Diallo and Devon Hall. Unless the Thunder can clear up a roster spot or two, it appears Hamilton will be fighting for that last two-way spot. He hopes he’s done enough to warrant strong consideration.
“The main thing is just continuing to get better and continue growing,” Hamilton told Basketball Insiders. “That’s just the number one thing to being here at summer league.”
NBA Daily: Georges Niang’s Big Break
After dominating the G-League for a year, Georges Niang has more than earned this big opportunity with the Utah Jazz, writes Ben Nadeau.
For Georges Niang, reaching professional stability was always going to be a tall order.
Even after four dominant seasons at Iowa State, the tweener forward was viewed as a draft risk. At 6-foot-8, the versatile playmaker has always scored in bunches but also struggled to find his place in the modern NBA. Despite excelling as a knockdown three-point shooter, the fundamentally sound Niang has bounced around the country looking for a long-term opportunity.
In the two seasons since he was drafted, Niang has played in 50 G-League games for three separate franchises and had his non-guaranteed contract waived twice.
As a summer league standout for the second straight offseason, Niang’s determined efforts officially paid off last week after he signed a three-year deal with the Utah Jazz worth about $5 million. Now with a fully-guaranteed contract under his belt for 2018-19, Niang has been eager to prove his worth both on and off the court — a newfound skill-set he happily attributes to Utah’s excellent system.
“In the Jazz organization, from top to bottom, they do a good job of nurturing guys and forming them into good leaders and things like that,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, it was really easy to transition to summer league, [I’m] really just trying to lead by example, not with just my words.
“And I think playing hard, being a good teammate and doing the right thing –I think those are three things that the Jazz really stand for.”
But his meandering path toward year-long job security wasn’t destined to end up this way — no, not at all.
Selected by the Indiana Pacers in the 2016 NBA Draft with the No. 50 overall pick, Niang was correctly projected as a hard-working, high-IQ contributor that could put up points on almost anybody. Unfortunately, following a low-impact rookie year with the Pacers — and some short stints with their G-League affiliate, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, as well — Niang was waived the ensuing summer. Shortly thereafter, Niang latched on with the Golden State Warriors, where he participated in training camp and four preseason games — but, again, he was waived before the season began.
With the Santa Cruz Warriors, Niang flat-out dominated the competition for months, up until he grabbed a two-way contract from Utah in January. In total, Niang played in 41 games between Santa Cruz and the Salt Lake City Stars in 2017-18, averaging 19.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.1 steals on 45.7 percent from deep over 33.9 minutes per game.
Once attached to Utah’s affiliate franchise, Niang averaged a team-high 22 points per game and finished the campaign as the 13th-best scorer in the G-League. On top of all that, Niang was both an All-Star and honored with a spot on the All-NBA G-League First Team at season’s end.
Although he would ultimately play in just nine games for the deep Western Conference roster, Niang was simply laying important groundwork for the days ahead.
This summer, Niang averaged 16.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists in three contests during Utah Summer League. Given the golden opening to impress his future would-be-employers, Niang kept things rolling in Sin City and posted similar numbers over five games. On the back of a 20-point, eight-rebound performance early on in Las Vegas, Niang embraced the chance to fight and compete for his team — five full days before the Jazz signed him to a guaranteed deal.
“It was a real physical game, but those are the games you want to play in during summer league,” Niang said. “You want to play in those types of environments, where every possession matters and you gotta make plays down the stretch — and I think we did a really good job doing that.”
Those scrappy aspirations have been a staple of Niang’s since his collegiate days at Iowa State, too. During an ultra-impressive senior year, Niang tallied 20.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game for the Cyclones, leading their roster to 23 wins and an eventual trip to the Sweet Sixteen. That season, Niang took home the 2016 Karl Malone Award as Division-I’s top power forward and finished with 2,228 points, the second-best mark in school history.
Any way you slice it, whether at college or in the G-League, Niang can play, the moment just needs to reveal itself — and maybe it finally has.
Of course, this new contract — one that’s only fully guaranteed in 2018-19 — doesn’t ensure Niang any playing time and he’ll have some stiff competition. Just to get on the court, he’ll need to squeeze minutes from Derrick Favors, Jae Crowder and Joe Ingles — a tough task in head coach Quin Snyder’s defense-first rotation. No matter what his role or obligations end up amounting to, Niang is ready to meet that challenge head-on.
“In the NBA, everyone has a role,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, obviously, things are gonna be peeled back and you’ll have a defined role. My role is just when I get the ball, and if I do, play-make for others or get guys open, defend multiple positions, play multiple positions on offense and knock down open shots.”
Although his past resume certainly speaks for itself, it’ll be up to Niang take his big break even further. But given his efficiency and execution at every other level, there’s little reason to doubt the forward now. Days before they signed Niang, he was asked if Utah was somewhere he could see himself for the foreseeable future — his response was precise and foreboding.
“I’d love to be here — what [the Jazz] stand for is what I’m all about. I’ve had a blast with all these guys and I’d love to keep it going.”
And now, he’ll get at least 82 more games to make his case.
NBA Daily: The Carmelo Anthony Trade is a Rare Win-Win for All Involved
It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation.
The Big Three Era in Oklahoma City came and went rather quickly.
On Thursday, the Thunder reached an agreement to trade Carmelo Anthony and a protected 2022 first-round draft pick to the Atlanta Hawks for guard Dennis Schröder, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. As part of a three-team deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, the Thunder will also walk away with Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot while the Hawks and 76ers swap Mike Muscala and Justin Anderson.
Oklahoma City has agreed to trade Carmelo Anthony and a protected 2022 first-round pick to Atlanta for point guard Dennis Schroder and Mike Muscala, league sources tell ESPN. Anthony will be waived, and he will join team of his choice. Rockets are frontrunner.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) July 19, 2018
It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation. Just as well, the trade is perhaps even more beneficial for the players involved.
While Anthony may have wanted to stay with Russell Westbrook and Paul George, the trade is more than beneficial for him. After the trade goes through, the Hawks plan to buyout Anthony’s contract and he will reportedly receive the entire $27.9 million he is owed next season. Even better still, Anthony is free to join any team he wants, whether it be the Houston Rockets and friend Chris Paul, the Los Angeles Lakers and friend LeBron James, or elsewhere.
With his money already in hand, Anthony could sign on the cheap as well, making negotiations with any franchise that much easier.
For the Thunder, clearing Anthony’s massive salary from their books was of paramount importance. Staring down a $150 million luxury tax bill, Sam Presti managed to move Anthony and improve the team or, at the very least, make a lateral move depending on how you look at Schröder. Even as they take back the remaining $46.5 million owed to Schröder, the Thunder will save more than $60 million next season alone. That makes the trade worth it for Oklahoma City all by itself.
Still, the move allowed them to fill a need, perhaps more important than the cash savings as they look ahead to next season. Schröder not only fortifies the Thunder bench but the point guard position behind starter Russell Westbrook as well; he is another athletic playmaker that Oklahoma City can play on the wing with confidence. And, after averaging a career-high 19.4 points per game to go along with 6.2 assists last season, Schröder provides the Thunder offense with more firepower to compete against the other top teams in the Western Conference, a necessity if they hope to make a long playoff run.
For Schröder, the move to Oklahoma City is just as beneficial for him as it is for the team. Schröder is no longer the starter (he was unlikely to be the starter in Atlanta with Trae Young in the fold), but he can still make an impact and now he can do so for a contender.
The Hawks, as they should be, are playing the long game here. They acquired Jeremy Lin, an expiring contract, from the Brooklyn Nets earlier this offseason. After drafting Young, their guard surplus afforded them the chance to move Schröder’s deal off their books, netting them a first-round pick in the process and opening up playing time for the Young right away.
While the pick is top-14 protected (the pick becomes two second rounders if it doesn’t convey in 2022, every asset counts as the Hawks will look to add talent through the draft for years to come. With the addition of the Thunder pick, the Hawks now are owed an extra three first-round picks between the 2019 and 2022 drafts, a benefit for the Hawks whether they use those picks or trade them for already established talent. Meanwhile, Anderson, 24, presents another intriguing, and more importantly, young, option alongside the core of Young, Kevin Huerter, John Collins and Taurean Prince.
Anderson will almost certainly receive more playing time in Atlanta as they figure out who and who can’t help the team. His time in Philadelphia was mired by injury and he never had the opportunity to show what he could do. So, whether they use him as an asset in a future trade or plan to keep him on the roster, Anderson, at the very least, will have the opportunity to show what he can do.
For the 76ers, Muscala is essentially insurance for the reneged deal with Nemanja Bjelica. Bjelica agreed to terms on a one-year deal with the team but the stretch-four never signed his contract and backed out of the deal. With him out of the picture along with losing Ersan Ilyasova, Muscala was one of the few remaining options for the 76ers in that specific, stretch-big role.
Muscala doesn’t have the same shooting chops that Bjelica has, but he is younger and might have more upside alongside Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and co. Last season, Muscala, in addition to career highs in points and rebounds, averaged a career-high 3.2 three-pointers per game and hit 37.1 percent of them. While he likely won’t see the playing time he saw in Atlanta, Muscala should easily slide into a role off the bench for the 76ers. Moving Anderson and Luwawu-Cabarrot clears a logjam on the wing as well and will afford more minutes to Markelle Fultz (when he is ready), T.J. McConnell and rookies Zhaire Smith and Furkan Korkmaz.
As it stands, this trade made sense for all parties involved, and that alone is reason enough to consider it a win all around. While things could certainly change and hindsight is 20/20, this deal is beneficial for all three teams right now and could positively impact all three squads both next season and beyond.