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Fixing The Los Angeles Lakers

David Yapkowitz breaks down how the Lakers can move forward from a promising developmental season.

David Yapkowitz

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We continue with our “Fixing” series this week at Basketball Insiders, and next up is the Los Angeles Lakers.

Arguably the most storied franchise in NBA history, it’s been a bumpy past few years since the Lakers’ last playoff appearance in 2013. Poor trades and questionable free agent signings have led them to where they are now, but there appears to be light at the end of the tunnel.

Since Jan. 1, the Lakers have won 19 out of 31 games. They’ve had three four-game win streaks and one five-game streak. They’ve beaten the Boston Celtics, Indiana Pacers, Oklahoma City Thunder twice, Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs twice, and the Cleveland Cavaliers during that span. The young guys are performing and they’re looking to close the season on a high note.

What Is Working

Coaching is probably the biggest positive from the Lakers turnaround. It was back in early January when the Lakers were mired in a nine-game losing streak that LaVar Ball was quoted as saying the team had given up on Luke Walton and guys didn’t want to play for him anymore. It was right about then that the Lakers began trending upward.

They’re in the top ten in the NBA in scoring (9th overall at 108.7 points per game). Defensively they could stand to improve, but they’ve got guys who are giving solid effort on that end. Walton has also revived Isaiah Thomas, who looked out of place in Cleveland. Coming off the bench for the Lakers, he’s looked more like the dynamic scorer he was in Boston and he’s been an integral part of their recent five-game win streak. As the primary scorer for the second unit, he’s getting to his spots and creating for himself and his teammates.

Walton has also reintroduced Brook Lopez to the rotation. A few months ago, Lopez saw his playing time start dwindling amid inconsistent play. Post All-Star break, Lopez has emerged as an offensive force who’s played a key role in the Lakers strong play.

The Lakers have also received strong play from their young core. Kyle Kuzma will likely make the All-Rookie first team while Brandon Ingram could be a contender for the Most Improved Player award. Lonzo Ball started the season off a bit slow as you would expect from a rookie, but since coming back from a sprained MCL, he’s seen an uptick in production. He is most assuredly the Lakers’ point guard of the future.

Perhaps the most impressive young player in recent games has been Julius Randle. Since the All-Star break, he’s been arguably the best player on the team. He recently had his best game of the season in the win over Cleveland with 36 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists, and two blocks.

Walton has shown that he is indeed the coach of the future and his job is safe. He even has Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who looked like a free agent dud early on, playing some of his best basketball as of late.

What Needs To Change

The Lakers should change their approach to free agency. Under the new regime of Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, it’s safe to say that there will probably be no more free agent signings such as Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng. That’s step one. Step two, which Lakers fans might not want to hear, is to scale back a bit on the pursuit of someone like LeBron James and Paul George. Give this group an opportunity to grow and develop. They’re building something special in LA and their recent play is proof of that.

Besides, both James and George have seemingly made it clear that they want to win championships. Either one of those guys would be a massive acquisition for the Lakers, but with just one of them, the Lakers still wouldn’t be good enough to contend with the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets. They could theoretically sign both, but it would come at the cost of someone like Randle.

The Lakers should also look to use their G-League team, the South Bay Lakers, when searching for talent. They did a good job finding David Nwaba last season, but they cut him over the summer to make room for Caldwell-Pope. Nwaba should still be a Laker. They just signed Travis Wear from South Bay which is a step in the right direction. When looking to fill out their roster this summer with end of the bench guys, they should keep looking at South Bay’s roster.

Focus Area: The Draft

The Lakers may not own their own pick in this summer’s draft, but they acquired Cleveland’s pick in the trade that sent Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr to the Cavaliers. Currently, the pick is slated to be in the mid-twenties. Although this looks like a top-heavy draft, unlike last summer’s deep draft, there should still be some quality guys available where the Lakers will select.

No matter where the selection lands, the number one rule for the draft is to always go with the best player available regardless of position. A couple guys that might be around when the Lakers are on the clock are a pair of local standouts: Aaron Holiday of UCLA, and Chimezie Metu of USC. Holiday is an explosive scorer with good court awareness. Metu is a big man with a nice touch around the rim and a good mid-range game. Either one would make a nice addition to the Lakers’ young core and both have the potential to outperform players that will likely be taken ahead of them.

A few other guys that might be available in that range are Keita Bates-Diop of Ohio State, Shake Milton of SMU, and De’Anthony Melton of USC. Each has the potential to be a solid rotation guy in the NBA, and for a rebuilding team like the Lakers, you can’t have too many of those.

The Lakers do own a second-round pick, and while the majority of second rounders don’t really amount to much, they could find a gem here. Every year there are players who slip or don’t receive much attention. If available, the Lakers should tab either Rawle Alkins or Allonzo Trier, both of Arizona. They’re first-round talents that are being overlooked.

Focus Area: Free Agency

There is one player who should be the number one priority for the Lakers in free agency, and no it’s not James or George. That man is Julius Randle. Randle has improved his game every season since he’s been in the league. He’s established himself as a budding young member of the team worthy of their loyalty in the summer.

Other teams surely will come calling, and his hometown Dallas Mavericks have been linked to him for quite some time. He’s proven himself worthy of being a free agent priority and he should be kept. He’s got a nice touch in the post and he has an improving jump shot. He’s also becoming more versatile with a developing playmaking game.

Obviously, if someone like James or George want to play in LA, then, by all means, sign them. But if they’re entertaining offers from better teams, which they surely will, and dragging out the process, the Lakers need to lock up Randle quick before it’s too late. He’s entering restricted free agency so the Lakers can match any offer, but teams with money to burn will dial his number.

The Lakers are also going to have to make some decisions on their unrestricted free agents. Thomas, Lopez, Caldwell-Pope, and Channing Frye are all set to become free agents. Caldwell-Pope is a good candidate to let walk, probably Lopez as well. Frye is a nice locker room veteran that every young team could use. It would be nice to have him stick around unless another team decides to spend big money on him.

Thomas is in an interesting situation. He’s going to have suitors, but the offers won’t be near as much as projected a year ago. His stock has slipped, but he’s shown he’s still a very productive player and a deadly scorer given the right situation. He’s not a bad player to have to mentor the Lakers young guards such as Ball and Josh Hart. The Lakers should look at bringing him back for the right price, but don’t break the bank for him.

They’ll also have some minor moves to take care of, such as the contract guarantees for Tyler Ennis, Ivica Zubac, and Thomas Bryant. Ennis has probably played his last season with the Lakers. Don’t expect him back. But Zubac and Bryant have shown flashes of potential with the South Bay Lakers. If they don’t bring back Lopez, both of those guys should stick for next season at least.

The Lakers are much closer to the light at the end of the tunnel than they were a year ago. All of their young players have made gigantic strides and Walton has definitely developed as a head coach. There is something special budding in Los Angeles. The management team of Jeanie Buss, Johnson, and Pelinka seem to understand what they’re doing. Playoffs might not be out of the question next season.

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NBA Daily: Three-Point Champion is Just a Regular Joe

Joe Harris had his league-wide coming out at All-Star weekend when he shocked fans across the globe in upsetting three-point shootout favorite-Steph Curry.

Drew Maresca

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Joe Harris’ fortunes and those of the Brooklyn Nets appear to be traveling on the same trajectory. Harris’ personality and approach embody the softer side of the Brooklyn Nets’ team persona: he is loyal, hardworking and humble. And while Jared Dudley and DeMarre Carroll provide veteran leadership and Spencer Dinwiddie and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson offer personality, Harris provides a grounded approachability.

No one would blame him, though, if he develops a small ego. After all, Harris just received his formal introduction to the world, having won the NBA’s three-point championship last weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s hard to deny that his star is rising.

And yet, Harris seems unaware that his status is rising.

“To be honest, I am solid in my role. That’s what I’m about,” Harris told Basketball Insiders before the Nets’ January 25 game against the Knicks. “I’m pretty realistic with where I view myself as a player. And I have the self-awareness to realize that I’m not a star player in this league by any means. I mean, I’m good in my role and I’m trying to take that to another level and be as complete as I can in my niche role that I have.”

While Harris’ comments could be misinterpreted as a humble brag, they shouldn’t be. He is simply a hard-working player who perhaps doesn’t quite realize everything he adds to his team. But let’s be clear, Harris’ presence absolutely improves the Nets’ play.

Harris boasts the second-best three-point percentage in the NBA (.471) through the first four months of the season; he trails only Victor Olapido and J.J. Reddick for top three-point percentage of all 48 players who have at least 10 “clutch” attempts from long-range and he’s ranked tenth in points per clutch possession (1.379).

He helps space the floor for teammates D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie, who take advantage of his long-range acumen by attacking an often less congested pathway to the hoop — and drives account for 53.4 percent of the Nets’ points (third in the entire league).

It is no surprise then that the Nets are currently in sixth place in the Eastern Conference.

“At the end of the day we’re just trying to go play good basketball.” Harris said. “The wins are a byproduct of that. It’s about staying locked into this process and how it’s gotten us here regardless of who is on the court.”

Harris’ dedication to the team and its process is becoming more unique each year as players hop from franchise to franchise more frequently than ever before. While Harris only joined the Nets in 2016, he was immediately seen as a key player by the Nets’ leadership, albeit one on a minimum deal – according to Kyle Wagner of the Daily News, Coach Kenny Atkinson saw a lot of Kyler Korver in his game and GM Sean Marks wanted him to study Danny Green.

And while Harris’ 2018-19 stats reflect similar production to the career highs of both of Korver and Green (13.2 points per game with an effective field goal percentage of .622 for Harris versus 14.4 points with an eFG% of .518 for Korver and 11.7 points with an eFG% of .566 for Green), at only 27 years old, he should only continue to improve.

A lot has changed in the two and a half seasons since Harris signed a free agent deal with the Nets, but one thing that hasn’t changed is his character.

“We had various deals that were shorter for more (money),” Harris said. “And some were longer and roughly the same, but this is where I wanted to be and I’m happy it ended up working out.”

Harris ultimately signed a two-year deal for approximately $16 million, which can be viewed as both cashing in, given where he was only two years ago (out of the league), and betting on himself, considering the short-term nature of the contract and his relative youth.

And what’s more, Harris will probably go down as a value signing for the Nets considering his versatility. After all, he is not merely a one-dimensional shooter. In fact, he is actually shooting slightly better than 60 percent on 3.2 attempts per game from the restricted area – which is better than All-Star teammate D’Angelo Russell (53 percent on 2.8 attempts). Further, Harris shoots a fair amount of his three-point attempts above the break, which is to say that he does not rely heavily on the shorter corner threes – which tend to be a more efficient means of scoring (1.16 vs. 1.05 points per possession league-wide from 1998-2018) as they are typically a spot where specialist players lurk awaiting an opening look.

The question is, how much more can we expect to see from Harris in the future? If you ask him, he’d probably undersell you on his ceiling and allude to steady progress that ultimately looks similar to what he’s done recently. But the only thing similar about Harris’ career production is that it has steadily improved – and that’s partially due to his process-oriented approach.

“We talked about it in the midst of the losing streak,” Harris said. “What are you going to change, what are you going to do (when you’re in a slump)? Not that we were going to do the exact same thing, but we felt like we were very process oriented. We felt like we were right there. Our whole thing was about being deliberate and doing it as consistently as possible.”

Harris sees the validity in repeating what works. And he’s figured that out, partially with the help of his teammates. Harris clearly values veteran input and team chemistry.

“You look at our team right now and we have really good veteran presences with Jared and DeMarre and Ed (Davis),” Harris said. “That’s the voice from the leadership standpoint. I’m learning from them just like DLo is. And all the other guys in the locker room are. They’re the guiding presence of what it is to be a professional and they keep everything even keel. They don’t go too low when things are tough, and they don’t let us get too high when things are going well.”

Harris is clearly a little uncomfortable taking credit for his team’s success, and he shies away from the spotlight a bit. He seems to prefer anonymity. But Harris should probably get used to the attention he’s received this season because it will only increase as his profile continues to rise as we enter the 2019 NBA Playoffs.

“He’s not just a shooter,” Atkinson told NBA.com last April. “He’s worked on his drive game, he’s worked on his finishing game. I think he’s worked on his defense. So just a complete player who fits how we want to play. He’s one of our most competitive players. Not a surprise watching, from the first day we had him, how locked in he was, how hungry he was. On top of it, he’s a top, top-ranked human being.”

So expect to see more of Joe Harris this April and beyond, but don’t be surprised by his humility. It’s one aspect about him that won’t change.

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NBA Daily: Danuel House Optimistic About Future

David Yapkowitz speaks to Danuel House about life as a two-way player for the Houston Rockets & what he hopes comes out of his time in the G League with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

David Yapkowitz

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Opportunity is everything in the NBA. Last season’s implementation of two-way contracts gave a lot more players potential opportunities in the league that may not have been previously available.

One player who has used two-way contracts to showcase himself and really prove that he belongs in the NBA is Danuel House Jr.

House actually began his career two years ago as an undrafted rookie with the Washington Wizards. However, he suffered a wrist injury only about a month into the 2016-17 season.

He was subsequently cut by the Wizards and used the summer to heal up before joining the Houston Rockets for training camp prior to the start of last season. He ended up being one of the final cuts in camp, and he joined the Rockets’ G League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

His strong play earned him a two-way contract with the Phoenix Suns after only two months of G League play. This year, he rejoined the Vipers, only to earn another two-way contract with the Rockets. Having had some experience now with a two-way, it’s something that House sees as being beneficial.

“It’s got its good perks and its bad perks. But then the NBA is just trying to open more doors for more guys to be seen and have an opportunity,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I think it’s a good idea, it’s gonna work the kinks out so it can be more beneficial to the players. It’s still new and it’s still trending and working itself through the NBA.”

This season has been a bit of a whirlwind for House. He initially joined the Golden State Warriors for training camp, only to have them cut him before the start of the season. After spending about a month with the Vipers, the Rockets called him up, only to cut him and then eventually re-sign him to a two-way deal.

Due to injuries in the Rockets lineup, House saw meaningful minutes right away, even being placed in Houston’s starting lineup. He had some solid performances down the stretch of last season with the Suns, but this season he really looked the part of a legitimate NBA rotation player.

When a player signs a two-way deal, they are allotted a maximum of 45 days of NBA service, meaning that the rest of the time they must remain in the G League. If a player exceeds the 45-day limit, they must be sent back down to the G League unless they’re able to reach an agreement on a standard contract with the NBA team.

Because of the Rockets’ necessity of House in the rotation, he used up his NBA days last month. He and the Rockets were unable to agree on a contract, so he returned to the G League with the Vipers. While there haven’t been many updates as of late, he’s still hopeful that something can work out with the Rockets.

“Hopefully I can go back to Houston and compete for a title. There’s nothing like learning from James [Harden] and Chris Paul, Gerald Green, Eric Gordon and those guys,” House told Basketball Insiders. “And now with the additions of [Iman] Shumpert and Kenneth Faried, I’m just excited to hopefully get something done so I can be out there and competing with those guys.”

Initially, House wasn’t playing with the Vipers upon returning to the team. But he made his return to the court a few weeks ago on Feb 8. In that game, House shook off some initial rust and ended up having a solid performance including hitting the game-winning free-throws.

In the past, the G League was often times seen as a punishment for NBA players. The league didn’t have that great of a reputation, but over the past few years that image has started to change. The competition has gotten a lot stronger, and according to House, there are plenty of guys who are that close to making it to the NBA.

“The competition here is real. There’s a lot of dudes out here that got a lot of talent that they can showcase. They just want their one opportunity, their one chance that I was so fortunate and blessed with,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I know not to come out here and take it for granted, that’s why I’m playing hard and of course still trying to be a student of the game and learn.”

Recently, during a media availability session, Rockets star and perennial MVP candidate James Harden expressed hope that the Rockets and House could work something out. Harden told reporters that they all know how good House is and what he brings to the team.

In 25 games for the Rockets this season – including 12 starts – House put up nine points per game while shooting 45.8 percent from the field and 39 percent from the three-point line. He’s in the mold of a three-and-D type player, but he also moves well without the ball on cuts to the rim and can attack the basket as well.

“My role was to play defense and make the right read,” House told Basketball Insiders. “Shoot when I’m open, drive, attack the rack, and run the floor. Of course, defend and rebound and make good reads. It was easy.”

As it stands, the Rockets have 12 players on their roster, and a pair of two-way deals for House and Vincent Edwards. House is not eligible to rejoin the Rockets until the G League season concludes. Even then, he won’t be eligible to play in the playoffs as per two-way deal restrictions.

The Rockets will need to add at least two players to get up to the league-mandated 14 players on the roster. House would appear to be a good candidate for one of those spots, but that remains to be seen. But regardless of whether or not it works out in Houston, House is confident that he’s done enough to prove he belongs in the NBA.

“It gave me the utmost confidence, but my hard work, my passion, and my faith in the man upstairs gave me the ability. I asked him to guide me through the journey and he’s been taking care of me,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I’m so grateful that the opportunities and I used my ability to perform and do something I love to take care of my family.”

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Insiders Podcast

PODCAST: Checking In On Clippers & Lakers, East Arms Race, Warriors’ Challengers

Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte evaluate the L.A. teams after the trade deadline, break down the Eastern Conference contenders, and look for the Warriors’ biggest challengers.

Basketball Insiders

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Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte evaluate the L.A. teams after the trade deadline, break down the Eastern Conference contenders, and look for the Warriors’ biggest challengers.

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