NBA

NBA AM: Lakers Rebounding Sooner Than Expected?

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While many anticipated a quick turnaround from teams like the Minnesota Timberwolves, Phoenix Suns or even Miami HEAT this year, the Los Angeles Lakers (7-7) have actually gotten off to one of the better starts of teams currently undergoing a youth movement.

The potential was obvious, but given just how negative the trajectory of the franchise appeared to be over the past three seasons (just 65-181), there were still plenty of people openly questioning the direction and decision-making capabilities of the front office even as recently as training camp about a month back. The ‘healing properties’ of success when it comes to professional sports are unquestionable, but there appears to be the type of total team buy-in under head coach Luke Walton and his staff that leads one to believe this start is the foundation for the success to come.

Of course, it is still early, but the Lakers currently have the ninth-ranked team offense in terms of efficiency and appear to have embraced Walton’s preferred style of working the ball around the floor for the most optimum shot available (for the most part). While there’s still a tendency to revert to negative habits at times – Sunday’s iso-heavy second-half in a loss to the Chicago Bulls, for example – this group genuinely appears excited for one another when everyone is involved in scoring and playmaking.

Although the defensive effort is collectively better for stretches at a time, let’s just say it is still a work in progress as they are currently just the 26th-ranked team defense (efficiency) and are dead last in terms of opponent’s points in the paint (49.9 per game). The addition of Timofey Mozgov has been a clear upgrade over the productivity they received from the pivot in 2015-16, but one rim-protecting big man (playing 21.4 minutes per contest) isn’t enough of a deterrent when opposing guards and wings get into the paint at will. Although they do have players who can rebound, that can’t be something left simply to the big men. Currently sitting at 20th overall, they’re at their best when everyone focuses on rebounding as a team – especially when you are shooting 27.4 three-pointers as a team per contest.

If the guards don’t track the ball when the opportunity presents itself, then long rebounds can generate fast breaks for opposing teams. The 15.6 fast break points per contest the team is surrendering is third-worst in the league and also contributes to them giving up so many points in the paint. None of this is to be overly critical of a young team, but there are some pretty obvious defensive issues all around the court that contribute to such high output from opposing teams.

When the Lakers have locked in and played together on the defensive end (proactive vs. reactive) and collectively attacked the glass this year, they’ve gone on the type of runs (often after halftime) that have perhaps prematurely gotten folks into the “maybe we could make the playoffs this year” mindset that can be a bit dangerous, or at the very least problematic for young teams. Not that you don’t want your fan base excited over such a start, and you certainly don’t want to curtail the positive vibes currently circulating within that locker room, but you also don’t want to lose sight of the fact that some lessons take a bit longer for young teams. Especially when so much of this core is still learning how to play the game at this level, let alone being expected to learn how to immediately win at a pace that would keep them in the playoff race. Adjusting expectations is totally fine, but you can also run the risk of “polluting” the process, or at least your ability to fully appreciate the progress along the way if you are inappropriately focusing on wins and losses as the primary measure of success in year one with this current roster, staff and system.

Following the aforementioned loss at the hands of a scrappy Bulls team, Coach Walton acknowledged such lessons in particular when facing a player of Jimmy Butler’s capabilities: “He’s a pretty fantastic player, but if he’s going to do that, then we have to shut down the rest of the guys. We let him get his and the role players all chipped in and did their part as well. You either take away the star, or take away the role players. You can’t let everyone have a night.”

This staff realizes that while there is no need to bury this group for making the mistakes young players tend to make (evidenced by their tone on the matter), that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be an equal amount of focus aimed toward rectifying the issues. Currently just 22nd in team fouls per game, Walton also addressed the pitfalls of repeatedly fouling scorers early in games and permitting them to find a rhythm from the free throw line and leaving the defense in a disadvantaged position once the top players get rolling.

Beyond Butler’s 40-point game, these Lakers have also given up large scoring nights to Andrew Wiggins (47), Devin Booker (39) and James Harden (34) among several others. To a certain degree, that’s what the league’s best scorers are simply going to do, because that’s what makes them so special. You just can’t appear to be comfortable with the notion that someone is going to do it on a nightly basis against you. In recent years, whether it was the reality or not, that certainly appeared to be the case from the outside looking in.

All of these things can and should eventually come over time, especially when dealing with young players who are eager and willing to continue developing on both sides of the court – as these guys seem to be. The process of learning proper defensive rotations, tendencies and roles of teammates, how/when to ‘help the helper’ as well as the strengths, weaknesses and preferences of opponents might sound “boring” to some of us, but for this group to reach its full potential, these guys are going to have to love it as much as they love knocking down threes or finishing over the top of someone.

The Lakers could naturally improve in that area over the course of the season, but one of the obvious remedies should already be on the roster. At a certain point, you figure Brandon Ingram will join the starting lineup, but you can also understand why they went with the decision to ease the 19-year-old into the mix here in the early going. Luol Deng was specifically brought in to not only mentor these young wing players, but to also act as a bit of a buffer as Ingram (7.8 points, 2.6 rebounds on 40.6 percent from the floor over his last five games) adjusts to life in the league. Deng’s on-court production has been slow to start the year (6.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, 32.7 percent from the floor), but the front office and coaching staff have to be collectively hoping the behind-the-scenes and in-game knowledge he’s able to bestow upon Ingram makes it all worthwhile.

Ingram has already shown he can make an impact on the defensive end at times, although it is difficult to slow a veteran player down once he’s gotten off to a good start. Ideally, you’d like to see Ingram continue to work himself into that starting lineup and perhaps bolster the versatility and effectiveness of the defensive strategy, so that Deng could transition into a designated role of support over the last few years of that deal he signed this past summer.

As our Eric Pincus alluded, Russell has looked better and certainly shot the ball more effectively (outside of Sundays) this year. The goal moving forward, as is the case for all young guards, must be in finding a way to be even more consistent with his effort even in the face of adversity or a rough shooting night. Each of them has been better about it, but there are still too many possessions and short stretches when the defensive focus isn’t what it should be as a result of not getting off to a strong start on the other end of the court.

Walton went into the year with praise for the effort a resurgent Nick Young provided throughout camp and even mentioned challenging an improving Jordan Clarkson to embrace that role of being a defensive disruptor around the perimeter. The thing is, everyone needs to take that challenge head-on and understand this team’s ultimate success will be directly correlated to it.

Reserves Larry Nance Jr. (28th overall) and Tarik Black (33rd) are the team’s highest rated defensive players by real plus/minus, according to ESPN.com, but the Lakers need guys like Julius Randle (21st among power forwards), Russell (66th among point guards) and Clarkson (13th among point guards) to also become top-tier defensive players if they want to truly be in a playoff discussion anytime soon.

To his credit, Randle has been significantly better on both ends (50th in power forward DRPM last year, for perspective) and is actually taking the open jumpers opposing teams are encouraging. He’s at 14.1 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 3.9 APG while shooting 54.2 percent from the floor as a career 44.5 percent shooter. Randle also continues to improve as a decision maker and even though he’ll still pick up the occasional offensive foul while attempting to create, he’s a far cry from the whirling dervish or Tazmanian Devil (if you will) he was with the ball in his hands when he entered the league.

Still a bit undersized for his position against certain matchups, the extra conditioning already seems to have helped him attack with even more confidence around the basket. As his range and overall face-up game continue to improve, Randle has been eager to take advantage of defenders left in the unenviable position of being on their heels as he approaches with a full head of steam.

Much of the focus coming into the year was understandably on how Walton and staff would do, what Ingram might look like or even how Russell would progress in a more favorable system, but Randle has been the one to really hit the ground running and has probably shown the most overall improvement of the bunch.

Another positive through the first month of the year has been the play of the bench. Indicative of the balance this roster has throughout, the second unit actually makes up the highest scoring bench in the league. Lou Williams (16.9 PPG) and Clarkson (14.6 PPG) lead the unit in scoring, but Nance Jr., Black and Ingram also provide the type of defense, intensity and versatility that has permitted them to be so effective. There is a genuine chemistry and connectivity on the court that goes beyond simply being familiar from one year to the next.

Last year’s approach didn’t appear to be nearly as conducive to the development of this generation of players, so the Lakers have to hope Walton and his staff are ultimately more effective with their current approach to concerns of this nature. If this start is any indication of things to come, they’ve already gotten through to this group in ways you might have anticipated taking a full year.

All in all, you couldn’t have realistically anticipated any better start from this group, but perhaps the most promising thing is that you can see the further potential beyond what they’ve already shown. You also see a group that appears to understand this is only the beginning, and that’s something that everyone needs to keep in mind when it comes to maintaining realistic expectations along the way.

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About Jabari Davis

Jabari Davis

Jabari Davis is a senior NBA Writer and Columnist for Basketball Insiders, covering the Pacific Division and NBA Social Media activity.

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