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.
Odd but D'Angelo Russell is shooting 28.8% from the field on Sundays, 46.5% on all other days combined – in total 41.3%
— Eric Pincus (@EricPincus) November 21, 2016
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.
Second Half NBA Story lines
With the All-Star break in the rearview, here are the key storylines to keep an eye on for the home stretch of the season.
The long winter has ended.
Ok, not really. But the break after All-Star weekend has finally come to a halt, and the second half of the NBA season is ready to get underway.
Each team has around 25 games remaining on the schedule. February is in its last week, and March and April will truly define how the May schedule aligns. The first leg of this season provided more than enough entertainment, combating the narrative that the regular season is a bit of a bore nowadays.
Because of some unexpected turns through the 50-plus games already played, this final stretch that will bring the regular season to a close should be more than entertaining for the fans that think the NBA season is just a six-month placeholder for the inevitable.
So, as we get ready to bounce back into action Thursday night, let’s focus on what needs to be monitored down the homestretch.
Houston Rockets can make the Finals
When the Golden State Warriors signed Kevin Durant, a narrative swept across the league that everyone not in the Bay area should just wave the white flag. Game over.
After dropping just one game through the entire postseason last year, completely decimating LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals, the assumptions were proved correct.
But things may be different this year.
The Houston Rockets are trying to end the Warriors’ Durant-Era dynasty before it starts. After trading for Chris Paul in the offseason, the Rockets are in a legitimate position to pose a threat to Golden State.
At the moment, the Rockets have the best offense in the NBA. But, not just for this season, for every season. Their efficiency is revolutionary and unprecedented. Their defense is improved, too. Ranking 18th in defensive rating last season, Houston is eighth this season, and proving to be competent enough on that end to get a few stops of their own against the Warriors. In fact, Houston has won two of the three meetings between the two Western Conference powerhouses so far this season.
For all of the damage Houston put on the league pre-All-Star break, and even leaping Golden State in the standings, the oddsmakers are taking notice.
Take a look at how drastically the Rockets’ odds at contending for a title have changed from the summer to present day. According to this odds tracker on Sports Betting Dime, Houston has almost entered the same realm as Golden State in the bettors’ mind.
Postseason basketball is a different beast, and Durant and Steph Curry are as formidable a tandem as any (not to mention their supporting cast), but the growing pile of statistics that says Houston has more than a puncher’s chance is becoming hard to ignore.
These last 25 or so games will be telling as to if the Rockets are truly a team that can go shot-for-shot with the mighty Warriors.
LeBron’s new teammates
The trade deadline in Cleveland was basically a mass upheaval of the roster the Cavaliers had struggled with for the first four months of the season.
Isaiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade, Jae Crowder, Iman Shumpert, Derrick Rose and Channing Frye were all shipped from The Land in hopes to bring LeBron James new players that could help him back to his eighth straight Finals appearance.
So far, so good.
The return that brought George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr., into wine and gold gave the Cavaliers a much-needed boost heading into the All-Star break. Since the trade, Cleveland has won three straight games, the last two including a blowout victory against the Boston Celtics, and a road win in Oklahoma City.
But, before the roster turnovers, the Cavaliers were one of the league’s worst defensive units. Their lack of consistent effort on a nightly basis was beginning to spread doubt in the basketball minds across the league that the team would be equipped enough to beat the Celtics or Toronto Raptors in the postseason.
Coming out of the break, the Cavaliers will take on another playoff contender in the Washington Wizards. Another strong showing from the new-look Cavs could further the belief that the team is now in a better position to make their way to a fourth straight Finals.
As the regular season comes to its final stages, close eyes will be kept on Hood, Hill, Nance and Clarkson. They’re the key to any real postseason success Cleveland hopes to have. We know LeBron will be there at the end, at this point, and it’s worth watching to see if it teammates can join him.
Tight Playoff Races
For all the talk that surrounds the lack of disparity and entertainment around the league, the playoff races in both conferences appear to be coming down to the wire.
In the West, the 10th-seed Utah Jazz is just two and a half games behind the 5th-seed Oklahoma City Thunder. In between the two clubs, Denver, Portland, New Orleans and the L.A. Clippers are all clawing for spots in the postseason.
Over their last 10 games, every team besides the Thunder is at least .500. The Jazz have won 11 straight games, the Clippers are 7-3 and surging, Denver is hoping to return Paul Millsap to their lineup soon, the Trail Blazers have the luxury of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum and while the Pelicans have lost DeMarcus Cousins, their three straight wins suggest they’re learning to live without Boogie.
That’s six teams fighting fiercely for four playoff spots. Each is deserving and well-equipped enough to make it to the postseason happen.
The West isn’t the only conference with a wild bunch at the bottom of the playoff standings. The Eastern Conference contenders also find themselves in the midst of a playoff battle post-All-Star break.
Just outside of the playoff picture at the moment, the Detroit Pistons, with new star Blake Griffin, are just four and a half games behind the 5th-seeded Indiana Pacers. Philadelphia, Miami and Milwaukee are all also vying for their spot in the playoffs.
At the moment, the Miami HEAT seems to be on the verge of being the odd man out, losing two straight before the break and seven of their last 10 games. As the Pistons begin to find new life with Griffin, they could bump Miami right out of the picture if their slide continues as games pick back up.
With a limited number of games remaining, each of these teams in both conferences cannot afford to fall into a rut. Coming down to the final weeks of the season, watching the playoff carousel develop will be entertaining and worthwhile.
In the blink of an eye, the 2017-18 regular season is almost over. Be sure to keep an eye on these unfolding storylines as the league charges towards playoff basketball.
NBA Daily: Larry Nance Jr. Is Ready To Move On
At All-Star Weekend, Larry Nance Jr. talked about moving on from being traded, Dr. J and the love that Los Angeles still has for him.
At the end of the day, the NBA is a business and Larry Nance Jr. found that out the hard way when the Los Angeles Lakers traded him and Jordan Clarkson for Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2018 first-rounder just a few weeks ago.
Naturally, Nance was due back at the Staples Center nine days later to compete in the league’s annual slam dunk contest. Although he would finish second to the Utah Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell, Nance was frequently reminded just how many fans he still has out on the West Coast.
“It’s either one of two responses,” Nance said over the weekend. “Either people don’t understand how a trade works and they ask me why I left, or, you know: ‘Larry, we miss you, come back in free agency’ and stuff like that. So, either way, they’re kinda on my side — I mean, I’m still a little bit of purple and gold.”
Over his first three seasons, Nance had become a familiar contributor for the Lakers, using his rim-rocking athleticism to carve out a steady role under two different head coaches. Before he was moved to the Cavaliers, Nance was on pace to set career-highs in points (8.6), rebounds (6.8) and steals (1.4). This statistical rise also comes in the midst of his field goal percentage jumping all the way up to 59.3 percent — a mark that would rank him fifth-highest in the NBA if he qualified.* Given the noteworthy change of scenery, his current average of 3.6 field goals per game could grow as well.
But as the Lakers prepare for a potentially crucial offseason, the front office remained committed to shedding salary ahead of free agency, where they may or may not chase the likes of LeBron James, Paul George or DeMarcus Cousins. In just three short years, Nance had quickly become a fan favorite as a jaw-dropping in-game dunker and an improving prospect on a cheap rookie contract, so his involvement at the deadline may have come as a surprise to many as it was for him.
“It’s been a week, so, no, it’s still kinda like: ‘Jeez, I gotta pick up and move right now,’” Nance said. “So, no, I’m not fully adjusted, I’m not, for a lack of a better term, over it. But it’s still fresh in my mind, it’s something that is still kind of shocking.”
Nance, for his worries, is now a key member of the James-led Cavaliers, a franchise that has won 11 more games than the Lakers and sits in third place in the Eastern Conference. While the Cavaliers will likely have to go through the Boston Celtics or Toronto Raptors to reach their fourth consecutive NBA Finals, James himself has reached the championship series every year since the 2009-10 postseason. With the Cavaliers’ maniacal mid-season reboot — which also brought in Rodney Hood, George Hill and the aforementioned Clarkson — they could be poised for an encore performance.
Since he was acquired by Cleveland, Nance and the Cavaliers are 3-0 and, just like that, much of the lingering narrative has been reversed. As the Cavaliers look to further stabilize their season, Nance figures to play a large part down the stretch, particularly so as All-Star Kevin Love continues to rehab from a broken hand.
Still, Nance knows that the Cavaliers will certainly face some speed bumps along the way.
“It’s a learning process, obviously we started out super fast, but there will be a learning process,” Nance stated. “Just like there is with every team and every new group, so we’ll figure it out and we’ll get past it [for the] playoffs.”
But before he makes his first-ever postseason appearance, Nance returned to Los Angeles in an attempt to capture a slam dunk title, something his father — Larry Nance Sr. — did in the inaugural competition way back in 1984. In that contest, the older Nance famously upset Julius Erving and Dominique Wilkins to take home the crown in a nine-person field. On Saturday, Nance paid homage by changing into a retro Phoenix Suns uniform to execute his father’s signature dunk — the rock-the-cradle throwdown that won it all 34 years ago.
“For me, [his highlights were] like normal kid Sesame Street or Barney or something. I was watching his clips when I was growing up, so, yeah, I see it all the time,” Nance recalled.
But when asked what he remembers the most about those distant memories, the second generation son decidedly kept it in the family.
“The fact that he beat Dr. J,” Nance said. “Dr. J is normally thought of as almost like the dunk inventor, kinda brought the dunk contest back — but, really, [I remember] my dad.”
Although Nance couldn’t replicate his father’s success in the contest, his emphatic, springy dunks indicated that the 6-foot-9 skywalker could be an event staple for years to come. In one of the best dunks all night, Nance pulled off the rare double tap — a jam so technically difficult, that he immediately told the judges to look at the jumbotron to make sure they understood what exactly he had just pulled off.
Nance, for his original acrobatics, earned a perfect score of 50.
Earlier that day, Nance discussed the difficulty in standing out amongst a field of explosive guards.
“I think the guys that are taller and longer have a different skill-set than smaller guys,” Nance said. “Obviously, if the smaller guys do something, it looks super impressive because they got to jump a little bit higher, or it looks like they got to jump higher.
“There are ways for bigger guys to look good and I think I’ve got that hammered out.”
For now, Nance doesn’t know if he’ll return to the dunk contest next season after his narrow two-point loss to Mitchell. Instead, Nance wants to focus on helping the Cavaliers in their hunt for the conference’s top seed and, of course, with James, anything is possible. But it’s fair to say that Nance, who nearly pulled down a double-double (13 points, nine rebounds) in his second game with Cleveland, has gone from a rebuild to a legitimate contender in a flash.
“At the same time, I can’t wait for all this to be done with so I can just get back to learning how to gel and mesh with my new team,” Nance said.
From the West Coast to the Midwest, Nance is clearly ready to make some waves once again.
* * * * * *
*To qualify, a player must be on pace for 300 made field goals. As of today, Nance is on pace for 252.6.
Updating the Buyout Market: Who Could Still Become Available?
Shanes Rhodes examines the buyout market to see which players could soon be joining playoff contenders.
While it may not be as exciting as the NBA Trade Deadline, another important date is approaching for NBA teams: the Playoff Eligibility Waiver Deadline.
March 1 is the final day players can be bought out or waived and still be eligible to play in the postseason should they sign with another team. As teams continue to fine-tune their rosters, plenty of eyes will be on the waiver wire and buyout market looking for players that can make an impact.
So who could still become available?
Joakim Noah, New York Knicks
This seems almost too obvious.
The relationship between Joakim Noah and the New York Knicks hasn’t been a pleasant one. Noah, who signed a four-year, $72 million contract in 2016, has done next to nothing this season after an underwhelming debut season in New York and has averaged just 5.7 minutes per game.
After an altercation between himself and Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek at practice, Noah isn’t expected to return to the team. At this point, the best thing for both sides seems likely a clean break; there is no reason to keep that cloud over the Knicks locker room for the remainder of the season.
Noah may not help a playoff contender, but he should certainly be available come the end of the season.
Arron Afflalo, Orlando Magic
Arron Afflalo isn’t the player he once was. But he can still help any contender in need of some shooting.
Afflalo is averaging a career-low 12.9 minutes per game with the Orlando Magic this season. He is playing for just over $2 million so a buyout wouldn’t be hard to come by if he went asking and he can still shoot the basketball. A career 38.6 percent shooter from long distance, Afflalo can certainly get it done beyond the arc for a team looking to add some shooting or some depth on the wing. He doesn’t add the perimeter defense he could earlier in his career, but he could contribute in certain situations.
Vince Carter, Sacramento Kings
Vince Carter was signed by the Sacramento Kings last offseason to play limited minutes off the bench while providing a mentor for the Sacramento Kings up-and-coming players. And Carter may very well enjoy that role.
But, to a degree, the old man can still ball — certainly enough to help a contender.
Carter is 41-years-old, there is no getting around his age, but he can still provide some solid minutes off the bench. Playing 17.1 minutes per night across 38 games this season, Carter has averaged five points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.3 assists while shooting 35.3 percent from three-point range. Combining all of that with his playoff experience and the quality of leadership he brings to the table, Carter may be an ideal addition for a contender looking to make a deep playoff run.
Zach Randolph, Sacramento Kings
Like Carter, Zach Randolph was brought in by the Kings to contribute solid minutes off the bench while also filling in as a mentor to the young roster. Unlike Carter, however, Randolph has played much of the season in a starting role — something that is likely to change as the season winds down.
Randolph has averaged 14.6 points, seven rebounds and 2.1 assists in 25.6 minutes per game; quality numbers that any team would be happy to take on. But, in the midst of a rebuild, the Kings should not be taking minutes away from Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere and (eventually) Harry Giles in order to keep Randolph on the floor.
As he proved last season, Randolph can excel in a sixth-man role and would likely occupy a top bench spot with a team looking to add rebounding, scoring or just a big to their rotation down the stretch.
Wesley Matthews, Dallas Mavericks
Wesley Matthews remains one of the most underrated players in the NBA. He provides positional versatility on the floor and is a solid player on both sides of the ball.
So, with Mark Cuban all but saying the Mavericks will not be trying to win for the remainder of the season, Matthews is likely poised for a minutes dip and seems like an obvious buyout candidate. Matthews, who has a player option for next season, has averaged 12.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.2 steals this season across 34.1 minutes per game this season.
If Cuban is true to his word, both parties would be better served parting ways; the Mavericks can attempt to lose as many games as possible while Matthews can latch on to a team looking to win a title. It’s a win-win.
Isaiah Thomas, Los Angeles Lakers
Isaiah Thomas’ three-game stint with the Los Angeles Lakers before the All-Star break looked much like his short tenure with the Cleveland Cavaliers: up-and-down. Thomas shined in his Laker debut, putting up 25 points and six assists in just over 30 minutes.
He then followed that up with three points and two assists, and seven points along with five assists in his second and third games with the team, respectively.
Thomas needs time to get himself right before he can start playing his best basketball. Re-establishing his value is likely his top priority.
But will he be willing to come off the bench for a team that won’t be making the postseason?
With Lonzo Ball close to returning, Thomas will likely move to the Laker bench. Adamant in recent years that he is a starting guard in the NBA, Thomas may be more inclined to take on that role for a team poised to make a deep playoff run — there is no shortage of teams that would be willing to add Thomas’ potential scoring prowess while simultaneously setting himself up for a contract and, potentially, a starting role somewhere next season.
Other Names to Look Out For: Channing Frye, Shabazz Muhammed, Kosta Koufos
There are still plenty of players that can make an impact for playoff-bound teams should they reach a buyout with their current squads. And, as the Postseason Eligibility Waiver Deadline approaches, plenty of teams out of the running will move quickly in order to provide their guys an opportunity to find their way to a contender.