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.
NBA Daily: Tyus Jones Thriving in Bigger Role
Minnesota’s Tyus Jones speaks to David Yapkowitz about his growing role with the Wolves.
It was the last game of the 2016-17 NBA season. The Minnesota Timberwolves had been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention for quite some time. Their opponent that night, the Houston Rockets, had an impressive year and were on their way to the postseason.
Although the Wolves would go on to lose that game, 123-118, Tyus Jones came off the bench to have to his best game of the year. He would finish with 17 points on 66.7 percent shooting from the field, 75 percent from the three-point line, seven assists, four rebounds, two steals, and a blocked shot.
Jones had just finished up his second year in the NBA, which had gone a little bit just like his first; a few games played here and there followed by some DNP-CD’s. Rookie Kris Dunn was ahead of him on the depth chart at backup point guard for the majority of the year. That stat line he put up on the last night of the season, however, should have been a sign of things to come.
Now in his third year, and second playing under Tom Thibodeau, Jones has firmly seized the backup point guard spot. Thibodeau is notorious for playing short rotations, and along with Jamal Crawford and Gorgui Dieng, Jones has solidified himself as one of Minnesota’s most dependable reserves.
“It’s been good, I’m just trying to contribute to the team as much as possible,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “I want to do whatever I need to do to help this team win more games.”
The Timberwolves have done just that so far. They won 31 games all of last season. This year, they already have 16 wins. They didn’t break that mark last season until mid-January. Jones’ impact on the Wolves this year has been a big reason for that.
His stats may not jump off the page; he’s averaging 3.9 points per game on 42.5 percent shooting, and 2.8 assists in about 17 minutes of play. But he’s become a reliable floor leader who is able to anchor the Wolves second unit. He’s also one of their best floor spacers at 38.2 percent from the three-point line, and he’s an improved defensive player.
“For me, having a little bit bigger role this year, it’s what I wanted,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just trying to make the most of it and take advantage of it.”
Jones has definitely taken advantage of his new role. Starting point guard Jeff Teague missed four games last month due to a sore right Achilles tendon. Aaron Brooks started in place of Teague for the first game he missed, but Jones was the starter for the next three.
In his first ever career start on Nov. 26 in a win over the Phoenix Suns, Jones had nine points on 50 percent shooting, four rebounds, seven assists, seven steals, and two blocks. The following game, albeit in a loss to the Washington Wizards, he finished with 12 points, four rebounds, and seven assists. In his final start before Teague returned, a win over the New Orleans Pelicans, he had his best game of the season with 16 points on 66.7 percent shooting, four rebounds, six assists, and four steals.
“It was a dream, I’m just trying to make the most of it,” Jones told Basketball Insiders about being a starter. “Once again, take advantage of the opportunity and just do my role.”
Although Jones only spent one season playing college basketball before entering the NBA draft, it was the program he attended that’s allowed him to make a seamless transition. He played at Duke under Mike Krzyzewski during the 2014-15 season, winning a national championship alongside fellow NBA players Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, and Quinn Cook.
“It’s the best program in the country. Coach K is the best coach, arguably ever, to coach the game,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “There’s nothing comparable on the college level, playing at Duke. They’re the brightest lights, so that helps prepare you for the next level.”
The Wolves are a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in over a decade. It was the 2003-04 season, to be exact. This year, however, they are hoping to change that. They currently sit in fourth place in the Western Conference, fighting for the right to host a playoff series in the first round.
“We’re trying to make the playoffs, that’s our goal right now,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “Each year, we’re trying to get better. We’re still trying to take that next step. This organization hasn’t been to the playoffs in a number of years.”
With Jones playing a pivotal role, the Wolves’ playoff drought looks like it will be coming to an end very shortly.
NBA Most Valuable Player Watch — 12/12/17
Dennis Chambers updates the latest MVP watch rankings.
The NBA season is coming in hot on Christmas Day games, and before we know it the new year will arrive as well. As the second half of the season starts to come into sight, more stability among the league’s MVP candidates will prevail.
By now, most of the frontrunners for the award have staked their claim of consistent dominance over the last eight weeks of the NBA season.
For our list here at Basketball Insiders, the same names make up our ladder from the last MVP race installment. A slight juggling of the order is the only new wrinkle. Thus far, these individuals have put themselves ahead of the pack.
A full season in the NBA is a long race, but through the first few laps, these are the MVP leaders.
6. Steph Curry (Last Week: 3)
Coming in at No. 3 on the last list, Steph Curry sees a bit of a tumble in the standings. Unfortunately for Curry, he’s suffering from a sprained ankle that is going to cause him to miss some time. Fortunately for the Golden State Warriors, they’ve won three straight games without their star point guard.
This doesn’t discredit the type of season Curry is having, or his brilliance on the court when he’s healthy, but the fact that the Warriors have enough firepower to sustain his absence damages his claim to the most “valuable” player throne.
Nevertheless, for the Warriors to truly fulfill their championship potential, Curry needs to be healthy and playing. Otherwise, the Warriors aren’t as lethal as they could be.
Barring a complete meltdown from his ball club, Curry’s spot will likely continue to drop slightly as he sits on the bench watching his team win games without him.
Almost the exact opposite of Curry, the Philadelphia 76ers don’t seem to have a prayer at winning basketball games that Joel Embiid sits out of. Luckily for the city of Philadelphia, though, that hasn’t been nearly frequent of an occurrence as past seasons.
The on/off numbers for Embiid are staggering. On both ends of the court, no less. Without their big man, the Sixers’ offensive rating drops off by more than five points and their defensive rating sees a 10-point spike in favor of their opponents.
In short, it’s worse for the Sixers when Embiid is tweeting rather than playing.
After missing back-to-back games over the weekend, Embiid’s value became more apparent to the Sixers. Among a myriad of injuries, Embiid’s was felt the heaviest as his team posted a defensive rating of 111.6 to the Cleveland Cavaliers and then a 130.2 the next night to the New Orleans Pelicans.
Both figures are a far cry from the 102.9 rating the team records with Embiid on the floor.
Much like Curry, the Sixers will need Embiid on the court moving forward to live their best life. So long as he is resting on back-to-backs, or sitting with back soreness, the Sixers won’t be as fortunate as the Warriors to pull out wins.
Masked Kyrie joined Untucked Kyrie this season as another alter ego capable of taking the NBA and Twitter by storm on a nightly basis.
Irving, despite suffering an injury to his face that forced him to wear a protective mask a la Rip Hamilton, still has the Boston Celtics atop the league standings with his MVP campaign so far this season. Over Irving’s last 10 games, he’s averaging 25.8 points on 53 percent shooting from the field and 44 percent from beyond the arc. Over the course of that same span, the Celtics are 7-3.
Just to strengthen his already solid MVP claim, the Celtics went into Chicago Monday night to play the Bulls without Irving, as he sat out of the game with a quad contusion. All the league’s best team preceded to do was lose 108-85 to the league’s worst team.
At this point in the season, MVP candidates have their statistics in place. As viewers and fans, we really get to see the difference they make on their teams during the games that they aren’t playing, and Monday night for the Celtics was a microcosm of Irving’s season-long importance to the success of their team.
The Greek Freak is still putting up absurd numbers, keeping him right in the conversation for Most Valuable Player. On top of his gaudy production, the Milwaukee Bucks are starting to pile up some wins as well.
Winning six of their last seven games — the only loss coming to the Celtics where Antetokounmpo put up 40 points, nine rebounds, and four assists — the Bucks currently hold a 15-10 record and the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.
It’s been well-documented up to this point how effective Antetokounmpo is for Milwaukee from a numbers standpoint. If he can really start translating those performances into wins over good teams, the narrative of him winning the award may begin to revert back the dominance it held over the first few weeks of the season.
As it currently stands, though, Antetokounmpo is ahead of the rest of the pack before a pretty sizeable gap at the two spots above him.
After having his Cavaliers’ 13-game win streak snapped by an unconscious Victor Oladipo, LeBron James returned to business as usual by defeating the shorthanded Sixers without Kevin Love by his side. He did so in typical Year 15 fashion, posting 30 points, 13 rebounds, 13 assists, and three steals.
No big deal.
That’s the mantra for James’ 15th year in the NBA: Do it all, and do it well. He doesn’t have the supporting cast that many projected coming into this season, and Irving is out doing his thing in Boston. But for the King of the NBA, after a month of rough basketball, he seems to be figuring it all out for his club and putting them in the positions they need to be in to be successful.
Since the start of Cleveland’s winning streak up until the game against Philadelphia, James is averaging 27.5 points, 9.3 rebounds, 8.5 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.1 blocks, 55 percent shooting from the field and 44 percent shooting from beyond the arc.
His team is 14-1, Irving is in Boston, and Isaiah Thomas is on the bench.
Year 15 may very well end with James getting MVP number five.
The only man standing between James and his fifth MVP is the man who’s setting the league on fire trying to get his first.
James Harden is recreating his stellar season from a year ag but improving it, somehow. Harden’s averages are incredible: 32 points, 9.5 assists, 5.1 rebounds, 40 percent from downtown, and a 31.6 player efficiency rating.
Not to mention he’s led the Houston Rockets to a 21-4 record, and looks to be a real threat at knocking off the Golden State Warriors.
What Harden is doing on the defensive end is what is brining his game, and his MVP case, to the next level. Harden is posting his lowest defensive rating is four years and coming up big on D in crunch time situations.
On Monday night against the Pelicans, Harden came up with a clutch steal with under a minute to go (his sixth of the night) to extinguish a New Orleans rally and put the icing on his 26-point, 17-assist performance.
LeBron may be having an MVP season, even by his standards, but Harden’s performance this year thus far is keeping the King at arms length of the MVP crown.
NBA DAILY: What Is Really Wrong With The Thunder?
The Thunder continue to struggle to string together wins. What’s the problem in OKC?
At Some Point It Just Doesn’t Work
The Oklahoma City Thunder continue to be middling, despite having the star level talent it takes in the NBA to be exceptional. With the clock ticking in the wrong direction, is it more likely that this combination of players won’t work, or is there something bigger at play worth considering?
Before we dive too far into this, keep in mind the Thunder have played their 26th game, and are just a half a game out of the eighth spot in the West. Equally, they are also three and a half games behind the fourth-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves, so the sky is far from falling. In fact, they have won four of their last six games, including wins over the Spurs and Timberwolves, which only makes the Jekyll and Hyde of all of this even more frustrating.
All of that said, what’s really wrong with the Thunder? Here are some thoughts:
Not Enough Touches
The Oklahoma City Thunder are dead last in the NBA in touches per game as a team at 384. To contrast that number, the Philadelphia 76ers lead the league in touches at 480.9 touches per game.
Thunder guard Russell Westbrook accounts for 94.4 touches per game, while forward Carmelo Anthony accounts for 61.3 touches with swingman Paul George bringing in 56.0 touched per game. Those three players account for 211.7 of the Thunders 384 touches per game.
That’s not as bad as you would think watching the Thunder play, but what it does illustrate is that neither Anthony or Paul are getting the volume of touches both are used to getting before joining the Thunder. It’s also why neither seems to be able to get into a rhythm on a game to game bases. They have had their moments individually, but it been far from consistent.
It’s more than fair to say that the Thunder offense isn’t generating enough touches to maximize what George and Anthony bring to the table. When the Miami HEAT brought their “Big Three” together, one of the biggest challenges they faced was how to generate the touches to get all their guys in a rhythm and rolling.
That seems to be the biggest part of the problem with the Thunder.
Russ Has To Be Russ
When you look at the Thunder’s “convincing wins” those wins in which they look like an elite team in the NBA, Russell Westbrook plays like last year’s MVP.
The problem for the Thunder is it seems Russell is trying to get other players, specifically Anthony, often to the detriment of his team and his own game. When Westbrook puts his head down and plays his game, the Thunder tend to come out on top.
Westbrook never seemed to have this problem playing with Kevin Durant, and maybe that’s why Durant opted to leave, but Westbrook seems to be trying too hard to get others going.
Where’d Offense Go?
The Thunder continue to talk about how good they are defensively, and that’s a real thing. They are currently the ranked second in the NBA’s defensive rating category. They rank second in point allowed per 100 possessions at 103, just behind league leader Boston at 101.6 points per 100 possessions.
There is no doubt their defense is keeping them in games, but what’s killing them is the long stretches of sub-par offense, many times in the fourth quarter where their offense comes to a grinding halt.
Some have suggested that head coach Billy Donovan simply isn’t creative enough for the construct of this roster. Looking at the stats this far into the season, there may be something to the idea that the Thunder, offensively, just are not creative enough to maximize the potential of their star players.
It’s Not A Selfish Problem
The easy answer on the Thunder is to say they are simply selfish players. There is enough historical evidence on Anthony and Westbrook to support the idea, however, if you really look at the Thunders’ games, it’s actually the opposite. Westbrook likely isn’t selfish enough; it’s likely why he’s struggling from the field on the season.
Part of the offensive problem may be Westbrook’s shooting. His averages this season is markedly down from a year ago—39.6 percent this season from the field versus 42.5 percent last season. Westbrook is also 31.1 percent from three this year versus 34.3 percent from three last season.
But Westbrook is not alone, George is tying his second worst season from the field at 41.8 percent shooting. Anthony is having his worst year as a pro from the field at 40.4 percent.
All three are producing some of their lowest efficiency ratings of their careers, so it’s not just one guy doing so much more than the other. None of them are playing particularly well together.
It’s easy to look at the Thunder and label them one thing or the other; there are enough polarizing personalities on the roster to draw the labels. The truth of the matter is the Thunder just are not very good or efficient offensively, and until they find a way to make that part work, they will likely continue to be middling.
That’s going to make things fairly tough on the Thunder front office, because come the February 9th NBA Trade Deadline, the Thunder may have to cut bait on some players before they potentially lose them in free agency for nothing. The trade deadline is only about 60 days away, believe it or not.
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