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NBA PM: Los Angeles Lakers’ Progress Report

Jabari Davis examines why progress is more important than their overall record as he looks at the Los Angeles Lakers through the first third of their season.

Jabari Davis

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We continue our early season progress reports with today’s look at the Los Angeles Lakers. If you haven’t already, check out Tommy Beer’s breakdown of the New York Knicks from last week.

When attempting to grade the progress of this young and developing team, it is important to remember the whole isn’t greater than the sum of its parts just yet. The Lakers may have lost their last eight games, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t already shown a great deal of progress from last season.

It’s also just as paramount to maintain perspective about their ultimate progress being the most significant factor in a season like this, whether you are in the midst of some unexpected, early season success or the predictable difficulties that every team endures over the course of an 82-game season. Especially when it comes to a team with so much youth at its core, don’t get too high on the highs nor low on the inevitable low points that are bound to come as the NBA’s pendulum of organizational growth swings back and forth.

The Lakers have done a good job of finally matching the right type of talent with the appropriate coach and at the proper time, but need to also maintain the patience they’ve exhibited to this point as things continue to come to fruition with this group. After finally hitting their proverbial and quite literal “rock bottom” as a franchise at the conclusion of 2015-16, the Los Angeles Lakers appear to have actually sprung back towards the surface a lot faster than some may have anticipated. That doesn’t, however, mean they don’t still have a ton of work to do moving forward.

Here is a look at the 2016-17 Lakers through just about one-third of the season (all stats as of 12/14/16):

Starting Lineup:

Timofey Mozgov: C

All of these ratings will factor in what our expectations might have been for a player, what the perception about a player has been and what the actual reality has been for this player thus far through nearly 35 percent of the season. All of that is to say that while much was made of the timing of Mozgov’s deal and the amount of money he received (a reported four years, $64 million), the reality is he’s actually been an improvement over the level of play they’ve recently received from that position and has been a positive fit with the group. Coincidentally, for the “Mozgov’s making how much?!?” crowd from over the summer, his per-36-minute numbers are pretty much in line with that of an average center in today’s NBA, much like the terms of his deal.

Although the actual productivity (8.3 points, 4.7 rebounds in 21.1 minutes per contest) isn’t “bad” for the amount of time he’s playing, you would like to see a bit more of a defensive impact when he’s actually on the floor. The Lakers completely lack a defensive identity at this point, and while no single player can be faulted for the myriad issues on that end they’ve displayed at times, they’ll need to individually embrace the idea of also being a part of the change for the better on the less glamorous side of the court. The Lakers still seem to get bullied in the paint with a frequency this coaching staff cannot possibly be comfortable with, and Mozgov has to share in the responsibility for that as well. Opposing players shoot 49.3 percent when directly against Mozgov, and the 30-year-old center ranks behind the likes of Jahlil Okafor (43 percent), Charlotte’s Frank Kaminsky (44.7 percent) and Hassan Whiteside (45.7 percent) in the category.

As a veteran player, Mozgov needs to do his part in shoring up a defense that is currently surrendering 111 points per game and a league-worst 54.2 percent on two-point shots.

Luol Deng: C-

If Deng, himself, were to grade the first few weeks of the season, he probably would not have been very satisfied with the results. Fans and the organization alike would likely be in agreement if all were being honest and forthright. Whether a result of being slowed by nagging leg or lower extremity issues from the preseason, as has been speculated, or simply adjusting to life in a new city, organization and system, there were times (prior to his last stretch of games) where the question wasn’t, “How much more will he have in the tank by the time he’s 34 or 35?” Rather, it was already looking like, “What does he actually have left in the tank right now?”

He’s shown some life over the last seven games, scoring 16 or more points in three of them and shooting 40.9 percent from deep (9-22) over that stretch. It will be interesting to see whether the coaching staff elects to continue starting Deng (the lone player to start every game so far) now that players have returned to the rotation. The more comfortable rookie Brandon Ingram looks at this level, you’d think the more likely it would be for the coaching staff to at least consider moving Deng into even more of a support role. Regardless of where he plays in the lineup, they’ll need Deng to continue producing on both sides of the ball as he has of late.

Julius Randle: B-

Beyond showing noticeable improvement both as a finisher around the basket, Randle has continued providing the energy and effort that led to 39 double-doubles in his first 100 games in the NBA. Per NBA.com, that feat ranks him 26th among players since the 1982-83 season. His two-point percentage is at a career-high 51.8 percent (43.6 last year) and even though he’s only shooting 17.6 percent from beyond the arc, he’s at least attempting to settle into open looks here and there. He looks more comfortable facing the basket in general and has made better decisions when playmaking at times (his 3.3 APG are nearly double that of last season), but does still turn the ball over (2.8 TPG) a bit more than you’d like.

The Good:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D048sXB2Pcc

Randle is patient while sizing up and attacking a bigger man, absorbs the contact and knocks it down at the buzzer.

Randle plays really solid defense on Anthony in a late-clock situation and not only forces the pass, but puts a body on Joakim Noah to secure a rebound before taking it up court to start the break. That’s the versatility the Lakers are absolutely looking for from their 22-year-old power forward. (Footage via https://3ball.io/)

The Bad:

While under far more control than before, there are still times where Randle can get ahead of himself while in a playmaking situation. He’s trying to make the right play by getting it ahead to a fellow big man in Mozgov, but doesn’t execute the pass.

You absolutely take the bad with the good when it comes to Randle because more often than not, his positive contributions outweigh any errors he makes along the way. That said, you do still have to hope he continues developing as a defensive player along with adding to his offensive repertoire over the next few years. Even though the coaching staff has made playing defense without fouling a priority in terms of focus, the Lakers still find themselves ranked just 21st in the league here (20.9 team personal fouls per game) and are trending the wrong way during this losing streak.

This could sound like a repetitive theme by the end of these assessments, but Randle’s defensive impact remains a work in progress in his second year of full-time action. Randle called the team’s defensive efforts “embarrassing” following a recent loss to the New York Knicks, and the 22-year-old power forward has definitely emerged as a voice in the locker room that is willing to shoulder responsibility for some of the ongoing issues. The effort seems to be there on most nights, but a lack of focus and attention to detail applies to the entire roster.

Nick Young: B

In perhaps one of the bigger surprises in recent years when it comes to this team, Nick Young was able to completely reverse momentum and a pretty damning narrative when it came to his future certainly beyond the terms of a contract that ends following 2017-18. This is in part because of a total team buy-in to Coach Walton’s far more favorable offensive tempo and freedom, but mainly because Young was able to reverse what was an alarming trend of declining productivity and efficiency coinciding with off-court distractions – not the combination of attributes you want to be associated with when you are in year ten and heading into what could be the most lucrative period in the NBA’s history over the next decade.

Beyond the finances of it, Young has been able to mend all necessary fences and, most importantly, he’s been able to return to the form that caused this front office to sign him to the four-year deal back in 2014. Averaging 13.4 PPG, Young is actually on pace to shoot a career-high 45.3 and 91.9 percent from the floor and free throw line, respectively. He’s also knocking down his highest percentage from deep (39.5 percent on a career-high 6.2 attempts per contest) since the ‘09-10 season.

D’Angelo Russell: B-

When healthy, Russell has also been a player that has shown definite signs of improvement for the Lakers. The Lakers have to hope he can remain in the lineup moving forward, not only because they went 3-9 during the time he missed following a PRP treatment a few weeks back, but also because we’d all like to see what his continued progression might look like throughout his early career. Like most young players, and potentially more importantly than with any other player, Russell could be exponentially more effective and impactful if he took as much pride in becoming a better defender as he did in knocking down big shots and reminding us about how frosty his capillaries happen to be.

That might seem like a shot, but it is actually said with true respect to how special of a player he truly can be. At 15.3 points, 4.8 assists, 3.1 rebounds (up to 38.7 percent from beyond the arc, 77.5 percent from the charity stripe), Russell has shown an ability to truly elevate his game on certain nights to the point where you can really start to believe the hype.

The key for Russell will be in finding a way to bring a consistent effort in all aspects of the game, whether he knocks down his first couple shots or is asked to impact the game in other ways. Although not the type of freakish athlete that imposes his will on the game like a Russell Westbrook, at 6-foot-5 Russell should be able to utilize his size and stature in certain matchups beyond just the occasional post-up or two.

Again, this is all viewed through the lens of Russell’s potential to continue to develop into a special player in this league. When he takes care of the ball and utilizes sound defensive principles, Russell possesses enough intangibles to impact the game in a plethora of positive ways regardless of how he’s shooting. When he’s hot from the floor and also looking to create for others while focusing in on the defensive end as well as he has on occasion thus far, Russell has given reason to disregard all outside noise and revisionist history about whether he should or should not have been the player the organization selected in the 2015 NBA Draft. Thing is, it’s up to Russell to continue proving why they made the right decision, and he certainly seems up to the challenge of at least attempting to do just that.

Reserves:

Larry Nance Jr: B

Nance Jr. has been a really nice rotation player for these Lakers (19th power forward league-wide in Real Plus-Minus), and part of why they’ve been one of the best bench units in the league all season. He’s a “hustle guy” who also has skills around the rim and with the ball in his hands. He plays the passing lanes, provides support as a weak side defender and is a willing and capable passer on the offensive end. Every team needs a team oriented, jack-of-all-trades guy willing to do the dirty and less heralded work that doesn’t always show up in the box score or on the highlight package.

https://vine.co/v/5QjBj9q6D7w

Oh yeah, he’ll also do that to you, too.

Although, the subsequent apology may or may not be something to expect.

Tarik Black: B

Every team needs a player willing to stick his nose into the action on defense and be happy to simply play clean-up duty on the offensive end, and Black is one of several guys the Lakers have to execute such a role.

He’s missed the last five games due to an ankle sprain, but Black’s relentless pace and effort had been a big part of what was working for this group to start the year. Black (32nd among centers in RPM) may only average 15.4 minutes per contest when available, but he tends to get his money’s worth in terms of action and production when on the court. In fact, along with impressive per-36 numbers (13.7 PPG, 12.2 RPG, 1.4 RPG), his per-100-possessions numbers are more impressive than some guys starting at the position around the league.

Brandon Ingram: C+

Ingram is a guy that came in being sold as a player with the potential to be an offensive weapon, but so far this coaching staff has actually been able to capitalize on the one-year Duke product’s well-rounded skill set. 

Ingram closes out well and avoids the foul, then grabs the rebound and pushes the ball up the length of the court in four dribbles.

The conclusion of the previous play, and although Ingram doesn’t convert the finger roll, he applies the pressure that has defenders on their heels. Then he fights for the rebound and resets another possession for the Lakers.

Ingram doesn’t knock the shot down, but probably gets a bit of contact (sorry, rookie). The key to the play is the amount of separation he’s initially able to get and how comfortable he looks settling into those shots.

Even though Carmelo Anthony is 6-foot-8 and right there in front of Ingram to contest, he smoothly rises above and knocks down the deep ball.

Even though he ultimately gets called for the foul, it’s mainly because he still isn’t quite strong enough to avoid being shed by the offensive player. Even though the offensive player is the very talented and very tall Kristaps Porzingis, Ingram appears to have the length to stay right there with him once he adds some core strength.

Again, even though his floating baseline jumper doesn’t fall, Ingram’s decisive move at such a key moment of the game wound up drawing the double-team from Porzingis and permitting Clarkson to sneak in for the put-back.

He has been able to score in double figures in eight games and has shown evidence of eventually becoming more of a scorer at this level, but the 19-year-old was asked to be a jack-of-all-trades of sorts when the team lost the starting backcourt and reserve guard Jose Calderon (all within a game or two) for an extended stretch a few weeks back.

It should also be noted that his overall grade may seem to indicate less of a true appreciation for all that has been asked of a rookie swingman, but in actuality it is because you get the feeling that so much more could and likely will be there on the horizon for a young man that will be adjusting to the physical side of the NBA for the next couple seasons.

Although some may worry that his laid back vibe may bleed over into his actual approach, it is probably what led to him being able to handle being affixed with so many responsibilities while simply trying to adjust to life at this level. The young man just turned 19 in September and was worrying about things like Senior Prom just about 16 months ago. Let’s pump the brakes when it comes to questioning whether he’ll already be a bust (as some have), simply because he didn’t hit the ground at a full sprint.

We should also be reminded that simply because someone isn’t the most outwardly expressive, that doesn’t mean they aren’t meeting the moment in terms of intensity from an internal perspective. Also, simply looking at his box score won’t always paint an accurate portrait when judging his overall impact on the court. The more you watch for his individual impact and actual movements on the court, the more you realize that he is generally either in the right position or trying to do the right things on both sides of the ball whether or not the effort is successful.

Jordan Clarkson: C+

Clarkson’s scoring off the bench alongside Lou Williams was also a key part of the early success, but his numbers and overall efficiency seemed to dip when the Lakers endured those injuries. Keep in mind Clarkson is actually a year ahead of Russell, Randle and Nance Jr. in terms of on-court experience, so the expectations for his learning curve are naturally a bit higher. He’s obviously comfortable in a scoring role (14.6 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 2.3 APG), but this team could also use a bit more of a focus on being a well-rounded contributor at times. He isn’t asked to do all that much playmaking when everyone is healthy, but when he does, they need him to make better decisions (2.0 turnovers per game) and avoid being guilty of tunnel-vision when attacking off the dribble.

Like others, Clarkson came into the season saying all the right things about being more of an impact player on the defensive end and embracing the idea of being a difference-maker on that side of the court. Unfortunately, his defensive rating (113) is actually worse than last season, and the trouble for the Lakers is that it falls in line with several of his teammates: Mozgov (115), Russell (112), Williams (112), Deng (111), Randle (110). For those unsure of what that rating means, it is the number of points per 100 possessions the opponents score when each player is on the floor. To quote the great 20th-century fictional character philosopher Pete Campbell (‘Mad Men’ fans, eat your hearts out) that’s not great, Bob. But at the same time, it’s not something to necessarily throw the baby Lakers out with the bathwater over. It will continue to be a work in progress for each player, for this team as a whole and for this staff.

There’s no doubt Clarkson has proven he can play the game and even score at a relatively high level in this league, but if the former 46th overall pick wants to take yet another step as a player, it will have to come in the form of providing a more well-rounded and consistent product when on the court.

Lou Williams: A-

Williams is legitimately in the midst of his best season in the league, and it couldn’t have come at a better time for these Lakers. He’s averaging his highest number of points (19.3) off the bench for this group while shooting at career high levels pretty much across the board (45.4 percent from the floor, 40 percent from deep, 49.1 two-point percentage). The 30-year-old veteran, already in his 12th year in the league, is also up to 26th among point guards in Real Plus/Minus while boasting an 116 offensive rating per 100 possessions.

All of those are reasons why, even though he’s been a fantastic scoring influence on these guys, it wouldn’t be shocking to see opposing teams begin to really inquire about his services over the next couple months. The Lakers may not ultimately be in a position to fully capitalize on a scoring machine like Williams during a playoff run, but there are plenty of other teams that will be on the market for his services. Although they are certainly in no rush to get rid of a guy that has easily been one of their best players this season, it will be interesting to see if an opposing GM finds a way to present this front office with an offer they simply cannot refuse.

Jose Calderon: C

Calderon played sparingly until the injury bug hit this rotation, but prior to his own right hamstring strain that has sidelined him for the past five games, the 35-year-old point guard was able to put in some productive and efficient minutes for the Lakers. The initial estimates for a return ranged anywhere from early next week to as far off as toward the end of the year, and we have received no concrete update about his condition. No matter how much it actually was, the Lakers have seemingly missed what Calderon was providing in his absence. Perhaps their roster balance (when at full strength) truly was the strength behind their 10-10 start to the year.

Marcelo Huertas: C

Huertas continues to be a solid third point guard who generally tends to see playing time when others are missing extended stretches. His overall limitations and defensive deficiencies, in particular, would seem to be a factor in why he didn’t make his debut in the league until after the age of 30, but Huertas does continue to bring a professional attitude and approach to that locker room and practice and seems to be very well received by his teammates.

Thomas Robinson: B+

When news of Robinson’s one-year deal with the Lakers came in late-September, it was met with a raised eyebrows. This is now the sixth NBA jersey the former No. 5-overall pick has worn in just his fifth season in the league. Any doubt whether he truly wanted to make it at this level was cast aside when he outworked other, younger prospects to earn a roster spot. The biggest testament to his professionalism is how he stepped right in for Tarik Black, providing quality minutes as a reserve for both post positions (including his most recent four-point, six rebound, three-steal and two-block performance in 19 minutes against the Kings) after playing a grand total of 21 minutes over the team’s first 15 games of the season.

Metta World Peace: Incomplete

Outside of a few minutes to simply change the pace or an attempt to influence the defensive intensity, World Peace has mainly served in a mentorship role for these young Lakers. Whether you agreed with the team’s decision to occupy one of the final roster spots with the 37-year-old forward now in his 17th NBA season, by all accounts World Peace is providing the type of support, insight and practice/work ethic examples you want for a young roster.

Ivica Zubac: Incomplete

Zubac has only seen action in five games for a grand total of 35 minutes, so attempting to assess his performance wouldn’t be realistic. He’s played well during his time with the Los Angeles Defenders (Lakers’ D-League affiliate), showing a wide array of skills on the offensive side plus promise and a willingness to compete on the defensive end.

The Lakers have wisely utilized the ability to send players with under three years of experience to their affiliate an unlimited amount with Zubac. The mix of practice and in-game knowledge with the Lakers with the on-court experience he’s getting with the Defenders (16.8 points, 9.4 rebounds in 29 minutes per contest through eight games) should continue to expedite his learning process.

They are no longer playing an antiquated brand of basketball, and most importantly seem to no longer embrace an outdated philosophy when it comes to the on-court and front office decision-making that has plagued them in recent years.

At the very least, they’ve put themselves into a position as an organization to have choices moving forward. Whether they keep the current rotation intact or even ultimately elect to shake things up with the roster before the deadline, the Lakers have quickly gone from a team that looked dead in the water to one that shows some serious promise. You just hope that all parties involved will maintain the patience it takes to not only develop as individual players, but to also allow for the growing pains that will come when cultivating the type of chemistry it takes to win as a unit at a high level.

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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NBA Daily: Trail Blazers Come Up Short and Now Search For Answers

The Portland Trail Blazers were swept in the first round of the Playoffs and now face tough questions, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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The playoffs have been a wild ride so far. On Sunday, all three Eastern Conference playoff games were exciting matches that featured star players stepping up in the clutch. As a result, each series is tied up, two games each. The other game of the day featured the San Antonio Spurs, who stayed in control and never once allowed the Golden State Warriors to take the lead. The Spurs managed to get a win against the defending champs despite missing their best player and now their head coach indefinitely.

For the Portland Trail Blazers, there was no such Game 4 turnaround. In fact, with the Spurs win, the Trail Blazers have the lamentable distinction of being the only team to be swept in the first round of the playoffs. This is just one way to describe how disappointing and surprising this playoff series loss to the New Orleans Pelicans was for Portland. Many NBA observers and Pelicans fans were quick to point out that every ESPN NBA personality chose the Trail Blazers to win the series, as did select writers of the Basketball Insiders team.

The Trail Blazers’ players and front office also made it clear how surprised they were at the result. Forward Evan Turner shared his surprise.

“Obviously finishing so quickly wasn’t definitely the plan and to a certain extent it was shocking,” Turner said.

General Manager Neil Olshey chimed in as well.

“Nobody expected [the playoff sweep] to happen. It did. We had our chances in Game 1, we had our chances in Game 2. Clearly Game 3 was a setback,” Olshey stated when describing his surprise at how the series ended. “Stunned, I think disappointed.”

Credit should be given to the Pelicans and their ability to fully harness their talent and impose their will in the series. Turner was effusive in praising the talent and ability of the Pelicans.

“Unlocked Jrue is pretty dangerous and we all see how Rondo plays. He’s a homerun hitter but he is always solid. He can mess around. He’ll get two or three triple doubles. Anthony Davis is a problem,” Turner said.

When asked how he felt about the playoff exit, starting center Jusuf Nurkic stated that he is beyond disappointed.

“I mean, the way I finish the season, I feel shame. The way we have a season, like a team and group, and being in position to be third in the West, and finish like this, is not good,” Nurkic stated. “It’s not something you should be proud of, because all you do through the year, fight for playoff and to be in position to have a good postseason.”

Despite the early exit, many within the organization were quick to highlight that they continue to see the regular season in a positive light, including Head Coach Terry Stotts.

“I thought we had a very good regular season, I thought we had a very disappointing end of the season,” Stotts stated.

Damian Lillard shared a similar sentiment when reflecting on the season as a whole.

“I think I’ll always remember the way [the season] ended. But I won’t forget the kind of season we had. You can’t ignore the fact we won a division title in a division where there was some great teams,” Lillard stated. “We came out on top.”

Still, the success of the regular season makes the playoff result that much harder to grasp and deal with for some. Nurkic again didn’t hold back when comparing the success of the regular season with the team’s playoff failure.

“Very surprised,” Nurkic stated. “You definitely didn’t see the team who we are in the playoffs.”

Explaining why the Trail Blazers came up short against the Pelicans is no easy task. Clearly Portland’s attempt to feature its two premiere guards failed as the Pelicans were able to clamp down on Lillard and McCollum effectively in each game. Complicating matters further was the inability of the Trail Blazers to effectively utilize Nurkic on both ends of the court. However, there was at least some praise to be heaped on the backup bigs, Zach Collins and Ed Davis.

“I think Zach played really well for us,” Olshey stated. “He had an impact defensively.”

Also, Al-Farouq Aminu was able to do his part as an acceptable defensive option against Davis while spreading the floor with his outside shooting

Regardless, Turner shared his assessment that the team failed to have an adequate game plan for a scenario where their two best players are neutralized.

“One thing that may help, it’s no jabs or anything, but building the identity outside of our two strong scorers,” Turned stated. “[W]e sometimes go downhill when a team fully focuses on a lot of attention on our stars […] But I think we might need certain plays, certain structures that kind of prepare just in case that occurs.”

With their postseason concluded, the Trail Blazers are suddenly left trying to answer questions with no easy answers. Who, if anyone, is to blame for what happened? So far, many head coaches have been let go and unsurprisingly some speculation has turned toward Coach Stotts. Stotts, when asked, focused on the team and deflected any analysis of his performance.

“I’m not going to evaluate the job I did,” Stotts said.

Lillard, on the other hand, was effusive in his praise of his coach.

“Coach Stotts has done a great job from day one. We’ve been in the playoffs five years straight,” Lillard said.

For now, there does not appear to be strong rumblings about Stotts. With the offseason just beginning for the team there is still time to reflect and assess what went wrong. Additionally, the team has to resolve what to do regarding its own free agents. No name looms larger than Nurkic, who despite his poor showing, represents one of the team’s top talents and expressed his guarded optimism regarding a return.

“I want to be here, it’s no secret,” Nurkic stated when asked if he wants an extension in Portland. “Yes, definitely.”

Nurkic ended the thought by stating, a bit ominously, that he did his part and a deal may or may not get worked out.

“My agent and people here are going to figure out the rest, or not,” Nurkic said.

Complicating the desire to retain Nurkic is the team’s financial situation as the team is currently over the cap and under obligation to center Meyers Leonard, who has struggled to stay in the rotation and is earning roughly $21.8 million over the next two years.

“It’s our job to be measured and not to overreact. [Because] when you overreact is when you make mistakes,” Olshey stated.

Lillard was quick to emphatically shut down the notion of splitting up him and McCollum when asked if that would be a good idea.

“I mean, I don’t agree with it. I think it’s that simple,” Lillard declared.

When asked what the team plans to do going forward, Olshey expressed optimism but tried again to pay credit to the season’s effort overall.

“We’re going to do everything we can to upgrade the roster as we always do but we also aren’t going to lose sight of the success throughout the course of the season,” Olshey said.

“I don’t have all the answers for you today,” Olshey surmised. “A lot of times you don’t know where your help is coming from.”

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The Problem With ‘Championship Or Bust’

Should an NBA Title be the only measuring stick when we’re talking about a team’s success?

Spencer Davies

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In this day and age, there’s a constant need for instant gratification. It goes for everything, really, but especially for sports.

Before the 2017-18 NBA season kicked off, the general outlook on the league was that the regular season would be a waste of time. People dubbed the Golden State Warriors as clear-cut repeat champions. Other then that franchise, there were maybe one or two others that could put up a fight with such a juggernaut.

While that story has yet to play out, others are developing quickly.

The all-of-a-sudden dangerous New Orleans Pelicans are the only ball club to have advanced to the second round of the playoffs as the sixth seed in the Western Conference. LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are deadlocked in a tied series with an Indiana Pacers team that everybody seemed to believe was lottery-bound before the year began.

After falling nine games under .500 in late January, the Utah Jazz have caught fire and are up two games to one against the league’s reigning league MVP and a re-constructed Oklahoma City Thunder roster. We’d be remiss to leave out the sensational play of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid as the Philadelphia 76ers continue to show how dominant they’ve been in a hard-hitting affair with a gritty Miami Heat bunch.

The start to this postseason trumps last season’s already. There is a competitive fire within the majority of these encounters. It’s all on the line to prove who will be the best of the best.

And having said that, there can only be one that takes home the Larry O’Brien trophy.

One. That’s it. In the last 18 years, there have been a total of eight different organizations that have earned the right to call themselves champions. All things considered, it’s not that many.

But there’s a giant misconception about parity in the NBA that needs to be thwarted.

This league is filled with talent, top to bottom. Just like in any sport, you have the basement dwellers still trying to right the ship. Whether it be coaching, injuries, or inexperience—they’re attempting to find their way. That’s why those players are sitting at home in late April.

Then there are those who are not merely spectators, but are involved in the remaining field of 15 teams (sorry, Portland Trail Blazers). Of course, in their minds, there is a common goal of winning a title, as it should be.

However, is it fair to quantify the success of every one of these franchises simply based on whether they accomplish that goal or not? Heck no.

Are we supposed to just forget about the progress made from end-to-end? What if — hear this out — both teams have talent and one just beat the other?

Building championship basketball takes patience. There has to be some semblance of playoff experience involved. Continuity is a must have. You might not want to hear it, but the postseason is where the seeds are planted, where the understanding of the stage really starts.

There can be a collection of young players who have been teammates for years, but have never taken part in the playoffs before. Sometimes there can be a team that’s full of veterans that have been there, but they may not have played together as a collective unit. Each one of them has a different background in a different setting.

It’s a whole different beast at this point. Some are so naive to see how elevated and intense the environment really is, so they assume a team that loses a few games isn’t championship material. Newsflash: Not one team in the history of the NBA has gone 16-0 in the playoffs.

And then, the ones who fall—whether it be in The Finals, conference finals, or in first two rounds—those organizations didn’t accomplish anything. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

So in this basketball world we live in where everything has to be a 20-point victory with zero losses and it’s “championship or bust” as the measuring stick, take a step back and appreciate the work it took to even get to the postseason.

Win or lose, many of these teams are building towards bigger things in the future. These experiences will make that clear in the years to come.

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NBA DAILY: Who’s the Next Donovan Mitchell?

Donovan Mitchell provided elite value at the back end of the lottery. Who might that player be this summer?

Joel Brigham

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The entire reason that so many non-playoff teams worked so diligently to blow their seasons was to get the best odds possible for the first overall selection in the 2018 NBA Draft. Watching LeBron James (a former first overall draft pick) do what he’s done to the league for the last 15 years, the desire to land a top pick is understandable. Ben Simmons, the heir apparent and likely Rookie of the Year, also was a first overall draft pick a couple of seasons ago.

In fact, of the 38 former first overall picks dating back to 1980, 28 of them would evolve into All-Stars, and it seems like only a matter of time before Simmons is added to that list, too. A higher percentage of top picks have been named All-Stars than any other slot in the draft. Numbers don’t lie. There is no pick more valuable than the very first one.

But…

Donovan Mitchell is good, too. Like, really good. He’s so good that there’s just as strong an argument for him as this season’s Rookie of the Year as there is for Simmons. Mitchell, though, was not a first overall pick. He was picked 13th, at the back end of the lottery.

He isn’t alone in landing elite value for teams picking outside of the lottery’s top half. Devin Booker was picked 13th in 2015. Giannis Antetokounmpo was the 15th selection in 2013. In 2011, Klay Thompson was picked 11th, while Kawhi Leonard was chosen with the 15th pick that same year. Paul George went 10th overall in 2010.

In other words, there are plenty of really good prospects every summer to give late-lottery teams hope. They might not generate the same hype as the guys vying for that top overall selection, but they’re also clearly a lot better than the tiers of players that start coming off the board in the 20s and 30s. All-Stars lurk in the 10-to-15 range of the draft, especially in a loaded class like the one we’re looking at this summer.

That begs the question: who is this year’s Donovan Mitchell?

Here are three possibilities:

Collin Sexton

Back in November, a series of unfortunate circumstances in a game against Minnesota led to a mass ejection of Alabama players that resulted in just three players being allowed to play the final ten minutes. Sexton was one of those three players and led a Crimson Tide rally despite the lopsided Minnesota power play. ‘Bama outscored the Gophers 30-22 in those final 10 minutes despite being down two players, and Sexton finished the game with 40 points. That’s how good he is.

Of course, he could slip in this draft if only because there are so many flashier names ahead of him. It appears as though seven players (DeAndre Ayton, Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson, Marin Bagley, Michael Porter, Mo Bamba and Trae Young) likely will be drafted before him, which puts him in a category with guys like Mikal Bridges, Wendell Carter, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Miles Bridges, and Kevin Knox. Sexton probably will fall somewhere in that range, which means he would fall somewhere between the eighth and 13th pick.

He is competitive, charismatic and incredibly driven, so there’s a really good chance he does well in interviews and workouts and shows how elite he is. On the other hand, if he falls to the Sixers or Hornets or Clippers, some non-tanking team could end up with one of the biggest stars of the draft.

Miles Bridges

Coming into his sophomore season, Bridges was considered one of the top NBA prospects in college basketball, and while that is still true to a certain extent, his stock dropped a bit this past season while several players—including his teammate Jaren Jackson, Jr.—saw their own stocks rise.

Despite a minor loss in momentum, Bridges is one of the most NBA-ready players projected to be selected in the lottery. He’s still young enough to have a high ceiling, but he’s older and more physically mature than a lot of the other players vying to be drafted in his neck of the pecking order. He does nearly everything well, from ball handling to rebounding to shooting, and he can play both ends of the floor. His athleticism is his calling card, and that added to everything else he does well makes him a lock for some measure of NBA success.

He has his flaws, but he’s probably an All-Rookie First Teamer that will be selected after ten players that aren’t. That makes him a potential steal on the back-end of the lottery.

Jontay Porter

This time last year, Porter was a 17-year-old kid deciding whether or not to reclassify and play at the University of Missouri with his older brother Michael Porter, Jr. and under his father Michael Porter, Sr., who is a member of the coaching staff there. Obviously big bro is a high lottery pick, but the younger sibling was the 11th rated prospect in his high school class (the one with Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett) before reclassifying.

He has declared for this summer’s draft but hasn’t yet hired an agent. If he stays in, he’ll be the youngest player in the draft, and mid-first round is where teams start gambling on the uber-young players with mountains of potential rather than older, more proven college players.

In Porter’s case, that could mean a mid-to-late first-round team ends up with a tremendous bargain, even if it takes him a few years to grow into himself. He’s 6-foot-11 but is incredibly smart and well-rounded on offense. He shoots threes (he hit 110 of them as a freshman at Mizzou), but he’s know for his vision and passing more than anything. That’s a modern-day stretch-four or stretch-five if ever there was one, and getting him a year before his time could be a way for a team to steal a deal in the middle of the first round.

With the playoffs in full swing, most observers are focused in on the battles for conference supremacy. For many of the NBA’s other teams, though, the draft preparation process has begun.

In short order, we’ll see which teams end up snagging the next Donovan Mitchell.

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