Whether the Los Angeles Lakers organization or fans of the franchise wanted to fully admit it when the process of transitioning away from being dependent on the exploits of Kobe Bryant began, these current struggles and difficulties should have always been at least somewhat expected. Growing pains with a young core are not a surprise, especially when you have such a long-term franchise player moving on, but even more so given the special circumstances surrounding this 2015-16 Lakers group.
Even throughout the obvious struggles, this is still an organization that would never openly acknowledge being in the midst of a full-on “tank-mode” stretch, but this bit of reality has become painstakingly evident to even the most casual outside observer over the past two-to-three seasons. Although conventional wisdom may have favored embracing the youth movement a bit more from the start, the front office and coaching staff made it obvious this season would be about Bryant’s farewell tour, first and foremost. To a certain degree, that’s both honorable (considering what Bryant has meant to the organization, city and game) and understandable from a business perspective given the team’s financial investment – especially over the past few seasons.
Put simply, while it is completely understandable for a franchise to want to maximize one of its most profitable assets in history before he’s gone, the rest of the roster and overall progress moving forward has clearly been in a holding pattern throughout the final chapter of Bryant’s illustrious career. The idea that the next leader or “face of the franchise” should have already been identified from this young group is about as preposterous as anyone expected this team to somehow compete for upwards of 30-35+ wins this season.
Following a recent drubbing at the hands of the Utah Jazz, coach Byron Scott offered these sentiments to the media regarding the young players: “You have to show that you deserve to be here and you understand what wearing the ‘purple and gold’ is about. I don’t think a lot of guys in that locker room understand that right now… I don’t look at any of those guys as being our next ‘Kobe.’”
Bryant, himself, has reiterated as much during recent media sessions.
Quite frankly, that’s precisely what we were all sold on this current regime of staff and veterans being able to do. We were convinced Scott’s staff would not only assist in smoothly transitioning from the Bryant era, but also find a way to reestablish a certain culture and organizational pride that seemed to dissipate over the past few years. Whether it was ultimately a bit of a fool’s task, this is what was promised and that simply has not taken place. In fact, if established players and veterans have struggled to wrestle team control and on-court influence away from Bryant even down the injury-riddled final stretch of his career, then essentially indicting a group of 19-to-24-year-olds for not being able to hit the ground running and snatch the ball from his hands is a bit silly – especially when those players are still attempting to get adjusted to simply playing at this level, let alone figuring out how to turn their individual results into overall team success.
The idea that this most recent incident between second-overall pick D’Angelo Russell and the well-traveled reserve Nick Young is a reason to immediately ship Russell out of town is about as knee-jerk a reaction as you can have. Aside from the very obvious notion of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, let’s all settle down and acknowledge that players with actual star qualities and skills aren’t necessarily falling off trees up and down Figueroa Blvd for these Lakers. While the immediacy of social media may invoke frenzied reactions from fans and analysts specifically looking to play on the faux outrage, shock and horror (until the next batch of shenanigans take place), the Lakers would be wise to ride the wave and see their young and talented player through the difficult times before jumping to action.
Without going into all the salacious details of prior incidents from around the league (let Google be your friend), let’s just say the old stories surrounding R&B singer Toni Braxton and the Dallas Mavericks, rumors about Jason Richardson and Steve Nash or what supposedly took place within that Indiana Pacers locker room from a couple seasons ago make this current story, while understandably bewildering to the parties involved, somewhat ‘tame’ or even ‘mild’ by comparison. Make no mistake, Russell will absolutely have his work cut out for him in terms of repairing his image within this locker room and around the league, but let’s just not go overboard in judging what needs to be done in the short term. He’s talented enough to overcome the incident, but whether he will be mature and mentally tough enough to withstand the pressure will eventually tell the most about his future.
All of that to say, while the young core in Los Angeles may still have a ton of room to grow, develop and mature from both a personal and professional standpoint (particularly in Russell’s case as a point guard and hopeful leader), let’s take a step back from the malaise for a moment and truly assess where the organization is as we sit just seven games away from the end of Bryant’s run.
The jury is still out on guys like rookie Anthony Brown (injured) and sophomore big man Tarik Black, at least somewhat due to a lack of playing time and consistent opportunities, but these Lakers do have four intriguing pieces in Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr. and the aforementioned Russell.
Clarkson (15.5 points per game, four rebounds per game, 2.5 assists per game) is quickly establishing himself as a scorer at this level, but needs to continue working at bringing it on both sides of the court and doing more than racking up points on a consistent basis. Even though he can be a bit turnover prone at times (2.5/1.7 assist-to-turnover ratio this season), he’s also a capable playmaker and a finisher in the open court. He still may not be a dead-eye shooter from deep, but he’s definitely improved as a three-point shooter and is currently at a respectable 35.1 percent from beyond the arc for the year. We probably haven’t seen enough of him alongside Russell in the backcourt together to fully assess how successful that pairing can be, but the results have been somewhat promising – at least from an offensive perspective.
Randle may be still be limited in what he can do offensively, but he is already clearly one of the league’s top young rebounders at this early stage (tied for 14th in double-doubles with 33 so far this season). Currently averaging a double-double (11.6 points, 10.2 rebounds) in just his first full year of action, Randle must also continue to work on shifting from primarily exerting his efforts on the offensive end to a more balanced attack. The right hand, jumpshot and counter moves are things you expect him to eventually develop, given the progress he’s already shown and an evident willingness to improve and succeed. While he still may pick up an occasional offensive foul or get himself into precarious positions when attempting to attack against length, Randle has already done a very good job of adjusting his pace and tempo and figuring out more effective ways to attack against defenders actively looking to limit his left hand.
Nance Jr.’s success may have come as a surprise for those who didn’t happen to watch a ton of Wyoming Cowboys or Mountain West Conference basketball over the past few years, but his high-energy and ‘constantly moving’ style of attack plays well at this level. Nance Jr. may not have “star” potential per se, but his unselfish nature, ability to utilize his athleticism and agility at multiple frontcourt positions, and willingness to do the dirty work on the court is encouraging for a team that will also need dependable role players moving forward.
Russell may currently be in the spotlight for unenviable reasons, but if the recently turned 20-year-old truly has what it takes to succeed at this level then an incident of this magnitude might strangely speed up the maturization process of a young man that was also described as “19-going-on-14” by his head coach last month. If Russell truly has ‘ice in his veins,’ then he’ll embrace the challenge head-on and come out a better teammate, professional and even player on the other side of things. His 13.2 points per game, 3.4 rebounds per game and 3.3 assists per game are good enough to place him toward the top when it comes to a discussion about his contemporaries among first-year point guards, but the Lakers desperately need him to take the next step across the board and develop from being a promising talent into a franchise-type player.
Whether at the forefront of the ultimate reclamation project in Los Angeles or in being used as catalysts in future transactions that ultimately bring in the next “face of the franchise” for the purple and gold, the Lakers absolutely need to cultivate the assets they currently have. Everyone – from players to staff to the front office – will likely and justifiably have their role assessed once the season comes to an end as of April 14, but the same process will also take place across at least half the league. As we sit just 28 quarters of basketball from the end of Bryant’s career, this franchise may not have that “next” guy, but that doesn’t mean the the cupboard is completely bare – regardless of the doom-and-gloom portrait social media and sports talk pundits may attempt to paint.
Fixing The Detroit Pistons
David Yapkowitz looks at how the fading Pistons can turn things around moving forward.
We wrap this week up with another installment of our “Fixing” series here at Basketball Insiders. The next team up is the Detroit Pistons.
The Pistons came into this season with playoff aspirations after a disappointing 2016-17 campaign that saw them regress instead of building on their playoff appearance the season before. To begin the season, they looked like they were on their way to accomplishing that objective. Then Reggie Jackson got hurt and the season began spiraling out of control.
They tried to inject some life into the team by trading for Blake Griffin, but it hasn’t worked out as expected. The Pistons have gone 8-12 since acquiring Griffin and the postseason looks like a pipe dream at this point.
What Is Working
Not a whole lot. Despite trading for a superstar player, the Pistons have tumbled down to the point where playoffs are looking extremely unlikely.
If there’s one thing that’s a welcome sight, it’s the bounce back of Andre Drummond. After being named to his first All-Star team in 2015-16, Drummond had a bit of a let down the following season. This season, he was once again an All-Star while putting up career-highs in rebounds (15.7) and assists (3.2). Drummond is still only 24 years old and has his best basketball years ahead of him.
The Pistons have also received encouraging signs from rookie Luke Kennard. A lottery pick in last summer’s draft, Kennard he’s been one of the few bright spots at times for the Pistons. About a week ago, his playing time had diminished some and he racked up a few DNP’s, but Stan Van Gundy has since reinserted him into the rotation.
They’ve also gotten solid production out of Reggie Bullock. When Bullock came over to the Pistons in a trade with the Phoenix Suns almost three years ago, he was little more than a seldom-used wing with the potential to become a solid 3&D guy. This has been his year, however. He’s the best shooter on the team at 43.5 percent from the three-point line. His numbers, 10.8 points per game and 49.1 percent shooting from the field, are career-highs.
What Needs To Change
Quite a bit. Acquiring Griffin was a move the Pistons needed to make. On the verge of losing control of the season, they needed to make a move to try and turn things around. It’s been a disaster thus far, however. They are 2-8 in their last 10 games and although they’re in ninth place, they’re falling farther and farther away from eighth.
Who the Pistons are really missing is Reggie Jackson. Ish Smith, who has proven himself beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is an NBA player, just isn’t Jackson. They desperately need Jackson’s playmaking abilities to help take the pressure off everyone else. Even if he returns this season, it’s already too late. The Pistons need to focus on getting him healthy and ready for next season.
The Pistons also need to improve their offense. They’re in the bottom half of the league in both points per game (25th) and offensive rating (24th). A big part of that is Jackson’s absence, but they could also benefit from additional outside shooting. Right now they have one long-range threat on the roster and that’s Bullock.
Focus Area: The Draft
To make matters worse, the Pistons will likely give up their draft pick to the Los Angeles Clippers as part of the Griffin trade. The only way the Clippers wouldn’t acquire the Pistons’ pick this year is if it falls in the top four, and that’s not going to happen.
The Pistons will have a second-round pick though. The draft is never 100 percent guaranteed, and the second round is even more of a crapshoot, but talented players can definitely be found. That’s what the Pistons’ main objective in the draft should be. It sounds silly, but they truly need to buckle down and do their homework in hopes of finding that one overlooked guy in the second round. That’s pretty much all they have to look forward to come draft night.
Focus Area: Free Agency
The Pistons are going to have a couple of minor decisions to make this summer regarding their free agents. Jameer Nelson, James Ennis, and Anthony Tolliver are all unrestricted free agents. Out of the three, Ennis has given the team the best on-court production, but it isn’t necessary that any of them are brought back.
Bullock and Dwight Buycks have non-guaranteed contracts, and those are the two guys that the Pistons should work towards bringing back in the fold. Both should have their contracts guaranteed for the following season. Bullock is their only three-point threat. Buycks began the season as a two-way contract player splitting time between the Pistons and the Grand Rapids Drive of the G-League. He’s since been converted to a standard NBA contract and has done enough to earn his spot on the team next year.
In terms of adding new players to the roster, as mentioned before, the Pistons need outside shooting. Marco Belinelli and Wayne Ellington are possible options that the Pistons might be able to afford. Joe Harris is another option, but it will be interesting to see what the market is for him after the strong season he’s been having in Brooklyn.
It’s tough to gauge the Pistons’ true potential without Jackson. If he returns before the season ends, it will be too small a sample size to accurately assess the team. There are only 14 games left. Although things look pretty bleak right now, it can’t be argued that injuries haven’t played a big role in the Pistons disappointing season.
The team deserves a shot at seeing how a healthy Jackson, Griffin, and Drummond trio looks on the court together. If they start off next season the same way despite all three being healthy and in the lineup, then it would be time for serious changes.
Fixing The Chicago Bulls
Spencer Davies says the Bulls have a long way to go, but they’re taking steps forward. In year one without the former face of the franchise, that’s about all they can ask for.
Next up on Basketball Insiders’ “fixing” series is a stop in the Windy City.
In spite of the criticisms over last summer’s Jimmy Butler trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves, it feels like the Chicago Bulls at least have a sense of direction. Many members of the media—including this one—expected them to finish dead last in the NBA, yet they have 23 wins, with seven other teams worse off.
Obviously, the goal for the organization this season was to establish an identity and see what they had with their new cornerstone pieces. To a good extent, there’s optimism regarding those players because of the potential they’ve shown.
There’s still a good chunk of the year left, but the Bulls are 12th in the Eastern Conference standings with 15 games to go.
What Is Working
If it weren’t for the spectacular seasons by Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons, Chicago stretch big man Lauri Markkanen might be the Rookie of the Year. Even with some second-half struggles, the entire body of work is impressive.
The 7-foot Finnish forward continues to stay aggressive with a high usage and great mentality in snatching up those boards. It’s normal for a first-year player to go through those ups and downs. Add in a back injury that’s been bothering him as of late and the slump make a little more sense. Markkanen has shown the skill and consistent effort that it takes to be a mainstay in this league.
Bobby Portis is another member of the frontcourt who’s made a noticeable impact off the Bulls’ bench. In his third year, you can see the confidence continue to grow as a versatile offensive threat with a ton of touches. He’s taken a responsibility upon himself to lead the second unit and the proof is in the pudding. According to Cleaning The Glass, the team is a net plus-11.5 per 100 possessions with him on the court.
Second-year swingman Denzel Valentine has filled the stat sheet in multiple games as one of the most unselfish players on the roster. David Nwaba’s role from the beginning was to be a defensive menace and he’s come through for the majority of the year. Even two-way contract rookie Antonio Blakeney has shown flashes as a volume scorer in stretches.
Recently, Chicago has given a couple of cast-offs opportunities to display their skills. In 10 games, Cameron Payne looks as comfortable as he has in quite some time coming off a major foot injury. Noah Vonleh has been an effective late addition playing next to Portis and filling in for Markkanen. Let’s not forget that these two were lottery picks and are still in their early 20s.
What Needs To Change
Looking at what Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine have done, it’s been a mixed bag. With that being said, there’s clearly untapped potential between the both of them.
Dunn proved in very little time that the narrative of him being a lost cause was far from the truth. Hoiberg’s trust in him to be Chicago’s floor general has gone a long way. He’s been in attack mode with the ball in his hands, has seen his outside game get better and has been bothersome with his length defensively. It hasn’t resulted in wins, but remember—it’s this group’s first season together.
As for LaVine, it’s difficult to judge where a player is using a 23-game sample size. Yes, it’s a good amount of playing time, but let’s not forget he’s coming off a devastating left ACL tear. His defense has been subpar, but the bounce seems to still be there. The jumper is on and off, but he hasn’t been bashful at all. Starting the year off fresh in 2018-19 will benefit him.
Speaking of next season, the goal for the front office of Gar Forman and John Paxson should be simple—get younger. Currently, Robin Lopez is the highest paid player on the Bulls and he’ll have one year left on his deal going into the summer. The same applies to Justin Holiday. These are two veterans who could contribute on teams ready to win now, and it would be logical to part ways considering the direction the franchise is going.
Focus Area: The Draft
Due to the Nikola Mirotic trade on February 1st, Chicago acquired a first-round draft pick from the New Orleans Pelicans. That gives them two chances to add to their young talent pool in the upcoming 2018 NBA Draft.
Typically you’d go with the best player available when you’re slotted in the top ten, but the Bulls should feel good about their backcourt and the power forward position. What they really are lacking are reliable shooters and perimeter defenders, as well as a player with a bulldog mentality.
Chicago doesn’t get to the free throw nearly enough and they don’t convert looks that they should. Considering a true wing is amiss, it’d be the ideal scenario for Michael Porter Jr. to fall right into their lap. The Missouri freshman just returned after missing basically the entire season with a back injury. He was a top name coming into the class because of his size and could be a steal with the eighth selection.
If Porter Jr. doesn’t make it to them, Miles Bridges would make for a heck of a consolation prize. Unlike Porter, he has a more muscular frame at 6-foot-7, 230 pounds that allows him to bully the opposition. There’s a relentless nature and fearlessness about him that will translate to the next level.
Using that Pelicans pick, the Bulls would be happy to see Duke sharpshooter Gary Trent Jr. fall to them in the early-to-mid 20s, but that seems more unlikely with Anthony Davis continuing to carry New Orleans to new heights. If they end up selecting towards to the back end of the first round, Arizona junior guard Allonzo Trier could end up being a good fit as well.
Focus Area: Free Agency
Entering the summer, Chicago doesn’t have too many decisions to make on the contract front.
The trade exception from the Butler deal expires on June 22nd. If it’s not used by then, the amount will be renounced if the team goes under the salary cap. The deadline to present Noah Vonleh and David Nwaba a qualifying offer is June 29th.
Everybody’s going to keep an eye on LaVine because of restricted free agency, but the Bulls have indicated they prefer him to be a part of their core. They’ll in all likelihood look to bring him back on a long-term contract. If he doesn’t approve of the terms, he can always choose to play on his qualifying offer and bet on himself.
Chicago has to decide whether or not to guarantee Paul Zipser’s $1.5 million salary for next season by July 18th. The extension deadline for Payne, Portis, and Grant is the day before the first day of the 2018 campaign and team option deadlines for Dunn and Markannen come on Halloween.
There probably won’t be too much activity on the Bulls’ part regarding free agency. The focus will lay on improving their young core and getting guys who are just getting on the upswing in the pros. There are talents out there who fit the bill. It just all depends on what comes from the draft.
All in all, Chicago has a long way to go to get back into the postseason conversation, but they’re taking steps forward. In year one without the former face of the franchise, that’s about all you can ask for.
NBA Daily: 76ers’ Ben Simmons Enters Rarefied Air
Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons passed Magic Johnson for second in rookie triple-doubles.
As the Philadelphia 76ers continued their playoff push with a come-from-behind victory over the woebegone New York Knicks Thursday, rookie Ben Simmons joined some NBA legends in the record book. With his eighth triple-double of the season, Simmons passed Magic Johnson for second all-time in triple-doubles among rookies. According to ESPN’s Ian Begley, Simmons is only the third rookie to record 1000 points, 500 rebounds, and 500 assists.
After the win over the Knicks, Simmons told reporters that the process for him has been to disregard the expectations thrust upon him as a scorer and focus on his ability to contribute in a variety of ways.
“I try not to get carried away with what people say,” said Simmons. “People want me to be a scorer or a player that I’m not right now. I can score the ball, but I can also rebound and pass the ball. I’d rather do that and do what I’m pretty good at than force things.”
Simmons was clearly aware of the gravity of what he had accomplished in the postgame locker room. He spoke with reverence of the legendary players his name will always be associated with, including Oscar Robertson, whose record of 26 triple-doubles as a rookie may never be challenged.
“It’s surreal knowing the game’s been played for a long time,” said Simmons. “So many greats have been through. I’ve set a record with Magic and Oscar Robertson, which is surreal to me.”
Before the game, Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek described how Simmons’ combination of size, speed, and court vision make him especially difficult to guard.
“He’s got the speed, he’s got those long strides and he’s got the vision as a passer to pick you apart,” said Hornacek. “You’ve got to kind of collapse and kind of create a wall to not let him get in [the paint], but then he goes ahead and throws it out to the shooters that they have on his team.”
Begley also quoted 76ers coach Brett Brown during the pregame discussing how Simmons’ assignment to the point guard position was debated within the organization.
“I’m so pleased that the organization, he, the coaching staff, had the courage to try him as a point guard,” said Brown. “Because, let’s face it, that was highly scrutinized.”
It seems it was the right decision, as Simmons’ 507 assists easily leads all rookies. Lakers point guard Lonzo Ball is second with 325 while Dallas’ Dennis Smith follows with 289, De’Aaron Fox of the Kings has 262 and fellow Rookie of the Year candidate Donovan Mitchell of the Jazz has 236. Simmons leads the 76ers with 7.7 assists per game and is third in scoring with 16.2 points, trailing leading scorer Joel Embiid (23.6) and veteran shooting guard J.J. Redick (16.6). His 7.8 rebounds per game trails only Embiid (10.9) for the team lead.
The 76ers are currently sixth in the Eastern Conference, but could easily move up with only three of its final 15 games coming against teams in playoff position. Philadelphia trails the third-seed Pacers by a mere two games, so home court advantage in the first round is definitely in play. Meanwhile, Simmons said at a practice over the weekend that he hasn’t experienced a rookie wall.
“I don’t think there’s a wall,” said Simmons. “I wake up every morning and I love what I do. You’re going to have great games and you’re going to have some bad games, but that just comes with it.”
With history notched into his belt and no signs of slowing with the playoffs looming, Simmons’ All-Star snub could look even more ridiculous as time passes. Magic posted an eerily-similar 18 points, 7.3 assists and 7.7 rebounds per game as a Lakers rookie. He was an All-Star starter and became the first rookie to be named NBA Finals MVP.