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Lakers Already Making Strides Under Luke Walton

It may still be preseason, but it’s already clear the Lakers are improving under Luke Walton.

Jesse Blancarte

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The Los Angeles Lakers have obviously been in a rut over the last few seasons. From shuffling between coaches like Mike Brown, Bernie Bickerstaff, Mike D’Antoni and Byron Scott, to losing Kobe Bryant to an Achilles tear, to the Dwight Howard saga, to missing on big-name free agents, to winning no more than 27 games in a season over the last three years, it’s been a rough stretch for the proud franchise.

Fortunately, over that time the Lakers have been acquiring young talent like Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle, D’Angelo Russell, Larry Nance Jr. and Brandon Ingram. Additionally, the Lakers seemed to have finally found a long-term answer at head coach in Luke Walton. Walton is a rookie head coach, but he spent a long portion of his NBA career playing under Phil Jackson, coached for the University of Memphis, the Los Angeles D-Fenders and most recently for the Golden State Warriors, where he was the interim coach for 43 games as Steve Kerr recovered from back surgery.

It’s been a quick rise for Walton, but it seems like his playing and coaching experience have prepared him to take over this young Lakers team that’s looking to create a new identity and establish a path that eventually leads back to contention. Though it’s still just the preseason, the Lakers already look like a more cohesive and competent team on both ends of the court. Part of that has to do with personnel, but a lot of it also has to do with the systems Walton and his staff are implementing.

“We’re doing a really good job of penetrating and putting pressure on defenses with little interior passes and trying to get downhill on things,” Walton said recently.

Under former head coach Byron Scott, the Lakers’ offense was often stagnant, predictable and predicated on isolation opportunities. Walton has played in and coached others on the Triangle Offense for over a decade and comes from a team that implements parts of it within their motion-based offense. The Lakers don’t have the shooters or overall talent that the Warriors have, but we have already seen how much more production can be squeezed out of these Lakers when they’re moving off the ball, screening for one another and trusting each other to make the right plays and passes.

One of the major driving forces for this team is Russell and his development. Russell had a sneaky good rookie season, but suffered from some off-court issues and never connected with his former head coach.

“He’s really slowed down,” Clarkson said of Russell. “He lets things come to him. He’s been able to get us into plays, make plays for other people (and) at the same time get his own shots and score baskets. He’s really coming into that role as a point guard and helping us lead the team.”

Russell still has a long way to go in his development, but he has shown more aggression and maturity in his early play this preseason, which is a good sign for a Lakers team that is still looking for someone to fill the massive void Kobe Bryant left behind by retiring. Russell may or may not be the player to fill that franchise-player void, but his recent play has been praised by many, including Coach Walton, who compared him to Stephen Curry recently. Russell isn’t close to Curry’s level at this point (not many are), but he has the confidence and drive to keep bridging that gap. Russell is currently averaging 18.2 points per game in the preseason, which ranks sixth-best among all NBA players.

Another nice development we’ve seen in preseason is the effective play of Timofey Mozgov. The Lakers signed Mozgov to a four-year, $64 million contract this offseason and are hoping that he can be their defensive anchor and rim protector moving forward. While the size and length of the contract the Lakers gave Mozgov has been criticized, it looks as though Mozgov should help the Lakers on the defensive end based on his early preseason outings. Mozgov isn’t putting up huge numbers, but he has been mobile on defense, rotated effectively and challenged opponents who have tried to attack the rim. Coach Walton may not have a defensive ace like Draymond Green to anchor his team’s defense, but it seems as though he’ll have an effective rim protector in Mozgov.

While Russell and Mozgov have been the early standouts, other players have had nice contributions as well. Tarik Black has shown a lot of energy and hustle early on, while veterans like Luol Deng and Jose Calderon have added some needed stability in the rotation. The Lakers aren’t setting the preseason on fire as they are just 2-3 so far, but it’s apparent that this team is quickly shedding the discombobulated style of play that has limited them over the last few seasons. There are a lot of factors that go into that notable change, but at the center of it is the new culture and systems Walton is implementing with his young team.

Despite the early optimism, Walton does face a long road to getting this team back into title contention. Even Walton’s dad, former college star and NBA player Bill Walton, admits that.

“It’s going to be the toughest thing Luke’s ever had to do,” Bill Walton said. “Luke’s always been a part of great teams – here at University (of San Diego) High School with his fantastic coach Jim Tomey, at the University of Arizona with Lute Olson, with the Lakers with Phil Jackson to the Golden State Warriors and Steve Kerr.

“Wherever Luke’s been, he’s been a part of something special. Now, he’s got to be the guy who’s responsible for making something special that used to be great. It’s not going to be easy.”

The road for Walton and the Lakers certainly won’t be easy, but at least there is a clear road towards a better future for the purple and gold. Again, it’s still incredibly early in Walton’s tenure as the Lakers head coach, but the increased ball-movement, off-ball action, aggression and confidence from Russell, along with the effective rotations on defense are all easy to spot early this preseason.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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The Case for Upperclassmen in the NBA Draft

College upperclassmen are becoming increasingly viable options in the NBA Draft, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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Each year when the NBA draft comes around, there seems to be an aversion to taking upperclassman with a top selection. More specifically, it’s college seniors who often find themselves getting drafted in the second-round if at all.

It can be understandable. NBA teams are clearly looking for a home run pick with a lottery selection. They’re looking for a player who they can build a foundation around for years to come. College seniors often project as solid role players to strengthen a team once that foundational superstar is already in place.

However, recent years have seen the entire first round dominated almost entirely by freshmen and sophomores. In 2017, a college senior wasn’t drafted until the San Antonio Spurs took Derrick White with the 29th pick. The Los Angeles Lakers followed that up with Josh Hart. Hart ended up having a better rookie season than a few of the underclassmen taken ahead of him.

A few other upperclassmen, Frank Mason III, a senior, and Dillon Brooks, a junior, both had better rookie seasons than many of the freshmen taking before them as well. Junior Semi Ojeleye is playing a major role for the Boston Celtics who are in the Eastern Conference Finals.

In 2016, Malcolm Brogdon, another college senior, was taken in the second-round with the 36th pick by the Milwaukee Bucks. He went on to win the Rookie of the Year award and was a starter for a playoff team.

Senior Tyrone Wallace was taken with the last pick in the draft at No. 60 that year. When a rash of injuries hit the Los Angeles Clippers this season, Wallace stepped in right away as a starter at times and helped keep the team afloat in the playoff picture.

There were a few college seniors that went undrafted in 2016, players such as Fred VanVleet Yogi Ferrell that have had better NBA careers to this point that a lot of the underclassmen taken ahead of them.

This isn’t to say that NBA teams should completely abandon taking young, underdeveloped players in the first-round. The Spurs took Dejounte Murray, a freshman point guard, over Brogdon, Wallace, VanVleet and Ferrell. That’s worked out well for them. It’s more a testament to having a good front office and scouting team than anything else.

But maybe NBA teams should start expanding their horizons when it comes to the draft. There appears to be a stigma of sorts when it comes to upperclassmen, particularly college seniors. If a guy can play, he can play. Of course, college production is often not the best means of judging NBA success, but it does count for something.

With the 2018 NBA draft about one month away, there are a few interesting names to look at when it comes to college seniors. Players such as Devonte’ Graham from Kansas, Theo Pinson from North Carolina, Chandler Hutchinson from Boise State, Jevon Carter from West Virginia and Bonzie Colson from Notre Dame are all guys that should be on NBA team’s radars.

Sure, none of those guys are going to turn into a superstar or even an All-Star. But you’re probably going to get a player that becomes a solid contributor for years to come.

Again, it’s understandable when teams take projects in the lottery. After a long season of losing, and in some cases years of losing, ownership and the fanbase are hungry for results. They don’t want a top pick to be used on a player that projects as only a solid contributor.

But after the lottery, the rest of the draft gets a little murky. A good front office will find an NBA caliber player whether he’s a freshman or a senior. The NBA Draft isn’t an exact science. Nothing is ever for sure and no player is guaranteed to become the player they’re projected to be.

College upperclassmen tend to be more physically developed and mentally mature for the NBA game. If what you’re looking for is someone who will step right in and produce for a winning team, then instead of wasting a pick on the unknown, it might be better to go with the sure thing.

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NBA Daily: Are the Houston Rockets in Trouble?

Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals may have been the perfect storm for Houston, writes Shane Rhodes.

Shane Rhodes

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The Houston Rockets took a gut punch from the Golden State Warriors, but they responded in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals.

After they dropped the first game of the series, Houston evened things up at one apiece Wednesday night with a 127-105 blowout win over Golden State. With the Warriors struggling on the offensive end and Houston rebounding from a less than stellar Game 1, the Rockets rolled through the game with relative ease.

But was their improved demonstration a fluke? While fans may not want to hear it, Game 2 may have been the perfect storm for Houston.

The Rockets’ gameplan didn’t change much from Game 1 to 2. They attacked Steph Curry relentlessly on the offensive end, James Harden and Chris Paul took plenty of shots in isolation and their role players got shots to drop that just weren’t going down in Game 1. Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and P.J. Tucker exploded for 68 points while shooting 66.7 percent from three after scoring just 24 the previous game. The trio averaged only 35.8 points collectively during the regular season.

Meanwhile, Golden State couldn’t buy a bucket; starting Warriors not named Kevin Durant scored just 35 points. Curry shot just 1-8 from downtown while Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguadola combined for just 19 points while shooting 35 percent from the floor. All of that will undoubtedly change.

So, going back to Oakland for Game 3, where do the Rockets find themselves? Not in a great place, unfortunately.

Golden State did their job: they stole a game — and home-court advantage — from the Rockets at the Toyota Center. Now, as the series shifts back to Oracle Arena and, assuming the Warriors return to form in front of their home crowd, Houston will have their work more than cut out for them. If Curry, Thompson and Durant all have their shot falling, there isn’t much the Rockets can do to keep up

The Warriors, aside from Curry, played great team defense in Game 2, something that will likely continue into Game 3. The Rockets hit plenty of tough, contested shots — shots that won’t drop as they move away from the energy of the home crowd and shots that Golden State would gladly have Houston take again and again and again. Harden and Paul didn’t exactly bring their A-game in Game 2 either — the two combined for a solid 43 points but took an inefficient 38 shots to get there. If the two of them play like that at Oracle, the Warriors will abuse them in transition, something that can’t happen if the Rockets want to steal back the home-court advantage.

The aforementioned trio of Gordon, Ariza and Tucker are unlikely to replicate their Game 2 performance as well, and relying on them to do so would be foolish on the part of Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni. Devising a game plan that will keep the offense moving while not leaning heavily on the role players will be of the utmost importance — if the offense returns to the bogged down effort that Houston gave in Game 1, the Rockets stand no chance.

Meanwhile, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr will likely adjust his defense in an effort to limit the Rockets effectiveness in the isolation while also trying to find somewhere to hide Curry on the defensive end. It almost certainly won’t be the same sets that Houston throttled in Game 2 which will take another toll on the Rockets offense, especially if they fail to execute.

Not everything looks bad for Houston, however. Faced with a do-or-die scenario, Harden, Paul and co. were the more aggressive team from the jump. Pushing the pace flustered the Warriors and forced some pretty bad turnovers consistently throughout the night. If they come out with the same kind of energy and pace, the Rockets could have Golden State on their heels as they did in Game 2.

Budding star Clint Capela also has plenty of room to improve his game, as he has averaged just 8.5 points and eight rebounds through the first two games of the series — the Rockets need him to play his best basketball of the season if they want a chance to win.

Still, the Warriors are virtually unbeatable at home. The team has lost three games this postseason, just four times over their last two playoff trips and not once at Oracle, making the Rockets’ task even more daunting than it already was. Like Game 2, Game 3 should be played as a do-or-die situation for the Rockets because, if they don’t come out with the same aggressive, up-tempo energy, things could be over quickly.

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NBA Daily: Hope Not Lost for Mavs

The Dallas Mavericks were the lottery’s biggest losers, but VP of basketball operations Michael Finley still believes the team will land an elite talent.

Joel Brigham

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Dallas Mavericks vice president of basketball operations Michael Finley knows what it’s like to be on the other side of the draft process. In 2018, he’s an executive for the third-worst team in the league that somehow slipped to the fifth overall pick in Tuesday night’s NBA Draft Lottery, but in 1995 he was a kid from the University of Wisconsin hoping to get drafted.

Finley was a first-round pick that summer, ironically selected by the Phoenix Suns, who won the first overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft earlier this week, but he says he doesn’t even remember the lottery. The lottery wasn’t the event then that it has since become.

“The lottery wasn’t this big when I was in the draft,” Finley told Basketball Insiders. “I don’t even remember how the lottery process played out when I was coming out of college. It’s grown so much, but the league has grown. It’s good for fans, and it’s good for people to get excited about this process.”

Of course, the irony in getting excited about a draft pick isn’t lost on him.

“It’s kind of weird that [fans] are celebrating the losing process, isn’t it?”

Not surprisingly, Finley wasn’t especially thrilled to see his team fail to reap the rewards of a Dallas Mavericks season that was stepped in that losing process. The lottery odds will change next year, and Finley believes that’s a good thing.

“It’s a good thing to change the system a little,” he says. “It will help keep the integrity of the game intact, especially toward the end of the year. It also will be even more suspenseful than these lottery events have been in the past.”

That’s next year, though. This year, the Mavericks are tasked with finding an elite player at a pick lower than they expected. Finley’s trying to look at things optimistically.

“It could have been sixth,” he said. “It’s still in the top five, and going on what we did this season, we don’t want to be in this position next year, so hopefully the guy we pick at #5 will get us out of the lottery and back into the playoffs.”

In fact, having that selection doesn’t preclude the team from finding a star, especially in a draft this loaded. Most agree that Luka Doncic and DeAndre Ayton are the prizes of the draft, but there are other guys available with All-Star potential. Marvin Bagley, Trae Young, Michael Porter, Jr., and Mo Bamba all have incredibly high ceilings. The Mavs may yet do something meaningful with that selection.

“It’s a strong draft, and a lot of the draft is going to go with what player fits what team in a particular system. If you’re lucky enough to get that perfect combination, the players that are in this draft are really good and have the capability of helping a team right away.”

That’s what Finley and the rest of the Mavericks’ organization hopes will happen in 2018-2019.

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