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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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NBA Saturday: Kuzma Is The Main Attraction In Los Angeles

Kyle Kuzma, not Lonzo Ball, is the rookie in L.A. that is turning heads around the NBA.

Dennis Chambers

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Out in Los Angeles, there is a dynamite rookie first-round pick lighting it up for the Lakers, invoking memories of the days when the purple and gold had homegrown stars.

That’s Kyle Kuzma. He was the 27th pick in the NBA Draft. Twenty-five picks after Lonzo Ball, the rookie that first sentence would have presumably been about had it been written three months ago.

Ball’s early season struggles are well-noted. He’s missing shots at an all-time bad clip for a rookie, his psyche seems a bit rattled, and he isn’t having the impact most Lakers fans would have hoped he would from the jump.

All of that has barely mattered, though, in large part to the show Kuzma has been putting on just 16 games into the 2017-18 season. In Friday night’s loss to the Phoenix Suns, Kuzma put up 30 points and 10 rebounds for the Lakers, the most by an NBA freshman so far this year. That performance was Kuzma’s sixth 20-point game of the young season, another rookie best. And to top it all off, Kuzma was the first rookie to reach the 30-point, 10-rebound plateau since none other than Magic Johnson, back in February of 1980.

Kuzma’s path to the NBA was much different than Johnson’s, though, along with his rookie counterpart Ball. Those two prospects were highly-touted “superstar potential” guys coming out of the college ranks. Kuzma? Well, he was a 21-year-old junior out of Utah who didn’t make the NCAA Tournament his last year and was a career 30 percent three-point shooter as an amateur.

The knocks on Kuzma began to change during the NBA Draft process and came to a head for the Lakers when long-time scout Bill Bertka raved about his potential.

“He got all wide-eyed,” Lakers director of scouting Jesse Buss told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “And he said, ‘If this guy isn’t an NBA player, then I don’t know what the f— I’m looking at.'”

The Lakers took a chance on the 6-foot-9 forward who had a rare combination of a sweet shooting stroke to accompany his low-post moves that seemed to be reminiscent of players 20 years his senior.

Fast forward from draft night to the Las Vegas Summer League, and everyone could see with their own two eyes the type of player Los Angeles drafted. The numbers were startling: 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 1.1 steals, and 48 percent from beyond the arc out in Sin City for Kuzma, all capped off by a Summer League championship game MVP.

Summer League stats should be taken with a grain of salt, but what Kuzma did in July was proved he belonged.

Through the first month of Kuzma’s rookie campaign, when the games are actually counting for something, all he’s continued to do is prove that his exhibition numbers in Vegas were no fluke.

After his 30-point outburst, Kuzma now leads all rookies in total points scored (yet still second in scoring average), is fourth in rebounds per game, third in minutes, and third in field goal percentage.

By all accounts, Kuzma is outperforming just about every highly-touted prospect that was taken before him last June, and sans a Ben Simmons broken foot in September of 2016, he would be in line for the Rookie of the Year award if the season ended today.

Following Wednesday night’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, head coach Brett Brown had more than a few nice things to say about Kuzma.

“He’s a hell of a rookie,” Brown told NBC Philly’s Jessica Camerato. “That was a great pick by them.”

Brown went on to commend Kuzma for being “excellent” Wednesday night, when prior to his game Friday against the Suns, Kuzma set a career-high by scoring 24 points.

For all of the praise and the scoring numbers Kuzma is bringing to the Staples Center, his Lakers team sits at just 6-10 on the season, and has been on the wrong end of a number of close games so far this year.

While that’s good for second in the Pacific division right now, behind only the Golden State Warriors, it isn’t likely that type of success (or lack thereof) will get the Lakers to the playoffs. So, despite all of the numbers and attention, Kuzma isn’t fulfilling his rookie year the way he had hoped.

“It is cool, but I’m a winner,” Kuzma told Lakers Nation’s Serena Winters. “I like to win, stats don’t really matter to me. I just try to play hard and I want to win.”

Few projected the type of impact Kuzma would have this early on in his career, and even fewer would have assumed he’d be outperforming the Lakers’ prized draft pick in Ball. But surprising people with his game is nothing new to Kuzma.

From Flint, Michigan, to Utah, to Los Angeles, Kuzma has been turning heads of those that overlooked him the entire time.

With one month in the books as the Los Angeles Lakers’ most promising rookie, Kuzma has all the attention he could’ve asked for now.

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Kelly Olynyk Strengthens the HEAT Bench

David Yapkowitz speaks to Kelly Olynyk about his early showing in Miami.

David Yapkowitz

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The past few years, Kelly Olynyk carved out a nice role for himself as an important player off the Boston Celtics bench. He was a fan favorite at TD Garden, with his most memorable moment in Celtic green coming in last season’s playoffs against the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

With Boston pushed to the limit and finding themselves forced into a Game 7, Olynyk rose to the occasion and dropped a playoff career-high 26 points off the bench on 10-14 shooting from the field in a Celtics win. He scored 14 of those points in the fourth quarter to hold Washington off.

He was a free agent at the end of the season, and instead of coming back to the Celtics, he became a casualty of their roster turnover following Gordon Hayward’s decision to sign in Boston. Once he hit the open market he had no shortage of suitors, but he quickly agreed to a deal with the Miami HEAT, an easy decision for him.

“It’s awesome, they got a real good culture here,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “The organization is great, the city is great, the staff from the top down they do a good job here.”

Olynyk was initially the HEAT’s starting power forward to begin the season. In their opening night game, a 116-109 loss to the Orlando Magic, he scored ten points, pulled down five rebounds, and dished out three assists.

The very next game, however, he found himself back in his familiar role as first big man off the bench. In that game, a win over the Indiana Pacers, Olynyk had an even stronger game with 13 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, including 60 percent from three-point range, eight rebounds, and four assists.

Throughout the first eight games of the season, Olynyk was thriving with his new team. During that stretch, he was averaging a career-high 11.4 points per game on a career-high 55 percent shooting from the field and 60. 8 percent from downtown.

“I’m just playing, I’m just playing basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “They’re kind of letting me just play. They kind of let us all just play. They put us in positions to succeed and just go out there and let out skills show.”

For a HEAT team that may not be as talented on paper as some of the other teams in the Eastern Conference, they definitely play hard and gritty and are a sum of their parts. Night in and night out, in each of their wins, they’ve done it off the contributions from each player in the rotation and Olynyk has been a big part of that. Through Nov. 16, the HEAT bench was seventh in the league in points per game with 36.6.

In a win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 5, Olynyk was part of a bench unit including James Johnson, Tyler Johnson, and Wayne Ellington that came into the game late in the first quarter. The score at that point was 18-14 in Miami’s favor. That unit closed the quarter on a 16-6 run to put the HEAT up double digits. After that game, head coach Erik Spoelstra recognized the strength of the HEAT bench.

“Our guys are very resilient, that’s the one thing you’ve got to give everybody in that locker room, they’re tough,” Spoelstra said. “This is all about everybody in that locker room contributing to put yourself in a position, the best chance to win. It’s not about first unit, second unit, third unit, we’re all in this together.”

In Boston, Olynyk was part of a similar group that won games off of team play and production from every guy that got in the game. They were also a tough, gritty team and Olynyk has recognized that same sort of fire in the HEAT locker room.

“It’s a group of hard-nosed guys that can really grind it out and play tough-nosed basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “We can go a lot of places. We just got to stick together and keep doing what we do. We can compete with anybody and we just got to bring it every single night.”

At 7-8, the HEAT currently sit outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. Olynyk has seen a bit of a decrease in playing time, and likewise in production. He’s right at his career average in points per game with 9.5, but he’s still shooting career-highs from the field (54 percent) and from three-point range (47.4).

It’s still very early, though, and only one game separates the 11th place HEAT from the 8th place Magic. The HEAT are definitely tough enough to fight for a playoff spot, especially with Olynyk around helping to strengthen their bench.

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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17

Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.

Spencer Davies

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We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.

A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.

Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.

While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.

6) Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.

One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.

5) Kristaps Porzingis

Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.

So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.

4) Nikola Jokic

At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.

Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.

3) Draymond Green

In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.

Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.

2) Al Horford

The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.

He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.

1) DeMarcus Cousins

Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.

Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.

The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.

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