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Patience Could Go A Long Way For The Lakers

The Lakers may have $64.1 million in cap room, but that doesn’t mean they should use it all in July.

Jabari Davis

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While other teams are reportedly scrambling and hoping to meet with some of the bigger names on the free agent market – such as Kevin Durant, DeMar DeRozan, Al Horford, Hassan Whiteside and Harrison Barnes among others – perhaps the Los Angeles Lakers should take a slightly different approach and consider continuing to mold their roster around the young talent they already have such as D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson (assuming he’s re-signed since he’ll be a restricted free agent), Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr. and, of course, their second overall selection in the 2016 NBA Draft.

That isn’t to suggest they shouldn’t at least “kick the tires” when it comes to the top free agents. They’ll rightly do their due diligence when it comes to a player like Durant, and Whiteside is clearly intriguing due to the gaping hole they currently have at the center position. But each of those players would have to agree to join the Lakers despite there being more attractive situations elsewhere, either with their current team or other potential suitors. Horford’s flexibility on both ends would absolutely improve this current Lakers squad, but at 30 years old (much like LaMarcus Aldridge last summer) and having played in the postseason in eight of his nine seasons as a pro, he’s likely not willing to join a rebuilding effort – no matter how promising these young players may be.

The interest in a restricted free agent like Barnes makes a bit less sense when you consider the fact that the Golden State Warriors are likely to match any offer so that he remains a part of their championship rotation. There’s also the legitimate concern over whether Barnes, while clearly versatile and skilled, truly has the game and disposition to be counted on as a leader of a franchise and more of a go-to guy as opposed to being a fourth or fifth option for an extremely talented team.

While there may be a hint of the old adage that “beggars can’t be choosers” (this ain’t Chipotle, after all), if you’re the Lakers you can afford to at least be cautious when it comes to spending this summer. Put simply, just because they’ll have as much as $64.1 million to spend on roster upgrades this summer, doesn’t mean they have to spend every penny.

Even though DeRozan decided to officially opt out of the final year of his deal with the Toronto Raptors and was initially linked with the Lakers via the rampant rumor mill that constantly surrounds the team, it probably makes the most sense for the 26-year-old shooting guard to re-sign on a max deal north of our border. If we’re being completely honest, while he may have Los Angeles ties, it would even make more sense to consider another Eastern Conference suitor rather than jumping into the Western Conference gauntlet these Lakers are attempting to conquer.

DeRozan may long for some Pacific Ocean vibes, but he could easily spend time in Southern California throughout the offseason – as many players do – while either taking the most money and security from Toronto or going to a different East team like, say, the Boston Celtics for a potentially easier path to the NBA Finals.

Nicolas Batum will be a restricted free agent this summer and would probably be the most ideal fit for the Lakers from a skill set and age perspective, but like fellow veteran free agents Ryan Anderson and Marvin Williams, Batum appears most likely to seek a situation in which he can immediately win. With so much cap space available, perhaps the Lakers could sway one of these players, but at a certain point you have to assess whether it would be cost-efficient to hypothetically max out the type of guys that are more “complementary pieces” rather than guys that can lead a franchise out of its least successful run in a long and proud history.

It isn’t about “striking out” with the big names this summer, per se, but it will be much more important to simply continue the positive momentum – no matter how slight it may seem to some – by developing the young talent the Lakers currently have on the roster so that they are in a position to either strike when a realistic free agency option presents itself over the next couple seasons or when a desired player becomes available on the trade market. Last season would have been a more ideal time to fully embrace this notion of a total youth movement, but it was understandably determined that longtime franchise player Kobe Bryant was deserving of his epic farewell tour.

You can debate whether (or how much) this tour could have at least initially stunted things for this young core, but the reality is the organization had the right to honor their legend however they saw fit (and it wasn’t like they had all that many favorable options at that point). Also, it isn’t as though Clarkson, Randle, Russell and others didn’t also learn some incredibly valuable lessons about the game as professionals, such as overcoming adversity and injuries and navigating the potential pitfalls of playing in a market like Los Angeles along the way.

It will be intriguing to see how Russell responds to all of the late-season criticism he earned and how he develops from year one into his sophomore season. Drama aside, Russell was steady in most categories throughout his rookie year, and showed some serious flashes as a scorer over the second half of the season. It’s evident that he possesses the abilities to be a scorer, shooter and passer in this league, but he has yet to fully display all of the playmaking ability he seemed to possess during his pre-draft process. There wasn’t a man on the 2015-16 Lakers roster that played even a semblance of consistent defense, and Russell was far from the best of the bunch. While far from the greatest athlete, Russell is long and rangy for the position and can be taught ways to capitalize on his size and length more consistently if he’s willing to embrace the idea of playing both ends of the court. Time will obviously tell on Russell, but he did show a particular amount of poise over the last month of an all-around frustrating season for the purple and gold, and is reportedly hard at work this summer. Clarkson, assuming he’s back, appears to be ready to follow up an encouraging second year with even more dedication and attention to correcting some of the holes that remain in his game.

He’s clearly been in the weight room already this summer and appears poised to take yet another step, which could be another reason to avoid the DeRozan sweepstakes. Even though Clarkson is a restricted free agent and due for a sizeable raise over the next few seasons, the Lakers still have the option to either structure a deal that would keep him at a very cost-effective rate around $5.6 and $5.9 million over the next two seasons (before ballooning to $22.7 and $23.6 million in years three and four) or could even offer the 24-year-old a deal closer to what the market would average at just about $14.5 million per season over the next four years.

Coming off a year in which the 6’5 combo guard averaged 15.5 points and four boards while shooting comparable numbers at similar points in their respective careers, one could very well ask why the Lakers would even consider DeRozan given Clarkson’s similar trajectory and significantly lower price tag? For the record, while DeRozan showed slight improvement from beyond the arc, his career-high 33.8 percent on 1.8 attempts per contest still don’t match Clarkson’s rate of 34.7 percent from that mark on 4.1 attempts per contest in just his second year. Essentially, if the Lakers still believe in Clarkson’s capability to take another step – especially on the defensive end and with ball control – then continuing to cultivate him as a significant rotation piece would seemingly be the right call.

It’s going to be fun to see what head coach Luke Walton and crew are able to do with the versatile mix of Randle, last year’s surprise contributor in Nance Jr. and perhaps even seldom-used swingman Anthony Brown. Each will need to continue developing and improving their outside shot in order to be able to properly space the floor for the offensive sets Walton is most likely to prefer, but all three of them have shown signs of skill sets that should lend very well to the interchangeable lineups and style the team is reportedly planning on adopting.

Randle was a double-double machine (34 total this season, which ranked 15th in the NBA) in what was realistically just his “rookie” campaign having been injured one game in the previous year. He’s been avidly working on extending his range on the offensive end, but it will be most pivotal for his development if the new staff is able to instill the same amount of focus and motivation on his defensive principles as well. Nance Jr. is probably the liveliest body on the roster from a sheer athleticism standpoint and while the previous regime wanted to explore some playing opportunities at the small forward position in order to increase his floor time, the current staff may actually consider him as one of the options in the center rotation given his agility and wingspan.

Brown is still raw and will likely be in the same boat as whichever rookies they decide to select in next week’s draft – even though he was able to practice with and spend time around the team and their D-League affiliate Defenders prior to his season-ending injury. He was seen as someone with the potential to be a “3-and-D” guy coming out of Stanford, but the jury is definitely still out on him at this level. Like others, the new system and overall philosophy may ultimately suit his skill set a bit better, but it will be upon Brown to find a way to stand out among what will be one of the league’s most intriguing young cores in 2016-17.

These Lakers may not be anywhere near back to the top of the mountain where the franchise has historically resided, but at least they no longer appear to be blindly pushing the stone up the mountainside in vain. That’s why even though they’re fully expected to pursue the bigger-name free agents in an effort to expedite the rebuild as much as possible, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have to spend recklessly and go all-in on that approach. This front office deserves a great deal of criticism for some of the events that have transpired over the last half decade, and has received every bit of it.

Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss also deserve credit for the job they’ve been able to do in these last couple drafts, including what we presume will be a relative no-brainer decision once the Philadelphia 76ers have chosen between Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram. It would be a shame to see them potentially derail said momentum by suddenly thinking championship rosters can be constructed with an “easy button” once again. If the last few seasons have taught us anything, it’s that such devices and shortcuts simply don’t exist when it comes to building a winner in today’s NBA.

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: Lou Williams Stepping Up For Injured Clippers

The Clippers have been hit by injuries again, but Lou Williams is doing everything he can to keep the team afloat.

Jesse Blancarte

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The Los Angeles Clippers have been decimated by injuries this season. Blake Griffin is sidelined until approximately February of next year. Danilo Gallinari has been sidelined for an extended period of time with a glute injury and will continue to be out of action for some time after suffering a second glute injury recently. Patrick Beverley underwent season ending microfracture surgery in November. Milos Teodosic suffered a foot injury in just the second game of the season and only recently returned to the lineup. Austin Rivers just suffered a concussion and could miss some time as well.

With so many injuries, the Clippers currently find themselves in the 10th seed in the Western Conference with an 11-15 record. This isn’t what the Clippers had in mind when they brought back a solid haul of players last offseason in exchange for Chris Paul.

Competing with the top teams in the Western Conference was always going to be difficult for this Clippers team. Los Angeles has plenty of talent on the roster and added a few younger prospects to develop. However, key players like Griffin and Gallinari are injury prone and both needed to stay on the court for the Clippers to have any hope of staying in range of the West’s top teams. The Clippers lost 9 games straight in the middle of November and it looked as though they were on course to be competing for a top lottery pick in next season’s draft.

However, despite all of the injuries and setbacks, Lou Williams, along with iron man DeAndre Jordan, has picked up the slack and has done more than his fair share to keep the Clippers’ playoff hopes alive. This season, Williams is averaging 20 points, 4.8 assists and 2.7 rebounds per game, while shooting 45.2 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range (on 6.2 attempts per game). Williams is sporting a healthy 21.2 Player Efficiency Rating, which is a near career best rating (Williams posted a 21.4 PER last season). His True Shooting percentage (59.3) is tied with his career high rating, which Williams posted last season as well. Williams’s free throw rate has taken a dip this season, but his ability to draw timely (and often questionable) fouls has been a valuable asset to his team once again. Simply put, Williams has been particularly efficient on offense this season for the Clippers – a team that has lost its most reliable scorers and playmakers.

“We’ve had some guys go down with injuries and somebody has to step in and fill that scoring void,” Williams said after helping the Clippers defeat the Magic. “I’ve been able to do it.”

Williams has also hit plenty of big shots for the Clippers this season. Most recently, Williams knocked down a go-ahead three-pointer in the final seconds against the Washington Wizards that sealed the win for the Clippers. The Clippers are used to having a natural born scorer coming off the bench to act as a sparkplug as they had Jamal Crawford on the roster for the last five seasons. Similar to Crawford, Williams struggles to hold his own on the defensive side of the ball. But Williams has been more effective defensively so far this season for the Clippers than Crawford was for the majority of his time in Los Angeles. Williams isn’t going to lock down the Russell Westbrooks of the world, but he isn’t giving back the majority of the points he scores either.

In addition to his scoring, Williams is a solid playmaker and has managed to facilitate the Clippers’ offense at various points of the season. Williams isn’t exactly Chris Paul in terms of setting up his teammates for easy baskets, but he has been notably effective in this role, which is very important considering how many playmakers have falled to injury this season. Williams is now, arguably, the team’s best offensive weapon and one of its most effective floor generals. Now that we are nearly two months into the NBA season, it seems as though Williams and his teammates are starting to find a little more chemistry with one another.

“I think these guys are just starting to be more comfortable. They understand we’re going to have some injuries and guys are going to be down,” Williams said recently. “So they’re just playing with a lot of confidence. I think at first you’re kind of getting your feet wet and guys don’t want to make mistakes. Now guys are just going out there and playing as hard as they can.”

Williams will need to continue building chemistry with his teammates if they are to keep pace until players like Gallinari and Griffin make it back onto the court.

The Clippers have won six of their last 10 games and are starting to steady what had becoming a sinking ship. Smart gamblers and predictive algorithms would caution against betting on the Clippers making the playoffs this season, but they are in much better shape now than they were in the middle of November — an accomplishment that Williams deserves plenty of credit for.

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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 12/15/17

Spencer Davies checks in on the race for DPOY with his top six candidates.

Spencer Davies

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It’s mid-December and candidates for individual awards are starting to really garner attention. On Basketball Insiders, we’ve been taking a close look at players who should be in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year in a unique fashion.

As the numbers begin to even out and the noise lessens with larger sample sizes, the picture becomes clearer. There is no clear-cut favorite, and the return of Kawhi Leonard will likely complicate things more in the future, but right now there are six players who have stood out from the rest.

 Luc Richard Mbah a Moute

It’s a shame that a right shoulder injury is going to keep Mbah a Moute out of action for the next few weeks. He’s done everything that the Houston Rockets have asked of him and more. It’s been his versatility defensively that’s made him a headache for any opponent he’s guarded. He’s able to seamlessly switch onto assignments coming off screens and create turnovers from forcing extra pressure.

The Rockets have the fourth-best defensive rating in the NBA (103.7) as it is, but when the veteran forward is on the floor, they allow just 99.8 points per 100 possessions per Cleaning The Glass.

 Andre Roberson

There’s not a lot of good going on with the Oklahoma City Thunder right now, though you can pick out a bright spot when it comes to the defensive side of the ball. As a team, they are first in the league in turnover percentage and second in defensive rating. This is due in part to Roberson’s ability to force his matchups to make errant decisions with the ball, which usually results in a steal for one of his teammates.

Currently, the 26-year-old is the top guard in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus ranking system and 10th in Basketball Reference’s Defensive Box Plus-Minus. According to CTG, Oklahoma City is worse when Roberson isn’t playing (97.9 on/10.5 off) and his impact using those figures ranks in the 94th percentile.

 Kevin Durant

Here’s a case where the numbers don’t exactly tell the real story. The Golden State Warriors are technically a better team defensively by 6.4 points per 100 possessions with Durant off the court. But when you go deeper into things, things get clarified. Let’s start simple: He’s tied for most total blocks in the league (51) and the second-most blocks per game (2.1). The Warriors have the third-best defensive rating in the NBA at 102.9.

How about we go further into individual defense? Durant is contesting nearly 13 field goals per game and only 38.4 percent of those attempts have been successful, a mark that is the second-lowest for opponent percentage among those defending at least 10 tries per game. Diving deeper, the reigning Finals MVP is stifling in the fourth quarter, yielding a league-low 30 percent conversion rate (min. three attempts) to his competition.

 Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process has gone mainstream, and for good reason. Everybody is focused on the beautiful footwork, the sensational euro steps and the dream shakes, but Embiid’s got a suit just as strong on the other side of the ball. The Philadelphia 76ers are barely on the outside looking in as a top-10 defense, and they’ve been a team improving as they’ve grown together over the course of the season. The entire trio of Robert Covington, Ben Simmons, and Embiid has been the stronghold of the Sixers’ defense, but it’s been the sophomore center who has assumed the most responsibility to anchor down the paint and take on individual challenges against quality big men.

Embiid ranks third in DRPM among those playing at least 30 minutes per game and has the highest defended field goal percentage differential (-8.7) in the NBA for players seeing at least eight attempts per game. Philadelphia is also allowing 112.4 points per 100 possessions with him sitting, which is a 12-point difference that puts his impact in the 97th percentile.

 Eric Bledsoe

Since Bledsoe’s arrival, the Milwaukee Bucks have been on the upswing regarding their defensive principles. The combination of Giannis Antetokounmpo—who could be a candidate for DPOY in his own right—and the strong guard has created havoc for opposing teams. There’s a ton of pressure being applied and it’s worked well. Due to a less-than-ideal stretch a month ago, work still has to be done in order to rid the Bucks out of that bottom-10 stigma in that specific area, but they’re on their way.

Bledsoe’s reputation as an in your face, stick-like-glue defender precedes itself. He’s doing an excellent job with one-on-one matchups. Already hesitant to attack him as it is, opponents don’t try to take him much, but when they do, it doesn’t usually turn out in their favor. In isolation situations, Bledsoe is allowing just 0.44 points per possession and is tied for the second-highest turnover frequency on those plays, ranking in the 97th percentile according to NBA.com. Using CTG, the Bucks’ defensive rating dips by 13 points when he’s off the floor. That discrepancy is also highly regarded and ranks in the 98th percentile.

 Anthony Davis

Where would the New Orleans Pelicans be without Davis? There’s a special talent about The Brow that can’t really be put into words. He takes on the brunt of the defensive load and has for years now. DeMarcus Cousins started off as the physical presence of the duo on that end of the court, but it’s been Davis who has remained the most consistent force.

Answering the question posed in the first paragraph, the Pelicans are giving up 117.5 points per 100 possessions when Davis is not present. That is a ridiculous figure, and given that New Orleans isn’t the best team defensively in the first place, it shows his true importance to that group. Including Cousins, he is one of 13 players defending at least 14 field goals per game. The difference between them, however, is that he is allowing just 40.5 percent of those attempts to be successful. It’s the lowest conversion rate among that list of names. Add in the fact that he’s blocking almost two shots per game and is averaging a steal per game—that’s a convincing case for DPOY.

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Jahlil Okafor Being Slowly Incorporated By Nets

The Nets hope Jahlil Okafor can be a franchise player for them, but, of course, only when he’s ready.

Moke Hamilton

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It’s incredible that a player selected as highly in a draft and as recently as he could be considered damaged goods by his drafting team, but that’s what the Philadelphia 76ers thought of Jahlil Okafor, and the Brooklyn Nets were the beneficiaries.

Remarkably, behind the genius of general manager Sean Marks, the Nets, with Okafor, suddenly have a roster with two young building blocks in he and D’Angelo Russell. With Allen Crabbe and DeMarre Carroll, Marks has done an incredible job of improving the talent base of the Nets despite having little assets to offer in terms of trade value.

Now, with Okafor in tow, the question everyone in Brooklyn wants to know the answer to is “When?”

After acquiring Okafor and shooting guard Nik Stauskas from the Sixers on December 7, neither of the two played in any of the club’s first three games following the trade.

The idea, said head coach Kenny Atkinson, is to bring both Okafor and Stauskas along slowly.

“I just think it’s going to take time,” Atkinson, according to New York Newsday, said Wednesday after practice.

“I can’t give you a timetable. I think we come to these decisions as a group. We’ll know when he’s ready and we’ll give you the word.”

Selected with the third overall pick in the 2015 draft, Okafor averaged 17 points and 7.5 rebounds per game as a rookie. Since then, a combination of the rise of Joel Embiid, his lack of defensive presence and perceived inability to play in an NBA where traditional back-to-basket centers are considered obsolete dropped his stock dramatically, to the point where he played a total of 25 minutes this season for the Sixers.

Still, it hasn’t impacted the value that Atkinson or Marks sees in him.

“I think he’s been very serious, very focused, and that’s a great start because that’s where it starts,” Atkinson said on Wednesday.

“What’s your demeanor like? What’s your work? I’m looking to get to know him more.”

It’s not every day that a coach will acquire a new player who has impact potential and seat him on the bench, but that’s exactly what Atkinson has done. What it means, though, is probably more important.

When one considers what has transpired with the Nets since their move to Brooklyn, the franchise has been renowned for attempting to take shortcuts to the top. From Gerald Wallace to Joe Johnson to even Deron Williams, the moves made by the franchise were always designed with the thought of tomorrow, not the pragmatic patience and long-sighted view that, at least to this point, Atkinson and Marks seem to have.

In most situations, a franchise which knows that its first round pick is going elsewhere would feel at least some sort of pressure to win as much as possible in the short term, especially after having the first overall pick in the prior year’s draft snatched from their grasp. As a reminder, as a part of the 2013 trade that sent Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn, the Nets sent the Celtics their first round picks in the 2014, 2016 and 2018 drafts, as well as the right to swap picks with them in 2017.

As fate would have it, the Nets’ pick in 2017 ended up being first overall, but, obviously, the Celtics exercised their right to swap.

Since then, the Celtics dealt the Nets’ 2018 pick to the Cavaliers in exchange for Kyrie Irving, but to the front office’s credit, the knowledge of the sins of yesterday have no impact on the brick-by-brick approach that Marks has taken in attempting to rebuild the franchise.

Okafor, unlike his prior life in Philadelphia, isn’t coming to Brooklyn with the pressure of being any sort of franchise savior on his shoulders—he simply needs to fit in, on his own time.

“They know my weaknesses and strengths and I’m working with them every day to get better,” Okafor said on Wednesday.

“They already told me what they want me to work on and like I said, I’m all in.”

Obviously, Atkinson has a plan for Okafor, and with the Nets playing three games in four nights, having another big body to provide some minutes would do the team wonders. But, for a change, there’s no haste in Brooklyn.

“Right now, I’m just getting used to the pace,” Okafor said. “That’s the main thing. Especially with me really not having played at all this year,” he said, alluding to the fact that, despite weighing in about 20 pounds lighter than he was last season, his lack of action has cause him to lose a bit of his wind.

But while he may have lost his place in the rotation and his game readiness, in Brooklyn, Okafor has found something much more valuable—a sense of belonging.

“They’re just really invested in me and that just makes me feel wanted, it makes me feel a part of this team,” he said.

With the final debit of the ill-fated 2013 trade being paid this coming summer, the Nets will turn the page on a new era that they hope Okafor and D’Angelo Russell—two players selected one pick apart—can help to lead.

Behind the scenes, Marks will continue to work diligently to acquire undervalued pieces which can, for him, hopefully become a part of a sum that’s bigger than their individual pieces.

But, of course, like Okafor’s debut with Brooklyn, it’ll take some time.

That’s okay, though. Finally, at Barclays Center, for a change, there’s pragmatic patience. For sure, this time, there’s simply no need to rush.

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