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.
Checking in with the boss pic.twitter.com/qzGf0tjjiE
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) June 10, 2016
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.
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) June 14, 2016
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.
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) June 15, 2016
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.
Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close
Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.
You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?
Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.
With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?
Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.
For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?
I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.
Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.
I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.
Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?
Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.
Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?
I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.
Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?
Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.
Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.
Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?
Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.
Would you welcome that rematch?
I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.
What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?
Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.
NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense
The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.
“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].
“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.
“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”
Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.
“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”
Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.
According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.
The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.
“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”
Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.
“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”
Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.
“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”
While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.
“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.
NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics
The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.
Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.
Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.
Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.
As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.
Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.
Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.
“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by Celtics.com.
“I’m tired of not playing.”
Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.
As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.
What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.
Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.
Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.
Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.
In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.
Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.
With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.
As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.
Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.
But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.
And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.