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Should Lakers Focus on Present or Future?

The Lakers have a head coach opening, a top lottery pick and plenty of cap space. Should L.A. try to win now or focus on the future?

Jabari Davis

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There are two trains of thought regarding the appropriate path of the Los Angeles Lakers for the foreseeable future – they can continue placing themselves in position to strategically pursue the top upcoming free agents over the next few years or act aggressively this summer in an effort to simply remain (what would likely end up being) only slightly more competitive over the last couple seasons of Kobe Bryant’s career.

Competing for championships has always been this franchise’s singular goal.  Longtime members of the organization all seem to embrace it, almost as a mantra of sorts. So make no mistake about it, these Lakers will be looking for some sort of redemption next season regardless of the direction they choose. Bryant’s incessant desire to win, especially in wake of what became a wasted season for him personally in 2013-14, all but guarantees they’ll come out and compete on a nightly basis.

At this stage in his career, no one questions Bryant’s dedication to his craft. But the supporting cast he’ll have to work with could vary significantly depending upon which course of action general manager Mitch Kupchak and VP of basketball operations Jim Buss elect to pursue. From the decision for the next head coach to the direction they go in the draft to how assertive they are in free agency come July, the path would look significantly different for these Lakers moving forward. Here’s a breakdown of what each option would look like:

Build for the future while remaining relatively competitive

The hiring of a college-level coach at this point is understandably troubling to some, especially given the last couple missteps with the process. In perhaps the biggest decision of the summer, management can ill-afford to go in the wrong direction with their head coach yet again. With that said, the right “fit” is every bit as vital to choosing a coach and philosophy as it is to finding the proper mix of talent to place on the court. Names like Kentucky’s John Calipari and North Carolina’s Roy Williams may have cachet, but the recent groundswell of support surrounding Connecticut’s Kevin Ollie actually makes the most sense for these Lakers if they were to tap a college coach for the position.

IN RELATED: Lakers Should Make Ollie Their No.1 Target

Unless a deal for a truly elite-level NBA commodity were to materialize, the Lakers shouldn’t even consider trading their lottery pick. In the event they were able to hire Ollie, both his success at the collegiate level and his connection to so many of today’s players could truly make him the ideal person to develop young talent and bridge the gap with the veterans. With practically a blank slate outside of Bryant, Steve Nash and Robert Sacre – the only players with guaranteed contracts – the front office will have the luxury of simply picking the best player available with the understanding that a guy like Ollie would presumably be around for the long-haul to oversee the development.

With only three players currently on the roster for 2014-15, it would still be a busy free agency period even if the Lakers elect not to spend the bulk of their available $28.2 million in cap space this summer. This plan would allow them to fill the roster out in a similar fashion to this season with one- or two-year deals that would give them flexibility for the next few summers. A Pau Gasol return would seem unlikely in this case, as even though he has expressed an interest in remaining alongside Bryant, he could determine another situation might give him the best chance to win as he will be 34 years old by the start of next season.

IN RELATED: Lakers Salary Cap Information

Bryant certainly wouldn’t be satisfied by this route (nor should he be as an ultimate competitor), but isn’t left with a great deal of options other than voicing any dismay having already re-signed.

Continue to embrace the “win now” approach

Some might think the size of Bryant’s contract would point to the increased likelihood of this approach, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Either way, a “win now” regime would look significantly different than one with the future in mind. Much like the plan laid out above, this strategy would also involve the decisions at head coach and in the draft, while significantly altering the method by which they attacked free agency.

Experienced coaches like George Karl, Byron Scott or even Lionel Hollins would seem more likely with this direction. Each would seem to appeal to veterans like Bryant and Nash for various reasons, and could potentially even influence Gasol’s decision. While we won’t know which pick the Lakers will end up with until the draft lottery on May 20, each coach would also help determine which direction the team goes in the draft. Duke’s Jabari Parker or Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins might appeal to Karl, while Scott may be more interested in cultivating a young guard like Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart or Austalian phenom Dante Exum. Hollins, on the contrary, might want to develop a young big man like Kansas’ Joel Embiid or an athletic big like Arizona’s Aaron Gordon.

IN RELATED: A Look at the Lakers’ Best Coaching Options

There’s also the distinct possibility that the Lakers decide to move the draft pick for an established talent under one of these coaches. Especially in the event the pick winds up outside of the top three, the team could look to explore the possibility of pairing Bryant with the oft-rumored Kevin Love. Love could conceivably sign with the Lakers as a free agent following next season, but there is no guarantee. Trading for him brings him to L.A. now and the Minnesota Timberwolves might finally be interested in moving their franchise power forward with the risk of losing him on the horizon. In that case, the Lakers would be forced to at least consider a move if they’ve determined Love is a player that fits with their future plans.

There has even been talk of the Lakers acquiring a young guard like Kyrie Irving, but that seems unlikely since that would not only require him to effectively turn down his first max contract opportunity later this summer, but it would also take the foresight of selecting a player the Cleveland Cavaliers may have interest in with their draft pick. It’s certainly not impossible, but that turn of events seems much easier when discussed in theory or on your preferred social media platform.

Free agency is perhaps where you might see the most significant difference if the front office decides to go-for-broke this summer. Names like Carmelo Anthony, Luol Deng and Gasol could very well morph from potential options to priorities for this front office. LeBron James could also be an option, but it remains to be seen if he’ll exercise the early termination option in his contract to become an unrestricted free agent this summer. Someone like Anthony is a more realistic target. A hypothetical Anthony/Gasol frontcourt would almost certainly appease Bryant, and would actually be competitive with relative health. But that would all-but knock the Lakers out of consideration for upcoming free agents including the likes of Love and James if he chooses to delay his free agency until next offseason.

The trouble with a core of Anthony, Bryant and Gasol is that without some defensive-oriented players around them and a coach like Tom Thibodeau to construct the types of schemes that might at least ‘mask’ having multiple defensive weaknesses in key positions, they’re probably left with an entertaining, high-scoring team that would still struggle to defend on a nightly basis. That’s an issue in a league that’s becoming far more difficult to simply outscore your opponents to win. It was reported the Lakers would have interest in interviewing Thibodeau if the Chicago Bulls would grant them the opportunity, but  it would undoubtedly take a transaction similar to last summer’s deal between the Boston Celtics and L.A. Clippers that resulted in the essential “trade” of Doc Rivers, with two years left on Thibodeau’s current deal.

IN RELATED: Should the Bulls Trade Thibodeau?

As you can see, there is no “easy answer” when it comes to solving the Lakers’ current dilemma. Unless they are able to find a way to hit the proverbial “home run” across the board in terms of head coach, draft and free agency, look for this front office to continue biding their time while steadily positioning the franchise to strike when the opportunity and desired players become available.

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 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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