Alright Lang, let’s jump back into The Shop mix again this week with a look at the start a few teams have experienced now that we’re a couple weeks in. We’ll kick things off with the Los Angeles Lakers, as they are currently 4-4 and already playing much better than some might have anticipated. As always, young teams will have ups and downs, and that loss to the short-handed Mavericks is a perfect example of why Coach Luke Walton reminded the players and the media to maintain proper perspective when it comes to expectations of this group.
Julius Randle looks better on both ends and more comfortable facing the basket. The extra conditioning and attention to detail/scheme have made the difference on the defensive end. Jordan Clarkson has also improved on both ends, but what is most promising is that he realizes he still has so much more room to improve.
To be honest, outside of Luol Deng looking like he’s running around in ski boots out there (yes, I know he contributes in ways beyond even the box score), it really has been a pleasant surprise across the board for these guys. Obviously, there’s still a ton of room for continued development with this group, but part of me feels like that transition period may only be a year or two… rather than the three-to-four year process most were projecting over the summer.
Lang: The Lakers have been a pleasant surprise for sure. What has been crazy is watching the Lakers become a team people are actually rooting for to succeed! Los Angeles is always a polarizing squad because of all of the old star power … Magic, Kareem, Shaq, Kobe and on and on. But now, this is a scrappy young bunch that we’re witnessing grind on the fly. This is what makes the Lakers a bit more fun for the masses to root for because people respect the grind.
You touched on all of the floor mechanics so I won’t repeat a lot of that, but Luke Walton appears to be the perfect guy for the job. He is giving a nice balance between throwing his guys out to the fire and handcuffing them when needed. Good job early season for young Luke.
Let me touch on Luol for a second. When Father Time comes, he comes quick and unexpected sometimes. Luol looks a bit past it early on, but who knows, he could be playing through some stuff they’re not clueing us in on. That happens occasionally. But I will say this: the veteran additions of Luol and Timofey Mozgov have helped create a more competitive and accountable atmosphere. I also like the fact veterans Lou Williams and Metta World Peace are still around. Veterans are needed for any young core to develop.
Jabari: It wouldn’t shock me to hear Deng’s still working his way through that bruised left knee that he suffered during the preseason. Perhaps more than anything with aging players, the recovery time for injuries and ailments seems to extend. While he’s reportedly contributing in other ways, which as you mentioned are always important for a young team, I’m hoping his body is right at some point so they can also get whatever on-court contributions he has left in the tank on the front end of that deal.
I’ll say this about Lou… I didn’t take into account the tumultuous nature of last year’s squad when judging his play. Needless to say, even though I was less than impressed with his first year, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by just how well he’s fitting into Luke’s system and preferred basketball style. The buy-in has been phenomenal by this group, so kudos are definitely due for the coaching staff (and players) at this stage.
Lang: Now let me transition to a squad folks were really high on – and again, we’re very early – but they haven’t lived up to the hype. Yeah, I’m talking about the Minnesota Timberwolves. The team is currently 2-5 and sitting 13th in the Western Conference, my man. Now, I am fully aware that they’re only two games out if the playoffs were to begin today but I am having a hard time seeing what so many people we respect see in this unit. I think I saw a 48-win projection for this team before training camp.
I think Karl-Anthony Towns is a certified goodie monster, but it takes time to start winning in the NBA. Just look at the struggles Anthony Davis is having in New Orleans. Different situations, sure, but Minnesota missed the boat by not investing in veteran leadership this summer – like the Lakers did. Brandon Rush is their most experienced player. Think about that. Jordan Hill and John Lucas III are the next most experienced. What wars have those guys been through? Any former All-Star selections? No? Any guys who made a run at Sixth Man of the Year? No? Rush does have a ring, but he was a bit player on the floor (although a strong part of Golden State’s chemistry).
What am I missing about this Minny team and do you think they will make a playoff run?
Davis: You’re exactly right about their lack of experience, and perhaps those of us that were so eager to anoint them should have taken that into consideration a bit more. As one of the individuals that saw them as a playoff team heading in (not quite 48 wins, but low-to-mid 40s), I am not entirely surprised to see it taking a bit of time. The big difference between Davis’ situation in New Orleans and Towns’ in Minnesota is that the Timberwolves have some firepower to work with surrounding him. No disrespect to any of those dudes working their tails off in New Orleans, but if you were drafting from those two teams alone, you might take Ant with the first pick, but the next six or seven would likely come from Minnesota’s roster.
I figured after a slow start, they’d be a second-half team the way that Utah group was a couple years back. Of course, that is all contingent upon whether Thibs can keep them playing at a high enough level over the first 35-40 games to stay within reach of the conversation. I feel like Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins have already shown some of that improvement, but obviously have room to go. Kris Dunn’s development could also play a key role in any post-February push, but it has admittedly been a bit slow for him in the early going. We’ll see if they are able to put it together over the next 25 or so games, but as long as they stay within reach of that 8-10 range, I won’t jump overboard just yet. I do think some veteran contributors (not just there for a presence) would help their cause at some point.
Let’s keep it in the Western Conference and talk about the fast start of the L.A. Clippers and whether it is sustainable. I definitely think they can stay in the mix for a top-three record (finishing anywhere from one to three depending on how things shake out for each team), but just hope they can remain healthy or can at least BE healthy by the time the postseason comes around.
They’re a top-10 team in terms of offensive efficiency and they’re actually leading the league in opponent shooting percentage as they are holding opponents to just 39.6 percent shooting. They’re also holding teams to just 88.3 point per contest, which is better than seven points less than the second-place Utah Jazz (95.4). So, are you on the train?
Lang: I am on the record saying that the Clippers should finish second in the West this season. In my view, it is now or never for the core group of Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan and Doc Rivers to make a Western Conference Finals run. Time is ticking and we already know how volatile their locker can become if things turn for the worse.
As great as Chris Paul is bro, he’s never reached the Western Conference Finals… and he entered the league in 2005!
I think San Antonio will be in the mix, but something tells me the Clippers edge the Spurs for the number two slot. They have a great floor general, one of the best power forwards in the game and a top-tier rebounder. What they are missing is a small forward who can give them a legit 30 minutes a night. That’s the key. The Clippers play a lot of committee ball at the three, but come playoff time with lunch money snatchers Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard at small forward they’ll need someone who can bring the heat. A guy like Jae Crowder or Trevor Ariza is what this team is missing, man. But Boston and Houston aren’t giving those two dudes up … not by a longshot, so I think the Clippers have to work the trade market aggressively.
Well, I’ll keep this in the West since you have imposed your will on The Shop this week and made this a West Coast edition; what would you do with DeMarcus Cousins? If I’m Sacramento, I am doing everything in my power to make things right with the big man. You can make the argument that he’s the best center in the game. The numbers are ridiculous and after talking with numerous people around the team since he entered the league, the man has matured. But everyone doesn’t handle the losing the same way. It’s obvious that Boogie is one of those guys. But Sacramento’s drafting philosophy has been… let’s be honest … crappy. I know their front office works hard, but the moves haven’t panned out. Ben McLemore, Willie Cauley-Stein, Thomas Robinson, Nik Stauskas and Ray McCallum leave plenty to be desired.
Two of the studs they drafted – Isaiah Thomas and Hassan Whiteside – are balling elsewhere and are damn near MAX players. Could you imagine an Isaiah Thomas, Boogie and Hassan Whiteside core right now? And I know the Isaiah and Boogie dynamic needed work and Hassan was a bit immature at the time… but are you telling me no one in the organization looked at I.T. and Hassan and said let’s do everything in our power to develop these guys? If not, that’s part of the problem in Sac-Town even though Boogie will ultimately become the scapegoat.
Jabari: I wanted to be able to put some of that off to simply being the “previous regime” but I looked it up and Vlade Divac was already in place when it came time to figure things out with Thomas (averaging 25.7 PPG, 7.1 APG for Boston this year). Whiteside, on the other hand, was toward the end of the Petrie years that preceded the D’Alessandro seasons… so I can’t fault this current ownership and front office group for that one. At 4-5 on the year, I hope things continue to go well for this current group. I remarked before the season that as Cousins enters what appears to be the prime of his career (25.8 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 1.1 BPG and 48.4/78.4 percent from the floor/line in ‘16-17), it is about time for the Kings to finally be able to cash in on having one of the league’s top 10-15 players.
They were a little better (33-49) than some may have noticed last season, and optimism was about as high as it has been in a decade with Coach Dave Joerger hopefully bringing a bit of stability to a bench that has been a total revolving door. Obviously, it’s way too early to have playoff conversations when you are only about a 10th of the way through the regular season, but with the Western Conference being a bit more open in terms of the bottom half of the playoff bracket, they can probably stay in that mix by maintaining a .500 record.
I still don’t quite understand what they are doing with that roster, but will say they appear to have some options or potential assets that could be moved in order to solidify things for a second-half push if they are within reach. I realize all of this sounds like an awful lot of optimism for an organization that hasn’t given a ton of reason to have such high hopes, but I still think they have a chance to keep things together.
Alright, folks, we’ll end things at this point for this week, but remember to use #TheShop hashtag on Twitter (@JabariDavisNBA and @LangGreene) in order to continue contributing to our weekly discussion.
NBA Daily: Shamet Comfortable With Steady Self Going Into Draft
With a natural feel for the game, Wichita State guard Landry Shamet has more than enough of a chance to carve his own path of success in the NBA.
No matter what professional field a person wants to work in, there are multiple ways to show why they belong.
A positive attitude is everything, confidence goes a long way and honesty truly is the best policy.
Speaking with Wichita State product Landry Shamet this past week at the NBA Combine in Chicago, it’s clear that he has all three boxes checked off.
“It’s been great,” Shamet said of the event. “Just trying to absorb everything, soak everything up. It’s a big learning experience for sure. A lot of knowledge to be attained (at the Combine). With interviews and playing on the court, being coached by NBA guys, it’s been cool so far.”
During his three years with the Shockers, the 6-foot-4, 188-pound guard accomplished quite a few feats, but his junior season was arguably the most spectacular. Not only did Shamet lead his team in multiple ways, but he also topped out in four statistical categories in the American Athletic Conference—the school’s first year there after moving on from the Missouri Valley.
Shamet’s 166 assists (5.2 per game average) were the most in the AAC by far. In addition, his true shooting percentage (65.5) and three-point percentage (44.2) ranked number one among his peers.
From entering the program in 2015 to now, he feels that he’s grown dramatically as a player—but in what areas, specifically?
“I would say being a point guard honestly,” Shamet said. “I was recruited in as a two. But just kinda that leadership role, that accountability. Knowing that you’re gonna get a lot of scrutiny (after) a loss and you’re gonna be responsible for a win. Regardless of how the game goes, it’s your responsibility.”
Much of his development at Wichita State was courtesy of a hands-on approach with Gregg Marshall, one of the most revered head coaches in college basketball. Thanks to his guidance, Shamet feels ready, even aspects outside of his offensive ability.
“On the defensive end, I feel comfortable with my positioning,” Shamet said. “Obviously, need to get better. You can always get better on the defensive end. That’s one thing I’ve been focusing on. Trying to get more athletic. Just be better defensively. He gave me the groundwork for sure. 100 percent.”
Shamet has kept in touch with Marshall throughout the entire pre-draft process. He was told to be “smile and relax” in interviews and to be confident, which he’s certainly followed through with.
A similar message has come from Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet, two former Shockers who have each made their mark at the professional level.
“Just be yourself, you know,” Shamet said of VanVleet’s pointers. “That’s really what it boils down to I think. He’s been great to have him in my corner—a guy like that who’s been through a lot of adversity on his way to the NBA, so I’m gonna listen to him 10 times out of 10.”
VanVleet’s career is already taking off with the Toronto Raptors as a part of their young and hungry bench. But with four more inches of height and a similar feel for the game, Shamet has more than enough of a chance to carve his own path of success in the NBA.
And it won’t require flash or making a daily highlight-reel to do so.
“I’d like to just say versatile,” Shamet said of his game. “Just try to stay solid. I don’t ever try to make spectacular plays all the time. Try to just do what I feel I can do—play multiple positions, both positions, on or off the ball. I’m comfortable at either spot, honestly. Whether it’s facilitating, scoring, whatever the case may be.
“I feel like I have a high IQ as well. Just a cerebral player. Not gonna ‘wow’ you with crossing people up and doing things that a lot of the guys in the limelight do all the time. But I feel like I’m a solid player. Pretty steady across the board.”
However, just because he rarely shows off on the court doesn’t mean he doesn’t have the ability to do it.
“I feel like I’m a little more athletic than I might get credit for,” Shamet said. “I think I’m a better athlete than I get credit for.”
Shamet is projected to go anywhere from the middle-to-late first round of the draft in June. Whoever lands the Kansas City native will be getting a tireless worker who does things the right way and is all about the team.
But for now, he’s soaking in everything he possibly can before that night comes.
“I don’t have all the answers,” Shamet candidly said. “I’m a 21-year-old kid, man I guess. So just trying to learn as much as I can, gain some knowledge, get good feedback—because at the end of the day, I’m not a perfect player. I know that.”
The Lakers Have Finally Stabilized
After a tough five-year period filled with loss and disappointment, the Lakers have finally put themselves back in a position to succeed.
On paper, missing the playoffs for the fifth year in a row would rarely be considered impressive, but for the Los Angeles Lakers, a team that’s suffered pretty much nothing but misery over the last half-decade, this season was a sign of progress.
Leading up to this past season, the previous four years overall were anything but easy on the Lakers. Besides consistently being one of the worst teams in the league, some of the team’s high lottery picks, such as D’Angelo Russell, did not pan out as well as they had hoped, and management baffled the fanbase when they signed both Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov to approximately $140 million combined over four years.
This season, things finally took a turn for the better. The team’s youngest players, particularly Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Julius Randle and Lonzo Ball, started to yield positive results. The team’s new acquisitions, specifically Brook Lopez, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and briefly Isaiah Thomas, made a notable impact on the season. Second-year head coach Luke Walton proved himself to be up for the job with improved personnel at his arsenal. That may have led to only 35 wins, but compared to the previous four seasons’ final results, 35 wins is about as good as the Lakers could have hoped for.
And it should only get better from here. The biggest positive is that the team’s long-term outlook is now the brightest its been since Dwight Howard skipped town in 2013. Their impending return to the glory days is still up in the air, but the Lakers can finally look forward to a promising future for two reasons.
When the Lakers replaced Mitch Kupchak with Rob Pelinka and Magic Johnson to run the team, the two of them went to work right away. Pelinka and Johnson knew that if the Lakers were going to attain relevance again, they had to undo the franchise’s previous mistakes, even if it meant getting rid of some of their young talent.
It’s as the old saying goes, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.”
Making said omelet started with getting rid of their albatross contracts. The Lakers found a taker for Mozgov when they traded him to Brooklyn for Brook Lopez’s expiring deal, but that deal also required trading Russell. Mid-season, the Lakers found a taker for Jordan Clarkson when they traded him to Cleveland, but that deal also required trading Larry Nance Jr.
Losing Russell and Nance Jr, and to some degree Clarkson, may have been tough cheese to swallow, but with Mozgov and Clarkson off the payroll, the Lakers have a ton of cap space at their disposal. In fact, this summer, the Lakers have only $34.5 million in guaranteed contracts, which will be the lowest payroll in entire NBA. This is a much bigger deal now that it’s been in the past for one simple reason: Hardly any teams will have cap room this summer.
The NBA salary cap’s drastic rise in 2016 caused many teams to overshoot their mark over the past two off-seasons. Because of that, quite a few teams will be paying the luxury tax while others will do everything in their power to avoid the luxury tax. This means that only a select few teams will have cap room to add a free agent on a max deal. The Lakers, on the other hand, have the cap room to add two.
Their situation only gets better given the competition in free agency. Most of the other teams that have cap room are in rebuilding mode, so the Lakers shouldn’t expect many competitors in their chase for marquee free agents ie LeBron James and Paul George this summer. The only other team that will be competing for their services with available cap space is Philadelphia, who only has $44 million on payroll this summer. Houston will also be in the race, but they will have to get creative if they hope to add a max free agent this summer plus keep Chris Paul AND Clint Capela.
Even if the Lakers whiff on LeBron and George, it isn’t the end of the world. They can afford to re-sign Thomas and/or Caldwell-Pope to one-year deals worth over $10 million because hardly anyone else can do the same. Even if absolutely nothing goes their way this summer, they’ll have flexibility again next season. While having cap space does not automatically mean free agents will come to the Lakers’ door next season, it’s better to have money available to offer than having to spend it on Clarkson and Mozgov.
Promising Youth Movement
Many knew the Lakers’ young core was nothing to sneeze at, but for the first time since they’ve started their rebuild in 2013, their youth movement’s talent finally translated into wins. They didn’t do it all on their own, but nothing makes a team’s future brighter than their young players starting to reach their potential.
That starts with Brandon Ingram. Ingram was the textbook example of raw his rookie season, but his sophomore year, he started living up to his billing as the second overall pick in his draft. Across the board, he improved his numbers, but his shining moment came when the Lakers turned to him to run the point with Lonzo Ball out in late-January. During that stretch, the Duke alum averaged 18.4 points on 52 percent shooting including 46 percent from three, 5.4 assists, and 5.5 rebounds. Ingram struggled mightily with injuries after that, but his vast improvement should be very beneficial in the long run.
Then there was the biggest surprise of the season: Kyle Kuzma. When the deal was first agreed to, Kuzma was originally a throw-in when the Lakers traded Mozgov and Russell for Lopez, but knowing Brooklyn’s luck, Kuzma may wind up being the best player in this deal. Kuzma wowed the fans at the Staples Center, as he averaged 16.1 points and 6.3 rebounds while shooting 45 percent from the field. Since Kuzma is only 22 years old, there’s no telling what his ceiling might be.
Then there’s the first lottery pick the Lakers drafted in their rebuild: Julius Randle. Randle got himself in the best shape of his life in preparation for this season, and it paid off on the court. Randle averaged career-highs in both point average (16.1) and field goal percentage (58 percent), but his best stretch came in February through March. In that time, Randle averaged 21.2 points on 57.6 percent shooting, 9.5 rebounds, and 3.3 assists. Randle is a restricted free agent this year, but with the lack of available money this summer, his best option may be to stay in LA.
Finally, the biggest wild card of the Lakers’ young talent: Lonzo Ball. Ball was both injury-riddled and inconsistent his rookie year, but he showed flashes every now and again of the player his humble father said he would be. While he had his issues putting the ball in the bucket, Ball’s much-hyped passing translated in the NBA, averaging 7.2 assists a game, and his rebounding was terrific given his size, as he averaged 6.9 rebounds a game. The jury is still out on Ball, but he should be given a full season before anyone comes to judgment.
In short, the Lakers’ cap flexibility and promising youth movement give them stability that not many believed they would have had at the end of last season. Inadequacy and incompetence have plagued the Lakeshow for the past several years, but now that they’ve brought the right people aboard, they are now pointed in the right direction.
NBA Daily: Meet Chimezie Metu, A Versatile Big Man
Chimezie Metu could end up being one of the steals of this year’s draft.
Each year when it comes to the NBA draft, there always seems to a few players flying under the radar a bit. Players who are underrated or overlooked for whatever reason. This year, one of those players is Chimezie Metu from the University of Southern California.
In early mock drafts, Metu was projected to go anywhere from mid to late first-round. In some of the more recent mocks, he’s fallen out of the first-round altogether and into the second-round. If those projections hold and he does end up being selected in the second-round, then some team is going to get a huge steal.
Metu is a versatile big man who impacts both ends of the floor. He is an agile shot blocker who can control the paint defensively, and on the other end, he can score in the post while being able to step out and knock down mid-range jump shots. He is confident in what he’ll be able to bring to an NBA team.
“I think being versatile and being able to make an impact on defense right away,” Metu told reporters at the NBA Draft Combine this past week. “Being able to switch on to smaller players or guard the post, and just being able to knock down shots or make plays when I’m called upon.”
In his three years at USC, Metu blossomed into one of the best players in the Pac-12 conference. This past season, he led a solid Trojans team in scoring with 15.7 points per game on 52.3 percent shooting. He also led the team in rebounding with 7.4 per game and had a team-high 59 blocked shots.
He’s taken note of some of the best big men in the NBA, some of whom he’s tried to model his game after. He told reporters at the combine that some of his biggest influences are Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid. He knows that there may be misconceptions about his game, or those that doubt him, but he isn’t worried about that at all.
“I don’t really worry about what other people are saying about myself. I just go out there and play hard, and try to help my team win games,” Metu said. “My strength is being versatile, being able to impact the game in multiple ways. Not being one dimensional and being able to have fingerprints on different parts of the game.”
It’s been busy past few days for Metu. He’s had 13 interviews with NBA teams to go along with workouts, medical testing and media availability. Although it’s been a hectic time, part of what has made it so worthwhile is all of the NBA personnel he’s been able to interact with. What really has stood out to him being at the combine is the difference between college and the NBA.
“I can just go up to the owners and the GMs and just talk to them,” Metu said. “Coming from college you basically have to act like they’re not there, cause of the rules and stuff. Just the fact that they can come up and talk to you, you can talk to them, that’s probably the most surprising part for me.”
Aside from all the front office personnel he’s interacted with, Metu has also had the opportunity to meet with some of the most respected names in NBA history. Among the former players who he’s had a chance to meet with, Magic Johnson and Bob McAdoo have definitely stood out to him.
While he’s grateful just to have been able to meet NBA royalty, he’s used it as an opportunity to pick their brains. He’s also been able to showcase his game in front of them. He is confident that he’s been able to impress them and hopefully make an impact on their decisions come draft night.
“Just coming out here and having fun, there’s a lot of basketball royalty,” Metu said. “Being able to get a chance to shake their hands, being able to take stuff from them and what helped them become great. I’m just trying to take their advice. It feels great because never in a million years did I think I’d be here. It’s fun just going out there and showing what I can do.”