NBA

The Shop: West, West, Y’all

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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.

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About Jabari Davis

Jabari Davis

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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