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NBA AM: Lakers Rebounding Sooner Than Expected?

Jabari Davis takes a look at the Lakers’ 7-7 start and what to look for moving forward.

Jabari Davis

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While many anticipated a quick turnaround from teams like the Minnesota Timberwolves, Phoenix Suns or even Miami HEAT this year, the Los Angeles Lakers (7-7) have actually gotten off to one of the better starts of teams currently undergoing a youth movement.

The potential was obvious, but given just how negative the trajectory of the franchise appeared to be over the past three seasons (just 65-181), there were still plenty of people openly questioning the direction and decision-making capabilities of the front office even as recently as training camp about a month back. The ‘healing properties’ of success when it comes to professional sports are unquestionable, but there appears to be the type of total team buy-in under head coach Luke Walton and his staff that leads one to believe this start is the foundation for the success to come.

Of course, it is still early, but the Lakers currently have the ninth-ranked team offense in terms of efficiency and appear to have embraced Walton’s preferred style of working the ball around the floor for the most optimum shot available (for the most part). While there’s still a tendency to revert to negative habits at times – Sunday’s iso-heavy second-half in a loss to the Chicago Bulls, for example – this group genuinely appears excited for one another when everyone is involved in scoring and playmaking.

Although the defensive effort is collectively better for stretches at a time, let’s just say it is still a work in progress as they are currently just the 26th-ranked team defense (efficiency) and are dead last in terms of opponent’s points in the paint (49.9 per game). The addition of Timofey Mozgov has been a clear upgrade over the productivity they received from the pivot in 2015-16, but one rim-protecting big man (playing 21.4 minutes per contest) isn’t enough of a deterrent when opposing guards and wings get into the paint at will. Although they do have players who can rebound, that can’t be something left simply to the big men. Currently sitting at 20th overall, they’re at their best when everyone focuses on rebounding as a team – especially when you are shooting 27.4 three-pointers as a team per contest.

If the guards don’t track the ball when the opportunity presents itself, then long rebounds can generate fast breaks for opposing teams. The 15.6 fast break points per contest the team is surrendering is third-worst in the league and also contributes to them giving up so many points in the paint. None of this is to be overly critical of a young team, but there are some pretty obvious defensive issues all around the court that contribute to such high output from opposing teams.

When the Lakers have locked in and played together on the defensive end (proactive vs. reactive) and collectively attacked the glass this year, they’ve gone on the type of runs (often after halftime) that have perhaps prematurely gotten folks into the “maybe we could make the playoffs this year” mindset that can be a bit dangerous, or at the very least problematic for young teams. Not that you don’t want your fan base excited over such a start, and you certainly don’t want to curtail the positive vibes currently circulating within that locker room, but you also don’t want to lose sight of the fact that some lessons take a bit longer for young teams. Especially when so much of this core is still learning how to play the game at this level, let alone being expected to learn how to immediately win at a pace that would keep them in the playoff race. Adjusting expectations is totally fine, but you can also run the risk of “polluting” the process, or at least your ability to fully appreciate the progress along the way if you are inappropriately focusing on wins and losses as the primary measure of success in year one with this current roster, staff and system.

Following the aforementioned loss at the hands of a scrappy Bulls team, Coach Walton acknowledged such lessons in particular when facing a player of Jimmy Butler’s capabilities: “He’s a pretty fantastic player, but if he’s going to do that, then we have to shut down the rest of the guys. We let him get his and the role players all chipped in and did their part as well. You either take away the star, or take away the role players. You can’t let everyone have a night.”

This staff realizes that while there is no need to bury this group for making the mistakes young players tend to make (evidenced by their tone on the matter), that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be an equal amount of focus aimed toward rectifying the issues. Currently just 22nd in team fouls per game, Walton also addressed the pitfalls of repeatedly fouling scorers early in games and permitting them to find a rhythm from the free throw line and leaving the defense in a disadvantaged position once the top players get rolling.

Beyond Butler’s 40-point game, these Lakers have also given up large scoring nights to Andrew Wiggins (47), Devin Booker (39) and James Harden (34) among several others. To a certain degree, that’s what the league’s best scorers are simply going to do, because that’s what makes them so special. You just can’t appear to be comfortable with the notion that someone is going to do it on a nightly basis against you. In recent years, whether it was the reality or not, that certainly appeared to be the case from the outside looking in.

All of these things can and should eventually come over time, especially when dealing with young players who are eager and willing to continue developing on both sides of the court – as these guys seem to be. The process of learning proper defensive rotations, tendencies and roles of teammates, how/when to ‘help the helper’ as well as the strengths, weaknesses and preferences of opponents might sound “boring” to some of us, but for this group to reach its full potential, these guys are going to have to love it as much as they love knocking down threes or finishing over the top of someone.

The Lakers could naturally improve in that area over the course of the season, but one of the obvious remedies should already be on the roster. At a certain point, you figure Brandon Ingram will join the starting lineup, but you can also understand why they went with the decision to ease the 19-year-old into the mix here in the early going. Luol Deng was specifically brought in to not only mentor these young wing players, but to also act as a bit of a buffer as Ingram (7.8 points, 2.6 rebounds on 40.6 percent from the floor over his last five games) adjusts to life in the league. Deng’s on-court production has been slow to start the year (6.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, 32.7 percent from the floor), but the front office and coaching staff have to be collectively hoping the behind-the-scenes and in-game knowledge he’s able to bestow upon Ingram makes it all worthwhile.

Ingram has already shown he can make an impact on the defensive end at times, although it is difficult to slow a veteran player down once he’s gotten off to a good start. Ideally, you’d like to see Ingram continue to work himself into that starting lineup and perhaps bolster the versatility and effectiveness of the defensive strategy, so that Deng could transition into a designated role of support over the last few years of that deal he signed this past summer.

As our Eric Pincus alluded, Russell has looked better and certainly shot the ball more effectively (outside of Sundays) this year. The goal moving forward, as is the case for all young guards, must be in finding a way to be even more consistent with his effort even in the face of adversity or a rough shooting night. Each of them has been better about it, but there are still too many possessions and short stretches when the defensive focus isn’t what it should be as a result of not getting off to a strong start on the other end of the court.

Walton went into the year with praise for the effort a resurgent Nick Young provided throughout camp and even mentioned challenging an improving Jordan Clarkson to embrace that role of being a defensive disruptor around the perimeter. The thing is, everyone needs to take that challenge head-on and understand this team’s ultimate success will be directly correlated to it.

Reserves Larry Nance Jr. (28th overall) and Tarik Black (33rd) are the team’s highest rated defensive players by real plus/minus, according to ESPN.com, but the Lakers need guys like Julius Randle (21st among power forwards), Russell (66th among point guards) and Clarkson (13th among point guards) to also become top-tier defensive players if they want to truly be in a playoff discussion anytime soon.

To his credit, Randle has been significantly better on both ends (50th in power forward DRPM last year, for perspective) and is actually taking the open jumpers opposing teams are encouraging. He’s at 14.1 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 3.9 APG while shooting 54.2 percent from the floor as a career 44.5 percent shooter. Randle also continues to improve as a decision maker and even though he’ll still pick up the occasional offensive foul while attempting to create, he’s a far cry from the whirling dervish or Tazmanian Devil (if you will) he was with the ball in his hands when he entered the league.

Still a bit undersized for his position against certain matchups, the extra conditioning already seems to have helped him attack with even more confidence around the basket. As his range and overall face-up game continue to improve, Randle has been eager to take advantage of defenders left in the unenviable position of being on their heels as he approaches with a full head of steam.

Much of the focus coming into the year was understandably on how Walton and staff would do, what Ingram might look like or even how Russell would progress in a more favorable system, but Randle has been the one to really hit the ground running and has probably shown the most overall improvement of the bunch.

Another positive through the first month of the year has been the play of the bench. Indicative of the balance this roster has throughout, the second unit actually makes up the highest scoring bench in the league. Lou Williams (16.9 PPG) and Clarkson (14.6 PPG) lead the unit in scoring, but Nance Jr., Black and Ingram also provide the type of defense, intensity and versatility that has permitted them to be so effective. There is a genuine chemistry and connectivity on the court that goes beyond simply being familiar from one year to the next.

Last year’s approach didn’t appear to be nearly as conducive to the development of this generation of players, so the Lakers have to hope Walton and his staff are ultimately more effective with their current approach to concerns of this nature. If this start is any indication of things to come, they’ve already gotten through to this group in ways you might have anticipated taking a full year.

All in all, you couldn’t have realistically anticipated any better start from this group, but perhaps the most promising thing is that you can see the further potential beyond what they’ve already shown. You also see a group that appears to understand this is only the beginning, and that’s something that everyone needs to keep in mind when it comes to maintaining realistic expectations along the way.

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: What We Forgot

With the NBA season now a month old, Matt John looks into no what we have learned, but we had previously forgotten.

Matt John

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With every new NBA season, we tend to forget a few things here and there; players or teams that go through a down year are often, warranted or not, cast aside for the next best thing, only to resurface in the NBA’s collective conscience later on.

Like last season, for example, Dwight Howard was regarded as a nothing-addition for the Los Angeles Lakers, a gamble that they may have been better off not taking. However, Howard played an integral role in the Lakers’ run to the NBA title and reminded everyone that, when he plays without distractions, he’s one of the league’s fiercest around the basket.

But that’s just one example. So, who or what has been re-discovered this season? Let’s take a look.

Stephen Curry: Still Phenomenal

Nobody’s forgotten that entirely. It’s just been a while since people have seen Curry at the peak of his powers.

Sure, it was easy to be skeptical of what he was capable of coming into this season. But, with Kevin Durant gone, Curry had free reign to score and shoot as much as he desired. And, with that freedom, Curry’s put up his best numbers since 2016, his second MVP season. In 15 games, Curry’s averaged 28.2 points 5.5 rebounds and 6.1 assists and shot 45 percent from the field, 37 percent from three and 93 percent from the line. He’s reminded everyone why he’s one of the games best and that he can accomplish anything or score on anyone on any given night.

Of course, the absence of Durant, as well as the loss of Klay Thompson and others, has led to another atypical season for the Warriors. Their 8-7 has them tied for seventh in the Western Conference and, while they have certainly improved on how they looked to start the season, they have a long way to go before they’re back in title contention.

The Warriors may never again reach the heights they once knew, either before or with Durant. But, until Father Time dictates otherwise, Curry should long remain a nightmare for the opposition.

Tom Thibodeau Can Get It Done

What can you say about the New York Knicks? Unironically, a lot.

Not only have they shown themselves to no longer be the butt of the NBA’s jokes, but, compared to the last decade-plus of Knicks’ basketball, the 2020-21 season might be their brightest yet.

Julius Randle’s transition into more of a point forward-type has generated a career-year and All-Star buzz. RJ Barrett has continued to improve rapidly, while rookie Immanuel Quickley has “quickley” become a fan favorite. Most impressive of all, however, is that New York has allowed the fewest points per game (102.7) and the fourth-fewest points per 100 possessions (106.8) in the NBA.

In other words, they finally look like a competent basketball team. But what’s changed? Two words: Tom Thibodeau.

The players have bought in to Thibodeau’s scheme and, clearly, it’s had a positive effect. Of course, the disaster that was his Minnesota Timberwolves tenure made us forget just what a proven head coach Thibodeau could be, but he’s put it all together in the past and, in New York, he would seem to be doing so once again.

Of course, there is plenty left to do. The Knicks’ spacing is a joke — and a bad one at that. In fact, their entire offense could stand to see some of that energy they bring on defense; the Knicks are dead last in the NBA at 101.3 points per game.

Still, at 8-8, New York is no longer a doormat and, given the last few seasons, that’s probably the best they could’ve hoped for. Rome wasn’t built in a day and the Knicks won’t be either, but the franchise looks like they may have finally turned a corner toward relevance.

Maturity Issues Loom Large

Like the Knicks, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been another NBA-darling this season. And again, like New York, their players have bought in; head coach J.B. Bickerstaff has everyone playing with energy on defense and, while their offense hasn’t quite reached the same level, they’re competing to the best of their ability.

Of course, the progress of Kevin Porter Jr. could have been the cherry on top of it all. But that ship has sailed.

After an outburst directed toward general manager Koby Altman, Cleveland has since moved on from the young forward. Of course, the Cavaliers knew Porter came with baggage when they selected him with the last pick of the first round in the 2019 NBA Draft, but his potential was salivating and Cleveland had hoped they could help him grow — not only as an NBA player, but as a person. There have been success stories in the past, troubled players that have come in and shut out the noise and become both respectable characters and NBA players. DeAndre Jordan, a former lottery talent, dropped in his own draft due to similar concerns, but overcame those issues and has since gone on to play a long career.

Unfortunately, it just hadn’t gone that way with Porter and the Cavaliers, as the noise became too much to bear for a team with a long road back to relevancy. It’s reminded everyone just how hard it can be, both as a player and as their team, to deal with those issues and, regardless of the talent or potential, the headache sometimes just isn’t worth the risk.

Luckily for Porter, it’s not too late; a fresh start with the Houston Rockets should do him wonders. And, hopefully, the Rockets can help him overcome that baggage, his maturity issues and whatever else he may be dealing with.

But even if they don’t or can’t, Porter must wake up and seize his opportunity while he still can; if he sees another falling out in Houston, there’s no telling if he’ll ever get another chance elsewhere.

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NBA Daily: Three Trade Targets for the New York Knicks

Drew Maresca explores three restricted free agents-to-be who the Knicks should explore adding via trade before the March 25 trade deadline.

Drew Maresca

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Often the NBA’s biggest flop, the New York Knicks have been significantly better-than-expected to start the 2020-21 season. They’ve won eight of their first 16 games and have surrendered the fewest points per game on the season, placing them squarely in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

That said, they’re not out of the woods yet; with much of the season left to play, the Knicks are devoid of any meaningful offensive weapons. Additionally, the roster features a number of high-quality veterans whose deals are set to expire, the kind of players that contenders like to fill out their rotations with down the stretch, so the roster could look much different at the end of the year than it does now.

So, the Knicks are expected to be active on the trade front, again – no surprise there. But this year could be among the last in which the Knicks are sellers at the deadline. And, while moving some of those veterans for future assets is smart, the Knicks may also want to look at players they can add to bolster that future further.

Of course, New York shouldn’t go all-in for Bradley Beal — they’re not there yet — but there are a number of restricted free agents to-be that would fit both their roster and timeline nicely.

But why give away assets to acquire someone that the team could sign outright in just a few months? It may sound counterintuitive to add a player that’s about to hit free agency, restricted or otherwise, but procuring that player’s Bird rights, an exception in the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement that allows teams to go over the salary cap to re-sign their own players (not to mention offer them an extra contract year and bigger raises), can be key to securing a player’s services and building a long-term contender.

Further, the 2021 free agent market isn’t might not live up to expectation, with many presumed free agents already agreed to extensions. So, with that in mind, which players should the Knicks pursue via trade prior to the March 25 trade deadline?

John Collins, Atlanta Hawks

Collins’ production is down this season, but that has nothing to do with his ability. A 23-year-old stretch-four who’s shooting 35% on three-point attempts, Collins is big, athletic, can score the ball (16.7 points per game this season) and is a great rebounder (7.5 per game). He also connects on 80% of his free-throw attempts.

Despite those impressive stats, Collins was even more productive last season, averaging 21.6 points on better than 40% three-point shooting and collecting 10.1 rebounds per game.

But the Hawks rotation has become increasingly crowded this year. They added Danilo Gallinari and rookie big man Oneyeka Okongwu, the sixth overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, to the frontcourt this offseason, while Collins was already vying for minutes with Clint Capella, who Atlanta added via trade last season. Cam Reddish, a second-year wing who is versatile enough to play some power forward, has also stolen some of Collins’ potential minutes.

So, as much as the Hawks seem to like Collins, he may be a luxury they can do without. He’ll obviously demand a relatively high-priced contract. The fact that Atlanta and Collins failed to reach an extension last summer would also seem to make a reunion less likely; would the Hawks invest so heavily in him now that they have three players at the position signed through at least the 2022-23 season? Further, could they invest even if they wanted to at this point? The Hawks are already committed to more than $100 million next season and, with Trae Young and Kevin Huerter extensions on the horizon, they might be hard-pressed to scrounge for the cash Collins would want in a new deal.

He won’t come cheap, for sure. But, while Julius Randle fans may not love the idea of bringing in his replacement, Collins is simply a better long-term solution.

Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans

The point guard position has been a sore spot for the Knicks for some time. And while Ball might not be the franchise cornerstone that many hoped he’d become, adding a young player with his upside is clearly a positive move.

Granted, Ball is inherently flawed. His jump shot appeared to be much improved last season and he’s showcased a significantly improved shooting form from years past. But he’s struggled in the new season, shooting only 28% on three-point attempts (down from 37.5% last season). In fact, he’s struggled on the whole on the offensive side of the ball, posting just 11.9 points and 4.4 assists per game (a career-low). He’s also missed some time with knee soreness and moved to more of an off-the-ball role as new head coach Stan Van Gundy has put the ball in the hands of Brandon Ingram more and more.

But, with New York, Ball would step into a significant role immediately. For his career, Ball is a net-positive player and, despite his shooting woes, has posted a positive VORP every year he’s been in the league, save for this season. He’s an above-average defender and, while he does need to ball in his hands, he doesn’t necessarily need to take shots to be effective.

Ball may never become the All-World caliber guard many pegged him as before the 2017 NBA Draft, but he’s better than any other option currently at the Knicks disposal. And, best of all, his trade value is arguably as low as it’s ever been. So, while the Pelicans won’t just give him away, New York should do what they can to acquire him for a reasonable price.

Devonte’ Graham, Charlotte Hornets

Last but not least, the surprise from the 2018-19 rookie class. Graham is possibly the hardest sell on this list, but it’s not for a lack of talent.

Graham burst onto the scene last season, posting an impressive sophomore campaign of 18.2 points and 6.4 assists per game. Unfortunately, those numbers have taken a drastic dip this season with the arrival of Gordon Hayward and the highly-touted rookie LaMelo Ball in Charlotte. Likewise, Graham’s struggles through the Hornets’ first 10 games limited his opportunities further.

That said, he would appear to be done slumping, as he’s connected on 43% of his attempts from deep in the team’s last two games.

But his efficiency wouldn’t be the main challenge when constructing a Graham trade. Instead, some in New York could be concerned with lack of size – Graham is only 6-foot-1 – and his inability to act as a facilitator at the guard spot.

But Graham is talented, plain and simple. In fact, he’s the exact kind of talent the Knicks should be looking to add right now. More specifically, Graham shot 37.3% on three-point attempts last season; the Knicks rank 21st in three-point percentage so far this season.

The Knicks could ultimately sit tight, swap a few veterans for future draft picks and rest assured that they’ve made enough progress by simply adding coach Tom Thibodeau. But they could and should be aggressive while they can. If New York can add one or more the players mentioned, they may not only build a brighter future, but improve on what the team could do this season. Either way, the Knicks look to be on a good trajectory, but every move they make from here on out can and will affect how quickly they make the leap from laughingstock to respectable contender.

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NBA AM: The Utah Jazz Are Showing Continuity Is Key

Is Utah’s early success an indicator of things to come? Between Donavon Mitchell, a stingy defense and hot three-point shooting, they may just be the real deal.

Ariel Pacheco

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The Utah Jazz are riding high on a seven-game winning streak, hotter, at this point, than all hell. 15 games into the season, the Jazz have been the third-best team in the Western Conference. The key for them has been continuity as they have 11 guys who were on last year’s team. The only addition they made to their rotation this offseason was Derrick Favors, who was with the team for nine seasons before a one-year departure. 

Quinn Snyder is widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the league, and he’s showing why this season. The Jazz are currently in 7th in both offensive and defensive rating. Beyond that, there are only three teams who can say they are top 10 in both: The Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers and the Phoenix Suns. Often, teams that finish in this select category are historically serious contenders. 

Moreover, the Jazz have been on a shooting tear. Using Gobert’s rolling ability to collapse opposing defenses and find open shooters, Utah’s offense is clicking right now. It’s worked tremendously too, considering the Jazz have attempted and made the most three-pointers of any team this season – and hitting on 40.3 percent as a team. Royce O’Neale, Donovan Mitchell, Jordan Clarkson, Joe Ingles and Mike Conley are all shooting above 40 percent; while Bojan Bogdanovic is almost there at 37.8.

Basically, the Jazz are just shooting the ball at a ridiculously well rate right now and good ball movement has propelled them. 

Mitchell seems to have taken another jump in his development, although it is subtle, and his growth as a playmaker has benefitted everyone. He’s made teams pay for overhelping, often initiating the ball movement that has led to open looks. He’s also taking fewer mid-range jumpers, converting those attempts into three-pointers. The budding star’s play has been more consistent overall, and he’s been effective out of the pick-and-roll. 

Mike Conley’s improved play this season has been needed – now he’s settled and red-hot. Coming off a disappointing season last year, there were questions as to whether he was declining. While it’s safe to say he’s no longer the guy he was in Memphis, this version of Conley is still a good one. He looks a lot more comfortable in his role and the Jazz are reaping the benefits. In a contract year, Conley is averaging 16.3 points and 6.3 assists per game while shooting 41 percent from three.

Jordan Clarkson is a strong candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, fitting in perfectly as the Jazz need his scoring and creation off the bench – even leading the league in such scorers from there. But the Jazz’s bench is more than just Clarkson though, as they’ve gotten strong minutes from Joe Ingles, Georges Niang and Derrick Favors too. They’re a solid group that plays both ends of the court, and all fit in nicely with the starters as well. 

Sorely needed, however, Bojan Bogdanovic’s return has helped tremendously. He gives them another big wing who can shoot and is a scoring threat, and before he got hurt last season, he was averaging 20 PPG. While he isn’t at that level this season, he gives them another reliable scoring option that they badly need. Better, it also allows Ingles to remain on the bench, where his playmaking ability can really thrive.

The Jazz have been playing stylistically a little bit different this year and it has worked. They don’t run often but when they do, they have been potent. Playing at the same pace as last season, Utah is scoring almost five more points per game in transition. Additionally, they are taking six more threes a game too. This all amounts to a 6.1 net rating, which is good for fourth-best in the NBA. 

Lastly, their defense has been impossible for teams to penetrate, inviting opponents to try and finish over Rudy Gobert in the paint. Gobert is a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate for a reason – his presence alone almost assuredly guarantees his team will be a top 10 defense, which the Jazz are. Favors’ addition has helped stabilize the defense when Gobert sits, which was a major issue last season. Overall, they are just a very disciplined defense that makes teams earn their points, rarely committing cheap fouls.

As it stands today, the Utah Jazz are solidifying themselves as one of the best teams in the Western Conference. It remains to be seen if the hot shooting is sustainable, but the way they are generating those open looks seems to be. The defense is legit, and if they can remain healthy there’s reason to believe that this team can continue to compete at this level. The Utah starting lineup has outscored opponents by 58 points, but they’ve also had one of the best benches in the league – needless to say, the Jazz’s continuity has been a big part of their early success.

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