While other teams are reportedly scrambling and hoping to meet with some of the bigger names on the free agent market – such as Kevin Durant, DeMar DeRozan, Al Horford, Hassan Whiteside and Harrison Barnes among others – perhaps the Los Angeles Lakers should take a slightly different approach and consider continuing to mold their roster around the young talent they already have such as D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson (assuming he’s re-signed since he’ll be a restricted free agent), Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr. and, of course, their second overall selection in the 2016 NBA Draft.
That isn’t to suggest they shouldn’t at least “kick the tires” when it comes to the top free agents. They’ll rightly do their due diligence when it comes to a player like Durant, and Whiteside is clearly intriguing due to the gaping hole they currently have at the center position. But each of those players would have to agree to join the Lakers despite there being more attractive situations elsewhere, either with their current team or other potential suitors. Horford’s flexibility on both ends would absolutely improve this current Lakers squad, but at 30 years old (much like LaMarcus Aldridge last summer) and having played in the postseason in eight of his nine seasons as a pro, he’s likely not willing to join a rebuilding effort – no matter how promising these young players may be.
The interest in a restricted free agent like Barnes makes a bit less sense when you consider the fact that the Golden State Warriors are likely to match any offer so that he remains a part of their championship rotation. There’s also the legitimate concern over whether Barnes, while clearly versatile and skilled, truly has the game and disposition to be counted on as a leader of a franchise and more of a go-to guy as opposed to being a fourth or fifth option for an extremely talented team.
While there may be a hint of the old adage that “beggars can’t be choosers” (this ain’t Chipotle, after all), if you’re the Lakers you can afford to at least be cautious when it comes to spending this summer. Put simply, just because they’ll have as much as $64.1 million to spend on roster upgrades this summer, doesn’t mean they have to spend every penny.
Even though DeRozan decided to officially opt out of the final year of his deal with the Toronto Raptors and was initially linked with the Lakers via the rampant rumor mill that constantly surrounds the team, it probably makes the most sense for the 26-year-old shooting guard to re-sign on a max deal north of our border. If we’re being completely honest, while he may have Los Angeles ties, it would even make more sense to consider another Eastern Conference suitor rather than jumping into the Western Conference gauntlet these Lakers are attempting to conquer.
DeRozan may long for some Pacific Ocean vibes, but he could easily spend time in Southern California throughout the offseason – as many players do – while either taking the most money and security from Toronto or going to a different East team like, say, the Boston Celtics for a potentially easier path to the NBA Finals.
Nicolas Batum will be a restricted free agent this summer and would probably be the most ideal fit for the Lakers from a skill set and age perspective, but like fellow veteran free agents Ryan Anderson and Marvin Williams, Batum appears most likely to seek a situation in which he can immediately win. With so much cap space available, perhaps the Lakers could sway one of these players, but at a certain point you have to assess whether it would be cost-efficient to hypothetically max out the type of guys that are more “complementary pieces” rather than guys that can lead a franchise out of its least successful run in a long and proud history.
It isn’t about “striking out” with the big names this summer, per se, but it will be much more important to simply continue the positive momentum – no matter how slight it may seem to some – by developing the young talent the Lakers currently have on the roster so that they are in a position to either strike when a realistic free agency option presents itself over the next couple seasons or when a desired player becomes available on the trade market. Last season would have been a more ideal time to fully embrace this notion of a total youth movement, but it was understandably determined that longtime franchise player Kobe Bryant was deserving of his epic farewell tour.
You can debate whether (or how much) this tour could have at least initially stunted things for this young core, but the reality is the organization had the right to honor their legend however they saw fit (and it wasn’t like they had all that many favorable options at that point). Also, it isn’t as though Clarkson, Randle, Russell and others didn’t also learn some incredibly valuable lessons about the game as professionals, such as overcoming adversity and injuries and navigating the potential pitfalls of playing in a market like Los Angeles along the way.
Checking in with the boss pic.twitter.com/qzGf0tjjiE
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) June 10, 2016
It will be intriguing to see how Russell responds to all of the late-season criticism he earned and how he develops from year one into his sophomore season. Drama aside, Russell was steady in most categories throughout his rookie year, and showed some serious flashes as a scorer over the second half of the season. It’s evident that he possesses the abilities to be a scorer, shooter and passer in this league, but he has yet to fully display all of the playmaking ability he seemed to possess during his pre-draft process. There wasn’t a man on the 2015-16 Lakers roster that played even a semblance of consistent defense, and Russell was far from the best of the bunch. While far from the greatest athlete, Russell is long and rangy for the position and can be taught ways to capitalize on his size and length more consistently if he’s willing to embrace the idea of playing both ends of the court. Time will obviously tell on Russell, but he did show a particular amount of poise over the last month of an all-around frustrating season for the purple and gold, and is reportedly hard at work this summer. Clarkson, assuming he’s back, appears to be ready to follow up an encouraging second year with even more dedication and attention to correcting some of the holes that remain in his game.
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) June 14, 2016
He’s clearly been in the weight room already this summer and appears poised to take yet another step, which could be another reason to avoid the DeRozan sweepstakes. Even though Clarkson is a restricted free agent and due for a sizeable raise over the next few seasons, the Lakers still have the option to either structure a deal that would keep him at a very cost-effective rate around $5.6 and $5.9 million over the next two seasons (before ballooning to $22.7 and $23.6 million in years three and four) or could even offer the 24-year-old a deal closer to what the market would average at just about $14.5 million per season over the next four years.
Coming off a year in which the 6’5 combo guard averaged 15.5 points and four boards while shooting comparable numbers at similar points in their respective careers, one could very well ask why the Lakers would even consider DeRozan given Clarkson’s similar trajectory and significantly lower price tag? For the record, while DeRozan showed slight improvement from beyond the arc, his career-high 33.8 percent on 1.8 attempts per contest still don’t match Clarkson’s rate of 34.7 percent from that mark on 4.1 attempts per contest in just his second year. Essentially, if the Lakers still believe in Clarkson’s capability to take another step – especially on the defensive end and with ball control – then continuing to cultivate him as a significant rotation piece would seemingly be the right call.
It’s going to be fun to see what head coach Luke Walton and crew are able to do with the versatile mix of Randle, last year’s surprise contributor in Nance Jr. and perhaps even seldom-used swingman Anthony Brown. Each will need to continue developing and improving their outside shot in order to be able to properly space the floor for the offensive sets Walton is most likely to prefer, but all three of them have shown signs of skill sets that should lend very well to the interchangeable lineups and style the team is reportedly planning on adopting.
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) June 15, 2016
Randle was a double-double machine (34 total this season, which ranked 15th in the NBA) in what was realistically just his “rookie” campaign having been injured one game in the previous year. He’s been avidly working on extending his range on the offensive end, but it will be most pivotal for his development if the new staff is able to instill the same amount of focus and motivation on his defensive principles as well. Nance Jr. is probably the liveliest body on the roster from a sheer athleticism standpoint and while the previous regime wanted to explore some playing opportunities at the small forward position in order to increase his floor time, the current staff may actually consider him as one of the options in the center rotation given his agility and wingspan.
Brown is still raw and will likely be in the same boat as whichever rookies they decide to select in next week’s draft – even though he was able to practice with and spend time around the team and their D-League affiliate Defenders prior to his season-ending injury. He was seen as someone with the potential to be a “3-and-D” guy coming out of Stanford, but the jury is definitely still out on him at this level. Like others, the new system and overall philosophy may ultimately suit his skill set a bit better, but it will be upon Brown to find a way to stand out among what will be one of the league’s most intriguing young cores in 2016-17.
These Lakers may not be anywhere near back to the top of the mountain where the franchise has historically resided, but at least they no longer appear to be blindly pushing the stone up the mountainside in vain. That’s why even though they’re fully expected to pursue the bigger-name free agents in an effort to expedite the rebuild as much as possible, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have to spend recklessly and go all-in on that approach. This front office deserves a great deal of criticism for some of the events that have transpired over the last half decade, and has received every bit of it.
Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss also deserve credit for the job they’ve been able to do in these last couple drafts, including what we presume will be a relative no-brainer decision once the Philadelphia 76ers have chosen between Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram. It would be a shame to see them potentially derail said momentum by suddenly thinking championship rosters can be constructed with an “easy button” once again. If the last few seasons have taught us anything, it’s that such devices and shortcuts simply don’t exist when it comes to building a winner in today’s NBA.
Miami’s Struggles About More than One Player
Drew Maresca assesses the Miami HEAT’s early-season struggles and their statistical slide from the 2019-20 campaign.
The Miami HEAT appeared to successfully turn the corner on a quick rebuild, having advanced to the bubble’s 2020 NBA Finals. It looked as though Miami took a short cut even, rebounding from the LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh era incredibly quickly. Ultimately, they did so through smart drafting – including the selections of Bam Adebayo, Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro – plus, a little luck, like the signing of Jimmy Butler and smartly sticking with Duncan Robinson.
But despite the fact that they should have improved from last season, the tide may have turned again in South Beach.
Through 15 games, the HEAT are an underwhelming 6-9 with losses in each of their last two games. Miami is also scoring fewer points per game than last season – 109.3 versus 112 – while giving up more – 113.1 against 109.1.
Miami has played the 14th-toughest schedule in the NBA, and there are some embarrassing and noteworthy loses thus far. They lost by a resounding 47 points to the Milwaukee Bucks earlier this season, with extra harsh defeats of 20 points to the lowly Detroit Pistons and the mediocre Toronto Raptors.
What’s to blame for Miami’s woes? Unfortunately for the HEAT, it’s a number of things.
First of all, they need more from a few of their stars – and it starts at the very top. Jimmy Butler was Miami’s leading scorer in 2019-20, posting 19.9 points per game. But this season, Butler is scoring just 15.8 points per game on a sub-par 44.2 percent shooting. While Butler shot poorly from three-point range last season, too (24.4 percent), he hasn’t connected on a single three-pointer yet in 2020-21. This, coming from a guy who shot 34.7 percent from deep in 2018-19 and 35 percent in 2017-18.
But it’s not just his lack of scoring that’s hurting. Butler is also collecting fewer assists and rebounds as well. He’s averaging only 5.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game, down from 6.7 ad 6.0 last season.
However, Butler’s main struggle this season has nothing to do with any statistic or slump. Butler has missed seven straight games due to COVID-19 protocols. Although to go-scorer wasn’t playing particularly well prior to isolating from the team – scoring in single digits twice – the HEAT are always in better shape if their leader takes the floor with them.
It’s not just Butler either. Tyler Herro also needs to regain his bubble form, at least as far as shooting is concerned. After connecting on 38.9 percent on 5.4 three-point attempts in 2019-20, he’s sinking only 30.2 percent of his 5.3 three-point attempts per game this season.
While Herro is scoring more – 17.2 points per game this season – and doing so more efficiently, he’s doesn’t pose the same threat from deep this season. So while he’s sure to pick it up sooner than later, he must do so to put more pressure on opposing defense.
It’s fair to assume Herro will solve his long-distance shooting woes, but the fact that he’s also struggling from the free throw line is concerning because it speaks more to his form. Herro is still well above the league average, connecting on 76.5 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe, but he shot a scorching 87 percent on free throw attempts last season.
So what’s behind the slump? More importantly, which Herro can the HEAT count on for the remainder of 2020-21? As much as Herro is on track to grow into an incredible player, Miami needs his efficiency to return to last season’s form if they expect to compete. But like Butler, a major part of Herro’s struggles are off the court.
Herro is currently dealing with an injury, having missed the last five games with neck spasms. Coach Erik Spoelstra noted that giving the injured Herro so many minutes before his big layoff likely exacerbated his injuries.
“There’s no telling for sure if this is why Tyler missed these games,” Spoelstra told the South Florida SunSentinel. “But it definitely didn’t help that he had to play and play that many minutes. We didn’t have anybody else at that point. If he didn’t play, then we would have had seven.”
But the HEAT’s struggles are about more than any one player – and that’s a big part of what makes Miami, Miami.
Still, their team stats are equally puzzling, like that the Miami HEAT currently ranks 20th in offensive rating and 23rd in defensive rating. In 2019-20, they were 7th in offensive rating and 11th in defensive rating. Obviously, something isn’t translating from last year, but what is it that’s missing?
Firstly, the HEAT are only the 18th best three-point shooting in terms of percentage. Last season, Miami was 2nd by shooting 37.9 percent. Herro returning to his old self should help quite a bit, and Butler making at least a few threes should improve spacing, too.
But it’s not just three-point shooting as the HEAT ranked last in field goal attempts last season, tallying just 84.4 attempts per game. And while they’re last again this season, they’ve managed to average even fewer attempts per game (81.7) despite maintaining nearly all of their roster.
The HEAT are also last in offensive rebounding, which translates to fewer field goal attempts and fewer points. And while Miami was 29th in offensive rebounds last season, they’re corralling 2.1 fewer rebounds this season (6.4) than in 2019-20 (8.5). What’s more, Miami is now last in total rebounds with only 40.9 per game. A number that also represents a fairly significant change as the HEAT were 17th a season ago with 44.4 per game – whew!
Lastly, Miami is turning the ball over more often than nearly any other team – sorry, Chicago – in 2020-21. During the prior campaign, the HEAT were barely middle of the pack, turning the ball over 14.9 times per game, a mark that left them 18th-best in the league. This season, they’re 29th and turning the ball over 17.7 times per game – dead last in terms of turnovers per 100 possessions.
It’s not all bad news for the HEAT, though. Bam Adebayo looks great so far, posting 20.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game. Second-year stud Kendrick Nunn is averaging 21.5 points on 56 percent shooting through the past four games; while Duncan Robinson is still a flame thrower, shooting 44.4 percent on 8.4 three-point attempts per game.
The HEAT’s upside is still considerable, but it’s easy to wonder if they captured magic in a bottle last season.
What We Learned: Western Conference Week 4
It’s only been a month, but the NBA season has already seen plenty of ups and downs. In the Western Conference, especially, the 2020-21 season has been a smashing success for some, but a complete and total slog for others.
But which teams have had it the best in the West so far? The worst? Let’s take a look in the latest Western Conference installment of Basketball Insiders’ “What We Learned” series.
The Clippers Hit Their Stride
Los Angeles’ holdovers from a season ago have often pointed to their regular season complacency as to why they fizzled out during last year’s postseason. And, because of that, they’ve made a concerted effort to play hard on every possession so far in the 2020-21 season.
So far, the results have been good. More than good, even; the Clippers, tied for the best record in the NBA with their in-house rival, the Los Angeles Lakers, are on a six-game win streak. Paul George has played like an MVP candidate, while Kawhi Leonard has looked healthy and at the peak of his powers. Offseason additions Nicolas Batum, Serge Ibaka and Luke Kennard have all made strong contributions as well.
With so many versatile players and a roster as deep as any in the NBA, anyone can be “the guy” for Los Angeles on any given night. And, tough to guard because of that versatility, they’ve managed the NBA’s second-best offensive rating through the first month.
After last season’s let-down, the Clippers have played without much pressure this season — and it’s showed. Still, with Leonard a potential pending free agent (Leonard can opt-out after the season), it’s paramount that the team play hard and show him they’re good enough to compete for a title in both the short- and long-term.
So far, they’re off to a great start.
Injury Woes Continue in Portland
Portland’s been bit by the injury bug. And badly.
Already without Zach Collins, the Trail Blazers have lost both Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum in recent weeks. They couldn’t have come at a worse time, either; Nurkic had turned a corner after he struggled to start the year, while McCollum, averaging 26.7 points on 62 percent true shooting, was in the midst of a career year.
It would seem, once again, like Portland has put it all on the shoulders of Damian Lillard. But, in a brutally competitive Western Conference, he may not be able to carry that load alone. They do have some solid depth: more of a featured role could be just what Robert Covington has needed to get out of a rut, while Harry Giles III, the former Sacramento King that was signed in the offseason, has a ton of potential if he can just to stay on the court. Carmelo Anthony, Gary Trent Jr. and Enes Kanter should see expanded roles in the interim, as well.
But will it be enough? We can only wait and see. But, if that group can’t keep the Trail Blazers afloat until Nurkic and McCollum can return, Portland could be in for a long offseason.
Grizzlies Are Competitive — With or Without Ja Morant
Memphis, on a five-game win streak, is just a half-game back of the West’s fifth seed. And they’ve managed that despite the sheer amount of adversity they’ve had to deal with to start the year. Jaren Jackson Jr. is expected to miss most of if not the entire season, multiple games have been postponed due to the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols and Ja Morant missed eight games due to an ankle sprain.
However, head coach Taylor Jenkins has the Grizzlies playing hard, regardless of who is in the lineup. They have the third-best defensive rating in the NBA at 106.1 and have managed huge wins over the Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns.
Of course, Memphis is glad to see Morant over his injury and back in the lineup, but they might be just as happy to see how their entire core has progressed. Their success this season has, in large part, been a group-effort; rookies Xavier Tillman and Desmond Bane have been strong off the bench, while youngsters Brandon Clarke, Dillon Brooks and Grayson Allen have all proven integral pieces to the Grizzlies’ core for years to come.
As the year carries on, Memphis might not stick in the playoff picture. But, if their young core can continue to develop, they might not be on the outside looking in for much longer with Morant leading the charge.
What’s Going On In New Orleans?
The Pelicans have struggled and there wouldn’t appear to be an easy fix.
5-9, on a three-game losing streak and having dropped eight of their last nine, New Orleans just can’t seem to figure it out. The rosters fit around cornerstones Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram has proven awkward at best, as the team ranks in the bottom-10 in both offensive and defensive rating. Lonzo Ball has struggled offensively to start the season while JJ Redick can’t find his shot. Newcomer Eric Bledsoe has been fine but, as one of the team’s few offensive creators, his impact has been severely minimized.
Despite their stable of strong defenders, Stan Van Gundy’s defensive scheme, which has maximized their presence in the paint but left shooters wide open beyond the arc, has burned them continuously. Williamson’s effort on the defensive end, meanwhile, has been disappointing at best; he hasn’t looked like nearly the same impact defender he did at Duke University and in short spurts a season ago.
They still have time to work it out, but the Pelicans need to do so sooner rather than later. If they can’t, or at least establish some sort of consistency, New Orleans might never see the heights many had hoped to see them reach this season.
Be sure to check back for the next part of our “What We Learned” series as we continue to keep an eye on the NBA all season long.
NBA Daily: Lonzo Ball Presents Difficult Decision For Pelicans
Lonzo Ball is struggling early in his fourth NBA season, leaving the Pelicans questioning whether he will be a part of the team’s long-term plans moving forward.
Lonzo Ball and the New Orleans Pelicans failed to reach an extension prior to the deadline entering the 2020-21 NBA season – which made this season an important year for the former second overall pick to prove his worth.
But things have not gone according to plan for Ball. Originally acquired by the Pelicans in the Anthony Davis trade, Ball has failed to get going early in the current season. After a few years of what seemed like positive progression in the guard’s shooting stroke, this 2021 has brought up the same questions that surrounded Ball in his earlier scouting reports.
In his first three seasons, Lonzo saw his three-point accuracy increase each year. It started at a 30.5 percent accuracy rate and had jumped to an impressive 37.5 by his third NBA season, 2019-20.
Now well into his biggest campaign yet, he sits below 30 percent for the first time in his career, though there is a lot of time left to see that number increase. If Ball expects to be part of the Pelicans’ long-term plans, improvement is absolutely vital.
Obviously, shooting is a key part of the NBA game today, especially as a guard. Simply put, a player needs to give his team the proper floor spacing needed to maximize their scoring output in an offensively driven league.
That point is especially true for Ball, who needs to prove he can play alongside franchise cornerstones Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson. Both players are showing the skillset to be a dominant one-two punch for years to come, and the biggest need around them is proper floor spacing.
So even with all the positives Ball brings to the defensive side of the floor and as a playmaker, he cannot fit alongside Williamson and Ingram unless he’s a threat to hit shots from behind the arc. He’s obviously trying to prove himself in that regard as he has never averaged more three-point shots per game than he currently is – and yet, the result has been concerning.
When the two sides failed to reach an extension this offseason, it was abundantly clear that the Pelicans needed to see consistency before they’d tie long-term cap space to the guard. In the early going of the season, Ball is perhaps playing his most inconsistent basketball since his rookie campaign with the Los Angeles Lakers.
But will the Pelicans benefit from not signing Ball prior to the season? Maybe even by getting him to agree to a team-friendly contract if his struggles continue all year?
That seems highly unlikely. First off, not all teams are as desperate for a good shooting guard as the Pelicans are. As previously stated, Williamson and Ingram are in place as the franchise cornerstones. That means every player brought in on a long deal from here on out is brought in with the plan to fit alongside the forward combination.
Most teams with cap space don’t have the luxury of already having two franchise cornerstones in place. That means they are more likely to build around a player they sign – that’s especially true for a player that will hit free agency at a young age as will be the case with Ball.
While there’s almost no way the Pelicans won’t make a qualifying offer to Ball this offseason, it becomes a whole different question when pondering if they’ll match any contract he signs, depending on the financials involved.
He’ll offer significantly more value to another franchise than he might to the Pelicans because of the fit. The New York Knicks, for example, will be among the teams with cap space this offseason, they could see Ball as a player they can build things around moving forward.
That instantly makes him much more valued by the Knicks than he currently would be by the Pelicans. Of course, New Orleans would maintain their right to match the contract, but what good would it be if he isn’t going to fit next to the stars of the team? At no point will he be prioritized over the likes of Williamson and Ingram, which means he’s on a ticking clock to prove he can play alongside them as the team continues its ascension.
The first step could be adjustments to the rotation that sees Ball play more of the traditional point guard role with the rock in his hands. This isn’t easy for head coach Stan Van Gundy to do though as Ingram and Williamson thrive with the ball in their hands.
In all likelihood, Ball’s future in New Orleans will hinge on his consistency as a shooter, which, contrary to popular belief, he has shown the ability to do in the past. First off, confidence and staying engaged are keys; while Ball has struggled with both of those things in his early NBA seasons.
The second is an adjustment to his tendencies. Instead of settling for the spot-up opportunity every time it is presented, Ball would benefit from attacking the closeout more often and maximizing the chances that come from doing so.
Those options are in areas like finding the next open man for a three-pointer, getting to the free-throw line and finishing at the rim instead of hitting the deep shot. If he does these things, he’ll quickly find himself facing less aggressive closeouts and will be more confident in his game. Naturally, those things could lead to a more successful shooting number as the season continues on.
Ball is as talented as they come and it’s understandable why the Pelicans want to slide him in behind the two franchise forwards they have. The unfortunate reality is that time is running out on pass-first guard’s big chance to prove it’s the right move for the Pelicans moving forward.