Sunday, July 20, 2014

Lakers in Limbo: An Offseason of Confusion (Part 1)

Saying that the Lakers offseason has been disappointment would be an understatement.  Plan A was to bring back Pau Gasol and sign Carmelo Anthony, then roll with a Melo/Kobe/Pau trio for a couple of seasons in the hopes that they would develop chemistry and earn a shot at a title.  That didn't happen, so Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak moved on to a Plan B, which from the outside appeared to be the equivalent of giving an "oh well" shrug and then handing out handing out contracts of random value and lengths as though they were dealing cards in a poker game.   

Not surprisingly fans were not amused.  While most understand that the team is in a tough spot and that it will likely take a few years to dig their way out there still was fairly little real progress in the effort to rebuild the team.  In modern times where information is available online and twitter is a thing fans are acutely aware of the actions of their team's front office, for better or worse.  The curtain has been peeled back a little, and for the most part Lakers fans didn't like what they saw.  

It wasn’t all bad, there was simply a lack of sizzle that we typically expect from the Lakers, as well as no clear direction that the team is headed.  It's difficult for the rabid fans of the purple and gold to truly get behind a team that appears to be so lost.

Perhaps the scattered, meandering appearance is appropriate though, as the right now the franchise is being pulled in two different directions: Aging star Kobe Bryant needs a team that can win now in order to maximize his last few years left in the league while the roster needs to be rebuilt on young talent that can lead the franchise into the future.  It's a power struggle between two sides that can't both win, like the Patriots vs. the British, Edison vs. Tesla, or LeBron James vs. his hairline.     

As a result the Lakers moves thus far have been somewhat bi-polar, with some being smart, savvy decisions and others reeking of desperation and foolishness .  To dig a little deeper let’s take a look at a few of the moves Mitch Kupchak has made thus far:

*Traded rights to Sergei Lishchuk to Houston for Jeremy Lin (1 year, $8,374,646), and Houston’s 2015 1st and 2nd round picks :

 There’s no debate here, this is a fantastic deal for the Lakers.  Houston was looking for a trade for Jeremy Lin that didn’t involve them taking any salary back, and essentially paid the Lakers with the picks in order to get them to absorb Lin into their salary cap space. 

However, Lin is much more than just a guy who eats up cap space.   He should start for the Lakers at point guard and will be a solid upgrade from the revolving door of players who manned the position last year.  While his “Linsanity” days are behind him if there was ever a time and place for him to recapture that magic it’s now in Los Angeles.  It’s true that Lin’s contract technically pays him just under $15 million this season, but his cap hit is only about $8.3 million.  For a Lakers franchise that was by far the most profitable team in the league last season in spite of their struggles paying the extra money is far less important than Lin’s cap number, so no biggie there.

From a statistics standpoint, Lin hasn't been able to touch the numbers he put up during his "Linsanity" days but in Houston he also had a much lower usage rate than he did in New York, which means he has had fewer opportunities to get stats.  He's also had to play alongside James "We talking'bout defense?" Harden, who essentially runs the point on most of Houston's possessions.  Lin's greatest skill is his ability to get into the paint and either create for others or finish at the rim, so Harden's strategy of dribbling out the clock and then either chucking up a three or flopping took away much of what made Jeremy so...umm...Linsane, I suppose.  

That's not to say that Kobe won't have the ball in his hands a lot too, but not having to share the ball with Harden, Parsons, Beverly, or Dwight Howard certainly won't hurt.    

The icing on the cake is that after the Rockets opened up cap space by completing this trade they failed to land their target, Chris Bosh.  They followed that miss by deciding not to match the Maverick’s offer for Chandler Parsons, which means that on paper the Rockets lost two key pieces from last season.  Houston did replace Parsons with Trevor Ariza, but at 29 years old and coming off a contract year which saw him shoot far better than he has historically (red flag!) the likelihood of him living up to the 4 year, $32 million deal the Rockets gave him is slim.

For the Lakers this means that the 1st round pick obtained from Houston may be better than they initially thought, as the Rockets unquestionably took a step back this year, although the possibility of them eventually getting a third star remains, although it's easier said than done.  So a starting-quality point guard and two picks that are looking better every day in exchange for just a bit of cap space?  Yes please.  All day, every day. 

***If nothing else the Rockets offseason should give Lakers fans a reason to smile just a little.  While no one expects the Lakers to win next year Lakers fans also don't want to see Dwight Howard win either.  His defection last summer was seen as cowardly and proof that he couldn't handle the responsiblity of being a superstar in LA.  So for now enjoy that the Rockets fumbled on the goal line.  And enjoy this as well: 

*Resigned Nick Young for 4 years, $21.5 million (4th year player option)

Compared to what guys like Jodie Meeks and Avery Bradley got Young’s deal is something of a bargain.  However, it’s also an indicator of how mixed-up the Laker’s offseason has been.  Young had a fantastic season last year to be sure (he would have been a contender for 6th man of the year if the Lakers made the playoffs), but he’s also on the older end of the spectrum having just turned 29. 

The Lakers drew a line in the sand this year and refused to offer any deals longer than two years to anyone other than superstars, which makes sense.  The Lakers plan is to have as much cap space available as possible to chase stars, and then once that player(s) has signed on they will fill in a roster around them (more on the wisdom of that strategy on a later date).  So then, why did Nick Young, a one-dimensional scorer off the bench, get a 4-year deal (with a player option for the final year no less)? 

***Player-options are absolutely terrible for teams.  If a player has a great year and produces above his value then the player will simply opt out and demand more money and a longer deal.  If the incumbent team doesn't give it to them someone else will.  Nick Young did this last year, as it was clear that he had more value than the just over $1 million he made off his own deal.  He opted out and got a nice new contract that included a big jump in salary.  Ed Davis hopes he can follow suite this season after signing essentially the same deal Young did last year. 

On the flip side players who completely fall off the cliff production-wise almost always pick up their option, leaving the team overpaying the player for another season.  It’s a no-win situation for teams to be in, like being in a room with Hitler, Bieber, and a just one bullet.  You can get out of dealing with one of them (and save humanity from their evil) but the other one is still going to get you.    

Team options are essentially the exact opposite and allows teams to hang on to a player at their current pay rate even if they are producing above that level or let them go if they aren't living up to their deal. Using the Hitler/Bieber analogy, the team option is the equivalent of simply not entering the room at all, rather continuing on your merry way while dodging the aforementioned monsters completely.      

Yes, Laker fans love Nick Young, and for good reason.  In a dark and depressing era “Swaggy P” brings life and energy to the fan base.  He loves being in LA and LA loves him.  People will show up to watch him play.  So in that sense the Lakers did the right thing by resigning Young.  However, that doesn't explain why the Lakers would decide to sign him to such a long-term deal knowing that it will negatively impact the amount of money they have available to chase stars at a later date.  

Furthrmore, if they decided to break their "2 year or shorter" contract mandate for non-stars then why do it for Nick Young and not Isaiah Thomas?  Thomas, like Young, is a lifelong Lakers fan from Los Angeles.  He was practically begging the Lakers to make him an offer before eventually agreeing to join the Suns on a 4 year, $27 million deal, which averages out to just $1.3 million per year more than Young.  $1.3 million is a sum that is hardly prohibitive of chasing after superstars, and in fact Thomas' deal will almost guarantee that he will have positive trade value for the next 4 seasons.  Should Young go into one of his infamous shooting slumps or his role change under a new coach his contract could quickly turn toxic.  Also, given how badly Thomas wanted to be a Laker it's not unrealistic to think he may have taken a little less to close the gap and come to LA.

To further demonstrate this point, check out the stats for these 3 players (to compare apples to apples these are per 36-minute numbers):

22 7.7 17.8 .430 1.8 5.0 .358 5.9 12.9 .458 4.9 .861 3.7 6.2 1.6 2.7 21.3
25 7.2 15.8 .453 1.8 5.2 .349 5.3 10.6 .504 5.9 .850 3.0 6.5 1.3 3.1 21.1
29 7.7 17.7 .435 2.7 7.0 .386 5.0 10.7 .468 5.7 .825 3.3 1.9 0.9 1.9 22.8
Now also consider that Player 3 on that list played on a team whose pace was much faster than Player 1 or Player 2's, which means that person had more possessions per game and thus more opportunities to score points, rebound, get steals, assists, etc.  Which player would you want to sign to the Lakers?  Either Player 1 or Player 2, right?  Their stats are considerably better than Player 3 and they are also quite a bit younger as well.

Digging even further, advanced stats suggest that Player 1 and 2 are far superior to Player 3, as their PERs and Win Shares break down like this:

Player 1: PER: 20.1 Win Share: .128
Player 2: PER: 20.5 Win Share: .149
Player 3: PER: 16.0 Win Share: .067

Seems like it is a no-brainer.  Player 3 is not a bad player by any means but Player 1 and 2 are simply better.  Well guess what?  Player 3, the guy the Lakers signed, is Nick Young.  Player 2 is Isaiah Thomas, who would have cost them, again, and average of merely $1.3 million per season more than Young and projects to be a much better player.  

It's also striking how similar the production was between Player 1 and Isaiah Thomas.  Across the board their numbers were nearly mirror images of each other.  So just who is Player 1, the guy who is the statistical clone of Isaiah Thomas?

It's Kyrie Irving.  The same Kyrie Irving who so far is a 2-time All Star, Rookie of the Year, 3 point shootout winner, and All Star game MVP.  Uncle Drew!  The guy who was just given a 5 year, $90 million dollar contract.  The Lakers could have had similar production from Isaiah Thomas for 4 years, $27 million OR LESS.

There are some arguments for going with Young over Thomas.  For example the Lakers need Small Forwards in the worst way, and Nick Young can fill that role.  There are also concerns that Thomas will not be nearly as effective in an offense where the ball isn't in his hands, and in LA with Lin, Kobe, and the the guy who used to be Steve Nash it's unlikely that he wouldn't be able to run the show the way he did in Sacramento.

 However, more than anything else the Lakers need young talent.  The axiom heard during the NBA Draft is that teams should take the best player available and sort out the "fit" later.  With the Lakers so depleted of talent they needed to do the same thing here and take Thomas' production and potential over Young's.....well, swag.

Besides, many teams today are running lineups with essentially two point guard on the floor at the same time, so who is to say that a Thomas/Lin/Kobe/Randle/Hill lineup wouldn't be successful?  Or that Lin and Thomas couldn't split time at the point guard spot with 24 minutes each and then get the rest of their minutes as backup 2 guards, since Kobe isn't likely to play more than 30 minutes per game this season anyway.

The point is that minutes and fit can be tweaked but the talent the Lakers missed out on can't.  Don't get me wrong, I love Nick Young.  I'm glad he's a Laker and his passion for the city and the team are a definite plus.  However, Isaiah Thomas would have brought that same LA passion but as a younger player with considerably more production and future potential.

Also consider this: next offseason, when the Lakers are again pursuing superstar free agents, who is going to be more attractive to play with, a 26 year old Thomas or 30 year old Young?  Superstars today don't want a team built around them, they want to join a team with talent already in place.

In a vacuum the Young deal was a solid one.  Looking at the big picture though the opportunity cost was immense.  This is exactly the kind of mistake that the Lakers could not afford to make this offseason.  Nick Young will be a lot of fun to watch but passing on Thomas could very well haunt the Lakers for years to come.          

*Resigned Jordan Hill for 2 years, $18 million (2nd year team option)

When players agree to sign with a team the exact terms of the deal often come out a bit later than the news that the player has agreed to sign, mainly because today news is primarily leaked to Twitter by "sources" (usually agents, sometimes teams) and then officially announced by the team once everything is signed and delivered.  What can happen is that first word gets out the player agreed to sign, then a few rough details (like essentially how much the contract is worth), and then the final, most accurate information about the transaction.    

So here's how the Jordan Hill deal came across on Twitter and my reactions to it. 

First, Jordan Hill agrees to resign with the Lakers

Then, Jordan Hill agrees to resign with the Lakers for 2 years, $18 million. 

Finally, Jordan Hill agrees resign with the Lakers for 2 years, $18 million (2nd year team option) 

While Plan A was certainly to resign Pau Gasol it was clear that if they couldn't land the big Spaniard the Lakers absolutely had to have Jordan Hill back.  With a serious lack of talented bigs on the free agent market there really was no one better than Hill left, so the fact that the Lakers managed to snag him was a plus.  

The downside is that the Lakers had to overpay in order to keep him (no one expected him to get $9 million a year) but Mitch was able to minimize the damage by making the second year of the deal a team options.  As a result Hill will now be chasing the proverbial carrot all year, knowing that he has to have an impact on the court equal to his contract if he wants the second year to be picked up.          

While most around the league shouted from the mountaintops that this deal was evidence of the Lakers desperation and how far the franchise has fallen there is actually some method to the madness.  Most assume that the second year of this deal will not be picked up, but I beg to differ.  Let's dig a little deeper and compare the production of the three big men who received big deals this summer: Pau Gasol (3 years, $27 million), Jordan Hill (2 years, $18 million, 2nd year team option), Marcin Gortat (5 years, $60 million).  

1 Pau Gasol 33 60 60 8.1 16.9 .480 8.0 16.6 .483 3.6 4.9 .736 2.4 8.7 11.1 3.8 0.5 1.8 2.7 19.9
2 Marcin Gortat 29 81 80 6.2 11.4 .542 6.2 11.4 .541 2.1 3.1 .686 2.7 7.7 10.4 1.9 0.6 1.6 1.7 14.5
3 Jordan Hill 26 72 32 6.9 12.5 .549 6.9 12.5 .550 3.0 4.3 .685 4.7 8.2 12.8 1.3 0.7 1.5 1.8 16.7
Once again these are per-36 minute stats, which helps us get a more accurate comparison because Hill spent parts of the season in the D'Antoni dog house and averaged considerably less minutes than Gortat or Gasol.  When looking at these numbers Hill's deal doesn't look so bad anymore, does it?  

Consider these facts: Hill is the youngest of the bunch by far and is receiving his first real chance to be a full-time starting Center from day 1 of training camp.  He's never had that before in his career.  If he's ever going to make the leap it's now. 

Hill is also the youngest of the bunch by far.  Considering Father Time's status as the all-time, undisputed champion of everything it isn't outrageous to think that Jordan will be a better player than Pau Gasol next season.  A solid argument could even be made that he was better last year.  

Hill is the best offensive rebounder by far.  Offensive boards often catch defenses by surprise and get them out of proper defensive position, so there's a lot of value there.  He also leads the pack in total rebounds by a solid margin.  Partnering Hill with a similar rebounding monster like Julius Randle is intriguing since someone is going to have to grab all those Nick Young misses.    

While Jordan will never be the defender that Gortat is or the passer that Gasol is his advantages in rebounding (particularly offensively) projects out to make him at the very least on par with both of those players, but Gasol and particularly Gortat received much more lucrative and long-term deals than what Hill did. 

There is a reason for this of course, as Hill has yet to prove that he can play a full season with the responsibilities of being a starter on his shoulders.  He posted most of his stats last year against the second unit of other teams, so we have to temper our expectations a little.  

Still, when you add everything up the Jordan Hill deal doesn't look bad at all.  In fact, here's one last set of stats just to make Laker fans feel a little better about the deal: 

In 9 games (admittedly a small sample size) as the starting Center last season, Hill put up an average of 16.8 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks in just 28 minutes of playing time.  If he can get around 33 minutes of playing time next year and produce at a similar level and you project those stats out...well let's just say Lakers fans will be very happy that Jordan Hill is in purple and gold.  

I'll be back soon with an in-depth look at Mitch's other moves, such as waiving Kendall Marshall and signing guys like Xavier Henry, Carlos Boozer, Ryan Kelly, and others.  Until then follow me on twitter @16ringsNBA for all the up-to-date Laker news!  

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Welcome to the Lakers Carlos Boozer

Today the Lakers won the waiver bidding on forward Carlos Boozer, who had been amnestied by the Chicago Bulls.  While Boozer is getting up there in years he should be a solid mentor for Julius Randle.  Perhaps most importantly this move gives us all a reason to watch this clip again: 


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Summer League Superstars

The NBA Summer League is an unusual beast.  It’s filled with hopes, dreams, skilled players, and horribly executed, ugly basketball.  That’s ok though, as no one tunes in to summer ball expecting to see San Antonio Spurs-level offensive rhythm or defensive cohesion.  Summer league teams are thrown together with little regard to chemistry or fit and are only given a few practices to come up with a game plan.  It’s essentially a few levels above a pickup game (albeit with extremely talented players) in terms of basketball quality. 

So no, it’s not pretty, but I love it just the same.  Every year the summer league offers skilled players a chance to shine before NBA decision makers (and foreign ones too).  It features mostly players without multi-million dollar contracts who are doing whatever they can to make it, which that gives it a uniquely frenetic, desperate vibe.
In some ways it’s similar to college basketball in that the players go at a breakneck pace and compete as hard as they possibly can on every single possession.  This certainly isn’t the NBA in January, where you might see players loaf for a game or two.  However, the college comparison breaks down rather quickly, as summer league ultimately isn’t about wins and losses nor working together in harmony with a group of guys who have become like brothers.  On the contrary, Summer League is all about the individual. 

Bottom line, it’s about catching the eye of an NBA team.  Any of them, it doesn’t have to be the one that is currently employing the player.  The goal is simply to get noticed for having at least one elite skill, whether that’s shooting, rim protecting, ball handling, whatever.  If you can do that (and be at the very least respectable everywhere else) then teams are going to take notice.  A successful summer league can often mean a training camp invite, which can turn into a pre-season stint, which can turn into a role in the regular season and eventually a long-term contract with an NBA team (aka millions of dollars). 

With the big money at stake everyone plays as hard as possible on every single play.  These guys are out there playing for their livelihood and it shows.  During the process some stand out and move into more serious consideration by NBA teams while others fade into the background and hope to catch on in the D-League or with a foreign team.  Some guys make the NBA Summer League a yearly ritual, each time hoping that this is the year that they will finally get the call up to the big leagues. 

Fortunately for the Lakers there are a few players on their summer league squad who are turning heads, and doing it because they do possess one if not more elite skills.  It couldn’t come at a better time either, as the league’s glamor franchise has found itself in a considerable talent drought.
Most would assume that it would be either Kendall Marshall, who started much of the season for the Lakers last year after a wave of injuries, or Roddy Beaubois, who was once considered an untouchable asset for the Dallas Mavericks, that would be lighting up the summer league.  In actually, both of those players have been somewhat disappointing in spite of their edge in experience.  No, the most impressive Lakers from this year’s squad have thus far been rookies Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson.

Julius Randle
The fact that Randle, the 7th overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, looks good playing in Summer League isn’t necessarily a huge surprise.  In fact, all of the top picks, minus injured Joel Embiid, have performed well in their respective summer leagues.  These are players whose talent levels (and athletic abilities) are well above that of the typical summer league player, and as such they are expected to look very good.

What has stood out about Randle, however, is just how diverse his skills are compared to what we saw in his college days at Kentucky.  There Randle was essentially just a power player who was counted on to rebound the basketball and score inside and that was about it.  He did those things at a very high level, but still, it did appear that his game was not very well rounded.  As a result many compared him to Zach Randolph, another lefty who uses his bulk to get shots off rather than athleticism. 

After 2 summer league games though It’s looking like those comparisons may be wrong.  In what is admittedly an extremely small sample size Randle has shown the ability to successfully attack the basket off the dribble from the perimeter, often beating his man with a quick first step and respectable crossover (for a 6’9”, 250-pound power forward anyway).  In fact he actually looks more comfortable in the face up game than playing as a traditional post-up big, drawing more comparisons to Lamar Odom or Chris Bosh, even though Randle easily outweighs both and is considerably stronger. 

The quickness that he displays in taking defenders off the dribble truly is shocking when you see it, as a man with his size and strength just isn’t supposed to be able to move like that.  One can’t help but feel bad for defenders who get in his way; it’s like standing on the railroad tracks and trying to stop a train.  
***In fact, I’m inspired to start an early campaign for Randle’s official NBA nickname.  Kobe is the “Black Mamba”, LeBron James is “the King”, Steve Nash is “the (barely)Walking Dead”.  Well, Randle has shown the ability to get to the basket regardless of who is in his way, using a combination of quickness and brute strength. Thus I’m dubbing him Julius “the Juggernaut” Randle. 

For the uninformed the Juggernaut is a villain (sometimes hero) from the X-Men who can’t be stopped once he has forward momentum. In the comics he is a complete bad ass.  He was embarrassingly played by Vinnie Jones in the movie “X3: X-Men United” but let’s just take a cue from “X-Men: Days of Future Past” and erase that entire film from our memories.  It’s better that way.

Julius has also showed impressive ball handling skills, often collecting the ball up top beyond the three-point line and then driving past his defender into the middle of the paint.  Once he draws a crowd in the middle he kicks the ball out to wide open shooters.  In fact, his “point-forward” skills were so impressive that in the fourth quarter both guards Kendall Marshall and Jordan Clarkson played off the ball while Randle completely took over as the point guard.  He turned the ball over a couple of times and was probably being asked to do a bit too much (I sincerely doubt he ever plays PG in the NBA) but still, the fact that those skills are there at all was a very pleasant surprise.  

To the Juggernaut’s credit (see, it there it is…seamless nickname!) up until these summer league games he hadn’t played 5-on-5 basketball since the NCAA Championship game.  This is extremely encouraging because it suggests that he can get exponentially better once he gets into shape and gets the rust off.  He also needs to work on his outside jumper, but he’s shown the ability to hit almost out to the three point line in practice.  It’s only a matter of time before his outside touch comes around during games too.  

Jordan Clarkson

Unlike Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson came in as something of an unknown.  The Lakers paid $1.8 million in order to draft him in the second round after they were surprised to see him slip in the draft.  At 6’5” with a 6’8” wingspan and plenty of athleticism Clarkson has all the physical tools necessary to be a successful NBA combo guard. 

However there were questions about his shooting ability, and frankly as a 2nd-round pick no one expected the young Mizzou product to do too much just yet.  While he’s clearly raw, Clarkson has vastly outperformed all expectations, putting up 18.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 2.3 threes per game.  There were rumors that he had vastly improved his shooting stroke following the end of his college career and that appears to be the case.

Clarkson’s length gives him great potential on the defensive end (although he gets lost from time to time) and his energy on the court is hard to miss.  Even though the summer league team is a hodge-podge of players thrown together the team almost immediately deferred to Clarkson and Randle on the court.  Even Kendall Marshall, who started for the Lakers last year, does this from time to time.  It says a lot that Clarkson is being recognized as one of the alpha dogs on the team in spite of not playing a single minute of NBA basketball nor being a lottery pick. 

The entire team looks different without Clarkson’s slashing, attacking style and solid outside shooting on the floor.  His at-the-buzzer tip in to win the game last night against Golden State was particularly indicative of Clarkson’s abilities, as he quickly rose above two Golden State defenders to get the tip and win the game.  The kid just finds ways to get it done, and often in ways that no one sees coming. 

It isn’t all good though.  For a player who considers himself a point guard his ball handling is shaky and turnovers are high (3.33 per game), while his assists are shockingly low (1.3 per game).  There are times when Clarkson gets out of control and his youthfulness shows, but that’ s to be expected. 

Overall, Clarkson’s smooth, attacking style has drawn NBA comparisons to the likes of Monta Ellis, although no one expects him to necessarily become THAT good.  Personally, Clarkson is essentially what I expected Dante Exum would look like: long, rangy, and raw but with enough talent that he may one day be an impact player.  While Exum wasn’t around for the Lakers to draft him it looks as though Jordan Clarkson may give them the next best thing. 

Now that I’ve gushed about how great Clarkson and Randle have been let me add this: it’s Summer League, so take everything with a grain of salt.  Try not to lose your minds about any particular player just yet.  Plenty of guys have absolutely torn up the SL and then ended up being complete busts in the NBA, such as the immortal Nikoloz Tskitishvili. 

The vast majority of players on Summer League teams will never be on an NBA roster, so the level of talent absolutely has to be taken into consideration when evaluating players.  It’s a huge leap to go from playing in the Summer League to playing in the NBA preseason, and another leap to go from the preseason to the regular season.  Just because a guy plays well in Summer League it does not mean that they are going to become an All-Star.  It doesn’t mean that they won’t either, but it’s easy to get too excited about a player’s SL performance and then be let down once the games start for real.   

So Laker fans, stop putting Clarkson in your mock regular season starting lineups.  He’s not going to be the guy to kick Kobe down to small forward.  In addition Randle may contribute a bit this coming season because frankly the Lakers don’t have anyone else at power forward (Ryan Kelly signing pending), but don’t expect him to be an All Star right out of the gate.  He’s going to need time to adjust.  When rookies are expected to become stars right away bad things can happen to their confidence and development (see Brown, Kwame).  

Yes, Clarkson and Randle have looked great but it will likely be a few years before they can truly be counted on to contribute night in and night out.  After all, guys like Von Wafer, Derrick Caracter, and Devin Ebanks looked great in Summer League too. 

For now just enjoy watching these guys develop and be glad that the Lakers were able to draft them.  Be patient, and remember the dark days we are in now only make us appreciate the days in the sun that much more. 

For more Lakers analysis follow me on twitter @16ringsNBA.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Adios Pau Gasol

In life there are moments that are so significant that they leave a lasting impression on all those who witness them.  Whether that moment is a positive or negative one it will never be locked away and forgotten.  In fact they make such an impact that people remember small details that they normally never would, like what they were wearing that day or who was sitting next to them when it happened. 

We call these “I remember where I was when” moments.  The assassination of Abraham Lincoln was one of them, as was the inauguration of George Washington.  For events such as these the few who witnessed them would never forget them, and they would tell their children and grandchildren stories about where they were when it happened.

As technology developed and grew in the 20th century we saw an interesting phenomenon: “I remember where I was when” moments that were felt not just by the observers witnessing events in person but also by those listening or watching remotely.  Some events were so important, so shockingly beautiful or terrible, that they became part of our national consciousness. 

When Pearl Harbor was attacked Americans heard the news on the radio, simultaneously experiencing the same feelings and emotions.  The anger and desire for revenge united us as a country and brought us together in a way that few could have predicted.  Over two decades later we watched, live on television, when man set foot on the moon.  We didn’t just read about it the next day in the paper, or listen to it on the radio, we saw it happen right before our eyes, and we were mesmerized by it.  9/11 saw us once again captivated by a moment that could never be forgotten but for much more frightening reasons.

Within the last decade we have seen another seismic shift in how we receive news and how we experience things.  With the rise of the internet and social media the telephone has become an entirely new beast, allowing us to communicate in ways that Alexander Graham Bell never would have imagined. 

When terrorist Osama Bin Laden was killed in 2011 Americans heard the news at the same time, but not on the radio, nor on television.  Word spread quickly on social media sites like facebook and twitter via cell phones, allowing most people to know about Bin Laden’s demise before the news media could report it.  In that moment we were experiencing a collective “I remember where I was when” moment in a new way. 

These are the moments that bring us together, that allow us to feel and experience the same things at the same time, even if only for a brief moment.  When that happens on the national scale it can be incredible. 

Yet everyone has their own personal moments that they will never forget as well, ones shaped by their own passions and inspirations.  These include important events in their personal lives, such as weddings, birthdays, graduations, and other milestones.  Those moments live with us as well, even if they don’t have the nationally unifying effect that something like 9/11 does. 

There is, of course, in-between moments as well, ones that don’t impact the entire nation but still have a larger reach than just an individual and their own personal circle of influence.  These events impact people who have a common bond, one thing that brings them together when they otherwise wouldn’t be.  Perhaps the greatest example of this comes in sports, where legions of fans experience the same feelings of heartbreak and triumph based upon the success or failure of their team.  They celebrate victories together, mourn losses, and support the team through thick and thin.

We are a crazy bunch

As a Laker fan I’ve certainly had more than my fair share of “I remember where I was when” moments.  Magic Johnson’s junior sky hook to win game 4 against Boston, Kobe to Shaq against Portland, Horry for the win, Magic’s retirement, the death of Dr. Jerry Buss, Kobe’s81, and many, many more.  I’ll remember them all. 

Today though, I’m being brought back to a different moment, and I guess that’s because at the end you have to think about the beginning.  February 1st, 2008: Pau Gasol was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers. 

To be sure, this isn’t an event on the same level as a 9/11 or Pearl Harbor; I would never attempt to make that comparison.  For a subset of people though, the ravenous, frenzied bunch known as Laker fans, this was an “I remember where I was when” moment. 

 I was sick.  I had stayed home from work that day with a nasty cold and fever, and had spent the majority of the morning drifting in and out of consciousness.  Eventually I fixed myself some breakfast and started to snap out of it a little, so I turned on my computer and checked out a chat being hosted by ESPN, I believe with David Aldridge. 

At one point Aldridge stopped the chat and session and told everyone to hang on for a minute, he was getting word of a trade involving the Lakers.  My heart skipped a beat.  Andrew Bynum had been in the midst of a breakout season, which had done just enough to placate Kobe Bryant that the Lakers were able to convince him to rescind his trade request.  It had been a tough offseason for the Lakers, with Kobe rumored to be heading to either Chicago or Detroit via trade.  He was tired of losing and wanted to return to the top, which appeared to be impossible in LA.  When Andrew Bynum started off the season looking like an All-Star everything changed. However, Bynum had just gone down with a knee injury (which would become a trend), and it looked like the Lakers would once again lack the firepower to make any significant noise in the playoffs.

My fear was that with Bynum out the Lakers had given in and traded Kobe Bryant.  A moment later Aldridge popped back up to clarify that the trade was for Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies.  When the full details of the trade emerged I was stunned: Pau Gasol to the Lakers in exchange for Kwame Brown’s expiring contract, Javaris Crittenton, Aaron McKie (who was signed to a contract just to be included in this trade, a loophole that has since been closed), 2 first-round picks, and the rights to a second-round pick named Marc Gasol (of course at the time no one thought Marc would ever be as good as his brother).

Even sick and feverish I jumped up out of my seat and ran around the house celebrating.  I grabbed my phone and texted every Laker-fan that I knew and turned on ESPN to revel as Stephen A. Smith went on a tirade about how amazing this trade was for the Lakers.  I called my dad, who had taught me to love the Lakers, and we shared in this great moment in Laker history.  He couldn’t believe that the Lakers had landed Gasol without giving up Kobe, Bynum, or Lamar Odom. 

Everyone could sense that this was a moment of monumental importance.  The potential was there for this to be a turning point for the Lakers, one that could lead to greatness.  The excitement in the air was tangible.  Somehow, when the chips were down, the Lakers managed to do the impossible yet again.

5 days later Pau made his Laker debut against the New Jersey Nets, fitting in seamlessly while putting up an impressive 24 points and 12 rebounds.  The Lakers, thought to be dead in the water without Andrew Bynum, were flying high again.

For the next three seasons the Lakers would find themselves in the NBA Finals, riding the brilliance of Gasol and Bryant while players like Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom, Trevor Ariza, Ron Artest, and Derek Fisher played their roles to perfection.  During that period 2 championships would be brought home to Los Angeles and Gasol cemented his status as one of the most skilled big men to ever play the game.

His knack for passing out of the post created plenty of opportunities for cutting teammates and was indicative of the selflessness he displayed throughout his career.  When the Lakers needed a basket they knew that Gasol would always be ready to go work in the post, often using a series of fakes to get his defender out of position before deftly lofting the ball into the basket.  For the Lakers It was another golden age, but nothing lasts forever.  

As the years went on Pau soldiered forward for the Lakers even as obstacles mounted.  In 2011 the Lakers traded Gasol and Odom in a deal that would have netted them superstar point guard Chris Paul, but it wasn’t to be.  Commissioner David Stern was fresh off of a Collective Bargaining session that in part had the goal of preventing the Lakers from re-loading their roster.  Stern, claiming to be acting as the owner of the league-owned Hornets, then broke the rules he himself had put in place in order to keep the NBA from interfering with the Hornets and vetoed the trade. 

Stern’s villainy left Pau in an uncomfortable position, having been traded by the franchise that he had helped bring two championships to.  The Lakers still haven’t recovered from the vetoed deal, stuck in a downward spiral thanks to Stern’s actions and subsequent mistakes made by the front office. 

The team’s relationship with Pau was damaged even further when they hired Coach Mike D’Antoni, who didn’t see eye-to-eye with his star big man, inexplicably benching him late in games.  Other stars would have ranted to the media and made trade demands on a daily basis, but for the most part Gasol stayed silent and stoically did his job.  He gave the Lakers his all year in and year out while chaos swirled around him.  It’s safe to say that no one could have handled the situation as well as he did. 

That brings us to today.  While D’Antoni is gone the damage has already been done.  The Lakers were somehow unable (or unwilling) to find a suitable trade for Gasol in the three years since the Chris Paul theft and have also been unsuccessful in their efforts to bring the team back to their traditional status as a contender.  Gasol suffered through the worst season in Lakers history last year while best friend Kobe Bryant was plagued with injuries.  Given all that had happened since that remarkable day in 2008 when Pau came to LA it seemed as though his departure was inevitable.   

Last summer the Lakers made the enormous, crippling mistake of allowing Dwight Howard to become a free agent rather than trade him at the deadline when it was clear that he wouldn’t be returning.  Their stubbornness resulted in Howard running away to the Houston Rockets, leaving the once-great franchise with nothing.  Unfortunately this disaster was not enough to teach the front office their lesson about free agents.

The Lakers compounded the Dwight problem by making the same mistake with Pau this summer.  They allowed him to become a free agent even while knowing that his return was doubtful.  Yesterday, in a moment that Laker fans feared was coming, Pau made the decision to leave in search of another shot at a championship, signing with the Chicago Bulls in the laughably weak Eastern Conference. 

I’m genuinely happy for Pau, yet saddened at the same time.  Laker management should have never allowed a situation like this to occur.  They should have put a team in place that would allow the Lakers to contend, thus allowing Pau to be in a position to finish his playing days in the Golden Armor alongside Kobe.  It’s only fitting that those two, now forever linked in basketball history, should leave the court for the last time together, as teammates.    

Instead, incompetence has robbed Gasol, Kobe, and the fans of that moment.  In the space of a year the team has watched two of the top big men of the last decade walk out the door without receiving any compensation in return.  For the franchise this is a failure of colossal proportions.  For Pau, Kobe, and Laker fans it’s an absolute tragedy.    

The Lakers have now become a cautionary tale and teams are increasingly wary of taking on star players with expiring contracts.  In the absence of a contending team the Lakers should have been able to at least do right by Gasol and trade him to a franchise that has a shot at winning while receiving something in return for their star, something to help soften the blow to the fans.  But that didn't happen.  Now the Lakers face an uncertain future and can only wish Pau the best in Chicago.   

Regardless of the tragic ending Pau Gasol will always hold a special place in the hearts of Laker fans.  Throughout all the chaos and upheaval over the past few years Pau has been the constant, the stable rock anchoring the team.  Seeing him in a Bulls uniform is never going to seem quite right.  At some point the Lakers will turn things around.  They will be back, but it will never be the same as those magical days when Pau and Kobe, opposites in so many ways, ruled the NBA.   

In our lifetime we have so few moments that stand out as truly unforgettable.  Some are felt by the entire world, some by a nation, and some by only an individual.  Still others impact a group, even a diverse, unconventional group brought together by something as irrational as an obsession for a basketball team. 

Pau helped bring the Lakers 2 Championships and countless amazing memories.  Someday his jersey will be in the rafters at Staples Center where it belongs.  As the years will go by and the players from this generation of Lakers slip into history it is safe to say that Pau and his contributions will not be forgotten.  What he accomplished with his counterpoint, Kobe Bryant, can never be taken away.

At the end you have to think about the beginning.   Through all the ups and downs one thing has never changed: I remember where I was when Pau Gasol became a Laker.  It was the moment that pushed the Lakers to greatness, a moment in which the endless possibilities of the future captivated our imaginations, a moment where the impossible was possible, and a moment that we will be forever attempting to recapture. 

Thank you Pau.  

For more Lakers news follow me on twitter @16ringsNBA

Friday, July 11, 2014

Grading the Lin, Young, and Hill Acquisitions

While most of the league was chattering about LeBron James’ move back home to Cleveland the Lakers got to work piecing together their roster for next season.  For the past few weeks Mitch Kupchak has been hesitant to make any moves in fear of using up cap space that was being reserved for Carmelo Anthony.  Upon hearing that Melo would be signing elsewhere the trigger was pulled on Plan B, resulting in a flurry of moves.  Unfortunately Plan B didn’t’ quite have the sizzle that Laker fans were hoping for. 
Here’s a quick breakdown of the moves that the Lakers made and a letter grade for each:

Jeremy Lin/Houston’s 2015 1st rounder- As soon as the Lakers got word that Anthony would not be wearing the purple and gold next season they executed a trade to land point guard Jeremy Lin and a 2015 first round pick from the Houston Rockets.  The deal nets the Lakers a starting-quality point guard, which fills a need thanks to the inconsistencies of Steve Nash and Kendall Marshall.  While Lin is a few years removed from his “Linsanity” days he can still produce on the court and should give the Lakers another offensive weapon.  Additionally his contract is a plus, as it expires after next season which will allow the Lakers to preserve cap space to chase after superstars once again next year.

Houston’s first round pick is also a nice addition as the Lakers lost their own 2015 first in the Steve Nash trade.  The Rockets made the trade hoping to sign Chris Bosh, who appeared to be unlikely to return to Miami following the departure of LeBron.  Bosh, however, shocked everyone by choosing to accept Miami’s max contract offer and leave Houston out to dry.  Bosh electing not to team up with James Harden and Dwight Howard in Houston certainly adds a little more luster to the Lin deal for Laker fans, as no one wants to see Dwight on a contending team following his defection from the Lakers last year. 
Overall it was a good deal for the Lakers but isn’t the type of home-run move that fans were hoping for.  Still, getting a solid starter and a first round pick for essentially just cap space is a phenomenal haul, and Lin’s expiring contract could prove to be valuable at the trade deadline.
Grade: A

Nick Young- Swaggy P was a fan favorite last season for the Lakers and was high on the list of players Mitch Kupchak wanted to sign this summer.  Young has expressed his desire to remain in LA from the moment he landed in purple and gold so it seemed that a deal was only a matter of time before a deal was struck.  Eventually Young and the Lakers came to an agreement on a 4 year,$21.5 million deal with a player option for the 4th year. 

While Young is a bit one-dimensional there are few better scorers off the bench than he is, and instant offense from the bench can be very valuable in today’s NBA.  He is able to create his own shot when the offense stagnates and showed some ability to take (and make) difficult shots with the clock winding down.  His constant ear-to-ear smile is indicative of just how much he loves being a Laker, and that’s something that the Lakers surprisingly need. 

The only gripe I have about Young’s deal is that it ideally would have been a 2 year deal rather than 4 in order to preserve cap space after Kobe’s contract is up, and of course player options are never a good thing for the team.  However we have seen players like Jodie Meeks and Avery Bradley get much larger deals that Young did so he may end up being something of a bargain even with the extra years. 
Grade: B+

Jordan Hill: With Carmelo not joining the Lakers it became a certainty that veteran big man Pau Gasol would be on his way out as well.  Gasol was hoping for an opportunity to win, and without another superstar to join him and Kobe it was clear that the Lakers couldn’t provide that.  Thanks to Pau’s impending departure the Lakers had a hole at center to fill and moved quickly to lock down their own free agent, Jordan Hill, to a 2-year, $18 million deal that initially left Laker fans shaking their heads. 

While Hill has always had the support of the fan base thanks to his energy and hustle there was no one expecting him to earn a contract quite that rich, especially since it ate up much of the Lakers remaining cap space and effectively ended their chances of landing any other impact free agents. 

It was later revealed that the deal is a team option for the second year, which makes a lot of sense.  The Lakers offered Hill more money next year than he was worth in exchange for getting the option to waive his contract next summer if they need cap space.  This also should effectively motivate Hill all season, as he’s been known to have lapses of concentration on defense.  If he wants to receive the full $18 million of the contract he will have to step his game up next year. 

To his credit Hill did put up 16.6 points, 1.8 blocks, and 10.1 rebounds as a starting center last year, albeit in a small sample size of 8 games.  Still, if he can come anywhere close to those numbers next year he will be worth his contract.  Laker fans also have to be excited about seeing Hill’s voracious rebounding combine with Julius Randle’s own aggressiveness on the boards.  With those two controlling the glass rebounding should be one of the few advantages that next year’s Lakers will have over their opponents.

Overall Hill’s deal is something of a disappointment because it means that the Lakers will essentially be bringing back last year’s squad with only a few additions (Randle, Clarkson, and Lin) and subtractions (Gasol, Jodie Meeks, Jordan Farmar, and Kent Bazemore).  The opportunity to land someone else on the free agent market, like Kings point guard and life-long Laker fan Isaiah Thomas, would have brought a little more excitement to the weary fan base.  The fact that the deal has a team option on the second year saves it from being a massive mistake.

Grade: D+
With these moves the Lakers have a lineup that looks like this:

PG: Lin, Marshall, Nash (when healthy…so just pretend he isn’t there)
SG: Kobe Bryant, Jordan Clarkson
SF: Young
PF: Randle
C: Hill, Robert Sacre

That leaves the team with as many as 6 roster spots available to reach the maximum 15, although they can carry as few as 12.  The Lakers will likely bring back forward Ryan Kelly and guard-forward Xavier Henry to help round out the roster.  After that there may be an opportunity for one or two of the guys on their summer league roster or preseason squad to play their way on to the team. 

While Mitch’s job isn’t over the Lakers roster is finally starting to round into shape.  Unfortunately it’s looking frighteningly similar to last season’s nightmare lineup.  Hopefully a new coach (most likely Byron Scott) can get better results from this group than Mike D’Antoni did.  It will take a lot for the Lakers to turn in a winning season, but if there is one thing that the offseason has in abundance for every team it’s hope.

Buckle up Laker fans, it’s going to be another bumpy season, but at some point the Lakers will return to prominence.  They simply won’t allow themselves to be held down for long. 

Follow me on twitter for more Lakers news @16ringsNBA