Saturday, March 28, 2015

Lakers Tank In Real Trouble

The Los Angeles Lakers currently sit with the 4th-worst record in the league and are on pace to lose more games than at any point in franchise history since moving to LA. It's not all bad though, as the Lakers draft pick this summer is top-5 protected, which offers the team a roughly 83% chance at keeping the pick if they finish with the 4th-worst record.

 With the team eliminated from the playoffs long ago there many Lakers fans on board with the tank, encouraging the team to lose as much as possible. Coach Byron Scott has made a few moves towards that goal, including giving more minutes to young players and outright benching veterans such as Jordan Hill and Carlos Boozer in order to help secure more losses. Unfortunately, these changes might not be enough. Thanks to the play of several contract-year players, most notably Jeremy Lin and Ed Davis, the Lakers find themselves only three games up in the win column on the 5th place Orlando Magic.

 Three games may sound like a large lead but the Magic have won just one game in their past ten attempts. To make matters worse, the Lakers play a number of weak opponents down the stretch, including the Sixers, Wolves, and Kings (twice).

 It's entirely possible that the Lakers could drop to the 5th spot, which would lower their chances of keeping the pick all the way down to 55%, only slightly better than a coin flip.  To lose their draft pick after the worst season in franchise history would not only be insult to injury but it would also deprive the Lakers fan base of the little hope that they have left.


The good news is that the Lakers can control their own destiny. If they can find a way to lose the remaining games on their schedule they will, at worst, end up tied with the Sixers for the 3rd spot. While losing 11 games straight is a tall order for any team, there is a method by which the Lakers could make that result at least somewhat likely: bench their top 4 players.

 Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak has admitted that the team is looking to build for the future both with their young players and through the draft, and as such Coach Scott has given the young players more minutes. However, he has also continued to play contract-year veterans Jeremy Lin, Carlos Boozer, Jordan Hill, and Ed Davis. Each of them are giving everything they have game-in and game-out because their livelihoods are at stake, and it's costing the Lakers valuable losses in the process.

 While it's true that Byron has recently moved Boozer and Hill to the bench it hasn't been enough, as the team picked up a tank-crushing win over Minnesota anyway. Had the team gone full-throttle on the tank and benched Lin and Davis in addition to Boozer and Hill the Wolves game would have likely resulted in a loss, and if Byron had pulled the trigger two games earlier than that they might have been able to manage a loss to Philadelphia as well. Those missed opportunities are in the past though, and right now the team needs to focus on simply wracking up as many losses as possible over the final 11 games.

 Take a look at the PER for each player on the team at this point in the season:

Rk Player Age PER ▾
1 Ed Davis 25 20.4
2 Kobe Bryant 36 17.7
3 Carlos Boozer 33 16.7
4 Jordan Hill 27 16.5
5 Jeremy Lin 26 16.2
6 Jordan Clarkson 22 15.3
7 Tarik Black 23 14.6
8 Nick Young 29 14.3
9 Wayne Ellington 27 11.7
10 Wesley Johnson 27 11.2
11 Jabari Brown 22 11.2
12 Robert Sacre 25 10.9
13 Ronnie Price 31 10.2
14 Ryan Kelly 23 6.9
15 Xavier Henry 23 4.9
16 Julius Randle 20 -7.5
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 3/28/2015.

 With Kobe injured the top players on the team are Lin, Davis, Hill, and Boozer. Sitting those 4 down would do wonders for the team's chances of losing out and securing their draft pick.  Doing so wouldn't hurt the players either, as each of them has had plenty of time over the course of the season to prove that they deserve solid contracts next year.

 While benching the top-4 Lakers on the active roster might seem underhanded it would be par for the course in what has been a wild tank race. Philadelphia and New York have either traded or benched their most talented players, while Minnesota is bubble-wrapping their more injury-prone players by keeping them in street clothes with relatively minor maladies. The only choice the Lakers have in order to even the playing field is to sit their veterans, leaving the team with a rotation that would look something like this:

PG: Jordan Clarkson (35 min)/Wayne Ellington (13 min)
SG: Jabari Brown (35 min/Wayne Ellington (13 min)
SF: Wesley Johnson (35 min)/Wayne Ellington (5 min)/Ryan Kelly (8 min)
 PF: Ryan Kelly (30 min)/Tarik Black (18 min)
C: Tarik Black (18 min)/Robert Sacre (30 min)

 Obviously it's a short, 8 man rotation, but that lineup would allow the Lakers plenty of time to evaluate their young players for next year while losing as many games as possible. In a lost season there is simply no reason to continue to give minutes to known-commodities like Lin, Boozer, Hill, and Davis. Let those players begin to focus on their pending free-agency while the younger guys get all the minutes they can handle to learn on the job.

 It won't be pretty, but at this point the Lakers have no choice but to go all-out in their tanking efforts. To do anything less is simply tempting fate, which wouldn't be wise given the Lakers luck over the past three seasons.

 For more Lakers analysis follow me on twitter @16ringsNBA and also check out my work at silverscreenandroll.com 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Young's Rocky 14/15 Season Highlights Lakers Free Agency Mistake


News broke yesterday that Nick Young knee injury is worse than originally thought and his season could be in jeopardy. The Lakers energetic scorer was revealed to have a small fracture in his knee cap, and while he won't need surgery to repair it the amount of rest required for it to heal as well as the time it would take to get back in shape suggests that Young's year is likely over, and that may not be a bad thing. Reality is that given the way the season has gone so far for Swaggy P (Young's alter-ego) shutting it down may well be what is best for everyone.

 Last season Young was one of the few bright spots for the struggling Lakers, providing timely scoring off the bench and an infectious smile that made him a favorite amongst teammates. Fans enjoyed his bravado as well. His ability to make seemingly impossible shots kept the Staples Center rocking even during a season in which the team set the franchise record for losses. Unfortunately Swaggy P has morphed into Swaggless P this season as he has proven incapable of duplicating last season's success.

 Young has also spent a large portion of the season on the bench with a variety of injuries, including the first 10 games of the season due to a torn ligament in his right (shooting) hand suffered while defending Kobe Bryant in practice. For a guy who specializes in scoring points a serious injury to a shooting hand can be difficult to recover from, and it could partially explain Young's struggles from the field this season.

 To dig deeper let's take a look at Young's stats from last season compared to this one (per 36 minutes):

Season Age FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% 2P 2PA 2P% FT FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PTS
2013-14 28 7.7 17.7 .435 2.7 7.0 .386 5.0 10.7 .468 4.7 5.7 .825 0.6 2.7 3.3 1.9 0.9 0.2 1.9 22.8
2014-15 29 6.3 17.1 .366 3.0 8.1 .369 3.3 9.0 .363 4.8 5.3 .892 0.6 2.8 3.5 1.5 0.8 0.4 1.6 20.3
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 3/19/2015.

 Looking at his numbers adjusted for minutes it's easy to see that when he has played this season Nick has produced at roughly the same level as he did last year, with the one major exception being that his field goal percentage has dropped significantly. Compounding the problem, Young doesn't really do much else aside from score, as he is worse-than-average as a passer, rebounder, and defender. His one NBA-level skill is scoring the basketball, and if he can't do that effectively then there isn't much reason for him to be on the court.

All of this brings us back to a question that had to be asked last summer: should the Lakers resign Nick Young? He had put up career numbers in a contract year, which can be a red flag. At the same time though he was the heart of the team and had been embraced by the fans and the community. Ultimately, the team made the decision that his scoring ability off the bench, positive attitude, and connection with the fanbase warranted awarding him a 4-year, $21.5 million deal with a player option in the final year.

 For Nick the deal has been an excellent one, as not only is he making millions of dollars but he has also increased his exposure tremendously by being one of the most visible players on one of the NBA's glamour franchises. He is dating rapper Iggy Azalea, has a legion of fans, and found himself side-by-side with Joel McHale on "The Soup" last week. Even his haircut is news, proving that life is good when you are a Laker.

 For the Lakers franchise though the Young signing hasn't quite been a slam dunk. At the time I felt like the Young deal was a good one for the Lakers, albeit in a vacuum. His deal pays him, on average, just over $5 million per year, which isn't a bad for a guy who can create his own shot in a pinch. However, as I mentioned back then, while Young's deal is solid the opportunity cost was tremendous as there were other players available who wold have offered better value.

 For example, compare the numbers put up per 36-minutes by Young to those of Isaiah Thomas (signed a similar 4-year deal):
Rk Player Age FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% 2P 2PA 2P% FT FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PTS
1 Isaiah Thomas 25 6.9 16.4 .422 2.6 6.9 .379 4.3 9.5 .454 6.2 7.0 .874 0.7 2.6 3.4 5.6 1.3 0.1 2.9 22.6
2 Nick Young 29 6.3 17.1 .366 3.0 8.1 .369 3.3 9.0 .363 4.8 5.3 .892 0.6 2.8 3.5 1.5 0.8 0.4 1.6 20.3
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 3/19/2015.


 Thomas is also life-long Laker fan and by all accounts wanted to sign with the team but no offer was made. He is nearly 4 years younger than Swaggy is and is producing far superior numbers with a nearly identical usage rate. It's clear that while Young is beloved by Lakers fans Thomas would have been a much better choice based on on-court production, although it must be said that the Lakers would likely not be in a position to retain their draft pick this year with Thomas on the roster in place of Young.

 Young's poor shooting this season has also essentially killed any trade value that he might have had, which was a risk the Lakers knew they were taking when they signed him. They gambled on a player who put up good numbers in a contract-year and thus far it has burned them . A younger, more talented player like Thomas was almost guaranteed to produce at a higher rate than the contract that he signed, which creates trade value.  Swaggy, on the other hand, was always more of a 50/50 proposition to provide value relative to his deal.

 All that said, if Young's shooting percentage goes back up to 42% or so next season and he continues to be a big shot-maker then his trade value will go back up, especially since there will be one year less on it and the salary cap will be increasing, making his deal less of a hit. While Young's deal isn't crippling it hopefully has shown the front office how dangerous it can be to give a long-term deal to a player like Young. Fan support can be a good thing for a player, but fans cheer with their hearts and it's on the front office to sign the player that will help the franchise win instead of the fun guy that excites the crowd. We will have to wait until this summer to find out if the the Lakers truly learned their lesson.

 As for Nick Young, Lakers fans can only hope that he recovers fully from his latest injury and can find his swag again this summer.  Until then, let's enjoy one of his other claims to fame: making multiple appearances on Shaqtin A Fool.


For more Lakers analysis follow me on twitter @16ringsNBA


Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Rise of Jordan Clarkson

Nearly 9 months ago Jordan Clarkson sat and watched as his NBA dream nearly slipped away. In the 2014 NBA Draft one name after another was called but none of them belonged to him. A guard out of Missouri, Clarkson had been optimistically projected to be selected somewhere near the end of the first round, but as the 30th pick was taken his name was still on the board.  At that point he knew that he would be a second-round pick at best, which meant no guaranteed money or roster spot.  Still, he hoped to hear his name announced on draft night.

That's when Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak sprung into action, purchasing the 46th pick in the draft from the Washington Wizards for $1.8 million in the hopes of selecting the young Filipino-American guard.

Kupchak and the Lakers saw something in Clarkson that other teams either overlooked or undervalued. He has a wingspan of 6'8", which is longer than average for a 6'5" human being. The extra 3 inches of length on his arms means that he has an easier time getting his shot off over the top of defenders and defensively can cover more territory. While "wingspan" might be a Jay Bilas drinking game on draft night it's also a valuable commodity in the NBA...just ask Giannis Antetokounmpo.

 Beyond his impressive physical measurements the Lakers also noticed that Clarkson's efficiency over the final stretch of his Missouri career had dropped considerably, and with good reason. While most teams simply saw that his Field Goal percentage plummeted from 48% to 39% and wrote him off the Lakers understood that he was under tremendous emotional strain due to his father's cancer diagnosis. 

 That Clarkson was able to compose himself and play as well as he still did spoke to his character, even if his on-court stats had suffered and caused many teams to doubt him. The Lakers took a gamble that his production during those final two months at Missouri was an aberration caused by his the uncertainty of his father's illness and not indicative of his true potential. In other words, the Lakers, an organization known for being behind the times in terms of analytics, were able to look past the numbers and see the young man behind them. They recognized things that simply could never be reflected on a stat sheet, and happily selected Clarkson with the 46th pick.

 Today, Jordan Clarkson is the starting point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers and one of the hottest names in basketball. He has gone from a draft day free-fall to battling the likes of Mike Conley, Rajon Rondo, Tony Parker, John Wall, Damian Lillard, and the rest of the NBA's plethora of incredible point guards. Not only is he holding his own against the very best the NBA has to offer, he's finding success against them.

His strong play has certainly been a welcome development in Los Angeles.  In a lost season, the game-by-game improvements that Clarkson has shown have been just about the only thing keeping Lakers fans tuning in.  

He's using his undeniable quickness to get into the lane and wreak havoc on opposing defenses. Clarkson's play in the pick and roll, considered to be one of his weaknesses heading into the season, has turned into one of his major strengths. While he still occasionally makes the wrong read or tries to force a bad pass his mid-range jumper has become nearly automatic.

He has also developed a dependable floater that allows him to score over the top of rotating bigs.  Whether he blows by his defender with pure speed or uses a pick to slither into the lane, Clarkson's floater has enabled him to become a threat in the paint even when he can't quite get all the way to the rim.

  His footwork and ability to read the defense have also improved immensely, as visible by the nice up-and-under move he put on former Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler.  He occasionally pulls off gems like that, where the influence of footwork gurus like Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant is clearly evident. 

 That's not to say that there isn't a lot of work to be done still, as Clarkson has to become a better shooter from three (31%...yikes) and still can get caught out of position on defense. His wingspan (drink!) does help him make up for mistakes on the defensive end but he has a ways to go to realize his full potential there.  Ideally, once he gets better at reading angles and anticipating what the offense wants, he will become a long-armed terror, picking off passes, creating deflections, and getting a hand in the face of perimeter shooters. 

Complaints are minimal though, as they should be.   For any rookie he's doing a great job, but for the 46th pick in the draft he has been absolutely phenomenal.

 To further illustrate just how impressive Jordan Clarkson has been, take a look at how he stacks up compared to other guards from the 2014 draft (I went with per 36-minute numbers to get closer to comparing apples to apples):

Rk Player Season Age G GS FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% 2P 2PA 2P% FT FTA FT% TRB AST STL BLK TOV PTS
1 Jordan Clarkson 2014-15 22 40 19 6.1 14.0 .438 0.9 3.0 .314 5.2 11.0 .472 3.0 3.7 .814 4.2 4.0 1.2 0.3 2.1 16.2
2 Dante Exum 2014-15 19 62 21 2.9 8.3 .355 1.7 5.2 .321 1.3 3.1 .411 0.6 0.9 .645 2.8 4.0 0.9 0.3 2.1 8.1
3 Zach LaVine 2014-15 19 56 23 5.1 12.1 .420 0.7 2.5 .288 4.4 9.6 .454 2.3 2.9 .813 3.8 5.2 1.3 0.2 3.5 13.2
4 Elfrid Payton 2014-15 20 64 45 4.1 10.0 .415 0.1 0.5 .167 4.1 9.5 .427 1.7 3.0 .542 4.9 7.5 1.9 0.2 3.0 10.0
5 Marcus Smart 2014-15 20 47 18 3.4 9.5 .359 1.9 5.8 .325 1.5 3.7 .413 1.7 2.6 .667 4.4 4.8 1.9 0.3 1.9 10.4
6 Nik Stauskas 2014-15 21 55 0 3.2 9.3 .344 1.3 4.8 .280 1.9 4.5 .411 2.0 2.2 .872 2.5 1.9 0.6 0.5 1.2 9.7
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 3/10/2015.

 Keep in mind that Dante Exum, Marcus Smart, Nik Stauskas, Elfrid Payton, and Zach LaVine were all lottery picks and yet Jordan Clarkson is currently out-dueling them all on a per-36 minutes basis.  At this point the Lakers are getting more bang for their buck out of the 46th pick than the Jazz are out of the 5th pick.

While most would point to the fact that Clarkson has been given a larger role in the Lakers offense compared to his competition 3 of them (Smart, Exum, Payton) are currently starters and another (LaVine) has been in and out of the starting lineup and has received solid minutes off the bench. Only Nik Stauskas hasn't been given a major push by his team, and the numbers that he has put up help to explain why.  Otherwise, Clarkson's contemporaries have had somewhat similar opportunities to produce for their respective teams.  

 Even some advanced statistics like PER recognize Clarkson as the best of the bunch, although not all do. It must be noted that Smart's defense gives him the slight edge in some metrics, such as Win Shares. Clarkson also has the highest usage rate, suggesting that his competitors might come closer to having the impact he has had with a few more touches on the ball.

It also bears mentioning that Clarkson is the oldest of the group, which helps explain why so many NBA teams passed on him on draft day.  In a league where upside is king, choosing a 19 or 20 year-old over a 22 year-old who is currently a better player is common, as it's expected that the younger player has more growth potential.

                                          Even if that 22 year-old can do this to the 19 year-old

Still, that shouldn't take away from the fact that the Lakers found themselves a true steal. If the 2014 Draft were to be re-done today Clarkson would likely find himself taken in the top 10 instead of falling to the middle of the second round.  It's a testament to the organization's ability to identify talent, which is of note because the team will have as many as four draft picks this coming summer.

The Lakers didn't pick Clarkson just because they owned a draft pick and got lucky on a shot in the dark, they recognized the skills that Jordan possessed and then did what was necessary to go out and acquire the pick used to draft him. That's smart and insightful management, something that the Lakers haven't been accused of lately.

Of course we don't want to get ahead of ourselves.  Jordan Clarkson still needs to be given time to learn and grow as a player, but what we have seen so far has been very, very promising.  The rest of the league has taken notice too.

After Clarkson had lit up the Grizzlies for 25 points and forced them to put defensive ace Tony Allen on him down the stretch, Memphis PF Zach Randolph said:

 "I didn't know who the dude was.  2nd round pick?  Who evaluatin' this talent?" 

A few days later, before a showdown with Dallas, Mavs Coach Rick Carlisle weighed in on Clarkson:

"Early in the year, like a lot of rookies, he was inconsistent and unsure, wasn't sure what his game was," Carlisle said. "Now you look at him, when you go for 25 against Mike Conley in Memphis, and you've got a pretty substantial lead in the fourth quarter, you're getting it done. He's doing a great job."
Carlisle also credited Byron Scott for Clarkson's progression, stating:

"One of the remarkable things about this progression with Clarkson was that he really appeared to be more of a two guard than a point guard," Carlisle said. "He's really getting a feel for playing the point, and that's great coaching." 
It's quotes like these that should give Lakers fans some comfort with the rebuilding process that is currently taking place (although to be fair it's not just Scott working with Clarkson, as Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, and Carlos Boozer have also been in his ear).  While it isn't as fast as some want it to be and the team isn't losing quite as many games as just about everyone would like right now, young players like Clarkson are being given opportunities to grow.  If and when this franchise turns things around it's going to be because of guys like him, who were well scouted, acquired, and then given the support needed to develop into quality NBA players.

 To underscore how successful Clarkson has been up to this point I'll leave you with the numbers he has put up as a 22 year-old rookie compared to those produced at the same age by the guy Clarkson is compared to most often, Monta Ellis:

Rk Player From To G GS FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% 2P 2PA 2P% FT FTA FT% TRB AST STL BLK TOV PTS
1 Jordan Clarkson 2015 2015 40 19 6.1 14.0 .438 0.9 3.0 .314 5.2 11.0 .472 3.0 3.7 .814 4.2 4.0 1.2 0.3 2.1 16.2
2 Monta Ellis 2006 2008 207 128 6.9 13.9 .495 0.4 1.5 .285 6.5 12.4 .520 3.5 4.6 .761 4.1 3.9 1.6 0.3 2.5 17.7
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 3/10/2015.

 To make these numbers even more impressive, consider that Ellis was in his third NBA season at that point, well past many of the rookie mistakes that Clarkson currently makes.  Lakers fans, celebrate this one small victory. It might not be much, but Jordan Clarkson has given LA a reason to smile, even if only for a moment or two.

For more Lakers analysis follow me on twitter @16ringsNBA