Sunday, March 1, 2015

By Winning Lakers Risk Losing It All

The past week has not been a good one for the Los Angeles Lakers.  While most fan bases would be celebrating a 3-game win streak Lakers fans are bemoaning their bad luck and cursing coach Byron Scott.  Due to the nature of the ill-fated Steve Nash trade the Lakers only keep their 2015 draft pick if it falls in the top 5, a place where the Lakers haven't been in 33 years.  The team is currently in a very tight race to the bottom, and much to the dismay of the Laker faithful, the recent win streak has put that pick in serious jeopardy.

However, the rage of Lakers fans has roots well beyond simply losing the draft pick.  To fully understand the situation we have to hop in the DeLorean and take a short trip back to February 19th, 2015.  

Effectively eliminated from playoff contention, the Lakers found themselves tasked with rebuilding their once mighty brand.  Fans had surprisingly come around on the idea of a complete tear down, preferring to have young talent to watch grow instead of yet another win-now move that sacrifices the team's future.

That being the case, many fans were hoping for the Lakers to make a move by the 3 pm ET trade deadline on the 19th, and ideally it would be one that would help the Lakers lose more games this season in exchange for future picks or young players.  The players they hoped to see shipped out included Jeremy Lin and Jordan Hill, both of whom may not be back in purple and gold next year.

The Lakers opted not to move in that direction, instead choosing to be one of the few teams that didn't make a move at the deadline.  While most everyone, myself included, believed that it was a missed opportunity to help secure the draft pick and build for the future, no one was overly upset about it.  After all this was Mitch Kupchak's M.O.: if teams don't meet the asking price for his assets then no trade takes place.  Period.

While the team hand't decreased it's talent level like their competitors in New York and Philadelphia did, things were still looking up. 

To their credit, the front office and coaching staff had been doing a solid job navigating the difficult waters of team building.  On February 20th, the day after the deadline, Mitch Kupchak admitted that he was looking ahead to the draft and that would be the team's focus for the remainder of the season.

 While his statements didn't exactly justify not making a deadline deal, Mitch's words were still exactly what Lakers fans wanted to hear.  The team had realized the situation they are in and would be putting aside their pride to build for the future.  Even prickly coach Byron Scott had been getting in on the act, as his lineups helped both improve the future and secure the pick by giving major minutes to the few young players on the roster.

To fans it was as though the skies parted, flowers were blooming, and birds were singing.  Not only were the Lakers making smart public statements about their situation but they were actively making moves within their roster to help facilitate a brighter future.  After a season and a half of misery the Lakers were finally prepared to do what was necessary to properly rebuild.

The product on the court reflected the team's long-term goals.  Jordan Clarkson was showing flashes of brilliance, and fans loudly promoted him as the steal of the draft at the 46th pick.  Second-year forward Ryan Kelly was shooting threes at a high percentage, indicating a solid future as a stretch four,  Rookie Tarik Black dominated the boards, and while he lacked skill in other areas his elite rebounding could be a major asset.

The good vibes kept rolling when news broke on February 21st that injured rookie and 7th overall pick Julius Randle was back to working out at the Lakers practice facility and would be good to go for summer league.

The icing on cake, of course, was that not only was Scott prioritizing minutes for the young players and allowing them to play through their mistakes, but also that veteran players who aren't likely to return to return next season were firmly planted to the pine.

 Clearly, the organization had learned its lesson from last season, when a contract-year Nick Young got hot down the stretch and dropped the Lakers 2014 pick several spots.  That wouldn't be happening again; this time there was a plan in place and the team wasn't going to allow contract-year players chasing big paydays to potentially ruin the team's shot at finding a future cornerstone.  Not this time, when winning games could mean losing the pick completely rather than just dropping down a bit.

It was smart, rational decision making from an organization that had been anything but for so many years.  For the first time in a long time it felt o.k. to be a Laker fan again.

Down the stretch the team would be bad, but bad with a purpose.  Fans were salivating over the thought of landing a player like Jahlil Okafor or Karl-Anthony Towns in the draft and pairing them with Randle on the Lakers front line of the future.  Add Jordan Clarkson to the fold on the perimeter and young role players like Kelly, Robert Sacre, and Black to the mix and the Lakers would have something they haven't had in a long time: hope.

It was at that moment, on February 22nd, just when fans had finally begun to feel hopeful for the future, that it all came crashing down.  For no apparent reason the team undid all of their previous success and made moves that can only be described as self-destructive.

With the Boston Celtics in town, Scott's rotations were flipped on their head as veterans usurped the minutes that were supposed to go to the Lakers youth.  Contract-year players had huge games in an attempt to secure their next payday, and worst of all, the Lakers won.

Down the stretch against the Celtics it was Jeremy Lin and Wesley Johnson who got hot, scoring 25 and 22 points respectively.

 Inexplicably, Scott rode the two veterans, both of whom are unlikely to return to the Lakers next season, to victory.  Ryan Kelly and Jordan Clarkson stayed glued to the bench, while Tarik Black played a total of 4 minutes.  Scott decided that veteran Carlos Boozer would draw the start and the returning Jordan Hill would soak up the rest of Black's valuable minutes.

Fans hoped that these moves were made simply because the hated Celtics were in town, and as a Showtime Laker it was in Byron's blood to defeat them by any means necessary.  Unfortunately, the same scenario played out again three nights later against the Utah Jazz, only this time it was Jordan Hill, set to be a free agent this summer if the team doesn't pick up his $9 million option, who couldn't miss.  Hill's unwanted surge hit the team with yet another painful victory.

The only positive to take away from the Jazz game was the play of Jordan Clarkson, as the 46th pick in the draft dominated his rookie counterpart Dante Exum, who was taken 5th overall.

                                   Clarkson also provided this highlight-reel dunk over Exum.  Beautiful stuff.

On February 27th the Lakers took on the Milwaukee Bucks, and disaster struck once again.  Veteran Wayne Ellington (yep, you guess it...also in a contract year), carried the team down the stretch with his clutch shooting.  Clarkson, despite playing well, watched the game from the bench during crunch time as Ellington and Lin handled the ball and pushed the Lakers to another unbearable victory.

As a result of this untimely three-game win streak the Lakers currently sit at 16-41, 4th-worst in the league and ironically three games ahead of Minnesota and Philadelphia win column.  They have also uncomfortably gained ground on the 5th-worst Orlando Magic, who sit at 19 wins, and the sliding Denver Nuggets and Sacramento Kings, both of whom have 20 victories.  In other words, not only are the Lakers not improving their chances of keeping their draft pick, they are are dangerously close to moving up to 5th, 6th, or even 7th and all but ensuring that the pick will be gone.

Even if they manage to stay at 4th the Lakers have a nerve-wracking 17% chance of losing their pick completely, which is way too high considering the importance of adding young talent at this juncture.

Fans in the know loudly protested via social media but Coach Scott simply laughed off their criticisms and proclaimed that the Lakers won't tank.  The only explanation he could give for actions was that he wanted to build a winning culture and that attempting to get a good draft pick just backfires anyway (in spite of all of the evidence to the contrary).  Scott chose to blatantly ignore the fact that winning with players who won't be with the team after this season doesn't help build a winning culture in any way, shape, or form.  

Of course, this is the same Byron Scott who began the season by stating his belief that thee-point shots don't win championships, and last week stuck his foot in his mouth again when he spoke out against analytics and admitted that he doesn't use them.  In ESPN's rankings of team's who use analytics to help in their decision making the Lakers finished second-to-last, showing that both Scott and the organization are dangerously behind the times.

It's something of a unique situation, where an intelligent and progressive fan base is finding itself at odds with a coach who prefers old-school methods and thinking.

As such, it would appear as though Scott is lashing out at a world that has insulted his values.  The game has changed, the NBA is now populated with stat-geeks, free-flowing offense, and refers to players with terms like "efficiency" and "return on investment".  It's a stark contrast from the NBA that Scott and the Showtime Lakers dominated, and while fans have caught on and understand the value of losing to win, Scott is offended by the notion.  To outside observers it looks as though he's striking back at those who support the Lakers rebuild by attempting to unravel it in spite of the roster it would leave him with for the future.

Shooting the franchise he loves in the foot in order to prove a point would be maniacal, but then again, the moves being made right now are just that crazy.  It's as though the Scott, and by proxy the organization, has reverted back to the "we're the Lakers, everyone will come play for us" mantra that poisoned the past few years.  They were one of the last teams to attempt to adapt to the new CBA and analytics, and since February 22nd they appear to have regressed back to their non-progressive, reactionary stance.  

Perhaps the worst part of all of this is that the hope that the Lakers had built up by February 22nd is now inexplicably gone.  Fans are justifiably in an uproar, as not only is the team winning, but they are winning at the expense of their young players.

In the most apocalyptic scenario, the team would lose their coveted draft pick and players like Jeremy Lin, Wesley Johnson, Jordan Hill, Ed Davis, Carlos Boozer, and Wayne Ellington will earn themselves contracts with other teams, leaving the Lakers with nothing to show for the worst season in franchise history.  That outcome would be one that would undoubtedly cost the most popular franchise in the league a large chunk of their massive fan base.

Throughout the past few tumultuous years the fans have stuck it out, refusing to abandon their beloved franchise when the chips are down.  Their resolve, however, only goes so far.  To lose the 2015 draft pick by self-inflicted means would be to lose all hope for the future.  Not only would it prove that the roster will not be winning anytime soon but it would also confirm the whispered fears that both the coaching staff and front office are not capable of bringing the team back from the brink.

Fans can only sit by and watch the team that they love make self-destructive decisions for so long before they have no choice but to distance themselves from it.  Lakers fans are, if nothing else,  a passionate bunch, and the past few seasons have been a painful experience.  At some point the strain become too much and the ties will break.

The Lakers organization are lucky in that they have a fan base that is not only knowledgeable enough to understand the necessity of a rebuild but also patient enough to stand strong during it.  However, by self-inflicting numerous wounds on the team over the past week the franchise is playing a dangerous game.  Consciously making the decision to rob the fans of hope will only drive them away, some permanently.  

The final 25 games remaining on the schedule will be some of the most crucial in the team's illustrious history.  If the madness of the past week and a half is allowed to continue and they lose their draft pick the Lakers will find themselves in a free fall, spiraling out of control.  Reverse course and, depending on the records of their competitors, the team just may restore hope after all.

The fork in the road has two clear paths: Lose and have hope for the future or win and risk losing everything.  For the sake of the fans, let's hope they choose wisely.

For more Lakers analysis follow me on twitter @16ringsNBA      

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Why the Lakers Lost Big at the Trade Deadline

The trade deadline has passed and wow was it an exciting one.  A flurry of activity erupted on Twitter right before the clock ran out, with nearly every team making some sort of move.  Unfortunately the Lakers were one of the few teams that opted to sit on the sidelines this go-round, and it may come back to haunt them.

Most of the Lakers buzz involved soon-to-be free agent Goran Dragic, who made it clear that he wanted out of Phoenix and that he would only sign long-term with the Lakers, Knicks, or Heat.  While the Lakers pursued the deal they ultimately decided that giving up assets for Dragic just didn't make sense when they can attempt to sign him in free agency this summer.  There was also concern that adding Dragic now would cause the team to win too many games and thus forfeit their top-5 protected draft pick.



The Suns reportedly asked the Lakers to remove the top-5 protection from the pick as part of the deal.  The Lakers, of course, laughed their asses off.  The Suns stuck it to the Lakers in the trade for their sleeper agent Steve Nash, but Mitch Kupchak isn't going to get fooled twice by the same organization.

While the Lakers ultimately decided that adding Dragic now wasn't in their best interest they were hoping that Phoenix would end up simply keeping their disgruntled point guard, as that would give the Lakers the best shot of signing him in free agency.  If  he were to be traded to another team it would have been best for LA if he had gone to New York and helped the Knicks win, which could have improved the Lakers draft position.

Unfortunately neither scenario happened, as Phoenix sent Dragic to Miami, where he is likely to stay.  They have a team ready to win now and play in the Leastern Conference, which offers more opportunity for success than the buzz saw that is the West.  For the Lakers this leaves one less free agent to pursue this summer, which isn't good for a franchise that's hurting for talent and has money to spend.

When the Lakers refused to remove the top-5 protection on their pick Phoenix opted to move it in a multi-team deal with the Sixers and Bucks that netted them Brandon Knight.  The Lakers pick wound up in the hands of the Sixers, and that's where the real trouble begins.

The Lakers made the decision that keeping their draft pick and the precious few other assets that they own was more important than taking another risk on a guy who would be a free agent in a few months.

No one can really blame them for going this route after Dwight Howard's heel turn two summers ago.  He hit the greatest franchise in sports square in the back with a steel chair then spray painted H-O-U across their chest.  

While the decision to not improve the roster right now by giving up assets is certainly defensible, they also didn't make any moves to improve their chances of keeping their draft pick.  Currently the team sits fairly comfortably in the 4th spot, with a 4-game "lead" in the win column over the Orlando Magic.  However, they also have only 1 more win than the Sixers, 2 more than Minnesota, and 3 more than New York, leaving them tantalizingly close to improving their lottery odds.

Out-tanking their cellar-dwelling oppoenents would be incredibly beneficial, as currently all it takes for the Lakers to lose their draft pick this year is two teams behind them in the draft to jump ahead in the lottery, which isn't out of the question (they have a 44.7% chance of losing the pick if they are 5th, a 20% chance at 4th, a 4% chance at 3rd, and 0% at 2nd or 1st).

Some thought that the Lakers would attempt to improve their draft odds by trading players for draft picks (first or second rounders).  While they don't have many valuable trade chips they do have somewhat productive players like Jordan Hill, Jeremy Lin, Wayne Ellington, and Nick Young.  Mitch Kupchak has always demanded top value for his assets though, and apparently no team was willing to meet the asking price.

Unfortunately, while the Lakers stood pat, two of the three teams that they are chasing in the tank race made moves to become significantly worse.  The Knicks went through with their long-rumored plan to shut down Carmelo Anthony for the year and Sixers gave away Michael Carter-Williams and KJ McDaniels for draft picks (including the Lakers top-5 protected 2015 pick).

At this point the Sixers are so hell-bent on obtaining all the draft picks that they are even sacrificing quality young players to the tank gods in order to do it.  MCW and McDaniels were inspired picks by the team but their lust for terrible play can't be sated.  The team had started to actually win games, which simply isn't tolerated.   

To make matters worse the Lakers play the Knicks once more this year and the Sixers twice.  While fans were hoping to see the Lakers lose those games  that outcome is now extremely unlikely.  Additionally, with the Sixers now owning the Lakers pick they will have extra motivation to do whatever it takes to lose to LA and push the Lakers up in the standings.

Minnesota, on the other hand, may have decreased their on-the-court production slightly by swapping Thad Young for Kevin Garnett but it's possible that KG's veteran leadership will end up being a positive for the up-and-coming team.  At the very least he will provide a feel-good story for the team to focus on for the rest of the season.  

It also has to be mentioned that the Wolves have recently seen Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic, and Kevin Martin return to their rotation from various injuries.  With a full compliment of players they are not nearly as bad of a team as their record would suggest.  Unfortunately, while the Wolves didn't make any major tank moves they do have an absolutely horrific schedule for the remainder of the season, because that's just the luck the Lakers have these days.

Needless to say it's now very unlikely that the Lakers are going to be able to drop below the 4th spot in the tank race.  They had been doing a fantastic job of losing over the past few weeks but there is just too much talent on the squad (no, seriously) for them to hope to keep it up.  Their schedule is one of the easiest in the league down the stretch, which doesn't bode well for the tank.

At the deadline the Lakers made their decision to throw all of their eggs into the draft pick basket but that has become an even more dicey proposition with the tanktacular moves that their competition made.  While Byron Scott has promised lineup changes it's hard to imagine that he'll find a better tank squad than the current starting lineup of rookies Jordan Clarkson and Tarik Black,  second year players Robert Sacre and Ryan Kelly, and the surprisingly effective Wayne Ellington.  It's more likely that whatever moves he makes will improve the team, and thereby hurt the franchise long-term.

The team is on very thin ice and every win from here on out will be a giant step backwards in the Lakers rebuilding process.  It's a nightmare scenario but Lakers fans could be forced to watch a Nick Young hot streak derail the tank for the second year in a row, only this time the franchise would be robbed of their pick entirely.  The Lakers didn't overtly hurt their cause at the deadline but the moves made around them sure did.

29 nerve-wracking games left for Lakers fans, and then a lot of praying for good luck (for a change) in the lottery.

Follow me on twitter for more tank talk @16ringsNBA
  

Monday, February 16, 2015

Why Waiving Carlos Boozer Makes Tons of Sense

Last summer the Chicago Bulls used the amnesty provision on power forward Carlos Boozer, the former All-Star whose salary was standing in the way of the team signing Pau Gasol away from the Lakers.  In a nutshell, Boozer's skill as a player had deteriorated to the point where the Bulls decided to pay him his full salary of nearly $17 million to not play basketball for them.

In a strange twist of fate, it was the now Gasol-less Lakers who ended up submitting the winning bid for Boozer's services in the waiver process.  The Lakers won with a bid of $3.25 million, which was certainly a discounted price for a former All Star (Boozer still receives over $13 million from the Bulls...he certainly isn't hurting for cash).

Laker GM Mitch Kupchak genuinely seemed surprised that the team won the Boozer waiver auction, and it didn't make much sense from an outsider's perspective.  The team had just come to terms with PF/C Ed Davis, and it was assumed that he would be the team's starting power forward alongside Jordan Hill.  Boozer's arrival threw that into question.

The Lakers had also drafted teenage power forward Julius Randle and retained Ryan Kelly, both of whom were projected to play power forward.  Even if the Lakers intended on sliding Davis into the role of backup Center to Jordan Hill the addition of Boozer appeared to create something of a log jam at the team's big man spots, and that was without mentioning serviceable center Robert Sacre to the mix.

Fans didn't have very high expectations for Boozer after seeing his play trend downward in Chicago.  It eventually got so bad that Coach Tom Thibodeau had taken to benching his bald-headed big man during crunch times in games, citing his lack of defense as a major concern.  Add in the log jam situation and the possibility of Boozer stealing precious minutes from prized rookie Randle and it's safe to say that fans were less than enthused about the Lakers newest addition.

Still, the role that Boozer would play with the Lakers was clear: off the court he would act as a mentor to the Lakers young players and help them adjust to the league, while on it he would do everything he could to prove that he deserves another contract when his current one expires this summer.

To almost everyone's surprise the Boozer experiment has been a success on both fronts.  He's played well and actually put up numbers that are on par with those he did before his final season in Chicago, suggesting that his putrid last season with the Bulls may have been an outlier.  He also handled a demotion to the bench professionally, and has used the opportunity to prove that while he might not quite be an NBA starter anymore he can still score fairly easily against the backup bigs of most teams in the league.

He's also been a solid presence on the Lakers and set a good example for young teammates Jordan Clarkson, Tarik Black (who was acquired off waivers as well), and Kelly.  Unfortunately Julius Randle's (Boozer's intended protege) season-ending injury limited the amount of on-court time he had with Boozer, but Carlos has undoubtedly had a positive impact on the roster regardless.

However, it's time for that partnership to end.  While Boozer has by all accounts been a model employee there is simply too much for both the Lakers and him to gain by parting ways.  He's ineligible to be traded because he was claimed off of waivers but he can still be waived by the team, which would allow him to sign elsewhere.

Boozer has proven that he still has what it takes to be an NBA player, and chances are good that a playoff team in need of a big man would scoop him up.  At this stage in his career allowing him to join a team with a shot at making a deep playoff run would be a classy move on the part of the Lakers, who have long been cultivating a reputation as a player-friendly franchise (hence giving Kobe the huge contract, sending Steve Blake to the Warriors last year, standing by Xavier Henry during his troublesome injuries, etc.).

Allowing Boozer to have his freedom sends the message to the league that the Lakers are an organization that does what's best for their players and treats them fairly.

Of course, there are some on the court benefits to letting Boozer walk as well.  For one, it frees up some minutes at the power forward position, which would allow Ryan Kelly to stop spending so many minutes at small forward, where he is an awkward fit at best.

Secondly, Boozer has been playing well enough that the Lakers have come close to winning a few games due to his efforts off the bench.  While his veteran leadership would certainly be missed it's unlikely that Carlos will re-sign with the Lakers in the offseason, and having him around for the final 29 games of the season simply isn't worth the risk of his play causing the Lakers to win a few too many games and lose their precious 2015 draft pick as a result.

At this point the draft pick is just too important to the rebuilding process to risk keeping Boozer around, especially when parting ways with him could be so beneficial to both parties.  Fans have certainly appreciated the effort and professionalism that Carlos Boozer has shown all season, but it's time for the experiment to come to an end.

For more Lakers news and analysis follow me on twitter @16ringsNBA

The Return of the Lakers


It's no secret that the Lakers have a long road back to relevance.  The past few seasons have featured one mistake after another compounded by a nearly unprecedented run of bad luck.  With very few assets in the cupboard they are going to have to be mistake-free in four key areas: 2nd chance players, draft picks, free agents, and trades.  Let's take a look at how they can move forward in each area.

Second Chance Players

In the current NBA one of the most important factors when building a team is a player's production on the court compared to the length and value of their contract.  The CBA has made exceeding the cap increasingly punitive, and as a result finding productive talent on team-friendly contracts has become a must (this is why the value of first round picks has skyrocketed, as the cost of their contracts is low compared to their average production).

There is now extra incentive for teams to leave no stone unturned when searching for talent.  Players who went undrafted or washed out with other franchises can typically be signed at bargain prices and to unguaranteed deals, which means that if they don't perform they can simply be cut (this is why the Lakers claiming Tarik Black off of waivers was such a smart move).

While the odds of one of these players panning out are slim the benefits of finding a diamond in the rough can be immense.  Hassan Whiteside and Jeremy Lin might be the most sensational reclamation projects, but players such as Wesley Matthews, Brad Miller, and John Starks also went from being undrafted to relative NBA stardom.  Occasionally good players do fall between the cracks or are undervalued by their teams and it takes an astute GM to identify and acquire them.

While these players will ultimately get a big payday their initial contract can bring extreme value for their teams.  Whiteside, in particular, has taken the NBA by storm this season and will play out the remainder of this year and next on a minimum deal, which is an incredible return on investment for the HEAT.  Likewise Jeremy Lin made a fortune for the Knicks while toiling away on a minimum deal before signing a big contract with the Houston Rockets.

Let's not forget that drafted players can also find themselves washing out with the team that selected them.  Sometimes a change of scenery is all it takes for a player to realize their potential.  Chauncey Billups and Kyle Lowry exemplify this phenomenon, as both found stardom after leaving their initial clubs.  Finding a player who is undervalued by their current team but has untapped potential can also be a major coup for teams smart enough to pounce on them.

To their credit the Lakers have done fairly well with second chance players.  While the odds of any of them turning into stars is incredibly slim they have still managed to pull solid backup-level talent from the NBA recycle bin.  Over the past two seasons they have successfully (and cheaply) brought in Ed David, Carlos Boozer, Xavier Henry, Jodie Meeks, Wesley Johnson, Jordan Farmar, Nick Young, Wayne Ellington, and Ronnie Price.  They also wisely claimed undrafted rookie Tarik Black off of waivers.

Almost all of them have at least proven that they can be decent role players off the bench, which has to give Lakers fans a little bit of confidence in the team's scouting department.  Still, the Lakers have to keep plugging away.  They have a team stocked with players who would be ideally suited to a reserve role, but haven't been able to strike gold and find a starter...yet.





Draft Picks

The Lakers find themselves in a tricky situation with their draft pick this season, as it's slated to go to the Phoenix Suns as part of the Steve Nash trade unless it falls in the top 5.  As of this writing the Lakers sit with the 4th worst record in the league, giving them a decent chance of keeping the pick but also an uncomfortably high possibility of losing it.

While keeping the pick this year almost certainly means losing it next year there are no guarantees that they will have another opportunity to be this bad again, and landing a top pick in the draft is the best way to rebuild a franchise.

Should they keep the pick this year then next season the team will essentially be adding two lottery picks to their roster as Julius Randle will be returning from his broken leg and foot surgery.  If the team is going to get back on track bolstering their squad with two young, talented players on rookie contracts would be a great way to start.


Yes please.  Or any top 5 guy, really.

With everything that is at stake it's going to be incredibly important for the Lakers to lose as much as possible.  Losing isn't fun but it has to be done with the goal of improving the team in mind.  Should the Lakers win too many games down the stretch and be forced to surrender their pick to Phoenix then this entire season of misery will have been for nothing.  It's a fate far worse than having to endure a few more meaningless losses.

Tanking adequately enough to keep the pick may require the Lakers to trade moderately productive players like Jordan Hill, Jeremy Lin, Ed Davis, and possibly buy out Carlos Boozer, who is ineligible to be traded.  As I've mentioned before the Lakers trade assets may not bring much in return in the way of first round picks or young talent but clearing those players from the squad will help them keep pace with other teams that are actively making (or preparing to make) tank moves, like New York and Minnesota.

Let's also not forget that the Lakers have had some success finding talent in the second round. Ryan Kelly, Jordan Clarkson, and Robert Sacre were all found in the second round, and all three are currently in the starting lineup, along with undrafted Tarik Black and Wayne Ellington, who was barely a first round pick (28th in the 2009 draft).  While none would be starting on competitive teams they all have the skills to be useful role players, and Clarkson in particular could develop into a starter-level player.

The Lakers need to do whatever they can to restock their draft picks after spending so many years trading them away.  While second round picks aren't as sexy as firsts they are certainly easier to obtain, and at this point the team can't be too choosy.  At the end of the day the draft is simply the best way to add young talent to a team that is starving for it, and the Lakers need to do everything they can to add more picks to their arsenal, even if that means tanking and trading away the few valuable players they have on the roster.

Free Agents

The Lakers have always considered themselves to be an attractive destination for free agents, with their championship history, warm weather, and massive fan base all enticing the best players to don purple and gold.  While all that may still be true they are no longer in a position to spend their way back to relevancy thanks to the draconian CBA.

Now the Laker brain trust has to be incredibly selective about who they spend their cap space on, and how long they issue those contracts for.  This is an area that the Lakers have struggled in lately, giving Kobe his massive $48 million/2 year deal, Jordan Hill $18 million/2 years with a team option rather than unguaranteed (a huge difference for trade purposes) and Nick Young a $21.5 million, 4 year deal that takes him well into his 30s (actually, the Nick Young deal isn't terrible, but the opportunity cost is, as they could have had Isaiah Thomas for the same price).

There is a lot of pressure on the team to improve and do so quickly.  Their large fan base and media spotlight has made their suffering more visible than most bottom-feeding teams.  Jim Buss has also given himself a deadline to either improve or resign, and Magic Johnson has also externally put pressure on the team with his comments about Buss' ability to right the ship.

All of these things add up to a very dangerous off-season coming up this summer for the Lakers, one where agents and rival GM's alike will be preying on their desperation.  If they panic and throw big money at an aging quasi-star (there are several available this year) they could well find themselves stuck in mediocrity for longer than anyone anticipated.

If the Lakers attempt to apply a band-aid to the massive wound they are suffering from they will only prolong the agony.  Instead, they need to focus on finding two types of players: A. Young talent with star potential and B. Players that will sign team-friendly contracts.

This team isn't constructed to attract a superstar just yet, but the Lakers have been in swing-for-the-fences mode for a while now in spite of the impetuousness of the plan.  As I wrote previously, this offseason is full of a strange mix of aging stars and restricted young talent.  The Lakers must resist the temptation to throw money at the former group.  It's one of the most crucial decisions they have to make this summer, and if they give in to desperation and settle that contract will come back to haunt them.

If they can target younger players, even those who are restricted, they can sell the LA lifestyle.  Winning with the Lakers means more than winning with any other franchise because of the history of the organization and the insane popularity that comes with it.  If a player has an eye towards becoming a true star in the league then Los Angeles is the place to do it.  The team is simply better off throwing money at a restricted player that can grow into a star than an aging, past-his-prime unrestricted player.  Even signing no big names would be better than overpaying the wrong player in the long run.  Unfortunately, the Lakers seem poised to make a poor decision this summer, but fans have to hope that patience and reason win the day.


Trades

Historically the Lakers have done fairly well with trades.  Mitch Kupchak has swung a number of deals that ended up benefiting the team, such as the Pau Gasol trade, Jordan Hill trade, Jordan Clarkson, etc.  However, there is also cause for concern.

The Lakers have shown that they can be extremely slow to adapt to changes in the league.  In 2005 they traded Caron Butler for Kwame Brown in part because it would allow Lamar Odom to shift to small forward, which the team thought was Odom's natural position.  Of course they did this right when the league was changing it's rules and small ball and outside shooting became more prevalent, which meant that using Odom as a three was a terrible decision, as was trading for Kwame (although his expiring deal did lead to the Pau trade...if only expirings were still as valuable today).

They also criminally undervalued first round picks for years, trading them away in one deal after another, assuming that those picks would always be late in the first round because they would be at the top of the league.  They traded away three first round picks in the trades for Dwight Howard and Steve Nash only to have both players burn them in their own way.

Still, Mitch Kupchak is an experienced master in the art of the trade.  He refused to deal Pau Gasol for second-round picks at the deadline last year because he knew that would damage his trade position in the future.  He's always held out for top-value on his players, and while sometimes that means that nothing happens it also means that teams know they can't low ball the Lakers.

This is a good thing for a team that is desperate for assets.  If a team wants Jordan Hill at the deadline they will have to pay for him.  If someone wants the Houston Rocket's first round pick this summer (owned by the Lakers due to the Lin trade) they will need to pay full price for it.  Mitch will either get top value or not trade at all, which is a great quality for a GM to have.
 You will give us all the picks.  

At times he has been guilty of paying too much to obtain other players who didn't pan out (looking at you Steve Nash), but in the end there are few general managers in the league who can work a deal like Kupchak can.

It won't be easy, especially when the franchise is under so much pressure to improve, which can erode trade leverage very quickly.  Just like with free agents though the Lakers have to have patient.  Making no deal is better than making the wrong deal.  If they can find a way to use their cap space intelligently to pry young players and picks away from teams (like they did the Jeremy Lin deal) then the rebuild will be that much shorter.

It's going to be an incredibly important trade deadline, final stretch, and offseason for the Lakers.  The choices they make (or don't make) are going to impact the success of the team over these next few years of rebuilding.  It's a lot of pressure, and we all hope that Mitch, Jim, and Jeanie are up to the challenge.

For more Lakers goodness follow me on twitter @16ringsNBA 

 






Monday, February 2, 2015

Kobe Bryant: The Way Forward

For the past 19 years Kobe Bryant has left us awe-struck and mesmerized.  The incredibly talented shooting guard brought Lakers fans along with him on a dizzying rollercoaster ride to the top, filled with incredible highs and crushing lows.  Now, with his third season-ending injury in as many years, is the ride over?  If it isn't, where can Kobe Bryant possibly go from here?


It's not out of the question for Bryant to consider retiring.  He said as much recently, admitting that it has "crossed my mind".  For the die-hard Laker fans that have been following Kobe since he came into the NBA as a 18-year old it's hard to imagine him hanging up the sneakers.  He always seemed so unstoppable, like a force of nature.  He never quit, never rested, and was always laser-focused on his goal of being the best.  This single-minded obsession, of course, may be part of why he's had so many issues over the past few seasons.

Until recently Kobe was known for his ability to play through pain and brush off injuries that would have sidelined other players.  After 19 years of cheating Father Time though, it may well be that all those minutes on the court, the battles through deep playoff runs, have simply caught up to him.

At this point it's entirely possible that Kobe, over the course of the next 9 months of grueling rehabilitation from his torn rotator cuff, decides he doesn't want to do it anymore.  His workouts are the stuff of legend, often running much longer than a normal basketball routine.  Now, as his body ages, Kobe has turned to unconventional diets and therapeutic treatments to squeeze just a few more seasons out of his tired body.

The lifestyle that's required just for him to be prepared to play an NBA game is exhausting even without the night-in, night-out pounding of actually getting out on the court.  Still, while the notion that Bryant might retire isn't out of the question, it's extremely unlikely that he calls it quits at this stage of his career.

Many will point to the fact that retiring would require him to give up the $25 million that he's owed next year (and would free up that money on the Lakers cap), but the money isn't really the issue.  $25 million is certainly a lot of money, even to someone as wealthy as Kobe, but it won't be what keeps him on the court next season.

Instead, what keeps Kobe in Mamba mode will be his disdain for the results produced in the past three seasons.  He's long spoken about wanting to leave the Lakers in good hands, both on the court and off.  His praise of Laker GM Mitch Kupchak shows that he knows the team is in good hands off the court, but on it is another story.

Last season was the worst in the team's history with a record of 27-55, and they are on pace this year to lose even more.  To go out with potentially the worst record in Lakers history while sidelined with yet another injury simply isn't an exit befitting one of the greatest players the game has ever seen.  The way Bryant has fought over the course of his career has shown that he isn't the type to slip off into the night quietly, and he certainly won't let something like a bum shoulder be his death blow.

The chance to put the Lakers in a better situation and exit with grace will, in the end, lure Kobe back into the fold next season (along with the small matter of $25 million).  The question then is, at 37, what can we expect to see from him?

On the court we certainly won't be seeing a return to his MVP days.  With his athleticism waning Kobe will need to rely instead on his intelligence, and fortunately for him he just may be the smartest player in basketball.  No one studies the game the way he does, and his use of angles and arsenal of moves and counter moves will allow him to still be an effective player.

In fact, we may have already seen the blueprint for how Kobe can still be a successful offensive player.  With defenses keying on him Kobe's legs didn't allow him to shoot with the kind of efficiency needed to be the number one option.  However, he did show that when he wants to be he can be an incredible passer in spite of his reputation as a gunner.  He had four games with double-digit assists this season, including a whopping 17 against the Cavs.

In those games Kobe was almost, dare I say, Nash-like in the way that he moved the ball and used his intelligence to find great looks for his teammates.  He was able to hide his athletic limitations while being a positive force on the offensive end.

Switching full-time to the pass-first version of the Mamba wouldn't be easy, but if there is anyone who can reinvent himself at this stage of his career it's Kobe.  Defensively he would still struggle to keep up with the young legs of the league, but at least on the offensive end he would be a positive for the Lakers.

Of course he would also need to play limited minutes (possibly off the bench) and probably rest on back-to-backs, but that comes with the territory of being 37 while having the kind of mileage on him that Kobe does.  The good news is that there is a clear path for Kobe to take that will allow him to continue to thrive on the court.  There were too many times this year that he tried to still be the scorer that he used to be, and it was painful to watch him fail to be able to get to that level.  Employing the pass-first strategy full time would allow Kobe to go out and help the team without constantly reminding everyone of the player he once was.    

Off the court Bryant will be in full mentor mode, which might be uncomfortable for him.  The team will likely continue to look for younger talent, and will add pieces to surround inexperienced players like Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, Ryan Kelly, Tarik Black, and whoever the Lakers get in the 2015 draft (assuming they keep the pick).  These players will need guidance, and assuming Carlos Boozer departs that will leave Kobe as the lone veteran voice on the team.

It's going to be crucial that Kobe acts as a teacher to these young players.  His work ethic is incredible, and of course he's going to lead by example, but being a true teacher is something that Kobe has struggled at.  The young guys will need help with not just X's and O's on the court but how to be professionals off it as well. It's going to require a lot of patience, but he will have to be up to the challenge.  With a young team around him in need of guidance the Lakers will desperately need Kobe to fully embrace his role as a mentor.

Truly, the need for Kobe to be a mentor is poetic.  Back in 1996 current Lakers coach Byron Scott was playing in what would be his final season as an NBA player, and he was given the task of mentoring the 18 year-old rookie Kobe Bryant.  They formed a bond that has endured through the years, and it only seems right that Scott is around to see things come full circle.  It's time for Kobe to become the mentor that Scott was (and is) to him.

He's also going to be an important part of the recruitment process during free agency this summer.  While the Lakers can no longer sell winning a championship with Kobe, they can highlight all the advantages of playing in LA, and more specifically, for the Lakers.

As the most popular (and profitable) franchise in the league by far winning with the Lakers brings more attention, popularity, and gratitude than it does elsewhere.  Being a Laker means being a star, and Kobe knows the dedication and appreciation that the fans of Los Angeles show to their beloved legends.

The fact that the Lakers opted to pay Kobe $48 million over the final two seasons of his career also sends a message to players around the league that they take care of their stars,  There aren't many people who can better explain the loyalty that the Lakers show than Kobe.

Of course all of this doesn't mean that the Lakers will hit a home run in free agency, and as I've mentioned previously, there isn't much talent truly available this off-season anyway.  Still, there are few players in the league that command the respect that Kobe does, and having him as a recruiter can only help Mitch Kupchak in his quest to add players this summer.

Kobe is unquestionably one of the greatest players in NBA history, with a career for the ages.  Fans and players alike will be talking about his work ethic, his drive, and his overwhelming skill for years to come.  The final chapter has yet to be written though, and over the next 16 months we will all watch, captivated as always, while Kobe Bryant rages against dying of the light.  

For more Lakers analysis follow me on twitter @16ringsNBA


Saturday, January 24, 2015

Are the Lakers Tanking?

On Friday the Lakers received the news that Kobe Bryant is most likely out for the season thanks to a torn rotator cuff.  That night the purple and gold were set to take on the defending champion San Antonio Spurs, and Coach Byron Scott decided to make drastic changes to the team's starting lineup. Scott benched Ed Davis, Wesley Johnson, and Ronnie Price in favor of Ryan Kelly, Robert Sacre, and rookie Jordan Clarkson.

While Scott claimed that these were moves he was planning on making with or without Kobe the timing does seem a bit suspect.  With a 12-32 record, good for 4th-worst in the league, the Lakers are more than halfway through the season and will clearly not be competing for a playoff spot.  If the playoffs are out of the question (and they are) then the team has significant incentive to lose as many games as possible, as their 2015 draft pick goes to the Phoenix Suns unless it falls in the top 5 thanks to the Steve Nash trade disaster.

However, with the hyper-competitive Kobe Bryant in the fold the Lakers had to do everything they could to win at all cost.  While Kobe was steadfastly supportive of Laker GM Mitch Kupchak and proudly stated time and time again that he would not seek a trade there was still pressure on the team to perform well for their star player.

They even attempted to trade for proven commodities like Rajon Rondo in order to get Kobe some help and make a push this season.  Without Bryant though that pressure is gone, and the team can focus on rebuilding.

Enter Coach Scott's lineup shuffle, which saw three players with an average age of 27.6 replaced by players with an average age of 23.  That average will drop even lower when 25 year-old Robert Sacre is replaced by Tarik Black, which Scott asserted would happen as soon as Black returns from an ankle injury.

Along with Black the fantastically named Kelly Clarkson combo figures to be a big part of the Lakers future, and giving them valuable minutes now will not only speed up their development but will also allow the team to pick up a few more valuable losses while the young bucks go through their NBA growing pains.

The Lakers, to their credit, have long been steadfastly anti-tank, but in this case they canattempt  justify their actions by explaining that the team wasn't winning anyway.  With more minutes the younger players they will be better prepared to contribute next season, which will likely be the last of Bryant's legendary career.

Of course they will also be more likely to hang onto their pick as the losses mount and teams below the Lakers in the standing begin to move up (New York has been winning recently and the Wolves have Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin, and Nikola Pekovic returning, which should increase their win total).  Expect the Lakers to downplay this benefit though, as again, they don't want to appear to be tanking.

Regardless of what they call it, the Kobe-less Lakers "youth movement" makes almost perfect sense.  There are just a couple of things that still stand out as odd about Scott's decisions, at least at first glance anyway.

Specifically, starting 27 year-old Jordan Hill over bouncy big man Ed Davis and giving the backup point guard minutes to Price instead of the 26 year-old Jeremy Lin.  However, there is method to the madness behind these calls as well.

As mentioned previously Lin and Hill are two of the most likely Lakers to be dealt prior to the trade deadline on February 19th.  By moving Hill from the Center spot to Power Forward the Lakers will be able to showcase the versatility that his jumpshot provides while still getting him the minutes needed to put up solid numbers.  If Hill proves he can effectively play both PF and C that just makes him an even more valuable trade chip.

Furthermore, shifting Ed Davis, a player the Lakers would like to keep, to the bench squad to play alongside Carlos Boozer allows him to get minutes as a Center.  While Davis has proven valuable with his rebounding, shot blocking, and efficient finishing around the rim his lack of range outside of 10 feet means that he may ultimately need to transition to the Center position full-time in order to avoid killing the team's spacing.

Davis' lack of bulk may prohibit such a move, and there is no better time than now to find out if that is the case.  If the Lakers are going to spend big money on Davis this summer (and they will have to if they want to keep him), then they need to know if he can be the team's defensive anchor.  What better way to find out if he can handle the job than by slotting him next to the defensively challenged (to put it mildly) Carlos Boozer?

Unlike Davis, who merely saw his role adjusted, Jeremy Lin suffered the indignity of being benched completely against San Antonio.  Scott did hint that Lin would play in the future and was by no way out of the lineup permanently, but the message was clear that if Lin doesn't start playing up to his potential then he won't be seeing the floor.

Most likely this isn't about turning Jeremy Lin into a valuable contributor for this season's Lakers.  Instead, it's about increasing his diminished trade value.  Currently Lin has little value around the league, so making a drastic move like benching him for an entire game makes sense.  If Scott can get Lin playing his best basketball over the coming weeks it will be easier to find a taker for the popular point guard, who the Lakers are unlikely to bring back next season.  If the move back fires and Lin sulks instead of picking up his play, well, he didn't have a ton of trade value anyway so little was lost.  It's a low risk, medium reward gamble on the Lakers part.  

With their anti-tanking stance the Lakers, rightly or wrongly, won't ship players out for less than they are worth just to help the team improve their draft pick.  This tactic burned them two seasons in a row with Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol, but given the precedent teams know they will have to pony up full price in order to obtain the Lakers trade assets.  If they are going to demand top value for players like Lin and Hill they will need to be producing at their highest level, which explains the motivational tactic that was Lin's one-game benching as well as Hill's transition to Power Forward.

So, are the Lakers tanking?  No, of course not, the Lakers don't tank.  They are simply building for the future by giving major minutes to younger players who just so happen to not produce a lot of wins at this stage of their careers.  In other words...yeah, they are tanking, they just won't admit it.

And it's about time.



For more Lakers insight follow me on twitter @16ringNBA