Friday, October 3, 2014

Top 5 Positive Storylines of the Lakers Season

Everyone knows the Lakers are in a tough spot.  They are a franchise based around championships that won't be contending anytime soon.  They have an aging superstar who has suffered two serious injuries in consecutive seasons and just got an enormous contract extension.  Their starting point guard is the oldest player in the league at 40 and looked completely finished as a player last season.  Over the past two off-seasons they have lost two of the best big men of the modern era to free agency, receiving nothing in  return save for cap space.  They have also struck out in their pursuit of superstar-level talent, as they don't have a roster that would provide such a player with an opportunity to win a championship.  Their draft picks have been depleted through poor win-now decisions that were made over the past few seasons, and in the midst of it all their owner, the benevolent Jerry Buss, passed away.

In short, the Lakers are slowly fading away, and the fans of the 29 other teams in the league are celebrating their demise.  Fear not though, resilient Lakers fans.  It takes more than a few down seasons to kill the greatest franchise in the history of sports.  The Lakers will be back.  Take these difficult times and use them as a way to make us appreciate the good times that much more.  

With an eye towards optimism let's take a look at the top 5 positive storylines for the Lakers this season.

1. The Development of Julius Randle- Julius Randle is the one positive thing that the Lakers received for being so terrible last season.  While some experts have questioned whether or not he has the upside of some other members of his draft class, such as Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker, there is no question that Randle has the tools to be a very good NBA player.  He has an ability to attack the basket and create off the dribble that few bigs can match.

He's not without his share of challenges, such as an over-reliance on his left hand and questionable defensive abilities.  There are also concerns about his ability to shoot over lengthy defenders, which is something that nearly every NBA team has the days.

Still, every rookie areas of weakness, and only a year ago Randle was projected to be one of the favorites to be drafted #1 overall this summer, yet the Lakers landed him with the 7th pick.  LA hasn't had a rookie of his caliber in quite some time and watching him grow as a player will be a joy to watch.

This should also make Lakers fans smile: When he was going through pre-draft workouts Randle, a life-long Lakers fan, chose not to workout a second time for the Celtics (who had the 6th pick), which helped ensure that he would be available for the Lakers to draft at 7.  Gotta love a guy who will pass on the Celtics so he can be a Laker.

2. Do or Die For Jordan Hill- Jordan Hill has long been a fixture on the Lakers bench, providing hustle, rebounding, and an interior presence that is a must-have in today's NBA.  While Hill has struggled with injuries his game has intrigued Lakers fans, as many wondered if he could continue his production if given starter's minutes.

Next season the question should finally be answered.  After the unceremonious departure of Pau Gasol the Lakers moved quickly and signed Hill, the next-best big man on the market (aside from restricted free agent Greg Monroe) for $18 million over two seasons.  While this was a substantial pay raise for Hill the Lakers made a shrewd move when they made the second year of the deal a team option.

As a result, should Hill not live up to the expectations of his salary the Lakers can instantly free up cap space next summer by simply declining the option in his contract.  He could also be an interesting trade chip for teams who are looking to clear salary cap space.

For Hill though, this contract essentially means that he has 9 million reasons why he should have the best season of his career.  At 27 years old he is in his prime and will finally be given an opportunity to be the starting Center for the Lakers.  In the past he has bounced around from backup PF to backup C, but also showed the most promise when starting at the Center position.

This year will provide an opportunity for Hill to prove once and for all that he deserves to start and can handle the responsibilities that come with it.  Lakers fans should be excited too: in 8 games starting at Center last season (admittedly a small sample size), Hill averaged 16.6 points, 10 boards, and nearly 2 blocks per game.  If he can live up to those lofty numbers then the massive contract that most pundits have mocked all summer will end up looking like a bargain.
3. Back to Defense- Last season the Lakers defense was apparently based on the strategies employed by France during World War 2.  It was disheartening to see the opposition light the Lakers up each and every night.

With Mike D'Antoni preaching more offense than defense the Lakers got scored on in bunches.  It was obvious to any poor souls watching that teams playing the Lakers were excited to run their offense because they knew that just about everything would work.  Scrubs were getting career-highs on a nightly basis.  In fact, it became a sound fantasy basketball strategy to play guys who would be going up against the Lakers because they were all but assured to put up big numbers.

So what has changed?  Not much, except for the departure of Mike D'Antoni.  Most of the Lakers squad remains the same from last season, which isn't necessarily a good thing.  The team doesn't have a single player who would be considered a lock-down defender, and as such expectations for their defensive improvement have to be tempered.

However, Byron Scott is an old-school, defense-first coach that if nothing else will have the team competing hard on that end of the court every night.  While we can't expect the Lakers to transform overnight into a defensive juggernaut we should see their help rotations tighten up and their schemes become more sound and consistent.

At the very least they should return to respectability, which in these dark times is something to celebrate.

4.  All Lin For LA- The biggest offeason move for the Lakers was arguably the trade for point guard Jeremy Lin.  Instead of pursuing restricted free agent Eric Bledsoe or mini-might Isaiah Thomas the Lakers instead made a deal with the Houston Rockets to land Lin and a first-round draft pick.

While the deal itself was a phenomenal one for LA (especially after Houston whiffed at their attempt to land Chris Bosh with the money freed up by the trade) the acquisition of Lin gives a slight spark to an aging and relatively uninteresting roster.

While no one is expecting a return of the "Linsanity" days of 2012 there is no question that Jeremy Lin is a very good point guard.  He isn't an All-Star level player (though he may be voted in as one) but he has a fantastic ability to get to the basket and finish.  His mid-range and three-point game are nearly as good, making him a dangerous offensive player that can help the team in a number of ways.
The biggest question marks surrounding Lin are his defense and his ability to run a team.  Fortunately for Lin his competition at the point guard spot, Steve Nash, will be a great mentor in one of those areas while coach Byron Scott will help him with the other.

To top it all off Lin is in a contract year, which means that Lakers fans should get some great performances out of him this season.  He connects to the fans, wears his heart on his sleeve, and competes each and every night.  He just may endear himself to the Lakers and their fans that he sticks with the franchise long term.

5. Kobe Bryant: The Return- Kobe Bryant is perhaps the greatest Laker ever, having waged countless battles while wearing the Golden Armor.  He is also in the twilight of his career and coming off two serious injuries which cost him nearly all of last season.  Kobe spent the majority of his career defying the limitations of the human body and playing through injuries that would have decimated other players.  It was as though he would simply Hulk up and become impervious to harm.

                                                                Kinda like this

The question now is, at 36, is Kobe finally mortal?  Or can he be the Black Mamba once again?  We know that he won't be flying through the rafters like when he was 22 or have the defensive chops that he did at 28.  He is still one of the most intelligent players in the league with no offensive flaws, and if he stays healthy could average 20 a night just on his savvy alone.

No one wants to see Kobe fade away in a sea of injuries, so a strong, injury-free season would be such a relief for a weary fan base.  After paying Kobe $48 million for the next two seasons a healthy Mamba would also take some heat off of Lakers management and allow them to sell the team a bit more to potential free agents next off-season.

Kobe is the heart and soul of the Lakers, and while contention may be currently out of the question it's going to be phenomenal to watch Kobe defy expectations yet again.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Lakers Potential Starting Lineup

With just over a week until training camp the NBA season is slowly inching closer.  For hoops heads like myself the off-season feels incredibly long, especially in a season in which the Lakers didn't make the playoffs.  Sure the FIBA World Cup proved to be a minor distraction but it still doesn't scratch the itch for Laker basketball.

Fortunately things should be picking up shortly.  Before we know it the preseason will have started and this season's edition of the Lakers will provide plenty to talk about.  In fact, Byron Scott got things off to a bit of an early start with his recent comments about how he sees the starting lineup at this point.

According to Scott, he currently has this starting lineup in his head:

PG: Steve Nash
SG: Kobe Bryant
SF: Wesley Johnson
PF: Carlos Boozer
C: Jordan Hill

Ouchtown.  Population: Lakers fans.

Looking over the Lakers roster it's clear that there isn't a sure-fire starting 5, or at least not one that would make any of the 29 other teams in the league cower in fear.  However most fans (myself included) expected to see Jeremy Lin listed as the starting point guard instead of the rapidly aging Steve Nash.  Nash is a legend but at this stage in their careers Lin is simply the better player.

There may well be method to the madness though.  While Nash clearly isn't the player he used to be the Lakers have opted to pick up his full $9.7 million contract for the 2014-2015 season rather than waive him via the stretch provision and pay him just over $3 million for the next three seasons.

  After Carmelo Anthony took the money to stay with New York the Lakers were left with several options on the free agent market that they decided weren't the caliber of player they are looking for.  The decision to not pursue Lance Stephenson or Isiah Thomas is still a head scratcher, as both would have made the team into something resembling a playoff team.  For whatever reason Mitch Kupchak, Jimmy Buss, and the rest of the Lakers decision makers decided that it would be better to hold off on a major free agent signing until next summer.

As such it makes sense to bite the bullet and get Nash's contract paid off now to clear up more space next summer when there may be more attractive free agent choices.

                                               Gasol Version 2.0?  Yes please

One of the other benefits of eating all of Nash's contract in one season is that also gives the Lakers the opportunity to get whatever they can out of Nash's final season.  Offseason reports suggest that Steve is in fantastic shape and feels like he has finally healed from the assortment of issues that plagued him last season.  Then again nearly every player claims to be in great shape during the summer when they aren't going through the grind of an 82 game NBA season.

                                       Well, except Raymond Felton.  He just feels hungry.  

Assuming that the Lakers are going to try to squeeze whatever they can out of Nash then starting him actually makes some sense.  At this stage in their careers Lin matches up better against other starting point guards in the league but when players get older it becomes more difficult to warm up.  Time needs to be spent stretching aging muscles to prevent stiffness while younger players find it easier to just step on the court and play.  If Nash were to go through a full warm up and then sit on the bench for 20 minutes before going in he very well may tighten up and have a more difficult time getting going.

We know Nash can't play many minutes anymore but if he plays for say the first 8 minutes of each half, using pre-game and half time to get loosened up, then he might be able to stay on the court more this season.  That would keep his minutes at about 16 per game, leaving 32 minutes remaining at the PG position for Lin and occasionally Jordan Clarkson.        

If this strategy works and Nash can at the very least not be a negative on the court then his expiring contract just may have a little bit of value around the league at the deadline.  It's unlikely, but with Mitch at the helm you never know what kind of deal he is going to be able to pull off.  Turning Nash's expiring contract into one with positive trade value would be a much-needed stroke of good luck for the most snake-bit team in the league.  

The other questionable decisions in the Nash/Kobe/Wesley/Boozer/Hill starting 5 come from the small forward and power forward spots.  Most assumed that Nick Young would receive a starting spot at Small Forward after he received a 4 year deal during the summer.  However, Swaggy P seems to do his best work as an instant-offense player coming off the bench, so his absence from the starting 5 isn't necessarily shocking.

No, the perturbing part is Wesley Johnson sitting in as the Lakers starting SF.  While Johnson does have impressive athleticism and can shoot the ball fairly well he also appears to coast through games,  His athleticism would suggest that he would be a strong defender but his play on the court has yet to show that (Johnson's defensive rating last season of 110 suggests that he was well below average as a defender).

He is the type of player who would appear to perfectly fit in Mike D'Antoni's system and yet he still struggled in the "Shawn Marion-lite" role.  He's also 27 years old, which means that his upside is limited.

On the plus side Johnson has been reportedly working hard with Kobe this off-season, but again, all off-season reports have to be taken with a grain of salt.  If anyone can get some fire and hustle out of Wesley Johnson it's Kobe, and maybe playing together in the starting lineup will help, but to assume that the switch is going to suddenly flip to "On" at this point in his career is overly optimistic.

There was some hope that Xavier Henry, a.k.a. the guy who killed Jeff Withey, would get the starting nod but it's looking like he won't be up to full speed by the time training camp starts due to knee and wrist surgeries he underwent this summer.  With Young playing better off the bench and Xavier not quite healthy Johnson essentially falls into a starting role by default.

Carlos Boozer getting the starting spot over Julius Randle also raised some eyebrows, as Randle is the most talented young player on the roster and it was assumed that he would be given plenty of minutes to develop while the Lakers aren't contending.  Upon reflection though it's tough to complain much about this move.  Rookies need to be brought along slowly, and while it would be great to see Randle step on the floor and dominate from day 1 it's just not realistic.

The team is better off setting him up for success by letting him learn the NBA game and get his feet wet playing off the bench and running against opposing bench players.  Throwing him in against the likes of Duncan, Griffin, Love, Dirk, etc would be asking for him to do too much too soon.

***The development of Julius Randle just might be the most important storyline of the season for the Lakers, along with Kobe's health of course.  Randle's full potential is something of an unholy Chris Webber/Charles Barkley hybrid, and while it may be  a long shot that he ever reaches that level it's going to be tons of fun to watch him grow.  It's also going to be interesting to see how many times Bill Macdonald shouts "Can't handle Randle!" during Lakers broadcasts.  I sense a drinking game coming on...

While the Nash/Kobe/Johnson/Boozer/Hill starting lineup might not be one that will set the world on fire, it does mean that the Lakers bench will be very, very interesting.  Check out this lineup coming off the pine:

PG: Jeremy Lin/Jordan Clarkson
SG: Nick Young
SF: Xavier Henry
PF: Julius Randle/Ryan Kelly
C: Ed Davis/Robert Sacre

Now that's an exciting lineup.  Every person on that list is capable of producing highlight-reel plays through a combination of skill, hustle, athleticism, and in the case of Nick Young, mountains of swag.  That's a high-energy second unit that should give opposing team's all they can handle and then some.  The case can be made that some bench players will have more success than the starters from time to time, which means that Byron Scott will have the luxury of mixing and matching his lineups based on who is hot that night.  It's terrible for fantasy squads, but a great thing for the Lakers and their fans.

In a perfect world Nash, Kobe, and Boozer will use their veteran wiles to control the pace of the game, slow things down, and find efficient shots.  When the reserves come in the pedal goes to the metal as Lin, Young, Randle,and the rest fly up and down the court in full attack mode.  It's a little reminiscent of the Farmar/Sasha/Walton/Odom/Bynum "Bench Mob" (yeah yeah technically Bynum was a starter) that used to terrorize the league during the 2010 championship season.  Ah memories.

***I recently re-watched game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals (thanks NBATV).  It was one of the uglier games that I can remember but there were so many iconic moments.  Pau's hanging in-the-air, maybe he traveled maybe not put back, Kobe slamming Rasheed Wallace into retirement, Ron Artest tangling with Paul Pierce early in the game and then blowing kisses to the crowd after sinking the three with 2 minutes left, Lamar Odom playing out of his mind but still looking like he was coasting, Sasha's clutch free throws....good times.  Let's hope it isn't too long before the Lakers are back where they belong, winning championships again.     

Of course that's not to say that this coming season is going to be all Showtime and string music, because it's not.  It's going to be a grind and there will likely be more low points than high, but if nothing else they will be entertaining.  I can't say I agree with all of Byron Scott's picks for his starting lineup, and they may very well change over the course of training camp.  For the time being though the most exciting thing about the Lakers starting 5 is the bench, and that may not be a bad thing.  

Follow me on twitter @16ringsNBA for updates on all things Lakers!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Steve Nash: Friend or Foe?

In the 1980's the Los Angeles Lakers electrified NBA audiences with their fast-breaking "Showtime" offense.  They ran the break in a way that had never been seen before, whipping their fans into a frenzy and making the Lakers into the league's most popular franchise.  The driving force behind the Showtime offense was none other than Magic Johnson, who had a knack for making passes that no one saw coming.

In an era where the NBA was obsessed with the number of points a player scored Magic made passing into an art form.  Kids on playgrounds everywhere tried to mimic the no-look pass and get out and run like the Showtime Lakers.  Magic's influence went beyond his team's wins and losses, he changed the sport itself.

                                            And changed Jack Nicholson from crazy person into mascot.

Since those glorious days in the 1980's only one player has been able to make passing cool again: Steve Nash.

Nash's resume reads like one that is the stuff of basketball dreams: 8-time All-Star, 7-time All-NBA, and the cherry on top: 2-time MVP.  He was the engine of the "Seven Seconds or Less" Suns teams that revolutionized NBA offenses and made terms like "stretch 4" part of the NBA lexicon.  Perhaps more importantly Nash proved that a pass-first point guard can not only succeed in today's NBA, he can thrive.  In an era when highlight packages are focused on dunks and aerial acrobatics Steve Nash showcased a below-the-rim game based on footwork, spacing, and great fundamentals.  He used his passing to add sizzle, and while he didn't make the passes that no one saw coming like Magic could he did make the passes that no one could stop.

Nash played the game in such a cerebral way that he made his athletic shortcomings all but disappear.  Players loved to play with him because they knew that on a Nash-led team they were going to get the ball in the best spot possible and would put up great stats as a result.  Watching his Suns teams play was eerily reminiscent of a modern day Showtime, albeit with more emphasis on three-point shooting and without the swarming defense that Pat Riley's teams displayed.

So when the Lakers traded for Steve Nash two summers ago it seemed like a match made in heaven.  A foursome of Nash, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Dwight Howard (who was acquired shortly after Nash) were poised to rule the NBA, and when Nash's former coach Mike D'Antoni was added it appeared that the Showtime-era Lakers style would indeed be resurrected.

We all know what happened instead.

                                                                   Pretty much

Nash spent the year bouncing on and off the injured list while he struggled to develop any chemistry with Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard.  It became so bad that Nash was relegated to the role of spot-up shooter, as Bryant and the team as a whole were having more success with the ball in Kobe's hands instead of Nash's.

While there were many problems facing the Lakers during the 2012-2013 season for Nash perhaps the most difficult adjustment was to the lack of screens being set for him.  Nash always thrived in the pick and roll situation, using screens to create the separation from his defender that he needed in order to operate.  Despite the fact that many assumed Nash and Howard would be a perfect pairing Howard, who was recovering from back surgery, flat out refused to set screens.  He would often slip the screen in order to avoid contact with Nash's defender, which can be a useful tactic but as soon as defenses caught on it left Nash out to dry trying to beat his man one-on-one.

That summer Dwight showed his true colors and abandoned the Lakers to leave for Houston, no doubt concerned about the durability of Nash and Kobe Bryant, who was recovering from achilles surgery.  With Dwight gone and Kobe injured it was time for Nash to return to his MVSteve form and run the show.  The Lakers spent the summer adding athletic shooters and stretch players like Wesley Johnson, Nick Young, and Ryan Kelly in the hopes that they would fit into Mike D'Antoni's system and allow Nash to bring out the best in them.

Alas, Nash (and seemingly everyone else on the team) suffered through one injury after another and the Lakers ended up posting the worst record in franchise history.  While the team's record may not have been all his fault a closer look at the numbers revealed something more alarming: In an admittedly small sample size of just 15 games Nash posted the worst numbers of his career by far.

The typically can't-miss shooter shot just 38% for the season, and while that could be contributed to his chronic back problems the eye-test showed that he was a shell of his former self.  When the Lakers needed the Steve Nash of old all they got was old Steve Nash.  To most observers it was clear that Nash had crossed over the line and was no longer an even respectable NBA player anymore.

The history books are littered with players who stayed a year or two longer than they should have.  We struggle and grimace right along with them, wishing that we could turn back the hands of time and allow them to become the player they once were.  Since we can't, the only thing we can do is hope that they allow themselves to go out gracefully.  Tap out.  Retire.  When the time is right.

That just isn't Steve Nash though.  It wouldn't be true to the warrior mentality and rigorous physical regimen that has allowed him to sustain such a long and successful career.  He's determined to go out on his own terms, after proving once and for all that he still has it.

Here's the thing though: he's killing the Lakers by doing it.

Under just about any other scenario seeing a player do everything they can to continue playing the sport he loves would be a heartwarming story.  However, in the NBA there is such a thing as a salary cap (sorta) and because of that Nash's salary is taking up valuable space that could be used on a younger, more productive player, which is something that the Lakers desperately need.

While this alone isn't reason for Laker fans to turn on Nash we can't forget that during an interview last season he admitted that part of the reason that he isn't retiring is because of the $9.7 million owed to him.  He stated “The reality is, I’m not going to retire because I want the money.”.  

Obviously this doesn't sound great to fans, especially considering that Nash has earned over $125 million over the course of his career.  That's not to say that his statement is completely damning, but is does come across as greedy considering that the vast majority of fans will never come anywhere close to earning that kind of money.

Nash has reportedly got himself in absolutely tremendous shape this offseason and is doing everything he can to have a successful year, which aren't the actions of a guy who is truly just about the money.  Still, the statement that he made stings.

To make matters worse the Lakers traded away their 2015 first round pick to the Suns in the deal that landed them Nash.  At the time no one thought that it would be a strong pick but with the Lakers looking like long shots to make the playoffs that pick has become a very valuable one.  The pick is only top 5 protected, and given the Lakers luck in recent years and their current respectable-but-not-good roster they will end up in the 6-8 range.

By trying to hang on and refusing to retire Nash is all but ensuring that the Lakers will have a worse record than if his salary cap space was free to be used on a more productive player.  It's an odd situation, but Nash's decision to continue playing helps the Suns much more than it helps the Lakers.

The real tough part for Lakers fans to swallow is that Nash didn't attempt to qualify for medical retirement.  Most fans understand that walking away from over $9 million isn't easy, even if you are a multi-millionaire already.  Furthermore, hanging up his sneakers after such a horrendous year would be difficult for Nash to live with, as he clearly feels he has something left in the tank.  However, had he applied for medical retirement as a result of his chronic nerve-root issues then not only would the Lakers have received the cap space they so desperately need but Nash himself would still have received his full salary.  Win-win.

Of course to do this Steve would have had to accept that last season's injury-plagued, 15 game showing would be the last thing that fans would remember about him.  It's never easy to go out on the bottom, but for the Lakers it clearly would have been the best outcome and very likely would have allowed the team to be a playoff contender this season.  Over the past few years though nothing has broken the way they needed it to so Nash's decision was just one more unlucky outcome in a long line of them.

*** The CP3 theft.  Mike Brown.  Mike D'Antoni.  Nash's broken leg.  Dwight's back and lack of heart.  Kobe's achilles.  Dwight's cowardice.  Nash's nerve root issues.  Pau's everything.  Kobe's tibial plateau fracture.  Dr. Buss' death.  The entire Western Conference becoming stacked.  The list goes on and on.  Lakers fans would ask what else could go wrong but at this point that would seem to be tempting fate. 

Even Laker-haters are starting to admit that the Lakers deserve a little good luck now.  Never thought that would happen!  

So how should Lakers fans treat Nash?  Assuming the rumors about Nash's improved health are true then fans should support him through it all.  Cheer him on, even if it's only because of the player he was and not the player he currently is.  Even in his diminished state Nash can still help the team if he can stay healthy.  If he ends up on the injured list for the majority of the season though and the losses start mounting though even Nash himself has to realize that a solid amount of blame will be placed on him, and rightfully so.

For Nash's sake and the Lakers sake let's hope that he can return to form.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Predictions for Next Season

We are in the midst of a strange, uncomfortable era of Lakers basketball.  As much as Lakers fans love to spout the "championship or bust" rhetoric it's clear that this season's squad is going to fall far short of those aspirations.  Fans do understand that every team has down seasons and the Lakers are no exception, but still something feels different this time.  The fan base is shaken, unsure of what comes next.  Of course they are right to feel that way, as over the past few years a series of mistakes compounded by the outright villainy of David Stern's infamous "basketball reasons" veto has left the team in the worst position in...well, ever.

Fans were tortured during the free agency period with rumors of Carmelo Anthony joining Kobe in LA but it wasn't meant to be (might be for the best).  Then there was the group of young guns with plenty of potential, guys that would bring Laker fans hope for the future.  Surely, Mitch would land at least one of Eric Bledsoe, Isaiah Thomas, Greg Monroe, Kyle Lowry, or Lance Stephenson.  Once again, misses all around.  

The team was left to pick through re-treads from last season and cast-offs from various franchises with high aspirations.  The Lakers watched All-Star big man Pau Gasol walk out the door for less money in Chicago just one season after watching the skittish Dwight Howard do the same.  Troubling times in Laker land to be sure.

Even while fans are uneasy though there is belief around the league that someday the Lakers will be back on top, if for no other reason than they are the Lakers and winning is what they do.  It may take longer than anyone expected and longer than the Lakers faithful are comfortable with but someday the sun will once again shine on the Staples center.  

There will be no parade down Figueroa street, and no one can truly say when we will see one again.  However, what can do is focus on this season, the here and now.  As Phil Jackson would say, "Live in the moment".

***Phil truly was the best.  Part motivator, part teacher, full-time media abuser.  Aside from Greg Popovich no one could play with the media quite like Phil could.  He wasn't the best X's and O's coach nor did he pretend to be.  Instead he focused on the X's and O's of life, on who his players were as people and what inspired them.  

I'm still in shock over the Lakers letting him leave for New York.  He's one of a kind and in the top 3 of Lakers I'd want to sit down and have a drink with.  (the others: Kareem Abdul-Jabaar and Magic Johnson.  So much wisdom in that group.  

He also coached from a chair that can only be described as a throne.  Phil Jackson: doing it before "Game of Thrones" was cool.    

So what can we realistically expect from the 2014-2015 Lakers squad?  On paper the team doesn't look very promising.  This is the lineup that we have to look forward to on opening day (assuming Michael Beasley doesn't end up in a Lakers jersey as rumored, which I'm pretty sure would be a sign of the apocalypse):

PG: Jeremy Lin, Steve Nash 
SG: Kobe Bryant, Nick Young, Jordan Clarkson
SF: Xavier Henry, Wesley Johnson
PF: Carlos Boozer, Julius Randle, Ryan Kelly
C: Jordan Hill, Ed Davis, Robert Sacre

For one thing, it's a near-certainty that next season's squad will be healthier than last.  With 220 man-games lost due to injury the Lakers were attacked by the injury bug harder than any team in the league.  It was a season filled with one improbable injury after another, to the point where each additional call of "Medic!" could only be greeted with disbelief.  It was a nearly unheard of bout of bad luck that is unlikely to repeat itself.

The Lakers do have elder statesmen Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash on the squad, and neither can be counted on to play a full season at this point.  Aside from them though we should see a much healthier team and therefore a more consistent one as well.

Speaking of the two Lakers who are a little long in the tooth, Kobe and to a lesser extent Nash will be important to the overall success of the team next season.  After missing nearly all of last season no one really knows what Kobe has left at this point.  If he can somehow come back to be the Kobe we saw pre-injury then this Laker team may have an outside shot at the playoffs.  If he's the guy we saw for 6 games last season, who rushed back from injury and didn't quite have his legs under him, the Lakers will struggle and likely end up giving the Phoenix Suns a fantastic draft pick next summer (the Lakers pick going to Phoenix from the Nash trade is only protected 1-5).

Steve Nash played in just 15 games last season and put up the worst numbers of his career since his rookie season.  It's extremely unlikely that he can be much of a positive impact on the floor at this stage in his career, but he can be useful as a mentor to young guards like Jeremy Lin and Jordan Clarkson.  Nash also drew the ire of Lakers fans when he admitted to trying to play one more season just to make sure he collects the entire $9.7 million remaining on his contract.  He has a lot of work to do if he wants to go out as a fan favorite.  Best-case scenario would be Nash logging 15-20 minutes per game as Lin's backup and putting up efficient offensive numbers.  Worst case?  Well it's hard to imagine things getting much worse than last season, but if Nash were to once again look completely done on the court and still push to get to the 10-game minimum to avoid medical retirement and rob the Lakers of cap relief then it would be rather difficult for him to show his face around Los Angeles again.

Outside of Kobe and Nash the Lakers squad is littered with players who have little chance of reaching All-Star status and no chance of becoming the superstar that the Lakers need.  Ok, Julius "The Juggernaut" Randle has a shot at becoming an All-Star level player, but he's at least a few years removed from that level.  The team is counting on guys like Jordan Hill, Ed Davis, Carlos Boozer, and Jeremy Lin all having fantastic seasons (in contract years no less), which may be a bit of wishful thinking on their part.  

As such the Lakers won't be winning any games on pure talent like they are used to.  Instead they will find themselves in the relatively unfamiliar position of underdog against the majority of the league.  Fortunately they have hired a coach in Byron Scott who is willing to get his hands dirty to build a team that will out-work their opponents, using a defense-first strategy designed to keep them in games that they wouldn't be able to based on firepower alone.

Scott's no-nonsense, defense-or-die approach is the exact opposite of Mike D'Anonti's "Seven Seconds or Less" strategy he used over the last two seasons.  Lakers fans grew tired of seeing D'Antoni's team give up huge scoring runs to anyone and everyone, and if nothing else Scott should put an end to that.  That's not to say the Lakers will suddenly become a lockdown team, as they are still fielding a lineup with shockingly few even adequate defenders, but Scott will at least bring them back to respectable levels.  
Byron Scott: At least he's not Mike D'Antoni

As fans last season we were let down.  We saw a squad that was besieged by injuries, Kobe-less, Nash-less, and poorly coached.  D'Antoni tried to force square pegs into round holes and it was often painful to watch.

So what can we expect from this season?  For one expect a new defensive intensity but at the cost of a little bit of the team's offense.  Expect to see Jeremy Lin have a fantastic season and quickly become a fan favorite.  Expect to see the log jam at the PC/C positions battle each other all season long.  Boozer is fighting for his next contract, Randle, Davis and Kelly are hoping to live up to potential, and Jordan Hill aims to prove he's a starting-quality center and worthy of his big contract.  Expect to see Steve Nash bounce in and out of lineups while Jordan Clarkson learns the ropes.  Expect Xavier Henry to endear himself to Lakers fans once again and ultimately win the starting SF spot with his defensive tenacity.  And lastly, expect Kobe Bryant to move heaven and earth in his attempt to return to form for his final two seasons in the NBA.  With Kobe in particular it's either going to be a season of celebration as an icon proves he's not going to go away quietly...or one of sadness as we watch a star fade.

Prediction: 36-46, miss the playoffs and hand a #10 pick to Phoenix.     

Monday, July 28, 2014

Lakers in Limbo (Part 2)

Last time we took an in-depth look at the acquisitions of Jeremy Lin, Nick Young, and Jordan Hill, and made the determination that while these may be good pick ups in a vacuum (especially Lin) there is a lot of risk involved for the Lakers.  They brought back the majority of last season's historically bad squad in the hopes that some consistency, health, and a coaching change (welcome Byron Scott) will lead to better results.  However, the biggest let down comes from the opportunity cost of not signing relatively cheap, young players such as Isaiah Thomas and Lance Stephenson in order to secure the likes of Hill and Young.

While the Lakers whiffed on their big-money players (Carmelo Anthony and Pau Gasol) and may have made a few questionable choices on their mid-range signings (Young and Hill), they did very well with their bargain bin guys.

Let's take a look at the guys Mitch Kupchak nabbed to round out the Lakers talent-starved lineup.

Carlos Boozer (1 year $3.25 million)- To the Lakers surprise they managed to win the Carlos Boozer waiver auction with a bid of just $3.25 million, which seems like a small price to pay for a two-time All-Star.  However, there's another way to look at this: in deciding to amnesty Boozer's contract Chicago made the decision to pay him over $16 million to play against them, and for good reason.

Make no mistake about it, using just about any metric Carlos Boozer is simply not a great basketball player anymore.  He's a power forward who lives on the mid-range jumper but his ability to actually make that shot has declined dramatically. In the past 2 seasons Boozer has shot just 47% and then 45% on 2-point attempts (after only dropping below that mark only once before in his entire career), which is terrible for a post-player.

To make matters worse Boozer has become a matador on defense, consistently allowing his opponent to score whenever they want.  He was never known for his defensive abilities but in his latter years it's gotten so bad that Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau opted to sit him during the second and fourth quarter of games in favor of defensive stalwart Taj Gibson.  As scary a thought as it is, Pau Gasol is actually a better post defender than Boozer is.  Yeah, let that one sink in for a bit.

As a 32 year old former All-Star Boozer will also be looking to play well enough to secure another contract after this season ends (hence his comments about feeling so great he might play another 7 years).  While the positive side of that is that he should be extremely motivated all season, the negative is that if the Lakers start losing his not likely to stick to the game plan.  Being on a winning squad gets players paid, but putting up numbers on a bad team will too (exhibit A: Jodie Meeks).  With the Lakers looking like lottery locks it's a sure bet that once the hope of being a Cinderella team gets extinguished Carlos will be looking to get his, team performance be damned.

So what's to like about Boozer (besides a last name that guarantees jersey sales)?  Well for one thing he excels at running the pick and pop on offense, something that Chicago hasn't really been able to do with Derek Rose sidelined with knee injuries.  It's no coincidence that Boozer's field goal percentage dropped when Rose went down, as he no longer had a creator to get him open looks from 15 feet anymore.  Fortunately for him Jeremy Lin is a fantastic pick and roll point guard, and his ability to finish at the rim should draw defenses in and provide Boozer the space he needs to do damage.

Now making an appearance at every frat party in So Cal 

He's also still a solid rebounder even if he isn't the beast on the boards that he used to be.  Having Boozer combined with Jordan Hill and Julius Randle should at the very least provide the Lakers with a team that will have a rebounding edge on most nights.

Perhaps the most important thing that the Lakers got for their $3.25 million was the experience that Boozer brings as a 12 year veteran.  Building around youth is great, but every young team needs a few veterans on the floor who can help relay the message from the coaching staff to the players.  With Nash and Kobe both being injury concerns Boozer is one more voice of experience that will be needed over the course of a long season.  This wisdom could really pay dividends in the growth of young post players like Ryan Kelly and Julius Randle.

Fans who are expecting to see the Carlos Boozer who the Lakers nearly traded Caron Butler for in 2005 will be sorely disappointed.  However, for the price he is still an excellent signing.  There is the risk that he will attempt to inflate his numbers and won't adapt well to being a role player, but just about every team in the league would take jump on the chance to have him on their roster for just $3.25 million.

Xavier Henry (1 year/minimum)- In his first year in LA last season Xavier Henry quickly grew into a fan favorite.  His hustle on both ends of the floor and willingness to attack the rim were a nice addition to a team that was often in need of energy.  While Henry wasn't an All-Star level player by any means he was certainly worth more than a minimum deal.

Check out his per-36 minute stats:
2013-14 22 SF 5.7 13.7 .417 1.1 3.2 .346 4.6 10.5 .439 4.6 7.0 .655 1.0 3.5 4.5 2.0 1.7 0.3 2.3 3.1 17.1
Provided by

Not too shabby.  The 1.7 steals stands out as does the 7 free throws attempted (although he needs to shoot better than 65% from the line).  The other number that should jump out is his age.  At just 22 Henry has plenty of time to grow and could very well turn into the wing defender that the Lakers sorely need.      

It's not out of the question to think that Henry may even win the starting small forward spot considering Nick Young has historically performed better as a 6th man and the Lakers will need someone who can help make up for Kobe's defensive struggles on the perimeter.  If he can prove himself as a starter he will be in line for a nice raise next summer.

While Henry received a minimum deal largely due to his offseason knee and wrist surgery, consider that Kent Bazemore put up similar numbers and also had offseason knee surgery but received double the amount of money and years.  Bazemore is also 2 years older than Henry, and as such a solid argument can be made that X actually has the higher ceiling.  All things considered the Lakers really got a steal.

Oh, and let's not forget that Henry murdered Jeff Withey last season and got away with it.  That alone was worth a minimum contract.  I could pretty much watch this play all day:

Wesley Johnson (1 year/minimum)- This contract is the one mistake I think the Lakers made with their lower-level guys.  Johnson is long, athletic, and can shoot the three-exactly the kind of the player that should thrive in Mike D'Antoni's offense (just ask Shawn Marion).  However, Johnson was largely non-existent last season despite receiving plenty of minutes (24.7 average) and playing in an offense that should have been a perfect fit.

His three-point shooting wasn't quite as good as advertised with only a 35% average and his scoring left a lot to be desired.  He also wasn't a great defender in spite of his considerable athleticism, often appearing to coast through games.

While the risk is certainly small on a minimal contract Wesley Johnson is 27, which means there is little room left for upside.  He is what he is: a phenomenal leaper and decent outside shooter but that's about it.  In order to truly make it in the NBA players either need at least one elite skill or be extremely good across the board.  Wesley Johnson fits neither description.

The signing of Johnson is a minor complaint because he likely won't be a rotation player but I would have preferred to see his spot go to Al-Farouq Aminu, who is just 23 and is already a terrific defender and rebounder.  If he can lock himself in a gym all summer and start to nail the corner three at a higher rate he will be the perfect 3-and-D wing that so many teams covet.

Ryan Kelly (2 years, $3.3 million)- While there wasn't much to cheer about last season the development of rookie Ryan Kelly was one of the rare bright spots.  He's a Nowitzki-style power forward who has the ability to step all the way out to the three point line which fits the way that NBA offenses are going these days.  The Lakers drafted Kelly assuming that his ability to shoot would fit nicely in Mike D'Antoni's offense, but were pleasantly surprised when he also showed the ability to put the ball on the floor and attack the basket as well.

While Kelly isn't the most athletic player around he does play the game with intelligence and keeps his turnovers down, which coaches love.  He also move the ball well and finds cutting teammates better than most post players, and as last season wore on he showed a surprising ability to block shots, using his length at 6'11" to get to perimeter shooters.
2013-14 22 4.3 10.2 .423 1.3 3.9 .338 3.0 6.3 .476 3.0 3.7 .815 1.2 4.9 6.0 2.6 0.9 1.2 1.3 4.0 13.0
Provided by

Kelly's per 36-minute stats show just why the Lakers are so high on him.  His minutes and role on the team bounced around like crazy last year but through it all Kelly stayed productive and showed the versatility that could make him a solid asset off the bench.  He doesn't have any one thing that he truly excels at but he's good at just about everything.  It's this kind of versatility that teams need more and more in the modern NBA in order to adapt to the myriad of offenses and defenses they will be faced with.

In some ways he's essentially a taller Luke Walton, so Lakers fans do need to be thankful that 7-year deals don't exist anymore.  Kelly will have to prove his worth over the next two season in order to get a longer deal in the future.
 You see, you wanna play your best in a contract year.  After that you can go back to being terrible.

By locking up Ryan Kelly for the next two seasons at a relatively low price Mitch is giving his young power forward plenty of room to grow into a solid contributor.  Ideally the Lakers have their 4s of the future in place with Julius Randle and Ryan Kelly on board, and an on-the-job tutor in place with Carlos Boozer.

Ed Davis (2 years/$2 million, 2nd year player option)- I saved the best for last.  The Ed Davis theft had fans around the league perplexed and cursing the Lakers good luck in landing a solid big for such a cheap price.  At just 25 Davis still has plenty of upside but also has enough seasoning to help the team win now.

He spent time as a backup in Memphis but wasn't getting the minutes he was hoping for, so a jump to the Lakers made plenty of sense.  The idea from Davis' camp was to make him this season's Nick Young and have him increase his value by getting plenty of minutes in the Lakers sparse frontcourt, then opt out of the second year of the deal and cash in as a free agent.

Well, that was the plan before the addition of Carlos Boozer and the signing of Ryan Kelly anyway.  Now the Lakers are looking at something of a log jam with their power positions, with Boozer, Randle, and Kelly all competing for minutes at power forward while Hill, Davis, and Robert Sacre will battle it out for minutes at center.

However, even with the sudden depth of the Lakers front court Davis no longer has to compete with set-in-stone starters like Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph.  If he shows up in shape, rebounds, and plays defense Davis will find minutes in Byron Scott's rotation.  He's the favorite to beat out Robert Sacre and back up Jordan Hill at the center spot and could even steal some minutes at the 4 as well if Boozer declines or Randle struggles.

Again looking at per 36-minute stats it's apparent that the Lakers have found themselves another solid post player who excels as a rebounder.

2010-11 21 TOR 4.8 8.4 .576 0.0 0.0 4.8 8.4 .576 1.6 2.9 .555 3.8 6.6 10.4 0.9 0.9 1.5 1.1 4.1 11.3
2011-12 22 TOR 4.0 7.9 .513 0.0 0.0 .000 4.0 7.8 .515 1.7 2.5 .670 3.1 7.1 10.3 1.4 0.9 1.5 1.6 3.7 9.7
2012-13 23 TOT 5.7 10.6 .539 0.0 0.0 5.7 10.6 .539 2.3 3.7 .617 3.4 6.8 10.2 1.4 0.8 1.9 1.4 4.2 13.8
2012-13 23 TOR 6.2 11.2 .549 0.0 0.0 6.2 11.2 .549 2.2 3.4 .647 3.1 6.8 9.9 1.8 0.8 1.3 1.5 3.7 14.5
2012-13 23 MEM 4.9 9.5 .517 0.0 0.0 4.9 9.5 .517 2.4 4.3 .569 3.8 6.8 10.6 0.5 0.9 3.1 1.2 5.3 12.2
If nothing else Davis' inclusion in the mix is going to make Byron Scott's job extremely hard when it comes time to determine his front court rotation.  Given the horrendous number of injuries the team suffered through last year the Lakers have to be feeling more confident knowing they now have 5 (6 if Sacre makes a leap) frontcourt players who can at least be productive.  If two of them can rise above the rest and prove themselves as starting-quality players the Lakers will be in great shape to compete night-in and night-out on the inside, which couldn't be said last year.  

All in all the Lakers offseason was a disappointment.  Missed on Carmelo.  Missed on Pau.  Passed on Bledsoe, Monroe, Thomas, and Stephenson.  Still, Lakers fans can take solace in knowing that while the big moves didn't go down the team hit it out of the park with the little ones.

No they won't contend for a title this season, but getting Boozer, Henry, Kelly, and Davis for less than $10 million combined will at least give fans a team that they can get behind and cheer for.  At this point in the rebuild that's really all we can ask for.  Brighter days still lie ahead, and these dark days will only make the future in the sun that much more fulfilling for the Lakers faithful.    

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