This is foreign territory for me as a Lakers’ fan. I cannot recall the last Laker to participate in the “Rising Stars Challenge” even when it was the Rookie/Sophomore game. Last year Jordan Clarkson did not breakout until after the all-star game and, of course, Julius Randle was lost in the 1st game of the season. Randle isn’t here this year — I’m not going to vent about this, but the format of Team USA vs. Team World probably kept several American born players out of this game who are deserving, Randle included — but Jordan Clarkson and D’Angelo Russell are.

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The last couple of seasons it’s seemed like every time Kobe dunked he ended up on the injured list. Last year his season famously ended after a seemingly harmless two handed dunk turned into a torn rotator cuff. This season he missed more games after another throw down.

Honestly, while some might find ways to make jokes, it’s actually not that surprising to me Kobe might hurt himself dunking. I mean, over the course of his career, Kobe has been one of the more violent dunkers the league has seen. Dunking the way that he has puts wear and tear on the body and, after the sheer number of times he’s assaulted the rim a shoulder or wrist injury shouldn’t surprise.

I was reminded of this earlier today when Max Frishberg, aka @MaxaMillion711, posted a clip he put together of Kobe’s top 100 dunks of all-time. The video has all his greatest hits and, honestly, I’m surprised he hasn’t torn his shoulder right out of its socket at least a dozen times. See for yourself:

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Records: Lakers 11-43, Last in the West; Cavs 37-14, 1st in the East
Offensive ratings: Lakers 97.2, 29th in NBA; Cavs 106.5, 4th in the NBA
Defensive ratings: Lakers 109.9, Last in the NBA; Cavs 100.8, 8th in the NBA
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Clarkson, Williams, Kobe, Randle, Hibbert (hoping for this, though!)
Cavs: Kyrie, Shumpert, LeBron, Love, Mozgov

 

Cavs Blogs: Check out Cavs the Blog and Fear the Sword for all your Cavs news and analysis.

Keys to game: I’m skipping the formalities and getting right to it today. The Lakers have been playing well and the Cavs, after disposing of David Blatt and hiring Tyron Lue are 7-3 in their last 10 games. The firing came as a surprise, but when reading the postmortems from those close to the situation, there was clearly a disconnect between Blatt and the players, one that the FO thought needed addressing right away. That change has been made and now there aren’t many (any?) excuses left for this team to not accomplish their goal (unless you count not being as good as the Warriors as an excuse).

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Byron Scott has said that he D’Angelo Russell will return to the starting lineup at some point. All signs indicate this will likely occur after the All-Star Break when the Lakers enter their final leg of the season with only 27 games left on the schedule. This last burst should give the coach and front office ample time to see how Russell plays upon his return and offer data points to include in a development plan for the summer.

Russell’s return, however, isn’t the only change I would like to see. As the team heads into the stretch run, looking at the way to maximize all their young players by finding new lineup combinations via further rotation changes should be a priority. I mean, swapping Russell is fine, but also finding ways to play Black more, get Nance back into the rotation (good health in his knee permitting), and getting Anthony Brown back into the fold is also important.

With that, here is my proposal for the Lakers new starting 5 coming out of the All-Star Break:

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Records: Lakers 11-42, Last in the West; Pacers 27-24, 7th in the East
Offensive ratings: Lakers 97.4, 29th in NBA; Pacers 102.4, 19th in the NBA
Defensive ratings: Lakers 108.3, Last in the NBA; Pacers 99.6, 4th in the NBA
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Clarkson, Williams, Kobe, Randle, Hibbert
Pacers: George Hill, Monta, Paul George, Myles Turner, Ian Mahinmi

The Lakers Coming in: The Lakers are playing well. After winning two straight games, they played the Spurs very well and were in the game until the very end. Yes, those Spurs were missing Manu and Timmy, but that same team spanked the Mavs just a couple days before the Lakers played them tight. To stay in that game, on the road, was a marked improvement from what we could expect from previous weeks.

The good play is mostly centered around Kobe who has found ways to get hot in all three of the team’s recent games, keeping the Lakers close by bombing shots from behind the arc and showing just enough craft to get off mid-range jumpers that have been a staple of his arsenal his entire career. The young players have joined Kobe in playing well too, mostly finding their respective strides offensively while leveraging their youth and athleticism to do just enough defensively to not allow games to get out of hand.

All in all, this may be the best stretch of basketball the Lakers have played all year. No, that might not be saying much, but it still needs to be said. I don’t think the Lakers are going to be running off a string of wins anytime soon, but if you are someone looking for progress the last few games are probably exactly what you have been wanting to see.

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Records: Lakers 11-41, Last in the West; Spurs 42-8, 2nd in the West
Offensive ratings: Lakers 97.2, 29th in NBA; Spurs 109.2, 3rd in the NBA
Defensive ratings: Lakers 108.2, Last in the NBA; Spurs 94.7, 1st in the NBA
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Clarkson, Williams, Kobe, Randle, Hibbert
Spurs: Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi, David West, LaMarcus Aldridge

The Lakers Coming in: The Lakers have won two games in a row, beating the Wolves in LA and the Pelicans in New Orleans to start this road trip. The wins were highlighted by strong play from Kobe Bryant, but he did not win these games on his own — not even the Wolves game where he posted a 38-5-5 line that was as throwback as they come.

No, the team has been getting good efforts from multiple players, especially offensively. Julius Randle has been a double-double machine while shooting a strong percentage, D’Angelo Russell has been doing good work in the post while also knocking down outside shots, Jordan Clarkson has been consistent and a top scoring option, and Lou Williams has provided efficient scoring by getting to the line and creating shots in isolation.

More to the point, this is the team many optimists saw as the best version of the Lakers for this season. Factors — up and down play from the youngsters, Kobe’s on and off health and struggles with finding his legs, not being able to compensate for really bad defense — has limited how often we have seen this type of play. But the team has gotten it these last two games and it’s led to wins and some entertaining basketball.

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The Lakers start a 4 game road trip tonight in New Orleans, a trip which will double as a Kobe retirement tour at every stop. So, expect there to be some tribute videos and electric environments full of fans for both teams eager to say their goodbyes to #24. With this, of course, comes some distractions, even if only small ones.

This isn’t the biggest deal, but it it’s not nothing either. Kobe will be showered with good vibes and the rest of the team will have to try and channel that energy into positive performances. Because no matter how the game goes, Kobe will get his cheers. I’ve no clue how his teammates fell about this — I’d imagine it’s a bit cool to see — but hearing “oohs and ahs” when one guy touches the ball or takes a shot regardless of result has to at least be strange.

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Coming into this season, his 3rd with the Lakers, Nick Young was put on notice. He ended his second season with the team firmly in Byron Scott’s doghouse and the only way out of it was to no longer play like Nick Young. Scott said he wanted Young to play better defense, to exercise more discretion offensively, and to be a more serious player. If he did these things, he might see more playing time. If he didn’t, well, the wood has a way of speaking to a player, as this coach is fond of saying.

So, what did young do? He tried to improve in the areas the coach asked him to. At the start of the year was often seen trying on defense and taking less crazy shots in isolation. While he wasn’t a playmaker, he was more willing to move the ball and resembled more of the player he was under Mike D’Antoni; more of the player who the Lakers thought they were keeping on when he resigned after his first with team.

It turns out, though, that really didn’t last. Since the first 10-15 games of the season, Young’s shooting has fallen off, his effort on defense has been spotty, and he has fallen into the trap of looking for his own shot — especially when working in isolation. A tiger doesn’t change its stripes, after all.

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