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How did we get here?

Daniel Rapaport —  July 19, 2014

The glory days of Kobe and Phil may seem like ages ago, but a quick peek at a calendar reminds you that it really was only three years ago that the Lakers sat at top of the NBA pyramid. But my, oh my, how things have changed. The roster doesn’t look good, the future isn’t looking all that bright, and we still don’t have a coach. So, how did we get here? Let’s take a step-by-step look at just how things went so sour so quickly for the Lakers, starting with the end of the Phil era.

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The absolute chaos formally known as the NBA’s annual free agency period toys with fans’ imaginations each and every year. In an instant, a team’s fanbase can go from being depressed about what the next five years will look like to fantasizing about a starting five that includes every marquee free agent. I have to admit that during this free agency period, I’ve fallen into the trap. You guys, I’m really, really excited about having even a slight chance of landing Carmelo Anthony. And you should be too.

There’s a belief among a troubling amount Lakers fans on the Twittersphere that the purple blue and gold should not offer Carmelo the maximum 4-year, $97 million dollar contract that they’ve put on the table. Those who believe this claim that Carmelo isn’t a “winning player” because he’s yet to make it to the Finals in his first eleven years in the league. And while I respect the passion of the fanbase (it’s what makes ours the greatest in the sport), I feel as though the anti-Carmelo camp needs a stern talking to from the voice of reason. And I personally volunteer to act as the voice of reason.

I’d like to start by dispelling the rumors that Carmelo isn’t a winner. Sure, Carmelo hasn’t enjoyed deep playoff runs during his stellar career. But last season was the first of his career that he missed the playoffs. Carmelo has been the first option on every team he’s ever played on, so it’s not like he’s riding the coattails of other superstars, also. Clearly, Carmelo knows what it takes to win in the NBA. To knock the dude for not having won a championship is lazy; as a certain team from South Florida has shown, one, and probably even two, superstars aren’t enough to get a title in today’s NBA. I have zero doubts that if given a sublime supporting cast like LeBron was in Miami, Carmelo could contend and win championships.

And as Melo passes the 30 benchmark and heads toward the tail end of his career, you have to believe his main focus above all will be winning. He’s looking for his Miami, a place to go and join other players that he can trust in order to get that elusive championship. And for those of you who have watched Carmelo play for Team USA, you know that when he wants to be, he can move the ball very well within an offense and isn’t always the gunner ball-stopping type that his haters label him as. If he leaves New York, he’ll be desperate to win, no matter what it takes.

Kobe and Carmelo’s friendship has been well-documented and probably a bit exaggerated by the media these past couple days. But it’s true that the two are very close and that Kobe admires and respects Carmelo, and we all know that Kobe doesn’t give compliments easily. They’ve won two gold medals together and both share the ability to hit mind-blowingly difficult fadeaway jump shots (they probably don’t bond over this, but I have an image in my mind of the two playing absolutely epic HORSE games that last until the early morning). So the locker-room chaos that took place last year with Dwight having such a different approach to his job than Kobe and Nash wouldn’t realistically be an issue.

I’m somewhat confident in suggesting that Laker fans do, and should, trust Phil Jackson’s judgement. Hell, Phil is a borderline deity to Laker fans, and rightfully so. So my question is this: If Phil badly wants to keep Carmelo in New York, shouldn’t you want him in Los Angeles? Phil Jackson understands the inconvenient truth that these type of players don’t come along too often, and when they do, you simply can’t let them walk despite the fact that sometimes they may shoot too often.

Let’s be honest here. Signing Carmelo is virtually the only chance the Lakers have to get Kobe his coveted 6th ring, which seems to be the number one priority for the front office whether you agree with it or not. That’s why it blows my mind that some people truly believe the team would be in a better position to win and win soon without Carmelo. When you accept the reality that the Lakers have no shot of landing LeBron, it becomes shockingly evident that the Lakers don’t have many options here. Some are proposing LAL sign a younger player whose best days are ahead of him, like a Lance Stephenson or an Eric Bledsoe type. But those type of players are still 2 or 3 years away from entering what I like to call “prime championship years.” While your physical prime might come around 25, it takes more than being in your physical prime to win championships. It’s during a player’s late 20′s/early 30′s, when he’s still in the tail end of his physical prime while simultaneously understanding what it takes mentally to be a champion that he’s most likely to win (see James, LeBron or Jordan, Michael). Carmelo is in his championship prime. He’s ready to win now.

Lastly, let’s revisit just how special of a player Carmelo is. Sure, he has his flaws, but I don’t think people realize just how good Carmelo Kyam (isn’t that a sweet middle name) has been over the past two seasons. Over the past two years, he’s averaging exactly 28 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.9 assists on 45% FG, 39% 3FG and 83.9% from the line. For those of you who claim he’s not efficient, he’s finished in the top-10 in each of the past two seasons in Player Effeciency Rating. Those are bonafide superstar-in-his-prime numbers. And that’s exactly what Carmelo Anthony is- a superstar in his prime.

When you have the opportunity to get a superstar in his prime, you should be pumped.

According to a report from Yahoo!’s Adrian Wojnarowski (quite possibly the most trustworthy reporter in the sport), Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak met with Mike Dunleavy Wednesday morning to discuss the team’s vacant head coaching position. Yes, the same Mike Dunleavy who was fired by Donald Sterling (!!!) after leading the Clippers to exactly one winning season in his seven years at the helm. Like I’m sure many of you were, I was less than thrilled to read that report this morning.

Sure, I understand that the Lakers and Dunleavy have a history. He took over after Pat Riley’s departure and led the team to two consecutive playoff appearances. But that was twenty-four years ago. And I get that Kupchak has pledged to interview a multitude of candidates before finally making his decision, so Dunleavy’s odds are bleak at best. But I have a question for the Lakers-and other teams- that I’ve been wanting to ask for years now: What has changed since Coach ___’s last firing that you believe he’s ready to lead your team to the promised land?

When the Lakers hired another Mike (D’Antoni) who’s less than popular in Los Angeles, it made sense roster wise. Mitch Jim’s thought process was that the Lakers had a roster tailor made to fit the D’Antoni system- Nash and Dwight, if the latter proved willing (which he didn’t), would run a nasty pick-and-roll with Kobe on the wing and Pau ready to hit the elbow jumper at the high post. Mitch had the seven-seconds-or-less Suns in his mind when he sat down with D’Antoni, but he conveniently overlooked D’Antoni’s tenure with the New York Knicks. He went 121-167 in New York and was subsequently fired. While I was one of the many Laker fans (don’t act like you foresaw last year’s trainwreck coming- no one did) who salivated at the thought of that offense firing at full potential, maybe the front office should have seen D’Antoni’s failure in New York as writing on the wall that maybe he wasn’t the right man for the job.

Kupchak recently told reporters that he’d prefer for whoever is hired to have some head coaching experience. My question is–Why? By definition, each and every coach who’s out of a job was fired before he was last hired. He didn’t do a good enough job at his last job to be retained, so why are we supposed to believe that he can lead our team out of the lottery, through an ultra-quick rebuilding stage and back to the promised land?

All the greats were once first-time head coaches. Phil Jackson took over the Bulls from Doug Collins once upon a time. Gregg Popovich went 17-47 in his first season leading the Spurs. Erik Spoelstra took over the Heat despite having zero NBA playing or head coaching experience and we all see how that worked out.

Look, I know that choosing a young guy who’s not established is inherently riskier. But the fact of the matter is that the Lakers aren’t in their normal position. They don’t have established veterans who are one piece away from a championship. There’s work to be done- this rebuild will more than likely be a multi-year process if we’re calling a spade a spade. The established names that have been thrown around, like Tom Thibodeau, probably don’t want to leave their current winning ways to undertake a full rebuild.

The Lakers are traditionalists, for sure. They were, after all, the last team to send a representative to the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. Just as they look for coaches with experience, they look for players with experience, and the team has long preferred to trade draft picks in hopes of acquiring established stars to help them avoid a rebuilding period. But you know who else are traditionalists? The Boston Celtics. But after realizing that their aging core would never topple the Miami Heat, they blew things up by trading away their best players and securing future draft picks. And who did the Celtics hire to lead them through the dark years? Brad Stevens, a first-time NBA coach who was the head coach of Butler before the Celtics. Yes, the Celtics hired a coach from a college mid-major.

The number 7 pick will result in a hyper-talented, likely raw player who will require development to become a star. The type of player the Lakers come up on about once every 10 years. The roster will be different, and I believe the man coaching the roster should be different to. I know it’s blasphemous to say, but the Lakers need to look toward a younger, more energetic guy to lead the team. That way, both the coach and roster can develop together. And in the process, maybe, just maybe, you stumble upon an all-time great coach. Because all-time great coaches don’t fall into your hands after getting fired by their previous teams.

General Thoughts on the Season

Like so many Lakers, Jordan Farmar’s homecoming season (he’s a graduate of Taft High School in Woodland Hills) was plagued by a multitude of nagging injuries. His calf, hamstring and groin wouldn’t cooperate all season, and he was only able to suit up for 41 games. Farmar had four separate stretches in which he missed at least 4 games. All of this makes it tough to accurately assess Farmar’s year, as it’s important to remember than any time a player is coming back from missing multiple games they’re not quite right the first game back. So often this season it felt that just as Jordan got back into rhythm, his bummy hamstring would return him to the pine for the foreseeable future.

When he was indeed on the floor, Farmar was a useful and important player for the Lakers. He possesses something that the other point guards on the roster don’t: the quick first step needed to at least try and defend the Russell Westbrooks and Damian Lillards of the world. He shot a very solid 43.8% from behind the arc and proved the ability to get white-hot.

He’s now an unrestricted free agent who should see decent interest from teams looking for a strong shooter in a backup point guard. He’s been vocal about wanting to remain a Laker no matter who the next coach is. But Farmar signed for the minimum last summer, and with the Lakers’ eyes on big-name free agents, he’ll likely have to accept a similar contract this year if he does want to remain in Lakerland.

Strengths/Weaknesses

Shotchart 1400011620508

As stated previously, Farmar is a more than capable three-point shooter, especially from the corners. What sticks out on this shot chart is the midrange-success. In the new basketball world driven by analytics, these long two-point jumpers have become quazi-blasphemous, as the numbers favor layups and three-pointers. So, analyze his midrange success however you like, but realize that Famar is a surprisingly adequate mid-range shooter, as well.

Farmar never has been, and likely never will be effective when he goes to the hoop. While he’s a pretty good athlete and leaper, Farmar lacks the aggression to bang with the bigs down low and the dexterity required to finish efficiently.

Farmar showed an ability to get hot and stay hot this season that I can’t remember him displaying in previous years. On Feb. 28, Farmar erupted for a career high 30 points on 8-10 shooting from three. He was 5-7 from behind the arc at Brooklyn on Nov. 27, 5-8 at Cleveland on Feb. 5, 4-5 against Denver on March 7….you get the picture. The moral of the story is: when Farmar’s feeling it, get that boy that rock.

While a 106.9 defensive rating is far form impressive, when you factor in that the Lakers as a team had a defensive rating 110.6, it becomes a bit more acceptable. Farmar has good size and burst for a point guard, which are two of the most important factors when it comes to defense. For comparison, Kendall Marshall had a defensive rating of 109.0, Nash a 112.0, and Blake also a 112.0. Numbers don’t lie; Farmar was LAL’s best defensive point guard option this season, though that’s really not saying much.

Most Memorable Moment

Farmar catches fire to the tune of a career-high 30 piece on 8-10 shooting from downtown.

Overall Grade and Summary

Farmar showed some bright spots this year, averaged a career high in points, and proved to be the Laker’s best point guard defender. But I’m just hesitant to give any player on this team a favorable grade. Basketball is about winning games. The Lakers didn’t do that this season. By definition, it was a failure. I look at this season like a group project: If the entire team’s season was the project, they certainly would receive no better than a C- that’s what happens you fail to do what you set out to do (win games). When the group project receives such a poor grade, each individual team member is essentially disqualified from receiving an A- the project was just too damn bad! That’s why Farmar, despite having a relatively solid season (and a cost-effective one) receives a B-.

But if he’s willing to come back for the right price, as he says he is, he’s a solid backup point guard who has the ability to get hot off the bench once in a while. If the Lakers can secure him for the veteran’s minimum, they should do so- it’s always good for the locker-room dynamic to have a player who genuinely wants to be there. And Jordan Farmar, through and through, wants to be a Laker.

The Lakers will look to player hate tonight when the Houston Rockets visit Staples Center at 7 p.m.

Houston comes into tonight’s game playing solidly despite missing two of five starters in Patrick Beverly, who’s recovering from a torn meniscus, and He Who Must Not Be Named (hint: #12), who has missed the past five games with a nagging ankle injury. They’ve won seven of 10 and are averaging an impressive 113.8 points during that span. Things seem to be clicking for the Rockets, who should be a legitimate contender to come out of the West if Dwight’s ankle injury doesn’t continue to be an issue, like he promises. Houston owns a two-game lead over the Blazers for the 4th position and are two games behind with Clippers with only 6 games remaining, so it appears likely that they’ll enter the playoffs as the 4th seed.

LAL, on the other hand, has lost 10 of 13 and is coming into the game fresh off a 120-97 beating by their crosstown rivals. They’ll be without Kent Bazemore, who joined the comically long list of Lakers who were hurt playing point guard this season. He’ll be out the remainder of the year with a torn peroneus longus tendon in his right foot, which requires surgery. Also missing in action tonight will be Pau, who’s still dealing with a gnarly case of vertigo, and Chris Kaman (calf). Steve Nash is questionable, as per usual, and Farmar told Mike Trudell that he’s likely to suit up and play tonight.

In short, this is a poor matchup for the Lakers. The Rockets are the second-highest scoring team in the league, while the Lakers give up the second-most points in the league and have given up the most points since the all-star break by a wide margin. If they want to have any chance to stay in the game tonight, they’ll need to keep Houston’s up-tempo offense in check. The Lakers are 2-34 when they give up more than their season average of 109 points. That number really speaks volumes; this team simply does not win shootouts.

The Lakers also must keep James Harden in check if they want to keep the game close tonight. The all-star has absolutely torched the Lakers this season, averaging 34 points in the previous two games, which were split. Remember when Steve Blake hit that game winning three right in Dwight’s face? It’s my personal favorite moment from this season in which their really hasn’t been many, but my goodness does it feel like ages ago.

A loss tonight would set the type of record no one wants. No Los Angeles Laker team has ever lost 53 games, and only one team in franchise history has matched that loss total (1957-58 Minneapolis Lakers). A few short weeks ago, Nick Young told the media that this team would fight tooth and nail to avoid that distinction. But when you’re dealing with as many injuries as the Lakers have, which is truly an unfathomable amount over the course of the season, pride really doesn’t matter. You can try all you want, but right now the Lakers have what I like to call a LOFT problem- a lack of f***ing talent. Their main scoring option tonight will be…who knows? With Pau out (and obviously Kobe), this team really has no first option, no one to look for to create his own shot when the shot-clock is winding down. Xavier Henry had shown some promise in this regard and then BOOM: he gets season ending surgery. Such has been our luck this year.

It just hasn’t been an enjoyable season. I’m looking forward to it ending.

Where you can watch: TWC SportsNet, 7:30 p.m. PST tip off