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I recently joined Aaron Fischman and Loren Lee Chen on their On the NBA Beat Podcast to talk Lakers. Topics covered include why I was on board not trading Brandon Ingram in a package for DeMarcus Cousins, what I see in D’Angelo Russell as a passer, the team’s defensive struggles, and why I think the player development coaches matter just as much as Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka to turning things around.

You can subscribe to the On the NBA Beat pod here and follow the rest of the work they do at their website. Click through to listen to the entire conversation. Thanks to Loren and Aaron for letting me ramble. Haha.

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The Lakers have lost 3 straight games since returning from the All-Star break and trading Lou Williams. The games themselves have been a mixed bag from a team perspective, competing for stretches, having a couple of double-digit defeats, and then battling throughout against the Hornets only to fall short at the end.

The main takeaway, from a team perspective, is that this group still lacks the defensive ability — through gained experience and chemistry — to be impactful on that side of the ball. The needed stops do not come and the breakdowns are ones which leave you frustrated an questioning whether they will truly ever get it. I wish I had an answer to that question or that I had a more positive outlook on what the future may hold on that side of the ball, but my opinions, for now at least, are that without an infusion of defensive talent and a greater commitment from the players currently on the team to become better at it, this team will continue to flounder.

Offensively, and from an individual perspective, it’s easier to see the seeds and roots of something more dynamic. D’Angelo Russell has offered some especially strong play, mixing scoring and playmaking that inspires hope of him starting to get “it”. There are still fits and starts and some aspects to his game which need more sharpening (like penetration both in isolation and out of P&R’s), but the passing, shooting, and overall decision making is coming around. Maybe it’s a renewed focus because Magic Johnson has taken over the front office, maybe it’s Lou Williams being gone and a sense of added responsibility shifting, or maybe it’s just him finding his stride again after a season which has featured too many injuries and missed games. But it’s coming along. Hopefully it lasts.

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The game was entertaining and well played for the most part. The Lakers competed well early and even held a lead late. Their defense forced turnovers early and their offense was capable throughout. In the end, though, the Lakers could not slow Kemba Walker and the team lost to the Hornets 109-104.

All in all, it was likely what most fans want out of a game as this season winds down. Julius Randle was a monster, hitting 10 of his 14 shots on his way to 23 points, 18 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals, and 2 blocks. D’Angelo Russell was also very good, scoring 23 points of his own while dishing out 9 assists to only 3 turnovers. Russell was especially dynamic in the 3rd quarter where, despite only making 1 of his 3 shots, he tallied 6 assists in a fantastic display of passing and decision making when running the team’s offense.

Beyond the good play of those two, Clarkson had a nice showing as the primary ball handler for the 2nd unit, posting 16 points on 7-14 shooting while chipping in 3 assists and 3 rebounds. And while Ingram did not play well offensively, he led the team with 42 minutes played and was his normal steady self providing solid defense and intangibles (ball moving, cuts, etc).

The production from the team’s young core aside, what stood out most to me was how this game was a real signal to a new era for the Lakers. These games, since the All-Star break, represent the first time in these players’ careers that they are undoubtedly the focus of the franchise and are being put into positions most players of their draft status (save for 2nd round pick Clarkson) would expect them to be in from the start of their careers.

Let me explain further…

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Since the Lakers have returned from the All-Star break, they are 0-2 with both losses double-digit defeats. The team has played poorly on defense while having only fleeting success offensively on the whole. Individual players have had their moments (Russell, Ingram, and Clarkson have all had some very positive stretches), but overall the team’s lack of competitiveness on defense has dug them holes too deep to climb out of.

This really shouldn’t be a surprise. The team’s defense has been bad pretty much all season and just because the team traded Lou Williams, that’s not going to change. The Lakers still have too many defenders who either haven’t shown enough ability, commitment, experience (or all of the above) on that end to form the foundation of a good defense. The hope is that this comes with time, but I think we’d be lying to ourselves if we just assume it will eventually. It may not — but that’s another topic for another day.

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After the Lakers officially waived/bought-out Jose Calderon on Monday, they opened up a roster spot to potentially add another young player to get a closer look at (much like they did by trading Marcelo Huertas for Tyler Ennis). Well, they seem to be wasting no time in making said move by looking down to their D-League club, the D-Fenders:

Nwaba was a name I mentioned when the discussions of Calderon’s potential release were surfacing, so adding him to the roster is not a huge surprise. That said, it’s nice to see the Lakers actually cull their D-League affiliate for looks at young players rather than using them only for send-downs of their own draft picks to get more playing time (a la Zubac this season).

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In their first game after the All-Star break, the Lakers lost by a double digit margin to the Thunder in OKC. While the final score wasn’t pleasant, there were a few things I did like about the game. The team competed until the end and showed some defensive spirit in the 4th quarter. D’Angelo Russell was aggressive all game, posting an 11 point 5 assist 1st half and then pouring in 18 more points in the second half.

Russell’s game was a reminder of how much of a natural scorer he can be, hitting shots from all three levels (even though he shot especially poorly from behind the arc). It was encouraging to see Russell get into the paint and finish, something I’d like to see become a more permanent part of his game rather than the once-every-five-game affair it’s been this year. I’d also like to see him continue to find that balance between scorer and playmaker – after a 1st half with 5 assists, he only had 1 helper in the 2nd half. Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather Russell skew aggressive than not and if that means his assist numbers suffer, but he scores well, I’m okay. But this speaks to why I want him in the game and getting reps in every and all types of game situation.

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UPDATE: Jose Calderon has officially been waived. Terms of the buyout were not released, but the team issued a press release confirming the move. Calderon must clear waivers before he would become a free agent who could sign with any team. It is believe he will sign with the Warriors once that occurs. Read below for my original analysis when this was being reported as possible

Even though the trade deadline has come and gone, the Lakers may not be done changing their roster construct. ESPN’s Marc Stein is reporting that the Lakers and Jose Calderon are discussing the potential of a buyout. From Stein’s report:

Los Angeles Lakers guard Jose Calderon has emerged as a potential candidate to join the NBA’s annual March buyout market, according to league sources.

Sources told ESPN that it’s not yet a certainty Calderon will secure his release from the Lakers in the coming days, but the sides are indeed discussing the options as Wednesday’s playoff eligibility deadline nears.

As Stein notes, the deadline for when players need to be released in order to be playoff eligible for a different team is this upcoming Wednesday. Players don’t need to be signed to their new team by that point, but they must be released. For the Lakers and Calderon, it may be mutually beneficial for them to find common ground simply because Calderon is not a rotation player and the Lakers may be better off with an open roster spot to pursue their own additions before the season ends.

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After over a week off, All-Star weekend, a front office shakeup which captivated the league, and two separate trades with the Rockets (Lou Williams for Corey Brewer + a 1st round pick and, later, Marcelo Huertas for Tyler Ennis), the Lakers are back playing actual basketball tonight when they suit up against the Thunder.

 

The Thunder, too, have a different look after trading Cameron Payne, Anthony Morrow, and Joffery Lauvergne to the Bulls for Doug McDermott and Taj Gibson. In the short term, this deal likely helps the Thunder more than the Bulls as Gibson is the best player traded. In the long term, this trade likely comes down to who becomes the better pro — Payne or McBuckets, which is something we just can’t know at this point.

In any event, this is a match up of two teams who will look different than the versions which entered the All-Star break, which means adjustments to new/tweaked roles and incorporation of new guys. Having practiced yesterday helps, but there’s still some things to work out — something which applies more to the Thunder (adding guys who should be in the rotation) than the Lakers.

Beyond accounting for those adjustments and some potential rust due to the long layoff, I am hopeful for a good game which puts the focus back on the court and what the players can do. It’s easy to be caught up and distracted by the events of the last few days, but I think it’s fair to say those moves were (mostly) made to correct course and establish the long term plan which best fits this organization.

That means further empowering the young players and letting them sink or swim. Which is something I will be watching for tonight. Will the young guards get longer stints? Will they close the game? This isn’t to say that you can’t coach them hard or pull them for making mistakes or do whatever else is needed to establish good habits. That said, the focus should shift even more in their direction now and there’s at least one fewer excuse/impediment to them on the roster now.

With that, I hope to see a good game where the team competes hard. They should be refreshed and looking to make their mark in the last 20+ games of the year. Let’s see what they’ve got.

Where you can watch: 5:00pm start time on Spectrum Sportsnet.