It’s hard to be too upset after the Lakers Opening Night loss – at least it is for myself. I spent the night at Staples Center in the 300 level, taking in a night of hoops, a wealth of youth, and an energy I hadn’t felt in the arena in over two years.
The lack of electricity is understandable. The team racked up 48 wins over the last two years – a total that the Lakers reached or exceeded 36 times in single seasons in the franchise history. An apparent lack of solidarity in the front office, a lack of consistency at head coach, and a general lack of health among the players led to the two worst seasons in Lakers history. And while all of the problems weren’t resolved heading into this season, there are clear signs that the Lakers are starting to move out of their funk and into a more promising era of Lakers hoops – and it was definitely felt in the 45 minutes leading up to tip-off.
Staples was near capacity before the start of the game, and the fanbase was eager to see these new-look Lakers. “I’m just happy Kobe is healthy, man,” said David, a 19-year old fan who sat in my section. “I’m excited to see the rookies, too. But I’m here to see Kobe’s return.
We can all see the finish line. It grows closer by the second, presenting itself as the end of an organizational epoch, the end of a relationship. The finish line’s visibility isn’t new, but only now is there a discernible level of tangibility, only now does it feel real. While it is tough to sway attention from this particular verisimilitude, the end of Kobe Bryant’s career shouldn’t be the full focus of his 20th season.
While it’s easy to tumble down the rabbit hole of what Bryant’s retirement means for this season, there are still at least 82 Lakers basketball games between now and when that ostensibly becomes a real thing. And within each of the remaining games left on Kobe’s ticket, there will be hundreds upon thousands of individual moments – some big, some small – for us to hang our hats on and discuss. It’s those singular moments that have captivated us for the last 19 years, and it’s those individual moments that will make this season memorable.
This iteration of the Lakers is fascinating on many levels. There hasn’t been an organizational influx of youth since the beginning of Bryant’s career, and that influx is infused with a collection of veterans who have something to prove – and Bryant is among those who is set on playing above preseason expectations. The last thousand days are – literally – marred because of injury, but between surgeries and rehabilitation, we’ve seen flashes of what makes him great, flashes that bespoke the acumen of his brilliance.
The three or four games that the Lakers played against the Spurs were always a part of a select few games that were an absolute must watch for the matchup. The Spurs, as the defending champions, are still a team, as a basketball fan, that you still need to consume a fair amount of during the course of a season. Stylistically, they play one of the more gorgeous brands of basketball in the league. The names are still there, too. Duncan, Ginobili, Parker — the old faces are as they always were. There’s Kawhi Leonard and a cast of role players who have bought into Popovich’s system, have a higher turnover rate, but the kind of guys brought in are the same as they ever were.
The same cannot be said about this Lakers team. All of the pieces who were there for some of the more epic clashes between to two premier franchises of this new millennium’s first decade are either gone or, as of this morning, out with a season-ending rotator cuff tear. Darius briefly discussed the injury yesterday, and there was a small sliver of hope that Bryant could have an opportunity to come back this season, but that was ruled out according to ESPN:
The Los Angeles Lakers expect star Kobe Bryant to miss the remainder of the season with a torn rotator cuff, sources told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne.
Bryant met with team doctor Steven Lombardo in Los Angeles on Friday, and Lombardo found a significant tear in the rotator cuff in his right shoulder. Bryant is expected to take the weekend to decide whether to undergo surgery and has an appointment with Dr. Neal ElAttrache, another Lakers doctor, on Monday.
Without Bryant, any luster between a once fierce rivalry has shifted to a stodgy storyline, lacking any real character. While the two never officially matched up on the hardwood, the respective careers between Bryant and Duncan have always been in an ostensible fight for the greatest of an era. There are legitimate claims for either side; the steady plateau of greatness from Duncan is as admirable as the great peaks that oftentimes make it easy to overlook the depths of Bryant’s valleys. This was a storyline that we’ve held onto for almost two decades, and tonight the story shifts from two of the game’s all-time greats to an uneven matchup of basketball teams.
The Spurs are coming off a rare blowout loss at the hands of a Chicago Bulls team that have struggled through much of January. The Bulls had won only three of their previous nine games before routing the Spurs — which saw the core of the Spurs sit out for a large chunk of the second half — meaning a more talented team is also going to be well rested and looking to bounce back from an embarrassing loss on national television.
The Spurs, have been playing some of their best basketball of the season in January. In the 10 games before their loss, they won eight of those games, with the two losses coming against a Detroit team that has been thriving without Josh Smith, and a very good Washington Wizards team.
In their last four, they’ve seen the return of Leonard, who missed the previous 15 games, and 18 games total this season. And as it has been over the last three seasons, the Spurs have absolutely thrived with Leonard on the floor. Without Leonard this season, the Spurs have played .500 basketball. With him, they’re playing .654 ball and are nine points per game better with him on the floor than off. His versatility on both sides of the ball allows the Spurs to experiment with various lineups and different looks to keep the ball moving, and allow others to concentrate in areas they excel in more than others.
For the Lakers, every loss due to injury births new opportunity. Nick Young will become the Lakers primary perimeter scorer. There will be a larger emphasis on the point guard play from Jeremy Lin and Ronnie Price. Without Bryant consuming 30 minutes per game, it leaves the door open for Jordan Clarkson to see more minutes, and more games.
The front court rotation doesn’t change, but the impact of these guys, especially against this Spurs team should be substantial. The Spurs have struggled keeping opposing bigs at bay in recent weeks — especially active, athletic bigs like Jordan Hill and Ed Davis. In the Lakers win against the Spurs, both Hill and Carlos Boozer helped tremendously with double-doubles, and the team will need that kind of impact from the front court if the Lakers are to leave San Antonio with a season series win.
A win isn’t expected, but this Lakers team has been resilient at weird times this season, and tonight is an opportunity for them to rally around some bad organizational news.
Where you can watch: 5:30 p.m. start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM Los Angeles.
Tonight, the Lakers continue their current home-stand with one of their toughest matchups of this young season. The Memphis Grizzlies come in playing some of the best (probably the best) basketball in the NBA and the Lakers are coming off consecutive losses to the Mavericks the Nuggets.
The Nuggets loss was on Sunday, and with four full days off, the conversation during the week was largely about Kobe Bryant, his legs and the minutes he’s been playing. Byron Scott, when asked about reducing his minutes, responded with an alternative route to keeping Bryant fresh (via Mark Medina):
“Still kind of keep [his minutes] where it is,” Scott said. “It prompts me to give him more days off, if anything, so I can keep it in the 30-40 range.”
Scott would later say that if this new plan doesn’t work — and he’s willing to give this about two or three games — he’ll cut down Bryant’s minutes.
Scott seems to be missing the larger issue here, and it was one of the issues down the stretch of the Lakers loss to the Grizzlies in the first time these two teams met. This is a Lakers basketball team that is far from clicking on either end of the floor, but especially on the offensive end. Bryant is shooting shots at a ridiculous nightly clip, and a lot of his chucking is a direct result of a combination of a lack of talent and a lack of continuity on offense.
While practice during the off days isn’t going to help with the former, it’s only practice during the off days that will work for the latter of these issues. While there is some credit that should be issued to Scott for looking for new ways to help both Bryant and the team, him focusing just on Kobe’s individual struggles is akin to taking a glance at Picasso’s Guernica and focusing just on the horse and bull, completely ignoring the struggle painted across the full canvas. Kobe’s legs is one of the central themes for this season, but it’s only one of the problems causing the Lakers inability to add tally marks in the win column.
On the other end of the floor, the Grizzlies boast the best record in basketball (12-2) and have not lost a game against the tough Western Conference (8-0 heading into tonight’s game against the Lakers). They’ve maintained the same suffocating defense from seasons past, but are now one of the NBA’s best offensive teams. Memphis has a Top 10 offensive rating while still playing at one of the league’s slowest paces.
One of the reasons for the Grizzlies improved offensive efficiency: Courtney Lee. The Grizzlies, with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, have forced teams to clog the paint over the years to try to counter their luxury of having to bruising bigs who can play with their back to the basket. This has opened up wide open shots from the perimeter, that the team wasn’t able to fully take advantage of in seasons past. This season, Lee is shooting at an absurd .611 clip from 3-point range. While it’s risible to assume that he’ll continue to shoot the ball this well for the remainder of the season, he’s essentially closed the Grizzlies offensive circle: Great point guard who can get into the paint at will, a deft passing center who can play anywhere from 17-feet to the basket, a physical power forward who is nearly unguardable when defended by one man — and now they have a shooter to spread the floor.
Further more, they’re getting scoring from more guys, the bench is deeper. During the last calendar week (Sunday-Saturday), the Grizzlies saw 10 guys reach double figures in scoring, seven of them did it multiple times. They’ve become multi-faceted and less reliant on guys they know they can rely on.
For tonight, the Lakers are going to struggle defending the Randolph/Gasol duo, this is a given. They don’t have the size or the ability to guard two of the better big men in the NBA. What they can do is keep Conley out of the paint, close down passing lanes and run Lee off the three-point line. Although they’ve proven that they have multiple guys who can beat you, it’s going to have to be one of those other guys tonight if the Lakers want to win this game. If Conley, Gasol and/or Randolph gets it going, it’s going to be awfully tough to keep pace offensively against a Top 5 defense.
On the other end, Kobe is going to have to trust his guys. Carlos Boozer (shudders) had a fantastic game against the Grizzlies in the first meeting. Jeremy Lin was effective, but not great, and Wesley Johnson had what was probably his best game of the season. No one is going to beat this team playing Kobe ball. He’s been his most efficient this year when playing off the ball, letting someone else run the offense and getting his shots off curls and down screens. It’s going to take much more than just getting Bryant touches in sets where he’s not creating, but that’s definitely the starting point.
At the end of the day, it’s about getting stops for these Lakers, which they weren’t able to do in their losses to Dallas and Denver. This Grizzlies team is very good and have few flaws that can clearly be exploited. The Lakers are coming off four days rest, so there’s hope that the fresh legs can help them compete in the fashion that they did in the first meeting. A win is unlikely, but so were the other three.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.
The injury bug still hasn’t left the Lakers organization. Following consecutive seasons that saw the Lakers battle myriad injuries to nearly every rotation player, this season has now seen it’s first major injury of the year. Nick Young has a torn ligament in his shooting thumb, according to ESPN’s Arash Markazi.
Lakers guard Nick Young suffered a complete tear of the radial collateral ligament in his right thumb during practice and could be sidelined for the start of the regular season.
Young’s agent, Mark Bartelstein, told ESPN.com he expects the injury to sideline the veteran for six to eight weeks.
According to the report, the injury came during Thursday’s practice when Young was defending Kobe Bryant and jammed it trying to swipe the ball from Bryant.
The news is troubling for the Lakers on several levels. Young is coming off the most productive season of his career and was expected to fill a similar role from last season as a scorer off the bench.
While Young’s primary role may not change for the upcoming season, the offensive philosophy will change dramatically. Moving from Mike D’Antoni’s more free wheeling, run-and-gun style, Byron Scott is bringing a version of Eddie Jordan’s Princeton Offense. While the principals of the Princeton aren’t terribly complex, you want guys to find a rhythm on the court at this time of year because of the read-and-react nature of the offense.
Young’s injury also has implications outside of his health to begin the season. Wayne Ellington was the most recent Laker to be signed, and his ability to shoot from three should allow him to see the floor to eat some of Young’s minutes. There’s also the case of rookie Jordan Clarkson, who could be in a prime position to earn some minutes early in the season playing as an off-guard, especially with the timetable for Xavier Henry to return still a bit up in the air.
There’s also the question of what the Lakers will do with their final roster spot. The team currently has 14 men signed on for the season, and can potentially add another before the start of the season. The team’s training camp invitees include a plethora of guards and wings, and the Lakers could make a need-based move instead of a talent-based move to make up for the absence of Young — and Henry — to start the season.
There have been a lot of good things said about Ronnie Price since camp has started, but the Lakers may need a bigger guard who can defend opposing wings.
Lastly, this hurts because Young was going to be the main guy who would help eat some of Kobe’s minutes. This team is a bit better off in this department than in seasons pre-dating the D’Antoni and Mike Brown eras, but losing a guy like young hurts Scott’s ability to be creative with lineups to cut back on Bryant’s.
The positive is that, should Young only miss the eight weeks of expected recovery time, the team will be without his services for only a month, and will have to watch him play into game shape for another couple of weeks.
Scott is going to see what the bench unit is made of without its primary scorer very early on, and should only help the rest of the unit once a guy who can create his own shot is brought back with to the group. While this isn’t the greatest news to receive this early in the season, it’s not necessarily something that will make or break this Lakers season. Let’s just hope Young has a speedy recovery.
General Thoughts On The Season
Nick Young was brought in this summer during the whirlwind of reclamation signings made by the Lakers this past summer as they tried to put a competitive roster together. The signing was on the heels of Kobe’s Achilles exploding, the team being swept out of the first round and Dwight Howard jumping ship for Texas. After a summer in which the Lakers felt they put a roster together that would compete for a championship, they were scrambling to put one together that might compete for a playoff spot, and Swagnificant P was one of the main signings that highlighted the summer.
Oy vey ist mir.
Many wondered how Young would fit in with this Lakers team, and considering the contract that Young was offered this year, Young contributed much more than what his contract was worth. Young averaged 22.8 per 36 this year, completely bought into his sixth man role and ostensibly gave Lakers fans a guy they could collectively root for. If nothing else, the Nick Young experience was awfully fun this season. Plenty of off the cuff post game quotes, the bad shots were often hilarious (see above) and the made shots flit down the hard wood, hunched over, with three fingers almost scraping the floor. In a year when the Lakers set a franchise low in wins, you have to take your wins when you can, and Young was definitely a win this year.
Strengths And Weaknesses
With no real timetable for the return of Kobe Bryant, Young was largely brought in as a guy who could create his own shot — for better or for worse — when the offense got into a bit of trouble while Bean rehabbed. Young’s role was slated to change once Bryant got back, however this original plan really never got going as planned. Young began the season struggling in a starting role and was moved to the bench just a few games into the season, and there was an immediate jump in the quality of play. Young was afforded a little more freedom and was opposed by lesser defenders on the opposing teams’ reserves. While the starting lineup was in constant flux, Young continued to come off the bench and close out games on the nights he had it going.
Along with many of the point guards, Mike D’Antoni turned what may have been considered a weakness into a discernible strength. Young had, and still has, a stigma that is of a guy who is going to take a lot of bad shots outside of the rhythm of the offense. While there was still a lot of wild, ridiculous shots taken by Young, his shot selection was much improved from previous years. Young recorded career highs in TS%, eFG%, USG%, offensive efficiency and PER. Young cut down on the percentage of mid-range jumpers he jacked up this year (.354 of total attempts from 10-23 feet this season compared to .455 for his career). On the flip side, Young shot .555 of his shots either right at the rim or behind the 3-point line.
While it doesn’t really mean much on a team as terrible on the defensive end as it was this year, that side of the ball wasn’t exactly his strong suit. There were stretches when Young came up with some key defensive stops, but Young struggled defending in isolation and didn’t always have the greatest rotations (who did). Early in the year, with the team (relatively) healthy, the Lakers were able to extend their defense to 3-quarters court, and Young was able to excel in those situations. Young helped force turnovers and get the team in transition. However, Young really struggled defensively in transition and in the half court.
Most Memorable Moment
Tough to find a starting point here. Tough to find an ending point, too. Young was only here for a year and the amount of comedy, joy, fun and excitement he brought can’t be bottled up into a single moment. Young’s 360 missed layup is as memorable as the celebration of the missed 3-pointer. Both of his 40-point games were as memorable as the previous moments (one in a loss, the other in a win that they needed to lose). I think my favorite moment may have been his celebration with Pau Gasol after Pau drilled a corner three late in the 4th quarter in a win over the Timberwolves. In the last two seasons, we haven’t seen too much joy come from The Spaniard, but Young brought out nothing but pure happiness from a guy who hasn’t seen a lot of it.
Overall Grade And Summary
B+ (Graded on a curve for terrible season)
Nick Young ended up doing a whole lot more than what he was initially asked to do this season. He was brought in to become a secondary scorer off the bench once the team got healthy. The team never gained full health and Young was the team’s primary perimeter option on most nights, the team’s sixth man, the spark, and overall feel good story (he was not the only feel good story). What was surprising was that he was much more willing to make the extra pass than what was believed going into the season. Not sure if that’s coaching or Young’s reputation being worse than he actually was, but it was a positive that wasn’t expected this year.
An interesting tidbit about Young’s season with the Lakers: he passed up Kobe on the all-time list of 4-point plays. Young now has 10 for his career to Kobe’s nine. Under normal circumstances, Young’s grade probably would have been a little lower, but he exceeded many expectations in many ways and it was a positive individual year for Young. Because of his player option, it’s likely that he won’t return next year, and he’s definitely earned whatever contract is thrown his way this summer.
The Golden State Warriors are taking their hatred for the Los Angeles Lakers a little too seriously. The Lakers have always been one of those teams in sports that only has one true rival, but is the rival to everyone else. Other teams, especially in the division, get up to play the Lakers in a way that they don’t for other teams in the the league, and seems to still be the case even in what is arguably the least successful season in the Lakers franchise history.
With a chance to clinch a playoff berth against the Denver Nuggets on Thursday Night, the Warriors elected to lay the conjectural egg and allowed Timofey Mozgof to go off for a ridiculous 93 (!) points on only 15 (!) shots with 29 (!) rebounds. Mozgof’s night was easily the most efficient of any player who has scored more than 70 points, mainly because the Warriors let him run rampant on the offensive end.
The reason: The Warriors wanted to clinch a playoff spot on the Lakers home court. “Teams tank all the time,” began head coach Mark Jackson after the game. “The Lakers are a team that this organization doesn’t like and they don’t like us. If we have an opportunity to clinch on their floor, in front of their fans — we’re going to take it.”
A clinch for the Warriors in Los Angeles isn’t a guarantee, however. They’re heading into a second of a back-to-back and the Lakers are coming off their highest scoring total of the season. The offense was firing on all cylinders as they dropped 130 points on the Houston Rockets. Although they’re only at 25-53, the offense may have finally found a rhythm that can carry them for the remainder of the season, even without Kobe Bryant or Pau Gasol or Chris Kaman or Steve Nash or Jordan Farmar or Xavier Henry or Kent Bazemore. **
Kendall Marshall is going to have to control the tempo and keep his counterpart Stephen Curry in check. If the Warriors are able to get out and run, things can get a little dicey for the Lakers as they just don’t have the depth to continue to rotate players to play 48 minutes of high tempo basketball. Curry is his best in the open court when he’s able to improvise and pick his spots. Klay Thompson is one of the beneficiaries of Curry in the open court as he’s often left open as defenses key in on trying to keep Curry under control.
One of the more interesting things about the Warriors in recent weeks is Jackson’s sudden willingness to play an Andrew Bogut/Draymond Green front court. With Iguodala on the court with those two, the Warriors have one of the best defensive front courts in the NBA. Their ability to get stops and force live ball turnovers has turned into some on-court success in the absence of David Lee.
For the Lakers, they’ll have to counter with the likes of Jordan Hill and Wes Johnson as the starting front court. Injuries were the problem at the beginning of the year and have continued throughout their 2013-14 campaign. The issues started with the backcourt, but with both Gasol and Kaman out, the front court is not the most depleted part of the Lakers roster and it could be very evident on a night that features one of the more unique front courts in the NBA.
A win for the Lakers isn’t necessarily out of the realm of possibilities as this has been a team that has fought extremely hard even in their worst of losses this season. However, what is there to be gained in another win as the season comes to a merciful close? It’s hard to condone even the idea of not playing to win, but any win at this point will be recorded in vain. There is the idea that the Lakers can keep the Warriors from clinching on their home floor, which is a mini-feel good story in an otherwise horrible season.
Where To Watch: 7:30pm start time on TWC SportsNet and NBATV. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.
** Words above the break are likely made up and should not be taken seriously.