Archives For Laker Analysis

The 2016 off-season has long been on the mind of Lakers’ fans. This is the summer where Kobe Bryant’s contract is off the books, the summer the salary cap will jump to (potentially) $90+ million, and the summer in which a certain small forward currently living in Oklahoma City hits the open market. The Lakers have big plans for this summer so, while it is still a year away, it is not really too early to look ahead.

While we all look at the things listed above, however, one thing not often spoke about is the pending free agency of Jordan Clarkson. When Clarkson was signed by the Lakers after being the 46th pick in the 2014 draft, he inked a two year, non-guaranteed deal**. We all know what happened next: Clarkson, after starting slowly and getting minimal playing time, came on strong in the 2nd half of his rookie season and earned 1st Team All-Rookie recognition.

Now, heading into his second year, his summer league play showed continued development, he is slated to be a starter at shooting guard, and will end this upcoming season as a restricted free agent. In a recent article at ESPN, Kevin Pelton mentioned Clarkson as a player who could be in for a big payday come next summer (insider):

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There is a real possibility the Lakers will lose two franchise icons at the end of this upcoming season. The first, as we told you earlier, is Gary Vitti, who has announced he will retire at the end of the 2015-16 season. The second, of course, is Kobe Bryant. Kobe has not outright said he will not continue his career when his current contract expires, but a reading of the tea leaves leads me to believe his 20th campaign will be his final one.

It would be fitting if Kobe and Vitti rode out into the sunset together since they share a bond that has been molded for 19 years and counting. One of my favorite pictures of Kobe is him walking with Vitti on the tarmac on the way to the team plane on a road trip from this past season:

kobe vitti

(Photo credit: Ty Nowell, Lakers.com)

In what may be their final season together, Vitti will surely be keeping a close tab on Kobe and how he progresses through the season. And, from the sound of it, he’ll be doing it while Kobe plays a different position than his customary shooting guard. From Mike Bresnahan in the LA Times:

Vitti is often an emissary between players and management. He recently met up with Bryant, with whom he shares a longtime bond.

“He was asking about our young kids, and I said, ‘You cannot believe how quick and athletic Jordan Clarkson is. He looks fantastic,'” Vitti said. “I said I personally thought D’Angelo Russell is going to be a star. He makes hard things look easy when he has the ball in his hands.

“Then Kobe said to me, ‘Well, then who’s going to play [small forward]?’ I looked at him and I said, ‘You.’ And with absolute, 100% confidence, he said, ‘I can do that.'”

Can Bryant, soon to turn 37, really do it? His last three seasons were cut short by injury and he became a part-time player last season, sitting out eight of his last 16 games for “rest” before sustaining a torn rotator cuff in January. He is under contract for one more season at $25 million.

“When Nash retired, that didn’t mean he couldn’t play in an NBA game. The problem was how much time did he need to get ready for the next game.” Vitti said. “He had lots of issues that prevented him from playing an NBA schedule.

“That’s going to be the big question with Kobe, and we’re just going to have to feel it out. It’s been a while since he’s played. We just need to see.”

After looking at the depth chart, we’d discussed the potential of Kobe playing some small forward this season. We’d even heard hints of this from Mitch Kupchak and Byron Scott. But it seems we’re getting it right from the horse’s mouth — or at least relayed by Vitti from the horse.

I don’t envision there being too much of a shift in terms of style of play from Kobe as a SF versus a SG. In the offense the team runs, it’s probably a bit better for Kobe to be the SF since it positions him on the wing to start possessions rather than at the top of the floor in the two-guard front many of the Lakers’ Princeton-based sets initiate from. In these sets, Kobe will likely get screened for by Russell and run a fair amount of two-man game and Triangle-like actions on the strong side with Russell and either Hibbert or Randle.

Playing in this spot will likely allow Kobe to post up more freely without having to skew the offense too much by bringing up a SF into a ball handling position (remember all those P&R’s you saw Wes Johnson run as a ball handler?) at the extended wing or at the top of the floor. Kobe, of course, will be much more comfortable handling those actions than a guy like Johnson, but his work below the foul line or in the extended post will likely continue to be his bread and butter — at least in the half court.

Where the team might have some issues with Kobe at SF is defensively, but, honestly, that’s not a new issue when it comes to Kobe. He may have to spend time guarding some of players he likely would have passed off to the other wing, since it is hard to imagine Clarkson guarding the LeBron, Durant, and Carmelo’s of the world. But, considering Kobe will likely be doing much less heavy lifting offensively and has always taken pride in guarding the top names, maybe he’ll give a bit more effort on that side of the ball this season.

Of course, we’ll just have to see how it plays out. My biggest hope for Kobe has little to do with how he plays at any given position, but him simply playing period.

Forget the sugar coating. Roy Hibbert has flaws.

He is the epitome of a slow-moving plodder whose game raises questions of fit in the ever-increasing pace of the modern association. He has a propensity for letting passes slip through his hands and tends to struggle with easy opportunities at the rim far too often for a skilled 7’2” giant. He has shown an inability to deliver consistently from game to game — i.e. his NBA-record four scoreless postseason games in 2014 — and has been clouded by skepticism about his toughness and overall skill.

What is also true is that Roy Hibbert is a 28-year old, two-time All-Star who, despite his aforementioned flaws, has plenty of room to grow and an undeniable skill: rim protection.

In a piece by Seth Partnow of Nylon Calculus where he examined the effectiveness of various “rim protectors” around the league, Hibbert was one of the most consistent. Hibbert prevented an average of 8.80 points at the rim per-36 minutes and his Contest Percentage (how often a player contests a shot near the rim) of 60.49% was the best among all qualifiers. In fact, only two players last season had better defensive field goal percentage at the rim: Rudy Gobert and Andrew Bogut — also known as two of the best defenders in the league.

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A quick scan of the Lakers’ depth chart not only shows some holes the team should explore filling, but also a large overlap in the types of players the team possesses. Namely, the team has an abundance of players who do their best work with the ball in their hands as shot creators for themselves. Among the 14 players currently signed to contracts, no fewer than half are players who thrive (or project to) with the offense flowing through them:

  • Kobe Bryant
  • D’Angelo Russell
  • Jordan Clarkson
  • Julius Randle
  • Nick Young
  • Lou Williams
  • Jabari Brown

Most of these players are guards or wings, but the inclusion of Randle on this list adds a key front court player who, ideally, is also someone who you want creating shots for himself and his teammates.

In some ways, this is a nice problem to have. In season’s past, the Lakers’ offense has starved for shot creators and players who, when an offensive set breaks down, can simply take his man off the dribble or create the type of separation needed to generate a viable shot. Too often the team relied on Kobe to be the player who could turn stifled possession into a point producing one, but it seems this upcoming season the Lakers should have no shortage of players who can accomplish this.

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Free agency might not have been the smoothest ride for the Lakers, but through all the ups and downs they did pretty well for themselves by grabbing Lou Williams, Brandon Bass, and Roy Hibbert (via trade). These players have added veteran experience and tangible, useful skill-sets to a roster which needed some stability. All three players should help in the upward trajectory of the team and the Lakers, all things considered, are lucky to have them.

But just because these players have been added, it doesn’t mean the Lakers should consider their off-season over. Player acquisition is a 365 days-a-year job and, as we saw with the rumors of a Ty Lawson chase, the Lakers’ brass takes that job seriously. Looking ahead to next year, then, you can imagine the front office would still like make a move or two — regardless of what their public stance on this might be.

A simple look at the current depth chart gives us a look at what direction the team might need to go in:

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When Kobe Bryant has been discussed in relation to the Lakers’ recent draft picks and young talent, the word mentor is one of the first words likely spoken. During summer league, announcers consistently spoke about how much D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle could learn from Kobe — a process that, for Randle already began last year. Whether it is work ethic, training techniques, mental approach, strategy, or tactics on how to approach an opponent, the message is the same: Kobe can teach these young kids the game and they should take full advantage of this while he’s still on the team.

This, of course, is 100% correct. Kobe is an all time great and whatever knowledge he can pass on to the next generation of (hopeful) Lakers’ franchise players, the better. When Julius Randle speaks about how much Kobe helped him in his rehab via helping him to break down film and from a mental preparation standpoint, we all nod our heads and say “this is great”. It’s even easier to think of how he can help Russell in similar ways, especially since both players are guards and the amount of time Kobe has spent beating the types of defensive coverages Russell is likely to see next season and beyond.

While this aspect of Kobe’s role is important — and likely have the most lasting impression — we should not forget that Kobe will also need to help these players on the court.

Part of the reason why this doesn’t come up as much is almost surely because no one really knows how much Kobe has left. His last three seasons have ended via injury. When he was finally “healthy” to start last season, he had some flashes of brilliance as a playmaker and scorer, but also saw his efficiency plummet and his effectiveness suffer for longer stretches than any other season besides his rookie campaign.

Still, Kobe’s presence on the court and ability to impact the game will be important to the young players. We must remember that he’s the only playmaker on the roster not named Clarkson, Russell, or Randle. His ability to be a passer and set up man might be the difference between the young players having to create shots for themselves (or each other) exclusively, or having it done for them. His scoring and finishing ability could turn the types of passes we saw in Vegas go unfulfilled turn into actual points. His ability to bend the defense could give the young players the little bit of extra space that turns a contested look into an open one.

These might seem as though they are little things or only produce short term gains for the young players, but they matter in the larger scheme of their development. Young players need all the success they can get in these early stages and Kobe is likely the only veteran who can aid in that success most through his ability to actually make players better (at least offensively). Of course the young players will need to do this for each other as well and, over the course of their careers the chemistry they develop will do more for making the game easy than a single season of Kobe.

But, in this short term, Kobe will need to help too. And he’ll need to do it on the floor, in the games just as he’ll need to in the film room, in practice, and in the locker room as the mentor many expect him to be.

“I don’t see why we don’t contend for a playoff spot,” he said. “But our young players have to grow beyond their years and we have to stay healthy.”

From: GM Mitch Kupchak sees playoff potential in Lakers after offseason pickups

Before I focused solely on writing about the NBA, I worked in public relations. One of – if not the – top priorities was to temper clients’ expectations, which is exactly why I was slightly taken aback when Mitch Kupchak made his comments on the Lakers’ playoff hopes. Why go there?

When the Lakers’ summer league team went to Las Vegas, the talent on the team and these undo expectations informed what many thought would be a nice showing. The end result, however, was a summer league that, in many ways, played out like a microcosm of what we’ll probably see this season.

I was there for those first few games. The atmosphere in each of them was incredible, though I’m not sure it was worth the effect losing in front of those record-breaking crowds had on the players, many of whom not even old enough to partake in Las Vegas’ more notorious activities.

Here’s D’Angelo Russell after last night’s game, via NBCLA’s Shahan Ahmed:

A group of kids shouldn’t bear this kind of pressure for a group of exhibition games with only a handful of practices together under their belts, yet, throughout social media, there were the #SummerLeagueChamps slogans weighing on every turnover, every missed shot.

Let’s compare this week’s activities to how this season will probably go.

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To call the Lakers’ summer league performance to this point a bit disappointing would be totally fair. Even if ignoring some of the talent on the team, the players aren’t working together and it is leading to a disjointed brand of basketball that is not aesthetically pleasing. Bring the talent back into the equation and the frustrations of the team’s 1-2 record through three games is understanding.

However, while many are using the results to focus their anger on the under-performing players, my ire actually has little to do with the stat-lines being produced by D’Angelo Russell or Julius Randle (or any other player). No, my focus is more about how this team is not playing like a team at all.

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