Archives For Laker Analysis

The playoffs are showing each and every fan of the Lakers just how far away the team is from the level needed to play high stakes games in May and June. Look at the remaining five teams (bye, Chicago) and the same formula exists: superstar player (or players) in or approaching their prime, very good (if not elite) coaching, and role players who can perform steadily and/or reach a level where they turn a game in their team’s favor.

Look at the Lakers’ roster and there is no indication they have any of these things right now. While the playoffs offer fantastic entertainment (did you watch the drama of the Clippers’ collapse in game six vs. the Rockets?), they also offer a reminder the Lakers aren’t just at the bottom of the mountain, they are still in the supplies shop roaming the aisles looking for the right equipment to start their journey.

There are glimmers, however. Julius Randle may have missed his entire rookie season with a broken leg, but his season long commitment to his rehab — including weight loss which should help his already established quickness and athleticism — combined with an intriguing skill set is a nice piece to work with. As is Jordan Clarkson, a player who developed very nicely over the course of the season by showing a combination of athleticism, ball skills, and an ability to apply off-court teachings to on-court action. We do not yet know what these players will become, but their ceilings are high enough that envisioning them as contributors to a winning team isn’t far fetched.

The next piece of the puzzle, of course, is what occurs in the upcoming draft. Should the Lakers be able to keep their own pick, the ability to nab another player who has a combination of talent, pedigree, and potential to be able to provide similar impact to Clarkson and Randle is there. The Rockets’ pick (owed from the Jeremy Lin deal) and the Lakers own 2nd rounder offer less potential for immediate impact, but do provide additional avenues to improve the talent base.

Each one of those picks represents a potential step in the right direction. Just as every free agent signee is and every move to add or subtract from the coaching, training, and scouting staffs are. Mitch Kupchak has said many of the right things about not mortgaging the team’s future in the pursuit of quick gains, but that must also play out in strategy employed when managing the entire restoration of an on-court product which has been the worst, results-wise, the organization has ever seen.

The Lakers, even while a vocal sect of their fanbase festers with impatience, must understand they cannot skip steps. There is no such thing as a three-run homer when no one is on base. In order to be great once again, they must first merely be good. Good enough to develop winning habits, good enough to attract better talent, good enough so “making the leap” is realistic and not an endeavor destined to fail.

All of this will require several small — and some big — things going well. A foundation of success must be built and cultivated. And while we are in a time where, after two awful seasons, the desire is to be great again soon, simply being good may not just have to be enough, it may be necessary.

The Lakers, with Kobe Bryant’s disastrous extension wiped away that summer, could sniff three max cap slots. The Lakers’ cap flexibility yielded nothing of note last summer, but a Lakers team with the ability to offer a package deal to multiple stars is the ultimate NBA bogeyman.

(via Zach Lowe: How the NBA’s New TV Deal Could Blow Up the Salary Cap)

In the coming summers, this upcoming one included, the Lakers should have immense spending power. They purposely built their roster to “maintain flexibility” and be able to be a major competitor on the open market for the league’s best free agents.

This upcoming summer, for example, should the team not exercise their team option on Jordan Hill and get two first round picks (their own — which is still in question — and the Rockets, which is not) the Lakers would have between $20-23 million in cap space come July 1st. This number would include cap holds for Jordan Clarkson, Tarik Black, Robert Sacre, and Jabari Brown. Jump to the Summer of 2016 when, as Zach Lowe notes above, Kobe’s contract comes off the books, and the Lakers could be in a position to spend boatloads of money on free agents to rebuild their roster with an influx of amazing talent.

When viewing the team’s trajectory through this prism, visions of what the Miami Heat did in the Summer of 2010 becomes a model many fans hope to follow. Keep the cap clean — maybe even losing a lot next season to get another high pick — and then spend like crazy in the summer of ’16 when there will be a batch of free agents worth spending the cash on. There’s a seductive logic to this that is easy to be roped into. I get it.

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A large section of Lakers’ fans are only concerned about two things: how many losses the team has and how can they attain more of them. We have been over this multiple times, but it bears repeating — the more losses the team has, the better chance they have of keeping their draft pick which, in turn, offers a better chance of turning that asset into a cornerstone player who can help catapult the team back into contention sooner.

One way to get to more losses is to make trades that strip the team of some of their better players. The benefit of such deals would go beyond worsening the team — and increasing the odds of the aforementioned draft pick — they would also, hopefully, bring in even more assets that could help accelerate the current rebuild. Flip rotation player X for a draft pick; unload player Y for a young player on a rookie scale contract, is how this logic goes.

Whether or not you agree with the rooting for losses part of this story, the concept of dealing players for assets who can better help in the future is sound and a tried and true way of doing business in this league. This season, it has already started. The Denver Nuggets traded Timofey Mozgov to the Cavs for two future first round draft picks. The Celtics have been very active, first trading Rajon Rondo to the Mavs for draft picks and then off-loading players received in that deal (and others) to the Suns and Clippers for even more picks.

Again, this is not new. The question Lakers’ fans have, however, is when will they join the party? I mean, the Lakers may be a bad team, but they have some useful players who other teams might want, right? Right? Honestly, I’m not so sure.

That was me, musing on twitter earlier. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a fair amount lately, especially as the deadline for which Jordan Hill became tradable approached and passed (January 15th). The thought has long been that the Lakers, who were only playoff contenders in the world where everything went right for them and a lot of things went wrong for many other Western Conference teams, would start to sell off assets once the reality set in that they really were not going to make the playoffs this season.

However, in order to be a seller another team has to be willing to buy what you are offering. And, as I noted above, I’m wondering of opposing front offices really value the Lakers’ assets the way some fans might or even how much  the Lakers’ front office might. With that in mind, here are a few thoughts on 3 key players mentioned most when discussing potential trades with a focus on differences in their perceived value and what the alternative view might be:

1. Jordan Hill: We all know that Hill is. He remains one of the better rate rebounders in the league, especially on the offensive glass. He can finish well enough inside, has shown flashes of being able to hit the mid-range jumper, and can bring energy and hustle in bursts. He makes $9 million dollars this year and has a team option for next year. Hill could certainly help a playoff team as a third big who, like, say, Taj Gibson of the Bulls, can do good work on the glass provide some decent defense (well below Taj’s standard, here), and even close some games if his jumper is falling and he’s got enough in the tank to play out the stretch hard.

In saying this, though, Hill’s contract complicates any trade. Due to the fact that he loses his Bird Rights if dealt, Hill has to agree to any trade he’s a part of. The only way to remove this de-facto no trade clause is if the Lakers pick up his team option before trading him. Said another way, if you want to deal Hill you either need his permission or you need to guarantee his full $9 million salary for next season. Forgetting for a moment whether you think Hill is worth that much money, most teams want one of two things from a player they are trading for: a guy who is on an expiring contract or a player with multiple years on his contract*. Hill is neither of those things. And, honestly, I think that might really affect his value on the trade market.

2. Jeremy Lin: I don’t necessarily think Lin has gotten the fairest shake in L.A. He’s clearly a better player than Ronnie Price, but lost his starting job for a quarter of the season and is one of the few players who is consistently negatively called out by his head coach. Even when he’s played well, he’s not always closed games and there has been more than one occasion where you have to wonder if the coach simply doesn’t like him (the latest being where Scott intimated he thought Jeremy was soft). When it comes right down to it, Lin should have been starting since day one and likely should have been even more encouraged than he was — and I mean this via actual X’s and O’s and not just talk — to take control of the offense by running more pick and rolls and pushing the pace as much as possible. He is a good player — better than he’s shown, I think — but he has clearly not been given much of the royal jelly that could, potentially, bring out the best in him.

In saying all that, when evaluating Lin’s potential trade value, two things go against him. The first is his contract. Lin’s cap figure is $8.3 million, but he is actually being paid almost $15 million this season. That salary quirk is how the Rockets were able to pry him loose from the Knicks in free agency and is also a reason why the Rockets had to sweeten their offer to the Lakers with a first round pick in the trade that sent him to Los  Angeles this past July. It’s what will also complicate any trade because any team that trades for him will need to be ready to fork over heftier pay checks than his cap hit would imply. For a team like the Lakers (who print money) that’s not a problem. But if you’re a team who doesn’t swim in profits, that might be an issue.

Second, Lin plays the deepest position in the league and isn’t going to be a better option than the starting point guards a lot of teams already have. This will be especially true when you’re talking about a contending team. So, when you trade for Lin, the odds are you are trading for a backup. In theory, this is fine — he’d be a damn good back up for a lot of teams. But when combining what his salary is with what role he’s likely to play that changes the equation. If you’re a contending team, do you trade a real asset for the right to pay a back up point guard — even a potentially really good one — $7 million over the second half of the season?

3. Ed Davis. First off, I know what you’re thinking. We don’t want to trade Ed Davis! He’s cheap! He’s productive!! We want Davis back next year!!! I get that. But for the purpose of evaluating trade assets, it would seem that Davis is one of the better ones the Lakers have. After all, he’s cheap and productive. And while he has some holes in his game, his value on the floor goes well beyond what he’s being paid. This is someone who the team should be able to get something for! Right? #wellactually…

As a minimum salaried player, Davis has zero function as a stand alone trade asset. The only type of contract you can trade him for is another minimum salaried player or a player on a late first round or second round rookie scale contract. These aren’t players who are likely to be as good or valuable to the Lakers as a future piece than Davis is. This, of course, leads to the idea of someone trading a draft pick for Davis. The issue there, however, is that Davis has a player option for his contract next year and will almost surely not exercise it in order to become a free agent. After the year he’s having, Davis could likely fetch the full mid-level exception on the open market and maybe even more than that. If you’re a team trading for him, do you really surrender a first round pick for a half season of Ed Davis and the right to compete for him in free agency come July?

This might seem like I’m down on the Lakers’ trade assets. I am not. I think Hill, Lin, or Davis could help several teams out there. Without getting into details or speculating, I have hopped on the trade machine and found new homes for all of them where I think they would make the type of impact that could help their new teams make deeper playoff runs. However, the reality is that trades in this league happen for a variety of reasons but often don’t happen for even more of them. And while the Lakers’ assets may be good ones, there are real barriers that could hold them up.

In other words, you may want the Lakers to make a deal (or more) before the February deadline. They may even want to make one. By many accounts, they actually have already been trying to. But, if nothing actually goes down, that shouldn’t be a surprise.

*It might seem counter-intuitive to think teams want players with long term deals, but a deal like Hill’s — where he can be a free agent next summer — can often be a headache for a team. Next summer Hill will be a free agent and whatever team that has him has to think about whether they want to invest in him further or not. If it’s not, they need to consider trading him again or risk having him walk in free agency for nothing. If you let him walk, you just surrendered real assets in a trade for the right to pay a player $9 million and then have him go away with no return. That’s not what we call getting value.

Five games ago Byron Scott made a change to his starting lineup, moving Jeremy Lin and Carlos Boozer to the bench in favor of Ronnie Price and Ed Davis. At the time, the move did not sit well with me as the changes did not seem to be based off any real statistical evidence and I said so going into their first game together. So far, my mind hasn’t really changed about this specific starting lineup being any better suited to compete against other team’s starters.

Per NBA.com/stats, the new starting group of Price, Kobe, Wes Johnson, Davis, and Jordan Hill are still posting a negative net efficiency with an offensive efficiency of 99.2 and a defensive efficiency of 109.0 since that game against the Pelicans. This isn’t quite the minus-15.0 efficiency rating the original starting group posted before the change and nowhere near the minus-23.5 efficiency rating this group was posting together before they became the starters, but it is still bad. They are struggling offensively and still not doing a very good job of stopping teams from scoring efficiently, consistently forcing the other units to make up the gap they create.

Fortunately for the Lakers, the shift in starters has created a bench unit that has shown it is able to make up the difference against other team’s reserve units. With Lin and Boozer anchoring the bench, a new unit of those two flanked by Wayne Ellington, Nick Young, and Robert Sacre has been playing extremely well since the change. That five has posted a net efficiency rating of plus-21.0, boasting a fantastic offensive efficiency of 110.9 with a very stingy defensive efficiency of 89.9.

While sample size and “noise” in the numbers are a real caveat — that defensive efficiency number, for example, will not hold — I am encouraged by what I have seen from this group. They offer a balanced attack offensively and have enough athleticism and size to deal with most opposing units on both ends of the floor.

Jeremy Lin has been especially important to this group ability to get into the paint and be a shot creator for himself and teammates. Beyond Lin, the scoring and shooting ability of Young and Ellington on each wing are stretching defenses out to the three point line and giving Boozer and Sacre more room in the mid and low-post to score. Further, with both Boozer and Sacre showing an ability to hit the mid-range jumper with some consistency, the driving lanes for Lin are more open which only reinforces the strengths of the other players.

The key to this unit, however, may simply be that they are mostly playing against other team’s benches. Lin and Young are typically the first subs into the game, replacing Price and Wes about halfway through the quarter. Boozer will replace Hill or Davis a bit later and then Sacre will replace the other big when Ellington replaces Kobe near the end of the first period. By the time the 2nd quarter starts, this group has had a couple of minutes together to find their stride and then are put up against mostly bench players from the other team. Against these units, the Lakers’ group typically has more talent and it is showing in their production.

It is hard to know if this was what Scott had in mind when he made a change to the starting group. When the change was made he only spoke about it in terms of that group needing what Price and Davis provide (defense) and not some bigger reorganization of his lineups in an attempt to maximize his bench. So far, however, the latter is what is occurring and it is helping the Lakers stay in games for longer and win a few additional contests (they are 3-2 since the change).

So while this change didn’t really fix the starting group, a true bench unit has been established and is flourishing early on. Hopefully it sticks. If it does, Scott’s change may indeed end up paying some dividends.

It was the end of the game and Kobe was talking to Mike Trudell of Lakers.com and TWC Sportsnet. He was describing the team’s win, but also how sore his body was after games and some of what he would do to recover to play the next game.

Kobe had played nearly 36 minutes and led the Lakers down the stretch, scoring nine of his game high 32 points in the final period including two big free throws that pushed the lead to three in the closing seconds. Further, over the final six minutes of the game, Kobe had a hand in every point the Lakers scored tallying three assists on the only points not scored by him over that stretch.

Nights like this have been rare for Kobe. Not necessarily the numbers part, the winning part. The W’s have been few and far between, but the numbers have been there almost nightly. The good and the bad.

A simple scan of his season stats tells you a couple of things. First, Kobe is still a guy giving the Lakers his 25, 5 and 5. These are the numbers that will be engraved on his tombstone, a testament to the all around game that made him one of the league’s best for the better part of two decades. The second, however, is that those numbers are coming at the worst efficiency of his career. Kobe’s not even shooting 40% from the field, not even 30% from behind the arc, and has a True Shooting Percentage below 50%. And all of this on over 22 shots a game and a usage rate that is leading the league and the 2nd highest of his career. It all adds up to some troubling statistics that, when added up, tell a story of Kobe doing more harm than good when he’s on the floor.

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Any stat you cite this early in the season is the definition of small sample size theatre. Even if you start to see trends developing in the numbers, a stretch of a few games can alter them significantly and make an grand proclamations about what a team is look silly. In other words, don’t get too caught up in the numbers — even the Lakers’ awful ones on defense — just yet. Yes, some of what we’ve seen so far will end up having staying power, but expect fluctuation in what the stats say for at least a few more weeks when the samples get bigger.

In saying this, however, it’s not too early to say that something, as it stands today, is surprising. I mean, even if it’s only been six games, if a statistic or performance is unexpected, it’s fair to say so. Which leads me to the Lakers’ offensive efficiency:

After all the hand-wringing about the Lakers’ offensive approach this year (which I have done plenty of), the fact the team is even sniffing an offense in the top half of the league is quite the feat. Even more so when you look at their opponents and where they rank in defensive efficiency this season:

  • Warriors: #1
  • Rockets: #2
  • Hornets: #10
  • Suns: #14

While I don’t expect the Lakers to remain a top 15 offense all year, there are some interesting early trends that are serving as the backbone for their current ranking.

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Coming into the season it was pretty much a given the Lakers would struggle defensively. Sure, Byron Scott would talk up having a defensive mentality and playing a physical brand of basketball that would make life difficult on opponents, but so far that has really just been talk. Instead what we have seen to start the season has been a team playing a particularly bad brand of defense that when looking at the numbers has been downright scary.

Before we dig into those, however, let’s put the caveats out there. In the team’s first four games of the season none of their opponents were ranked lower than 12th in offensive efficiency last season:

  • Clippers: 109.4, 1st in 2013-14
  • Rockets: 108.6, 4th in 2013-14
  • Suns: 107.1, 8th in 2013-14
  • Warriors: 105.3, 12th in 2013-14

In other words, the Lakers have faced a gauntlet of strong offensive teams to open their season. Further, they have played these teams in the season’s first five nights while playing shorthanded. These are not the circumstances you want to play any games under, but especially not teams who have a lot of offensive firepower who can take advantage of the team’s defensive weaknesses.

In saying those things, however, the defensive numbers over those first four games are downright awful. A sampling:

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After taking shots to the chin on back to back nights, the Lakers are 0-2 to start the season. While the games against the Rockets and the Suns both offered some glimpses of solid play, both games eventually turned into routs by the time the final buzzer sounded. This shouldn’t surprise, really. For all the talk about this team competing hard and what they can achieve if they play to their potential, the simple facts are that the Lakers aren’t a very talented team and aren’t running sophisticated schemes that hide that lack of talent very well. Combine these things and there will be problems. Big problems.

The numbers through two games bear this out:

If you’re scoring at home ,that’s a minus-25.1 efficiency differential. There is no hiding from that on the floor. Over the course of the game the Lakers will find themselves in a spiral of not scoring enough while the other team does so too easily.

There are many reasons for this and the team will surely look to rectify some of them. But if zeroing in on one specific area, it might be what’s going on from behind the arc:

In a game that the team lost by 20 but were outscored from behind the arc by 36(!) points, that would be a good place to start. And not only was the differential bad, but, as Kobe noted, the way the Lakers defended the three ball was particularly poor. The Suns run a lot of action to free up their guards to attack the paint, drawing help defenders in the process. And when the defense helps, they kick the ball out to outside shooters who bomb away. The result on Wednesday was a blistering 16 for 32 night for the Suns from behind the arc. The Lakers couldn’t contain the dribble but also couldn’t recover to the arc to run shooters off the line. In other words, “welp”.

It wasn’t just the 16 makes that should concern, however. As Kobe noted, maybe it’s time for them to take more threes themselves. After all, when the other team makes more three pointers when you even take, it might be time to reevaluate strategy. Byron Scott seems to disagree, however:

Scott is partially right, here. With Nick Young and Ryan Kelly out, the Lakers are down two players who can stretch the defense. However, if going back to last year, Wes Johnson (36.9%) and Xavier Henry (34.6%) were not bad three point shooters. Jeremy Lin and Kobe can also hit the three ball at a league average rate (with both being above the league average when discussing their catch and shoot attempts). Add in Wayne Ellington and that’s nearly the entire wing rotation (sorry Ronnie Price and Jordan Clarkson) who can hit the long ball. So, it’s not so much about guys being able to make the shot as much as it is his coach believing they can make it. Or at least believing they can make it at a rate high enough to support it becoming a bigger part of the offense.

But here’s the thing: As I have noted before, three point field goal attempts are important to even generate the type of spacing that drives the types of shots the team does want to get. Scott himself has said he wants his players attacking the basket, but does not acknowledge how driving lanes open up. Teams are going to cut down driving lanes until the Lakers start showing they will force them to rotate to shooters. And that’s really the point. If the Lakers don’t shoot the three, defenses don’t have to defend it. And if they don’t have to defend it, they can start to take away the paint. For the Lakers, that means an over-reliance on alternative types of shots they will take — the long two pointer.

Which brings me back to my point at the top. The Lakers are currently boasting an offensive efficiency of 95.4. This is an awful number. To put it in context, last season’s worst offensive team (the 76ers) posted an offensive efficiency of 96.8. Last year’s Lakers were at 101.9 for the season. And while I do not expect the Lakers to be this poor all season (please, don’t let them be!) they must not just take that as a given. They must start to incorporate actions into their offense that help generate the looks that will boost that efficiency. In other words, they need to scheme up good shots. Because if they don’t, we’re going to be hearing a lot more quotes after games like Kobe’s above.