Any critique leveled against any team on the second day of the season has many caveats attached to it. For the Lakers, this is especially true. Not only is the “it’s only been one game!” caveat important, so are the ones tied to the team’s youth, the high amount of roster turnover, and the resulting lack of familiarity and continuity which comes with it.
Simply put, any real criticisms should be held off on for now. We really are too early in the season to come to any lasting conclusions. Let’s see what things look like after 15-20 games to get an idea if what we are seeing are actual trends or not.
However, some of the issues we saw in Wednesday’s loss to the Timberwolves aren’t new. This is especially true on offense where the Lakers looked very much like the team they were last season in many ways. And not good ways, either.
In reviewing the game, one play stood out to me that captured many of the team’s issues and encapsulated why they can sometimes struggle in the half-court.
When I think about the 2015-16 Lakers, the word which keeps coming back to me is balance. And, more specifically, how do they manage the competing agendas based on the team assembled.
On a roster with a mix of young prospects who need development and capable veterans who play the same positions, how do they balance playing time? When trying to win as many games as possible, but also needing for young players to be able to play through mistakes to learn — sometimes at the expense of wins — how do they balance the different priorties? On a team with at least seven rotation players who do their best work with the ball in their hands, how do they balance touches?
This plays out with a team that is undoubtedly more talented than the 21-win outfit from last season or the 27-win one from two seasons ago. The gambles on former lottery picks who hadn’t lived up to their potential with other organizations have stopped. The roster filling veterans who didn’t quite fit what the coach at the time needed are no more. There are issues to sort through — especially on the defensive side of the ball — but, overall, it’s difficult to not see upgrades all over the roster.
Of course, talent is only one piece to the puzzle. The man tasked with shepherding these players forward and molding them into cohesive units must walk a fine line. Whatever you think of his X’s and O’s acumen or his ability as a leader, how Byron Scott handles the balancing acts mentioned above will be his biggest challenge. Can he keep the veterans happy, develop the young players, and win games all at the same time? Could any coach?
The Lakers have been one of the most injury ravaged teams of the last three seasons. Depending on who you ask, this is either the result of snakebitten bad luck or gross incompetence by the organization and their training staff. This is the internet, after all, and the hot takes run wild. The truth however, as it most always does, probably lies in between.
The Lakers will play in their final preseason game tonight, sorting out some unfinished business when they face the Warriors. After their last game was cut short in San Diego, tonight gives both teams one last chance to get in some game action before the regular season begins next week.
While this game is somewhat of a dress rehearsal for the real games, the Lakers still have a final decision to make on who will be in uniform when they play the Timberwolves six days from now. The roster is nearly set and the players below are virtual locks:
PG: D’Angelo Russell, Marcelo Huertas
SG: Jordan Clarkson, Lou Williams
SF: Kobe Bryant, Nick Young, Anthony Brown
PF: Julius Randle, Brandon Bass, Ryan Kelly, Larry Nance Jr.
C: Roy Hibbert, Tarik Black, Robert Sacre
If the above group holds, there are three players left with only one roster spot to fill. One of the three players left is Jonathan Holmes, but he is almost surely going to get cut. His injury may complicate matters in the timing of this, but I do not see any way he actually makes the team.
This leaves only Metta World Peace and Jabari Brown as the final players battling for the single open roster spot. First, it’s important to note neither player has any incumbent or financial advantage in this race. While Brown was on the team last year, Metta was a long tenured Laker who helped them win a title in 2010. Both players have fully non-guaranteed deals, so money will not play an issue here either (though, it should be noted, Metta’s minimum salary is more than what Brown’s is).
This decision, then, will come down who the best fit is and what they bring to the table both in tangible and intangible ways. There are good arguments for both.
Julius Randle will be the first one to tell you he has a long way to go as a player. While his injury reduced rookie campaign offered a chance to view the game from a different perspective while soaking in the knowledge shared to him by Kobe Byrant, nothing can replace the development from actual court time and game action. Randle did not get that last season and he is trying to make up for lost time now.
Still, the strides are obvious. Randle, always an assertive player, has been playing more like a guy who has a plan. Even when the drives and open court jaunts skew towards the out of control, there is a purpose to his movement. He knows where he wants to get to and, at least this preseason, he has been getting there. His shot chart is a map of his mindset:
Randle wants to be at the rim. While the scouting reports about him harp on his short arms and question his finishing ability, Randle is disproving those doubts one bully ball move with a crafty finish at a time. The finishing is important, of course. After a summer league (and, honestly, last year’s preseason too) of getting to his spots but showing a lack of touch near the basket, there were some fears about whether those aforementioned scouting reports were right. Randle isn’t out of the woods yet — this is only preseason — but the denseness of the forest is diminishing.
Still, it’s not the finishing that has me excited, but the getting into position which has me hooked. Basketball, in its simplest form, is about angles and positioning. The player who can exploit these things best — whether on offense or defense — is likely to win the possession. Randle, with his combination of quickness and strength, is doing this more than his opponent and it is a sight to see.
We talked about this some when we highlighted his first step. Randle is taking what his defender is giving him and using it against him. It’s most obvious when Randle is crowded and he simply blows by his man to get to the rim:
Plays like that make the highlight reels, but it’s actually how he’s managing defenses that do not crowd him that is the real test. Against the Warriors, Randle took his match up with Draymond Green personal and tried to attack him at every opportunity. It led to plays like this one:
Randle’s confidence is nice and I like the fact he’ll jaw at his man some. It makes the game more fun. But the most fun part is how Randle decided that even when facing a sagging defender he would use his physical tools to his advantage. Rather than settling for a jumper, Randle turned on the jets, got his man on his heels, and then exploded to the rim. Look at the shot chart near the top of the post again. It’s plays like the one he made against Green that creates that type of chart.
It’s not just when creating his own shot, either. One of the great things about Randle is how he keeps his head about him when he’s working off the dribble, seeing the floor while trying to break down his man. Randle seems to understand that when his man is sagging off him, he can use that space to not only attack and get his man on his heels, but to maximize the passing angles that can lead to him getting his teammates open shots. Look at any reel of Randle’s highlights from this preseason and you will him leveraging his physical tools against the space his man is giving him to create shots for himself or others.
Like I said at the top, Randle has a ways to go. But the makings of an effective player aren’t just in sight, they’re here and in full practice.
The Lakers beat the Blazers for their third preseason win, though their first in a full length game against an NBA team. Funny how the exhibition season works, sometimes. This game was meaningful, but not because it led to a win. As we wrote before the game, this was likely the last chance for the bubble players to make an impression before cuts were made. With the game in the books, then, the coaches and front office have to make the tough decisions on who to release and who to keep on the final roster.
As with any roster decision, more variables than “can he play?” will be considered. The Lakers are balancing short term goals of winning as many games as possible versus long term goals of having the best roster they can in two to three years. There are also financial considerations — even if only small ones — on whether a player has any guaranteed salary or not. There’s also positional balance and depth considerations.
With that said, and before we get to who I think will make the final roster, a couple of notes about positional battles and my general thoughts on how the factors above might be weighed against each other…
Nate Duncan, host of the Dunc’d on Podcast at Real GM, was kind enough to have me on as a guest to talk Lakers’ basketball as part of his season preview series. Nate and I discussed Kobe, Byron Scott, the young core of Russell/Randle/Clarkson, and pretty much everything else Lakers’ related you can think of.
D’Angelo Russell made his return from a bruised glute in Thursday’s win over Maccabi Haifa and promptly put on a passing clinic. He dropped 11 dimes, several of them of the “whoa, nice look” variety which get fans out of their seats and teammates anxious to start cutting harder and working to come off screens better.
It wasn’t just that Russell was racking up the assists, though. It was what kind of assists they were. Or, more specifically, that his assists led to the exact types of baskets every offense wants.