Archives For Laker Analysis

The idea of “positionless basketball” isn’t new, but in the past 5-10 years it has become more and more en vogue. Front offices fall over for the versatility of bigs who can shoot with range, guards who can post, and players of all sizes having the skill sets of wings who are as comfortable handling the ball as they are setting a down screen.

The Lakers have an interesting mix of players who are capable of helping the team move in that direction. It’s an idea we touched on in the preseason and, while it hasn’t always been the case this year, we have seen hints of the Lakers playing a more positionless brand of ball — especially recently, with the team running more modern offensive sets.

While we often talk about positionless basketball within the context of offense, though, the key to really making it work is as a viable approach is defensive effectiveness. If you want your “PF” and “C” to be Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green in order to maximize offensive spacing, those guys need to be able to be able to defend bigger players and then rebound the ball.

So, defense matters. And, as the old saying goes, the position you play is the one you can defend. The more positions you can defend, the higher your value in a league which wants to pick and roll teams and run a myriad of motion sets designed to force switches and create mismatches.

This brings us to the Lakers and, as the head coach calls it, an experiment they are trying over the course of the team’s final 14 games this season:

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Coming out of Ohio State D’Angelo Russell was billed as a complete offensive player. Yes, his outside shooting and court vision were highlighted as real strengths, but when watching tape of him there were so many other aspects of offensive basketball he excelled at – especially as a scorer. He possessed a polished mid-range game, had a nice floater, could get to the rim and finish, and could work in the post against smaller defenders.

Early in the year it was only his mid-range jumper (specifically out of the P&R) and his 3-point shot (mostly as a spot up option) which carried over most quickly. However, in the 2nd half of the season, we have seen the more of the offensive prowess he showed in college start to surface in the pros. Especially his work in the post.

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While most informed analysis has moved beyond “count the rings” as a measurement of what constitutes success, saying we, as observers/fans/analysts, are beyond the line of thinking where results outweigh process would be incorrect. This, in many ways, is completely understandable. If the ultimate goal is to win, those who win should be lauded — no matter how they got there.

Picking apart the process of how a team wins can be a worthwhile endeavor. But, let’s face it, if you’re winning at the highest level the odds are that success is predicated on a well supported process. Talent can overcome bad process in limited samples, but over the long haul talent which is misguided will not succeed. Just as talent reinforced by proper guidance will, more times than not, see results approaching/at their most optimal.

That may not be enough to win at the highest level, but winning is hard. It takes some luck, especially when you consider lots of teams are really talented. Even with all of them achieving their maximum results, some are still going to fall short. There is only one team standing at the end.

This brings me to this year’s Lakers. This group, as a whole, is not super talented. They are also not achieving results anyone will recall fondly at any point in the future. They are a footnote in any discussion about success in today’s NBA because they have barely experienced any.

But success is relative. This team may not be competing for a championship (or even a playoff berth), but they are trying to find their way towards that type of success. And it starts with talent. These Lakers — these young Lakers — have some of that. More than some, I would argue.

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I don’t like to talk about the upcoming draft lottery. On a recent podcast (listen here!) I was asked about the potential pick and noted, without any sarcasm, that it is too stressful to worry about whether or not the Lakers keep their top-3 protected pick. If the Lakers finish with the 2nd worst record in the league, they have a 55.8% chance of keeping their pick. If they fall to the 3rd worst record, they have a 46.9% chance of keeping their pick.

These odds are okay (2nd worst) and not at all what I would want to deal with (3rd worst), but I’m not having it anyway. You should have seen me last May during the lottery special when the draft order was revealed. I was holding my then 3 year old and was a wreck. When the drawing revealed the Lakers kept their pick, I let out a wail of relief. When they jumped to #2, I yelled with joy.

But those moments leading up to when the #6 team was announced were pure torment. This year, with worse odds and higher stakes, I can’t bring myself to focus on it. My blood pressure means too much to me. And I do not want to be “rooting” for losses or worried about how a win affects the standings. I mean, on Sunday night the Lakers beat the Warriors! You think I’m not getting excited about that?

Anyways, this matters, now, because the Lakers are, sort of, trending up lately. It’s not just the win against the Warriors. The W/L column is just as littered with L’s (the team is 2-8 in their last 10), but the Lakers have flashed longer stretches, within games, of better play. They look more comfortable on offense, have shown more life defensively (even if it doesn’t always translate to stops), and, in general, look like a better team than they did before the All-Star break.

Even more encouraging is that the Lakers’ young players are leading the way. Look at their production in the chart below, pre and post-All-Star break (all stats are per-36 minutes)

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While the Lakers have not had the types of injury issues this year which have decimated their roster in recent seasons, they are being hit pretty severely by the injury bug recently. Kobe Bryant has been dealing with a sore shoulder for some time, Larry Nance was almost shut down for the year with nagging knee pain, Jordan Clarkson just missed a game with a strained knee, and Lou Williams remains out for at least another week with a hamstring strain.

We can now add rookie Anthony Brown to that list:

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Comparing D’Angelo Russell…

Reed —  February 29, 2016

D’Angelo Russell is having an elite rookie point guard season, particularly for a teenager, but it appears to be going largely unnoticed outside of Lakerland.

In many ways, Russell is a victim of the combination of high expectations and the power of first impressions. Lakers’ fans, desperate for a savior—or, at least, a reason to hope—thrust upon him the expectations of the next franchise star. And those are very real expectations for this organization, the franchise of Kobe and Shaq, Magic, the Logo, and so many others. I was admittedly not immune to those hopes, pouring hundreds of hours into pre-draft reading/watching/debating, flying out to Vegas for summer league from across the country, etc. And I was passionately pro-Russell for the pick.

For several reasons—some easily identifiable and some not—Russell had a rough start, failing to burst out of the game like Kristaps Porzingis and Karl Anthony Towns, and has as a result largely been overlooked. Something about Russell’s summer and November just felt off. Maybe it was conditioning, or Byron, or his attitude, or learning the point guard position, or being 19, or Kobe’s insane start, but Russell was clearly out of sorts. He played tentative, with no aggression or confidence, never attacking the basket, and just generally looked lost. There was a lot of fan panic and as the Lakers spiraled, the league’s attention naturally focused on several of the more immediately successful rookies.

But Russell has gradually and unequivocally turned his season around and has put together a sustained stretch of brilliant play for a 19 year old rookie point guard. Statistically, he has gotten better every month. The eye test has shown a truly radical transformation; he’s just a different player now than he was in July or November. Many have written about this recently from different angles, and I’m sure much of what I say will be duplicative.

In an attempt to add some value to the conversation, I have focused this analysis on comparing Russell’s statistics at different points in the season to those of other first year rookie guards over the last decade or so. The table below lists the statistics for 30 such rookie guards. A few preliminary notes, and then my takeaway conclusions will follow:

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The Lakers suffered their second blowout loss to the Grizzlies in three days on Friday, a 112-95 defeat that left much to be desired on both ends of the floor. The team had a defensive rating of 118.4, which is 9 points per 100 possessions worse than their already last in the league level for the season. On offense they were nearly as bad, only posting a 102.0 offensive rating.

Their work offensively was especially poor, though, considering they had actually been playing well on that side of the ball this month. In February the Lakers have posted an offensive rating of 109.8, a mark that would rank 2nd in the league if it took place over the full season. A dip on that end of the floor shouldn’t surprise, the team is 29th in offensive rating for the season so a regression to the mean is coming. But were there other reasons for the drop off?

The answer to that question may lie in the fact that after returning from their three game road trip, head coach Byron Scott decided he wanted to implement a new offense. Bill Oram of the OC Register has the details:

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I need to start out by saying I am a big Jordan Clarkson fan. By all accounts, both public and from what sources have told me, he is one of, if not the, hardest workers on the team and is a good teammate. He takes the game seriously, genuinely wants to become a great player, and seems willing to do what is necessary to improve.

In watching this season, though, a nagging question I have had is how much improvement has he shown from his rookie season to this point in his sophomore campaign? Reflexively, I think most would say a fair amount. I know I did when I first asked myself that question. The truth, though, isn’t so straight forward.

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