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?
I am sympathetic to his plight. Walking the middle ground laid out in front of him while improving the prospects of the organization to the point where they can be a free agent destination after the season isn’t an enviable position. Regardless of the history and prestige of coaching the Lakers, a rebuilding situation where no one really wants to rebuild comes with too many pitfalls for anyone look at this coach and not have at least a little compassion for the situation he’s in.
On the other hand, this is the job he signed up for. And, in that regard, it’s time for him to find a way to make it work as best he can.
He does have some tools to work with. First, are the kids.
Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson return from last year’s team, the latter coming off an accomplished rookie campaign and the former looking primed to live up to the promise which had him a top prospect in his class since before he could legally drive a car. And then, of course, there’s this year’s draft class of D’Angelo Russell, Larry Nance Jr., and Anthony Brown.
Clarkson and Randle have a chance to be impact rotation players. Clarkson’s game is a polished aggressiveness. Every pick and roll or isolation offers another chance for his quickness, improving change of pace, and strength to athletically bully same sized players to get to the paint. His already refined mid-range game gives him an added advantage when his defender starts to sag off. While he can stand to improve his three point shot, his playmaking, and his feel as a passer, his offensive gifts are real. And while he is explosive, his movements are sleek, like a cat who darts into the crevices of the defense to get where he wants to go.
Randle, meanwhile is a bull who makes his own space. His combination of strength and quickness are further aided by his handle and ability to keep his head up as a passer when attacking. The range on his jumper is lacking. As is his right hand. He makes up for these weaknesses with an incredible first step, passing skill, and an unorthodox yet soft shooting touch in the paint. Last year was lost to a broken leg, so instead of physical learning he settled for sharpening the mental side of the game. He seems to better know how to get to spots on the floor and what to do when he does. There is much to learn still, but you can tell he wants to be great. Getting there, well…that’s why we watch.
The rookies are headlined by Russell, whose smooth game and advanced passing skill hint at a maturity beyond his 19 years. The release on his jumper is compact and quick. His understanding of space and movement within an offense are advanced. Despite being ahead of the game in certain areas, the learning curve is still steep. Areas to improve include how to better manage the pace he plays with and look for more angles to attack with the ball in his hands.
It’s rare you want a young player to speed up, but Russell is the rare case where he’s taking the mantra “letting the game come to him” a bit too far. Making mistakes can be the hallmark of a player whose thought process is advanced, but his ability in adjusting to the speed of the game is not as far along. Russell, to these eyes, has that understanding but has decided to translate that knowledge into fewer risks rather than pushing the envelope. In the long run it would serve him well to attack more, consequences be damned.
Beyond the core of young players, Scott also has a stable of veterans he can lean on. Roy Hibbert will anchor the middle as the first line of help defense and has shown he’s a better passer and offensive rebounder than given credit for. Lou Williams offers scoring punch and enough playmaking to keep defenses honest when they overplay him for the shot. Brandon Bass is as steady as they come, a hardhat wearing, lunch-pail toting PF who does his job on nearly every possession. Nick Young can be a huge scoring threat with a knack for tough shot making. Marcelo Huertas is proving to be a playmaking threat whose passing acumen lends itself to the nickname the “Brazilian Nash”.
These veterans, though, are not without their faults. Hibbert’s scoring ability lags well behind the rest of his game. Williams’ usage can be high and must be reined in to ensure he’s not monopolizing too many possessions. Bass, though solid, is also unspectacular and lacks great size. He will compete, but cannot outwork his physical limitations when facing bigger/stronger/quicker players. Young, well, he’s Nick Young. And Huertas isn’t a strong defensive player nor a great shooter. These weaknesses are real and must be compensated for or they will be picked apart.
Beyond these veterans, though, is the one who matters most: Kobe Bryant. There is no bigger question on the roster in terms of knowing what is needed while wondering if it can be provided than Kobe. After three straight years of season ending injuries, the talk of him being totally washed up has turned from whispers to loud proclamations. He’s not been doubted this much since the airballs in Utah during his rookie season. And it is all set against the backdrop of this (potentially) being his last season.
Can he prove people wrong one last time? Can a role where he is asked to invert his style of play from on-ball creator to off-ball worker come easily this far into his career? Can he stay healthy and be productive? Will he have the patience to deal with a team so far removed from contention?
The answers to these questions aren’t known, though we all have an opinion. I happen to think Kobe can be an approximation of the player he once was. While the automatic 25-5-5 lines are a thing of the past, a 20-3-3 on (close to) 45% shooting seems possible even if it means squinting really hard to see it. Do I expect some horrid shooting nights where too many pump-fakes turn into turnaround contested jumpers while his teammates watch on? Of course. I also expect to see some sharp shooting nights where his jumper is falling and the resulting tilted defense opens up passing angles where he burns teams with his playmaking. How these nights are divided and tallied across the season will be why Kobe remains one of the most intriguing players in the league.
These are individual pieces, though. The strength of a team isn’t necessarily how good your players are as separate entities, but how they mesh to become units that outperform their opponents. And while the Lakers have shown they have some ability to do this on offense, where the problems arise are on the other side of the ball.
If there is a single deficiency which limits the Lakers’ ceiling it is that they will again be a poor defensive team. Heading into his first year with the Lakers, Byron Scott was the only coach to lead three straight teams to bottom five defensive efficiency rankings. Last year’s Lakers made it four straight. And this team has a real chance to make it five (during the preseason, the Lakers were 28th in defensive efficiency).
Part of this is the Lakers simply not having the horses. Of their top 10 rotation players, only Hibbert projects as a plus defender. If you want to be somewhat generous, you can include Brandon Bass here too. (But as a reserve forward who is likely to top out at 20 minutes a night, will it even matter?) But even with those two, none of their perimeter players are close to being stoppers. In fact, with Kobe, Lou Williams, Nick Young, and Marcelo Huertas all playing rotation level minutes, the argument could be made the team will boast the worst perimeter defensive players in the entire league.
Further exacerbating these issues is the Lakers depending on young players as key contributors. Regardless of the talent level, young players consistently come into the league as poor defenders. They simply do not grasp the help schemes, the deeper three point line creates longer and more complex rotations, and the speed of the game is just too much to process. Young players need time to learn proper positioning, how to consistently help the helper, and to learn the intricacies of their own and their opponent’s schemes.
On top of this, the Lakers’ young players aren’t particularly strong defenders anyway. Julius Randle projects to be a solid P&R defender and, with his quickness, can cover ground on defensive rotations from the paint to the perimeter and back to the paint. But he’s not a shot blocker and likely never will be. His defensive motor also doesn’t yet rev as high as his offensive one. Russell, meanwhile, can get lost off the ball while Clarkson can be prone to over-helping or giving up driving angles too easily. Both also have a tendency to die on screens. These are things that can be cleaned up over time, but that time is not going to be now. It may not even be by the end of this season. Remember, some of these guys we’re talking about aren’t even 21 years old.
All of this brings us back to Scott and how he manages these deficiencies. Whether you want to be sympathetic to his cause or not (again, this is the job he was hired to do), there are still serious questions about how good he is at coaching and if he aids in raising or diminishing the team’s ceiling. Depending on who you ask, you’ll get different answers to that question, but I can guarantee you there are few (if any) who think he’s in the upper half of the league as either a tactician or motivator.
Is he flexible enough to shift his coaching philosophies towards more of what works in today’s NBA? Will he cut out some of the harsh critiques in the press, stop deflecting all the blame when things go wrong, and lay off on some of the hard practices? Will he help grow the young players’ games and extract all he can from the veterans all while keeping everyone motivated to play hard and smart basketball? Will a “defensive mindset” be anything more than lip-service paid in post practice/game interviews?
These are open ended questions, but the answers will determine what this team looks like at the end of the season and whether, when it’s all said and done, the front office joins some of the more critical fans and analysts in wondering if Scott is the right man for the job.
None of this sounds promising and, in a way, I don’t expect it to be. I think this team tops out at 38 wins and that’s with everything going right. When was the last time any NBA team had everything go right? When was the last time the Lakers did? That said, if this team wins over 30 games, they will simultaneously improve on last season’s win total by 10 wins and beat their over for Las Vegas. And, simply by the personnel they have at their disposal, they will be fun. Much more than in recent memory.
And that really is the point here. Despite all the tough times that are ahead, this team looks to be on the right path towards regaining relevancy and have a batch of players who we will want to tune in to see. The young players are all capable of wow moments. The veterans all know how to play. Kobe, knock on wood, can stay healthy long enough to give us just a few more moments that remind us that he’s Kobe freaking Bryant.
Realistically, it’s hard to ask for too much more than that. Let’s get to it.