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2016-2017 in Review: A Tale of Two Teams

By: VP Sinha

 

Question: Can You Guess Who These Players Are?

 

Player 1 – 13 points, 7.4 rebounds, 2.2 assists per 36 minutes, on 53% TS% (39% from 3).

Player 2 – 6.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.2 assists per 36 minutes, on 35% TS% (17% from 3).

 

As you may have guessed, this is a trick question. Player 1 and Player 2 are the same player – Luol Deng. That first stat line isn’t from his time in Miami; it’s what Deng put up playing without Jordan Clarkson in 872 minutes this season. The latter encapsulates Deng’s pitiful performance next to Clarkson in 614 minutes this season, and the trend holds steady no matter the month. Deng struggled in November (44.7% TS% without Clarkson), was excellent in December (62.9% TS%), and was decent in 2017 through his deactivation (53.0% TS%). But consistently, Deng played considerably worse next to Clarkson. He posted TS% of 33.3%, 38.2%, 34.5%, respectively, while sharing the court with JC. The stability of these numbers through Deng’s peaks and valleys suggests a fundamental incompatibility of these two players.

Jordan Clarkson Luol Deng

If you look at the breakdown, you’ll note that Deng’s usage drops to a laughably low 11.9% next to Clarkson.

Who the hell is going to stay in a rhythm when you’re hardly touching the ball?

 


 

If we extrapolate from Clarkson’s play style, we could infer Deng doesn’t work well with Clarkson’s heavy ball-pounding ways. Deng prefers to spot up and maybe attack the closeout, but the weak side might as well not exist to Clarkson. This means Deng can’t get into a rhythm, so the shots that he gets end up bricking, which reinforces Clarkson’s do-it-all mentality

Compare these numbers to Deng’s numbers playing with Lou Williams instead of Jordan Clarkson. Williams was also a ball pounder, but he was a far more dangerous scorer who commanded more attention from defenses, and he had better vision in kicking out to shooters. In relatively limited minutes (109) with Williams and without Clarkson, Deng’s usage actually rose to 15.2% from 14.2% on the season, and his TS% was a scorching 72.1%. That number would go down in a larger sample size, of course. But because Williams would at least spoon feed Deng good looks, his ball-pounding didn’t have quite the same deleterious effects on Deng’s shooting percentages.

This contrast highlights an essential truth that people too often gloss over about the NBA: fit matters.

It matters a lot. Deng has been ostensibly terrible nearly all season, and yet it turns out he’s actually been more or less the guy we wanted, even as he’s played at a suboptimal position all season (he’s a 4, not a 3). Deng is not close to a star, but he plays solid defense, he is a passable shooter (especially at the 4 and if we discount his horrible November), and more importantly, he understands how to play offense and defense. He doesn’t muck things up, and that has its own value, but he needs to be spoon fed shots in rhythm. It turns out Clarkson doesn’t do that in his freeform style of play, so Deng is flat out terrible next to Clarkson. This brings me to the main point.

 


 

The Lakers’ 2016-2017 woes boiled down to a fundamental incongruity in roster construction.

The unit of D’Angelo Russell, Nick Young, Luol Deng, Julius Randle, and Timofey Mozgov posted +6.0 net rating in 406 minutes.

Starting Lineup Data

 

You know that Trail Blazers team that looked revitalized after acquiring Jusuf Nurkic (13-3 in March)? Their starting unit with Nurkic posted a +6.2 net rating in 229 minutes, and this is later in the season when opposing teams have begun resting or blatantly tanking. There are caveats with the Lakers’ +6.0 net rating – most notably, when they weren’t playing well, Luke would pull at least one of their starters, and so you can argue the starters have an artificially bloated net rating, but that’s beside the point. A +6.0 net rating is on par with a starting lineup that helped the Blazers go 13-3 in March, and even if it’s bloated by a few points or so, that’s incredible for the starting lineup of a roster that won 26 games.

The original bench unit of Clarkson, Williams, Ingram, Larry Nance, Jr., and Black was even better, putting up a +7.9 net rating in 196 minutes together. However, that lineup played a completely different style compared to the structured offense and defense that the starters played. Offensively, they ran far more early offense sets or just high ball screens to get Williams and Clarkson looks on offense, with Nance and Black running cleanup duty. Defensively, the frontcourt supplied plenty of speed and length to cover up mistakes from the backcourt. In response, the backcourt opportunistically jumped passing lanes or otherwise picked pockets at elite rates: Clarkson’s 3.3% STL% and Williams’ 2.5% would outpace a duo of, say, Chris Paul (3.0%) and Kawhi Leonard (2.7%) on that front.  We get the sense of a far more improvisational unit than the methodical starters, which worked well for that group’s talents.

But therein lies the problem. The minute these two units mixed they were disastrous, with few exceptions. For example, replace Ingram for Deng on the starters and you get a -32 net rating in 63 minutes.

When you are essentially running two different systems on the same team, is it a surprise the mixed units fared poorly? 

The Lakers lost quite a few games in November because these mixed lineups were horrible, especially the Nance/ Randle small ball lineup (-11.2 net rating on the season).

When injuries struck in December and these units were forced to intermingle, the Lakers plummeted in the standings. In Luke Walton’s defense, he recognized this shortcoming. People might remember his desperate attempts in December to preserve that bench 5 together even as the starters faced injuries to Russell and Young. This included starting Calderon and Huertas or starting Ingram and letting him play nearly 40 mpg to play with both units. Some were calling for his head for not starting Clarkson earlier, but the lineup data suggests it was the right move. 

 


 

The Lakers picked Walton to install a modern offense, specifically one in the vein of Golden State, San Antonio, and Utah, as opposed to the fast-paced, gunning style of Mike D’Antoni. They overpaid veterans to help implement the offensive and defensive systems – and the plan worked! Russell has the poise and feel of a veteran, and Young, Deng, and Mozgov are, for all their warts, experienced players. People bag on the Deng and Mozgov signings, and I get that their contracts are terrible and that their individual production was underwhelming. But it is also true that they, especially Deng, were crucial components to a core group that outperformed other starting units at a pretty significant rate, and that this unit only improved as the season went on. The starting 5 posted a +3.2 through November, +6.5 in December, and +9.5 in 2017.

What’s more intriguing is the four-man unit of Russell-Young-Deng-Mozgov was quite good no matter who the fifth guy was, except when it’s Clarkson. Russell’s steady play with this group of veterans particularly merits notice: in 494 minutes, he averaged, per-36 minutes, 21.8 points (on 57% TS%), 5.3 rebounds, and 7.6 assists (to 3.7 turnovers) while solely orchestrating the offense. The unit played even better if we replace Randle with anyone besides Clarkson. Those lineups were +16.1 net rating in 89 minutes, with an elite defensive rating of 95.6. The only time this unit crashed was using Clarkson as the fifth guy, where in 15 minutes they put up a -82.4 net rating. Yes, that’s a small sample size, but it’s not trivial given how hugely negative that net rating is. But again, given Clarkson’s play style, is it a surprise that the structured starters would be so ineffective with him?

As we look back on the data from the 2016-2017 season and look forward to the type of system that Luke looks to install, we can see clearly that trading Williams was undoubtedly the right move. Lou was brilliant for us, but he was almost too good. He ended up breaking Luke’s system and running a lot of high ball screen type actions instead, and he inspired some selfishness in Clarkson’s game as well. The Lakers should look to form a coherent roster, where all the players run mostly the same system and there aren’t huge stylistic shifts as one player is substituted for another. In this regard, Deng and Mozgov are necessarily the liabilities people think they are, at least on the court. Yes, they aren’t world beaters, but they can play supporting roles in absolutely functional lineups. (A digression, but this is why I’m skeptical of Brewer and Nwaba as rotation players on the team next season. They might be thriving in these energetic, defense-leads-to-offense type lineups, but their inability to shoot from the 2 or 3 will sabotage attempts to run Luke’s playbook.)

 

Williams was the biggest culprit in terms of stylistic conflicts, and while he was our best player, he also masked some roster construction issues that need to be fixed. With Lou gone, we can build a proper lineup for Walton.

 

But there is still a glaring question to be answered.

 

What Should The Lakers Do With The 2014 Draft Class? 

 

First, there’s Clarkson. I have to confess that I’ve grown skeptical of where Clarkson fits in on the Lakers moving forward. His absolute best stretch of games was two years ago now, where he thrived running simplified high pick and rolls.

Can that translate into the sets and principles that Walton is trying to establish in LA?

His decision making has improved as he’s gotten away from Lou’s shadow, reflected by his ATR as a starter rising to 1.5, from 1.2 as a reserve, though he was abysmal scoring the ball (16.1 points per 36 on 49.5% TS%). His 3-point stroke is inconsistent and subpar for a guard, and he forces shots near the rim because he misses the reads. Stylistically, he’s a bench 2, which is complicated by the fact that defensively, he’s probably best guarding the 1.

Can he rein in his shot-happy tendencies? Can the Lakers find an appropriate backcourt partner for him on the bench?

A more nuanced question awaits Randle. Randle is an interesting spot where the starters were pretty good with him, and the original bench lineup was pretty good with him. He has shown plenty of improvement this season, and a consistent 3-ball might be a game changer. But both the starters and the bench were better with other players, which explains why he’s at #67 on ESPN’s RPM for power forwards (for comparison’s sake, Nance is at #23). Small ball lineups with Randle at the 5, or with Nance and Randle together, have mostly been terrible. His defensive awareness is perhaps the worst on the roster, and lurking in the background is his looming contract extension. Randle is not a league average starter yet, but he stuffs the box score and someone is going to pay him a lot because of it. Will Randle be able to outperform the contract he earns next summer?

As the Lakers’ Front Office looks to evaluate the state of the roster, I can only hope that they identify these positive takeaways in the midst of all the negatives. Smart management means amplifying the good and mitigating the bad. This season was as much a consequence of intra-roster incoherence as an indictment on the performance of our individual players per se. That isn’t to say that we don’t need more talent – we certainly need more talent – but you can see the foundations of an overachieving team hidden somewhere in the rubble of this past season. Despite question marks about Randle and especially Clarkson, we can see how some of the major core pieces of the Lakers’ roster fit together, even the much-maligned and overpaid 2016 free agent acquisitions. Perhaps Magic and Pelinka should consider staying the course set out this season and making incremental changes with an eye on roster coherence, instead of effecting sweeping changes.

Post All-Star Game Offensive Numbers

By: Cranjis McBasketball

 


Closing the Season Strong

In a season without too many W’s in games, the Lakers most important wins this season have come in player development. The young players have made strides under Luke Walton and his staff, and it’s paid off with 3 wins in a row.

To take a look at exactly how the young guys have played since the All-Star break, I’ve listed their offensive points per possession (PPP) and the percentile that PPP places them versus the rest of the NBA for both before and after the break, so we can see the trend each player has taken.

Note: If a player is in the 70th percentile, that means that he’s performed better than 70% of the NBA

As an added bonus, I’ve also included a player comparison that has had that same PPP for this season.


Ivica Zubac

Trend: More Up than Larry on a Dunk

Pre ASG

PPP: 0.900

Percentile: 35th

Comparable Player: Anthony Brown (!?!)

Post ASG

PPP: 1.027

Percentile: 77th

Comparable Player: Paul George


Larry Nance

Trend: Down

Pre ASG

PPP: 0.988

Percentile: 67th

Comparable Player: Kristaps Porzingis

Post ASG

PPP: 0.955

Percentile: 55th

Comparable Player: Jeff Teague


Brandon Ingram

Trend: Up, Up, and Away

Pre ASG

PPP: 0.794

Percentile: 14th

Comparable Player: Chandler Parsons

Post ASG

PPP: 0.953

Percentile: 54th

Comparable Player: Joel Embiid


Julius Randle

Trend: Up

Pre ASG

PPP: 0.878

Percentile: 29th

Comparable Player: D’Angelo Russell

Post ASG

PPP: 0.930

Percentile: 46th

Comparable Player: Russell Westbrook


D’Angelo Russell

Trend: Up

Pre ASG

PPP: 0.864

Percentile: 28th

Comparable Player: Dario Saric

Post ASG

PPP: 0.921

Percentile: 43rd

Comparable Player: Jamal Crawford


Jordan Clarkson

Trend: Slightly Down

Pre ASG

PPP: 0.927

Percentile: 45th

Comparable Player: Devin Booker

Post ASG

PPP: 0.910

Percentile: 38th

Comparable Player: John Wall


Largest PPP Jumps

  1. Brandon Ingram: +0.159
  2. Ivica Zubac: +0.127
  3. D’Angelo Russell: +0.057
  4. Julius Randle: +0.052
  5. Jordan Clarkson: -0.017
  6. Larry Nance: -0.033

 

I’d put the six players into three tiers. Brandon Ingram and Ivica Zubac have made substantial jumps in efficiency since the All-Star break. D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle have made solid improvements. Unfortunately, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance, Jr. have regressed.

Let’s hope we can see continued improvement to close the season and this summer. Next season’s record should be vastly improved if next year these young Laker players can build on the progress they’ve made this year.

If each of these six players can perform next season like the better version of themselves between pre and post ASG, we can have a full year of players with the offensive efficiencies of Paul George, Kristaps Porzingis, Joel Embiid, Russell Westbrook, Jamal Crawford, and Devin Booker. That’d be fun.

LFR Tweets: Jordan Clarkson Synergy Stats


LFR Tweets: Julius Randle Synergy Stats

LFR Tweets: Brandon Ingram Synergy Stats

LFR Tweets: D’Angelo Russell Synergy Stats

Josh Jackson Scouting Report – Offense

Getting to the Rim

Josh Jackson possesses a level of athleticism and physical superiority that would be a welcome addition to a team that’s used its last two 1st Round picks on D’Angelo Russell & Brandon Ingram, both of whom are lacking in this respect. This is most evident in transition, where he’s fantastic at both filling a lane or cleaning up as the trailer. When he is able to collect his feet and get on the runway, he can tear the rim off of the backboard.

Josh Jackson Scouting Report Trailer

In half court situations, he’s capable of overwhelming an overmatched defender with his physical advantages rather than always having to rely on technical expertise. He frequently uses the motion of the offense — often in Weave situations at Kansas — to gain a step on his defender. From there his physical gifts kick in on straight line drives, where bigs are too slow to stay with him, and guards are too small to not get bumped off of their spot.

Josh Jackson Scouting Report Weave

When he needs to change direction, he has a crisp crossover dribble that he’s capable of using left-to-right or right-to-left with near equal proficiency, which is an encouraging attribute for a wing, although he’s much better at finishing with his right hand than his left.

Josh Jackson Scouting Report Crossover

Despite the beautiful inside out + crossover combo above, the vast majority of Jackson’s ventures to the rim are straight line drives that don’t involve changes of direction, which can separate a decent scorer off of the dribble from an excellent one. If Jackson’s initial penetration is thwarted he will generally shoot a pull-up jumper while going right, with limited success, or a step-back jumper while going left, with a bit more accuracy. That type of shot is a win for the defense. 

Josh Jackson Scouting Report Stepback

Over the course of the 7 games I watched while evaluating Jackson, I didn’t see him utilize any jab steps or other triple threat moves to create a shot opportunity, nor did I see him as the ball handler on more than a couple of pick & rolls. To be fair, Kansas doesn’t really put him in the position to run either of those actions. He is most frequently used as the screener on pick & pops and in the aforementioned Weave scenarios. Neither situation lends itself to triple threat opportunities, and unlike most NBA teams, Kansas’ Weave doesn’t usually end in a ball screen, at least not at Jackson’s position. These are areas I would heavily emphasize in any pre-draft workout with him. You can be a high-caliber scorer in the NBA without a deadly 3-point jumper (Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook, Dwyane Wade), but you need to excel in the pick & roll and/or out of triple threat position in order to get there. If I had to guess based on his footwork in other scenarios, Jackson won’t be that kind of guy, but that’s admittedly speculative on my part. 

 


 

The Truth About His Jumper

Jackson has steadily improved his 3-point percentage throughout the season, shooting a respectable 35.3% on 2.6 attempts per game. Yet even Jackson’s most ardent supporters concede this is a relative area of weakness, and this notion is furthered by his 56.3 FT%, a figure that is typically more predictive of NBA 3-point percentage than NCAA 3-point percentage and doesn’t bode well for him going forward.

Almost all of his 3-point attempts are spot up jumpers, with his feet set. I charted 59 of his 71 3-point attempts on the season,  with an emphasis on the closest defender. Please note that the following chart consists of my estimates, and are NOT as exact as the SportsVU data on nba.com that this information mimics. With that “grain of salt” disclaimer:

These stark results can be read in one of two ways. The optimistic version is that while he may not be a knockdown shooter overall, opponents will have to at have at least a modicum of respect for his jumper, otherwise, he’ll make them pay. The more skeptical interpretation is that he’ll be open for shorter windows of time at a longer distance on the NBA level, spotlighting his relative inability to make contested jumpers.

The reasons for this discrepancy could be answered 5 different ways by 5 different shooting coaches (which I do not claim to be), but my observation is that Jackson is consistent with his feet on nearly all of his shots, and the problem is with his shooting stroke, which he speeds up in an effort to get his shot off against closeouts.

The fixability of that is debatable, and the cause of that flaw is likely related to shot mechanics that are beyond the scope of this scouting report, but I don’t think it would be wise to draft him under the presumption that this will change. If it does, it’s a pleasant surprise. 

Josh Jackson Scouting Report Contested

 


 

How Does He Fit Alongside Brandon Ingram?

Unlike the offensive fit between Lonzo Ball & D’Angelo Russell, a Josh Jackson/Brandon Ingram pairing is questionable on the offensive end due to their limited shooting ability. In Ingram’s case, he is merely a theoretical shooter at this point, with Laker fans hoping that his college success behind the 3-point line (41% on 5.4 attempts per game) translates long term in ways that it hasn’t during his rookie season (30.2% on 3.0 attempts per game). 

The combination of two wing players who are subpar 3-point shooters relative to other wings around the league is untenable and further exacerbated by the fact that neither of the PFs in the young core (Julius Randle, Larry Nance, Jr.) are 3-point threats as well. Most functional offenses in 2017 have a bare minimum of 3 players who can at least pose a credible threat from 3-point range on the floor for most of the game, and in many cases, they have 4.

Zooming out a bit to look at the young core as a whole, the Lakers only have one player (D’Angelo Russell) where you could make a credible argument that he will eventually be an above average shooter relative to his position. Jordan Clarkson, Ingram, Randle, Nance, Jr, & Tarik Black don’t fit that description, and you have to cling to a 4-11 performance from behind the arc in the D-League in order to convince yourself that 3-point proficiency is in the cards for Ivica Zubac.

Drafting for need is folly in the first place, but while you can make a decent argument that Brandon Ingram will one day be a good shooter, Josh Jackson’s shooting deficiency would be stacked upon an existing Laker weakness. That would ultimately need to be addressed if the Lakers drafted him, where it would be wise to move a couple of those players in exchange for players who are more effective at spacing the floor.

 


 

What Offensive Position Does He Play?

Jackson is not a SG by any stretch of the imagination, at least within the context of the Lakers’ offense. Beyond the questions surrounding his spot up shooting ability, he has almost no experience running the types of action that would be required of him at this position. Think about how Nick Young & Jordan Clarkson get their points, often navigating off-ball screens, catching & firing off of kickbacks, or utilizing drag screens in transition. Jackson doesn’t run any of these actions — nor does Ingram, for that matter — and it’s a stretch of the imagination to believe that either will be able to do so anytime soon. If they struggle on spot up 3’s, they’re nowhere near being capable of being functional shooters without their feet set.

Josh Jackson Scouting Report OReb

Jackson actually starts at PF for Kansas, alongside a three-guard lineup of Frank Mason III, Devonte’ Graham, & Svi Mykhailiuk, playing the majority of his minutes at that position. He’s often used in pick & pop situations and as a high post/low post option against zone defenses, where the 4 & 5 positions are interchangeable. I believe that Jackson primarily projects to be a SF in the NBA, but his secondary position will likely be a small ball PF rather than SG.

Josh Jackson Scouting Report Pick and Pop

 


 

Basketball Intelligence & Court Vision

Freak athleticism and basketball IQ are often antithetical. Gifted athletes can be prisoners of their own talents, dominating on lower levels via sheer physical supremacy, never learning how to do things the “right” way because they could achieve results without doing so. Conversely, middling athletes need to understand the game on a deeper level if they ever hope to compete on the NBA stage, where they start from a deficit that most cannot overcome. 

Josh Jackson is the rare exception to this rule, demonstrating a degree of spatial intelligence that rivals his physical tools. He’s not only bigger, faster, and stronger. . . he’s smarter too. This is most evident in his ability to drive & dish or drive & kick, where he’s able to read help defenders and move the ball accurately with either hand. 

Josh Jackson Scouting Report Drive and Dish

Josh Jackson Scouting Report Drive and Kick

This attribute also manifests itself when he’s the recipient of the pass, as he’s fantastic at both relocating on the perimeter and cutting from the weak side to exploit available passing lanes. 

Josh Jackson Scouting Report Cutter

I usually loathe player comparisons as they relate to incoming draft prospects, as their accuracy rarely survives superficial scrutiny, but Josh Jackson reminds me quite a bit of a bigger and younger Andre Iguodala. He’s a phenomenal athlete with a good deal of intelligence and ball-handling ability, but also a questionable jumper and skill set as an individual scorer. Yet the book is hardly written on Jackson in these respects, as those are skill-based weaknesses, which can be developed over the course of time at the NBA level. This scenario would take him out of Andre Iguodala territory and into the Kawhi Leonard stratosphere, with Leonard being a shining example of someone with similar attributes coming out of college, who was able to drastically improve his game in the exact areas where Jackson is weak.

But the road to retrospectively foolish draft analysis is paved with faulty assumptions of improvement, so proceed with caution.

NEXT UP: Josh Jackson Scouting Report – Defense