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Follow the Talent: 17 Years of NBA Draft Eye Test Observations

By: Mike Garcia

The term “modern NBA” always struck me as funny. All teams need defense. All teams need shooting. All teams need playmaking. However, it’s up to the player’s talent to dictate where the trend goes.

In my eyes, the Lakers are the pioneers. Who plays big guards? The Lakers. Who started small ball? The Lakers did with Magic in Game 6 of 1980, obviously. Who played seven seconds or less first? Magic. Who acquired 3-point shooting at power forward? Robert Horry with the Lakers. Who initiates transition play at power forward? Lamar Odom with the Lakers.

My introduction to NBA basketball started with the 1980’s Lakers. I didn’t wake up to the idea of what talent was until I learned that not everyone could pass like Magic. Not everybody could shoot like Bird. I thought everyone was on a level playing field in terms of talent, but every player is different. Magic and Bird are Magic and Bird because no one else was talented like they were talented.

Nothing else made that clearer to me than memorizing statistics on basketball cards. I bought my first Beckett magazine, which gave me the first notion of what a scouting report was. There were short paragraphs about how great the next crop of rookies would be. Larry Johnson was the best guy in that draft, so he’d have the most valuable card. Stacey Augmon was a defensive stopper and defensive stoppers don’t make valuable cards.

I loved the Lakers of the 1990’s. I understood that Nick the Quick was a gunner and a low-percentage shooter. I knew Eddie Jones was really active on defense with a developing 3-point shot, but he could also finish at the rim with the best in the league. I realized that Cedric Ceballos was the best finisher I had ever seen that decade — anything 3’ and in, he just had tremendous touch and dexterity.

Fast forward into the 2000’s. I knew Shaq and Kobe were elite level talents, but as a die-hard Laker fan, I had a vested interest into what kinds of players would make their championship window bigger.

That’s when I really got into the draft.

I had a few ideas of how to approach a draft from a philosophical standpoint. If you wanted a mature, sure thing player, pick an experienced NCAA player with accolades. That being said, the idea of drafting the best athlete available was paying major dividends for franchises. Kevin Garnett used to look like he could trip over his own feet just running the floor. Kobe Bryant was the first guard drafted out of high school, then Tracy McGrady followed suit. Even Monta Ellis had tremendous speed and scoring ability out of high school.

So, I started watching the NBA Draft. Before there was NBAdraft.net or DraftExpress, there was ibiblio.org. There were no videos. There were no photos of players. There were brief descriptions of basketball players from their own scouts.

 

Best Athlete Available 

The 2000 NBA Draft was an odd one. The league started to transition from drafting upperclassmen to drafting younger NCAA players based on potential. Why not? If elite high school prospects could make the jump into stardom, why can’t other freshman and sophomores?

Kenyon Martin rose to the top of that draft based on three skills:

2-hand power dunks:

The ability to swat from the power forward position:

And signs of an 18’ jump shot.

Guys like Stromile Swift (Soph.) and Darius Miles (HS Sr.) were drafted #2 and #3, respectively, because of their athletic upside. After all, you could just train them in the NBA, right? Right?

Big wings made a splash that year too. Mike Miller, Dermarr Johnson, Jamal Crawford, and Keyon Dooling rounded off as big wings and project point guards.

The Lakers had the 29th pick. They dominated the 2000 season. Why not just get another big point guard? Marko Jaric was on the board. Chris Carrawell was a 6’6” SG out of Duke. Why was he slipping so far? Mamadou N’Diaye could give some defensive presence while Shaq sits on the bench. How awesome would it be to have a big point guard next to Kobe?

Instead, they drafted Mark Madsen. He was tough, intelligent, and very active. But I didn’t understand why the Lakers chose to go in a different direction. I was wrong, too. Carrawell and N’Diaye didn’t last long. Jaric had a decent NBA career, considering.

It turns out that Kenyon Martin and Michael Redd had the best NBA careers from of that draft. How did Redd slip so far? I had a lot to learn.

A Risky Trade Idea and Motor

 

With the mindset of drafting the best athlete available, there was one guy in 2001 that stood out. His name is Gerald Wallace. While he didn’t have the ball-handling ability of Kobe Bryant or Tracy McGrady, the guy played the wing position like a power forward. I wasn’t interested in his scoring ability. I was interested in how he rebounded and played defense. I read when he was in high school, he averaged roughly 14 rebounds, 4 blocks, and 3 steals per game during his senior year. That’s a tremendous amount of activity for any elite wing player. That kind of activity would later be known as motor.

The Sacramento Kings had the 25th pick in that draft.  While the Kings and Lakers were enemies, surely, they’d want a clutch player like Robert Horry that they could play beside Chris Webber to hit 3’s and play defense.  I thought Horry for a late 1st rounder was a fair trade.  After all, a guy like Horry was exactly the type of player that could have gotten the Kings over the hump.  I thought that the defensive advantages of Gerald Wallace, even as a rookie, would have been enough to contend for a championship in 2001 anyway.

 

While the Lakers didn’t make that trade, I always wonder what if. Sure, we would have Horry making clutch shots for the Lakers for championships, but my goodness, I think they would have had a blanket wing defender for a decade.

 

Wingspan, Speed, One NBA Skill, Draft Depth, and Upside

In 2003, the Lakers had 3 championships under their belts but didn’t have the team speed for a transition game. The long seasons had caught up to the team, especially Shaq and Bryant. Clearly, they needed help.

The idea of drafting the best athlete available didn’t matter as much. Darius Miles and Stromile Swift didn’t show the advanced improvement in their first years in the league like Kobe, McGrady, and Garnett. Skills and work ethic were part of the equation.

The 2003 draft was a special one. We got to witness what it looked like to have elite athletes with NBA level skills. LeBron James. Carmelo Anthony. Chris Bosh. Dwyane Wade. That’s the stuff of legends. I watched as many high school games of LeBron James as I could. I researched Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwayne Wade.

In 2003, the Lakers had a late 1st rounder and an early 2nd round pick. At this point, I was still enamored with guys that had specific physical tools. The idea of speed, quickness, and wingspan was in my draft lexicon, and I was going to apply it to the draft.

The idea of drafting for fit didn’t sink in for me. The Lakers needed a power forward in 2000, but Mark Madsen didn’t supplant A.C. Green as a starting power forward. The top of the draft wasn’t just about the best athlete available. It was the best player available, regardless of position, which made sense to me. The worst-case scenario is drafting a player with NBA talent and adding depth to a team. All teams need depth.

What made 2003 a special year was the idea of draft depth as well. While the Lakers had a late 1st rounder and an early 2nd rounder, it was possible to draft starting talent at those respective draft spots. Work ethic, fit, and mentality are all variables that help fulfill a player’s upside, but the talent was there.

I had my eyes on one particular guy: Leandro Barbosa. He’s this Brazilian guard that had a 6’10” wingspan, was a blur on the court, and shot 40% behind the arc. Unlike Stromile Swift and Darius Miles, Barbosa could actually shoot. This is my idea of the perfect draft. Kobe would have a backcourt mate in transition and someone beside him with the physical tools to defend the point of attack. He could steal the basketball. He was quick.

While there was controversy about the form on his jump shot, there were no doubts about the results from a catch and shoot situations. Ron Harper was helping him with the draft process too. I figured this was a no-brainer pick. They had to have the inside word about Barbosa.

I had a short list of guys I wanted. I wanted Boris Diaw, knowing he was a big PG but he wouldn’t slip that far. I wanted Ndudi Ebi, because he was a McDonald’s All-American that could develop. I wanted Sofoklis Schortsanitis because that guy bulldozed teams in Greece. I wanted Steve Blake because I knew he would be a steady point guard. I wanted Malick Badiane, because he had great wingspan. I still wanted swatting off the bench. I would have even understood Derrick Zimmerman because he had a killer wingspan at the point guard position too. It was clear that I thought highly of upside based on physical tools.

Unfortunately, a day before draft night, I dreamt the Lakers drafted Brian Cook.

They drafted him. They drafted Luke Walton too, which I didn’t feel as awful about, but I didn’t really see either guy as potential starters. Brian Cook had great collegiate statistics but I didn’t see the athletic upside. I didn’t see great upside from both guys, especially in terms of athleticism. At least I believed in Walton’s basketball IQ, but I didn’t think that was as necessary on a championship team.

Fast-forward a few years and I watched Barbosa have a more successful career than Cook and Walton. I thought, maybe I’m getting better at this. I didn’t care about the other players I missed.

 

Best Player Available

Now, it’s 2005. Shaq was traded. The Lakers had a couple of foundation pieces in Bryant and Odom, but star talent was still needed. I remember thinking, it was a big year to try and attract Kevin Garnett onto the Lakers. I thought for sure that the Lakers could package Odom, Butler, and a player to lure Garnett. At least, that was a possibility in my mind.

But in order to make it work, the #10 pick had to be a potential star player. I did my research. I had the three guys on my list in order.

  1. Danny Granger
  2. Andrew Bynum
  3. Fran Vasquez

Why did I have Danny Granger over Bynum? He was a good athlete. He was a senior player out of New Mexico St. Here’s a self-made player that went from junior college to Division I. His senior year was fantastic. He shot 56% from 2-point, 43% from 3-point, averaged 9 rebounds per game, 2.4 assists per game, 2 blocks per game, and 2 steals per game. He played point-forward for New Mexico to close out the games. They finished 26-7.

I wanted a Pippen to Kobe’s Jordan. I figured the Laker franchise wanted a mature, experienced player. Well, here he is. He did everything on the floor. I was shocked that he wasn’t a Top 5 pick. Here I am, hoping that he slips because he’s from a small school and he’s a senior, and he’s available. This is the first time that it occurs to me, that my draft list doesn’t look like a mock draft anymore.

Andrew Bynum had the physical tools. Drafting Bynum meant that the Lakers changed to a completely different direction compared to their previous drafts since 2000. They had chosen experienced players in Walton, Cook, and Madsen. They tried with an international pick, Sasha Vujacic. They needed more.

Andrew Bynum was a project player. I read about a private workout where he was a bit overweight. He had good hands and didn’t exactly make elbow jumpers. Clearly, he was going to be a project.

Why did I want Fran Vazquez? I just wanted a guy at power forward that could swat, rebound, and finish. I wanted Odom at small forward. I wanted a big front line to support Bryant. In the end, he wanted to stay overseas.

The Lakers chose Andrew Bynum. I was excited, although I admit I wanted Granger, still. I thought he would have opened up the championship window more quickly, as he didn’t need as much development time. But at least, the Lakers had a project that they could work with, and I had faith in the organization.

 

Work Ethic and Health

While initially unhappy with how Andrew Bynum started in the league, I was shocked by his development by 2010. I once compared Andrew Bynum to Brendan Haywood as an upside. Haywood was a guy that similar size, wingspan, and mechanical moves. Out of UNC, he was a 12 point per game, 7 rebound per game center, but averaged 3.5 blocks per game. If the Lakers had that, they finally got a rim protector. But that was his upside, and the Lakers drafted a really raw player who they hoped they could transform into a contributor on a championship level.

By 2008, Andrew Bynum blew up. Not only was he physically stronger, now he had a post base. He once struggled to gather up for a dunk, now he’s catching lobs. He worked his way into being a 3rd option on offense and shot well from the field. He was actually intimidating. He really surprised me.

He was critical to two championship runs for the Lakers as well. The Lakers could not have gotten there without him, but his rise to stardom was fast, and I knew there was a cost. Not everybody can be Kobe Bryant in terms of work ethic and health. Knee injuries caught up to him. I personally felt that he burned out after working so hard. I learned that’s how Kobe separated himself from the rest of the league. I learned hard work is a talent, but health is luck. I learned that a player’s mentality, and a modicum of talent, meant a long career.

 

Motor, Archetypes, and Shooting

The Lakers were finally back in the lottery in 2014. They had struggled with injuries. They played uninspired basketball. Nick Young was the team’s leading scorer. The Lakers needed help everywhere.

I remember exactly who I wanted in 2014. Alongside Jacob Rude of LakeShowLife at the time (Now of LakersOutsiders), I wrote the most about Julius Randle. I also covered Rodney Hood, Zach LaVine, Adreian Payne, and Noah Vonleh. I distinctly remember having Randle at the top of my board at #7. I recall getting a lot of feedback where some said that I ranked Rodney Hood and Zach LaVine too high. Adreian Payne was the right archetype. I wasn’t as convinced that Vonleh’s high school athleticism translated well to the NCAA level after he got stronger. While I loved Marcus Smart’s abilities on defense, I wasn’t as convinced of his playmaking at the NBA level. He was mostly a straight-line driver that had trouble exploding at the hoop.

The guy I wanted was Randle. I knew Hood could shoot but I didn’t expect much else on the floor. I knew LaVine would meet my other requirements of a legitimate NBA prospect (elite athleticism, played PG in high school, great shooter), but it was how Randle played against Adreian Payne and Michigan St. that had me convinced. Unlike the other guys, he had a great motor. He had a post base and couldn’t be moved. He could handle the ball well for a small forward, let alone a power forward. He just needed to learn how to shoot. I didn’t think that was a big deal. If Karl Malone, Chris Webber, and Blake Griffin did it, why can’t Julius Randle?

For once, the Lakers picked the lottery guy I wanted. I finally believed in the front office’s ability to draft. Guys like Rodney Hood and Zach LaVine? It turns out they would have been fine at #7 in the draft as well.

 

The Importance of Interviews and Workouts

Then, there was Jahlil Okafor. I loved what he did on the floor for Duke. He has a 7’5” wingspan, mitts for hands, and created shots at will. I didn’t care that he was an average shot blocker or rebounder. Those were things that project players learned and he was a 19-year-old prospect. I just cared that he could get buckets. The Lakers didn’t have a guy outside of Kobe. After all, he did just enough to help Duke win the NCAA tournament.

Sure, he was bad at defense. He lacked motor. I didn’t care. I just wanted one thing to translate: field goal percentage. He shot 66% for the entire season for Duke, and it wasn’t just based on physical tools. He has incredibly nimble feet in the post. Want to know why the NBA went to perimeter shooting? It’s because there are no more post up players that could shoot 56% from the field like James Worthy and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I really thought Okafor was next in line.

I recall D’Angelo Russell skyrocketed up mock drafts in January. He just had a phenomenal month. He displayed court awareness that was a step ahead of everyone else. He was big for a PG. Not that I would be disappointed if Russell was drafted, but Okafor was my guy.

Then, I watched the interviews.

D’Angelo Russell came off as a very intelligent individual. He worked out alongside Karl-Anthony Towns and Devin Booker. He went up against Chris Paul. Don McLean raved about his basketball intelligence.

The Lakers worked out both players. D’Angelo Russell completed his second workout. Jahlil Okafor, well, didn’t.

Russell was their guy. That was the right choice.

 

Stride Length and NCAA Development

The 2016 draft was all about Ben Simmons. While LSU didn’t reach expectations of NCAA tournament play, Simmons’ talent with ball-handling, passing, and defensive versatility made him a clear prospect for the #1 pick.

However, Brandon Ingram was the guy I wanted. I watched him during the early weeks at Duke, and he looked like a 3-and-D guy but was really timid on the court. During the regular season, Amile Jefferson got hurt, and Coach Krzyzewski moved Ingram to power forward. He finally came out of his shell. He was more aggressive offensively and went from the 4th option on offense to the 2nd option behind Grayson Allen. Despite his skinny frame, he was physical in the paint and used his 7’3” wingspan to grab rebounds and protect the rim a bit. He attacked the basket much more often. He shot 48% behind the arc in January. By the end of the season, he was a tremendous isolation scorer at the NCAA level. This was the first time I had seen such rapid improvement within the season.

He showed a base level of triple-threat skills and great length, but there was a new element that I paid attention to that I didn’t before: stride length. Blame Giannis Antetokounmpo. Ingram and Antetokounmpo were forwards that could start at the 3-point line, take one dribble, two strides, and be at the rim.

 

This, to me, would be his one defining trait that few NBA players have. As shown by the end of last season, he showed the same rapid development and aggression, as well as the ability to finish surprisingly well.

 

Continuous Learning, Workouts, Analytics

Analytics have come into the fold more than ever when it comes to evaluating NBA prospects. It seems that every year, the bar gets raised in terms of height, wingspan, hands, standing reach, skill set by age, athleticism, and skill set by position. While it isn’t always as clear that the top 5 NBA prospects will all become franchise players, year by year, skill set expands deeper into the second round.

I’ve looked at analytics this year much more than I have in years past. It isn’t about assists, but assists in the half court. It isn’t about field goal percentage, but true shot percentage and free throw rate. It isn’t about 3-point percentages, but free throw percentages, distance of 3-point shots, and 3-point volume. We look at different statistics and try to find or create future models of success.

Then, there’s the NBA combine. There are players that put up fantastic numbers in terms of lateral agility and maximum vertical.

But the question is, do you see that on the NBA floor? Just because Steve Blake was the #1 athlete in his draft, doesn’t mean it all translated into elite point guard defense or finishing at the rim. Just because Kevin Durant was ranked 60th best athlete during his testing doesn’t mean he isn’t one of the deadliest NBA players in the league. When it comes to Semi Ojeleye and Jordan Bell? It translates, but that isn’t the case with all prospects.

Throughout all of this, I’ve learned about the one thing missing. Work ethic and skills advancement are the most difficult to quantify. For some, shooting takes years to develop. For others, it takes months. What makes a player tick bodes well for long-term success, and that’s why I’m higher on Tatum and have him Top 3. There is no analytics for guys like Andrew Bynum or Ben Wallace. It never made sense that Bruce Bowen became an elite 3-point shooter despite being a poor free throw shooter.

If there was a way to scout skill advancement over time, it’s arguable that those guys would be at the top of the draft every year.

Lakers Keep 2017 1st Round Pick — 2018 Pick Goes to Philadelphia

By: Pete Zayas

 

The Lakers defied the odds on Tuesday night, retaining the 2nd pick in the 2017 NBA Draft while managing to retain their 2019 1st Round pick in the process. These are the ramifications of tonight’s lottery.

 

A Paul George Trade Just Became A Lot More Likely

 

Despite the fondness that many Lakers have for Brandon Ingram and D’Angelo Russell, the #2 pick likely represents the most desirable asset that the Lakers possess. In the case of the Indiana Pacers, a shot at the player of their choice in a draft class where many pundits believe that the 2nd-6th picks are tightly clustered together should have a great deal of appeal, and having that player on a 4-year rookie contract amidst a rebuild is attractive as well. Ingram will be eligible for his second contract one year sooner than the #2 pick will, with Russell being up for that deal two years prior. These financial considerations are important to a team that is effectively hitting the reset button in the wake of George’s departure.

The Lakers may not be as willing to part with the pick. On one hand, as Laker fans have learned over the last few seasons, 19-20 year-olds aren’t terribly good at basketball, regardless of their long-term potential. It’s reasonable to suggest that Russell in his 3rd season or Ingram in his 2nd would be more effective sidekicks for Paul George in the short term. Yet the #2 pick also represents Magic Johnson & Rob Pelinka’s first attempt to add “their guy” to the young core. It’s likely that they are less invested in the players who were drafted by a previous regime, and the ability to trade one (or more) of them for Paul George while still drafting the player of their choosing could have significant pull in the minds of the decision makers.

Regardless of the approach that the Lakers take toward negotiations for George, they now have more routes to get there, and the retention of the pick likely represents the most appealing asset to the Pacers.


 

Who Should the Lakers Take If They Don’t Trade It?

 

I’m of the mind that trading Ingram, Russell, or #2 in exchange for George, with one year remaining on his contract, would be a mistake, so this is the route that I’d prefer. In a broad sense, I view this draft as having a clear #1 (Markelle Fultz), several prospects who are fairly closely bunched together (Josh JacksonMalik Monk , Jayson Tatum, Dennis Smith, Jr), and a wild card who has a high ceiling but also a relatively low floor. (Lonzo Ball).

Kevin Ding reported that the Lakers have particular interest in Fultz, Ball, Jackson, & De’Aaron Fox, who I don’t quite regard at the same level as the others, but does have excellent athletic gifts.


 

My Top 5 Prospects. 5/16/17

1)   Markelle Fultz

2)   Lonzo Ball

3)   Josh Jackson

4)   Malik Monk

5)   Dennis Smith, Jr.

 

I view Markelle Fultz as the best guard prospect since Kyrie Irving in the 2011 Draft, with apologies to Damian Lillard, who few people thought was going to be as good as he’s become. Fultz is one of the most productive pick & roll guards in the last decade in the NCAA, utilizing tremendous balance, solid athleticism, court vision, and a well-developed skill set to thrive in the NBA’s most common play.

I don’t worry about Washington’s atrocious record during his time there, as they were one of the most poorly coached teams I’ve ever seen at a high level, and there’s nothing that Fultz could have done to remedy their issues.

I do think that he will struggle at first as a catch & shoot player, due to a very slow gather, but that’s a relatively easy fix. Fultz has all-star potential, but also a very high floor, due to a highly developed skill set. He’s one of the safest picks in years.

I find myself conflicted on Lonzo Ball. I understand the skepticism on him, whether it’s his ability to create on pick & rolls, questions about his ball-handling ability, and even the absurdities that come from his father. Yet I can’t help but wonder if he is squeezing the untapped potential out of already established ideas. He barely dribbles the ball relative to other lead guards. He’d rather shoot an open 30-footer than a 25-footer that’s slightly contested. He’s an excellent screener and cutter. How he plays is statistically supported, but extremely unusual.

 

Will it translate? I don’t know.

 

He was surrounded by shooters at UCLA, and shared the ball-handling responsibilities with a pair of very good college guards in Bryce Alford & Aaron Holiday. How would Lonzo look playing alongside sub-30% three point shooters like Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, & Timofey Mozgov?

 

 

Can he still find a way to be extraordinarily effective, does it all fall apart, or somewhere in between? I would bet on him being able to make it translate eventually… although I predict a rough rookie year for him… but the worst case scenario with him is concerning.

I think that he’ll eventually put it together, but will struggle initially in the NBA. I also think he’s a SG rather than a PG, as noted in my offensive scouting report.

I regard Monk and Smith. Jr. higher than most and think they should at least be in the conversation for the 3rd pick. Monk is an elite scorer coming off of screens and in transition while showing a flicker of playmaking ability in the pick & roll.

Smith, Jr. is an athletic lead guard with potential as a 3-level scorer. Yet neither is a particularly good defender, which is where Josh Jackson excels.

 

 

Josh Jackson is a tantalizing mix of athleticism, intelligence, and motor. I question his ability to grow into a Top 2 scoring option on a team due to his questionable shooting, triple threat, and pick & roll abilities, but his defense, passing, and transition play are some of the most bankable attributes that anyone in the draft possesses. He has a high floor as a result, while still maintaining considerable upside, which is why I think he should be the 3rd pick, and you could make an argument for him at #2 as well.

I have concerns with De’Aaron Fox’s skill set, despite his excellent athleticism. He isn’t a particularly good shooter, and I don’t think his shot form is conducive to a longer 3-p=oint line. I believe that in order to succeed at the NBA level without a reliable jumper, a PG needs to have great court vision, along the lines of a John Wall or Russell Westbrook, and I don’t see that or elite ball-handling from Fox. He’s a solid defender, but I don’t think it’s enough of a difference maker to bridge the gap on the offensive end. Many fans point to his 39 point performance against UCLA in the NCAA tournament, but that was often the result of blown pick & roll coverages that rarely ever happen in the NBA.

Jayson Tatum is normally the type of player that I like quite a bit, as he’s one of the most skilled players in the draft, but I find his strengths to be a bit outdated. He can create his own shot in isolation situations and is competent in a variety of other Play Types, but I question his ability to fit in with a system that’s heavily dependent upon ball and player movement. This, along with a propensity to give in too easily on the defensive end sours me a bit on him, although I do think he’ll have a long career and will be one of the better individual scorers in the draft.

Jonathan Isaac is another name that’s brought up with some regularity, but I don’t think he belongs in the conversation for the #3 pick. While he’s one of the better defensive prospects in the draft, he provides very little in the way of shot creation, and I think he mostly projects as a 3 & D prospect along the lines of an Al-Farouq Aminu.

Lauri Markaanen probably has the clearest strengths and weaknesses in the draft. Strictly from an outside shooting perspective, he may be the best big man prospect in NBA history. He projects as a devastating pick & pop big, but as much as I’m dying for that kind of player within the Lakers offense, his deficiencies on the boards and defensively…both as a rim protector and on the perimeter…are too much to overcome, and I don’t think he belongs in the conversation at #3.

 


 

Regardless of whether they keep the pick or trade it, the rebuild has probably been accelerated by a year.

There’s no motivation to tank next season, due to the fact that Philadelphia owns their 2018 pick no matter what, so the Lakers will be motivated to be as good as they can possibly be, which is a refreshing change from the last few seasons.

Today was the last day that we have to worry about keeping the pick, after 3 seasons of uncertainty. What a relief.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Check out Cranjis McBasketball’s Twitter thread on D’Aaron Fox and Dennis Smith, Jr.

 

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.

Jim Buss & Mitch Kupchak Fired — Magic Johnson Named President of Basketball Operations

By: Pete Zayas

What We Know 

-Jim Buss & Mitch Kupchak have been relieved of their duties, effective immediately. John Black was also relieved.

-Magic Johnson has taken Jim’s place as the President of Basketball Operations. 

“Effective immediately, Earvin Johnson will be in charge of all basketball operations and will report directly to me. Our search for a new General Manager to work with Earvin and Coach Luke Walton is well underway and we hope to announce a new General Manager in short order.” -Jeanie Buss

-NBA Agent Rob Pelinka is being reported as the front-runner to be the next Lakers General Manager, serving under Magic Johnson.

-Ramona Shelburne is reporting that Ryan West’s (Assistant GM) influence within the organization will grow, at least in the interim.

-The trade deadline is in 2 days.

I’m neither here to bury, nor praise Jim Buss & Mitch Kupchak. Their respective legacies and the reasons why they were fired will be hotly debated amongst Laker fans, bloggers, and reporters alike over the next few weeks. However, they suddenly represent the past, and what I want to sort through is what happens next.


What happens in the next 48 hours?

From here on out, this post becomes deeply speculative.

The timing of this organizational shakeup is considerably more surprising than the fact that it actually happened. The writing was on the wall when Magic was brought into the fold (arguably even before that), and the speed with which the Lakers have a front-runner for the GM position suggests that such a process has been in the works for a while. The three conclusions that seem most logical, either individually or in some combination, are:

1) The DeMarcus Cousins trade and the Lakers’ inability to acquire him was the final straw.

2) Jeanie Buss & Magic Johnson didn’t want to give Jim & Mitch the opportunity to make another move in what would have been their last opportunity to do so.

3) Magic Johnson and the incoming regime have been working the phones themselves, and have designs on executing a trade of their own prior to Thursday’s trade deadline.

 The second option seems more plausible than the first and third. While Jeanie & Magic may very well have been displeased with Mitch & Jim’s inability to land Cousins, especially considering the pittance that he was eventually traded for, it strains credulity to imagine that this would have ultimately changed anything regarding Jim & Mitch’s future with the franchise. Magic’s media tour, brazen comments regarding his desire to be the final voice on basketball matters (lobbying for Jim’s position, essentially), and Kevin Ding’s most recent column enumerating the failures of Jim & Mitch’s tenure all pointed in the same direction.

This was happening regardless of whether or not they acquired DeMarcus Cousins. 

Additionally, the idea of Magic and a secret cabal of associates working the phones, trying to orchestrate trades behind the backs of Jim & Mitch, seems implausible. In a league of sharks and guppies, the front offices they were negotiating with would have assuredly leaked such dysfunction and palace intrigue within the Lakers organization. That isn’t to say that a deal won’t be made within the next 48 hours, with a Lou Williams deal being the most obvious move, but every negotiation is likely beginning at square one. 

As is usually the case, the truth is probably closest to the simplest explanation. Jeanie Buss & Magic Johnson knew that the tenures of Jim Buss & Mitch Kupchak were through, it was pointless to continue a charade that suggested otherwise, and they were not going to sign off on any last-ditch personnel changes that they didn’t orchestrate themselves. 

Jeanie said on Spectrum:

“This was a very difficult decision. It was so hard for me, that I probably waited too long & for that I apologize.”

 

The wild card in the next 48 hours is Ryan West. His prior level of involvement may be the difference between existing negotiations with other teams being able to continue, or if they’re starting from scratch as the clock ticks away.


The Roles of Magic Johnson, Ryan West, & the Next GM

 

Despite the extraordinary events of the day, and a degree of distaste for how it was all handled, I’m cautiously optimistic about the future of a Magic Johnson, (presumably) Rob Pelinka, & Ryan West triumvirate.

It’s important to consider where the Lakers are and where they’re going, rather than where they’ve been. The best arguments in favor of Jim & Mitch were relatively successful drafts that restocked a cupboard bereft of young talent, including a couple of picks that were beyond the draft positions where you’d expect that to happen. Yet even their most ardent supporters would concede that they’ve been anywhere from poor to disastrous in Free Agency, from ill-conceived (and failed, thankfully) max contract offers to Carmelo Anthony & Dwight Howard, overlooking Isaiah Thomas, and the massive deals that they ultimately gave to Timofey Mozgov & Luol Deng. The last team-building mechanism, the trade market, is a place where Jim & Mitch excelled over their tenures but were very selective. It doesn’t matter too much if you’re a 48% 3-point shooter when you’re only shooting one per game.

The simple reality is that going forward, Free Agency & the trade market will be much more important components of the Lakers’ future than the draft will be, they’ve retained the guy who was arguably the most instrumental in the success of those drafts (West), and massively upgraded their salesmanship abilities by going from Jim Buss & Mitch Kupchak to Magic Johnson & (presumably) Rob Pelinka, greatly improving their chances in Free Agency.

The fantasy in my head goes something like this.

Ryan West is the organization’s personnel guy. Magic & Pelinka have input but ultimately defer to his knowledge and expertise regarding which collegiate players are better than others, which free agents are bargains, which high priced free agents are overvalued, and his general perspective on how the on-court elements of basketball work in 2017.

Rob Pelinka is the dealmaker. He leverages his relationships with players and front offices to execute the triumvirate’s agreed upon vision. West is said to be respected around the league but has minimal, ancillary experience in terms of actually executing transactions. Magic Johnson certainly does, in a number of different industries, but Pelinka’s been an active and uninterrupted participant in the basketball world for years. He’d be the guy who actually gets things done, whether it’s on the trade market or by constructing and delivering pitches in Free Agency.

Magic Johnson is the face of the franchise. If nothing else, the departure of Jim Buss & Mitch Kupchak gives the Lakers a unified front for the first time since the beloved Dr. Jerry Buss died. The narrative over the last several years has been that the Lakers are a dysfunctional franchise, with quarreling owners who can’t get on the same page. Who’s to blame for that simply doesn’t matter anymore. The Lakers now have a clear chain of command, with Magic sitting atop of the basketball operations, where he can be the public face that is presented to the media, prospective free agents, and fans, all of whom recognize that he is the person who is ultimately responsible for the product on the floor. He certainly has a say in personnel matters…the final say, in fact…but decides to lean on his support staff as heavily as he has in his successful, post-career business ventures.

The nightmare scenario involves Magic & Pelinka conflating their expertise in other areas of basketball with their abilities to make personnel evaluations and decisions, and their more experienced counterparts around the league eat them alive.

Let’s take a moment to state the obvious. Rob Pelinka is one of the most influential power brokers in the NBA today, with an impressive list of clients that include Kobe Bryant, James Harden, Chris Bosh, Avery Bradley, and others. Magic Johnson, of course, will be working outside of a building that rightfully immortalized his on-court brilliance by putting his own damn statue in front of it. By any measure, these two are giants within their respective areas of expertise.

Yet many legends who’ve made the transition into NBA front offices have been spectacular failures, and their brilliance in other areas of the game doesn’t translate. Does Magic take a couple of weeks to read up on the Collective Bargaining Agreement, and think that his knowledge on the topic rivals other decision makers around the league that know it inside and out…or does he hire (and more importantly, rely upon) an expert? Does he sit courtside at a college game and blithely comment on how scouting talent is the “easy part” in between bites of popcorn, as he did recently while watching UCLA…or does he acknowledge that he should defer to people like Ryan West so the Lakers don’t end up with Brandon Knight, Jahlil Okafor, Jimmer Fredette, or others that he’s advocated for in the past? Does Rob Pelinka believe that he’s suddenly an expert on personnel and roster construction, step on West’s toes, and then fail while negotiating with the same NBA front offices that he’d been commissioned to oppose for so many years, as agent-turned-GM Lon Babby did with the Phoenix Suns?

Magic Johnson & Rob Pelinka have skill sets that will likely be simpatico, but how much they rely upon people like Ryan West…rather than presuming that their expertise and success in other areas of the game will transfer to personnel decisions…will determine how successful this new regime will be.

Oh, and that elephant in the room? You know, the “what does this mean for the future of D’Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, and the other young guys” one? I have no freaking idea, I’m just along for the ride.

 

Go Lakers.

 

 

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The New Lakers Starting Lineup

The new Lakers starting lineup on Monday night came as a bit of a surprise, with Luke Walton benching the franchise’s two big free agent signings in favor of Brandon Ingram & Tarik Black. In this video, Pete Zayas takes a closer look at how they performed in the Lakers’ 121-107 win over the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden, and how that may translate toward the future.

The Long Road Toward a Respectable Lakers Defense

 

It’s hard to believe now, but from the first day of training camp, the Lakers defense was a main priority of the coaching staff. For much of those early practices, they ran shell drills and spent hours going over defensive concepts in the film room. Coach Luke Walton even expressed optimism that they would “become a good defensive team.”

So what the heck happened?

After finishing the past three seasons with defensive efficiency rankings of 28th, 29th, and 30th, there was hope that with an incoming head coach from the top ranked Golden State Warriors, the days of being a sieve on the defensive end would be over. But here the Lakers are again in January, ranked dead last in the NBA.

It’s only natural for fans to wonder whether this Lakers core, from the young players to the veterans under multi-year deals, has it in them to ever become even half-decent at stopping the other team from scoring – a prerequisite to becoming a playoff contender. However, this young roster needs one thing more than anything else. Patience.  Continue Reading

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