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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.

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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