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.
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.
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.