NBA Hot Take 11–29–17
Tonight’s game didn’t mean too much for the Warriors. Just another night that ended with a win in overtime.
For the Lakers, it was just another L in the record (8–13) that might be the beginning of a horrendous losing streak as they play the Warriors two more times, Houston thrice, Minnesota twice, at Cleveland, at Philadelphia, OKC, and the Clippers (who have won 20 of their last 22 against the purple and gold).
But something did happen for 47 minutes and 55 seconds, and it was magical. The Lakers gave their fans a glimpse of a team that plays the right way. They matched the Warriors in assists tonight, with 30 on 47 made baskets. They played tough defense, ran the court, and kept fighting back every time the Warriors made a run to take the lead.
Why tonight’s game was different.
Last year, the Lakers beat the Warriors by 20, but it was fool’s gold. The Splash Brothers were 2 for 20 from beyond the arc, with Curry missing every shot to snap a 157-game streak. Think about the mathematical probabilities of hoping the greatest shooter of modern times will miss every 3-pointer he takes.
This year everyone had moments they played very well. Curry started poorly, but hit 3 straight 3-pointers in overtime to win the game. Klay Thompson shot 4 of 8 from distance, Durant hit 3 of 7, and the team shot a combined 40% on their 3-pointers. They jumped out to a 10-point lead, but couldn’t blow open the game. And that’s where the 2015 Boston Celtics come in.
The psychology of young teams is based on ignorance and adrenaline. Either they play out of their minds and build a huge lead (like the 76ers outscoring the Warriors 47–28 in the first quarter of their game on November 18th), or play in awe of the champs and get blown out. But once the young team realizes what is happening, they tighten up and the more experienced team comes back to win. What’s abnormal is for a young team to match every run in a close game that features multiple lead changes. But when a team learns to play the right way, the large differences in talent are hidden by hustle plays and tough defense.
As much as I hate to say it, this Lakers team is starting to look a lot like the Boston Celtics of three years ago — a bunch of good role players and young prospects led by a great point guard who can’t shoot, but lacking a go-to guy who can make clutch baskets at the end of games. And guess what? Those 2015 Celtics played two close games against the 2015 Warriors team that went on to win 67 games and their first championship.
The Lakers had a chance to win the game in regulation. With the scored tied 109–109, they had the ball with 6 seconds left. But they don’t have a real go-to guy, or a set team identity, so Brandon Ingram drove into a triple team and missed an off-balance floater, instead of kicking out to a wide open shooter in the corner.
That’s where the Lakers are. They are showing some potential, but they are a year or two away from being a good playoff team. And, they’re one or two players from being a championship team. Let’s look at each of these steps, and see how their growth might compare to the way two “normal” elite teams in the NBA, Golden State and Boston, did it. (Any team that has Lebron is elite, but it’s not normal because it is impossible to duplicate a once-in-a-generation player like him.)
Player development (organic growth)
Boston fans hope that the core of Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart can develop into All-Star level players in the same way that Golden State came up with four diamonds in the draft (Curry, Thompson, Green and Harrison Barnes).
The Lakers have similar hopes for Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Julius Randle, and Kyle Kuzma.
Brandon Ingram. Last year as a rookie, Ingram was rail thin, and too weak to score in the paint. This year, he has added some muscle, and developed a variety of hesitation and Euro-step moves that have helped him become a real force in the paint. Year-2 Ingram has learned how to take or initiate contact and still finish at the rim. He’s now making 61.2% of his shots 5 feet or less from the basket. (For context, Kevin Durant shoots 64.4% at the same distance.)
But tonight, he gave us a taste of the year 3 model, who can pull up short and hit his mid-range shots. For the first three quarters, he made 3 out of 5 jumpers in the 18–21 foot range. (Normally, Ingram is terrible on floaters and short pull ups, and shoots only 35.3% on shots that are 15–19 feet away from the basket. For context, Kevin Durant shoots 61.5% on shots that are 5–9 feet from the basket, 59.1% on shots 10–14 feet away, and 52.8% on shots 15–19 feet away.)
As a bonus, future Brandon hit two 3-pointers, and suddenly he looked a lot like the guy who was projected to be the next Kevin Durant (32 pts on 21 shots, 5 reb, 3 stl, 3 blks). (Note: Year-3 Brandon will also need more stamina, as he shot 1 for 6 tonight during the 4th quarter and overtime, while Durant hit a huge 3-pointer to tie the game with 46 seconds left in the 4th quarter and then shot 2 for 3 in the overtime.)
Lonzo Ball (currently the worst shooter in league) finished at the rim twice and made three 3-pointers, for 15 points, 10 assists and only 2 turnovers. Absorbing contact while scoring at the rim, and making the right read to shoot or pass have been Lonzo’s most curable weakness. If he makes the same kind of progress as Ingram, year-2 Lonzo could make a couple more layups and maybe 1 or 2 more 3-pointers per game, to average 15–16 points a game. If he can do this, Lonzo becomes a top-10 point guard. (Don’t laugh; he’s already #6 in assists, #3 in rebounds, #11 in steals, and #2 in blocks. 16 points per game would be good for #11 in the league.)
Julius Randle is the most enigmatic young Laker, but seems to have finally found himself. Last year, he was like a bull in a china shop, a lazy and disinterested defender who had all of the skills to be a power on the offensive end. He has always been a good rebounder, and has the ability to initiate the fast break, either finishing strong at the rim, or making the right pass. His weakness is his outside shot, and his lack of comfort finishing with his right hand.
This year, he has been converted into a small-ball 5, which is his ideal position. His defense has improved immensely, and he is now a Draymond Green in the making. He can switch on defense to defend every position on the court, and has begun to provide the rim protection and help defense that were absent last year. It’s much harder to find defensive stats, but the eye test is there. In a win against Washington this year, he switched on to John Wall, one of the fastest point guards in the league. On three separate occasions at the end of the game, Wall tried to beat Randle in isolation and came up empty, including two blocked shots. Here’s a great site that shows how Randle compares to Green in scoring (12.5 to 10.2), rebounds (6.6 to 7.4) and blocks (0.9 to 1.3). The areas where Green really shines are in assists and steals. (Last year, Randle average 3.6 assists per game, but his playmaking responsibilities have been drastically reduced with the addition of Lonzo Ball and his reduction in minutes.)
Kyle Kuzma didn’t play tonight, but he is absolutely amazing as an offensive player. He can shoot from distance, make floaters and hook shots, and finish at the rim with nifty spin moves using either hand. He is also an excellent interior passer. He is currently the #2 scoring rookie in the league, and #9 among ALL power forwards, ahead of players like Al Horford, Zack Randolph, Serge Ibaka and Draymond Green. At 22 years of age, he seems fully developed physically, but will need a year of two of experience to improve his decision making skills and defense in order to make the leap to get into All-Star conversations.
Free Agent additions (solving the puzzle)
In 2015, Boston signed the overlooked and undervalued Isaiah Thomas, who had bounced around on a number of teams. Coach Brad Stevens figured out how to use his offensive skills and hide his defensive limitations and the Celtics had the go-to guy they needed to win close games in the 4th quarter, and ended up with 48 wins and a #5 seed in the playoffs. In 2016, they signed Al Horford, and their big two went on to win 53 games and the #1 seed in the East. This year, they traded Thomas for Kyrie Irving, and he’s playing the best basketball of his career, putting in never before seen effort on defense and setting up his teammates. The Celtics are on a pace to win 67 games this year. They may not make the Finals, but they have built their team with great coaching, solid draft picks and the right free agent signings.
In the same way, the 2014 Golden State Warriors made a big jump when Curry and Thompson became the best shooting guard combination in the league, and they signed Andre Igoudala (designated LeBron stopper). In 2015, they became a 67-win team after they added a perfect backup point guard in Shaun Livington, and benefitted from the injury of David Lee, which allowed the Warriors to discover the unique abilities of Draymond Green. When special assistant Nick U’Ren (their video editing guy) suggested playing small ball, with Curry, Thompson, Barnes, Green and Igoudala, they won their first championship. Last year, the added Kevin Durant, and now they have a dynasty that could win another three to five championships.
The Lakers will need to follow this path.
Currently, the Laker lineup doesn’t have one guy who can compete on a consistent basis with All-Star level players (even though Brandon Ingram had a career high in points tonight). That’s why the starters have a point differential of -9.2, only 21st in the NBA (but a big jump from last year, when they were the worst in the NBA of -26.7). The bench is currently #9 in the league with a point differential of 7.4.
If we look at the PER ratings for the core players for each team, it looks like this:
Warriors: Curry (27.0); Durant (23.7); Thompson (18.0); Green (16.2)
Celtics: Irving (24.8); Horford (19.0); Tatum (16.6); Brown (14.7)
Lakers: Randle (17.5); Kuzma (15.5); Ingram (12.7); Ball (10.3)
Even if the young guys improve over the next two years, there’s no way they can compete when the other team has the two best players on the court. Common wisdom holds that the team with the best player on the court usually wins, but that only applies to Lebron James. Normal championship teams usually have a big three of which one player plays at an MVP level. In 2014, the Spurs did it with Finals MVP Kwahi Leonard. In 2015, the Warriors did it with an other-worldly Curry and their small ball lineup. In 2016, Lebron and Kyrie pulled off a huge upset against the 73-win Warriors. And last year, Kevin Durant won the Finals MVP with his dominant two-way performance.
For the Lakers to make the next step, they must sign one or two free agents. What happens if the Lakers add one All-Star, like Paul George?
In tonight’s game, the Warriors absolutely killed the Lakers when they played a traditional center (Zaza Pachulia). The Lakers’ Brooke Lopez couldn’t handle the defensive responsibilities of the pick and roll, or switching on smaller, faster players. He was -15 in plus-minus rating, the worst player on either team.
When the teams went to their small ball lineups, the Lakers were competitive. In the 4th quarter, against the “famed lineup of death,” (Curry, Durant, Thompson, Green, Igoudala), the Lakers kids (Ball, Randle, KCP, Ingram, Hart) played them to a draw, and were one missed layup from forcing a second overtime, in spite of Curry hitting 3 3-pointers in the extra frame. Substitute Kuzma and George for KCP and Hart, and the Lakers are longer and way better offensively, with Kuzma’s defense being the only question mark. Even though Curry and Durant are still the best players on the court, George is probably #3, followed by Thompson, maybe a tie between Green, Randle and Ingram, and then Kuzma, Ball and Igoudala. Depending on how much the kids improve over the next two years, this group could be very competitive, especially as Igoudala has aged and lost his effectiveness.
The Lakers bench outscored the Warriors reserves (Nick Young, Jordan Bell, Shaun Livingston, Kevin Looney, Patrick McCaw, Igoudala) by 25. With a Paul George upgrade, I don’t think the Lakers starters would get outscored by 29.
And now things get really interesting, as the Lakers become a solid playoff team. While they won’t be ready to challenge Golden State for a few years, a winning, well-coached, young team located in the second biggest U.S. market suddenly become attractive to other top free agents.
It’s a similar formula for how Golden State got Kevin Durant, and how Boston got Kyrie Irving. In 2020, imagine if the young guys, now in their primes (23–28), along with a still robust Paul George (30), add this guy:
In addition to the great performances of the youngest guys, Jordan Clarkson (25)had his best game of the season with 21 points and 8 assists (the key stat that shows he’s playing the right way). Kentavious Caldwell-Pope aka KCP (24), Larry Nance, Jr. (24), and Josh Hart (22) all made solid contributions on both ends of the court. The Lakers’ seven core guys average 22.4 years of age, so they have a lot to learn.
Tonight’s game doesn’t mean the Lakers have turned the corner — everyone plays their best game against the champs, and they’ll probably lose by 20 at Denver in a couple of games. But it’s still a sign of where the team might be in a couple of years.