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NBA Hot Take 3–2–18

Guess who’s back, back again… IT’s back, tell a friend… and the newest Laker flexes his muscles.

Say Hello to My Little Friend

With the injury of Josh Hart and the release of Corey Brewer, a short-handed Lakers team turned a Thursday night rerun of Miami Vice into a slightly different scene from another movie set in South Beach.

Luke Walton as Pacino, with Isaiah Thomas the freakin’ bazooka shot gun.

In spite of my reservations about Isaiah Thomas ruining the Lakers’ chemistry and forcing wholesale changes in the young team’s focus on defense, the game against the Heat was a reminder of why Thomas was in the conversation for MVP last year as a Celtic. His expert manipulation of the pick and roll shredded the Heat defense, but more importantly, IT also recognized when to let Lonzo and Ingram push the pace and play off the ball. For me, this is a huge sign that he wants to build something great in Los Angeles, instead of merely padding his statistics so he can get a big contract.

On a night where Thomas deferred in the first half, the young Laker core of Ball, Randle, Ingram, Caldwell-Pope and Kuzma (the BRICK unit) showed how good they can be. The entire team went nuts from beyond the arc, shooting over 55% (hitting 16 of 31), made 80% of their free throws (led by Hail Julius! going 9 for 9) and limited their turnovers to only 13 for the game.

The Closer

But the thing that made this game a thing of beauty and filled me with all kinds of hope for the rest of the season was seeing Thomas provide the one thing this young team needs — a cold blooded closer.

With the Heat cutting the Lakers’ lead to 9 with 1:16 left in the 3rd quarter, it looked like another frustrating road loss was in the making. But IT exploded for 16 points in 3:51 and built the lead up to 17. He then penetrated the Miami defense, leading to a dunk and two free throws by Zubac that maintained the lead at 20 with 7:59 in the 4th quarter, effectively ending the game.

The Beast in the East?

With their 19-point rout of the Heat, the Lakers improved their record to 14–10 against the East, (a winning percentage that would make them the #4 seed), having either beaten or split with Boston, Washington, Indiana, Philadelphia and Miami, with home games left against Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Miami, and a road game against Indiana.

Considering their level of play against the elite Western Conference teams like the Warriors (2 OT losses), Rockets (1 win and a 2OT loss) and Spurs (double digit win), how good are the Lakers and what can they do the rest of this season?

Turning the corner

Back on New Year’s Eve, I wrote about the double overtime loss at Houston, and suggested that the Lakers had turned a corner in the development of their young players.

Since the end of their 9-game losing streak, the Lakers are 16–7 since January 7th (a winning percentage that would make them the #3 seed in either conference). They have ripped off four separate 4-game winning streaks, and beaten San Antonio, OKC (twice), Indiana, Boston, and Miami, while trying to work through the lineup changes caused by trades, injuries and roster moves.

Admittedly, the Lakers have feasted on a very easy stretch in their season, winning 9 of 12 games against the worst teams in the league. But their 12.0 average point differential in those wins shows that they are learning to consistently beat weaker teams, even on the road, and that’s the first sign of becoming a good team.

Against teams fighting for the playoffs, the team is 7–4, with 3 of those losses coming right before All-Star break, before the team could practice with Thomas and adjust their schemes. (The first two games were the team’s worst defensive games of the season as they gave up 134.5 points per game. In the third, on a back to back, the Lakers led most of the game until fatigue and Jimmy Butler took over the 5:25 of the 4th quarter.)

Throughout the season, I’ve pointed out the Lakers’ strengths (defense, pace, transition points, and sharing the ball) and weaknesses (3-point shooting, free throw shooting, and turnovers), and spoke about the development of the young players. Here are the improvements we’ve seen since January 1st, and a reason to think the Lakers could play .500 or better for the rest of the season.

Turnovers

I posited that if the Lakers could clean up the one area completely within their control, they would become a very good team. The turnover battle has a very strong correlation to the team’s success. Here’s their record broken down by the number of turnovers:

  • 10 or less: 5–1
  • 11–15: 11–7
  • 16–20: 8–19
  • 21 or more: 3–7

When the Lakers have 15 turnovers or less, their record is 16–8. (Note: the league median average as of this writing is 14.3.The Lakers have improved to 29th in the league, averaging 16 turnovers per game, with Philadelphia 30th at 17.2, and Golden State just above the Lakers at 15.8.) With the loss of Clarkson and Brewer, reduced minutes for Lopez, and Randle beginning to read the defense before he bulls his way into the paint, the team should be able to maintain and build on their improved ability to take care of the ball.

Over the course of their 16–7 rebirth, the Lakers have played 13 games with 15 turnovers or less and compiled a record of 10–3. In games with 16 turnovers or more, the team has gone 6–6, as their mistakes have not cost them games against bad teams, and they’ve even beaten a couple of good teams (26 vs San Antonio, 19 vs OKC). If they continue to protect the ball at the same rate, it’s entirely possible they can win 13–14 games down the stretch, giving them a chance to finish the season at .500.

3-Point Shooting

The Lakers went from being the worst team in the league by a mile, to being almost average. In 2017, the Lakers shot 31.9% from beyond the arc, or 4.1% below league average. They were so bad at the beginning of the season, they only had a handful of games where they shot at the league average, going 6–1.

Since December, Lonzo, KCP and Ingram have made massive improvements, and the team is now shooting 34.3%, a mere 1.7% below league average. Here’s there record in 2018 based on their 3-point shooting percentage:

  • Above 36%: 10–2
  • 30–36%: 5–4
  • Below 30%: 1–3

In the 7 games Isaiah Thomas has played for the Lakers, the team has shot over 45% in 5 of those games, losing two of those games during his first two games with the team, and with Lonzo Ball defensive presence missing.

Youth Development

Since January, Julius Randle has become a starter and gone into beast mode, as his game stats in the first two months of 2018 are starting to look like his Per 36 stats for the season:

Jan (25.9 Min): 15.3 points, 9.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists, .544 FG, .826 FT

Feb (31.9 Min): 19.4 points, 9.0 rebounds, 4.3 assists, .589 FG, .614 FT

Per 36 Min: 21.5 points, 10.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, .586 FG, .695 FT

After a horrible shooting slump for the first two months of the season, Lonzo Ball should at least be in the conversation for ROY and a sure selection to the first-team All Rookie team. I wrote about him in depth here:

Here are his combined stats for December and January:

11.8 PTS, 7.2 REB, 6.8 AST, 1.0 BLK, 2.2 STL, 2.8 TO .414 FG%, .355 3P%, .500 FT%

He has only played three games in February and March, with minute limitations to protect his knee, but his shooting has been ridiculous, hitting 8 of 12 3-pointers, along with averaging 6.7 rebounds, 6 assists, and 3 steals per game.

In 2018, Brandon Ingram has played a lot like an All-Star who says he wants to play in L.A. Here are his stats for 2018, along with a comparison to Paul George’s second year.

Ingram (Jan): 17.1 PTS, 5.4 REB, 4.1 AST, .416 FG%, .316 3P%

Ingram (Feb): 14.2 PTS, 5.5 REB, 3.8 AST, .461 FG%, .364 3P%

George (Yr 2): 12.1 PTS, 5.6 REB, 2.4 AST, .440 FG%, .385 3P%

With the injury to Ball in January and February, Ingram was asked to become a point forward for the team as they finally realized that Tyler Ennis could not be on the floor. His ability to run the offense and push the pace was a revelation, and helped him become even more effective as a go-to guy who can get big buckets by finishing at the rim or hitting shot pull up jump shots.

Is Miami that bad or are the Lakers that much improved?

This is the third time I’ve analyzed an Eastern Conference playoff team and found that Boston and Indiana both match up poorly against what the Lakers do well. And it looks like there’s a pattern here.

Sure enough, Miami’s weaknesses show up in a number of key metrics that happen to be the Lakers’ strengths. The following list are Miami’s ratings, with the Lakers’ ranking for comparison in parentheses:

#11 in rebounding percentage (Lakers #8)
#22 in offensive rebound percentage (Lakers #6)
#26 in transition frequency (Lakers #1)
#26 in second chance points (Lakers #2)
#28 in fast break points (Lakers #2)
#20 in points in the paint (Lakers #1)
#22 in total assists (Lakers #6)
#27 in pace (Lakers #1)

Miami has a top 10 defense: they are #7 in blocks, #11 in opponents 2nd chance points, #9 in opponents’ fast break points, and #13 in opponent points in the paint. But they were unable to keep up with the Lakers’ pace, giving up 12 more fast break points than their average.

The Lakers dominated the game for three reasons:

  1. Julius Randle was fantastic in adjusting to Whiteside’s shot blocking abilities, scoring 21 points in the first half, almost entirely in the paint and at the free throw line. His decision to focus only on playing bully ball may go against modern NBA ideals for a power forward, but his ability to defend stretch 4’s while pushing them all over the post when he’s got the ball gives the Lakers a big edge. It’s like having a mini Draymond Green who can post up instead of shooting 3's.
  2. The defensive pressure of Lonzo, KCP and Ingram helped cover up Thomas’ weaknesses on that end of the floor, so his offensive outburst wasn’t offset by opponent scoring. Against Miami, Ball had 6 steals that probably turned into 12 transition points, and a few more deflections, as his defense helped the Lakers take an early 13-point lead. Although Miami did come back to take the lead at the end of the first quarter, the psychological effect of building a double digit lead on the road is huge for a young team, and they went on another run in the second quarter to build an 11-point half time lead.
  3. The crazy disparity in 3-point shooting. The Lakers made 16 of 29, while Miami made 9 of 31. But considering the Lakers’ shot 62% on 2-point field goals (31 of 50), their formula of defense, running the floor and sharing the ball created a lot of easy shots, so a large part of the Lakers’ offense is sustainable. If the 3-point shooting was reversed, the Lakers still probably win the game.

What’s next?

A game against the always well-coached Spurs should provide some insight into how well the Lakers can hide IT’s defensive limitations. Smart coaches put him into a high pick and roll on every possession, so he ends up on big guys who can take him inside or get offensive rebounds. After that, they have a huge test against a Portland team that has had the Lakers’ number for a number of years. Then they get a revenge game against bottom dweller Orlando.

It will be interesting how the next week plays out. If Lamarcus Aldridge can’t play, but Ingram does, the Lakers have an excellent chance of completing their first undefeated road trip in 7 years. And if the Lakers can protect their home court in the next two games, the team could enjoy their first 7-game winning streak since January 2011, when the Lakers were the defending NBA Champions. That would be a pretty amazing symbol for this year’s turnaround.

End of Season Predictions

The remaining schedule is not easy, with 4 games against bottom dwellers, 5 games against elite teams (Golden State, Houston, Cleveland, and San Antonio), and 12 games against teams fighting for the playoffs. However, they have 13 games left in Los Angeles (including a “road” game with the Clippers), and the team is on a 9-game home winning streak, so they’ve learned how to beat good teams at home. If they continue protecting the ball and stay healthy, I believe the Lakers can win 11 games. That would mean a 12-game improvement over 2017, which is pretty substantial considering they did not sign a veteran superstar like Jimmy Butler or Demarcus Cousins.

Not even in my wildest Laker-homer dreams do I foresee them making the playoffs. Even if they somehow ended the season on a 15–6 tear, that’s only 42 wins, and the Lakers are 6 games out of tying for the 8th seed. It’s unlikely that the three teams above them will all suffer devastating season-ending losing streaks:

#8 Denver (33–28) doesn’t have to play Golden State, Houston, San Antonio or Boston, but they are terrible away from home (9–19), and play 13 of their remaining 21 games on the road, including games at Cleveland, Lakers, Miami, Washington, Philadelphia, Toronto, OKC, Clippers and at Minnesota.

#9 LA Clippers (32–28) have four games against elite teams, and a brutal streak of 9 out of 11 road games over a 17-day period in March that includes games at Houston, OKC, Minnesota, Milwaukee, Indiana, Toronto and two games with Portland.

#10 Utah (31–30) has been on a hot streak and are the favorites of many analysts to sneak into the playoffs, but they aren’t particularly good on the road and their schedule does include road games at San Antonio, Golden State, Portland, Minnesota, Indiana, and New Orleans.

If any of these teams simply win half their remaining games, one of them has to end up with at least 42–43 wins, but it’s more likely one or more of these teams will win 44–45 games. Every team in the West is hot, except the injury plagued Spurs and Timberwolves. Currently there are 10 teams over .500 in the West. Over the last 10 games, Houston is 10–0, Utah is 8–2 and six others (Golden State, Portland, New Orleans, Denver, Clippers and the Lakers) are 7–3, with OKC at 6–4, Minnesota at 5–5 and San Antonio at 3–7.

In contrast, only 8 teams above .500 in the East, and only Toronto (9–1) and Philadelphia (8–2) have won more than 6 of the last 10 games.

While it would be wonderful to see the Lakers get some playoff experience this year, the look positioned to show enough improvement to rate a look by the top free agents who will become available over the next two summers. If they keep Randle and sign KCP to a reasonable contract, I think getting just one big player, like Paul George, would raise them to the next level.

Overall, this has been one of my favorite seasons, watching the young Lakers develop and learning to play basketball the right way. The unselfish way.

It’s feeling more and more like ShowTime 2.0 is just around the corner.

(Note: The Lakers do have two games left against Denver, two games left against Utah, so they would need to sweep these games to get the head to head tie breaker and have any chance at all to reach the 8th seed.)

Written by

Ad agency creative director, writer & designer at https://guttmanshapiro.com. Former pro tennis player and peak performance coach for professional athletes.

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