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NBA Hot Takes 3

It’s still a small sample size but there are some interesting trends

I should wait longer to write this, I know. But let’s face it. When you are a die hard fan, you’re going to grasp at straws in order to keep your hopes alive that your team will not be wandering in the Lottery desert for 40 years.

So here are a few observations, as well as some advanced analytics that should give Lakers fans some confidence that there is already a light at the end of the tunnel.

Coaching: I think this is where having the right kind of coach really shows up. Mike Brown and Mike D’Antoni took good teams and made them worse. Byron Scott hasn’t been a relevant NBA coach since his days with the Nets. Luke Walton is a great fit for a young team. They are playing with energy and a fast tempo. Making mistakes is tolerated, so the young guys keep coming back to make a play. Currently, the Lakers are the worst team in the NBA in turnovers, but they are #6 in steals. So, the team is working hard on defense and getting the ball back. There were a few instances in the big win against the Warriors where the Lakers had a turnover but hustled back on defense and stole the ball back. That kind of effort is a breath of fresh air.

Bench: I read this statistic during the Warriors game and it blew my mind: the Laker bench outscored Golden State’s bench 61–31. I love the 10-man rotation and the fast pace. While the starters are not an elite team, the Williams-Ingram-Clarkson-Nance bench has played wonderful basketball. Against Golden State, these four bench guys played the key crunch minutes in the fourth quarter and put the game away with a 14–6 run, even though Curry and Durant were on the court.

They are potentially the best bench in the NBA: 1st in points; 1st in steals (Larry Nance Jr.!) 3rd in assists; 4th in offensive rebounds, 2nd in efficiency, 5th in point differential. If they can clean up their turnovers (again, the worst in the league), they will be awesome. Their bench has outscored opponents in 7 of 9 games.

A new style of basketball: With the increased tempo and ten man rotation, the lines are being blurred between starters and subs. It reminds me of soccer, where they keep two good subs who come in after everyone else has played three-quarters of the game. The energy guys have an edge and often score a late goal.

The Lakers bench isn’t quite good enough to compete as starters against the starters from most teams. But once the other teams’ players have played 25–30 minutes going into crunch time in the fourth quarter, their levels drop off just enough that the bench guys are competitive.

Schedule: This is just an eyeball thing, but the Lakers started their season against six straight playoff teams. They were in every game, and ended up with a 3–3 record. Now, they are in the midst of six games against six of the bottom eight teams in the league. Depending on how these games go, the Lakers could end up a few games above .500, which would be a revelation.

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Randle held his own against opposing bigs (Getty Images)

Game Notes vs Phoenix (119–108 victory)

  1. I love the continued rebirth of Nick Young. It says a lot about how good a coach Luke Walton is. Nick Young was a joke, a disrespected after thought last year. Today, he was not only the leading scorer, but he contributed on defense and the boards and shared the ball. And he made the key four point play that gave the Lakers a 7-point cushion at the end of the game.
  2. Julius Randle was amazing today, showing so much variety in his shooting. He’s progressing faster than Blake Griffin in learning how to shoot little fallaways, intermediate jump shots and the use of his right hand near the basket to go along with his power drives. His defense, rebounding and playmaking continues to improve. But the play of the day for me was when he got into a spat with Tyson Chandler, drew a double technical and then looked like he would drive the ball straight at Chandler with the Lakers up by seven and 1:27 left in the game. Instead of going to the dark side and channeling his inner mamba, he faked out the Suns and the entire Staples Center crowd by taking one dribble forward, seeing the defense collapse toward the paint and then firing a pass to a now wide open Jordan Clarkson who hit the trey that put the Lakers up by ten. Way to go, young fella.
  3. D’Angelo Russell didn’t let a bad shooting night spoil his effort and focus. He made a key steal at the end, pushed the ball and got the assist on Swaggy D’s 4-point play.
  4. The only down side tonight was seeing how fragile this team really is. When you have a ten-man rotation that plays hard and fast, you need the bench to win games for you. Even thorugh the Laker’s bench outscored Phoenix 47–9 tonight, the loss of Larry Nance was a huge blow to the team. His defense and hustle is the glue that makes the bench so good. His replacement, Thomas Robinson, showed a few flashes of good play but the chemistry of the bench unit just wasn’t the same.
  5. Walton found another good adjustment in crunch time. The final five on the floor tonight was Clarkson-Randle-Young-Russell and Ingram. Even though Chandler had a big height advantage he has almost no offensive game. Randle played the 5, allowing the other four guys to switch on screens, crash the boards and put only big guys on Devin Booker, who was killing the Lakers most of the night and responsible for them cutting a 13-point lead to 1 point at 93–92 with 6:39. They also took away the three point line at the end of the game, effectively killing the Suns’ hopes of getting back into the game by fouling and then hitting threes.
  6. The Lakers continue to show signs of improvement in rebounding 53–40 over Phoenix) and scoring balance (six players in double figures, plus Ingram with 9 points).
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Getty Images

Game Notes vs Dallas (112–97 victory)

  1. Just like the Utah game, the Lakers had problems with a dominant rim protector and a disciplined offensive team. Julius Randle had a number of turnovers that killed the team in the fourth quarter, and had a lot of trouble containing Bogut on the defensive board (admittedly, Bogut pushed Randle almost into the stands leading to a key offensive tip that led to a decisive three; the referee totally missed the call).
  2. The Lakers’ achilles heel on defense was exposed again as Harrison Barnes torched Luol Deng and everyone else assigned to guard him. In the second and third quarter, he never missed a shot, scoring 16 points during a 30–9 Dallas run that turned a 10-point Laker lead into an 11-point deficit. In the fourth quarter, he scored seven straight points to overcome a 2-point Laker lead to go ahead 96–91. Overall, he scored 31 points on 18 shots, and never took a bad shot.
  3. The Lakers did not give the same effort as they have in previous games. The didn’t push the ball as much (though partly this was because Dallas made so many shots during their big runs), which allowed the Dallas starters to rest a little before defending the half court. They also didn’t contest every shot as well, leaving Seth Curry to do his impression of Stephen Curry, who shot 4–7 from beyond the arc.
  4. The Lakers definitely missed the defense and chemistry of Larry Nance, Jr. Tonight, each bench scored 44 points. Without a big bench advantage and fast tempo, the Lakers can’t wear down the star performers on the other teams, so the talent level get equalized in the fourth quarter.
  5. D’Angelo Russell got completely lost against J.J. Barea. Walton tried having Calderon guard Barea. Calderon coughed up two turnovers, and his night was done. But let’s face it, Calderon has been a defensive liability his entire career in the NBA, so this was just a prayer.
  6. Dallas coach Rick Carlisle is regarded as one of the better in-game coaches. His sets and defensive adjustments confused the young Lakers enough to completely change the outcome of the game.
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Lou Williams has been the Lakers’ best scorer in crunch time (Getty Images)

Game Notes vs Sacramento (101–91 victory)

  1. This might be my favorite game of the season so far. The Lakers looked terrible, like so many times in the past where even the Kobe-Shaq championship teams would come in flat and give no effort in losing to horrible teams (the curse of Charlotte). In spite of a 19-point deficit, these young Lakers fought the entire game and never gave up. When Sacramento went cold and coughed up some turnovers in the second half, the Lakers went on a huge run that turned a 71–61 deficit into a 92–82 lead.
  2. D’Angelo Russell finally may have figured out what to do with small, fast guards. He was completely baffled by JJ Barea in the Dallas loss and Ty Lawson in the first half. But he started driving his man toward the basket and used his height advantage to outscore Lawson and contribute an assist on a Nick Young 3-pointer.
  3. Swaggy D to the rescue! He added some defensive stability in the fourth quarter, then had a 36 spurt where he took a defensive rebound and took it coast to coast, followed by a double team and steal off Cousins and capped off by a three pointer that put the Lakers up by ten. I love the way he has become a solid contributor to the Lakers in all phases of the game. He’s not as goofy, but I think he is savoring his play maybe more now than at any time in his career after staring out at the abyss all last year.
  4. Brandon Ingram is getting all the crunch time and making some great plays (a great drive and a fantastic alley oop to Mozgov), while quietly helping the team defense with his long wingspan. He has really helped the Lakers on the defensive glass. He also took a great foul, stopping Rudy Gay on a fast break. Gay missed one of the free throws, which maintained a six point lead with 1:24 left in the game.
  5. Lou Williams had another fantastic fourth quarter: 14 points, rebounds, 1 assists, 1 steal, two turnovers, and his crazy ability to draw contact, fade left, and then get off a shot. Luke’s 10 man rotation is keeping him fresh, allowing him to be dominant player against the opponent starters in crunch time.
  6. Great game by Mozgov in crunch time. He was the only guy who could slow down Cousins, but he also set a great screen that led to a Clarkson layup.
  7. We need Deng to play better. Maybe he is worried or frustrated that he is not getting more PT, but he made a couple of mental mistakes that a veteran shouldn’t make. He is solid on the defensive boards. His shooting is way off this year, but I’m more worried that his defense is not what it used to be.

Update: The Lakers are 5–4, with three surprising wins over playoff teams

, one disappointing loss and one inspiring comeback. Can they sustain their team play and hustle over the course of a long season? Could they actually be ahead of schedule and continue to play .500 basketball?

Final Thoughts:

  1. The Lakers are a team that has no margin of error. There is no star player who can bail them out with three or four consecutive and unstoppable baskets (George Hill, Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Harrison Barnes all succeeded in doing this in crunch time to beat the Lakers).
  2. There is no great defensive player who can shut down the opposing team’s best player and force lesser players to make clutch shots.
  3. The team’s only formula for winning is crazy consistent effort by ten guys who each play under 30 minutes. The cumulative effect of this effort by committee is to overwhelm the opponent’s bench and get the opponent starters tired enough that they lose just a couple of percent efficiency at the end of the game. That slight drop-off in ability allows the Lakers crunch time lineup to have a competitive chance.
  4. The Lakers are showing a toughness we haven’t seen since the days of Derek Fisher, Rick Fox, and Robert Horry. In spite of being overmatched by star players on other teams, the Lakers have fought and clawed to get a 4th quarter lead in every 8 out of their 9 games. Julius Randle has shown to be a leader with his physical play against Tyson Chandler and Demarcus Cousins. He’s pretty quiet, but he doesn’t back down.
  5. With three more games against sub .500 teams, we’ll see if the Lakers can sustain their energy, which went missing for parts of the last two games. They need to pick up some wins now, because they have a killer section in the schedule where they play San Antonio, Chicago, OKC, Golden State twice, and Atlanta before embarking on a 4-game road trip.

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

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