When will the baby Warriors grow up?
When Luke Walton was hired at the start of the 2016–2017 season, his goal was to install the Warriors system. Given the personnel that year (net negative to non-existent defenders in D’Angelo Russell, Lou Williams, Nick Young and an out-of-shape Julius Randle), the Lakers were the worst defense in the league, equaling their inept efforts the previous year, otherwise known as the Kobe Bryant retirement tour.
The beginning of the Magic Johnson-Rob Pelinka era brought with it major changes, as they moved Lou Williams (hurt to see him go), D’Angelo Russell, and Timofy Mozgov’s horrible contract, while bringing in two first round draft picks, along with Brook Lopez and the free agent signing of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (KCP). In addition, they traded the Houston pick (#28) to Utah in exchange for the 30th and 42nd picks in the 2017 draft.
Those moves, along with the lucky ping pong ball that gave them the second pick in the draft netted them the best draft in the league, according to ESPN Insider analyst Kevin Pelton. Based on his projections, the Lakers landed three of the top 30 prospects in this year’s draft class. Ball was the number 1 player, Hart was 16th, and Bryant was 30th. And we all know what happened with Kyle Kuzma.
How the baby Lakers compare to the Warriors at a similar stage
Overall, coach Walton did a great job of installing the Warriors’ system which keys on defense, sharing the ball and running the floor in transition.
Here’s a comparison of the two teams in those metrics:
Defensive Rating: GS (#9), LA (#12)
Assists: GS (#1), LA (#7)
Transition Frequency: LA (#1), GS (#3)
Transition Points: LA (#1), GS (#2)
What’s even more interesting is to compare the 2012–2013 Warriors with the 2017–2018 Lakers. Each team made huge jumps from the previous year:
Defensive Ratings: Warriors (#27 up to #13), Lakers (#30 up to #12)
Assists per game: Warriors (22.3 up to 22.4), Lakers (20.9 up to 23.8)
Fastbreak points per game: Warriors (13.0 up to 14.3), Lakers (15.2 up to 17.5) (note: transition frequency stats weren’t available before 2015 on NBA.com)
Turnovers per game: 2013 Warriors 15.3 (#27), 2018 Lakers 15.8 (#29)
The biggest difference between the teams was in the 3-point shooting percentage: 2013 Warriors .401 (#1), 2018 Lakers .345 (#29)
Each Team Made Extensive Personnel changes
As noted above, the Lakers got rid of poor defenders, ball hogs and slow plodders. Look at the transformation of the Warriors in 2012–2013:
IN: Draymond Green, Harison Barnes, Festis Ezeli (all rookies), plus Andrew Bogut and Jarred Jack
OUT: Montal Ellis, Nate Robinson, Ish Smith, Kwami Brown
How those improvements affected each team’s record
2011–2012 was a strike shortened season, so the Warriors’ .348 winning percentage equaled 28.5 wins. In 2012–2103, the Warriors won 47 games (+18.5) and won their first round playoff series against the Denver Nuggets. The newly formed Splash Brothers even put a scare into the San Antonio Spurs.
The 2016–2017 Lakers won 26 games, then improved to 35 wins the following season. However, injuries, trades and lineup changes disrupted the team’s true potential. For some indefensible reason, the team wasted two months starting Larry Nance over Julius Randle. From the time Randle started, the Lakers went 20–13 until injuries to the young core (Ball, Hart, Ingram, and Kuzma) caused the team to shut things down in the last month of the season. That winning percentage would lead to almost 49.6 wins.
During that run, the Lakers compiled a 9–8 record against playoff teams, beating OKC and San Antonio twice, Boston, Indiana, Miami, Denver and Cleveland, while blowing multiple leads against the Rockets that ended in a double overtime loss at Houston.
Comparing the teams’ personnel
Here’s a comparison of each team’s best starting lineups, along with 3-point percentages:
GS: Curry (.451), Thompson (.401), Barnes (.359), Lee, Ezeli/Bogut
LA: Ball (.305), Ingram (.390), KCP (.383), Randle, Lopez (.345)
Here’s a comparison of the key bench players:
GS: Jack (.404), Landry (.333), Green (.209), Jefferson (.311), Biedrans
LA: Kuzma (.366), Hart (.396), Clarkson (.324), Brewer (.186), Nance
When the Lakers played the Warriors at full strength in the 2017–2018 season, both games went to overtime.
In my opinion, the 2018 Lakers would have made life miserable for the 2013 Warriors. Lopez would force Ezeli/Bogut away from the paint. Randle would manhandle David Lee or Harrison Barnes in the post. KCP would keep Thompson from exploding, as he did in the two games played this season (Thompson averaged 18.5/6.5/2 versus KCP at 17.5/7.5/.5).
Brandon Ingram absolutely destroyed the Warriors in these two games, averaging 25.5/5.5/4 with 2.5 steals and 2 blocks. And that happened while guarding Kevin Durant.
Even Lonzo Ball shined against the best team in the NBA, averaging 15.5/4/8 with 1 steal and 1 block.
Finally, the Lakers’ bench had a slight edge (+3.4 point differential for the season) over the Warriors (+2.5 point differential in 2013).
The biggest difference between the teams was a budding superstar in Stephen Curry, who made the jump in his fourth season, averaging 22.9 points on 45.3% 3-point shooting. He would have to be red hot for the 1013 Warriors to beat this season’s young Lakers.
What happens next year?
First, look at the changes made by the Warriors going into the 2013–2014 season. Free agent and former All-Star and All-NBA defensive team Andre Iguodala left the joined the Warriors in sign and trade deal.
Iggy was a huge upgrade over Jarred Jack, and Draymond Green replaced Carl Landry, improving the Warroris on defense, while improving the ball movement and depth of the team, allowing the team to give Curry more rest.
While the Warriors lost a 7-game series to the Clippers after their center Bogut got injured, the team was only a couple more moves away from winning a title the following year.
Does that mean I’m predicting that the Lakers are one free agent signing and two years away from a title?
Of course not.
If we compare the teams by their young cores, the differences are obvious with hindsight. Curry (budding MVP), Thompson (budding All-NBA) and Green (future All-Star, DPOY) made the jump.
For now, we have no idea how much Ingram, Ball and Kuzma can improve.
Based on their play this season, Randle’s improvement as a small ball center made him a poor man’s Draymond Green, while Ingram was like Kevin Durant (if Durant couldn’t shoot). Kuzma will be an amazing offensive player, with more variety in his game than Klay Thompson, but has a long way to go in his 3-point shooting and especially on defense.
Each one of these players has specific areas that need work. Given the work ethic shown by all three players this year, I am confident they will continue to improve:
- Randle needs to add a mid range jump shot from the baseline to his post up game, so teams can’t simply pack the paint. It will also make him a bigger threat in the pick and roll game.
- Ingram needs to improve his pull-up jump shots as he can already get to his spot at will. With this shot in his repertoire, he would have probably beaten the Warriors in regulation, instead of forcing the play near the rim with three defenders surrounding him.
- Kuzma needs to watch tons of film and develop better instincts for team defense. With his length and agility, he was a decent on-ball defender this season, but got lost on switches constantly, didn’t communicate with teammates, and often failed to make the correct rotation.
The Ball Identity
And then there’s Lonzo Ball. For a quiet guy, he was one of the most controversial players in the league, as people see him anywhere from a bust to a transcendent player who will completely lead the rebirth of the proud Lakers franchise.
I watched Lonzo in almost every game he played this year, and I will swear on a stack of basketball bibles that the Lakers looked like a completely different team when he was on the court. His passing and pace was infectious as every player tried to make the extra pass and set up teammates with layups or wide open 3-pointers. In addition, he made so many smart plays that don’t show up in the stat sheet, whether it was making the quick pass that turned into a hockey assist, being in the right place to save an errant pass, or coming up with deflections, steals and blocks that disrupted opponents’ offenses.
That doesn’t mean I’m ignoring his poor shooting. All I’m saying is that the comparison to Jason Kidd is not a wild fantasy.
He’s a top 10 guard in just about every statistical category…
Lonzo Ball ended this season in or near the top 10 among all guards in a number of statistical categories: 7.2 assists (#7), 6.9 rebounds (#3), 1.69 steals (#11), .83 blocks (#3). Throw in some advanced defensive stats: 2.9 deflections (#11), 1.4 loose balls recovered (#14), 7.7 contested shots (#10)
And he seems to the ability to rise to the occasion in the biggest games…
Not many players hit clutch shots at the end of games in their rookie year. Here’s a list of Lonzo’s big shots:
Golden State (12/18): Two consecutive 3-pointers to tie the game at 107 with 2:53 left in overtime, followed by a layup to take the lead 113–112 with 1:03 left in the game. (Durant hit 2 free throws to go up 114–113. KCP missed a 3-pointer, but Julius Randle got an offensive rebound and makes one free throw to tie the game. Durant hit the go ahead shot with 7 seconds left, and David West blocked a desperation drive by Lonzo with 2 seconds left, to preserve the win 116–114.)
Portland (12/23): Hit a step back 3-pointer with 1:45 left in the 4th quarter to tie the game at 91, in a game that ended 95–92. (KCP missed two 3-pointers on the Lakers’ last two possessions.)
San Antonio (3/3): Hit a 3-pointer at 1:15 left in the 4th quarter to regain the lead 109–107. With 0:42 left in the game he hit a second consecutive 3-pointer to put the Lakers up112–109, (finished with an assist to Randle that gave the Lakers a 114–109 lead, in a game the Lakers won 116–114.)
Portland (3/5): Hit a 3-pointer with 1:51 left in the game to tie the score at 103. (Isaiah Thomas missed a key free throw and got his shot blocked in the last 7 seconds of the game with the Lakers down 106–103).
Those are four clutch games against playoff teams. How is that possible if the kid is such a horrible shooter? If anything, he should be missing all the shots at the end of big games.
But he was a horrible shooter…
The most disturbing part of Ball’s game was not his 30.5% 3-point shooting for the season.
Lonzo came in as the most over-hyped and targeted rookie since Lebron James was drafted. He was a target of every team. Rookies and young players reveled in showing him up. Veterans harassed him to the point of drawing fouls at half court just to mess with his head. It wasn’t a surprise when Ball entered the league and hit the rookie wall. For the first 20 games of the season Ball only shot 24.3% from beyond the arc. (That’s so bad, it makes Marcus Smart look like a good shooter.)
After adjusting to the pressure, Ball shot a passable 33%, making 66 of 200 3-pointers. Not great, but not horrible. And yes, he went into a horrible slump for the last 10 games he played this season, making only 10 of 58 3-pointers (17.2%). That leaves a 23-game stretch where he made 56 of 142 of his 3-pointers (39.4%), including one crazy game at Detroit where he showed a variety of mid-range jumpers and floaters he never used during the season.
Does that mean he’s a super streaky shooter? Is his shot broken beyond repair? Or can he improve his shooting just like that guy who shot 27% on 3-pointers his rookie season and went on to become a Hall of Fame player?
While I can’t answer that question, it doesn’t matter to me, because this guy shows you a guard doesn’t even need to shoot from outside the paint and still be an All-Star level player.
Magic and Rob Pelinka have stressed that Ball’s number one priority is to get stronger in the off-season. This will not only allow him to stay healthier during the season, it will allow him to take or create contact and finish at the rim. Brandon Ingram was awful finishing in his first year, but the work he did to absorb contact at the rim made him a completely different player in year two. I think Lonzo can make that same progression.
And that leaves the most disturbing part of Lonzo’s game, his poor free throw shooting. If he can correct this problem, it will allow him to confidently finish at the rim and eventually help him develop a pull-up jumper at the foul line.
If Ball learns to finish at the rim and make his free throws, he will become just as much of an offensive threat in the half court as he is in transition. These skills will allow him to rip apart opposing defenses on the pick and roll. When the center hangs back near the restricted circle, the 15-foot pull up is open. If the center challenges at the foul line, Lonzo will get to the rim and either score, get fouled, or find the right man for an easy basket.
That’s why the most important skill Ball has to perfect in order to become a great player is his free throw shooting. He shot 67.3% on free throws at UCLA, but there’s no excuse for an NBA guard not to shoot at least 75%. (According to NBA stats, 74 out of 109 total guards who played in the 2017–2018 season made 75%. 91 out of 109 guards shot at least 70%.) Lonzo was ranked 108th.
Even Ricky Rubio, a historically bad shooter (career .325 3P%), shoots 83.6 % from the foul line.
(Note: As much as people talk about Rondo’s poor shooting, they forget that until he tore his ACL in 2013 Rondo was one of the best point guards in the NBA: four-time All-Star (2010–2013), All-NBA 3rd team in 2012, and four-time All Defensive team (2009–2012). He was regarded as the best player on the 2012 Celtic (Garnet, Pearce, Allen) team that took eventual champion Miami to 7 games. During those prime Boston years, he never shot above 31.3% on 3-pointers, and 65% on free throws.)
So far, the front office gets an “A”
Magic and Rob Pelinka have already accomplished the following:
- Traded weak defenders (Russell, Williams) for needed assets
- Dumped the horrific Mozgov contract
- Turned those assets into Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart and Thomas Bryant
- Properly gauged the ceilings of Clarkson and Nance
- Acquired another first round pick from Cleveland
- Maintained cap space flexibility to sign 2 max free agents
The real question is whether they can sign at least one All-Star free agent either this summer or next year, and if they can continue to find value in late first round draft picks. Not only was Kuzma the steal of the draft (All Rookie 1st team), but Josh Hart has played so well since he became a starter in February (13.8/7.3/2.0, shooting 43.9% from deep) he is a super cheap replacement for KCP.
#1: Lebron will stay in the East and continue to get to the finals. It’s all part of his master plan:
Could Lebron James be your team’s savior?
A master plan that will lead to a whole new kind of legacy
#2: Paul George will make the same basketball decision as Kevin Durant, and leave the black holes of ball-stopping otherwise known as Westbrook and Anthony. If he signs in the East (Philadelphia Cleveland or Boston), he can do no worse than make the conference finals every year. If he signs with the Lakers, they could become a top four team in the West.
#3: The Lakers keep their young core together and grow up into a playoff team next year, with or without a big free agent signing.