Archive for November, 2016

Luke’s Era: Differences Noticed by Fans and the Media from Last Year’s Lakers (@lakersreporter @serenawinters)

November 29, 2016

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The Los Angeles Lakers started the season with quite a few things working against them. The odds were initially stacked against them as the sports experts immediately determined that the rebuilding young Lakers would barely win 30 games. They were young, they were inexperienced, they were years away from any of these young players having any resemblance of star quality. They had a young inexperienced coach in Luke Walton who had nothing more than an impressive run with a great team that “anybody could coach”, and finally, the NBA scheduled the beginning of their season to include three games against the Golden State Warriors, two games against the Oklahoma City Thunder, two games against the Atlanta Hawks and games against Spurs and Bulls. They would open the season against James Harden’s Rockets and Jazz. With a few supposed “winnable” games against the Sacramento Kings, New Orleans Pelicans, Brooklyn Nets, Indiana Pacers, Minnesota Timberwolves and the Dallas Mavericks, the NBA would still consider those games that the Lakers would lose as bottom feeders in the league.

With this in the backdrop, we still had last years’ Lakers in our minds and expected that this team would most likely squeak out wins against the bad teams while getting scorched by the playoff contenders and young upstarts like the Timberwolves en route to perhaps a record like 3-15. They would compete, but they would  take the all too familiar “moral victory”, possessing an awful record and telling the media that they are much better than their record indicates.

What actually happened was the Lakers opened the season with a win against the Rockets, to which they attributed to dumb luck and opening day excitement. They proceeded to lose three straight on the road, competing up to the final quarter before succumbing to inexperienced clutch ball.

So the media was vindicated…for the moment. Then the Lakers did the improbable. They came back from double digits to put away the Atlanta Hawks on the road. They returned home and pummeled the Golden State Warriors and soundly beat the Phoenix Suns. After a letdown against the Dallas Mavericks, they came from 19 down to beat the Kings on the road and then embarrassed the New Orleans Pelicans.

Now they were back to talking about the surprise young Lakers. Following a few more wins and losses they entered a stretch that included back-to-back games against Golden State, preceded by games against the Spurs, Bulls and Thunder. They managed to pull off a win against the Thunder on Nick Young’s go-ahead three.

However, the Lakers now met a new setback that has destroyed them in recent years. D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle went down before the game against Golden State and Nick Young joined the injured before the back-to-back game against Golden State. Fans familiar with the last few years were afraid of deja vu. Furthermore, the Lakers now faced a new challenge. They had been blown out in two straight games and lost four of their last five to legitimate contenders.

So the media is vindicated once more? No.

The Lakers regrouped and soundly destroyed the Atlanta Hawks by 15, sweeping the season series and rededicating themselves to defense after a forgettable first quarter.

Now these Los Angeles Lakers improbably sit at 9-9 and sit at 8 (not last) in the Western Conference. The difference between these Lakers and last years Lakers has become increasingly noticeable and everyone has taken notice. But what are these differences?

1. The Lakers Expect to Win. When the Lakers lose, they actually feel that is based on their performance, not because they just lost to a better team. Even in their losses early in the season they made adjustments. In each loss they had come closer and closer to winning the game. The last one against the Pacers, it took Paul George heroics to put the game away. Even in losses to teams like the Spurs and Bulls, they felt these games were still theirs to win. It took Tony Parker clutch play to stop a furious 4th quarter Laker rally. This winning mentality was virtually non-existent last year.

2. The Lakers are NEVER out of it. This season the Lakers have been down double digits to several of their opponents. Each time, they have come roaring back to make it a game. The only two times this did not happen was against the Golden State Warriors and Minnesota Timberwolves. Against Minnesota, they still got down to single digits, and against Golden State they forced Steve Kerr to keep his starters in the fourth quarter as the Lakers pulled within 12 in their last meeting (without Russell or Randle). The rest of the time the Lakers are almost guaranteed to make it a game AND win. Last year the Lakers would have all but given up, over and over again.

3. The Lakers Make Adjustments. With slow starts and injuries, this Laker team never seems rattled. In the first game against Houston, the Lakers gave up 71 points in the first half. The second half was very different as the Lakers tightened the screws on defense to overtake the Rockets and win, only giving up 43. This same result took place against the Kings. The Lakers are currently withstanding injuries which blindsided them at first. However, Luke and staff have managed the help these Lakers once again adjust and get back in the win column. Against these Hawks, the Lakers gave up a miserable 32 points in the first quarter before making adjustments and never looked back. Last year ties into the second point and, quite frankly, the Lakers made zero adjustments.

4. Same Cast, Different Script? Tarik Black is a beast on the boards and is a key component in the Lakers surprising start. He did not play last year. Nick Young is a smart team player and developing into a 3 and D player. He did not play much last year. Lou Williams and Nick Young were type cast as the same type of players and would never coexist on the court. They are setting each other up for plays. The Lakers have picked up some great additions through free agency and the draft, but Luke Walton is getting the most (and he’s not done yet) out of the same players that played on this Laker team last year. The players are empowered. It’s their game to win or lose. They don’t go in fearing they will be yanked out for a bad play.

5. The Lakers are Buying In. Last year, I have no doubt that the coaching staff had great ideas about offense and defense and even James Worthy as a eyewitness can see the team worked on defense and sharing the ball. Time and time again, post-game interviews would speak about what they did in practice failing to “translate on the court”. The major difference between this year and last year is that these Lakers are buying into what the coaching staff wants to do. That is a very powerful component that determines how any team performs. For whatever reason, many of which I’ve highlighted before, the Lakers are making it a priority to implement everything Luke and staff teaches.

6. The Lakers are Getting Easier Looks. The Lakers are 6th in the league, averaging 108 points a game. Last year they averaged 97 and were dead last. Why? This year, any basketball head would notice that the Lakers have an easier time getting into their offense. They work the ball around for a great shot and many of their shots are open looks. It just looks easier, AND easier to watch. Theoretically, once they knock these shots down with more regularity, they will be scoring with even more efficiency. The Lakers had many of these shooters last year. Yet they struggled to get an uncontested shot off. Their offense looked very labored and uninspired. The ball stuck with one player in ill-advised iso instead of moving around. The Lakers this year miss shots because of either great defense by the opposing team or simply because they just missed an open look.

*And as a note, defensively, even though this is far from their specialty, they are much more active, they make key stops to win games and they do allow more points simply due to the pace of the game. 

Which these points being made, even with the odds stacked against these young Lakers to fail and be doomed to experience the horrors of a rebuilding franchise, the Lakers are 9-9. Expectations are rising. The fans are excited. The players are excited. Even as they find themselves down 19, they can turn around and be up 10. Even after losing 2 straight, they will refocus and win the next game by 15. Even as they lose two starters, they find victories from their bench and veterans. In this young season, the Lakers expect to win and to make it even worse, they expect to get better.

The Lakers will need to maintain their dedication to defense and replicate the performance they had against Atlanta for 3 quarters. They will need to replicate the 20 assists (or more) and 9 turnovers (or less) in that same performance. They will also need to continue to pay attention to detail and start hitting open shots with more regularity.

The NBA and sports experts will still find a way to spin it negative. They say they still won’t make the playoffs or they will still be awful when it all settles down. However, The Lakers Optimist says that we don’t know. Right now, the Lakers when healthy can beat anybody in the league. The Golden State Warriors have not beaten a healthy Lakers team this season. Fact. Without Randle and Russell, the Lakers manhandled the Hawks. So, we still approach the remainder of this season with cautious optimism and take it one game at a time.

Tonight the Lakers face another winnable opponent, although the Pelicans have Jrue Holiday and are playing much better as of late. With every game being a test, the Lakers have to show that they are back to winning ways and take this game in decisive fashion. They must control the boards, hit open looks and take care of the basketball. I’m expecting a victory tonight.

Enjoy the game!

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Los Angeles Lakers are 2 Games Over .500 and Doing the Unexpected (Take that ESPN)

November 18, 2016
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Larry Nance Jr. posterizes David West.

We are 12 games into the young NBA season and the Los Angeles Lakers have so far managed to not only to be competitive, but to also shock the naysayers who expect this team to finish with under 30 wins…if that! The Los Angeles Lakers under new head coach Luke Walton are 7-5 and have won 6 out out 8 games since starting 1-3. They are doing it with an assist-driven, high tempo offense that keeps defenses on their heels. They are exciting, putting down at least 2 highlight dunks per game and that’s being modest! They are at times playing lockdown defense en route to clutch victories against Houston, Atlanta, Phoenix and Brooklyn and blowouts against Golden State, Sacramento and New Orleans.

This team has by no means crowned a “superstar” or an “alpha male” as of yet. At times D’Angelo Russell has shined in plays like his barrage of threes in the first quarter against Brooklyn and continues to develop into the head of the snake. Nick “Swaggy P” Young has accepted Luke’s challenge and has developed into an effective defender and has regained his shooting touch. Lou Williams has developed into the Lakers’ closer in many of these games and is providing an scoring punch off the bench. Jordan Clarkson is getting ever more dangerous and seems as though he can get his shot anytime he wants to. He too has taken defense much more seriously this year. Julius Randle may be the strongest Lakers player as he notched a triple double already in their last game against the Nets. He is the closest to the total package with developing on-ball defense, an almost indefensible inside shot and great passing ability. That issue with finishing at the basket is almost a non-factor this year.

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Mozgov with one of his many monster dunks! 

Larry Nance is truly the heart and soul of the team and does a little bit of everything. His defensive presence and ability to finish with STYLE in the paint is huge in these games. Timofey Mozgov is proving his worth, altering shots and clogging the paint on defense, while finishing ally oops and being a problem for defenses on the interior. Brandon Ingram is so far ahead of the curve as a rookie, with clutch blocks and clutch plays in games where Luke Walton is comfortable enough to leave him in during crunch time. Tarik Black really had a coming out game against Nets, being tenacious on the glass and creating nasty, NASTY dunks off of great inside passing. All of this taking place as Luol Deng continues to find his footing with this team. Perhaps the biggest reason for their success is that nobody feels the need to be the “Alpha Male”. They share the ball, share the passion, share the blame and share the success.

The Lakers once had an “Alpha Male” named Kobe Bryant. In fact, we are only a few months removed from his stellar 60 point swan song that left Staples Center abuzz even as this capped a historically awful season. While we hate to relive the past (at least the bad memories), we know that this very Kobe Bryant when on his game is the main reason the Lakers hoisted up the Larry O’Brien trophy 5 times and were in playoff and or championship contention during his 20 years as a Laker. However, we would be remiss if we didn’t highlight how things came to a grinding halt on that fateful day at Staples Center against the Golden State Warriors. Although we argued and we hoped, that would mark the rapid decline of the greatest since Jordan.

So as we bridge the gap between the Laker legend and the Lakers youth, the question we ask is, “Where does Kobe fit in all of this?” It would appear to be a stupid question if not for the constant conversation about his last two dismal years, particularly in the wake of drafting the Lakers future stars D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle. Last year, they brought in the young cocky point guard D’Angelo Russell to hopefully take the torch and run alongside Randle and Clarkson back toward Lakers glory. Of course we know that this was the same year that Kobe would declare this to be his last ride. Then the goal changed from youth development and winning games in the process to keeping Kobe healthy, celebrating Kobe and oh— let’s develop the youth.

So the question becomes, “Did Kobe help develop the young guys and does he have a hand in this year’s success?”

I’m so glad you asked! The answer is yes and no. There is wide speculation on if Kobe even gave the young Lakers and even the old ones (Like Nick Young) any advice or if he had talked to them at all. Some say that Russell pointed out not having guidance from the ones that were supposed to guide him. We already know of his level of confusion under Coach Scott last year. There are mentions of Kobe not really interacting with the team. I have also seen Kobe be somewhat of a coach on the floor during games and rallying the troops when they had those very few victories. So the first issue is whether or not Kobe taught the kids. Well whether or not he had two words to say to D’Angelo Russell is not really on Kobe. To be perfectly honest, when you’ve been in the league as long as Kobe has and have worked as hard as he has and has also had the accolades that he’s had, you don’t necessarily have any obligation to say anything to a rookie no matter how great they expect him to be. Should he teach them? Of course, but obligation? Nah. It seems to make perfect sense to me for a player of D’Angelo Russell’s current NBA status to have to work for such a position that a Carmello Anthony has, such as texting back and forth with Kobe like BFF’s.

What Kobe did for this young Laker team was show them first hand what a legend looks like. Being in his presence and getting a first look at the greatness that he brought to the table for so many years can charge up a young team. There is something about the rare air that Kobe brought in and actually left on the court after his 60 point ending. When you have been touted as the ones destined to pick up where he left off, that hunger translates into the off-season and on the court. Metta World Peace speaks to this very concept. It was up to the players to actually see the benefit in playing alongside Kobe and take whatever they can from him while he donned the Laker jersey.

While Kobe retired in style, another big thing Kobe did was RETIRE. What Kobe left was a torch that was to be taken, not necessarily by one player, but by the whole team. This young core experienced greatness, and then that greatness left an opportunity for them to create their own greatness. As Kobe was on the court with Russell, Clarkson, Nance and Randle, that ball belonged to Kobe. It was still the Kobe show. It was still Kobe’s game to win or lose. It was Kobe taking all the shots. It was Kobe taking the minutes. When you have great players salivating at their opportunity to do the same while learning on the fly, a hunger develops. Now these Lakers can feast! Luke Walton, who also had the ability to take a wealth of knowledge from Kobe, now can temper this wild urge to take their spot in Lakers glory. Nobody can say don’t shoot it. Nobody can yank them out of the game. Nobody can tell them not to take over in the clutch. Each one of these players, and you can add Brandon Ingram, are free to carve their legacy. As talented as these players were, including Lou Williams and Nick Young, all they needed was one man to loose the reigns. That man was actually Kobe Bryant.

With Kobe Bryant out of the picture, Luke Walton wisely instituted a pass-first mentality and a share-the-ball offense that the players are buying into. Perhaps the biggest reason, besides Luke’s amazing ability to empower his players, is that this represents the antithesis of what they experienced just last year. It’s not that no player is special on the team. It’s that ALL the players are special. It’s that Julius can finish inside, Clarkson can spot up from three or score off the dribble, Lou Williams and drive in the middle for a floater, Nick Young can spot up and drain the three when open, Nance can take a pass from Russell and tomahawk slam and Russell can actually bring the ball up and run the offense. This is their team.

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A teaching moment with Luke Walton.

This year Mitch Kupchak, who has been the center of hate the last few years, made some pretty genius moves in putting together a great mix of young extremely talented players with high ceilings along with some veterans that are pretty strong at their respective positions. Furthermore, none of these players are “too good” to listen and implement what Luke brings to the table. Capping those wise draft picks and free agent signings is picking up Luke Walton. Not because he threatened to use the “pine” (sorry Byron) or decided to humble his rookies. Quite the contrary, Brandon Ingram actually played in clutch moments early in his career when Russell sat down in his rookie year. Luke really is just being himself. He knows basketball. His father is Bill Walton. His championship coach was Phil Jackson. He learned from Phil when injured. He won rings under Phil Jackson. He assisted Steve Kerr (who played under Phil Jackson and came from the school of Gregg Poppovich) and won a championship as an assistant coach. He coached Golden State to 24-0 (No fluke by any stretch).

After all that information, the haters still declared, “THIS MEANS NOTHING”. So here goes nothing. The Lakers sit 5th in the Western  Conference at 7-5. Yes they have a tough 5 game stretch that includes the Spurs, Bulls, Thunder and back-to-back games against the Warriors, who would like nothing more than to embarrass the Lakers right back. However, these Lakers are competitive, which was Luke Walton’s goal. They are a team you actually prepare for. When I say prepare, I don’t mean circle it as an easy win and tell your team not to take them lightly just because they suck. I mean prepare as in figure out how you’re going to slow down Randle, get points around Mozgov, keep Nick Young, Lou Williams and Jordan Clarkson off the three point line and keep Larry Nance and Tarik Black off the glass.

The league and the media respect the Los Angeles Lakers once again. The players are having fun and even Laker haters find that this team is fun to watch too. Welcome to the new era of Los Angeles Lakers basketball.