Lakers Optimism? Of Course!

April 16, 2017

Brandon Ingram flushes the dunk on Pau Gasol

At the beginning of this Lakers season, promising a fresh start and a new culture, nobody thought we’d be back here again. Where is here? Pulling out the tanks and cheering the Lakers on openly, while quietly (well not so quietly. Have you SEEN Twitter?) praying for losses in order to keep their draft pick. 

Lakers finished the season 26-56, winning 9 games more than last year. However, as we tend to look at the present, that’s just AWFUL. The Lakers yet again will miss the playoffs for 4 straight years. So we can’t overlook the obvious. The Lakers still stink from a record and competing standpoint. 

So where’s the optimism?

Assuming the Lakers increase by 9 wins each year.

Let’s first look at trends. Am I reaching? Perhaps. The Lakers finished the season under Luke’s first year +9 in wins. If this trend was to continue, logically the Lakers would be official contenders by 2019. Even before then they would start to reach that playoff bubble by 2018 and be much more fun, competitive and tolerable by next season. 

We know that late in the season there were some very pivotal changes that took place which could very well increase that +9 win total.

1. New Regime: Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss were both unceremoniously booted from leadership and replaced with former sports agent Rob Pelinka and Lakers legend and saavy buinessman Magic Johnson. Immediately after Magic took the reins as head of basketball operations, he traded 6th man Lou Williams to Houston for a 1st round pick. They have gotten behind Luke Walton as the coach for many years to come and touted Brandon Ingram as their future superstar. Evidence of that is their refusal to trade him even for Demarcus Cousins.

2. The Emergence of the Youth: Once the Lakers surrendered to the lack of playoff contention, the youth movement began. The guys got BUSY. Brandon Ingram’s scoring numbers shot up, D’Angelo Russell put up big numbers and career highs. Ivica Zubac put up career high numbers, David Nwaba made a name for himself defensively and the kids just got better. The Lakers ended the season 5-1 in their last six games and featured some of the best highlights you would ever see from a losing team. Kobe Bryant is expected to work with Brandon Ingram this summer, and it would appear that all of Lakers players intend to improve over the summer.

Tank talks now aside, the Lakers have the 3rd worst record in the league and the potential to get a top 3 pick in what has been considered by many experts and scouts to be a loaded draft class. They will either add another strong piece in the draft or at least add a promising young prospect later in the first round if they lose out on the lottery. Remember that their draft pick is top 3 protected and could go to the Sixers if it falls to 4th or lower.

Unknowns remain, such as what kind of free agent, if any, the Lakers can entice. Nick Young has a player option and has expressed that he’d like be on a playoff contender next season. Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng did not meet expectations. Are they still a part of the Lakers future? Can one of the young Lakers have a breakout year next season?

One thing for sure, the summer once again remains very exciting and expect the Lakers to be newsworthy all summer long. These Lakers impressed the league and have put them on notice. That early successful start before the injuries was no fluke. Expectations will only rise. 

The question is will expectations be fulfilled.

Stay tuned.

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Why These Tough Lakers Times are Very Different Than the Previous Years (@SpectrumSN @lakersreporter)

January 26, 2017

I know. The Lakers are 17 games under .500 and suffered the worst loss of the season to the worst team in the Western Conference a few days ago. They have one of the worst defenses in the league and can’t seem to string together consistent effort on the court. 

This may lead some of the Lakers faithful and experts to go, “How is this any different than last year? Or the year before that and the one before that? We still stink!”

I’ll give you that. At 16-33, there is good reason to consider this another awful lottery year with no hope in sight. However, there are plenty of reasons to see this much differently and even more reason to believe that this team will only get better AND faster than you think.

Here are the differences between this year and previous years:

 1. Not Trying to Win with Declining Stars: The Lakers in years past were working with a declining post-Achilles injury Kobe, an ailing Steve Nash and a mashup supporting cast that featured other declining stars including Carlos Boozer. They possessed vets that were not game-changing and young players that would warm the bench on other teams. Mike D’antoni faced this issue following Dwight’s dismissal of the Lakers brass along with that injury bug. Byron tried to build with Randle and Clarkson, but there was still the glaring Kobe effect, Boozer was a disappointment and he outright did not know how to coach Jeremy Lin. Kobe’s final year was unanimously considered a full on circus with the farewell hoopla to add insult to injury. Now the Lakers possess a group that is centered around rising stars who will only get better. Players like Brandon Ingram, D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle, to name a few, have high ceilings. Growing into contenders is a united focus from top to bottom and nothing else. Therefore losses are expected and almost welcome as they become learning opportunities. Nobody likes losing, but it makes more sense now. 

2. The Coach of the Future: Long before a promising and eye-catching 10-10 start, Coach Luke Walton said that he would not measure this team’s success by wins and losses. It would be more measured by whether or not they buy into and implement what the coaching staff is trying to accomplish on the court. Therefore, even as they deal with losses piling up, this is still the right coach for the job. The team has developed a respect for Luke and staff as evidenced by their effort early in the season and in spurts as of late. It is also reflected in their attitudes towards him. D’Angelo Russell has not complained when benched in the 4th quarter. He’s gotten Nick Young to play defense and has the team together even as they face these losses. The biggest blows to the team were injuries, youth and actually, success. 

3. Chemistry with the Young Core Has Improved and Will Continue to Improve: The team that loses together will win together. The Lakers’ young core have all made substantial improvements in their numbers from last year to this year, and Brandon Ingram and Ivica Zubac have moved up the learning curve quickly during their rookie years. We know some players can have a softmore jinx or start to plateau too early, but many of the players like Larry Nance Jr. and D’Angelo Russell have high ceilings and as a collective unit, they will become even stronger. You have to consider that the rookie and youthful mistakes will begin to dwindle as time progresses. One would hope this happens sooner than later. Examples of this are the OKC Thunder and Golden State Warriors’ recent core that became dominant over a few years after forgettable playoff-less seasons.

So even as they get pummeled by some teams, get close and then can’t hit shots at the end, and surprise the top contenders and pull upsets, we have to look at this season differently. We also look at it with the same cautious optimism. Certain shots that miss will start to go in. Defensive breakdowns will occur less and less and focus will remain for more than a few quarters.

Get used to it, fans. This is a rebuild and the foundation has been laid quite nicely.

Beating the Spurs: Keys for Tonight’s Lakers Game (@spectrumsn @espnnba @lakersnation)

January 12, 2017

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Tonight the Lakers square off against the championship contending San Antonio Spurs. Last time these teams went at it, D’Angelo Russell was sitting out with knee soreness and the Lakers made the veteran team sweat a little by getting within 5 before Tony Parker’s “vetranism” took over and sealed the game. Poppovich couldn’t help but admire Luke Walton’s coaching ability and the scrappiness of this young Lakers team.

Tonight the Lakers get their rematch. In the backdrop of this game is the nasty taste the Lakers have in their mouths after a hugely disappointing and head-scratching loss to the Portland Trailblazers. This was punctuated by a scuffle between D’Angelo Russell and Damian Lillard and a 3rd quarter that featured uninspired shooting and even more uninspired defense. Also in the backdrop of this game is the fact that, in spite of this hiccup, the Lakers have been playing much better basketball as of late, going .500 in the month of January and winning games by an average of 19 points. Lastly, D’Angelo Russell is healthy and returning to form.

So can the Lakers actually beat the Spurs? Yes! Here’s how.

1. Run them. Even though the Spurs have some young guns of their own, they still pride themselves on slow offense and moving the ball. They still possess an older and slightly slower Tony Parker and Pau Gasol in their starting lineup. D’Angelo Russell has to make Tony Parker work, break down that defense and get open looks for his team. He must attack early and often. The bench must no doubt do the same thing. This team needs to be kept on their heels. It can’t hurt to actually force turnovers and get out in transition as well, thus nullifying their imposing presence in the paint.

2. Compete with their bigs. San Antonio boasts one of the best frontcourts in the game with Gasol, Aldridge and Leonard. This means that Mozgov, Randle and Deng need to seriously step up. The benefit of Mozgov is that he can stand alone in the paint and guard Pau without a need for a double team. Randle may have his hands full with Aldridge, but if he’s up for the task, he can make things hard for him and try denying him the ball. Offensively, Randle needs to attack Aldridge and force him to play some defense and even get him in foul trouble, thus making him a non-factor. Deng definitely has his work cut out for him with Leonard, but perhaps Luke will put Nick Young and even Brandon Ingram on him instead.

3. Buckets! Buckets! Buckets! This is definitely a game where the Lakers need not miss as many wide open looks as they did against the Trailblazers and perhaps that game was a fluke and not a trend. Especially in the 3rd quarter, they need to move the ball and not miss easy layups, open looks and free throws.

4. Magic numbers. Lakers need to hold San Antonio to 105 points maximum. They need 20-25 assists and they must keep their turnovers down to 11 or less, especially in the second half.

5. Bench. Last but not least, the Lakers bench must beat the Spurs bench soundly. This game needs Clarkson, Williams, Ingram, Black and Robinson to have great games and be extremely active and disruptive on the defensive end.

This is one of those games where you have to play a clean, near perfect game for 48 minutes in order to compete with a veteran and well coached team like the Spurs. But if they can follow this list, they will win and pull the “upset”. Once again, the effort given by this “Jekell and Hyde” Lakers team will determine whether or not they are turning a corner.

State of the Lakers After 41 Games: Have the Young Lakers Turned a Corner? (@spectrumsn @lakersnation @lakers @nbaonespn)

January 10, 2017
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Nick Young celebrates after draining a three point shot.

The Los Angeles Lakers are in what basketball experts and analysts term, “rebuilding”. As always, we briefly reminisce on how the Lakers once were not known for patience and rebuilding as opposed to quick retooling and reloading by way of a mega-signing or blockbuster trade. Blame the new CBA rules or the David Stern veto, but the Lakers now are forced to do things the conventional way: put together a young core with a few supporting veterans and… be… PATIENT!

 

So the Lakers brass over the last couple years went that conventional way, picking up Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson in the 2014 draft. Then they picked up D’Angelo Russell and Larry Nance Jr. (Anthony Brown too but waived him during pre-season this year…) in the 2015 draft.They then picked up Brandon Ingram and Ivica Zubac in the 2016 draft.  They also nabbed young bruisers Thomas Robinson and Tarik Black via training camp invite and signing off waivers. They then nabbed a few free agents that appear to be possible keepers over the last couple years to include gunner Nick Young, former 6th man of the year Lou Williams, serviceable point guard and sharpshooter Jose Calderon, International star point guard Marcelo Huertas, NBA Champion big man Timofey Mozgov and former all-star Loul Deng. Lastly, but not least, former defensive player of the year and NBA Champion Metta World Peace rounds out the Lakers rebuilding roster. Charged with the task of making something from this young group is Luke Walton, assistant Brian Shaw and company.

This young group jumped out to a 10-10 start which surprised everybody. Then injuries and perhaps a lack of focus caused a December that featured only 2 wins out of 15. This included a new enemy that plagued the Lakers— blown leads. Blown HUGE leads. 19 against Miami, 19 against Charlotte and 11 against Dallas. The Lakers begin January in better fashion, however, jumping out to a 3-2 record featuring a 3 game home winning streak and a 2 game winning streak overall. Furthermore they’ve managed to beat their opponents by an average of 19 points. They get a second crack at their next opponent, the Portland Trailblazers, yet another team they could have beaten if not for another blown double digit lead. (Heck, they could be 5-0 if not for blowing another double digit lead to Toronto in January as well). Having said all that, the Lakers sit at 15-26 at the halfway point of the season.

With all that in the backdrop, the question is have the Lakers turned a corner?

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Rookie Brandon Ingram goes above the rim.

 

The team seems to have come to terms that they must defend, rebound and attack for 48 minutes and have seemed to figure that out for 3 or their last 5 games. Young players like D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Brandon Ingram are starting to find their groove. Nick Young has developed into a pretty good defender. They’ve seemed to have found something special in the rebounding, paint play and defensive prowess of the “Bruise Brothers” Tarik Black and Thomas Robinson in the absence of Larry Nance Jr. (they are doing this without Larry Nance Jr!). Furthermore, the starters have picked up their play to add to an already dangerous and NBA leading bench. This includes a resurgence of Luol Deng’s offensive output. In each of their wins, the Lakers are dishing out over 20 assists, they are holding opponents to an average of 99 points and they are also forcing turnovers and getting out in transition.

 

We may not be able to confidently say they’ve turned a corner until they can start racking up a few more consistent wins. Sitting just 3 games out of the 8th spot in the loss column, they have something to play for, in addition to Luke’s goal to simply focus on getting better and playing the way the coaching staff wants them to play. The Lakers have in fact developed an identity. Although they have failed to do it enough to close out games, the Lakers are one of the better teams in fast break points and points off turnovers. They are a quick team that relies on turnovers, transition and the 3 point shot. They are successful when they the move the ball and they get above the rim and dunk. The Lakers have earned the reputation of being “fun to watch”.

I’d like to see what they do in the next few games. If we’re looking at a team that can compete for that eight spot, we need to see a convincing win against Portland tonight. After that they will have another tough (but winnable) stretch that includes games against the Spurs, Clippers and Pistons. Following that stretch they have a potential 4 game winning streak against the Nuggets, Pacers, Mavericks and Blazers. If the Lakers can manage a minimum record of 5-3 over these next 8 games, we can talk turning a corner.

There are quite a few standouts over this January stretch and even throughout the latter part of December. This is by no means an exhaustive list. We saw Nick Young get record-setting white hot and then cool off. We saw Julius make his bid for the team leader with his triple double and inspired play on the defensive end. We’ve seen Larry Nance Jr. get the dunk of the year on Brooke Lopez. We’ve seen Clarkson get a little dog in him during his scuffle with Goran Dragic. We’ve seen Lou Williams take over games and shoot lights out. We’ve also seen the improbable quick maturation of Brandon Ingram, who at this pace, may actually overtake all the players for the star of this team.

I’ve said too much. I can be longwinded at times. However, it takes no rocket scientist or NBA expert to see that this Lakers team is far ahead of the schedule. With only 17 wins TOTAL last year. Lakers have 15 early in January. They are 3 games out of the playoff picture. They are good enough to take double digit leads on any team AND good enough to blowout any team (see Golden State and Memphis). Let’s enjoy this young exciting team and see where the month of January takes us.

Next up is payback against Portland!

Expectations for the Young Lakers Changing So Soon? (@lakersreporter @lakeshow @lakersnation)

December 14, 2016

Coach Luke Walton ejected from the last game against the Sacramento Kings

Without beating the proverbial dead horse on what everybody thought the Lakers would do versus what they actually have done to this point, let’s cut to the chase–

The Lakers are 10-17 and have lost seven straight games.

Adversity strikes the young Lakers and the young coach who has garnered much praise which included whispers of coach of the year consideration. Adversity strikes a young core that shocked the NBA with a improbable 7-5 start. The Lakers are losing games and more recently they are not competing in a few of them. During a couple of these games, we actually have seen them kind of, dare I say…give up.

We attributed it confidently to injuries and calmly suggested that the Lakers would resume their sharp climb up the learning curve once guys come back. The Lakers are far from 100% with Tarik Black (ankle) and Jose Calderon (hamstring) both just being cleared to practice today. However, both Nick Young and D’Angelo Russell have returned to action as of their game against the Knicks and they lost a close one 118-112. Okay, they were both eased into the lineup on a minute restriction which would be slowly removed as the games progressed. They then were embarrassed by the Sacramento Kings (I hate losing the Sacramento Queens) after a nauseating 3rd quarter. One alarming stat was the 3rd quarter letdown that typified the Lakers last season (uh-oh). The Lakers gave up 39 points in that quarter and eventually lost 116-92.

The Lakers have become very rudimentary in their understanding of defensive execution over the last several games. During the 2 games with their starting backcourt back on the floor they gave up 118 and 119. Previously they gave up 119 and 134. If you watch the games, there are several breakdowns resulting in layup lines. They are failing to rotate out to the shooters giving up open looks and for crying out loud— they can’t give a hard foul to save their lives! This young team knows what good defense looks like because in the wins they’ve had, they made key stops and forced turnovers. They scored enough to make teams pay for missing and then they were no pushover on the defensive. Right now they are awful and giving up career highs to opponents.

So is this team the one that everyone thought they would be before the season began or the team that were said to be able to fight for that 8th spot?

The latter.

We have to remember that this is a young team. Young teams are quite emo and that can be a challenge when certain levels of adversity create a distraction. Without the injuries, all they had to worry about was making adjustments with the same unit and rotations. Once they caught on, they moved quickly up the learning curve. After the myriad of injuries, inconsistent rotations and damaged chemistry things changed. This is a distraction that would shake a young team just a little. Plus we can’t go and say this team is just as bad as predicted when they just showed what they can do when healthy. The sample size of 12 more games with Russell and Young back in the lineup would have to be used. They’ve only played 2. If they do worse than 7-5 after the remaining 10, you might have a legitimate point. 

What should and needs to happen is the Lakers have to get back comfortable with the rotations once again and then defensive rotations and effort will begin to develop. It’s difficult to play hard and play confused at the same time. 

That being said, there should be a dramatic improvement in performance in tonight’s match-up against the Nets where they need to be ON POINT with their rotations against a 3-point happy team. I’m sure Jeremy Lin would love to stick it to his former team too.

So again I say, relax Lakers fans. 10th in the West after a 7 game losing streak is still very hopeful and I expect the Lakers to return to early season form on this road trip.

Enjoy tonight’s game!

 

The Lakers Experience Early Growing Pains…Literally

December 8, 2016
randle

Julius Randle had another double-double, with 21 points and 10 rebounds in yesterday’s loss.

The Lakers are 10-14. Considering what was to be expected of this young Lakers team after 24 games, we have reason to be excited and hopeful. However, as of late, the Lakers have met a familiar foe that has been victorious over the last few years. It marred the genius of Mitch Kupchak in putting together a superteam of Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol with an early injury to Steve Nash, a nagging shoulder injury to Dwight Howard and the season-ending Achilles injury to Kobe Bryant. The following year it continued when a then 10-9 Laker team that was clicking on all cylinders with their “Bench Mob” saw their bench and starters slowly go down one by one. So battered were these Lakers that they ended up with a D-league unit on the court. The Byron Scott years were marred by more than injuries, but you get the point.

Which brings us to today. On November 18th the Lakers began a tough stretch with a home game against the San Antonio Spurs. From game to game, the Lakers have been forced to juggle the lineup with the following injuries racking up in just a short time – D’Angelo Russell (knee), Julius Randle (hip pointer) who has returned, Nick Young (out at least 2 more weeks with a strained calf), Larry Nance Jr. (sat out a few games with a knee contusion) who is slowly coming back, Tarik Black (ankle sprain) who is day to day and Jose Calderon (out 3-5 weeks with a strained hamstring). To be perfectly blunt, the team that had the whole NBA taking notice is somewhat of a patchwork due to these injuries to both key starters and bench players.

Although the Lakers have managed to fight and somehow stay afloat, it seems the injuries have begun to take its toll. The Lakers have lost 9 of their last 12 and are on a 4 game skid. And why wouldn’t it take a toll? The Lakers have been fighting without their starting backcourt (consider Golden State without Curry and Thompson or Washington with Beal and Wall). Their claim to fame has been their bench which has become depleted with on and off losses of Nance Jr. and Tarik Black and the recent loss of Jose Calderon. Their athleticism has been diminished, especially in the starting lineup. Furthermore, I don’t care who you have on your team, chemistry is still paramount. There isn’t much opportunity for that with these forced lineup changes. So the Lakers have a legitimate excuse for being shorter on talent at the moment.

But…let’s not remove ALL of the blame from these Lakers. The Lakers still have yet to fully commit to defense for 4 quarters, giving up about 112 points a game over their last 12. Since they are unable to put up big numbers with key guys out, this becomes an even bigger issue. They’ve had a few clean games, but they still have yet to keep their turnovers 10 or less. Teams are turning them over and getting out in transition. When you are depleted, the last thing you want to have to do is chase the opposing team all night after they’ve stolen a bad pass. This is the thing that Coach Luke Walton is stressing. For the most part, this team has really competed. However, as of late they’ve laid a few too many eggs against Houston, Golden State and Toronto. They’ve also failed to execute early in games and are not able to turn that last minute comeback into a victory.

Give the coaching staff credit in keeping the guys focused and keeping them from getting down on themselves. In a recent interview with Larry Nance Jr. after the loss to Houston, Larry highlighted how they need to “let this one sting” and then move on to the next game. These Lakers have the right attitude. We do have to remember that they are young and many of these guys have never experienced such adversity. This is actually a good thing to experience early in the season however. Given that the Lakers do return to full strength in the new year, we could see them reel off a few 3 and 4 game winning streaks at a time.

Right now, the Lakers have to really put a serious focus on the defensive end. 134 points is just awful. Even so, if you take a look around the league, this is now the standard. Teams are shooting lights out and several different teams are getting blown out by 20 or more on a given night. This is the trend of the league now. So this isn’t just a Lakers thing. What the Lakers will need to do is insure that they can force the opposing teams to play ugly. They need to play physical, have active hands and get back on defense. Their opponents must average no more than 95 points.

This stretch offers a couple of opportunities. It offers an opportunity for guys like Brandon Ingram and Thomas Robinson to really step up. It also offers and opportunity to hone their defensive ability. This will set the stage for a very strong unit once the guys get back.

The fans and media have seen that this team is clearly on the bubble for that 8th and final playoff spot when healthy. With that in mind, this is time to keep watching the games and cheering your team on. Be patient with your Lakers. The future is still very bright.

Let’s see if they can get back on track against the Phoenix Suns on Friday.

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!

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.

Calm Down! It’s Only One Game…Right?

October 27, 2016
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Clarkson attacks the basket

The Lakers WIN! After all the questions about who’s going to take the torch and run with the post-Kobe Lakers era, and all the insults about not getting a major free agent, and all the ESPN hate, the Lakers open up the season with a victory! Take that, haters!

HOLD ON THERE, SPARKY!

Let’s dial it back a second. It’s only ONE GAME. But is it? Is it really only one game?

There are two ways we can look at such a victory. We can take the position that these Lakers are still the same team expected to finish somewhere in the cellar of the Western Conference. This win is nice and it feels good, but it means nothing. You’ve got 81 more to go. Furthermore, once you meet Utah and OKC, everybody will be singing a different tune.

So chill out! 

But there’s another view. The view that I will mostly subscribe to. The Lakers Optimist view.

This win goes far beyond just a season opener victory on the merits of excitement and fanfare. From an X’s and O’s perspective coach Luke Walton did what coaches do: make adjustments. In last night’s game, the Rockets darted out to a whopping 71 points behind James Harden’s epic passing and Clint Capela’s excessive dunks. The game was exciting; however, anybody who knows basketball was thinking, “This can’t be good because defense wins championships”. In the second half, the Lakers held these same Houston Rockets to only 43 points. So what happened is Luke Walton gave them the challenge of cleaning it up defensively as they soundly outscored Houston 57-43. We saw quite a few defensive stops by the likes of Jordan Clarkson, Nick Young and even Metta World Peace. Offensively they were able to close out with timely buckets and rebounds.

This win matters, not only because of the standings (duh!), but because of summer league. In summer league the Lakers went 3-2 and had fun on the court. Players sometimes looked unstoppable. It also matters because of preseason where the Lakers (2-6) also showed fight in many of the games and even gave Golden State a slight battle in their second meeting. During this whole process, the one common thread is that the Lakers are having fun again, they are buying what Luke Walton is selling and it’s showing on the court by way of one simple adjustment after halftime. It’s one thing when a coach has great ideas. It’s another when the team actually cares enough to implement them.

Luke Walton came in with the goal to change the culture. This does not guarantee a 24-0 winning streak out of the gate. This guarantees a concentrated effort night in and night out, assuming these young Lakers maintain that hunger and respect. The coaching style which empowers players, maintains transparency with the players and does not insult them in the media (at least not yet) has cultivated a complete team relationship and atmosphere. Jordan Clarkson came off the bench amid much speculation (including me) and still finished the game, taking over in the 4th quarter both offensively and defensively. D’Angelo Russell maintained his cool even with a few “bonehead plays” and helped guide his team to victory. The vets Lou Williams, Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov steadied the ship with some great defense and offensive output (see Timofey’s run in the first half). And Nick “Uncle P” Young has accepted the challenge to play defense and gave Harden some fits. Let’s not forget a modest, yet impressive debut for rookie Brandon Ingram ending with 9 points on 4-6 shooting.

Potential? Yes. Perhaps what the Laker faithful and the media need to see is potential. They are already waiting for the Lakers to slip up and provide something juicy to pounce on. But not last night.

The 76ers lost. The over-hyped Golden State Warriors got pummeled. Mike D’Antoni’s return to Staples Center was foiled. Yet the post-Kobe Era, or more appropriately, Luke Walton Era began the right way…with a “W”.

I’m sure that the media will quickly return back to Lakerhater Land if the Lakers are smashed by both the Utah Jazz and the Oklahoma City Thunder. But in the meantime, let’s enjoy this one and consider it a sign of things to come.

Let’s see what “The Breakfast Club” does next. 

 

Off-Season Decisions: Who To Keep?

June 5, 2016

Decisions, decisions! The Lakers brass have to know that they can’t keep everybody on this roster– nor would they WANT to.

The Lakers know for sure that they have a young core that will receive a #2 draft pick to add to it. They intend to dip into that 60 million plus to pick up some quality free agents or a big fish (i.e. Durant, Whiteside). With all that in mind, the Lakers had some players that were bright spots in a dark season. They had some let-downs and some guys that simply felt the sting of an awkward Kobe-farewell riddled season. There are also guys that have overstayed their welcome wearing the purple and gold.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. We know that Anthony Brown is staying. Jordan Clarkson wants to stay. Kobe is gone. Nance, Randle and Russell are here for the long haul.

So we have for sure Brown, Clarkson, Russell, Nance and Randle.

So let’s talk about the remaining 9 Lakers on the fringe. Let’s discuss who the Lakers should try to keep and who they should trade, waive or just not resign.

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Brandon Bass was the most consistent player on this team. He was a bully in the post and cleaned the glass night in and night out. He also did a pretty decent job on defense. He probably had a career year and can be a perfect bench piece for a championship team. The problem with Brandon Bass is the Lakers have that in Tarik Black who just couldn’t find the minutes due to the logjam at that position.

Verdict: I don’t think Bass wants to return anyway. However, it might be better to make room for Tarik Black to fill that role with the rest of the young core. 

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Tarik Black was pretty efficient as an undersized center in Byron’s first year as Lakers head coach. However he somehow managed to get in Scott’s doghouse for much of the following season. He also lost minutes in favor of Brandon Bass and Julius Randle. Black showed much of the same offensive and defensive prowess as Bass. He is a terrific finisher off pick and rolls and has a great motor. The question with Black is can he pickup where he left of the season before last and add some outside shooting to his repertoire. Playing under Luke Walton in a more fast-paced offense can lead to many highlight dunks.

Verdict: Lakers should keep Black and hopefully Luke will find a way to work him into the rotation as a key component of this young core.

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Roy Hibbert was brought in to adress a dire need for a rim protector. Byron’s instructions were to rebound and defend. What he didn’t know was that he would be forced to make up for an awful perimeter defense that allowed consistent dribble penetration. Hibbert was forced to help while receiving no help himself. He was not asked to be a featured scoring option so we can’t blame him for that. Nor can we blame him for being just a few years past his prime as he got schooled consistently by the Whitesides and Deandres on a nightly basis.

Verdict: I’d let him go and either see what you can get on the free agent market or who on your roster can fill that role as center.

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Marcelo Huertas dazzled us with pretty passes and intelligent plays during the pre-season. Then he went into Scott’s doghouse in favor of defense, before returning to pre-season form and finishing the year strong. He has a calming and cerebral approach similar to the great Steve Nash. He definitely has a place in the NBA. Pop is probably waiting for Lakers to drop the ball on this guy. The problem with Marcelino is he can be somewhat of a liability on defense (Like Steve Nash). However, that can be trumped by how he can potentially feast in Luke’s system.

Verdict: Make sure you keep this kid. He can and will be a part of a competitive NBA team.

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Ryan Kelly had his best year under D’antoni as a stretch four. Byron took the reigns and tried the failed experiment of placing him at the five. In Byron’s last year Kelly started the pre-season attacking the basket and looking really good. Defensively challenged, he was forced out of the rotation and never really recovered. At his best he is a stretch four that can finish at the rim. At his worst he is a poor shooter and a so-so defender. The problem with Kelly is do we wish to play the game and see which one shows up?

Verdict: With the Lakers loading up on bigs through the draft and free agency, it’s time to move on from this kid and see if a change of scenery will do him some good (And let’s hope that doesn’t come back to bite us).

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Robert Sacre plays his heart out. He fights on defense, he has a decent jumpshot and uses all six of his fouls on defense. He’s a locker room guy. The problem is has he peaked? Is this all there is? What can Luke do with this kid to make him a solid contributor?

Verdict: I was surprised last year when he was still on the team. It’s time to let him try his luck with another team.

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Lou Williams is a beast.  He lit up OKC for over 40 points and shouldered much of the scoring load consistently throughout the year when healthy. The former 6th man of the year made a bid for future star of LA, post-Kobe. He has a killer jump shot and can create his own shot. He couldn’t truly be the man sharing the spotlight with Kobe. I see no downside with Lou, other than whether or not he wishes to be a part of a rebuild once more.

Verdict: Along with Marcelo Huertas, he can really light it up off the bench. Under Luke Walton and under normal circumstances, Lou can return to bid for 6th man of the year. Try to keep him.

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Metta World Peace was kept as an on the floor coach and locker room mentor. However, when he went in the game the complexion on defense changed. He still has it. Although offensively he’s seen better days. Of course I never could understand why Scott never just stuck him in the post to bully the smaller weaker 3’s on the opposing teams. Metta is defense and can be a locker room mentor for this young team. The problem is do you have space to keep him there?

Verdict: This is tough. Invite him to training camp and see what you have when it’s time to make cuts. He still has a couple good years in him in short bursts off the bench and provides a player with championship experience.

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Nick Young never could find his footing with coach Byron Scott to say the least. Not sure who’s fault that was. Then they were losing. Then D’Angelo Russell happened. Now the Lakers are faced with a few questions. One, is he and Russell going to be able to coexist? Two, can he clear the baggage from his head and return to Swaggy P form? Three, can his fire-at-will game fit Luke’s strategy? At his best, Nick can light it up. But will Luke have Nick and Lou work together off the bench or do they have to pick one or the other (hint: it would be Lou).

Verdict: If you can’t ship him out in a package deal with Kelly and Sacre, let’s see what Luke can conjure up to make him an integral part of this new era.

So there you have it. Most likely heading into training camp I see the following team:

Anthony Brown – SF
Jordan Clarkson – SG/PG
D’Angelo Russell – PG
Julius Randle – SF/PF
Larry Nance Jr. – PF/C
Tarik Black – PF/C
Marcelo Huertas – PG
Lou Williams – SG
*Metta World Peace – SF
*Nick Young – SF/SG

*tentative

The Lakers will not be done seeking deals and adding free agents. This will look much different before training camp begins. Stay tuned.

It’s an exciting off-season as the Los Angeles Lakers try to right the ship and return back to winning ways.