The NBA has long been known as a “superstar league.” The greatest teams each season all have the common theme of having a star that can lead them. The greatest teams in the history of the game have truly transcendent stars that are among the greatest players of all time. Despite the dependence on star players, however, there has never been a team that has had any shade of major success without a bevy of solid role players surrounding its star(s).
Rebuilding teams often forget the importance of role players. In an effort to find franchise-altering players, they put all of their metaphorical eggs in one metaphorical basket. The Philadelphia 76ers are the biggest example of this, continuously running out teams with few NBA players in order to garner draft picks to increase their chances at finding a superstar.
The Los Angeles Lakers, meanwhile, have taken a slightly different method with their rebuild. Whether by design or by some unexplainable optimism of creating a playoff team, the Lakers have spent the last few offseasons shooting for stars, failing, then adding some middling but decent veteran role players. While the core for the future has been at least partially constructed in drafting Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, and D’Angelo Russell, the team has at least tried to add competent players that could potentially become crucial role players in the future.
In 2013, the Lakers signed Nick Young for that reason. In a move similar to the one that saw the team acquire Lou Williams, LAL signed a veteran shooting guard known for his penchant for shooting and scoring the ball, although the two were not always positively correlated. In his first season with the team, Young was phenomenal, and had a legitimate case for winning the Sixth Man of the Year award. The great play led to a contract extension followed by an immediate and sudden drop-off in his play. Now in his third season on Los Angeles’ more significant team, Young has regained some of his form and then some. Therefore, it may be fair to ask why Young has suddenly fallen out of the rotation, having accumulated two DNP-CD’s in a row.
First, let’s run through some statistics to see how well Young has played in 17 games this season. Young has played slightly fewer than 20 minutes per game, the third fewest minutes of his career and the fewest in his time with the Lakers. That is not a problem; there are a lot of wing players deserving of minutes on this team and Nick is not the player to take away minutes from the young players especially. In that time, Young is scoring 9.5 points on 41% shooting and a sizzling 41% from three. Perhaps more telling are Young’s more advanced metrics (nothing about estimated added wins; we’ll leave that for Vice). Young is at a career low in usage rate, which has led to the most efficient season of his career – a career low in turnover percentage, a career high 56.7 true shooting percentage, and a 54.1 effective field goal percentage – the 34th highest mark in the league. When put in the most beneficial role, namely catch and shoot jumpers, Young is putting up an incredible .620 eFG%. Take a look at Young’s shot chart from this season:
Two things come to mind immediately after looking at this chart. First: there is a lot of green behind the three point line, a great sign for the role which Young should be asked to play. Second: the attempts in the corners (where he shoots a great 10/19) are far too few. We have discussed the inconsistencies and incompetency of the Lakers’ offensive system often, and this is one of the glaring parts of that problem. That is a different discussion for a different day, however.
Now, let’s discuss how Young fell entirely out of Byron Scott’s rotation after being one of the best bench players on the roster. After losing to the Philadelphia 76ers (the Sixers!), Nick was very vocal about the teams’ issues, from their penchant on relying on Kobe Bryant isolations to the storylines consistently following the team (via Mark Medina):
“You can’t blame (Kobe). He takes a lot of shots. But it’s everybody,” Young said. “From the coaches to the players, we have to get on one page and on the same page. I can’t tell you why that’s not happening right now. All I know is the circus came to town today and we did what we normally do.”
“We’re a circus,” Young said. “We’re playing terrible. We lost to Philly. Philly! What does that make us?”
Despite the not-so-subtle dig at Philadelphia being a terrible team, Young is on point about everything here. Yes, Kobe has taken a ton of shots, but the problems do not stop with his shot selection. Yes, the coaching has been terrible, but many of the players deserve blame as well. And yes, the problems surrounding the team have been so ridiculous, so obvious, and so sad, that the national media is focusing on a 3-16 team that had no real chance at the playoffs even before the season started. Young’s vocal leadership has been a constant theme of the season and a pleasantly surprising one. Considering the coach’s inability to find actual problems with the team instead of their “softness,” the need for a leader among the players (especially the non-Kobe ones) has been glaringly evident. Young, an established knuckle-head and joker, has been the voice of reason this season. For some, that may be a scary thought. I think it is a welcome maturation process from one of the longest tenured Lakers.
At this point, many of you are thinking why this is even a significant issue. Young is clearly not a great basketball player, despite his great shooting so far this season. His appearance in games likely does not have a major impact on wins and losses, considering the current state of the team. The issue with this comes in several forms, however. First, (and this is speculation that Young and Scott have refuted) it may show Scott’s inability to take criticism from his players and to use that criticism to make adjustments and improve as a head coach. Second, the person who has played the majority of the wing minutes is one Metta World Peace. I will not bring up the statistics, but World Peace has not been great. Another player who has played too many minutes and who could benefit from Young playing more is Kobe Bryant. Bryant has played way too many minutes in his 20th season and having another wing player to take some of those minutes would be very beneficial. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Young is one of the team’s few tradable assets and his play to start the season has made him the best choice for a potential trade. Young could either become a solid role player for a good team in the next few years, or he could be traded to a playoff team in need of shooting for picks or young prospects. Either way, Young actually playing would do much to improve the chances of those things happening.
Nick Young, affectionately known as Nicholas and ironically known as Swaggy P has a bad reputation among NBA folks. That reputation is justified; he has largely been an inefficient player and his love of playing free and often irresponsibly rubs many people the wrong way. Players change, however, and Young has done so in the right direction. He has become more efficient (which I somewhat blindly predicted in the offseason), he has become more of a leader, and his play and leadership should be commended. There is a common thought process among fans that just because Young is a shooter and not much else, he is not a good player and cannot affect the team positively. That’s simply not true. At the very least, Young can stretch the floor and create space for the Lakers’ ball-handlers. That alone is a valuable skill. Even if that is not enough to justify keeping the 30-year-old on the Lakers, it is enough to see him as a viable trade asset. Teams with playoff expectations and with a need for shooters could very much use Nicholas and the Lakers may be able to get some valuable assets in return. In the meantime, not playing Young is a solid misuse of the team’s talent. Young has been significantly better than World Peace and even Lou Williams at the wing positions. If the Lakers do not see him as a part of the future, that’s fine. In the present, however, Nicholas has been the second most consistent shooter on the team, an improved defender, and a vocal leader. He can contribute positively right now. For Scott to play Metta World Peace when he rarely has any positive plays at this point and for Scott to play Brandon Bass at the wrong position when it clearly has not worked becomes even more frustrating when he suddenly decides not to play one of the better players on the team. If you do not believe that this is a significant problem on its own, you should recognize that it is the latest in a long line of questionable rotation decisions by the head coach of the Lakers. It just so happens that this one may impact the Lakers’ present and future more negatively than the others.