The unofficial second-half of the NBA season is nearly upon us and as such, for the second straight year, I will be looking at the State of the Lakers at the All-Star Break.
Nothing regarding the Lakers is more important right now than the state of their front office. Earlier this week, team president Jeanie Buss finally made the decision that seemed to be years in the making. She fired her brother Jim Buss from his role as vice president of basketball operations as well as Mitch Kupchak as the general manager of the team.
In their place now stands Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, respectively.
There are plenty of things to talk about regarding this dynamic. Magic and Pelinka’s inexperience at their jobs is cause for worry but Johnson managed the trade deadline well and there is some optimism that the new front office will continue to stand by the young players and allow them to develop rather than making hasty decisions.
Jeanie’s decision to make the moves two days before the trade deadline may be cause for worry as it indicates some poor decision making. On the other hand, it worked out perfectly fine for the Lakers.
But as the news has settled in my brain over the past few days, one thing sticks out to me the most. It’s not about how I think Magic will do in his new role (I have become cautiously optimistic after my initial reaction of doom and/or gloom). Instead, it’s about the inspiration that Magic is.
I’ve been hard on Johnson for some fickle reasons: his incessant tweeting and his stubborn support of Byron Scott after unfair criticisms of Mike D’Antoni being the major ones.
But Magic’s story is as cool as anyone. He was destined for greatness as an NBA player but his career was cut short because of HIV at a time when those with the disease were discriminated against. Johnson overcame that and became one of the most successful athletes of all time.
Magic’s work with the Dodgers and Sparks as well as his countless other business ventures are remarkable. Now, he is one of the few minority executives in a league whose players are predominately black. He’s paving the way once again and that should be celebrated, no matter what you think about his qualifications as a basketball executive.
Free Agent Acquisitions:
This has been by far the most disappointing aspect of the Lakers’ season. Signing Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng to long-term, expensive deals was always a bad idea, but the moves fell flat almost immediately.
Mozgov has averaged 7.4 points and 4.9 rebounds per game in 20.5 minutes. He was benched in favor of Tarik Black and has been a healthy scratch in four of the last five games, in which the Lakers have gone 2-2.
Deng has been similarly disappointing. He is averaging a career-worst 7.8 points per game on 38.9 percent shooting from the field. Deng’s diminished athletic ability is noticeable and his lack of playing time at the power forward position due to the presence of Julius Randle and Larry Nance, Jr. does not do him any favors. His best moment as a Laker came off the court with an eloquent response about the Muslim ban executive order.
The Lakers are stuck with this situation for a while. Deng and Mozgov’s contracts are borderline unmovable unless a valuable asset is added. The Lakers simply do not have enough of those to spare. Eventually, one or both of their contracts could be stretched, but for now, they will be huge roadblocks in building this team through free agency.
Walton’s coaching has been a hotly debated topic on social media recently. He didn’t do himself any favors by leading the Lakers to a 10-10 start to the season. The predictable slide after the hot start has many becoming skeptics of Walton as a whole.
It’s difficult to gauge Walton’s work as the Lakers’ head coach. On one hand, he has created a great chemistry within the Lakers by being egalitarian in how he distributes minutes. On the other, young players like D’Angelo Russell and Randle have seen their minutes reduced in clutch situations.
Walton has improved the Lakers offense, up to 24th in offensive rating but the defense is just shy of the worst in the NBA. The team’s -6.8 net rating is only better than the woeful Brooklyn Nets.
And yet, the Lakers have already won more games than they did last season.
Walton has made crucial mistakes, chief among them being his handling of the rotation and the minute allocation to young players. But he’s also a rookie head coach, the players seem to love him unconditionally, and he has made major improvements to the team since its disastrous season last year.
It’s too early to make a call on Walton, but grading on a curve, his work in LA has been mostly positive.
Russell hasn’t done a whole lot to change his reputation thus far in his sophomore season. He’s having a fine season but not the breakout that many expected under a new head coach.
Let’s be clear, though. Russell’s season is not a disappointment. He has had his moments this season and been fairly consistent in his production, outside of some games in which his effort is lacking and he coasts through 48 minutes.
Even looking at Russell’s raw numbers can give you a glimpse of the potential he has. Only 13 players in NBA history have averaged at least 14 points, four assists, and three rebounds per game in their age-20 or younger season. Russell is one of those players. In that group, only Russell, Tyreke Evans, Brandon Jennings, and former Laker Lamar Odom did not make at least one All-Star game in their career.
Russell is really good, you guys. And with Lou Williams traded away, he should have more control of the team late in close games.
You know who has had a breakout? Julius Randle.
Randle had a lot of questions surrounding him in the offseason and rightfully so. He hasn’t completely answered all of them, but he has proven that he can be a valuable part of this team moving forward.
Julius is still rebounding well, albeit at a lower rate than last season, but he has added more skill to his game. Randle is passing the ball phenomenally with an assist rate of 20.2 percent (compared to last year’s 11 percent). He is also shooting the ball better from nearly every region on the floor (64 percent at the rim compared to 57 last year and 53 percent from 10-16 feet compared to 23 percent last year).
Randle’s improvement has been remarkable. As long as he continues to fine tune those skills, keeps playing good defense (he’s mad encouraging improvements on that end of the floor as well) and reduces his turnover rate, Randle should have a big impact on this team.
Ingram’s season has gone the exact opposite of how everyone imagined. His scoring and shooting abilities have left a lot to be desired. But every other part of his game is encouraging.
Ingram is maybe the best perimeter defender on the team already, with his length giving opponents plenty of trouble. Offensively, Walton has entrusted him with the ball in his hands as a de facto point forward and he has delivered.
Ingram is a really raw prospect and it’s going to take him time to adjust to the game. But he has shown a lot even as a 19-year-old, leaving fans drooling over his potential.
Clarkson has been the most disappointing part of the Lakers this season. He has not improved from last season to this one and in some instances, he has regressed.
JC’s defense is as bad as its ever been after about a week when we all thought he might be good on that end now. He has an incredible level of tunnel vision and routinely misses open teammates. He dribbles the air out of the ball before taking contested long twos.
Right now, Clarkson’s best value is as a fairly efficient scorer. That’s still great value from a second round pick that they literally bought with cash. With Williams gone, Clarkson is going to have the ball a lot more on the bench unit. Perhaps that level of responsibility will ignite a more controlled and smarter version of him on the court.
Larry Nance, Jr.:
Not a lot to say about Nance. He does what he does and it’s insanely valuable to the Lakers, even if it’s not sexy. (The dunks are plenty sexy to make up for it.) The one improvement he needs to make is to shoot the ball when he’s open. His hesitation kills the Lakers’ offense at times.
In all seriousness, Zubac has been so surprisingly good. He’s really polished offensively and he has solid instincts on defense. It’s a matter of getting adjusted to the speed and athleticism of the NBA and polishing up all the skills he already has. It’s early but the Lakers may have found a hell of a steal in the second round again.
Black is an entirely underrated player, even among ardent Lakers fans. He’s not huge, he’s not immensely skilled, but he does so many great things for the Lakers.
Black is a great rebounder and screener. He can defend most bigs one-on-one well even while giving up a size advantage and he is occasionally a really solid rim protector.
Black isn’t a high potential young player, but it says a lot that the Lakers are now starting him over Mozgov and did not look to trade him at the deadline despite some contending teams needing a big body. He has a non-guaranteed contract for next season and the Lakers can cut him if they need additional cap space, but I have a feeling they will try their best to keep him on the roster.