Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Great Lakers Mystery

My bench seat is this wide
Tonight in Los Angeles, the Lakers took the floor against the Hornets. Entering the game, the home team had a record of 9-40, the second worst in the Association. Here are the starters:

G Lou Williams
G Jordan Clarkson
C Roy Hibbert
F Julius Randle
F Kobe Bryant

Let's consider each in turn.

Williams is a 10-year-pro. He's 6'-1", a tolerable bench scorer who can't defend, and not really a point guard. If he's used properly, the way he was last year in Toronto, he can be an asset. Giving him starter minutes has never made any sense, and it has especially does not make sense on a team that is 9-40.

Clarkson might be on the next Laker team that isn't a laugh out loud embarrassment. He's in his second year, the only good thing to come out of last year's dumpster fire, and in the 15/4/3 range of Not Really A PG or a SG. I don't love his game, because he's terrible on defense and seems more athletic than intelligent, but you could do worse than giving him 35 minutes a night and seeing what happens.

Hibbert, man alive, he's just brutal. I have no idea what happened to make him so old so fast, but right now, he's just a 7/7 slug who seems to just be out there to show the world that lumbering 7-footers no longer have a place in the Association. Maybe he could help a team as their de facto goon, along the lines of a taller Kendrick Perkins, but his spiraling career in Indy showed that he doesn't really have the heart for that. Every minute he's on the court is a minute that Laker Fan should hate.

Randle might be the most depressing part of this year for the team, as last year's first round pick has delivered more empty calories than any young guy in recent memory. He gives you 11/10/2 now, but the limitations to his game -- can't pass, can't go right, can't elevate, can't shoot from distance, can't defend -- are seemingly set in stone. You give him minutes because he's young and might get better, and you deal him to any GM that asks about him, because he's just a reason to lose.

And then there's the sad remains of Kobe Bryant, all 16/4/4 of him, a 35% (!) shooter who is proving that sad memorial tours don't have to just be for Derek Jeter. Bryant's sole remaining goal for his last 30-odd games in the Association should be to avoid injury and get a half dozen more moments on SportsCenter, because he might be the worst player in the Association. No, seriously.

So what we have here is two out of five starters that you might actually feel good about, kind of. You have to give Bryant 25 minutes a game for the gawker crowds, but not a second more. Which makes the way the Lakers delegate their remaining minutes all the more perplexing, because the bench is where you will find D'Angelo Russell, the 2nd overall pick in the draft last year, and outside of Clarkson and maybe Randle, the only assets on the team that might be here after the purge. (I'm going to ignore Larry Nance Jr., who looks OK only when you compare him to Randle, and has no more ceiling to his middling game. Trust me, he's nothing.)

Now, Russell has *not* been good. So far, he's 12/3/1 on 41% shooting as he adjusts to life as an NBA point, with way too many turnovers and poor body language. At age 19, he's not helping anyone win games... but FFS, this is a 9-win team with no one who would start for a .500 club. Winning games is not an option. What they should be doing is not playing the guys who can play -- you don't have those -- but the guys who might figure it out later.

So, why are the Lakers doling out minutes to their younger players as if they were fighting for the 8th seed? Well, three reasons.

1) They have to stay high in the NBA draft -- as in top 3 -- or they lose their first rounder to Philadelphia next year. If you think the Sixers have been tankers, wait until you see what the Lakers do once they get Win #10, so they can avoid the 1973 Sixers Infamy Record. I think they might bring back Lamar Odom and start him. In his current medical condition. Hey, he'd have as much left in the tank as Bryant, and some other check collectors on the Laker bench...

2) They really are this stupid. Also littering the Laker bench? Metta World Peace -- no, seriously -- who wasn't good five years ago, prior to traveling the world and discovering that real Chinese food is wildly fattening. Nick Young, more proof that exposure to reality TV is wildly destructive to your health and basketball utility. Robert Sacre and Tariq Black, who somehow make Hibbert look mobile. Brandon Bass and Ryan Kelly and Anthony Brown and dear Lord in heaven, if you are going to have guys that can't play, at least give them names that are different from guys that we all knew could not play five years ago.

3) Coach Byron Scott thinks that the way to develop young players is Tough Love. So when Russell turns it over -- as if he's alone with that problem on this roster -- it's time to sit that teenager's ass down and show him the error of his ways. The fact that no one on this team runs simple cuts and gets open, preferring to go iso as if they were all channeling mid 1980s Michael Jordan? It's all the teenage point guard's fault.

This will all continue for another 10 weeks, which is how much longer the NBA regular season will run. The Lakers will clean house in the off-season, with Scott getting run out on a rail with any number of distressed assets. NBA writers will talk extensively about how the Lake Show is going to attract big name talent with all of their available cap space, high picks, prime location. And none of that will actually come to pass, because you don't have to go anywhere near the bright lights and big city to make real money anymore. Damian Lillard, in Portland, appears on State Farm ads. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook cash checks in OKC, where the money probably spends 2X as well as it does in Cali. LeBron James went from Miami to Cleveland and didn't lose a dime. The Association plays to the world, and the world does not really care what your jersey says, so long as your team wins games and is fun to watch.

Is there a way out for them? Only one, and it's so obvious that even Scott might stumble into it. Give Russell the keys to the car, play him with Clarkson and Randle and the two least regrettable other guys regardless of position, tell them to run at every opportunity and don't pull the kid until his tongue is on the floor. Maybe you force feed him into a 20/10 volume guy, and give everyone in town a moment of hope, or pump up his trade stock, the way the Sixers did with Michael Carter-Williams. If he flops, he flops; you're losing these games either way.

And as to why they aren't doing this?

I have no earthly idea.

And no one else who has been watching this franchise does, either.

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