Dear Lakers Fans: Stop Kidding Yourselves

I’ve long joked that Los Angeles Lakers fans are like those annoying frat kids in your lecture with a “Reagan-Bush ’84” sticker on his laptop: they want to support and feel good about the idyllic and romanticized view of that thing, rather than experiencing the vulnerability and ups and downs of being an actual supporter of that thing.

As soft and complacent as Lakers fans are, the signing of LeBron James was an opportunity for Lakers fans to change my mind about them: to commit themselves to their team trying to win right here and right now instead of just trying to ride the coat-tails of bygone days. We are just about wrapping up the first year of the LeBron James experience in LA, and I’m here to deliver a message to Lakers fandom:

You got played. Hard. You got played more than Tom Thibodeau plays his two-way wings.

LeBron did not come to your city to deliver you a championship. He didn’t come to Los Angeles to win basketball. That’s not to say he doesn’t want to win, but winning is not what he came there to do. How do I know? I’m going to let you in on a little secret: if he wanted to win, he wouldn’t have gone to the Lakers.

The front office is a joke. They’ve spent on top draft picks year after year with only mild returns, and giving up the only actually valuable player they drafted to get off a bad contract which never should have happened in the first place. They let Brook Lopez, an ideal center for a LeBron team, in order to sign the bunch of washed-up goons they got this year. The only “accomplishment” this brass has is getting LeBron, who threw himself at them. The coach is unproven to say the least. His best accomplishment was a good couple months coaching the best regular season team ever. Wow, sure that one was tough. LeBron could have played with top talent whisperer Brett Brown, Brad Stevens, or an offensive mastermind like D’Antoni, but no, he wanted Luke Walton.

There were winning, proven teams with better situations in every respect that wanted him. I’m a Sixers, fan but you can’t accuse me of being selfish here: I didn’t want LeBron within 500 miles of Philadelphia. But the player who could literally pick and choose a franchise to make his own neglected teams like Boston, Houston, Philadelphia, San Antonio, and basically any other contender who would have been happy to do what they needed to do in order to make it work to sign him.

Instead, he chose LA for exactly the reason that Lakers fans love the Lakers: they’re perfectly happy to get caught up in being a celebrity instead of winning basketball games. Julian Edelman said it best: “LA is Hollywood, but Boston is a sports town.” It really is that simple. He went to LA because he wanted to just be famous. Winning would be great, but if he was producing Space Jam 2 and the Shop, he’ll be set.

Body language is pretty telling, right now.

And of course, the asterisk over this whole Lakers season is the 18 game absence without LeBron James due to an unprecedented injury. Prior to that, the Lakers were finally looking like a serious West playoff threat, but while he was out, that team cratered. He obviously wasn’t responsible for them losing all those games, but he also willingly put himself in a situation where their playoff life hung in the balance of Brandon Ingram’s night to night performance.

And while this team would be a likely playoff team in the East, he chose to go to the West. He knew what this was. He could have gone to the best teams in the East, where injuries wouldn’t change anything once they got into the playoffs healthy. But instead, he chose a bottom-feeder in the stacked West.

This is all of course with the tangent that obviously LeBron likes winning, and wants to do it. It’s just not what he came to LA to do. He would happily win where he would get all the praise and credit in the world, but now that they’re losing, he’s stat-padding while punting on defense all so he could avoid blame in the loss. Even if he puts up 25-10-10, leaving open shooters on a Memphis team in freefall might just lose you a game. Bricking two free throws against Phoenix might just lose you a game.

This isn’t news, either, LeBron has always taken credit and avoided blame. But at no point is he recognizing that maybe this teams lack of cohesion, roster construction, or all of the “distractions” he lements, were his own doing.

The sad reality is, if LeBron James wanted to be in a better situation than he is right now, he could have just stayed in Cleveland (as much of a joke that team has been). He would be in the East, he had the fanbase at his knees so he could half-ass the whole season and return in the playoffs like he did every year, and probably still end up in the Finals. The funny part is, I’m wondering who was misled more: The Lakers for thinking LeBron gave a shit about winning for them, or the Cavs for thinking he wanted to retire there while suspiciously never signing a long-term deal with them.

Advertisements

Breaking Down the Lakers’ Playoff Push

After the Lakers’ utterly baffling and confusing loss to the AD-less New Orleans Pelicans last Saturday night, I had a thread on Twitter describing the Lakers’ remaining schedule, as it relates to how many wins they likely will need to beat out the other teams in the hunt. Now, after the Lakers’ comical loss to a new-look and hardcore tanking Memphis team, I will reevaluate everything that I had discussed and pointed out in that thread in greater detail. Before I do that, however, here is the original (and now outdated) thread detailing the situation LeBron and the Lakers find themselves in:

Feel free to follow the boy while you’re at it, I have great Corey Brewer takes.

To begin, the Lakers currently have a record 29-31. While there is no hard game limit needed for them to get into the playoffs, many projections see them falling short of either the Kings or Clippers in win total, meaning they would sit at 9th at most. According to one projection, 538, the Clippers (currently 34-28) are now expected to win 44 games. At the time of the original post, it was 43, which I conservatively adjusted to 42. Since they are now 1 win further along, I will now use a projected 43 win total as the threshold needed to be passed for the lower LA to squeak in.

Let’s assume that losing Tobias Harris and attempting to work new pieces in eventually takes a toll on LAC, and that they only win 9 out of their remaining 20 games and finish at 43 wins on the year. This would mean that the Lakers would need to match this number and win the series to break the tie, which is up in the air with two games left between the two (series is 1-1 at the moment). The Clippers are likely to have a better conference and divisional record, so unless the Lakers get to 44 wins, they’d have to beat the Clippers in both of their next two games against them to break the tie in their favor. Otherwise, the Clippers would win.

“He had a triple-double, what more do you want from him?!” I’m not sure, but maybe risking defensive 3-seconds to disrespect an open shooter isn’t top notch defense.

So, assuming a modest sub-.500 record down the stretch for the Clippers, the Lakers would need to win a tie-breaker resistant 15 games out of their remaining 22, 14 at minimum unless something seriously goes wrong for LAC or Sacramento. As stated in my tweet thread, the Lakers can, in theory, win in all of the following games: NOP, @PHO, @CHI, @DET, @NYK, WAS, CHA, and @NOP (Memphis was originally one of these games, so they aren’t off to a great start against their easier schedule). This is 8 of their remaining 22, and let’s assume they win 7 out of these 8.

If so, that means they would then need 7, ideally 8 wins against their tougher opponents, which include: MIL, LAC, DEN, BOS, @TOR, @MIL, BRO, SAC, @UTAH, @OKC, GSW, LAC, UTAH, and POR.

That is…tough. Many of those teams, including LAC, are Western Conference teams fighting for playoff seeds, and while many are at home, some of the toughest teams are away, and many of the easier games are away. The easiest of their hard games are at home, but teams like the Clippers and Kings who are fighting just as hard for the playoffs, or Brooklyn who can never be counted out (especially against defenses like the Lakers’) are not going to go down easily. It’s worth noting, also, that Home for the Lakers is also home for the Clippers. Either way, games like @ Bucks and @ Raptors are near unwinnable, and Boston, Denver, OKC, Portland, and Utah are all fighting for playoff seeds in their respective conferences.

So, against the toughest opponents in their schedule left to play, they need to get 7 wins out of those 14, and this is assuming they go 7-1 at least in their “easy” games. If LAC only wins 43 games this year, and the Lakers win all 8 easy games, and go .500 in the hard games, they would be at a tie-breaker resistant 44 wins. This, of course, would be an impressive feat. This also implies that the Clippers under-perform their projected record of 44 wins. Every game above 43 that the Clippers (or less probably, the Kings) win is just another one of those tough, tough games that the Lakers need to win, on top of winning 7 or 8 of those easy games, many of whom won’t go down easy, like Detroit, who is a solid home team and is also fighting to hold on to a playoff spot. Charlotte is in the same boat, although the Lakers see them at home.

The moral of the story is, the margin for error in the Lakers final stretch is as small and narrow as it could possibly be. They can’t take a night off against the Bulls, they sacrificed that luxury when they lost a must-win against Atlanta. They can’t just rely on offensive prowess to save them, either. They need to make serious changes on the defensive end. Teams like Brooklyn, Sacramento, or the Blake Griffin-led Pistons are not teams you can get into a shootout with, despite their somewhat weaker records. You mean to tell me you want to crank the pace in a game where Kyle Kuzma is on Blake Griffin the whole time? Good luck with that, Luke.

Either way, I can’t wait until they don’t make it and we hear “He was never fully healthy from his groin injury!” from Bron-fetishists non-stop. I, personally, am on the “I’ll believe LeBron misses the playoffs when I see it” camp, because he’s pulled heroics before, just none quite comparable to this.

The Re-imagination of Blake Griffin

One of the most curious story-lines in the past decade of NBA basketball is the career of Blake Griffin. The 6’10, 250 pound-er has been nothing short of noteworthy every single year of his career, even in seasons cut short by injury.

With the highlight of his career being behind him as one of the key figures in the Lob City Los Angeles Clippers, Griffin was presented with a choice once Chris Paul left: adapt, or get left behind.

After Paul’s departure from Los Angeles, and as DeAndre Jordan’s best years appeared to be past him, the writing was on the wall that it was time for the Clippers to build anew. They got many, many pieces back in exchange for Paul, but nobody as integral to the system they had prior as CP3 had been. And while players like Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams continue to put in work for LAC, the ownership group seemed to believe that a team of an aging DJ, Blake, and a bunch of good rotation guys had a clear ceiling, and it wasn’t as high as they had probably hoped. As unexpected as the move was at the time, you could pretty easily understand their rationale. They got back a good return for him too, as they gained, among other things, Tobias Harris and the pick that became Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Harris would later be flipped in rookie Landry Shamet and 2 first rounders courtesy of Philadelphia. So, the rebuild turnover was quick and effective, as the Clippers now have 2 max cap spots, multiple quality role players, and plenty of picks to surround any high caliber free agents with young talent.

The metrics of the Clippers’ trade business aside, the reality for Blake Griffin seemed to settle in fast. It’s not that he wasn’t as good as he thought he was; although maybe that thought crossed his mind. It was moreso that he needed to embrace the way the league was changing, and utilize whatever skills he had in order to keep pace. One of the defining characteristics of “modern” basketball is the embrace of the 3-point shot across any and all positions. It’s not a necessity for every player, but when available, it is something that should be taken advantage of, with some bigs like Meyers Leonard, Brook Lopez, and Mike Muscala having the 3-pointer as integral parts of their value to a team. Blake Griffin, as a power forward, was not immune to this shift.

In the early years of his career, from around 2011-2014, Griffin shot percentages ranging from 12% to 29%, on less than .6 3PA per game through all of those seasons. After the 2015 season, Griffin’s 3-point shooting made a leap into the consistent mid-30s range, which is good for his position and even better considering it wasn’t a foundational piece of his game until that point in his career. However, the most notable thing about Griffin’s shooting isn’t his completion percentage jumping up-it’s his attempts. After Chris Paul left LA, Griffin’s 3PA jumped from 1.9 to 5.6 per game, and since the start of his first full season in Detroit, it’s been 6.8 attempts per game from 3. Compared to even his 4th year in the league, this is nearly a tenfold increase in 3-point shots taken, and with a completion percentage about as good as he’s ever had.

Some things improve naturally over the course of a player’s career. Griffin, for example, is shooting about 10% better on free throws than in the early years of his career. This is expected with the natural progression of a player’s skillset. What isn’t expected is taking 10 times as many 3-pointers, and making nearly twice the proportion of them. That’s not a natural progression, that is a player taking their game back to the drawing board and redefining their play.

The trade to Detroit was surely a hard one to swallow for Blake. One thing is for certain, though, is that the free roam he has on that talent and shooting deprived team, along with a new look coach in Dwane Casey, Blake Griffin has had the breathing room to make these kinds of sweeping changes to his play-style, and it’s seemingly all for the better.

Sink or Swim: Outlook After the All-Star Break

The All-Star break is kind of like that point in the semester where you sit there and say to yourself, “Okay, my grade sucks right now, but I still have X-amount-of-assignments and Y-number-of-weeks to get it up to a B.” For many teams, this is the last time they can really make adjustments to better position themselves in the post-season, and in some cases, make the post-season at all.

With that said, here are some extra credit homework assignments for teams with a little work to do in the final third or so of the season.

Philadelphia 76ers: Work out the Kinks

It’s not a difficult observation to see that the Sixers, for all of their raw talent, need to gel a little bit before attempting a post-season run. So what does this look like for Philly?

For starters, they need to figure out their lineups mid-way through games. Of course, all of the starters would be out in the beginning and sometimes ends of games, but figuring out how to balance scoring and defense in the middle of games would do wonders for Philly in terms of their ability to maintain a lead down the stretch (an area they struggle with, even against significantly worse teams). This was usually a by-product of their depth issues, but the trade deadline mitigated that in a big way, although it’s still a problem. But now that you have more functional pieces, it’s time for Brett Brown to put them together. He’s already gone offense/defense in crunch time with JJ Redick and guys like John Simmons or James Ennis, guys with a little more pep in their step.

One key aspect of Philly’s transformation throughout the season has been the slight increase in their usage of the pick and roll, despite using it significantly less than most teams even now. If Brown can find lineups to make pick and roll work, then he can throw a lot of different looks at the defense by integrating pick and roll into the fold of already lethal plays such as Embiid-Redick dribble handoffs, and Simmons drive and kick in transition.

While it is important for Philly to get a top 4 seed, it’s more important that they have all of this figured out come playoff time, and even so, they’re only a game or so back from the 3-seed and are currently tied in record with Boston at 4.

Los Angeles Lakers: Make the Playoffs

I mean, you all knew this was coming, right? This is moreso homework for Magic, Pelinka, and Luke Walton than it is for the roster itself, but still. If you sign the best player in the world in free agency, sacrifice nothing to make it happen, and miss the playoffs with him for the first time since his prime started? After all of the noise they made after that signing, in the most profitable market in the league? That sounds like a recipe to get any or all 3 of those guys out of a job.

LeBron’s groin injury couldn’t have been foreseen, but at the same time, the man is 34. He shouldn’t need to play 82 games for you to scrape the playoff bubble, and even then, probably get swept in the first by Golden State. His absence was certainly longer than originally expected, but if there was some semblance of competence in the personnel and coaching, they wouldn’t be so reliant upon Lonzo Ball of all people staying healthy. More importantly, the trade deadline was a PR disaster for the this team, as they completely alienated their entire team in full public view while getting played like a fiddle by a now-jobless Dell Demps. The point is, this team needs something to feel good about, and fast, or else this whole experiment could get really, really ugly.

Houston Rockets: Conserve James Harden

For the Houston Rockets with James Harden playing as he is right now, there is not a single team that they cannot beat on any given night. With that said, Houston has got to be more reserved with the minutes and offensive load Harden is bearing. What’s more important, a second MVP for Harden, or making it past the first round?

Doing this for as long as he has thus far, Harden’s level of play is not sustainable long term. If it was, he’d be the best offensive player of all time and would have more than one MVP by this point. One thing is for sure, however: Harden has a troubling history of disappearing at important moments in the playoffs. Mike D’Antoni himself has stated that he believes this to be a product of how cumbersome the regular season is for Harden, and this has been one for the record books. What truly did the Rockets in last year, when they were 2 quarters away from essentially winning a title, was Chris Paul getting hurt mid-series. You truly never know when Paul, in his 30s, may just need a game or two to recover. With that said, the Rockets are comfortably deep enough into the playoff race to have some wiggle room, and against many teams, Harden probably doesn’t need to go Super Saiyan for them to win games.

With that said, my advice to Houston is to do some load management with Harden. If he’s still got the juice come May, this team could easily make another Western Conference Finals run, if he is capable of elevating his level of play to even part of what we’ve seen out of him this year.