LOS ANGELES -- "Positionless basketball" has become a cliche over the last few seasons, with seemingly every coach stating it as a goal the team wants to aspire to or a different look they want to explore during training camp. It has essentially become the coach's equivalent of when a player says they "added fifteen pounds of muscle" or "are in the best shape of their life."
One coach who most would not expect to join in on the chorus is Los Angeles Lakers' head coach Byron Scott, but through his own admissions and the team's actions, he may be embracing the modern era. For one, he is not expecting Julius Randle to play like a traditional back-to-the-basket power forward, and is prepared to unleash #RandlesHandles in the open court.
"We talked this summer, I told him every time he gets the defensive rebound I want him to push it," Scott said when asked if Randle had the "green light" to push the ball in the open floor when he got a loose ball or rebound.
During the preseason, Randle has played this role to great effect, consistently fulfilling his goal to "push it, make a play, for somebody or myself, just take what's open," or as Randle put it more simply, "I've been doing that since college." What he has been doing since college is working, with the former Kentucky Wildcat playing the facilitator to great effect during the best stretch of basketball of his (admittedly short) professional career.
Randle has also been using his versatility on the defensive end, using his lateral quickness to switch onto unsuspecting point guards before snatching the ball away or disrupting their dribble using the quick hands he must have at least partially gained in summer workouts with Metta World Peace.
It's not just Randle who has been freed by this newfound more modern approach. Anthony Brown said he is also focusing on "the ability to guard multiple players, ones, twos, and threes, which allows to switch ball screens... just being versatile." Jordan Clarkson and D'Angelo Russell are also long, with the ability to switch between either guard slot. If you squint, you can begin to see the makings of the often searched for and rarely found group of four players who can switch everything on defense, otherwise known as the philosophy the Golden State Warriors and Miami Heat just won titles with.
After breaking the Internet (or at least basketball Twitter) with his comments last year on not believing that three-pointers win championships, Scott has seemingly started to come around to that aspect of the modern game, mentioning during Las Vegas Summer League that he was okay with the team shooting more threes now that it had the personnel. The Lakers have averaged 25.5 three point attempts per game through preseason, up from the 18.9 attempts they averaged last season, due in part to Scott placing more of an emphasis on experimenting with shooting during the preseason.
"I liked what I saw, as far as [Russell] playing out there with two guys, really three with Ryan [Kelly] out there who can flat out shoot the ball, and Lou and Nick as well. They looked pretty good, looked like they were in pretty good sync for their first time playing with each other, so I'll experiment with it a little bit more and see what happens."
What happened on Sunday night was Russell and the Lakers tearing apart an overmatched Maccabi Haifa defense to the tune of 11 assists for Russell and 30 for the team. Even Roy Hibbert was diming with some swagger.
The biggest recipient of this newfound ball movement replacing the abominable Kobe-centric offense that looked bad with him and totally lost after his shoulder injury is none other than Kobe Bryant. The 37-year-old has looked very impressive during the team's four preseason games, with a true shooting percentage of 67.5 percent, up from 47.7 percent last season. The eye test would lead you to believe this is due to more of Bryant's baskets being assisted, which the statistics confirm. Thus far in the preseason, Bryant has had 82.4 percent of his baskets assisted, a somewhat noticeable increase from 31.6 percent last season. Basically, the 19-year veteran shoots more efficiently when he is asked to do less, something Bryant's injury last season has seemingly forced Scott to understand.
In addition to the pinging passing displays the Lakers have put on, Scott also seems to have come around a bit on small ball. "Against Utah I played Brandon Bass at the five, and I thought he did really well," Scott said before the Lakers' exhibition against Maccabi Haifa. "Because this league is so much more of a small ball league than it ever has been you can get away with having somebody at 6'8", 6'9" play the center position at times."
Scott has also mentioned Bryant may play some power forward in certain matchups (and while the wisdom of that can be debated), the Lakers' coach seems to have started to grasp, and even embrace, some of the ways the league is trending. It may be just the preseason, and the Lakers will still be a below average team this season, but these baby steps towards respectability are a nice change after two consecutive seasons of futility.