The Los Angeles Lakers lost to the Dallas Mavericks 90-82 on Friday night, and it's time for this team to stop pretending, to stop imagining there are any loftier goals this season than the development of a young core they can build around. Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, and D'Angelo Russell are main components, but Anthony Brown, Larry Nance, Jr., and Tarik Black are all worth kicking the tires on. So why has playing time been so sparse?
It would be irrational to expect the team to only play the kids. For one, it would be defensive suicide (which could admittedly be the code-name for the Lakers' defense this season anyway). Against the Mavericks, veteran Lou Williams once again got a frustrating amount of playing time despite not being particularly impressive. Williams played just over 28 minutes in Dallas, despite probably being the worst player on the team for the majority of the game. The numbers are really ugly: Williams was a -19 on the night in plus/minus (lowest on the Lakers), while shooting just 3-11 and only getting to the free throw line 5 times. Williams turned the ball over 3 times, and the team only scored 58.6 points per 100 possessions, and were outscored by 32.1 points per 100 possessions, for Williams' 28 minutes.
Why is this bad? For one, because Russell only saw just under 24 minutes of floor time, despite posting the best offensive rating on the team (103.2), second best net rating (7.8) and having a pretty solid stat line in his limited minutes: 9 points, 5 assists, and 6 rebounds. This is not earth shattering production, but it was well ahead of what Williams was giving the team.
And production aside, shouldn't the Lakers be allowing their young core to develop together just from a team-building standpoint anyway? Even if it does not lead to wins this year, what they are doing right now is not leading the team to victory either, and it is a lot more productive (not to mention fun) to have the ball in Russell or Clarkson's hands, developing chemistry on plays like this:
Than it is to watch Williams try and and run the offense. There is no reason that Williams should use 22.4% of the Lakers' possessions while Russell gets just 16.6%, as was the case against the Mavericks; or for Williams to use 28% of the Lakers' possessions in the fourth quarters of games, as has been the case for the season. (This is without digging into Kobe's usage, but one step at a time. If Scott won't rein in Williams, he certainly won't be tugging on Bryant's leash any time soon.)
There is a similar problem in the frontcourt, where Brandon Bass (almost 18 minutes of PT against Dallas) continues to be experimented with as a small ball center while Tarik Black rots on the bench. And I get it, it's hard to sign veterans over the summer when hope springs eternal and then sit them down when they struggle, as Bass has with a defensive rating of 110.1. But just because I don't envy Byron Scott having to make these decisions does not mean they don't need to be made. If Larry Nance, Jr.'s emergence forces the team to give him minutes, as it clearly has, it does not mean the team has to play Bass at center just to get him on the floor.
Speaking of the center position, another issue with the Lakers' player development strategy so far this season was the team's decision to cut center Robert Upshaw at the end of training camp for the more dependable and predictable Robert Sacre. Upshaw absolutely would not fix the Lakers' defensive woes, at 21-years old he is still incredibly raw. But if the team was going to break-glass-in-case-of-emergency on a defensive specialist like Sacre, now would be the time to smash the case, with the Lakers currently ranked 28th in the league in defensive efficiency. Instead, Sacre has played a grand total of 4 minutes in 1 of the Lakers' eight games, and spent the last few as one of the team's inactive players.
Why do the Lakers feel the need to have a polished, dependable option to sit on the bench in a suit while they are losing games anyway? With the team playing so badly, they don't need the type of competent but limited 4th or 5th big a contender likes to keep around. It is hard not to think the organization not be better served by having Upshaw get reps with the parent team in practice, or at least be shuttled back and forth from Staples to the D-League like Clarkson last year if that will better serve his development. It is also hard to imagine the team could be that much worse defensively if injuries forced Upshaw into some minutes, and it would likely help his long-term development as well. Lastly, the team would not be running the risk of losing Upshaw to another team should he play well with the D-Fenders, as he did in a limited debut with the team on Friday night.
The Lakers are 1-8, and past one of the easiest portions of their schedule. The Cinderella run of good fortune leading to a playoff berth is all but mathematically impossible. It is time for the Lakers to stop pretending they can make a run for the eight seed. With their lottery pick very likely to be conveyed to the Philadelphia 76ers, no one is suggesting the Lakers outright tank. However, there is also no reason the team's younger players should not be getting more chances to have the ball in their hands at the expense of the veterans, or for the team to not troll the last couple of spots on the roster looking for a diamond in the rough. It is time for the Lakers to try and make the best of a lost year, and not by chasing a few extra wins.
All stats per NBA.com