What say we start things off with an egregious cliché. Cool? Cool. Merriam-Webster defines the term swagger as an "ostentatious display" or "bravado" carried out by one with "an arrogant or superciliously pompous manner". While even a casual observer can see these qualities radiating from Lakers guard Nick Young's every move, his nickname "Swaggy P" has always inspired plenty of confusion, derision and mockery. Fans look down their noses at guys who give themselves nicknames. We want our favorite players to accept accolades and monikers humbly, to feign indifference and reluctance as the title is foisted upon them through more organic means.
I'm not typically one to call out Nick Young for failing to live up to his moniker in any given quarter, game or season. After all, the nickname doesn't allude to anything about field goal percentage, games played or Player Efficiency Rating—units of measure that weren't particularly kind to Nick this season. But Young's alias isn't about production, it's about a persona, and that's a much more difficult entity to quantify in terms of success and failure. In gauging how well Young's year kept with the definition of swagger and lived up to his self-anointed prophet status, it's hard to say if his season was a complete dud.
Indeed, 2014-15 was not bereft of highlights for Swaggy. There was the postgame interview that garnered the death-stare seen ‘round the world from Kobe after a Sunday afternoon victory over the hated Celtics. And who could forget the game-winning three against the defending champion Spurs in December, complete with a righteous showing of "three goggles" and whatever the hell this thing with Kobe is called? Then of course there was the short-lived euphoria of his return from a torn ligament in his thumb resulting in a dynastic two-game stretch that had the most quixotic of fans—drunk on triple-X Swag—telling anyone who would listen "we ‘bout to snag that eight-seed".
Eventually though, the ugly precondition of losing started to gain a foothold in the minds of Lakers fans, quickly erasing whatever space Young could possibly occupy that would simultaneously satiate our appetites for entertainment while keeping the tank rolling toward its necessary destination at season's end. The 2013-14 season was a far more hospitable environment for the antics of a player like Nick to take root in the hearts of Lakers Nation. Though the win total wasn't much better than this year, the forward-thinking Lakers fan wasn't burdened with the harsh calculus of needing to finish in the bottom five, allowing for some levity during the more traditionally exciting moments like close games, scoring outbursts and (gasp!) wins.
Yet, dubious context distinctions and overplayed nicknames aside...by almost any empirical measure, Nick Young had an awful 2014-15 season. However, before we go pinning Nick's abysmal showing on complacency due to his new four-year, $21.5 million deal, or some imagined Eddy Curry-esque eat-a-palooza that left him overweight and injury prone, let's take a look at the mitigating factors that may have played a role in his substandard sophomore year in purple and gold.
For starters: Young missed the first ten games of the season with a completely torn radial collateral ligament in the thumb of his shooting hand, had to adapt to a completely new offensive "system" that removed emphasis from efficient 3-point attempts and shifted it toward the nebulous no man's land of the long 2-pointer, had to play for a coach that has absolutely zero patience for riding out his zanier moments, and worst of all, had to deal with a fractured left knee cap for much of the second half of the year. Needless to say, these circumstances are not ideal in ensuring proper chakra alignment and unfettered flow of vital energies such as efficiency, defense and swag.
This isn't to blindly dismiss Nick Young's dismal season as being entirely incidental and no fault of his own—he certainly played a part. Ultimately, contextual details, extenuating circumstances and injuries grant perspective and inform opinions, but they don't completely absolve the player of any responsibility to perform on a nightly basis. This also isn't a case of raw numbers skewing an underlying efficiency or a guy who "does things that don't show up in a box score". We all know Nick isn't that guy—there will be no long-form think pieces in the New York Times about how Swaggy P is a coach's dream who does all the little things that help a team win.
Advanced metrics and analytics be damned, Nick Young makes his bones in a time-honored, easy to identify way: points. Raw, tenuously efficient, hotly contested, sopping wet, piping hot, shoulder shrugging points. Swaggy's best skill is the same one that's been getting guys like him picked first at the rec center for years, leaving scorned "hustle guys" champing at the bit to form a fundamentally sound All-Effort team that can take down the gunners. He's the prototypical gregarious pick-up guy—he knows everyone, withholds daps from no one, and rightly calls out "game time" when his final shot is still in midair. The problem is, at least this year, Young didn't score enough points at anything close to a decent enough rate to excuse his other shortcomings.
In taking a look at Swaggy's cold, hard numbers for the year, we have a classic case of the eye test very much coinciding with the stats. Regardless of what his true positional definition may be, as a small forward, ESPN's Hollinger Stats has Young ranked seventh in usage (and second overall on the Lakers) despite putting up 13.4 ppg on a career-worst 36.6% from the field and posting an assist to turnover ratio of 1:1. He did post an OK (though not great) percentage on three-point attempts at 36.9% (only a few ticks under his career average) and a career-high free throw percentage at 89.2%.
So why the horrendous overall efficiency? Per NBA.com, Nick's shot charts from three-point range actually look fairly respectable, he hit an identical 44.4% form both corners, and just under 36% from everywhere else. In spite of this relatively decent clip, it was his abominable showing from everywhere inside the arc that torpedoed his efficiency, including an unsightly 44.6% at the rim (nearly 11 percentage points lower than last season). Again, you can find small redeeming tidbits and silver linings here and there, but ultimately, pointing to any of these as the saving grace of Nick's season would be akin to bragging about the customized license plate frame on your car while it's on cinder blocks with a busted transmission.
The oft-discussed evolution of metrics and analytics has allowed us to dig deeper into the true impact of any given player, granting casual and professional observers alike a more refined perspective in judging what that player brings to the game beyond traditional, bottom of the sports page numbers. But with Nick Young's 2014-15 season, no amount of shot chart artistry, SportVU tracking or next-level data Kung Fu can mask what was substandard production in what is supposed to be his strongest area. Simply put, if Young is going to use up nearly a quarter of the team's possessions without posting above-average scoring numbers at a passably efficient clip, it becomes exceedingly difficult to even justify his presence on the court. Nick doesn't pass consistently well, he doesn't rebound well, and he's never been known as a defensive stalwart (no, you get out!), so if he's not getting buckets, where does that leave him?
Piled on top of Young's already injury-riddled, ineffectual campaign were frequent and highly publicized clashes with Byron Scott that left him feeling unfairly scrutinized by his new coach. In spite of the fact that Nick's year actually reflected a Scott-coached team pretty accurately (inefficient offense, bad defense), Swaggy's personality and style were never going to mesh with the militaristic facade propagated by the Lakers' skipper. Whether it was Young's benching following a particularly blatant disregard for defense against the Rockets in January, Scott's criticism of his hair, or Swaggy saying that he takes Scott's criticism with a "grain of salt", there were plenty of instances in which player and coach did not see eye to eye. The low stakes of this Lakers season left these tiffs feeling mostly toothless and inconsequential, but there's no denying their role in fostering a growing sense of uncertainty regarding Young's future with the team.
This is where I'd typically like to wrap things up with a positive outlook, or give some reasons as to why Nick Young will come back strong next year. I'd love to imagine a montage of him spending hours in the gym, putting up thousands of shots, rehabbing his knee, sprinting up the Philadelphia Museum of Art stairs, or running on a treadmill with electrodes attached to him while triumphant 80's music sets the mood (or if you're feeling lazy, just use "Gimme Shelter" like everyone else does). Who knows? Maybe that's exactly what's happening right now. Then again, maybe Swaggy will just spend his summer vacation lost in a sea of daytime television and lukewarm Spaghetti-O's.
In looking at Young's career statistics, some solace can be taken in a general pattern of his following a down year with a strong one. It would also seem fair to hope that his health luck will improve, as will his relationship with his coach. Swaggy P could have an impactful season as a spark plug off the bench as the Lakers record measurably improves, giving him the proper stage and circumstances to showcase his skills in a more meaningful environment...or the Lakers could just as easily trade him before training camp opens. Nick's down year, rocky relationship with his coach and relatively movable contract could very well mean he won't be around next October. In spite of the 3 years remaining on his deal, the yearly salary isn't so outrageous that a team with a real need for scoring might not take a chance on a guy who, only a year ago, was getting some (admittedly tepid) Sixth Man of the Year buzz.
With a player like Nick Young, sometimes it's best to just enjoy the toboggan ride. After all, are you really going to allow yourself to live and die with each missed shot from a guy with a career field goal percentage of 42.3%? Young is one of the rare players who can provide levity and humor amid turmoil without sabotaging the chances of a team with real aspirations. For all his antics, quirks, interspecies conflicts, defensive shortcomings, and inefficiency, no one has accused Nick of being a lousy teammate or negative influence during his tenure in LA. Maybe he's not a rotation player on a championship caliber team, but in the meantime, the Lakers could do a lot worse. Swaggy's career is not unlike so many of the contested, off the dribble three pointers he's taken over the years: they might not be grounded in the soundest logic, but the rapturous payoff of the four-point play that occurs just often enough makes it all worthwhile. Eventually the Lakers will want to engender a culture of solemnity, defense and winning at all costs, but for now, the only path to salvation for any Lakers fan rooting for the Renaissance of Swag in LA is to embrace the unknown and revel in the absurdity.
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