It’s almost the start of a new year, the time when all of us make a bunch of promises about personal improvements we’ll stick with for at least two weeks.
The Los Angeles Lakers dropped 14 of their last 16 games of 2016, and while their year hasn’t been all bad, they could probably do with a few changes. What should the various members of the team be striving to alter in the new year? Let’s run down the list!
D’Angelo Russell — Limit turnovers
There are lots of reasons to be hopeful about Russell’s future, but if he wants to reach his full potential, he has to stop being so careless when he slings the ball. Russell’s superior floor vision is going to give him a chance to be great, however right now it’s allowing him to see angles and attempt passes he really shouldn’t be.
All high assist point guards (unless they’re Chris Paul) suffer from turnover issues. Call it a creativity tax. Russell is turning the ball over three times a game against 4.6 assists, though. To make that a little more simple, Russell is giving the ball away on 13.7 percent of his possessions.
The Lakers offense has still been better when he’s on the floor because he’s the only “true point guard” on the team, but if he stops giving the other team the ball so much it will take his game to a whole other level.
Julius Randle — Stop shooting from five-to-nine feet away from the basket
Does this seem oddly specific? Probably, but I’ll explain. Randle’s improved efficiency as a scorer this year simply cannot be overstated. He’s shooting 60.6 percent within five feet of the basket, 54.2 percent from 15-to-19 feet, and 50 percent from 10-to-14 feet. The main blemish? The area in between (5-to-9 feet) where Randle is shooting just 31.8 percent.
Like so many of us cutting our one food “weakness” from our diet and suddenly getting a whole lot healthier, Randle’s shooting would look much better if he wasn’t taking the second-highest percentage of his shots from one of the areas of the floor he’s weakest from. We’ll see if Randle can cut his craving for those baby jumpers in the new year.
Luke Walton — Find a few more lineups that work
Walton has overall done a great job for a first-year head coach in a rebuilding scenario. He brought confidence back to a team that frankly looked defeated for much of last year and seems to have the right temperament to lead a rebuilding team.
Just like his young players though, the youngest head coach in the league has some areas he can improve as well. Five of the Lakers’ six most used lineups have a positive net rating, meaning Walton can identify five-man units that work.
However, four of the next five most-used Lakers lineups getting outscored by over 20 points per 100 possessions. That as much as anything else is why the Lakers are blowing so many second half leads, and Walton needs to find a few more combinations that can play together in the new year.
Brandon Ingram — Find some way, any way, to be effective shooting the ball
No, it’s not time to call Ingram a bust yet, and really not time to worry too much about his shooting. Anyone who didn’t think a skinny 19-year-old was going to have finishing issues as a rookie needed a bit of a reality check.
That being said, it would be nice to see Ingram hit a few more baskets in 2017. Ingram’s true shooting percentage (which accounts for the added value of three-pointers and free-throws) sits at just 43 percent, by far the worst mark among rotation players for the Lakers. For those that like traditional stats, he’s shooting 34.7 percent overall and just 25 percent from three. That’s not good.
Ingram was always due for some growing pains, but the Lakers need to sit down with him and figure out what situations he’s most comfortable shooting in and get him more of those looks in 2017.
Jordan Clarkson — Pass more
Walton called for this one publicly a few weeks ago and it’s been an issue for Clarkson. He’s taken the title of “shooting guard” fairly literally, and his 24.3 passes per game are less than any Lakers’ rotation guard not named Nick Young. You never want to be barely passing more than Nick Young.
As a result, Clarkson is posting the lowest assist percentage of his young career, and his one-note offense is allowing opponents to not have to worry about helping on him at the rim (where he’s shooting just 53.9 percent).
Clarkson has the ball in his hands as a playmaker less than he did during his first season, and the Lakers are running a much different offense with a far lower emphasis on putting him in high pick-and-rolls. Still, Jordan needs to find a way to diversify his offensive arsenal if he wants to become more than a one-dimensional bench scorer.
Larry Nance, Jr. — Get healthy
Remember how I mentioned earlier that five of the Lakers’ six most-used lineups had posted a positive net rating? Well, four of them include Nance, Jr., who has simply been dynamite for the Lakers during his second year.
Nance, Jr. has the third-best net rating on the team, and is the best on the team in fourth quarters, where the Lakers outscore opponents by 11 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. This is in large part because Larry doesn’t take bad shots, and as a result his 60.6 true shooting percentage ranks second on the team behind only Nick Young.
The Lakers shouldn’t rush Nance, Jr.’s recovery, but they are going to miss him until he returns in a few weeks.
Lou Williams — Win Sixth Man of the Year
Williams has finally tailed off a bit of late, but he’s been a firecracker for most of the year. He is one of only two Lakers to play in all of their games (along with Luol Deng), making it all the more impressive that he is also one of only two Lakers with a positive net rating (his 0.7 is just behind Tarik Black’s 1.9, the latter of which is at least slightly skewed by a smaller sample size).
Williams’ 59.7 percent true shooting percentage ranks third on the Lakers, and the two players ahead of him (Nanc, Jr. and Nick Young) both create their own shots far less than Williams does.
Sweet Lou has remained so efficient by getting to the line, averaging the second-highest free throw rate (how many free throws he attempts per field goal attempt) of his career at .483. He is such a contact magnet, even his dog fouls him involuntarily in the house:
(Alternative resolution: put your dog on Instagram more, Lou. Your dog is awesome.)
Williams is still improbably leading the Lakers in scoring at 18.3 points per game (the most of any bench player in the NBA), and if the Lakers can play slightly more respectable basketball in 2017 than they did in the last month of 2016, he’ll get some much-deserved Sixth Man of the Year buzz.
Nick Young — Don’t mess with anything,you’re doing great
Seriously, Nick, if you’re reading this, whatever you’re doing, don’t stop doing that.
It’s here we make mandatory mention that despite all odds being against Swaggy P even making the roster heading into the year, he is not only starting, but thriving. His 14.2 points per game rank second on the Lakers, and he ranks first in both three-point percentage (42.8 percent) and true shooting percentage (an absurd 63.1 percent).
Whether Walton has magical shooting improvement powers that only apply to Young, or Uncle P stole some of MJ’s secret stuff, he needs to stick to whatever his current routine is and not make any hasty resolutions.
Luol Deng — Continue your recent resurgence
It’s no secret that Luol has been pretty Deng bad for most of the season, but over the last ten games he’s been a lot better! Deng has the best net rating of any Lakers to play in all ten of those games, and the team has been significantly better defensively with him on the floor (giving up 105.9 points per 100 possessions while he’s on the floor versus 119.4 when he sits).
Deng’s true shooting percentage ranks fourth on the team over that span, and while this is going to sound like a backhanded compliment, him simply not making the Lakers worse during his minutes is a big improvement. If Deng can continue to get a bit better around the margins, his contract may end up looking not totally awful and instead more like just the overpay it always appeared to be.
Timofey Mozgov — Defend the rim better
Speaking of overpays, Mozgov has not exactly been able to provide what the Lakers were hoping for from him so far. When the team shockingly made Mozgov the first big contract of free agency this summer, it was clear they were hoping he could clean up the back line of their previously awful defense.
So far that hasn’t happened. The Lakers are never better defensively than when Mozgov sits, allowing “just” 108.4 points per 100 possessions, and that’s in large part due to his rim protection not plugging the multitude of leaks the Lakers perimeter defense provides.
Opponents are shooting 61 percent within six feet of the basket with Mozgov defending them. That’s a .6 percent drop from their season average, hardly the type of inefficiency the Lakers hoped Mozgov could cause when signing him to a four-year deal reportedly worth $64 million.
To be fair to Mozgov, the Lakers’ wing defenders aren’t exactly making things easier on him, but if the Lakers are better defensively with him off the floor then the reasons to play him shrink quite a bit.
Tarik Black — Get back into the rotation
Black was playing really well as an integral part of the Lakers’ bench unit that was blitzing the league to start the season, but injuries are a cruel mistress. Now healthy again, Black is out of the rotation because Thomas Robinson played well enough during his absence to swipe his rotation spot.
Who knows when Black will get his next shot (although given the Lakers’ injury luck lately it will probably be soon), he just needs to take advantage of it because his replacement hasn’t quite brought the same stuff.
Thomas Robinson — Improve defensively (if you’re going to stay in the rotation)
Robinson has done a ton of good things for the Lakers. He gives the team an injection of energy whenever he comes into the game and has as inspiring of a story as anyone on the team.
Boy oh boy has he not helped defensively, though. The 113.8 points per 100 possessions the Lakers give up when Robinson is in the game are the worst among players to clear 200 minutes for the team this season, a far cry from Black (the player he’s replaced) and his team-best defensive rating of 103.1.
Robinson certainly doesn’t suffer from effort issues, however, this is a case where we (and more importantly, the Lakers coaching staff) can’t mistake activity with achievement.
Ivica Zubac — Earn some playing time
Zubac has come a long way from being the toast of Las Vegas Summer League. His 54 minutes this season are the lowest of any player on the team, and while he’s shown flashes of his potential, it’s also clear both from his NBA and D-League play he’s still a very raw prospect.
While Ingram has managed to be a defensive difference maker in his first year in the the NBA, the Lakers’ less-heralded rookie has struggled on that end of the floor. Zubac is averaging 4.6 fouls per 36 minutes in both the NBA and the D-League, and both the Lakers’ and the D-Fenders’ defenses have been better with him off the floor as a result.
Zubac won’t fix those issues entirely this year, young players just don’t do that. What he can do, though, is show off the offensive potential that has so many so high on him while cutting down on his fouls just enough to not be a total liability on the defensive end of the floor. He’ll likely start to get some burn as the Lakers fall further from playoff contention, and it’s on him to clean up enough of his mistakes that his coaches won’t regret it.
Jose Calderon — Continue to mentor the young guys?
I honestly forgot Calderon was on the team. He’s dealt with injuries on and off for most of the year, and I wouldn’t project him to be a factor in any other way than behind the scenes for the Lakers in 2017.
Marcelo Huertas — Wear more costumes to games
Seriously. This was fantastic.
Marcelo Huertas wore a... Christmas costume? (Via D'Angelo's Instagram) pic.twitter.com/LIvTa6bhvk— Harrison Faigen (@hmfaigen) December 26, 2016
Metta World Peace — Keep being one of the most quotable players in the league
It should be clear at this point that David Stern didn’t force the Lakers to add World Peace to their roster, because he’s certainly not here for basketball reasons. Whether it’s that he’s played 71 total minutes or that the Lakers have been outscored by a team-worst 45.5 points per 100 possessions in that floor time, the signs are obvious that Metta isn’t going to help the Lakers on the court.
In 2017, Metta’s goal should be to keep bringing a voice of leadership and levity to the locker room. From saying Zubac will be a top-five center in two years, to making weird photoshops praising Russell’s leadership, saying Walton will be a Hall of Fame coach, and talking about whether or not he has sex on the road, may World Peace continue to bless us all in 2017.