The Los Angeles Lakers’ wayward fortunes this season have given us ample opportunity to examine the roster at its best and at its worst and begin to pinpoint the structural flaws the team might have moving forward. There is no clearer inflection point than D’Angelo Russell’s injuries, which were arguably one of the principal reasons a once-promising 10-10 start was derailed into the current yet all too familiar hole. Russell’s season has been uneven to say the least, but despite the loud wailing of his critics, he still has made significant strides in nearly every respect, whether measured by RPM, PER, or otherwise.
The perhaps more relevant question with respect to the roster is why everything goes to hell sans Russell. Gary’s exposé examined how much more effective the team is with Russell on the court, but by the same token, that does not necessarily tell us what is lacking from the rest of the roster. Is it Luke Walton’s refusal to break up the once spectacularly performing bench unit? The regression of Lou Williams after a scorching hot start? Or perhaps something much more fundamental with the roster as a whole?
An examination of Russell’s replacements whenever he is injured is the clearest indication of where we might find an answer to these questions. Jose Calderon and Marcelo Huertas, both brought on as veteran depth at point guard, have struggled significantly this season. They’re both sporting sub-10 PER marks and negative RPM, and have failed to make significant headway in aiding the team in their specialty, whether spacing (Calderon) or playmaking (Huertas).
Now, both Calderon and Huertas largely played in Russell’s absence because of Luke’s desire to keep together the bench unit as much as possible, but the potential replacements on the bench have not exactly proven that they’re capable of filling Russell’s shoes in an even remotely adequate capacity. Brandon Ingram has sported flashes of playmaking talent despite his very nascent game, but his play has also indicated that he’s currently incapable of taking on the primary role of initiating the offense. His distributing chops are far more appropriate right now in a secondary creator role attacking closeouts and the like, not breaking down the defense off the pick-and-roll or in isolation.
This brings us then to Lou Williams and Jordan Clarkson, each of whom have their own problems when asked to be the primary ballhandler. Clarkson is the easier to deal with simply because all we need to do is look at what happened to his passing chops, or lack thereof, after his rookie season. Once a player who probed conscientiously off picks and changed speeds to punish defenses, Clarkson has become a one-note gunner barreling into the teeth of the defense with reckless abandon. He consistently fails to make good passing reads off the pick-and-roll – indeed, about the only thing he’s retained from his rookie year is punishing defenses who give him space for his midrange jumper as he comes around the pick – and he seems determined to echo the worst aspects of Russell Westbrook’s devil-may-care game.
The evisceration of Clarkson’s playmaking bona fides is especially damaging since we came into this year not unreasonably expecting that Luke’s tutelage might reignite Clarkson’s point guard skills. Sans Clarkson, the roster is basically bereft of players who can effectively round a pick, survey the defense, and make proper reads other than Russell and Lou. In the case of Lou, however, his adeptness at managing the pick-and-roll – seriously, watch him reject screens at literally the perfect time in order to get a free layup as the defense is flat-footed; he’ll get two to three buckets a game off actions like this – is tempered by the fact that at his core, he’s out there to get buckets for himself. On its face, this isn’t a huge issue, as more score-first point guards and combo guards initiate offenses all the time nowadays, but Lou separates himself from the pack here with how dogged he is in making the offense on the floor all about him.
To a certain extent, this isn’t a bad thing, especially when the bench unit is at full strength. Larry Nance Jr. and Tarik Black (and now Ivica Zubac as well) have proven a fairly decent defensive pairing, the group punishes opponents in transition thanks to Clarkson’s speed and the bigs’ able rim running, and Lou cleans up the remaining possessions in the halfcourt with a heavy emphasis on drag screens to get himself open. The problem is that this style is more well-suited for short stretches throughout the game for the team to regain their footing and inject energy (or in the increasingly rare instances in which the starters have played the opponent to a draw or have a lead, to build upon that advantage). Ultimately, those easy transition opportunities will dry up, the defense will lose its sharpness as the strain of keeping up their frenetic style wears on the players, and Lou unfortunately is not a blazing supernova every night to prop up the halfcourt offense.
These issues are compounded by the fact that the team hasn’t completely implemented Luke’s offensive system, especially counters off initial actions. Too often the offense drags down because the players on the floor don’t react well to ball pressure, overplaying passing lanes, and similar, all of which more experienced teams beat through having smart secondary and tertiary actions run after the initial options are cut off. Needless to say, the Lakers aren’t there yet and ironically the guy on the team best able to execute these actions is Lou, who is almost entirely angling to get himself open.
The end result is a self-defeating cycle in which the Lakers try to get into their offense in the halfcourt, fail to get the ball to their initial option (whether as a result of ball pressure exposing the lack of counters or the flaws of the relevant playmakers), spend too much time trying to run another play, and inevitably dump the ball to their designated possession eaters in Lou and Nick Young to make something happen with a short clock. Now, Lou and Young have been sufficiently good this season that this hasn’t been completely unsuccessful, but their presence also to a certain degree retards the ability of the team’s young players to develop their playmaking chops if the offense is so dependent on Lou and Young to bail out bad possessions. This is more of a problem with Lou, who actually handles the ball and initiates sets, than Young, principally a finisher of plays who tends to only handle the ball when necessary to attack closeouts.
We should also mention Julius Randle in this paradigm, as Randle has managed to learn how to leverage his quickness and solid first step into real playmaking chops. His foibles, however, namely his reluctance to shoot what has become a fairly decent midrange shot and his continued lack of a right hand making his finishing ability inconsistent, keep him from being a primary playmaker because of how limited he can be when he can’t overcome these issues. To be sure, when Randle is on, so is the team; it’s not an accident that he averages two more assists and seventy additional field goal percentage points in the team’s victories. The main issue here is that his limitations get especially exposed without Russell, as Randle is heavily dependent right now on good spacing and another playmaker to get him into his spots, so he isn’t really a solution to the team’s woes when Russell is out.
So, with all of that in mind, what is to be done with this situation? It is fairly evident that after Russell and excepting Lou, the team possesses several secondary creators better suited for playing off a primary playmaker who can best help them get to their spots. Luke will likely improve the team’s execution of his offensive system with the benefit of the All-Star break and more time to practice, but it remains unlikely that the team will absorb enough in that period to greatly affect the current calculus. As such, the team has to find a way to squeeze more playmaking chops from the roster as to best maximize the kids’ development for the remainder of the season.
Russell’s return should help significantly here, but as is evident, beyond riding him more, he can only help the current situation so much. Either someone needs to emerge as more capable in this respect than they have been in the past or the front office and coaching staff have to structure the roster in such a way as to engender the circumstances for that emergence. There are a few ways to go about this, the most apparent of which seems somewhat counter-intuitive: trade Lou.
This suggestion has been bandied about from basically the moment Lou arrived in LA since the team made a value signing for a type of player they didn’t particularly need with young prospects at both guard positions. We’ve reached the point in which Lou’s play directly conflicts with the kids’ play (excusing last season’s issues as more an instance of Byron Scott’s incompetence than anything else) because of how domineering he is over the offense whenever he is on the floor, so the reasons for dealing Lou extend beyond simple tanking and asset management, although to be fair the latter certainly remains quite legitimate.
At any rate, the biggest thing trading Lou does is free up Clarkson to be the primary initiator for the bench unit. At the moment, Clarkson simply isn’t a useful player in the long-term: a guard who can’t defend (-2.05 DPRM), create plays for others (13.2 AST%), or score efficiently enough to overcome the lack of the aforementioned two attributes (53.0 TS%) isn’t someone who has a lot of utility in today’s league. At age 24, this might very well be who Clarkson is as a player, but his play during his rookie season (the only year in which he’s had a positive ORPM, above-average PER, and an AST% above 20) stands as a reminder that there might be something left to salvage with him.
Forcing Clarkson back into a point guard role thus might be how this is accomplished, and such a suggestion is more or less impossible so long as Lou is on the roster. Luke’s entreaties notwithstanding, Lou isn’t going to change who he is and how he plays for the most part, and the decay in Clarkson’s game that has set in ever since he was moved off ball can’t be corrected until Lou isn’t around to take possessions away from him. The current bench unit also is a good pairing for Clarkson, as he can benefit from pushing the pace with a trio of good rim running bigs in Nance, Black, and Zubac who also set crushing screens in the halfcourt, and he’ll have the benefit of Ingram as a secondary creator on the wing. Depending on whether a ten-man rotation still exists at that point, Young or Calderon could fill in for spacing purposes as well.
The overarching point here is that without Lou and hopefully with Clarkson turning back into a facsimile of who he was his rookie season, the Lakers can move on from a more Lou-centric bench offense into something that’s more sustainable and beneficial for both the young core’s individual development and the team’s overall development. To wit, the current framework discourages the bench from running multiple actions beyond a primary focus on getting Lou to his spots, and moving toward something more egalitarian with a playmaker more interested in creating opportunities for others is warranted. It also does the team no favors to move into next season without knowing if Clarkson is capable of handling a playmaking role or if his rookie iteration was simply a mirage. Should the latter be the case, the front office should seriously consider moving on from him while his value is likely still decent.
It should be noted that these are concerns that might be naturally corrected in the long-term with the progression of the young core down its development curve. While Russell is really the only guy among that group who consistently makes the offense hum right now with his playmaking, Randle will continue to make strides to correct his foibles and become more of a dependable offensive threat, Ingram will progress toward the versatile playmaking wing we hope he can become, and Luke will improve the implementation of his system as to decrease the need for a primary playmaker as a prerequisite for success any given possession.
The Lakers will also have opportunities to address this playmaking gap in the offseason, whether in the draft or in free agency. Obviously, the top prospects in the first round are a godsend in this respect, as Washington’s Markelle Fultz, Kansas’ Josh Jackson, NC State’s Dennis Smith Jr., UCLA’s Lonzo Ball, and more all profile as top shelf lead playmaker types, but there are also a number of interesting high second-round prospects who could contribute here as well such as Kansas State’s Wesley Iwundu and Duke’s Grayson Allen. Free agency will also feature names such as Gordon Hayward and (the likely much more available) Jrue Holiday.
Altogether, the team is dealing with the unfortunate reality that several of its young players are at different stages of their respective development curves and this is complicating how the team plays right now. The core, moreover, has grown large enough to consider as a coherent unit, such that identifying the pieces to supplement that core and best speed the kids down their development curve has become both more complicated (because of the cascading effects any single addition might have on the various members of the core) and straightforward (since the gaps that exist are more obvious). The playmaking gap is one of these issues and how the team goes about addressing this will be one of the more notable storylines in the second half of the season.
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