The Inbounds: Steve Nash, the Lakers, and the lawlessness of the point guard wilderness

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Welcome to The Inbounds, touching on a big idea of the day. It could be news, it could be history, it could be a tangent, it could be love. OK, it’s probably not love. Enjoy.

“How does Steve Nash help them stop Russell Westbrook or Tony Parker?’

That’s the standard reaction from skeptics to the Lakers’ addition of Steve Nash. Sure, Nash can dish at an obscenely high rate even as 40 comes screaming at him like a bald eagle ready to pounce on him with a good ol’ American mid-life crisis on his Canadian head. Sure, he can still shoot at an efficiency that makes the assembly line look like two dudes with hammers whacking away at sheet metal. But Nash has never been a good defender. People with full understanding know that it’s in large part because he has a degenerative back condition that forces him to lay down every time he goes to the bench and that the fact he’s able to move laterally at all is a miracle. But it doesn’t change anything. Nash isn’t going to make the Lakers’ point guard defense, which was shredded against OKC in the Western Conference Finals and in the regular season against San Antonio. 

Here’s the problem with that line of reasoning.

We’ve reached critical mass with point guard offensive talent in the NBA. Versus every other position in the league, point guard is no longer determined by “who can you line up to beat the other guy across the lineup sheet from you” and has gone simply to “who’s the guy that can do the most damage for your side?”

Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Rajon Rondo, Kyrie Irving, Ricky Rubio, Kyle Lowry, Deron Williams, Derrick Rose, Steve Nash.

Then there’s Ty Lawson, Brandon Jennings, Jameer Nelson, Jrue Holiday, Darren Collison, Jeff Teague, John Wall, Mike Conley, Stephen Curry, Isaiah Thomas.

That’s a murderer’s row for defenses. Those guys can slice, dice, torch, saute, roast, blend, poach, chew up and spit out any defense out there on any given night. Very few of them can be defended with one player, it necessitates a team effort. And almost none of them can defend well enough on their own.  Westbrook and Parker often play to standstills across their season series, based on their inability to contain one or the other. Chris Paul will slide by any defender, manipulate any switch, but put him on an island, and you’d better have help behind him. This has less to do with the quality of these players as defenders, and more with the elite level of offense that is produced by this caliber of point guard, and the sheer number of such guards they face night in and night out.

(Note: Not all these players struggle to defend. Clearly Rajon Rondo is a crackdown, lockout, shut-em-out defender, but by and large, the trend skews towards turnstyle.)

Consider how often you’r seeing small forwards shift to cover point guards. LeBron James on Rajon Rondo. Andre Iguodala on Derrick Rose. Carmelo Anthony on Deron Williams. It’s trying to contain the elite perimeter speed with size and length, and even then, you have to have great help defense. That’s the real hallmark of a great defense in this league. The Bulls’ defense isn’t elite because Derrick Rose is able to shadow, harass, and bottle up anyone who tries to create outside-in, it’s based on their ability to bring a second and third and fourth guy to swipe, challenge, and deter once they get past Rose. And Rose has become a passable defender! What of the teams like the Lakers with Nash? The truth remains that with players like Westbrook, it’s partially challenging them at multiple opportunities, partially goading them into the shots you want them to take (that they can still hit), and living with it. But that’s not something you can stomach if you’re one of the few teams bringing a knife to a heavy artillery fight.

That may make the Knicks’ situation with Jeremy Lin as fascinating as anything. Lin’s defense was surely questionable. But over and over again last season, he found ways to make plays on his own. When Lin has the advantage, great. When he doesn’t, all he has to do is be what I refer to as a “painkiller.” He just has to take away enough of the sting from what the point guard is doing on offense by providing his own numbing euphoria with timely buckets and big shots. Do that, and you can survive the onslaught if the rest of the team steps up.

With the Lakers, they have the capacity to be an elite defensive team. They showed it at times. But they were so discombobulated for such long stretches that you could tell they lost their way on both ends. With Nash, the offense will be great. Not fine. Not better. Great. He solves nearly every issue they have, specifically. And he’ll get torched.  The Lakers will once again have a hard time finding ways to slow down or deter opposing point guards. Nash will do almost none of that.

But look around you. We’re in a point guard looting-and-plundering paradise. Point guards are the Allied Powers, cleaning out the Eagle’s Nest. If it’s not bolted down, they’re taking it. The Lakers have to win all the other battles, and that’s a bigger trick for Mike Brown and company. But they can live with Nash letting his man get past him. He’s going to get past his guy enough, make the right pass enough, hit the big shot enough.

This is a league where point guard play is the Wild West. It’s not about law and order, or structure. It’s just about who’s got the fastest gun and the most bullets. And Steve Nash?

He’ll make you famous.

Report: Thunder signing Dakari Johnson two years after drafting him

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Two seasons ago, Dakari Johnson was the youngest player by more than two years on the D-League’s All-Rookie team. Last season, Johnson was the youngest player by more than a year on an All-D-League team – and he made the first of three teams.

Now, Johnson – who the Thunder drafted No. 48 in 2015 and whose rights they continued to hold – is finally moving up to the NBA.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

The Thunder have already used the full taxpayer mid-level exception, so presumably Johnson will get the minimum – $2,128,226 over two years. That, plus two years of meager D-League salary, will be Johnson’s return for granting Oklahoma City four years of his services.

He could have forced the Thunder’s hand either of the previous two years by signing the required tender – a one-year contract, surely unguaranteed at the minimum – a team must extend to retain a draft pick’s rights. Accepting the tender would have meant Johnson earning an NBA salary (and gaining a year of service) if Oklahoma City kept him past the preseason. Or, if they waived him, he would’ve been an unrestricted NBA free agent. He still could have developed with the Thunder’s D-League affiliate while available to any NBA team.

Instead, Johnson repeatedly rejected the tender, allowing Oklahoma City to maintain exclusive negotiating rights.

At least the Thunder helped develop him. A strong 7-footer, Johnson has improved his mobility and skill level. He’s still an old-school center in a league moving away from that style, but he’s now more equipped to keep up.

Whether he’s ready enough is another question. Johnson will fall behind Steven Adams and Enes Kanter on the depth chart. At just 21, Johnson is still a decent developmental prospect.

Johnson gives the Thunder 16 players on standard contracts, one more than the regular-season maximum. They could waive Semaj Christon, whose salary is unguaranteed, but I’d be leery of having only Raymond Felton behind Russell Westbrook at point guard. Nick Collison at least provides insurance at center.

So, there’s no guarantee Johnson sticks into the regular season. One thing working in his favor: His salary will be luxury-taxed at the rookie minimum, because the Thunder drafted him. Christon or any other player acquired through free agency would be taxed at the second-year minimum.

No matter how it shakes out, Johnson is at least finally getting significant money in his pocket.

Raptors coach Dwane Casey: DeMar DeRozan to play some point guard

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The Raptors gave away backup point guard Cory Joseph to save money. So, who will play behind Kyle Lowry?

Presumably, Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet will each slide up a spot on the depth chart. The third-year Wright looks ready to join the rotation, and he deserves at least the opportunity.

But Toronto also has another – unexpected – option at point guard: DeMar DeRozan.

Raptors coach Dwane Casey, via Bryan Meler of Sportsnet:

“DeMar DeRozan, have him handle the ball a bit more as a point guard, a facilitator, a passer. Kyle Lowry moving the ball a bit more, spacing up. We don’t want to give our whole ‘what we’re going to try to do next year’ away, but again it comes down to passing the basketball and better spacing more so, than we know, one-on-one play.”

“Everyone and their brother knows we want better ball movement,” said Casey.

DeRozan didn’t play point guard at all last season.* So, this is a pretty big shift.

*Defined as playing without Lowry, Joseph, Wright or VanVleet.

Known as an isolation player, DeRozan has quietly improved as a distributor. I don’t think his ability to run an offense is at a point-guard level, but I’m also not sure that’s the point.

The Raptors are trying to change their style and promote more ball movement. This could help in the long run.

I supported the Timberwolves playing Zach LaVine at point guard as a rookie even though it was clear he should be a shooting guard. Playing point guard was a crash course that helped him develop skills useful at shooting guard, skills he couldn’t have as easily developed while playing off the ball.

The same could be true with DeRozan. Some rocky minutes at point guard could better equip him to play with Lowry in better-passing units come playoff time.

It was more conventional to play a 19-year-old on a bad team out of position to focus on skill development than it is for a 28-year-old on a good team. But he we are.

The Raptors have achieved enough success in the regular season and not enough in the playoffs. Experimenting during the long regular season is a good plan.

Lakers meet with Derrick Rose, Ian Clark about backup point guard slot

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At a press conference this week introducing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Magic Johnson said that the Lakers wanted to find a backup point guard in the next week or so.

Thursday the Lakers took a couple of steps down that road, meeting with both Derrick Rose and Ian Clark.

Both men would serve as the backup to, and potential mentor for, Lonzo Ball. The questions come down to which man better fits that role, and of course money.

Rose put up solid numbers last season in New York — 18 points per game, a PER of 17 — and statistically appeared to be an average NBA point guard. However, he’s still a defensive liability, cannot space the floor as a shooter (21.7 percent from three last season), and he’s not versatile offensively.

Rose is thought to be choosing between the Lakers and Cavaliers, both teams offering one-year contracts (Chicago has been mentioned is a highly unlikely reunion). Cleveland can offer the chance to chase a ring and play with LeBron James, but only a veteran minimum contract of $2.1 million. The Lakers can offer the same minimum contract or the room exception of $4.3 million (it’s not known if the Lakers put that larger offer on the table, but it seems plausible to likely). Rose has to choose what he wants, what he prioritizes, in neither case is he going to start or be part of the long-term plans — this is a one-year choice.

Clark played for Luke Walton in Golden State, is younger and more athletic than Rose, shot 37.4 percent from three last season, and is coming off his best season playing almost 15 minutes a game and winning a ring with the Warriors. He’s not as good as running the offense as Rose, but last season he cut down on his turnovers and improved his defense, taking steps forward with both. If things work out, he could stick with the Lakers beyond this season, but they will only offer a one-year contract for now.

Los Angeles has other options out there on the point guard market — Brandon Jennings, Ty Lawson, Deron Williams — but the Lakers seem to have narrowed their choice down to Rose or Clark. Once they land the backup point guard, the roster will

Shaq calls his absurd light-up shoes the real Big Baller Brand

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Because 7’1″, 350-pound Shaquille O’Neal needed an impossible-to-ignore pair of light up shoes to call attention to himself…

Shaq posted a video of himself on Instagram wearing some outrageous light-up shoes — then in the comments decided to take another dig at Big Baller Brand.

Boy was shining wasn't he #whatarethose #shineonem #feetwork #shaqshoestherealbigballerbrand

A post shared by DR. SHAQUILLE O'NEAL Ed.D. (@shaq) on

So how much do those shoes cost? More or less than ZO2?

One of the things I enjoyed about Summer League was that as Lonzo Ball played better and better, the spotlight shifted more to his play and more away from his father. Think what you will of LaVar Ball — marketing genius or loud-mouthed dad — personally I’m just weary of him. I like Lonzo’s play, I don’t need the rest.

However, between Shaq and Charles Barkley, I think there’s going to be a lot of LaVar/Big Baller Brand talk on Inside the NBA next season. Those two can’t help themselves.