As Byron Scott talks big, Lakers’ defense sinks to historic depths

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BOSTON – Lakers forward Carlos Boozer has a mostly deserved reputation as a poor defender. But there must be a limit on his shortcomings, because, for four years in Chicago, Tom Thibodeau built excellent defenses with Boozer starting.

How did the Bulls do it?

Boozer says Chicago drilled its scheme daily, players actually moving through their defensive rotations to reinforce them.

“We just did it every day,” Boozer said. “Even if we did it for five minutes, 10 minutes.”

Every day? Is that hyperbole?

“Every day,” Boozer said. “In Chicago with Thibs, we drilled our defensive rotation every day. Every day. In the morning at shootaround, practice day – it’d obviously be a lot longer on the practice day. But every day, we drilled it to make sure we know where we were supposed to be at, what we were going to do.”

And in Los Angeles?

“We talk about it a lot,” Boozer said.

That the Lakers do.

“The main thing that I have to do right away is establish ourselves as a defensive basketball team,” first-year Lakers coach Byron Scott said at his introductory press conference.

“We’ll come ready to defend every single night,” he guaranteed.

In the months since, the Lakers coach has continued to emphasize defense. To many, his defensive focus is a breath of fresh air after Mike D’Antoni’s perceived indifference to that end of the floor. Under D’Antoni’s watch, the Lakers’ defensive rating slipped to 28th in the NBA last season as they went 27-55, their worst record since moving to Los Angeles.

But the 2014-15 Lakers not only rank last in the league in defensive rating, they’re historically bad.

This is a team with defensive woes everyone – from old-school holdouts to advanced-stats aficionados – can appreciate. The Lakers rank last in points allowed per 100 possessions (115.2) and points allowed per game (110.9). No team has hit that double whammy since the 2005-06 Seattle SuperSonics.

By allowing 115.2 points per 100 possessions, the Lakers are on pace to set the all-time record for worst defensive rating. The highest mark for a full season is 114.7 – done by the 2008-09 Kings, 1992-93 Mavericks and 1990-91 Nuggets.

Just how bad is the Lakers’ defense? It’s headed solidly in the right direction, but not once this season has it rated better than the worst ever. Here’s how the Lakers’ cumulative defensive rating (purple) has trended relative to the marks produced by the worst-ever defenses, the next-worst defense this season (Jazz), average defense this season and best defense this season (Warriors):

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The Lakers’ biggest defensive problem is simple. They lack good defenders.

Only one current Laker ranked in the top 170 of ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus last season, No. 98 Ed Davis. Davis is also the only Laker with an above-average mark in Basketball-Reference’s defensive box plus-minus this season.

It really shouldn’t surprise anyone that a team with Boozer, Jeremy Lin and Nick Young is struggling defensively.

Even Kobe Bryant’s most fervent fans must admit his defense has slipped from his All-Defensive prime, because Kobe himself acknowledges it. Kobe says his defensive approach is “more tailored, picking spots.”

“I find myself leaning on Wesley Johnson a little more and allowing him to take some of these top guys, let him chase them around and things like that,” Kobe said. “In the past, I used to do it all.”

Kobe’s mindset is illustrative of the Lakers’ bigger problem. They have gifted players who choose to expend more energy on offense than defense. That might be excusable for Kobe, who leads the NBA in scoring thanks to his incredible footwork and court vision. At 36, he’s probably no longer capable of defending at a high level for long stretches, even if he chose to flip his focus.

But what about everyone else?

The Lakers have been accepting their current setup, even if it leaves Davis as one of the few defensive-minded players on the roster and the team’s defense in the gutter as a result.

“You’ve still got to have guys that love to defend. No offense to guys who can score a lot. But a guy like Nick, we need him to give most of his energy on the offensive end. A guy like me, I’ve got to give my energy on the defensive end,” Davis said. “It obviously helps when you have a lot of defensive-minded guys on your team, but defense is something that everyone can do. You’ve just got to be willing to do it.”

Davis and others in the Lakers’ locker room point to the team’s lack of experience. Traditionally, defense is viewed as the side of the ball requiring more time to develop.

However, the Lakers are the NBA’s eighth-oldest team, weighted by playing time. This is not a young team unaccustomed to NBA play.

To be fair, there are a lot of new pieces. The Lakers have given just 53 percent of their minutes this season to players who played for the team last year, the league’s seventh-lowest mark.

There is a statistically significant correlation between percentage of minutes given to returners and a better defensive rating:

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Although the Lakers simply needing time to jell might be partially excuse their troubles, there’s a lot more going wrong here. Only the Jazz, based on the percentage of minutes given to returners, fall further from their project defensive rating.

The Lakers’ transition defense is woefully bad. They allow 15.6 fastbreak points per game (third-most in the league) despite surrendering just 6.2 steals per game (fifth-fewest in the league).

At least when the Lakers can set up in the halfcourt, they upgrade from incredibly awful to plainly lousy.

Jeremy Lin is far from a stopper, and when his man penetrates and the Lakers are forced to rotate, they often get scrambled. The problems often start there.

But even in the right spots, this team lacks the defensive talent to really make opponents sweat.

Jordan Hill might be the best defender among the Lakers’ regular starters. The center has a real skill for defending inside and out, and his mobility allows him to spend time on the perimeter without it being a liability in itself. However, that has left Boozer to protect the rim, a responsibility he simply cannot handle. Boozer has blocked only one shot all season. One! (Sorry, Blake Griffin, you’re Boozer’s lone victim.)

Unhappy with his players, Scott benched Boozer and Lin yesterday, moving Davis and Ronnie Price – a 31-year-old who played solid defense in his younger days but can no longer keep up like he once did (though his shoe sometimes can) – into the starting lineup.

The result? The Pelicans scoring 104 points, the 16th time in 21 games the Lakers have allowed more points per possession than the league average. Heck, the Lakers have allowed more points per possession than the all-time-worst season mark in 10 of their 21 games. They even let Mavericks score 155.6 points per 100 possessions in a game last month, the second-highest single-game mark since at least 1985-96.

Scott can blame his playersBoozer has been a (fair) target – but the Lakers’ upgrading their defensive personnel might not even be enough to solve this issue.  In his last coaching job, Scott led the Cavaliers 29th-, 26th- and 27th-best defensive ratings in the league. The next year, Mike Brown helped lift Cleveland to No. 19. There just isn’t much evidence Scott can design and install an effective defense in the modern NBA.

Beyond any concerns about Scott’s lack of understanding of how the game has evolved, there’s the big question about how he delivers his message.

Boozer said he’d follow Scott’s lead if the coach continues talking about defense more than drilling it. Will more talking eventually lift the Lakers from their defensive rut?

“Sometimes, it’s a process. You’ve got to give it time,” Boozer said before pausing. “Sometimes, you’ve got to switch stuff up a little bit.”

Report: Kyrie Irving has ‘ghosted’ Celtics as free agency approaches

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The emerging expectation: Kyrie Irving will sign with the Nets in free agency.

Many thought the Celtics had a chance of changing his mind by trading for Anthony Davis. But Boston didn’t deal for the star center.

There’s little reason to believe Irving will re-sign with the Celtics now.

Adam Himmelsbach of The Boston Globe:

The strangest part of the Irving situation right now is that it appears he has essentially ghosted on the Celtics. The people within the organization I have spoken with have made it clear that they have had little, if any, communication with Irving in recent weeks.

Irving is the prize. He’s not interviewing for jobs. Employers are chasing him. By becoming one of the best basketball players in the world, Irving has earned the power to act however he wants in this situation.

The season is over. If Irving wants space, he’s entitled to it.

Maybe it’s because he’s being a jerk. Maybe it’s because telling Boston he wants to leave isn’t an easy message to deliver.

Either way, Irving can proceed as he sees fit. The Celtics will still offer him a max contract if he wants to stay.

This is the same tact he reportedly took on his way out of Cleveland. So, it’s believable he’s behaving this way again.

But we’ve also repeatedly seen players smeared on their way out the door. Whether or not it’s accurate, this report will reflect poorly on Irving in many circles. So, in light of recent history, have at least a little skepticism for this depiction of Irving.

2019 NBA Draft Prospect Profile: Ja Morant is the future of the point guard position

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Over the course of the next two weeks, as the 2019 NBA Draft draws closer and closer, we at Pro Basketball Talk will be taking deep dives into some of the best and most intriguing prospects that will be making their way to the NBA.

Today, we are looking at Ja Morant.

Previous draft profiles:

The trajectory that Zion Williamson and Ja Morant have taken to get to the point where they are projected to be the top two picks in the NBA draft could not be more different.

Four years ago, they were playing on the same, small AAU team out of South Carolina. From there, Zion blew up, becoming a viral sensation thanks to his athletic exploits, having his jersey get worn by Drake when he was still a high school junior and spending the majority of his time in the high school ranks as a top-five talent in his recruiting class.

Morant, on the other hand, was more or less a no-name prospect into the summer before his senior year. He eventually became a popular mid-major target, and he even received a scholarship offer from in-state South Carolina. He was hardly unknown, but he was miles away from being someone considered to be a potential franchise-changing talent at the NBA level.

As it stands today, the thing that both Zion and Ja have in common — besides the two most recognizable first names — is an otherworldly level of explosiveness that has both ratcheted up their hype and buried the lede. The reason Williamson is the most exciting prospect to come out of the college ranks since Anthony Davis is because of his ability to play the point and the five, all at the same time. He’s Draymond Green, only if he was injected with NOS from Dominic Toretto.

Morant’s athleticism rivals Williamson’s. Blessed with a 44 inch vertical, Morant’s motto this season was “jump with me if you want to go viral,” and that couldn’t have been more accurate. He spent more time on SportsCenter this season than every Ohio Valley Conference player before him combined, something that was highlighted by this dunk:

And that explosiveness matters, I would never try to say otherwise. Dunking over weakside defenders in the NBA is going to be more difficult than when playing at UT Martin, but being able to elevate the way Morant elevates will help him transition to the next level. His quick-twitch athleticism also manifests in his ability to make plays in the halfcourt, where his ability to change speeds — and to go from a standstill to top speed — is what allows scouts to be able to project Morant as a player that can create offense against set NBA defenses. For a player who did so much of his damage at the college level in transition, that’s a big deal.

Morant’s physical tools makes it very easy to see him as another De'Aaron Fox. They’re both about 6-foot-3 and 170 pounds with a 6-foot-6 wingspan, and Fox just wrapped up his second season in the NBA with averages of 17.3 points, 7.3 assists and 3.8 boards.

But simply focusing on Morant’s athletic ability is to ignore what he does best: Pass.

Because while Morant did average 24.5 points and 5.7 boards while shooting 36 percent from three, perhaps what is most impressive about his sophomore season with the Racers is that he led all of college basketball in assists at 10.0 per game, just like Lonzo Ball led the nation in assists in 2017 and Trae Young did in 2018.

I mention both of those guys for a reason. Morant does not have the same hit-ahead ability in transition that Ball does, but Morant’s vision in the open floor and ability to make long, accurate passes in the open floor is one of the things that he does best. He also thrives in early-offense, where his And-1 Mixtape handle allows him to keep his dribble alive and probe opposing defenses. Because he is such a threat as a scorer, defenses would then collapse, which is when Morant’s ability as a dump-off passer and a lob-thrower comes into effect.

And that’s not even what he does best as a passer, because where he really shines is in the halfcourt and working off of ball-screens. Morant’s basketball IQ is the most underrated part of his game. He knows how defenses are going to defend him. He knows how to use his eyes to move weakside defenders. He knows where the tag is coming from, and whether the shooter in the far side corner or the roll-man will be open. This is where that Trae Young comparison comes into play, because reading defenses is where Young thrived while at Oklahoma.

The best way to describe Morant’s ability as a passer is that he not only knows when and where his teammates are going to come open, but he has the ability to find a way to make the pass that will get them an open shot. Morant is right-handed, but he will, at times, look like a left-handed player because of how often he makes bullet, live-dribble passes with just his left. He makes reads, and passes, that few point guards in the NBA today can make.

That passing is what makes all the difference, and as much as his athleticism or ability as a scorer, it’s the reason why he can be viewed as a player with the potential to be a franchise-changing point guard in the same stratosphere as the likes of Russell Westbrook and John Wall.

Now, Morant does have some flaws, and they are quite notable and relevant.

For starters, he is of a slight build, which is less than ideal. He is not going to be able to bounce off of contact in the NBA the same way he did in the OVC, and in a league where switchability is a priority at the highest-level, he is going to be targeted. Opposing coaches are going to target him by trying to force switches the same way that Nick Nurse did with Steph Curry in the finals. That is going to be an issue if he can’t add some weight and strength, particularly because he has not been a consistently great defender to date. Some of that can be attributed to the load that he was asked to carry offensively, and there is reason to believe that Morant’s athleticism, anticipation and quick hands will translate to being an above-average defender in the NBA.

Morant can also be a bit sloppy. He averaged more than five turnovers per game, and while some of that is strictly a result of workload and defensive attention, he also had a habit of trying to force passes that weren’t there.

But the biggest question mark, and what is going to determine his ceiling more than just about anything else, will be how well his jumper comes along. Morant shot 36.3 percent from three this past season, but that number drops to just 33.6 percent if his 7-for-8 shooting from three in the NCAA tournament is factored out.

Put another way, as good as Morant was this past season, there is still plenty of room for him to grow moving forward.

And in a league where ball-dominant lead guards that thrive in ball-screens is the norm, Morant is a player with quite a bit of value in the long-term.

Damon Jones says Lakers are in play for Kawhi Leonard

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I had heard from multiple sources going back to Summer League last year that the Lakers were not an option for Kawhi Leonard. He’s a guy who does not like a lot of drama and chaos around him, he just wants to play basketball, and being with LeBron James on the Lakers is to live in the spotlight with drama your constant companion.

Did the Anthony Davis trade change his thinking? Damon Jones, the former NBA player and assistant coach, said yes it did on ESPN’s Get Up show. He said a source that would know told him the Lakers are now in play.

Two thoughts here:

First, nobody knows what Kawhi Leonard is thinking. We can all play the “read the tea leafs” game — at the Raptors’ championship parade some fans started a “one more year” chant and Leonard’s close advisor Uncle Dennis (as he is commonly known) had one finger up and was chanting along, read what you want into that — but none of us really know which way Leonard leans. The “people close to Leonard” have sent mixed signals from the start, some have different agendas, and they are not Leonard. Stay in Toronto, come to the Clippers or Lakers? We don’t know.

Second, getting Leonard to the Lakers requires a semi-complicated salary cap move. After the Davis trade the Lakers have between $23 million and $27 million in salary cap space (depending on how much of Davis’ trade kicker he is going to take, if any) but that is not enough to sign Leonard to a max contract. And he’s not taking a discount. Los Angeles could create the room by delaying the Davis trade for a month. Follow along: Currently, the Davis trade can’t be executed until July 6. However, if the Lakers draft whoever the Pelicans want with the No. 4 pick, sign him, then wait a month and include that player and his salary in the trade (the CBA says a draft pick cannot be traded for 30 days after he signs his contract) then the Lakers could have $32.5 million in cap space, enough to sign Leonard (or Kemba Walker, or Jimmy Butler, or Kyrie Irving, or any free agent with 7-9 years of service and earning a max deal).

Except, the Pelicans want to get the trade done and, I was told, don’t have to agree to this delay. Would the Lakers have to throw in another second round pick or something to make this work? Maybe.

That all assumes Leonard wants to come to the Lakers. And nobody really knows that for sure.

Whatever happens, the board man gonna get paid.

 

 

Rumor: Patrick Beverley may meet with five teams before Clippers

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The Los Angeles Clippers want to bring Patrick Beverley back next season, his spark was at the heart of why this team made the playoffs and impressed with their potential.

First, however, the Clippers are going big game hunting for the likes of Kawhi Leonard and/or Kevin Durant (even with the Achilles injury). Beverley isn’t just going to sit around and wait for them, reports longtime NBA reporter Sean Deveney Tweeted.

The Bulls need a point guard and Beverley — a Chicago native — has said he is interested.

The Lakers also are reportedly big game hunting, but Beverley is the kind of guard they could use around LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Phoenix and other teams have been mentioned.

Beverley is going to have options, but he loved his time with the Clippers last season, and that means something.