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.”

Five teams most likely to trade for Kyrie Irving before deadline

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Kyrie Irving wants a trade out of Brooklyn. Now. Before the Feb. 9 trade deadline.

It’s no sure thing a massive trade like this comes together in less than a week, but it has spiced up what was a relatively flavorless trade deadline to this point (with all due respect to Rui Hachimura).

Irving’s trade request asks some tough questions of the team’s interested in him. The incentive to make a deal is obvious — landing one of the game’s biggest names and an elite shot creator averaging 27.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game while shooting 37.4% from 3. On the other hand is the long list of disruptions he has caused the Nets and other teams he’s been on, combined with the fact he is asking out in Brooklyn partly because they would not give him a four-year max contract extension. Does a team trading for Irving look at his track record and want to lock him up for that long? (To be clear, a team that trades for him is limited two a two-year, $78.6 million extension; he might want to re-sign with the team as a free agent, a risk for the team acquiring him.)

What may best sum up the trade market for Irving: Teams calling are more interested in what this means for Kevin Durant than Irving (according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN).

Still, teams will be interested. Here are the top five worth watching.

1) Los Angeles Lakers

When reaching out to league sources in the wake of the Irving bombshell, the Lakers were the first name off everyone’s lips. Which makes sense because the sides discussed the idea last summer but never pulled off the trade. Now, more than halfway through the season, with the Lakers three games below .500 and sitting outside even the play-in tournament, there is a sense of desperation to do something so as not to squander an All-NBA season from LeBron James. Is that enough to get a deal done?

LeBron is trying to add some pressure.

The trade would, at its core, involve Russell Westbrook and the Lakers’ two available first-round picks (2027 and 2029), likely unprotected (although Wojnarowski reports the Lakers “privately expressing limitations on offering significant trade assets for Irving”).

That doesn’t mean Westbrook is headed to Brooklyn, the sides likely will engage a third team in the deal (San Antonio has cap space, and the Lakers have talked to the Jazz) to take on Westbrook in exchange for draft compensation. However, putting together a trade that works for everyone gets difficult, which is why one never happened this summer.

It’s obvious why the Lakers want to do this trade. Irving playing next to Lebron and Anthony Davis makes the Lakers potential contenders in a West where nobody has run away with the conference (even if Denver is trying).

It’s less obvious why this is the best option for the Nets.

In a direct swap, Westbrook — even with the added depth of a quality young role player — is a dramatic drop-off from All-Star starter Irving. Plus, in a straight-up Westbrook for Irving deal the Nets take on more salary, adding $56 million to a luxury tax bill already at $109 million (numbers via Bobby Marks of ESPN). Whether the Nets would be more enticed by a three-team trade depends on the other team and players involved, but if the Nets are going to hold on to Durant they need to find a way to stay a contender, and that won’t be easy to do in any trade with the Lakers.

2) Phoenix Suns

The Suns can make a trade work in a couple of different ways, but they all center around Chris Paul heading to Brooklyn — a big name but a player whose game has fallen off this season at age 37. The trade likely would involve either Jae Crowder or Cameron Johnson — both of whom need to be paid after this season — plus some picks headed to Brooklyn.

The Suns need half-court scoring, and an Irving and Devin Booker backcourt would be a force that could get Phoenix back in the mix at the top of the West. Would soon-to-be new owner Matt Ishbia be willing to pay big and go into the tax for Irving in future years? Would the Nets consider CP3 and some depth at the four enough to pull the trigger?

3) Dallas Mavericks

It’s no secret the Mavericks are desperate to find a second star and shot creator to go next to Luka Dončić, who is wearing himself out carrying this team. It’s also no secret that coach Jason Kidd and former Nike executive turned Mavericks GM Nico Harrison have strong relationships with Irving. Is that enough?

A trade can be constructed by sending former Net Spencer Dinwiddie back to Brooklyn along with just made available Dorian Finney-Smith, plus draft picks (there are reports the Mavericks are also hesitant to go heavy on draft picks in an Irving trade). Marc Stein reports that Dallas might want to unload one of its longer contracts in a trade, such as Tim Hardaway Jr. or Dāvis Bertāns.

Would some combination of those players plus a few picks be enough to interest Brooklyn? Is Dallas interested in signing Irving for the long-term, a four-year deal this offseason? Those questions could hold up the deal.

4) Miami Heat

Miami was on Irving’s leaked “places I would be willing to be traded” list last summer. Considering the Heat have struggled this season (despite the better play of late) and their struggles at point guard, it’s easy to see Miami’s interest.

However, it’s difficult to make a trade work. The Heat would want to send back Kyle Lowry, but there likely is little interest from Brooklyn in taking him on (he has a fully guaranteed $29.7 million on the books for next season). The Nets might want Tyler Herro, but he is in the poison pill year between signing his extension and it kicking in (the trade numbers going out and coming back are different for Herro under the CBA, making a trade very difficult to pull off).

Would the Heat want to sign Irving long-term? Is he a fit with the Heat culture?

You know Pat Riley will make the call, he’s always aggressive and wants to win now. But he’s not putting a player over the franchise, and he won’t give up too much to get a deal done.

5) Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers are always aggressive as a front office, they need point guard help (someone who can create in the backcourt), and the owner is more than happy to spend if it means winning. The Clippers are loaded with mid-level salaries — Norman Powell, Marcus Morris, Luke Kennard, Robert Covington, Reggie Jackson, Nicholas Batum — who can be packaged to make a deal work. They also have good young players to temp the Nets, such as Terance Mann and Brandon Boston Jr.

Is another high-priced mercurial star prone to missing time what the Clippers need right now? They will make calls, but it feels like a long shot.

Brooks given one-game suspension for shot to Mitchell (who was fined)

Memphis Grizzlies v Cleveland Cavaliers
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Dillon Brooks did earn a suspension for hitting Donovan Mitchell in the “groin,” but he got off light.

Brooks was suspended one game and Mitchell got a $20,000 fine for their altercation during the Cavaliers’ win against the Grizzlies on Thursday night, the league announced.

“Brooks initiated the altercation by striking Mitchell in the groin area in an unsportsmanlike manner,” the NBA said in a release announcing the fine. “Mitchell then escalated the situation by throwing the game ball at and pushing Brooks, after which both players continued to physically engage with one another.”

Both Brooks and Mitchell were given Flagrant 2 fouls and ejected.

Brooks will serve his suspension Sunday against the Raptors. The one-game suspension is going to cost Brooks $78,621 in salary.

It’s difficult to watch the video of the altercation and not think that it was an intentional act by Brooks. As such, a one-game suspension seems soft and certainly isn’t sending a message of deterrence to other players. After the game Thursday, Mitchell fired shots at Brooks for the act.

The two teams do not meet again this season.

Reports: Kyrie Irving demands trade before Feb. 9 deadline

New York Knicks v Brooklyn Nets
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Kyrie Irving‘s agent tried to spark contract extension talks with the Nets recently, but Brooklyn felt no rush to dive into those talks, and the offer they did make — not for a full four years and filled with guarantees for Irving to meet — increased Irving’s frustration with the organization. The Nets, wisely, wanted to see more out of Irving before talking about the future, while Irving has felt everything with Brooklyn has been conditional.

Irving responded with a bombshell, demanding a trade before the Feb. 9 deadline. Shams Charania of The Athletic was first with the news, but Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report have since confirmed it.

 

So much for a quiet trade deadline.

There are so many angles to this bombshell, but the sense of Irving feeling disrespected by Nets management and ownership is not new. Charania added this detail in his story at The Athletic:

The Nets recently offered Irving an extension with guarantee stipulations, according to league sources, an offer which was declined.

Irving wants a four-year, full max extension, no stipulations, Charania reports. That’s also what he wanted when he pushed for a contract extension with the Nets last summer, but after a couple of seasons of disruptions and him missing a lot of games due to his COVID vaccination status, the Nets were not interested in cementing their relationship long-term (Irving did look around for a new home, but that went nowhere).

The disruptions carried over into this season when Irving was suspended for what became eight games due to a Tweet promoting an antisemitic documentary. Through all this, the Nets fired Steve Nash as coach.

Whatever has happened off the court, when Irving has been on the court he has been his elite playmaking self, averaging 27.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game. Fans voted him in an All-Star starter, and he has carried the Nets while Kevin Durant has been out.

While the Nets don’t want to give away Irving in a trade, if he’s gone this summer as a free agent they need to find a deal to get something in return (and ideally keep their status as a potential, maybe fringe, contender in the East). The Nets are not wrong that all the places Irving would want to go as a free agent will require a sign-and-trade, which gives Brooklyn some leverage. Irving has some leverage here, too: If Team X comes up with a trade the Nets like but Irving lets it be known he won’t re-sign there as a free agent, it limits what teams will offer.

When checking with league sources,  the first name on everyone’s lips are the Lakers, with a package centered around Russell Westbrook and both of the Lakers’ unprotected future picks (a trade that was discussed last summer). The Lakers likely have to sweeten that pot a little with another young player. Adding Irving to the mix with LeBron James and Anthony Davis does make the Lakers a threat to come out of a West with no dominant team, and Los Angeles might be willing to extend or re-sign Irving to a longer deal, they are all in on winning now.

Other teams that come up in conversations are the Heat (a team looking for point guard help and a spark, but does Irving fit the Miami team culture?), the Mavericks need another star next to Luka Dončić, and the Clippers are always active and aggressive at the trade deadline. Shams Charania of The Athletic reports the Suns are interested. Other teams looking to make the leap up to contender status may try to throw their hat in the ring. Considering Irving’s reputation as a challenge for coaches and front office staff, it will be interesting to see how many teams are interested in Irving’s extensions/contract demands.

Whatever direction this goes expect the Irving trade rumors to fly for the next six days.

 

Damian Lillard reportedly to take part in 3-point contest All-Star weekend

Atlanta Hawks v Portland Trail Blazers
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The All-Star Saturday night 3-point contest has passed the Dunk Contest in watchability because the stars still do it. Look at this year’s Dunk Contest, there are some interesting athletes involved, and maybe it becomes a memorable event. Still, there will be no Ja Morant, Zion Williamson, or Anthony Edwards (the way that Jordan, Kobe, and other greats took part in the contest back in the day).

However, the stars turn out for the 3-point contest. This year, that starts with Damian Lillard, according to Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report and TNT.

The coaches selected Lillard as one of the All-Star Game reserves, he was already headed to Salt Lake City. This is Lillard’s third time in the 3-point Shootout.

Over the coming week, expect a lot more big names to jump into the 3-point contest — the best shooters in the game want to do this event (Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have each done it multiple times, although whether they will this year is unknown).

All-Star Saturday night: Come for the 3-point Shootout, hang around for the Dunk Contest.