Los Angeles Lakers

Breaking Down the Lakers in Kobe Bryant’s Final Season

Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports

As genius and beloved as he’s been on the court for majority of his 20-year career, Kobe Bryant should probably receive a different kind of award from the Los Angeles Lakers this season. It takes a special type of hysteria to divert attention away from an 11-43 NBA product. Somehow, some way, Bryant has masked the Lakers’ abysmal play with his affectionate farewell tour.

Traveling from city to city, Bryant is bestowed with standing ovations, an unbalanced road crowd that has to irritate opposing head coaches, and tribute videos that seem to help the reality settle in a bit. He grew up a Lakers extremist and savant all through the 1980s and 1990’s, living through all five of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s championships. His mission was to ultimately win six or more with the same franchise, but destiny (along with the hellacious defenses of the 2004 Detroit Pistons and 2008 Boston Celtics) only allowed him five.

Experiencing 10 championships in either capacity, was Bryant ever going to let the Lakers fall flat on their face and be publicly humiliated? Well, whether he likes it or not, that’s still happening in modern NBA evaluation. Nevertheless, he was blessed with an intelligent mind that understands how much reception would follow a retirement announcement. Had he not written his poem to the sport of basketball in late November, the entire season would consist of the franchise getting bashed and ridiculed by national figures, and fans possibly getting turned off by the Lakers’ product.

Instead, he’s provided the organization with yet another excuse to be wrecked on a nightly basis. Since this is Kobe’s farewell saga, it’s okay that they’re only three wins ahead of the Philadelphia 76ers — the NBA’s version of Jar Jar Binks for serving no purpose. It’s okay that D’Angelo Russell’s progression has been stifled by a head coach that insists on letting 10.5 percent of their offensive possessions come out of isolations, per Synergy. It’s okay that Los Angeles’ 41.1 percent field goal shooting is on track to be the seventh-worst mark in the last 20 (!!) NBA seasons.

This is what Lakers management and coaching believes, because Kobe’s final season takes precedence over anything else. Really, that’s what general manager Mitch Kupchak has expressed to the media during this nightmare.

It’s important to understand, though, that it’s not all Bryant’s fault. If anyone else were wearing his shoes…earning $25 million, approaching 57,000 minutes (950 hours) of career playing time, and having your name screamed across every arena, they’d want to go out on their own terms as well. It just so happens that Bryant’s terms include 16.5 shot attempts per game, the most by any player after their 17th season:

“He’s going to be one of the few guys who can leave this game and honestly say that he played as hard as he could play for 20 straight years,” Lakers coach Byron Scott said at morning shootaround on Monday. “And I think fans will appreciate that.”

Hidden behind all of the ceremonial statements and postgame hugs, though, are the alarming issues with the Lakers’ current structure.

It’s undeniable, however, that they’ve played head and shoulders above their total season effort for the last four games. In matchups against Minnesota, New Orleans, San Antonio and Indiana, the Lakers were able to start a difficult stretch of their schedule with two wins. Both of the wins were credited to Bryant’s invigorating play in the final minutes, instilling a sense of nostalgia for everyone involved — especially the players on the other side of it. Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Davis were only teenagers viewing Kobe’s destructive run in the 2000s, and both were subjected to watching vintage No. 24 steal wins away from them last week.

The two losses (San Antonio and Indiana) were by a combined total of six points on the road, which is a bit unbelievable considering the general perception around the Lakers product.

The first three games of this stretch helped alleviate the Lakers’ appalling net rating a bit, considering they outscored their opponents by 0.8 points per 100 possessions during those 144 minutes, per NBA.com. That was even with the unforgiving Spurs on the schedule, who typically outscore their foes by 13.4 points per matchup. Although Los Angeles couldn’t take advantage of Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili out of the rotation, they still played competitively in a place where San Antonio never loses this season.

This last week notwithstanding, Byron Scott hasn’t been competent in controlling either side of the ball for this team. The offensive possessions, even after Kobe “uses” 31 percent of them, aren’t innovative. They run a large portion of pick-and-rolls with Lou Williams, Jordan Clarkson and D’Angelo Russell (962 total between the three), but only one of them shoots above 42 percent from the field after engaging in those screen-rolls. It’s Clarkson, the team’s best overall player and asset for the future if management decides to hang on to him.

Being very guard-oriented and playing with this offensive style makes it painfully obvious that a post presence is needed. Or, at least someone who can effectively score and make brisk, encouraging plays off the pick-and-roll catch.

Roy Hibbert doesn’t possess the foot-speed or offensive aptitude to score consistently off the screen-roll. But he’s been on the court for nearly 1,300 minutes this season due to his defensive strengths. When operating in NBA pick-and-roll scenarios, it’s imperative to have a big man with either the ability to beat his man in the thrilling race to the rim off the screen, or a polished touch around the restricted area in traffic. Golden State’s Draymond Green is skilled at both, but more so in the speed category that anything else.

Hibbert in the pick-and-roll, however, can be an offense killer despite his height advantage:

First off: Hibbert experiences another fall. Who would’ve guessed it? He spends more time falling to the ground than he does working on his rebounding, it seems.

Not only is Hibbert too slow on his feet to create a high-percentage shot against a rim-protecting center (Omer Asik in this instance), but he’s not the type of player who’s wildly efficient in the paint, neither. Too many times in Indiana (through seven years) and Los Angeles this season, we’ve seen Hibbert miss opportunities near the basket. The notion that he’s contested on most of his shots is true, but he’s also 7’2″ and should be more proficient at creating space for a shot — both vertically and with his body.

But because this hasn’t become a reality, Hibbert is one of the worst and least-efficient scorers near the basket. The 5-9-foot shoot is one of the toughest in the game, and the only two reasons I’ve been able to narrow it down to are: Most of the time, defenses are going to collapse heavy in the paint by the time a power forward or center gathers to shoot, or…just the simple fact that a close-range shot is harder to judge (in terms of shooting power) than the average person realizes. Often times, big men find themselves under-shooting or over-shooting it, since they’re used to being right under the basket.

Hibbert’s field goal effectiveness from 5-9 feet is horrendous this year, as he’s shooting 14-of-44 for an unpalatable 31.8 percent. Thus far into the season, there have been 35 centers to attempt at least 40 shots from this distance. Out of that group of 35, Hibbert’s percentage ranks 34th — ahead of only Nerlens Noel. It’s fitting that Los Angeles and Philadelphia have the two worst of anything in a certain category.

There were other types of screen-roll or screen-pop scenarios we saw him engage in during his stint with the Pacers. His most comfortable situation comes off the screen-pop from the side, where he can find a little room to open up his mid-ranger:

As much as Hibbert enjoys the mid-range shot — specifically from the corners — it’s not like he’s been the center’s equivalent of a Stephen Curry from that range with the Lakers. From the 15-19 foot range, 19 centers have attempted at least 70 field goals this year. Of those 19, Hibbert is 13th, shooting 40 percent on his jumpers. He’s behind names such as Myles Turner, Kristaps Porzingis, Anthony Davis and both Gasol brothers. This is after Byron Scott claimed during the preseason that he’d be one of the best shooters on the team. Scary enough for the Lakers, he probably has been.

Taking another look at the (extremely slow) pick-and-roll above, you see that all it takes for a defense to eliminate those open looks is a big man with a sense of urgency to close out. If you come at Hibbert with an interior-disciplined defense (San Antonio Golden State, etc.), you’ll find Hibbert to be incompetent in pick-and-roll offense.

As a whole, the entire Lakers’ unit has been a tale of two stories when operating out of the pick-and-roll this year. It’s evident that they don’t have enough distinguished roll-men to make plays once they catch the ball, which is why the disparity between their usage is through the roof:

Note: “Turnover frequency” is sorted from highest to lowest, meaning the lower the percentage is better for any team

The Lakers top the whole league in total pick-and-roll possessions, proportion of their overall offense, and points produced per game from their guards in these situations. Combining their league-leading possessions with a field goal percentage that’s below average doesn’t create a tasteful balance. In any type of shot on the court (or offensive stat in sports), if you’re leading in attempts but aren’t in the top half in terms of efficiency…it likely indicates that you shouldn’t keep the trend moving forward.

The only attribute Los Angeles’ roll-men have going for them is their low turnover percentage. But, somehow, the Lakers have consistently kept control of the ball throughout their miserable seasons. That’s one aspect you could never criticize them for, as they were in the bottom five of turnovers last year and a league-average turnover unit this time around.

Clarkson has undoubtedly proven to be the most productive and adroit piece of the Lakers’ future, and it begins with his decision-making off the pick-and-roll. Being coached by Scott doesn’t make it easy, but Clarkson has impressed everyone in his sophomore year and taken steps forward to being the vocal and demonstrative leader once Bryant retires.

With barely 100 games under his NBA belt, Clarkson is already putting his name into eye-catching territory:

Note: “Points Per Possession” and “Score Frequency” can be altered by a couple different things. If a guard comes off a ball screen, it’s technically tallied as a possession. But he also has the choice to pass to a teammate instead of shoot. Therefore, Rondo’s points per possession won’t ever be as high as other scoring guards. It also affects score frequency in the same fashion.

Clarkson is currently seventh in the league in terms of field goal percentage off the pick-and-roll (minimum 300 possessions), which is fascinating considering five of the names above him are seasoned veterans.

When I asked Byron Scott on Monday about Clarkson’s maturation as an offensive player, he had nothing but high praise for Clarkson’s surge in 2016.

“Well, the number one thing is that he’s a sponge,” Scott said. “He’s learning, and he wants to get better each game. He’s very patient right now offensively, taking the shots that are given to him and not forcing anything. That’s probably one of the main reasons that he’s playing so much better. I think we’re all pretty happy with where [Clarkson] is right now.”

Isn’t it interesting, to say the least, that Scott is advocating smart shot selection and “not forcing anything,” but continues to defend Kobe’s nights of shooting 6-of-25 from the field? After all, 466 of Kobe’s 735 shot attempts this season (63.4 percent) have been against “tight” or “very tight” defensive coverage, per SportVU. On those shots, he’s only 34.9 percent effective from the field.

“Sometimes you live and die with it, and I’m willing to do that with him,” Scott said after the loss vs. Indiana.

Something doesn’t add up there. But we’ll never fully understand the concepts expressed by the Lakers’ front office or coaching staff.

Another ongoing issue between Scott and the Lakers is the development, odd treatment and unclear vision of their No. 2 overall pick, D’Angelo Russell. Scott’s opinion of Russell’s point-guard play wavers by the week, as he’s already reached both extremes this season in terms of evaluating his rookie. He’s talked about him in a sensational manner, only to turn right around and claim that he’s not mature, ready or old enough to handle certain things.

As a result, Russell’s time on the court has been mildly hindered by Scott’s lineups and admiration for veterans. For 33 of the 54 games this year, Scott has started 11-year veteran Lou Williams in place of the rookie. That would be acceptable for a team that had a fighting chance at pushing through the Western Conference Playoffs. That would be acceptable if the front office had a plan to use their top rookie as trade bait for a superstar. But by all indications, the Lakers desire to keep Russell for the long haul.

If that’s the case, then there’s no excuse for holding back his valuable minutes of learning on the court. The first three picks in the draft are supposed to be the team’s go-to force right away, especially with the horrendous lottery teams we’re seeing in the modern era. Minnesota and Philadelphia have followed the path accordingly, but you can’t quite say the same for the Lakers:

  • Karl-Anthony Towns: 1,592 of his 4,346 available minutes (36.6%)
  • D’Angelo Russell: 1,406 of his 4,264 available minutes (32.9%)
  • Jahlil Okafor: 1,392 of his 3,772 available minutes (36.9%).

The appropriate figure here for a top three selection would be around the 36 or 37 percent mark, which would include starting right away AND playing over 30 minutes a night.

Instead, Scott enjoys formulating a lineup that consists of Williams, Clarkson, Bryant, Hibbert and Julius Randle.

That’s one of the four Lakers lineups this season with over 100 minutes played. But it’s quickly escalating up the ladder as Scott continues to sit Russell to start games. Scott’s rationale has been that his team gets buried in a deep hole early in the game, due to Russell’s inexperience and rough turnover problem.

The thing about it is that he’s completely inaccurate. When the lineup of Williams-Clarkson-Bryant-Randle-Hibbert play together (146 minutes), they’re significantly worse in nearly every important aspect:

  • Williams-Clarkson-Bryant-Randle-Hibbert (Byron’s favorite):

146 minutes, -26.6 points, -12.4 assists, -11.5% field goal percentage, -8.5% 3-point percentage, -5.1% rebounding percentage, +5.2 free throws made, +15.1% free throw percentage, +4.8 turnovers

  • Williams-Clarkson-Bryant-Nance-Hibbert:

220 minutes, -22.6 points, -6.8 assists, -5.6% field goal percentage, -14% 3-point percentage, -10.9% rebounding percentage, -4.7 free throws made, -2% free throw percentage, +1.3 turnovers

  • Russell-Clarkson-Bryant-Randle-Hibbert:

288 minutes, -16.3 points, -7.2 assists, -6.1% field goal percentage, -6.1% 3-point percentage, -3.7% rebounding percentage, +1.9 free throws made, -0.7% free throw percentage, +2.6 turnovers

With the lineup everyone is encouraging Scott to play (and start) more often — which includes Russell at point guard — the Lakers are actually less of an unmitigated disaster in net points, assists, field goal percentage, three-point percentage and rebounding percentage per 100 possessions. Given the larger sample size of 288 minutes, that speaks volume to how much better the team is with Russell replacing Williams.

Throwing in the Larry Nance Jr. lineup experiment was interesting, and the only reason I did was to compare it with the Julius Randle lineups. Los Angeles is far and ahead a more capable rebounding team when Randle is getting minutes with the starters, as it shows with the -3.7 rebounding percentage for the team compared to the -10.9 percent with Nance in the group.

Keep in mind, though, the hilarity in all of this. All three lineups are still negative in nearly everything, so it’s not necessarily a loud scream for Scott to make “winning adjustments.” Nevertheless, it’s extremely revealing that Russell, albeit a rookie still learning how the pro game is handled, gives them a better chance at competing on a nightly basis.

Although they’re only 3-14 when the Russell-Clarkson-Bryant-Randle-Hibbert group starts games, they tend to take better care of the ball, and get a better dose of shot selection (as shown by shooting significantly better from the field). Even if Williams is more of an experienced scorer, they aren’t producing more points when he’s on the floor. Most of that can likely be attributed to the -12.4 net assist rating they post with Scott’s favorite starting lineup.

There’s absolutely no reason, heading into the All-Star break, that Russell shouldn’t be the go-to starting point guard. Management wants him to be a focus of the next generation for the Lakers, and bringing him off the bench against second units isn’t going to give him the proper trial-and-error experiences he needs right now.

But if the goal is to fight towards the bottom of the standings for a chance at Ben Simmons…folks should just let Byron Scott lead his army.

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