If you are to believe the word of second-year power forward Julius Randle, then this is "kind of a bragging rights game." If you are to believe in how both teams are playing at this juncture of the season, then you’d be kidding yourself to believe that there are any kind of special bragging rights for winning this meeting on Christmas Day. The Los Angeles Lakers are the second-worst team in the entire league, and the only team with a worse record than them actually beat the Lakers for their only win. Newsflash: the Philadelphia 76ers are terrible. However, the Lakers are not that far behind the 76ers in the terribleness rankings.
The futility of the "big brother" franchise over the last three seasons is something the people on the "little brother" side of the aisle know all too well. The Lakers are just 53-140 (.275) since the start of the 2013-14 season. And, to add insult to the malaise, the team has gotten worse each following year. There does appear to be some hope on the horizon, though, in the form of second-year power forward Julius Randle and rookie point guard D’Angelo Russell. Well, there would be a lot more hope if Byron Scott actually understood how to use them. That’s something the Laker fanbase has been having to deal with for going on two years now – a head coach incapable of recognizing the talents and strengths of the players around him.
Coming back from a slew of injuries that had effectively crippled him for the last several seasons, Kobe Bryant is once again leading the Lakers in scoring with 17.4 points per game. He’s also averaging 4.1 rebounds and 3.5 assists, but that’s where the good news mostly ends. He’s shooting just 34.4 percent from the field, 24.7 percent from three, and nearly a career-worst 79.5 percent from the charity stripe. Bryant is on pace to be the first guard, who qualified for the minutes per game leaderboard, since 1946-47 to attempt at least 15.0 shots per game and finish with a field goal percentage of 35.0 percent or worse. Maybe there are some signs of life, though. After averaging just 15.8 points on 31.3 percent shooting through his first 20 games, Bryant has averaged 23.8 points on 46.2 percent shooting over the last 5 games. It could just be a small sample size, but it could also be that he’s finding his legs after they’ve been lost at sea. Either way, he still has his dangerous moments, and it would be wise to just let him dribble the shot clock away before heaving a contested jumper. Oh, and don’t fall for his plethora of pump fakes.
The best part about Laker games might be the fact that they do have a somewhat young nucleus of players who could turn into pretty darn good ones. Jordan Clarkson is second on the team in scoring, averaging 14.9 points per contest, as well as 3.9 rebounds and 2.1 assists. He’s also shooting 45.8 percent from the field and 36.0 percent from beyond the arc. The issue is that he’s just not a good defender, and in a league where two-way players are needed to ultimately be successful, he doesn’t appear to be one. Still a quality offensive player, though. When adding him to Russell and Randle, you can see some of the future starting to take shape.
Speaking of Russell and Randle, they’ve been hosed by the head coach a little bit. After starting for the first 20 games or so of the season, they got sent to the bench so that they could learn what it means to be a Laker or something like that. On the year, though, Russell is averaging 11.9 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 3.4 assists on 39.7 percent shooting in 28.1 minutes. The upshot with Russell is that he can get to the rim at a decent clip right now, and he’s a developing mid-range shooter – he’s connected on 38 percent of his 121 attempts from 8-to-24 feet. His passing is his best trait, though. He’s able to spot passing lanes long before his teammates even realize they’re open, which leads to turnovers because they have hands of stone. Russell has the tools to succeed. He just needs a better situation.
With Randle, the raw talent and tenacity is already there. He’s averaging 11.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 1.6 assists on 42.1 percent from the field in 27.4 minutes per game. Randle can drive to the rim and finish through contact, but his inability to even use his right hand hampers him a lot of the time. That’s been one of the major reasons he’s only shooting 48.1 percent inside 8-feet. The other issue is his jumper – it’s nonexistent. Randle is just 13-of-53 (24.5 percent) in the mid-range area this season, and 10-of-39 (25.6 percent) from 16-to-24 feet. He needs to develop a right hand or a jumper soon. As far as his rebounding goes, he leads the Lakers in Rebound Win Percentage at 44.2 percent, and he compares very favorably to Kenneth Faried (44.0 percent) in that department. It’s not hard to see the similarities. If the Lakers are to win this game, they’ll need dynamic contributions from not just Randle, Russell, Bryant, and Clarkson, but also from Larry Nance Jr., Lou Williams, Roy Hibbert, and a cast of others.
|2015-16 NBA Regular Season
|December 25, 2015 — 7:30 PM PT
|STAPLES Center (Los Angeles, California)
|ESPN, Prime Ticket, Time Warner Cable SportsNet, The Beast 980 AM, KWKW 1330 AM, ESPN 710 AM
|Luc Richard Mbah a Moute
|Larry Nance Jr.
|Efficiency Stats ('15-'16)
|Paul Pierce (Back); Austin Rivers (Ankle)
|GAME TIME DECISION
|Nick Young (Gastroenteritis); Julius Randle (Ankle)
All has not been well for the Los Angeles Clippers after they defeated the Milwaukee Bucks to move to 16-10. They’ve since lost three games to three Western Conference teams that’ll be in the playoffs, and a couple of them were heartbreaking. The team is now 14-4 when leading after three quarters this season, but all of the losses have come to upper-echelon teams in their own conference – Golden State Warriors (twice), San Antonio Spurs, and Oklahoma City Thunder. If there are reasons for the Clippers to feel like they can compete in the West this season, the main one might be that they’ve been in all of those games and had chances to win. If there are reasons for them to feel like they can’t compete, then the main one might be that they’ve yet to win a single game against a team they’re being directly compared to. As it stands, the Clippers are just 2-8 against the other seven current playoff teams in the conference.
Right now, the Clippers are in the 5th seed while the Dallas Mavericks sit in the 4th spot with an identical 16-13 record. The NBA is surely praying for that first round matchup because the ratings boost will be incredible due to the offseason drama. As for the cast of characters, we all still know that Blake Griffin is really great, and that Chris Paul is pretty darn good himself. The real story right now might be Paul, though. Over the last 5 games, Paul is averaging 21.0 points, 10.0 assists, 3.8 rebounds, and 3.2 steals on 47.3 percent from the field, 45.8 percent from three, and 92.3 percent from the free throw line. He struggled with his shot for much of the early part of the season, but it seems like that deadeye ability is starting to come back to him. Paul has knocked down 51.9 percent of his mid-range jumpers over the last 5 contests. Point God might be back, guys.
Griffin’s still on pace for a 24-9-5 season while shooting above 50 percent, so the fact people act like that’s normal is pretty incredible. Over the last 14 games, though, Griffin’s mid-range shot has taken a major dip, as he’s now shooting just 32.8 percent from 16-to-24 feet over that time period. For the offense to get back to its elite level, the team needs Griffin to be the sniper that he was earlier in the season. A lot rests on his shoulders, especially since Doc Rivers has surrounded him with two guys who can’t space the floor offensively in Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and DeAndre Jordan. If Griffin is unable to get going offensively, it puts a lot of stress on everyone else to step it up – and most of them can’t.
Speaking of Mbah a Moute, he’s only averaging 1.9 points per game this season. His value to the starting lineup comes from his defense and rebounding, but he’s just 5-of-14 on corner threes this season and that’s the shot most available to the small forward when in there with the other four starters. The Core Four plus Mbah a Moute lineup has now logged 184 minutes in 12 games, and they’ve posted a +9.8 Net Rating while hauling in 53.5 percent of all available rebounds. The issue, however, is that they’re giving up 101.8 points per 100 possessions, and it’s been 103.0 this month alone. We’ll see how much longer Doc Rivers sticks with that group, especially since floor spacing is a big deal these days.
The real issues for the Clippers going forward are what to do with their bench. Lance Stephenson has played just 7 minutes with the Core Four starters in December, which is shocking because he played 146 minutes with them prior to this month. The data suggests he should get even more time with them. In 154 minutes, the Core Four plus Stephenson lineup has a +18.7 Net Rating. It’s not even just their 114.8 Offensive Rating that shines, it’s also their 96.2 Defensive Rating. That lineup is holding teams to a paltry 46.3 Effective Field Goal Percentage, as well. One of the interesting things to watch is just how far Stephenson has fallen out of the rotation. He started the year as the opening day small forward then lost his job for reasons no one is quite sure about. We’ll see what happens with Stephenson from here on out.
The rest of the bench is pretty much set, but with little idea as to how they’ll be used. Josh Smith was the backup center up until last game, which is when Cole Aldrich took over the duties and did a quality job. However, Smith didn’t play one second – and that was in a game that Paul Pierce sat out. There’s some stuff going on behind the scenes, but it’d be interesting to see a Smith-Aldrich duo play just because they’d be what’s best for defense and rebounding off the bench. Wesley Johnson is still doing a solid job, shooting 45.8 percent overall and 36.7 percent from three. Johnson’s been hot from the corners, shooting 20-of-39 (51.3 percent) from there on the year. Jamal Crawford is averaging 11.4 points per game, but he’s shooting just 36.4 percent overall and 30.9 percent from deep. The bench is just a hodgepodge of guys trying to find a role that they fit in, but being unable to do so for the most part. Hopefully they’re given better tools to succeed in the future. Just, for the love of Christmas, please do not trot Pierce and Crawford out there together anymore. It needs to stop. If the Clippers are to win this game, their stars must shine the brightest on this holiday, and their bench cannot get ran over like they have been all season.