NBA Graveyard 2016: Kobe, Byron Doom Lakers

It’s March and that means the season is effectively over for a number of NBA teams. We’ll be picking through the remains of the fakers, pretenders and never-had-a-chancers to determine what went wrong. More importantly, what can be salvaged going into next season and beyond? Cuz the great thing about the NBA is even when all is lost, the dead still have hope. There’s always room for wild optimism thanks to coaching carousels, the siren song of the big free agent, the franchise-saving Draft pick, the unknown potential of young assets and blind faith.

Father Time continued his hot streak by claiming Los Angeles Lakers luminary Kobe Bryant as his latest victim, and in turn, the Lakers themselves.

lakersgrave

Postmortem: After spending most of the previous two seasons on the injury report, Kobe Bryant came into this season looking to prove the doubters wrong by regaining his old dominant form. It was clear after less than a month that the old Kobe was gone forever, and an amazing thing happened: even Kobe realized it. Count me among those who thought Kobe would have to be strapped in to a chair like Hannibal Lecter and led away before ever willfully retiring. Instead, the relentless, unforgiving and famously unfriendly Bryant did a complete heel turn. He announced this would be his last season on Nov. 29, turning the rest of the Lakers’ season into a traveling sideshow revolving around their washed-up star and his newfound affability. Kobe would pass out memorabilia to fans, receive gifts from fellow players, smile more than he had cumulatively in his five championship seasons and try to recapture a fleeting moment of glory here and there. For a team with no shot at the postseason, Kobe’s farewell tour offered the organization a shred of relevance.

This is all well and good until you consider the effect on the Lakers’ future. With 2014 1st Rounder Julius Randle and 2015 2nd overall pick D’Angelo Russell in tow, it would seem to behoove the organization to get the youngsters meaningful minutes to develop toward their very high potential. Problem is, Byron Scott is the team’s head coach. His lineup decisions and baffling press conference remarks have been a daily Basketball Twitter phenomenon.

Bill Oram (@billoram)
Fans won’t like this, but Byron Scott believes very much in the power of forcing young players to watch vets do the job they couldn’t.

Scott struck a particularly strange pose with Russell. In the talented rookie point guard, the Lakers have an opportunity to mold a cornerstone player for their rebuild, in a league where point guards reign supreme. All efforts should be made to help Russell join the list of elite Western Conference point guards. But from day one Scott treated him like just another young’n that needs to be humbled and learn from the bench. For much of the season Russell sat out entire fourth quarters, for a team that was rarely succeeding in fourth quarters. Scott passed up the opportunity to let the 19-year old (now 20) experience crunch time minutes and learn on the job, leading Bryant himself to lobby Scott to change his irrational ways. He benched Russell for being too passive or “lost”, he benched him for being too confident, he benched him for reasons that only Scott seems to understand. If the kid sucked in his opportunities and there was a better option that’d be one thing. But Russell sometimes was Lakers fans’ only ray of hope in a lost season. Even with inconsistent minutes and a vote of no confidence from his head coach, Russell showed flashes of future stardom, like this schooling of Jarret Jack from all the way back on Nov. 6:  

Now this is not an original thought by any means, but it bears mentioning: GM Mitch Kupchak may have been playing the long con here, limiting the Lakers’ wins this season to increase their odds at a top-3 pick. Because if their pick falls out of the top-3, they lose their pick to Philly. So employing a relic like Scott, who has a vendetta against the #2 pick, to lead a low-key tanking effort disguised as a benign Kobe send-off could ultimately save their upcoming draft prospects. So there’s a feather in your cap, Lake Show.

Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons)
I love that it’s 2016 and the Lakers are still starting Ron Artest. They should bring out their starting 5 in an actual tank.

The end product – 28th in offensive rating, 30th in defensive rating, 14-55 record. Kobe walks into the sunset shooting 36% from the floor, 27% from three while ranking 3rd-worst on an awful team in Offensive Rating, ahead of just Metta World Peace and Anthony Brown.

Low Moments: There were many to choose from, starting with Kobe’s 1-14 performance in a 34-point loss to the Warriors on Nov. 24. But enough beating a dead Mamba. Instead let’s focus just on insane Byron Scott quotes about D’Angelo Russell.

Bright Spots: Russell couldn’t be held down by his coach all season. He’s forced his way into more playing time, averaging 30 minutes a game over the last 10. He had a career-high 39 points in a win against Brooklyn, and this sublime “ice in my veins” celebration:

 

Jordan Clarkson played consistently well this season as he aims for a significant pay raise. Randle made some strides as a rebounder, showing he can be a starter under the right tutelage. Larry Nance, Jr. – a late first round pick – has shown promise amid the chaos of his rookie season.

Assets: The Lakers have some good young talent, and Bryant’s monstrous contract is mercifully up this summer. Here’s a ranking:

  1. Russell – 20 years old on a rookie deal and hopefully playing for a new coach next season.
  2. Randle – 21 years old and still on a rookie deal.
  3. Clarkson – His contract is up and they’ll have to compete to retain his services. But he’s only 23 and averaging 15.5 per game. Every effort should be made to re-sign him.
  4. 2016 1st Round pick – As long as the Lottery balls bounce right, they’ll keep it and have a top-3 pick.
  5. Nance, Jr – An older rookie (23), he’s putting up 10 points and nine rebounds per 36 minutes. As his minutes go up, he should be a reliable rotation guy.
  6. Lou Williams – Nearly 30, but on a nice contract and can score in bunches.
  7. Anthony Brown – A 2nd Round pick last year that has seen more playing time lately. A wing guy with size they can develop and potentially turn into an asset.
  8. 2017 1st Round pick – This one is tentative, as they will likely lose it next year to Philly if they don’t lose their 2016 pick.
  9. 2016 2nd Round pick – Will be in the low-mid 30s.
  10. Nick Young – I’m not a Nick Young guy. Maybe they can get something for him in a trade.

Free Agency prospects: With Kobe off the books, as well as Clarkson, Roy Hibbert, Metta World Peace, Tarik Black, Ryan Kelly, Robert Sacre; and Brandon Bass likely to opt out they project to have just $23M in salary committed going into the summer. Being they are the Lakers expect them to try to use most of that ~$70M in cap space to reel in some big fish. I think Kevin Durant wants to play for a winner right away so that hurts them but they’ll surely get a meeting if possible. DeMar DeRozan is an LA guy and an intriguing fit with Russell if they can lure him away from Toronto. Expect them to make a play for Al Horford and maybe Hassan Whiteside. Alternatively they can opt for  a smaller splash this season and try to get former UCLA star Russell Westbrook when he comes available next summer. With all their holes and tons of money to spend, this will be an awfully interesting free agency period in La-La Land.

Resurrection Scale: 60% (Cryogenically Frozen Next to Walt Disney). You can never fully kill the Lakers. They will always find a way to reload. Kobe’s gone, meaning the coffers are filling back up and star free agents won’t have to worry about sharing the ball or the practice court with him. Russell is for real, and with some actual development as a point guard, should shore them up for the long term at that important position. They’ll be back, whether you like it or not.

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