The Los Angeles Lakers are just past the halfway point of the 2015-2016 NBA season and with just nine wins, they are currently the second-worst team in the league. The Lakers weren’t expected to be a playoff team, but few thought that they would be this bad.
In the midst of all the losing, the Kobe Bryant retirement tour has been in full swing. This has presented a challenge for the organization, as they want to do everything they can to give their aging star a proper send off, but also must balance the development of their young talent in order to build a better future. This dichotomy has created a sometimes-awkward display on the court, with young players out of sync with their veteran teammates.
In spite of all of this, there have been a few bright spots on the roster and with the trade deadline looming, it’s time to take stock of how each player on the team has performed. Let’s hand out some midterm grades based on expectations heading into the season, starting with the veterans (we will break down the young players tomorrow).
Lou Williams: As the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, many around the league were surprised not only by the Toronto Raptors decision to show Lou the door in free agency, but also at the relatively cheap price that the Lakers subsequently got him for (three years, $21 million). The purple and gold landed one of the premier bench scorers in the league who not only hits tough shots, but also has an elite-level ability to get to the free throw line. The frequency with which he tricks hapless defenders into reaching in makes it almost look scripted, like the way pro wrestlers used to catch the chair, so Rob Van Dam could kick it into their face. Even better, Lou’s numbers are nearly identical to the ones he put up last season in Toronto, indicating that his Sixth Man win was no fluke.
Of course, Lou isn’t without his shortcomings. He struggles defensively thanks to his small stature for a two-guard (6’1”), which has become even more noticeable since the Lakers moved him into the starting lineup where he contends with the oppositions’ best scorers. Overall though, Williams has been a positive for the Lakers this season, and he may have found a long-term home with the purple and gold.
Nick Young: Swaggy P is somewhat similar to Lou Williams in that he is at his best coming off the bench. When things are clicking for him, Young has the ability to quickly turn a game around with his scoring and tough-shot making. The problem is that he put up career-best numbers in a contract year two seasons ago for the Lakers and ever since then, his shot has gone missing (36.5 percent from the field during that time period). Young has bounced in and out of the lineup but recently received the dreaded DNP-CD more often than not, losing his minutes to rookie Anthony Brown. With two years (player option on the second year) and about $11 million remaining on his contract after this season, the Lakers have to hope that Young can find his swag once again.
Marcelo Huertas: After a long and successful career overseas, 32-year-old Marcelo Huertas decided to make the leap to the NBA, signing a training camp deal with the Lakers that eventually led to a spot on the regular season roster. Early returns were promising, as Huertas thrilled Lakers fans with his flashy, perfectly-placed passes. He appeared to be the maestro that the second unit needed, where he would have shooters like Nick Young, Lou Williams, and Ryan Kelly spacing the floor while Tarik Black rained down death via alley oop.
Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Huertas’ lack of athleticism has made him a liability defensively, and his woeful shooting (29 percent from three) has allowed opponents to sag off and eat up passing lanes, largely killing his elite ability to distribute the ball. Instead of helming a run-and-fun bench mob, Huertas has found himself glued to the pine. It’s too bad because he really is a dishing wizard that can be a lot of fun to watch, but NBA teams are unforgiving with the way they expose weaknesses. Marcelinho’s journey to the NBA may well end up being just a one-year detour, but at least on a minimum, one-year deal he won’t tie up any flexibility going forward.
Kobe Bryant: It wasn’t clear what the Black Mamba would be able to provide the Lakers with this year after suffering season-ending injuries during each of the previous three campaigns. He started the year off in a horrid shooting slump that featured one cringe-worthy three after another. It was painful to watch, and critics blasted Bryant for shooting so often when it was clear that he no longer had it. However, since Bryant announced his intent to retire at the end of the season, the narrative has largely changed to one of appreciation rather than vilification.
Eventually, Kobe was able to get his legs under him and his shooting has improved from historically bad to just bad (37 percent in January compared to 29 percent in November), though nagging injuries (shoulder, Achilles) are a concern. Whenever the Lakers are on the road, the farewell tour is in full effect, and he is doing his best to ensure that he takes the court whenever he is making his final appearance somewhere — injuries be damned.
He still has moves that can absolutely mesmerize us, but Bryant has burned up almost all of the professional-level basketball that his body has left. Still, flashes of brilliance intermixed with stretches of mortality are more than anyone could have reasonably expected at this stage. When Bryant slams home a throwback dunk or expertly drops a no-look pass he takes us all back in time, and those moments are priceless.
Additionally, Kobe has also taken time to mentor the young players, doing what he can to ensure that the Lakers will be left in capable hands when he is gone. The only question now is: Can Kobe Bryant make it to the last game of the season healthy, so he can take his final bow?
Metta World Peace: It was something of a surprise to see MWP make the roster, as most thought that his spot would go to a younger player like Jabari Brown or perhaps Robert Upshaw. However, Metta has proven to be a capable mentor for Julius Randle, and provides future wing defender Anthony Brown with a fantastic resource to turn to. He hasn’t seen much time on the court lately, but MWP was brought in more for his off-court contributions anyway.
Brandon Bass: Bass was signed over the summer in hopes that his blue-collar approach would rub off on the young talent. He would also provide head coach Byron Scott with a dependable big man with a solid jumper, essentially replacing the skill set of the departing Carlos Boozer. He struggled a bit to start the season, which is no surprise given that he was being asked to play out of position at center in small-ball lineups. While he still isn’t an ideal fit at the five, Bass has proven that he can finish around the rim and his jumper is effective enough to keep defenses honest. Bass is also on an extremely cheap deal ($3 million with a player option for next year), but the Lakers may look to move him to a contender at the trade deadline.
Robert Sacre: Last summer, Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak mentioned the possibility that some players with guaranteed contracts could be cut during training camp, and most assumed that one of the players on the chopping block was Robert Sacre. Though he made the team, it wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement. While most agree that Sacre is a great teammate, he is now in his fourth season in the league and is largely producing at the same rate that he was during his rookie season. He has been given about a dozen games this year to prove himself as Roy Hibbert’s backup, but couldn’t do enough to claim the job. His contract pays him just under $1 million, which is great value for a player of his size (7’0”, 270 pounds), but most thought that the Lakers would end up using his roster spot on someone with more upside. As a third-string big man, he isn’t a bad guy to have around, especially for chemistry purposes (his sideline antics are the stuff of legend), but his lack of development over the years is disappointing.
Roy Hibbert: The Lakers spent the early days of free agency chasing after bigs like LaMarcus Aldridge, Greg Monroe, and DeAndre Jordan, but the player they ultimately walked away with was Roy Hibbert. The Indiana Pacers were ready to part ways with the former All-Star center and his $16 million expiring contract, and asked for only a second round pick in return for his services. The price seemed surprisingly cheap, especially given Hibbert’s reputation as a rim protector.
However, halfway through his first season in Los Angeles, we are starting to see why the Pacers viewed Hibbert as something of a dinosaur. He is undoubtedly massive at 7’2”, but his slow mobility makes it difficult for him to defend the pick-and-roll or chase stretch bigs out to the three point line. He also struggles to put the ball in the basket, shooting the second-worst two-point field goal percentage for starting centers (44 percent).
The Lakers hoped that Hibbert would be able to give them the rim protection that they sorely lacked and would be a big step towards solving their defensive problems. While Hibbert does occasionally block a shot or two at the rim, that hasn’t prevented Los Angeles from being the worst defensive team in the league. In that way, the Roy Hibbert experiment has not been successful, and the Lakers are reportedly now looking to ship him off to a playoff team before the trade deadline.
Check back tomorrow for D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle, Ryan Kelly, Anthony Brown, Larry Nance Jr., and Tarik Black’s report cards!