The Los Angeles Lakers finally got their second win of the 2015-16 NBA season over a road-weary Detroit Pistons team on Sunday, but had to play creaky guard Kobe Bryant 37 minutes in order to do it.
The strain of doing so knocked him out for the second night of the back-to-back set when the team took on the Phoenix Suns, where the Lakers found themselves outmatched in nearly every facet of the game.
Overall, the season had still be been a rough one, although the focus should be on developing the young players this year anyway. With that said, let’s take a look at who is trending up and who is trending down after Week 3 of the new season.
Kobe Bryant: The Mamba’s first appearance on the “Up” side this season! Obviously the back issues aren’t good, and the uncertainty over whether he will suit up on any given night will be a season-long ordeal, but he was much improved in the last two games. He played an average of 34.5 minutes (yikes!), but Bryant also shot the ball more efficiently against Dallas and then overcame poor shooting against Detroit (6-of-19) by racking up nine assists. Now if he could just stay on the floor…
Jordan Clarkson: One of the knocks on Jordan Clarkson last season was his lack of an outside shot, but this week, he shot 43 percent from three and is shooting 45 percent for the season. This welcomed improvement has allowed Clarkson to maintain his effectiveness in spite of his assist numbers plummeting to an average of just 2.1 per game now that he has D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, and Kobe Bryant to share the ball with. Clarkson still scores routinely out of the pick-and-roll and his blazing quickness allows him to get into the paint with ease. Defensively, he is still a work in progress, but his speed allows him to effectively close out on shooters and he competes on every possession. Assuming he can eventually figure out how to play alongside Russell, the future looks very, very bright for this young man.
Larry Nance Jr.: LNJ doesn’t do much to jump out at you on the box score (5.4 points, 3.6 rebounds in 18.2 minutes this week), but he does all the little things on the defensive end that can really make a difference. While he struggled against Phoenix, Nance was phenomenal at shutting down the Piston’s pick-and-roll, often stepping out to stop the drive and then recovering back to the dangerous Ersan Ilyasova before he could get a shot off. Nance has a lot of growing to do on the offensive end, and is going to be prone to mistakes, but it appears that the 27th pick was well spent after all.
Roy Hibbert: When the Lakers made a deal with the Indiana Pacers to land center Roy Hibbert, it appeared that they may have found a piece of their future core. With young players like D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, and Julius Randle on the perimeter, the Lakers badly needed a rim protector, and Hibbert is one of the best at just that. So far, Hibbert has mostly lived up to that billing, effectively protecting the basket while doing what he can to shore up the Lakers lacking defense. He has also been a vocal leader on the court, and just turned in a fantastic week (besides a broken nose) that saw him put up averages of two blocks and 6.2 rebounds per game. What was most encouraging, however, was Hibbert’s oft-lamented shooting, which shot up to 52 percent this week to go along with a stellar 90 percent from the line. Let’s hope for more of this from big Roy.
D’Angelo Russell: This isn’t time to panic, as Russell is just 19 and has only played in 10 NBA games, but thus far D’Angelo hasn’t lived up to the hype. He was particularly poor against the Suns, where the blazing speed of Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight was able to burn him time and time again. Russell looked unsure and timid on the offensive end through three quarters before finally turning it on in the fourth, but he can’t wait that long to get his groove going. Overall, Russell has shown himself to be better than advertised on the defensive end, and his long arms are a nice advantage, but he really struggles at dealing with quick guards (many do).
While the rookie is focusing on playing mistake-free basketball, his caution has made it feel as though he has yet to really push down on the gas pedal. Cutting down on turnovers is great, but some risks do have to be taken in order to be effective and more importantly, grow as a player. His shooting (38 percent for the week) also hasn’t helped, as teams are increasingly allowing him to fire away. Russell was too good of a shooter in college to stay in this slump forever and will need time to adjust to the NBA three, but his marksmanship has still been disappointing.
Couple these issues with Kevin Pelton of ESPN, one of the biggest Russell proponents pre-draft, stating that the Lakers should have selected Kristaps Porzingis, and it adds up to a tough week for the No. 2 pick.
Julius Randle: The beast has grown quiet, scoring in single digits in five of his last six games and shooting a brutal 38 percent for the week. During that span, Randle has also hit double digits in rebounds just once, which has to be considered a disappointment after he hung 15 and 11 on the Wolves and 22 and 15 on the Mavs to start the season. Randle’s right hand is nearly non-existent when it comes to finishing, and defenders are catching on that he will compensate by forcing the ball back to his left. Along with a jumper, the development of some finishing ability with his right is crucial. His aggression has been a bit lacking recently as well, which was disappointing considering he matched up with so-so defenders like Ersan Ilyasova, Jon Leur, Dirk Nowitzki, and Tobias Harris this week. Randle has a ton of potential and has shown flashes of absolute brilliance, but as with most young players, finding consistency will be key.
Lou Williams: Sweet Lou was the Sixth Man of the Year last season thanks to his ability to efficiently score points off the bench for the Toronto Raptors. Unfortunately, Lou is still scoring points for the Lakers, but the word “efficiently” no longer applies. During Week 3, Williams shot just 33 percent from the field while being consistently burned on the defensive end. Lou still has an incredible ability to draw fouls (even on three point attempts), but like Nick Young, so much of his value is tied to taking and making tough shots that a cold shooting stretch really limits his effectiveness as a player. With Marcelo Huertas struggling and Metta World Peace thriving, Williams is also being pushed into the point guard position for the second unit, which might be asking a bit too much from this natural scorer.
Byron Scott: Scott continues to make head-scratching decisions across the board. After promising he would stick to a strict minutes limitation for Kobe Bryant prior to the season, Scott threw that plan out the window and pushed the Mamba through 37 minutes of action in order to secure a win against Detroit. Afterwards, Bryant’s legs and back were so beat up from the experience that he lamented the walk to the car. Not good.
Brandon Bass has found himself playing out of position at center in spite of all of the evidence that he isn’t one. Tarik Black, who was 2nd team All-Rookie last season at the position, has languished on the bench. Scott has also continued to play yo-yo with the precious minutes of his young players, leading to a nightly ponderance on Basketball Twitter about which young player will be benched during the fourth quarter so that a veteran can “close” down the stretch. Byron’s post-game comments have become almost comical, with the belief that defense would improve if the team would just “man up” and the notion that tired legs are a sign of weakness. The roster Scott has been given is far from ideal and full of talent duplication, but he isn’t getting the best out of what he has to work with either, and hasn’t done enough to prove that he is catching up to the modern game.