5 Biggest Takeaways from Los Angeles Lakers' 1st Half of the Season
It's a tough time to be a fan of the Los Angeles Lakers.
After decades of unparalleled success, the team is in a fallow period. They currently sit second-from-the-bottom in the Western Conference, much closer to having the league's worst overall record than they are to a playoff seed.
Now with their face of the franchise sidelined for the duration of the 2015 campaign, things are as hopeless as they have ever been in Laker Land.
With that gloomy backdrop setting the scene, let's investigate the five biggest takeaways of this season's first half.
Unsurprisingly, there were more problems than solutions to be found.
1. The Kobe Bryant Era Is over
Coming in to the season we had no idea what to expect from Bryant.
At his age, coming back from the injuries he had to overcome, just getting on the court was a big step.
And early on there were promising signs that maybe Bryant still had some premium-grade fuel left in his tank.
He was playing 35 minutes every night, scoring points by the bushel—even leading the league for a time—and showing flashes of his old athleticism. Sure, the field-goal percentage was ugly, but that was just the effects of rust which would normalize as the season progressed.
But the hope he supplied at the start of the campaign has withered away.
To begin with, the shooting just never got better. Bryant had the worst high-volume shooting season in the last 50 years, shooting 37 percent from the field on over 20 attempts a night.
He tried to take on a more facilitating role, but he couldn't consistently draw the attention of the defense enough to create easy passing lanes to free teammates any longer. So as the assist totals rose—and rise they did—the turnover count rocketed up right alongside.
Then the body started to go. Bryant sat out bunches of games purely to save his aging limbs from the pounding of an NBA contest. And now he has succumbed to yet another major injury.
No one wants the career of an all-timer to end this way, but when Bryant suits up again next season, everyone will see him as a shell of his former self.
2. The Best Course of Action Is to Tank
Engage tank mode. With the announcement that Bryant is done for the year, the Lakers truly have nothing left to play for.
It's crucial to continue the rebuilding process with another high lottery pick, but that will only come if L.A. finishes with a top-five draft selection.
They can ensure that happens by losing the vast majority of their remaining games.
This isn't a call to purposefully lose. We're not trying to violate the integrity of the sport. But in a perverse way, the worse the Lakers do, the greater their reward will be.
The current roster is weak enough that the team can go out and play their hardest, and L.A. should still lose by a comfortable margin most nights.
And the odd sterling performance—like their showing against the Chicago Bulls earlier in the week—will at least keep the fanbase mildly engaged.
In the meantime, L.A. can develop its younger talents such as Jordan Clarkson and Ryan Kelly to see what they have in those guys. This is where Julius Randle's season-ending injury really hurts the most.
But if the Lakers can retain that precious pick, they will come into next season with (essentially) two high-upside rookies and a glimmer of long-term hope.
3. The Roster Lacks Assets
For the Lakers, keeping their 2015 first-round selection carries extra importance because their best means to upgrade the roster is through the draft.
Generally, the most reliable way to add an existing superstar is through a trade. The Lakers themselves have used this tactic to land the likes of Pau Gasol, Steve Nash (remember, he was still a superstar at that time) and Dwight Howard in recent years.
But the current roster doesn't have the assets to swing a big deal like that. There's no one player on the squad you can build a package around to convince another team to part with an elite talent.
Any team you approach—even one with a disgruntled free-agent-to-be whom they'd like to get something back for—will be able to honestly say they can get a better deal elsewhere.
Forget trading for a star, L.A. can't get anything of value back for any of their players. No doubt GM Mitch Kupchak was thinking in the back of his mind that he might be able, at some point, to finagle a first-round pick for Jeremy Lin out of a playoff hopeful in need of point guard help.
But Lin has been so disappointing this year (it's not easy to lose your job to Ronnie Price, a guy who's started 35 games total over his first nine seasons) that even teams fitting that description—such as the Detroit Pistons or Charlotte Hornets—wouldn't fork over a first-rounder for him now.
The same can be applied to Jordan Hill, whom the Lakers signed to a short-term, large-money contract partly in the hope that they could sell high on him and collect an asset in return.
While he hasn't been as bad as Lin, his consistency issues persist and his newfound fondness for long jumpers have to be scaring teams off. It's become clear that on a good team in this league, he's a backup big; and a juicy first-round selection just isn't the going rate for a guy like that.
4. Nick Young Is Not the Answer to Any Team's Problems
Nick Young's status has risen considerably since joining the Lakers.
He was legitimately good in an expanded role last season, and that led to bigger expectations for this season. His off-the-court endeavors have also raised his profile and turned him into a household name and pseudo-star.
When he was out nursing an injury to begin this season, there was a lot of "just wait 'til Nick Young gets back" talk percolating among the Lakers faithful.
Now we know for sure that he's not a player you can rely on to carry a team.
Young can still get buckets, but his efficiency and consistency have been lacking this season—as they have throughout his career.
Swaggy P has shot a dreadful 37 percent from the floor this season, and that's after marginally increasing his three-point accuracy.
Unfortunately, Young insists upon taking exceedingly difficult shots.
According to NBA.com's database, Young is tightly covered on nearly 72 percent of his shot attempts. His efficiency also sharply declines the longer the ball stays in his hands.
On two-point field goals where he touches the ball for less than two seconds, Young knocks down 56 percent of his attempts. But on two-point tries where he has the ball for two to six seconds—nearly a third of his total shots this season—that conversion rate plummets all the way down to 29 percent.
And we haven't even touched on his defense, which is lackadaisical at best and got him benched in his last outing.
Young can still make a big impact off the bench as a microwave scorer, but he's a luxury accessory, not a core component. It's time to stop talking like he's a foundational piece for this club.
5. Byron Scott's Hire May Have Been a Mistake
Byron Scott was hired specifically to instill a disciplined approach to defense and put a stop to the layup lines the Lakers conceded to opponents under Mike D'Antoni.
He hasn't gotten the job done.
The Lakers are dead even with last year's iteration in points allowed per possession, while also giving up more three-pointers and foul shots this season.
Scott hasn't shown a meaningful ability to make in-game adjustments either. The Lakers defense is actually worse in the second half than it is in the first, according to NBA.com—and that includes many blowouts where opponents stop actively competing in the fourth quarter.
Scott also has not gotten the most out of his players. At least D'Antoni coaxed career seasons out of Nick Young and (especially) Jodie Meeks. No one on this squad has broken out in anywhere near the same fashion.
Scott has been coasting for years on his reputation of taking the New Jersey Nets to back-to-back NBA Finals in the early 2000s—in an incredibly weak Eastern Conference with win totals that wouldn't be good enough to make the playoffs in the West in a good year—but has shown little evidence of being a top-tier coach since.
His teams have performed well when he has had an All-NBA First-Team talent in the fold (peak Jason Kidd and Chris Paul), but it's pretty hard not to do well when you have a top-five guy in the league on your squad.
The position Scott was in which was most similar to the one he presently finds himself in was in Cleveland just after the LeBron James departure.
In his three seasons at the helm, the Cleveland Cavaliers won just 27.8 percent of their games and never even reached the 25-win threshold.
So far the Lakers have fallen right in line with those numbers, suggesting that Scott's coaching doesn't add extra wins to the total.
It's too early to call him a failure, but the good graces he earned as a player in Los Angeles shouldn't get in the way of objectively evaluating his coaching. He may not be the right man for this job.