As the NBA season winds toward the All-Star break, we find the New York Knicks within striking distance of an Eastern Conference playoff berth at 23-27, while the Los Angeles Lakers are languishing in the West's last place at 9-41.
The Knicks may be ahead in this race back to immediate respectability, but neither franchise is close to where it really wants to be—recapturing the championship luster that befits mega-market powerhouses.
Much rides on the youthful core of each team. And while Latvian wunderkind Kristaps Porzingis has taken the Big Apple by storm, L.A. is regularly trotting out a lineup that features a bevy of babies. It is also worth noting that the BBVA Rising Stars Challenge during All-Star Weekend will be represented by each side—Porzingis from New York and Jordan Clarkson and D’Angelo Russell from Los Angeles.
In this ongoing series of semi-monthly exchanges, Knicks featured columnist Sara Peters and I delve into a comparative discussion of our respective neophyte brigades.
There’s no doubt Porzingis is making a big splash in his rookie season. But isn’t there a fairly steep drop-off from the uber-tall sapling to the rest of the Knicks’ youth corp?
Sara Peters: Well, sure, but the "Three 6 Latvia" is on a trajectory to All-Star status. Saying Jerian Grant, Langston Galloway, Cleanthony Early, Derrick Williams, Lance Thomas and Kyle O'Quinn aren't the same caliber is no knock on them.
I'm not convinced O'Quinn and Early have a future in New York, but Thomas and Williams are establishing themselves as key pieces by making huge improvements. Thomas is now a real threat on offense. Williams is not only a fast-break machine, but also fixing the defensive and rebounding failures that earned him a “bust” rep.
Grant and Galloway are already developing into a starting-caliber backcourt. Grant’s had his share of rookie foibles, but his exhilarating 16-point, eight-assist performance Jan. 12 drove the Knicks to a 120-114 victory over the Boston Celtics and left fans salivating for more.
Galloway is indispensable. He drives, dishes, steals, energizes and drills the long ball. He resembles head coach Derek Fisher in that he is a calm on-court leader who isn't afraid of the big moment.
There were high hopes for Julius Randle and Russell when they were drafted. What do you think is their ceiling now? Are any of your young bloods future All-Stars?
David Murphy: I think their respective ceilings are still undetermined and that a coaching change would benefit each.
You don’t waste a No. 2 pick by jerking him around like a puppet on a string. Yet Byron Scott has done exactly that with Russell, pulling the 19-year-old from the starting lineup in early December, leveling frequent criticisms and rarely using him in crucial fourth-quarter situations.
A good example is L.A.’s recent close loss to the Dallas Mavericks. Russell was yanked with two minutes remaining and his team down by a deuce—Dallas would ultimately win by that same margin. Per Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News, Scott later explained that the rookie “was really trying to take over the game.”
And then there’s Randle, who was robbed of his rookie campaign with a broken leg. The assumption was that the bull in a china shop would make up for lost time this season. But he, too, was benched in December—recent starts have only been due to the continued sore knee of his replacement, rookie Larry Nance Jr. Yet despite being handed an inconsistent role, Randle leads all sophomores in rebounds at 9.7 per game.
You’d think a historically bad season would embolden Scott to let his young charges develop freely. Instead, they’re being held back.
How is D-Fish doing developing his younger players while also pushing toward the playoffs?
Peters: With the exception of Early (who barely saw the hardwood even before he was shot), Fisher isn't just tossing them some minutes; he's trusting them, even when the game is on the line. If a young guy's on fire, Fish leaves him on the court for the final five minutes of the fourth quarter and tells him to bring it home.
Sometimes, the gamble backfires. Williams, Grant and Galloway in particular often play at breakneck speed but don't have the stamina to sustain it past 25 minutes.
Had Fisher rested them sooner Jan. 13, they might not have let the Brooklyn Nets end the game on a 10-2 run to win. Had regulation been 47 minutes instead of 48, they would have beaten the Thunder by four on Jan. 26 instead of being pushed into overtime with their tanks already empty.
Those games wouldn't have been close to begin with, though, without the performances of those players, and the clutch-time experience—good, bad or otherwise—is irreplaceable. If the Knicks make the playoffs, the young guys won't just be along for the ride; they'll deserve some credit for the trip.
So, Byron Scott is not a good leader or teacher for LAL. Is anybody looking after these young players?
Murphy: There is definitely some support and mentoring for the newbies here in Lakerland. Bryant has been involved, especially with Russell, when it comes to advice and guidance. That was also evident during a late-game situation in December, when Bryant advised Scott to let the rookies continue rolling rather than subbing back in himself.
Bryant also levels criticism when it’s appropriate, ripping Russell and Randle in the locker room after a loss to Portland earlier this month. The difference is that the Mamba does this behind closed doors and doesn’t embarrass young players through the media. Scott, on the other hand, uses that bully pulpit to death.
Randle has also been receiving instruction from shooting coach Tracy Murray in an effort to correct his shot mechanics plus hands-on help from Metta World Peace and Roy Hibbert.
It would be an overstatement to say Scott hasn’t provided any direction—he was notably involved in Clarkson’s development last season, after all. But his old-school penchant for breaking players down in order to build them back up shows a lack of nuance and forward-thinking strategy.
As for youth leadership—that will come in time. It’s still Kobe’s team, after all.
How is Porzingis developing within the triangle, and is it ultimately the right offense for him?
Peters: It's a good fit. The triangle offense mandates rapid, fluid movement of ball and bodies. Porzingis works for the triangle because he finds clever passing lanes and executes dishes quickly from his 7'3" point of view. Plus, he's got astoundingly fancy footwork and speed for a man his size.
The triangle also works for Porzingis because he's not great at creating shot opportunities for himself. KP relies on his teammates to feed him the ball—67.1 percent of his made field goals are assisted, which is more than almost anyone on the squad. (For comparison, Robin Lopez only has 50 percent assisted, Carmelo Anthony 37.8 and Grant 37.5.)
Also, the Knicks are not slavishly beholden to the triangle anymore. They do (sometimes) look to score in transition or drive the lane first, then roll into that offense if those opportunities aren't there. There's some strong post-up action from Arron Afflalo and Anthony plus a smattering of pick-and-roll.
Because of his athleticism, Porzingis helps in those systems, too, facilitating fast breaks, setting picks and sinking buckets off the dribble. When he strengthens his post-up game and learns to create for himself…well, I won't say he'll be unstoppable, but he'll be scary.
What to make of the Clarkson, Russell "backcourt of the future"?
Murphy: The Lakers will definitely keep Clarkson (expiring contract this offseason)—he has started every game in his sophomore year and is cranking out consistent numbers (15.1 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists) despite being shifted back and forth between point and shooting guard duties.
Switching Lou Williams to the starting lineup was a mistake—it detracted from the opportunity to let Clarkson and Russell develop an uninterrupted side-by-side rhythm for the entire season.
We also need to see more of the Net Generation as a single unit. There was a brief moment recently when Russell, Clarkson, rookie Anthony Brown (with his three-and-D promise), Randle and Nance Jr. were all on the floor at the same time. The experiment only lasted a couple of minutes before Scott disassembled it, but it was tantalizingly fun to watch.
Tragically lost in the guppy shuffle has been Tarik Black—a second-year big with defensive intensity and a sneaky ability to dive to the basket off the roll.
Just imagine how ridiculously deep the Lakers' young core will be if they hang on to their top-three-protected draft pick in June.