LOS ANGELES — On the shoulders of what might be the last awe-inspiring performance of Kobe Bryant’s legendary career, the Los Angeles Lakers avoided losing a franchise-record 11th straight game on Tuesday night.
To shield itself from further embarrassment, all L.A. needed was an especially supportive home crowd, Bryant’s season-high 38 points and the lottery-bound Minnesota Timberwolves on the opposite bench. All that—a perfect storm in their favor—and the Lakers only won by four points.
That’s how low expectations have sunk.
This win was cause for celebration and relief. And long after the Staples Center confetti was swept away, a disturbing reminder settled in: This is the ugliest season in Lakers history.
Los Angeles is 10-41. It has the worst record in the Western Conference, and FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO forecast had it ranked dead last before the Philadelphia 76ers were walloped on Wednesday night by the Atlanta Hawks.
This is what it’s come to: The Lakers are as bad as the Sixers, a 7-42 club that currently employs several players who wouldn’t be in the NBA if Sam Hinkie weren’t the general manager.
Before naming Jerry Colangelo their chairman of basketball operations, and assigning him the unenviable task of reshaping an ongoing renovation—“The Process” was either spiraling out of control or in need of just a tiny bit more patience, depending on who you ask—the Sixers were, in effect, losing basketball games on purpose. They were an intentional abomination, but they always had both eyes on the long game.
And it’s fair to say Los Angeles still puts out the inferior on-court product.
Don't believe me? I reached out to a couple of writers who know the 76ers inside and out: Tom Moore, a beat writer covering the team for Calkins Media, and Jake Pavorsky, the managing editor of SB Nation’s Liberty Ballers. Their commentary is woven in below.
The fundamental parallel between both organizations is that they field an objectively terrible team.
The Lakers have the worst defense and lowest net rating in the NBA, per NBA.com. No team is less accurate behind the three-point line, and only two are less effective on the offensive and defensive glass. Elsewhere, the Sixers have the NBA's limpest offense and highest turnover rate.
The Lakers do a good job getting to the free-throw line (mostly thanks to long-former Sixer Lou Williams) but are one of the league's worst teams scoring in the paint. Philly, on the other hand, rarely gets to the line but scores a ton of its points around the basket, per NBA.com.
Both teams move at a respectable pace but don't move the ball very well; they're also two of the NBA's five least efficient squads out of isolation, per Synergy Sports.
They've played twice and split the season series. But just about everyone expected Philadelphia to really struggle, while the Lakers were destined for run-of-the-mill bad.
On paper, the Lakers' talent and experience are comparable with the Portland Trail Blazers, Denver Nuggets, Brooklyn Nets, Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves. They aren't as good as those teams, though. Instead, they're at the very bottom of the league, inseparable from the NBA's resident punch line.
Both teams have a lot riding on the development of a few young, talented prospects.
In Los Angeles, it’s unfair to place all the blame on head coach Byron Scott, given the nonsensical roster L.A.’s front office cobbled together, but it’s also interesting to compare these two different incubators and how their ability (or inability) to foster growth impacts night-to-night performance.
“If I was a Lakers fan, I'd be miserable right now,” Pavorsky said. “Byron Scott is so remarkably incompetent, and during Kobe's swan-song season, where nothing is going right, it's still his team. It's so ridiculously short-sighted and just everything opposite of what the Sixers are doing. Los Angeles still might luck themselves into being a good team, but management is not handling this right by any means.”
What sets L.A. and Philly apart is how their respective coaching staffs have decided to bring their neophytes along.
The average Laker is 27.5 years old. The average Sixer is 24.6—third youngest in the league. Bryant, Roy Hibbert, Brandon Bass, Nick Young and Lou Williams all play significant minutes in L.A., so youth isn’t an excuse, because Scott literally won’t allow it to be.
Scott has spent this year shuffling D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle in and out of the starting lineup, yanking them from competitive fourth quarters and, in the eyes of many, stifling their short- and long-term progress. The opportunity to soak up meaningful crunch-time minutes is few and far between.
Philadelphia head coach Brett Brown is tasked with tutoring Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel, Jerami Grant, Nik Stauskas, T.J. McConnell, Richaun Holmes, JaKarr Sampson and several others, all of whom have fewer than two full seasons of NBA action under their belts.
But the approach from Brown and his coaching staff has been a little more, um, effective.
“I never once thought that Jerami Grant would be even close to serviceable, and all of a sudden he's a real good rim protector with solid dribbling skills,” Pavorsky said. “Noel's offensive game was super raw out of Kentucky, and it's not great now by any means, but it's come a long way. Getting Jahlil Okafor to improve his defense will be this staff's biggest task yet, but improvement in his range and free-throw shooting is already obvious.”
This is the type of progress you’d like to see from a team that isn’t going anywhere anytime soon: baby steps toward building a positive culture.
Philadelphia's few veterans serve a purpose. Carl Landry has played 156 minutes this year, and the 36-year-old Elton Brand—a public-relations angel and paid mentor—has yet to make his season debut. But the recently signed Ish Smith has (sort of) turned the team’s season around.
Things are different on the Lakers, where most of the veterans have either struggled to find a role or been handed one that doesn't make a lot of sense. The 6'8" Bass has spent almost the entire year as a backup center. Williams, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, has been L.A.'s starting shooting guard since early December. Metta World Peace is completely out of the rotation. Hibbert is ineffective in a league that may already have passed him by.
But the Sixers have done a much better job incorporating the few vets they have. Philly has averaged 1.4 more possessions per 48 minutes since Ish Smith arrived on Dec. 26, and its fast-break points per game have seen a bump from 11 up to 14.6, good for eighth in the league since Christmas.
|The Ish Effect|
|Category||Before Ish||With Ish Starting|
|Fast Break Points Per Game||11.0||14.6|
“The Sixers are 6-12 with Smith after a record-setting 1-30 start,” Moore said. “He’s forced the Sixers to run…which has resulted in more transition baskets and allowed them to avoid their mediocre half-court offense.”
“Just knowing that the addition of a guard like Ish Smith can improve their play that much makes me confident that this team can continue to rise,” Pavorsky said. “Noel looks revived, and their perimeter shooting has definitely improved, both of which were giant issues pre-Ish. Once they find a long-term solution at point guard, I expect things to only get better. The coaching staff has done a good job of instilling a strong defensive system and an uptempo offense that I think fits this young group well.”
On/off splits aren't all behind the narrative that Smith is Philadelphia’s momentary savior, but a microscopic sample size—mixed with his facing starting lineups instead of second units—really lessens their weight. Smith accounts for 43.8 percent of the Sixers’ assists when on the floor, a number only Rajon Rondo, John Wall, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul have exceeded this year, per Basketball-Reference.com.
But let’s not get carried away. The 27-year-old is also shooting below 40 percent from the floor and 30 percent from the three-point line. The Sixers have won seven games all season, still have the league’s worst turnover rate and have no idea whether Okafor and Noel can coexist at the same time over the next decade.
“Coach Brown and the players realize that [Noel and Okafor] prefer to be close to the basket at both ends of the court, which isn't possible,” Moore said. “That Noel is only shooting 29 percent from three feet and out indicates he's not an ideal power forward on offense, while his blocked shots and steals are way down when he plays the 4 compared to the 5. Okafor doesn't have the foot speed to chase forwards, so Noel 'has had to sacrifice more than anybody’ at power forward, according to Brown.”
The Lakers have a similar, yet less dramatic, logjam in the backcourt, where Jordan Clarkson and Russell may or may not work out as a starting duo. (I’m optimistic.)
The Future Is Out There Somewhere
Beyond player development and all the decisions made by each team's current coaching staff, this summer is critical for both organizations. The Lakers are less steady as they go. It's unlikely Scott is the head coach at this time next year, and the team needs to land a top-three pick in the lottery, or it will wind up sending its pick to the Sixers.
The Sixers are stocked with assets, including a top-10 protected pick from the perennially dreadful Sacramento Kings in 2018. Philadelphia recently extended Brown's contract. It gets to keep its own lottery pick this summer, will likely own at least two others (not including the Lakers' pick) and should (hopefully) add a healthy Joel Embiid and an immigrating Dario Saric to the roster next season. These are legitimate talents, and one may be the perennial All-Star Philly is looking for.
Both teams have gobs of cap space, but the Lakers are far more desperate to immediately fill their max-contract slots, especially if the ping-pong balls don't go their way. They don't have enough tradable assets to compete with teams such as Philadelphia or the Boston Celtics, should a superstar become available.
Philadelphia is already trending up. Meanwhile, the Lakers are not trending at all, and it's unclear when/if things will turn around, if they can't get any free agents to bite this summer—a strategy that's failed miserably over the past couple of offseasons.