The Los Angeles Lakers have outperformed low expectations in the early stages of the 2016-17 season, but there's still plenty of room for improvement, especially for specific players.
Part of head coach Luke Walton's methodology is spreading minutes liberally; This has helped to keep legs fresh but has also given fair opportunities to most of the roster. It is also a good way to identify those who are excelling or can do much better.
Walton recently spoke with USA Today's Sam Amick about the measured ways in which he's evaluating the team: "We're all about what is in front of us. We're taking the season, breaking it down to five-game blocks, seeing where improvement is happening, seeing where we're not improving, trying to play to a certain standard, and that's it for now."
With 11 games under their belts, the Lakers have just passed the second block. And indeed, a pattern is beginning to emerge: There are certain players who need to step it up in order for the team to stay in the Western Conference playoff hunt as the schedule gets tougher.
Luol Deng has a long and well-deserved reputation for veteran leadership and on-court versatility. But either his actual basketball skills are in decline, or he just hasn't hit his stride yet.
The 31-year-old has started every game so far this season, but some key stats are way down. Deng is playing 24.3 minutes per game, which is the fewest of his career (though that's by Walton's design), and scoring 6.3 points—less than half his career average. His field-goal percentage has dropped precipitously, and his trips to the charity stripe are barely registering a heartbeat.
This is not the kind of productivity you want from a guy with a four-year, $72 million contract.
|Luol Deng's Declining Stats|
On the other hand, Deng is L.A.'s second-best rebounder behind Julius Randle, and he's limiting his fouls and turnovers this season—problems that have plagued the team in general.
But as Bleacher Report's Eric Pincus noted, Walton isn't using Deng and fellow veteran starter Timofey Mozgov to close out games.
"That's the coach's decision," Deng said. "That's not for me to think about or go over. I mean, that's why he's the head coach. They have to make that decision."
The Lakers can live with Deng's reduced athleticism, but they at least need him to start finding his three-point range again. That, however, will require teammates setting up Deng with more catch-and-shoot opportunities, as his playmaking skills seem to be on the wane.
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The Lakers also dipped deep into the bank this summer for Mozgov—a hulking 7'1" center whose game was in sharp decline with the Cleveland Cavaliers last season due to recurring knee pain.
The L.A. front office, perhaps sensing that top free agents would not be biting, quickly scooped up the seven-year journeyman for four years and $64 million. Now that the Lakers are showing an unexpectedly rapid reboot under Walton, there may be other bigs who regret playing hard to get.
But Mozgov is L.A.'s starting center for the foreseeable future. And while he's filling his role adequately with a modest increase in production from last year, he's not exactly paying huge dividends.
As Bill Oram of the Orange County Register wrote, Mozgov has "mostly just been along for the ride" this season. But the 275-pounder seems to think it's too early to cast such aspersions.
"It's a long season," Mozgov said of the situation. "Things can change. It's a long season. ... This is a young team, it's a new team, we're still trying to find each other."
For his size, Mozgov moves up and down the court fairly well in limited minutes. But he is clearly a leviathan who belongs to a different era—a time when sheer size and inhabiting the paint commanded top dollar.
The Lakers are still running some pretty basic sets at this point. Walton will continue to introduce new offensive options, and putting Mozgov into easy, close-range scoring opportunities should be part of that. It would also be nice to see the big Russian step out more for mid-range jumpers, as he has a surprisingly nice touch on the ball.
It's not surprising that Tarik Black's nickname is Boom Boom, which is tatted right across his knuckles. The Lakers' primary backup center plays with loads of energy and has a knack for screening hard and rolling to the rim for authoritative dunks.
His listed size of 6'9" may be generous, but Black plays like a pit bull in the paint, gamely matching up with much bigger players.
But while Black's size and high motor would seem well-suited for small-ball rotations, his offensive game is extremely limited—fewer than 10 percent of his shot attempts come from beyond 10 feet out.
The Lakers compensate for these limitations by moving Randle over to the 5 when extra scoring is needed in small lineups. But the result is that Black is averaging just 14.2 minutes per game.
There's also the issue of spotty rim protection. For a guy with good rebounding instincts and decent leaping ability, Black should be able to reject more shot attempts than his current 0.5 blocks per game. His steals are also barely existent at 0.2 per outing.
The Lakers decided to pony up for Black this summer, handing the 24-year-old a respectable two-year, $12,846,325 contract. It was a vote of confidence after being largely shut out of the rotation last season by former head coach Byron Scott.
But Black needs to evolve his game in order to become more than a short-minutes role player. He won't turn into a shooter during a season that's already in progress, but he can certainly work on swatting more shots and disrupting passing lanes.