(Photo: Jae C. Hong/AP)
If you follow Lakers’ beat writers on any social media channel or listen to local sports talk radio in Los Angeles the message that has consistently been hammered down the throat of fans is that the Lakers developing the young talent is paramount this season and everything else needs to take a back seat including winning.
The Lakers are just 10 games into the season and that message of development over everything else has been getting louder and louder by the same group of pundits, especially immediately after every game where one of the young talents sits in crucial moments in favor of one of the veterans or if their minutes logged in on the night doesn’t reach a sufficient amount to satisfy this arbitrary number ideal for development.
Namely, it has been the lack of playing time of number 2 overall pick D’Angelo Russell that’s aggravated the development-at-all-cost camp.
Last night the Lakers’ pulled off what has been a rarity this season, a win. The Lakers beat the visiting Detroit Pistons 97-85 for just their second win of the season but instead of praise for the win a large segment of the local media brought criticism due to D’Angelo Russell only playing 21 minutes in the game and zero minutes in the crucial 4th quarter.
D’Angelo not getting time in the 4th quarter has been a theme for the season. Russell has sat out the 4th quarter in 4 of the Lakers’ 10 games this season and is averaging 5.3 minutes when he does play in the final quarter which is the lowest of the 5 starters.
Coach Byron Scott has opted to go with veteran Lou Williams, who leads the Lakers in 4th quarter scoring at 5.4 points per 4th quarter, over Russell in most games and usually closes the game out with some combination of Nick Young, Jordan Clarkson or Kobe Bryant in the 3 perimeter positions.
What is obvious for everyone is that Scott has more trust in the more established players and in moments where the game outcome is still up for grabs he opts to go to them to try to capture the win.
The audacity that a head coach of an NBA team who holds a multi-million dollar contract to win games actually makes moves that put his team in the best position to win, at least that is what the local media would like to make you think.
The reality is that Russell’s play so far this season has forced Scott’s hand who is not averse to playing the young core if they perform as both Randle and Clarkson have done that and as a result seen a good share of playing time including in the 4th quarter this season.
Russell is averaging 9.2 points and shooting 39.4 percent from the field in 24.5 minutes per game which are not horrible numbers but it’s his lack of aggression and inability to make play for others that has him sitting in favor of others. Russell pegged as a point guard out of the draft due to his stellar court vision and passing instincts has been incredibly disappointing so far in that regard.
Russell is averaging just 2.8 assists per game which ranks 4th on the team and 42nd in the NBA among starting guards. The ball does not stick with Russell as he does pass about 38.3 times per game, but those passes are not setting up teammates for baskets; only 7.3 percent of his passes are assists which is too low a number for a point guard.
A big part of the reason Russell’s assists numbers are low is he hasn’t been able or willing to get by defenders and suck in defenses by getting in the lane. Russell is averaging 1.7 drives in the lane per game which again is incredibly low for a guard that is suppose to create plays for others. To further the point of how low Russell’s drivers per game are fellow rookie Jahlil Okafor, a center that is more lumbering than spry, averages 1.9 drives per game and 37 year teammate Kobe Bryant who is constantly dealing with an aching back and legs averages 2.0 drives per game.
Surprisingly, Russell has received little heat for not performing and earning the playing time, it’s actually coming down almost exclusively on Coach Scott which is ludicrous considering he gets judged on how the team performs and him keeping his job will ultimately come down to wins and losses.
The real headscratcher here is that most stomping their feet in anger over Russell not playing enough wouldn’t disagree that he hasn’t played well or earned more playing time but feel he needs to get heavy burn anyway for the sake of his development even if it is at the expense of winning games.
A large percentage still care if Lakers win
While many feel wins are inconsequential for this team they are not, at least not yet. Yes, it is highly unlikely that the Lakers are able to dig themselves out of their 2 and 8 hole and make a realistic run at the playoffs we still have 72 games remaining and with only being 3 games back on the loss side from the 8th and final playoff spot, it is not out of the realm of possibility that a playoff berth is in their future this season.
At least for the sake of those heavily invested the Lakers should put forth an effort longer than 1/8 of the season before throwing in the towel. Those that still have fight in them and care about about winning include:
- The veteran players brought here to do more than just mentor the young players: Brandon Bass, Lou Williams, Roy Hibbert and Marcelo Huartes.
- Kobe Bryant who would like what is looking like his last season to not be another one registered in the Lakers’ record book for futility.
- Season-ticket holders who pay in the thousands for 41 regular season games and a few in the preseason. For those with seats in prime locations they must be retained or lose them after years of working to obtain their prime spot.
- Suite holders pay in the hundreds of thousands per season. Most are owned by large corporations who hand tickets out to clients or potential clients. A losing season devalues their investment greatly.
- Hardcore Lakers fans that spend a large portion of their income on supporting their team including attending a few games, purchasing memorabilia and paying for TV packages to view games at home.
- Sponsors who shelled out millions including Time Warner Cable who paid 3 billion for exclusive local broadcasting rights.
A player earning their time is actually an effective way to develop
Why do so many feel that the best and only proper way to develop talent is to throw them out there for 40 minutes per game regardless of how they perform on the court or help the team.
The Lakers have a long history of successfully developing players by being brought along slowly and having them earn their time by performing like Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum, Byron Scott and even number one overall pick James Worthy.
While I know the response to the above examples except for Bynum and Clarkson is that all of those teams were contenders and could afford to sit but the why you bring a player along slowly isn’t the argument, it’s what is the most effective way. As the examples in just the Lakers history shows a player can develop and reach their full potential by bringing them along slowly and having them earn their time on the court and in the pivotal 4th quarter versus just handing them playing time galore without them performing and earning it first. It is safe to say that nobody on the list above (outside of Clarkson and Russell) were robbed of reaching greater heights because they didn’t get sufficient playing time in their rookie year.
It’s not Byron’s fault
If you believe that development is key for the future success of the Lakers franchise and the young players’ time on the court must be maximized immediately at all cost, while I completely disagree with this notion, the blame of why this isn’t happening this season should not fall on coach Bryon Scott.
Scott as with all head coaching positions ultimately is judged on wins and losses unless there is clear directive otherwise from the head of the organization. Lakers management went out and signed veteran Brandon Bass and Lou Williams this off-season and traded for Roy Hibbert. These moves for veteran players are obviously not the sign of a organization that is entering full on rebuild mode and open to letting the kids play at the expense of winning.
Scott was given a roster filled with vets and he’s utilizing them to place the team in the best position to win as a head coach should do. While you can make a case that his coaching performance in terms of strategy and building an identify has been sub-par thus far, he can’t be criticized for valuing winning over development with the roster he’s been handed; that critique should be pointed at the front office that put this roster together.
As the losses pile up winning does become less important
At some point this season winning will become inconsequential if the Lakers keep losing at their current pace and having all the young prospects out there to sink or swim will be completely acceptable. Russell, Brown, Nance, Clarkson and maybe even some call ups from the D-Fenders if a roster spot opens up can be thrown out there to see what they can do. That time is not now, not 10 games into the season. Too many people heavily invested, both emotionally and monetarily, still care about this team, want to see them compete and have a glimmer a hope that this team can make the playoffs. There is plenty of time in this season to earmark solely for development and the young guys will not be any worse off earning their time while they wait.