(Photo: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)
As the Los Angeles Lakers’ season makes it last few proverbial circles down the drain they find themselves focused on trying to find out what they have with their young core of talent that hopefully will one day lead this franchise back to the top of the standings.
At this current place in time the Lakers are far from the top with a record of 11-49 and only the abysmal 76ers keeping them from owning the title of the NBA’s worst team.
The Lakers future hinges on three prospects at the moment: Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and their 2015 number two overall pick D’Angelo Russell. So far their development is going well as they have improved as the season has progressed, albeit gradually, and more importantly have shown flashes of having the tools to become great.
While flashes are promising they are just small signs of what could-be, but not what will-be, so we haven’t seen enough of the higher end moments on a consistent basis to proclaim any of the three as can’t miss superstars.
Truth is that at the very minimum one of the current trio of Randle, Clarkson or Russell will have to turn into an elite, franchise shifting type player in order for the Lakers to return to championship contention; however, more likely the case, two of them will have to reach that superstar level.
One of the concerns with the trio is that two of them play essentially the same position of a lead guard and their skills might not mesh too well as a duo in the backcourt. While Russell and Clarkson are different type of players they both play best with the ball in their hands and have similar weaknesses on the defensive end.
Ideally a successful team will want a long, rangy and tough defender to take on the other teams’ best perimeter offensive player and that he also be a threat on the offensive end so he can make teams pay when doubling the team’s star. This same successful team would pair this defensive perimeter player with their dynamic do-it-all guard. A perfect example of this is the Golden State Warriors with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson or going back a few years with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
The Lakers hope that both Clarkson and Russell can turn into a formidable duo and dream that the reach the heights as the aforementioned but it is hard to see that coming to fruition based on what we have seen from the two thus far.
Neither Clarkson nor Russell project to be that type of a shut-down defender in the NBA and they are definitely not that now.
At 6’5 with slightly above average length Russell has the size for a prototypical All-NBA perimeter defender but lacks the athleticism, quickness and strength to guard his position at that level. His poor defense is exacerbated at the moment with the normal inexperience that comes with 1st year players. Russell routinely gets lost in rotations, easily screened off his man and is very slow to recover.
Clarkson has the quickness and athletic ability that Russell lacks but he lacks the ideal length. Clarkson is listed at 6’5 but his standing reach of 8 feet, 2 and wingspan of 6 foot, 8 inches are average. Clarkson too has not established himself as an even adequate defender and has many of the same flaws on defense that are related to inexperience as the case with Russell.
Surely the Lakers can complement the duo with a defensive minded small forward to fill this hole and both Clarkson and Russell can make strides on the defensive end as they work on both their game and bodies, but that still doesn’t solve the issue that’s present on the offensive side.
Clarkson is a little farther along with his offense game; he’s 2nd only to Kobe Bryant on the team in scoring at 15.6 points per game and has improved in almost every offensive statistical categories from his impressive rookie season that earned him a spot on the 1st team All-Rookie team. Russell isn’t too far behind and actually appears to have the higher ceiling between the two based on his skill set.
While both Clarkson and Russell are very good on the offensive end even at this stage and have varying styles on offense, their games do not complement each other.
Clarkson is an aggressive, attack the basket, think-shoot-first guard that can handle the ball and set up teammates adequately. Clarkson averaged 5.0 assists per game as a starting lead guard last season, although, setting up teammates is not his strength. While not a pure shooter by any stretch, Clarkson has been efficient with his outside shot; he currently posts an above average three point shooting percentage of 36.8 percent which leads the team.
Clarkson’s style requires that he have the ball in his hand and attack off the dribble in order to get the most out of his strength on the offensive end. This season Clarkson shoots 35.2 percent in catch-and-shoot situations which is much lower than his overall field goal percentage on the season of 44.8 percent.
Clarkson can play off the ball, operating as a slasher and shoots efficiently enough to be a stationary outlet in the perimeter, but this is not his strength and you lose quite a bit of what he brings by taking the ball out of his hands on a consistent basis.
While his numbers don’t quite reflect it yet, Russell has a sweet shooting touch, especially from the outside but is now beginning to show very quick improvement in his touch around the basket with floaters and using both hands to lay the ball around the rim. Because of his impressive outside shot you can use Russell off the ball as a catch-and-shoot weapon very effectively, finding open areas and playing off the attention that Clarkson creates with his attacking style, but like Clarkson you lose something by taking him off the ball. What really makes Russell special is that quick acting court vision and it is best put in use by having the ball in his hands.
That is the dilemma that the Lakers face with both Clarkson and Russell.
Anoint Clarkson as the lead guard with the lion’s share of the touches on the offense and have Russell play off the ball and you lose Russell’s amazing court vision that propelled him as the number two overall pick in the first place.
Hand the keys to the offense over to Russell and you dramatically drop Clarkson’s effectiveness as a scorer to the point that he might not bring enough in other areas of the game, such as defending or exceptional outside shooting to help space the floor, to justify a large role on the team.
The worst option would be to split the touches down the middle between the two because then you still lose a lot from both players and aren’t maximizing either’s talents.
We are far from making a determination as to which of the two deserves the larger role of lead guard and which one has to take a back seat. We can’t even say that the duo definitely can’t work well together.
However, based on the early assessment of the Clarkson-Russell trials the most likely scenario that I see playing out here is that the Lakers will let the talents of the two unfold over the next few seasons and they’ll wait to see which of the two rise to the top as the better talent. Once that determination is made I see the Lakers either moving the other to a reserve role or sending him off in a trade for a player that better complements the lead guard that was determined to be the better talent of the two.
Will it be Jordan Clarkson, D’Angelo Russell or is there some way it can be both? We haven’t even covered the scariest possibility of it being neither. The answer will be forthcoming in the immediate future of this very unfamiliar Lakers’ rebuilding project.