At some point, we might have to start wondering if the Los Angeles Lakers are playing the NBA’s sneakiest game of possum.
The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference strikes up again this weekend, a gathering that the Lakers infamously skipped in 2013. Between a few published reports decrying the team’s prevailing sense of apathy toward advanced statistics, coach Byron Scott’s proud parroting of acting “old school” as opposed to acting a “capable coach,” Kobe Bryant’s understandable interest in promoting anything but the team that is paying him $23.5 million this year, and a possible disconnect between Bryant and general manager Mitch Kupchak, we seem to have quite a bit of turmoil surrounding a team with the fourth-worst record in the NBA.
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Adding to that turmoil is the recent trade that sent a future Lakers draft pick to the Philadelphia 76ers, a reminder of the 2012 deal for Steve Nash that could deny the Lakers a chance at a franchise-helping lottery talent if the team falls out of the top five in the draft this year, or the top three in either 2016 or 2017. The Lakers will have salary cap space this summer, but even Kobe seems more than aware that even with maximum contract space available, they may not be able to compete against teams for star free agents.
“But the facts are facts. The salary cap is the salary cap. Players aren't going to leave millions and millions of dollars on the table twice to come here and play. It's just not realistic. Wanting LeBron (James) to come here and take a massive pay cut again (last summer), after taking a big one to go to Miami, is not realistic. Melo (Carmelo Anthony) leaving $15-20 (million) on the table to come here is not realistic. So we have certain restrictions, but we'll figure it out.”
You’ll recall that this somewhat flies in the face of what Kobe told Chuck Klosterman at GQ earlier in 2015:
The Lakers are not going to make the playoffs this year, and it seems unlikely that they will challenge for a title next year. So if titles are your only goal, why even play these last two seasons?
I know what Mitch [Kupchak, the Lakers GM] tells me. I know what Jim and Jeanie [Buss, the team owners] tell me. I know that they are hell-bent about having a championship caliber team next season, as am I.
Despite Bryant making a league-leading $25 million next season, the Lakers will have enough cap space to offer another superstar a maximum contract. League rules make it far more financially beneficial for players to sign contracts with their incumbent teams, as Kobe mentioned when discussing Anthony. The Lakers’ terrible record and Bryant’s endless injury woes will also make it all the more unlikely that star players would want to leave championship contenders in Portland, Memphis and Cleveland to come to the team in Kobe’s last year. The turnaround isn’t happening this summer.
Under these circumstances, most teams would turn to attempting to secure unheralded prospects to work with in hopes that they could find a diamond in the rough that would stick in a future rotation. After being shut out of the free-agent market last summer, however, the Lakers went searching for the familiar.
They signed Jordan Hill to a whopping $9 million contract (with a team option for next season). They dealt for the famous Jeremy Lin, earning a first-round pick along the way. They brought back the famous-in-his-own-mind Nick Young, and bid for the services of Carlos Boozer, a former All-Star who lives in Los Angeles and just happens to share the same agent as Bryant.
As a result, the Lakers have played terrible basketball this season. The team is last in the NBA defensively, a carryover from Scott’s miserable tenure on that end in his time in Cleveland, and you get the feeling that this offense-heavy outfit has underachieved on the scoring side of the ball as well. Bryant’s season-ending shoulder injury certainly hasn’t helped, but at times Bryant acted as a millstone early in the season with his massive usage rate and wild shot selection.
Lacking teams usually caught in this situation tend to go for broke, taking chances in transition while attempting to get to the line and taking copious amounts of 3-pointers. Infamously, the Lakers take more midrange shots than all but two other NBA teams (and that ranking is rather fluid), another carryover from Scott’s stated preseason preference.
This is why the vultures are circling, calling the entire Laker organization a lumbering troglodyte of a basketball crew, stuck in the past while hoarding the significant financial resources that could move them a step ahead of teams in smaller markets.
Kevin Pelton, at ESPN, discussed the Lakers approach to advanced statistics, while referring to the team as “non-believers” in that realm:
Former Lakers head coach Rudy Tomjanovich and his son, Trey, have been providing basic statistical analysis to the front office for years, but it's only recently that the Lakers have invested in an analytics department. GM Mitch Kupchak told ESPN.com that SportVU data has "changed this whole business" and that he has brought aboard a group of four employees to interpret the data.
But the Lakers were slow to embrace SportVU data, not being willing to pay for the cameras before the NBA stepped up and installed them in every arena. And while Kupchak indicated most SportVU analysis is directed toward the coaching staff, with assistant coach Mark Madsen as a conduit, it's hard to find any evidence of Byron Scott putting those insights in play on the court.
Consider that: Los Angeles is making endless gobs of television and in-arena revenue from devoted Laker fans who still obsess over the team that has given them so much, and instead of doing something for the fans that have given them so much, the Lakers didn’t even bother to install SportVU cameras until the NBA had to buy it for them.
In talking with ESPN’s Baxter Holmes, Kupchak claimed that initial versions of the SportVU cameras (which many other teams purchased and fawned over) weren’t complete, and that spending money on the cameras would have been “a waste of resources.”
In the same piece, however, he giddily points out that his “passion for analytics has grown” because of these same cameras, with the only apparent difference being that SportVU setups are now more “complete” than they were a few years ago, and that oh yeah by the way the NBA is paying for them now.
If your brow is currently furrowed, that’s just fine.
It’s entirely possible, plausible even, that Kupchak is again falling on the on-record sword for the Buss family. The same ownership group that fired all manner of scouts and personnel during the NBA’s 2011 lockout to save money just months after signing that $3 billion TV deal. Kupchak, who now employs six people whose job it is just to dissect the SportVU findings, can’t possibly be taken seriously when he swears that he really didn’t want any new information about how his players were working on the court in the years prior to the NBA stepping up to foot the bill for these suddenly “complete” cameras.
In Holmes’ feature, former Laker and Stanford grad Mark Madsen is credited as acting as the liaison between the franchise’s analytics department and the team’s coaching staff. Madsen’s breakdown of how, exactly, he uses the new information is borderline incomprehensible and more than a little embarrassing for all involved:
The Lakers didn't appear to have clear answers when asked if they could point to specific ways in which analytics have affected team decision-making, eventually offering the following Madsen quote but declining to comment further:
"Analytics has to be simple. If Byron tells the team that another team's center has attempted a single shot outside the paint in two years, this helps us plan strategy. If we notice that an opposing wing scored 150 points on catch and shoot and 25 points on his dribble pull-up, then that can be brought to Byron to consider. Or if a post guy has only scored six points going right shoulder in two years on terrible percentage and 40 going the other way, which way do you want to force him? Some people say analytics is garbage. I say that's wrong. Even if you can prevent two points in a game and you win, and that game gets you into the eighth spot, then it's worth it. Players say, 'We all know each other's tendencies.' But do we really? Do you know the rookies' tendencies perfectly? Do you know the Eastern Conference players? Do you know the Euro guys who just came over? And the preparation part is one branch of the whole analytics movement. So is there any value? I think there is."
These sorts of findings can be culled from very, very basic stat-hounding and scouting, and they’re miles and miles away from what teams with even a middling interest in advanced statistics are showing their coaches.
"I think we've got a few guys who truly believe in it -- I'm not one of them, but I listen to it and all that stuff."
Scott said he receives analytics reports on a weekly basis.
"It sits on my desk and I look at it for a little while," he said. "Then I take it to Mark Madsen and we'll talk about it for a minute, and then I say 'OK,' and I take it from there."
Scott was then asked if those meetings have resulted in any major changes this season.
Faced with the varying reports, Scott doubled down on his stance in a discussion with Bill Oram of the Orange County Register:
“I listen to them and all that stuff and take it into consideration,” he said, “but I’m still just old school.”
Your old school is trying to keep a Minnesota Timberwolves team full of young men who would typically be in school at their ages from moving past you in the standings, Byron. Your school thinks Columbus discovered America, and that King George III was misunderstood.
(This is also the part where we remind you that the dynastic Laker teams that Scott played for in the 1980s routinely finished with the top seven in 3-pointers attempted, a pair of times they ranked second overall, and that Scott also typically ranked in the top ten in 3-point attempts, once leading the NBA in 3-point percentage.)
Here comes the possum.
It’s very much possible that Kupchak, after waiting out the Buss resistance to SportVU, is actually assembling a solid staff. Forget the nonsense about Jim Buss ever stepping aside, that’s not going to happen, but he might not need to. Bryant will return under Scott next season, and the Lakers will likely play poorly. They will either lose out on a lottery pick this year or next to Philadelphia, and the team’s first season without Bryant in 2016-17 will also not go well.
By that time, however, the team will have at least two lottery picks in either the 2015 or 2016 selection, and Julius Randle at their disposal. The team will have properly scouted talent and bashed about with advanced analytics. By that time, Scott will be in the final guaranteed year of his coaching contract, and Kupchak could decline to pick up the fourth year in what is a team option following a fitful year. Scott could then be kicked upstairs, maybe to work with his son as Rudy Tomjanovich gets to do, as a Laker Consultant for Life.
Then the Lakers could head into 2017-18 with assets, cap space, several good young players, and a new coach who doesn’t fancy himself as a throwback to the 1980s (even though we’ve already mentioned that Scott is really just throwing back to the 1970s). All after years of hoarding money.
Or, Kupchak and the Lakers truly are way behind the times, and both the ownership and front office truly think that a team put together with 2016 free agents – working under Byron Scott – is destined for glory.
A possum, or a skunk? I can’t tell.
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