Friday, January 3, 2020

Stop Voting Tacko Fall for NBA All-Star

Tacko Fall does not deserve to play in the All-Star Game. He probably does not even want your votes.

If he does want your votes, then by all means, vote for him. It would obviously be fun to watch Tacko hammer down alley-oops and standing dunks alongside NBA elites in a defense-less game.

But my guess is that Fall would rather play in the Rising Stars game with his fellow rookies and let the more deserving players take the big stage.

Guys like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who are vying for their first All-Star appearances, belong in that game. It would be a huge achievement for Boston’s rising stars.

But that experience and accomplishment would be cheapened and overshadowed if there are players on the roster who do not belong there.

It is also demeaning to Fall, a rookie who hopes to eventually crack the Celtics rotation.

Fall has played less than 12 total minutes this season and is fighting back against the hindering narrative that his Senegalese nationality and 7’5 frame make him a gimmicky big man.

That unfortunate narrative has become a major obstacle for Fall, who went undrafted in 2019 despite his obvious sky-high potential.

Voting Fall for All-Star feeds that negative narrative. It does not give him positive recognition.

The Celtics are surging (12-4 last 16 games) and their wins often end with fans chanting for Tacko. Celtics players and fans alike have demonstrated intense support for him.

Even the unflappable Brad Stevens could be seen embracing Tacko Mania when he urged Boston fans to chant louder for Fall if they wanted to see him play.

But Stevens upset some fans on Friday when he admitted he was not a big fan of the 110,269 All-Star votes his reserve center had received.

Coach Stevens was understandably hesitant to support the possibility of players receiving accolades such as All-Star status based on non-basketball factors.

Votes for Fall could displace deserving players, like Bam Adebayo, who is having a breakout year in Miami.

For fringe All-Stars like Adebayo, Tatum, and Brown, making the team could completely transform their career trajectories. It can change their lives.

Boisterous social media support for Zaza Pachulia nearly got him named as an All-Star starter in 2016. Pachulia averaged 8.6 points per game for the Dallas Mavericks that year.

Following that season, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver changed the voting process for All-Star starters to a weighted system which included media and player votes to balance out fans who vote recklessly.

The current situation is arguably worse because Fall is not a longtime veteran receiving ironic or sympathetic votes. He is a hard-working rookie with his entire career in front of him.

Fall wants to improve his game to become a legitimate All-Star someday. Give him time and the opportunity to earn his rightful place amongst NBA elites instead of fueling a dangerous narrative with meaningless undeserved votes.

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Starting Smart for Hustle and Heart

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Marcus Smart is one of Boston's most polarizing athletes.

As one of the NBA's fiercest backcourt defenders, “The Cobra” relentlessly harasses opposing ball handlers and capably defends four (sometimes all five) positions utilizing physicality, high energy, and sheer determination.

But with career averages of just 9.2 points per game on 36% shooting, the 6'4" combo guard notoriously struggled with shot selection through his first four NBA seasons.

Regardless, Smart's pedestrian scoring numbers were rightfully overlooked by Danny Ainge when the Celtics inked him to a four-year, $52 million deal in July.

Brad Stevens has now doubled down on the organization’s investment in the tenacious defender by inserting Smart into his starting unit.

The benefits have been crystal clear.

After starting the season 10-10, the Celtics have surged to three straight wins with Smart starting, outscoring their opponents 370-311 during the streak.

This average scoring margin (123.3 - 103.7) is significantly better than the average margin (106.3 - 104.2) over their first 20 games with Smart coming off the bench.

More importantly, the entire team is playing with increased focus and consistent aggression. All four accompanying Celtics starters have scored in double-digits in each of Smart’s starts.

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Smart exhibits a strong rapport with All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, frequently facilitating quality looks while alleviating some of Irving’s point guard duties.

Irving and Horford both rank in the NBA's top-20 in catch-and-shoot field goals this season, converting more than two per game as of December 4.

The career-high catch-and-shoot numbers for Irving have also come on 45.7% shooting, whereas last season he converted 1.5 catch-and-shoot field goals per game at a 41.5% clip.

Many of Smart’s contributions don't show up in the box score, but he consistently makes a positive impact in important situations.

Seven of Boston’s nine best five-man lineups feature Smart, per Basketball Reference.

Furthermore, his average plus/minus as a starter (+15.3) is significantly better than off the bench (+0.3).

His field goal percentage improves to .526 as a starter (.462 from 3PT range) versus .375 off the bench (.306 from 3PT range).

And he averages 5.0 assists and 2.7 steals per game as a starter compared to 3.9 assists and 1.3 steals off the bench.

Perhaps most impressive, his turnover numbers as a starter have dropped to 0.3 per game versus 1.6 off the bench, despite playing more minutes when he starts.

Smart could soon return to the second unit to accommodate the elite offensive potential of Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward.

Brown missed the last three games with back spasms, so Smart's role will continue to fluctuate.

Stevens has been hesitant to name Smart a full-time starter, pointing out to reporters:
"The problem with starting Marcus Smart is you can’t bring his energy off the bench. He’s a valuable guy in both of those areas for the same reason."
Smart is arguably best suited for a sixth man role with the Celtics because his two-way versatility and explosive playmaking ability allow him to impact games immediately upon checking into any situation.

Additionally, Hayward and Brown are simply too talented not to start. They will displace Smart as soon as they prove to Stevens that they can open games with comparable intensity.

Hayward has struggled to regain his footing after last year’s horrific ankle injury, but he impressed the basketball world on Saturday night with one of the best statistical performances in NBA history for a player off the bench.

Hayward’s 30-9-8 outburst reportedly came on the heels of a scuffle with Smart during practice when physical defense and several hard fouls resulted in a red-faced Hayward becoming enraged.

But instead of losing his composure, Hayward responded to Smart's ferocity by using his own strength and size to throw down some of his most thunderous dunks since the injury.

As Marcus Morris told reporters,
"Any time Smartie gets tangled up with somebody, it's good. I've been waiting to see that side of (Hayward) for a little bit now."
When one of the NBA’s most aggressive players dives for loose balls and causes chaos for opponents from the opening possession, it sets the tone and pace for the entire game.

It is no surprise the Celtics look better with Smart playing more minutes because he pushes his teammates to become great.

The Big Three led the way to Boston’s 17th championship in 2008, but anybody who followed the team knows that Tony Allen’s defense was a foundational element of its success.

Smart is in a similar situation this year. Eventually, he will be relegated back to the bench in favor of elite talent.

But no player represents the heart and driving force of a city’s collective basketball identity more than Smart does in Boston.

Playing with a massive chip on his shoulder, Smart does anything it takes to help his Celtics win.

Someday soon, that fiery mentality may prove instrumental in bringing home Banner 18.

Monday, November 12, 2018

A Melo Dynasty in China Could Save Carmelo Anthony’s Legacy

AP Photo/NBC Sports

Carmelo Anthony is one of the most polarizing players in recent NBA history. Most fans either love him or hate him.

Regardless of opinion, Melo is undeniably one of the greatest scorers of all-time and a future Hall of Famer.

As of his 10th and final game in Houston (according to his Rockets teammates), the 34-year-old Anthony currently ranks 19th in all-time NBA scoring with 25, 551 points.

His career averages, compiled over the course of 15+ years, stand at 24 points per game and .449 FG%.

Melo is also a 10-time All-Star, the 2013 NBA scoring champ, and the beloved star of Syracuse’s 2003 NCAA championship squad.

His greatest professional basketball achievements arguably came on the international stage when he represented the United States in the Olympics. Anthony is the U.S. men’s national basketball team’s all-time leader in points, rebounds and games played as well as the recipient of three gold medals and one bronze.

But aside from these flashy accolades, Anthony has never achieved much success in the NBA postseason.

His only Conference Finals appearance was in 2009 with Denver, meaning each of the other 10 teams he took to the playoffs suffered first or second round eliminations. His career playoff record is 25-47, per StatMuse.

Bob Levey/Getty Images
Basketball traditionalists would tell you this is no coincidence. Melo notoriously lacks one of the foundational qualities of any great player – consistent defensive effort.

Over the years, Anthony has used high scoring numbers to cover up his overall lackluster energy and unwillingness to use his size, strength and athleticism on the defensive end.

At 6’8’’, Melo expertly uses his body and strength to create quality scoring looks. But on defense, he walks around flat-footed, plays with minimal physicality, and forces teammates to exert extra effort to cover his slack.

If the best players lead by example, then the aging Anthony brings little to the table. That’s why Houston is reportedly ready to move on just two months into the season.

Even though he is playing worse than ever before, this will not be the first time Melo has left a team on unfavorable terms.

Anthony spent nearly eight roller coaster years in Denver before forcing his way out by demanding a blockbuster trade that sent to him to his hometown New York City. The ugly situation involving the Nuggets and Knicks became known as “Melo-drama” in the media.

In New York, Anthony ran Mike D’Antoni, his current head coach in Houston, out of town by threatening to leave the Knicks if they kept D’Antoni as their coach. This pressure forced D’Antoni to resign.

Furthermore, Melo’s incessant complaining, unwillingness to share the scoring load, and unreliable effort derailed teammate Amar'e Stoudemire’s MVP campaign in the 2011-12 NBA season and halted Jeremy Lin’s rise to stardom.

The Knicks became exciting when Stoudemire emerged as a MVP frontrunner and “Linsanity” captured the Association by storm. But instead of embracing the idea of three dynamic scoring options, Melo took personal offense to Lin’s success and purposely chose not to share the ball with his talented teammates.

Failing to acclimate to the talent around him is arguably Anthony’s greatest professional failure.

AP Photo/Bill Kostroun
Last season in Oklahoma City, Melo posted career-low numbers while the star-studded Thunder achieved moderate regular season success.

In the playoffs, Anthony’s numbers predictably further plummeted as soon as he was matched against opponents exerting maximum energy every game. Over his six postseason games, Melo averaged just 11.8 points and shot an abysmal 21.4% from three-point range.

OKC then traded Anthony to Atlanta in the offseason after Melo scoffed at the idea of embracing a sixth man role for the Thunder.

In Atlanta, he was bought out within five days and paid $25.5 million to leave the organization without playing a single game.

The Hawks did not want their young malleable players, such as Trae Young, to develop near Anthony’s influence. One month later, Atlanta signed the 41-year-old Vince Carter, a known mentor, to help with Young’s development.

Finally, in Houston, Melo lasted just 10 games. That’s it – before the organization was ready to cut the cord and admit that his horrendous defense is inadmissible at the NBA level.

As described by Matt Ellentuck,
"The Rockets’ losses have been ugly, but no player is responsible for a worse points discrepancy than Melo. In 294 minutes with Melo on the floor, the Rockets have been outscored by 63 points. The Rockets have outscored other teams by seven points in the 282 minutes he’s sat on the bench. 
That tallies up to Houston being 11.1 points per 100 possessions better without Melo on the court (1.9 on offense and a whopping 10.1 on defense.) That’s more than enough to separate wins from losses."
Bad defense is infectious. The Nuggets, Knicks, Thunder and Rockets have all learned the hard way and it is becoming decreasingly likely that Anthony will ever play significant NBA minutes again.

Older veteran players like Carter remain effective through the late stages of their careers, despite any physical decline, by actively embracing leadership, hard work, and defense as their best qualities.

Unfortunately for Melo, those are several of his greatest weaknesses.

Melo’s talent is irrelevant to his future because his downfall is associated with his selfish attitude and personal decision to play minimal defense. It is as simple as that.

Still, several players have come to Anthony’s defense in the belief he is being scapegoated.

With so much controversy and disgruntlement surrounding a player’s decline, another misunderstood former Knicks’ star who hails from Brooklyn comes to mind.

Similar to Anthony, Stephon Marbury was a NBA All-Star ousted from the NBA because of behavioral issues before he was ready to leave.

Marbury had never considered playing internationally. But once the Beijing Fly Dragons of the Chinese Basketball Association offered him a chance to become the face of their organization, things clicked into place for Marbury.

Prior to playing in the CBA, Marbury had been so emotionally affected by his career downfall, struggling business endeavors, and media criticism that he contemplated suicide, unable to cope with the notion of his basketball career ending prematurely.

It must have been surreal for Marbury when his plane landed in China and he saw thousands of cheering fans “going crazy” at the airport. After that, the once-despondent Marbury transformed and flourished.

He became humbler. He formed lasting friendships despite language barriers. He embraced and respected another country’s culture. He became the league MVP.

Now retired, Marbury has cemented his professional basketball legacy by becoming a national icon and three-time champion in his own right, doing things his own way while not worrying about media criticisms. As written by Barbara Barker,
"He is so popular in Beijing that he has been featured on a postage stamp, has his own statue in the city and his own museum just a few blocks away from Tiananmen Square. 
A theater company made a musical of his life called 'I Am Marbury' in 2014, and he played the starring role. He recently won Best New Actors honors at the Shanghai Film Festival for his bio-pic, 'My Other Home,' about moving to China. 
'I never could have imagined my life would go like this,' Marbury said before speaking to a group of freshmen at NYU. 'It’s unbelievable, but it’s my story.'"
Li Linlin/Sports Illustrated China/Getty Images
From depressing downfall to hailed hero, Marbury found legitimate success and happiness in the CBA. Not to mention, his Starbury sneaker brand is more successful than ever.

For Melo, similar crossroads are approaching.

Only the Warriors can salvage Anthony’s crumbling NBA career. Golden State’s guaranteed postseason success would override the poor individual defense of any singular player.

But aside from the Warriors, Melo can never attain true postseason success as one of the top ten players on a NBA team. Again – top ten players, not top ten scorers.

So, when international teams reach out, eager to pay Anthony millions to represent their cities, don’t be surprised if he accepts.

It might be the smartest move for a falling star who is only hurting his legacy and career averages by sticking around and playing poorly.

Take a close look at the greatest achievements of Anthony’s career: National champion at Syracuse. Olympic scoring machine. All-Star appearances for mediocre NBA teams.

Each of these situations allowed Anthony to thrive as the big fish in a small pond, focusing purely on scoring, his greatest asset.

But in competitive games against elite NBA teams, Melo’s defense is always exploited and he damages his team’s chances of winning, no matter how many points he scores.

Signing for a team abroad would give Melo the opportunity to singlehandedly ignite a city’s fan base, something he can no longer do in the NBA.

Chinese basketball fans are hungry for elite talent and Anthony, like Marbury, could become a legend. His scoring talents would be greatly revered and he’d even compete adequately on defense just for his size and strength.

A big fan base with a small pool of elite talent – I can’t think of a better place for Melo to prosper and still play plenty of minutes.

Marbury found peace and happiness playing in Beijing. He also became a better teammate and person, as well as a champion and a national icon.

Marbury believes Chinese basketball saved his life and his CBA accomplishments may even help his strong case for the Hall of Fame.

Meanwhile, Melo is likely a Hall of Famer regardless of his next move. But it is worth noting that Beijing is where Anthony won his first gold medal in 2008.

It is already a city he will never forget.

Maybe that’s not a bad place to forge a new legacy.

Nick Laham/Getty Images AsiaPac

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Boston Remembers

Maybe it wasn’t a big deal.

When Jamal Murray launched a last-second three-pointer instead of dribbling out the clock on Tuesday night, perhaps he didn’t even realize he would offend anyone.

Murray was caught up in the moment after playing the game of his life against the top-ranked defense in the NBA, singlehandedly willing his Denver Nuggets to victory over the Celtics with a career-high 48 points.

The only thing that could make the moment sweeter in Murray’s eyes was crossing the 50-point threshold for the first time.

So, with Denver leading by eight in the final seconds, Murray slowly dribbled past half-court and Boston’s defense yielded. He casually let the clock tick down to the final two seconds, then quickly glanced at Jaylen Brown and bricked a long three-point attempt.

Only Murray knows if his actions were intended to show disrespect to the opposition. But here’s the thing: Boston remembers these kinds of transgressions.

After the final shot, players on both teams engaged in a brief scuffle and Kyrie Irving launched the game ball several hundred feet into the stands.

That outburst resulted in a $25,000 fine for Irving’s fiery response to what he referred to as a “bullshit move” by Murray. Irving later said the penalty did not affect his stance on the ordeal.
"From a competition and competitive standpoint, I think (the ball) absolutely deserved to go in the stands still… You just don't play basketball like that…. You just don't. 
There's a tradition and a respect within the league, as well as in any basketball game. Obviously you've won the game, you have it sealed, you've had a great game, game of your life, and you do something like that… it's petty. It's immature… We'll see him again though."
Predictably, Murray told reporters after the game that he had intended no ill will.
"I think my emotions took over… No disrespect to the Boston organization and fans with that shot -- I just had in my mind that I was going to go 50, and I think everybody kind of understood that was what I was trying to do. I really wasn't meaning no disrespect... I know half the team over there, so no hard feelings."
But regardless of intentions, any sensible basketball player, coach, or fan who has been around the NBA for years should understand basic longstanding unwritten rules.

Irving believes that Murray knew the gravity of his actions. As a proven champion, Irving felt the unmistakable twinge of disrespect when the Celtics’ defense surrendered and Murray bid to pad his stats.
“He knew. He knew… In any game, it's just a respect for your opponent, and I felt disrespected after the game. So, your career-high ball goes in the stands."
Basketball is a brotherhood and Murray acted up while exhibiting selfish immaturity. Irving simply wanted him to play with the same sense of honor and respect that all great NBA players should demonstrate.

Denver Post/Getty Images
When the Nuggets come to Boston for their rematch on March 18, it will not just be another regular season game.

Physicality and a playoff environment should favor Irving and the Celtics as they will focus on wearing down Murray by exposing his mediocre defensive skills through a relentless pick-and-roll attack.

Furthermore, he will learn firsthand just how important tradition is to the city of Boston when 18,000 screaming fans tell him exactly how they feel about his disrespectful actions towards their team.

This incident could also energize the Celtics to play harder moving forward, which would be scary for their opponents because Boston already owns the top-ranked defense.

Nevertheless, Denver’s rising star will keep improving and whatever relationships he had with Boston’s players will continue to endure. Guys on both teams will talk and laugh with one another during All-Star Weekend in February.

But because of Murray’s arrogant last-second brick, nobody in the TD Garden, especially the Celtics, will fear the player who dropped 48 points on them back in November.

Instead, he is just the newest enemy of one of the Association’s greatest franchises. If he later develops into a superstar, perhaps that wrinkle will even embolden his legacy.

So for now, Boston and the Celtics will move on and wait to get their revenge when they will remind Murray not to mess with tradition, especially one as important as sportsmanship.

48 points against an elite defense is truly remarkable. But it doesn’t give a player the right to throw sportsmanship right out the window.

Basketball should be better than that.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Celtics Hit Franchise-Record 24 Threes

The Milwaukee Bucks may lead the NBA in three-point shooting (14.5 3PM/game), but the Celtics beat them at their own game in a 117-113 victory last night.

Boston drilled a franchise-record 24 triples to go along with a franchise-record 55 (43.6%) attempts. Their previous record had been just 19.

Kyrie Irving was the facilitator and driving force of the offense, registering 28 points and seven assists in his best game of the young season.

NBA Getty Images
The Celtics fell just one three-pointer shy of Cleveland's all-time record (25) as Brad Stevens exploited Milwaukee’s lackluster perimeter defense and refusal to defend Boston’s bigs on pick-and-pop plays.

Stevens, who unearths and attacks opponents’ weakest defenders, took advantage of the slow-footed Brook Lopez last night.

Al Horford (6’10”) and Marcus Morris (6’9”) collectively scored 35 points and converted 9-19 shots from beyond the arc, making Milwaukee's biggest offseason acquisition into nothing more than a defensive liability.

Lopez finished with just two points in 23 minutes while his notoriously weak rebounding and ineffective shot-blocking abilities noticeably hurt the Bucks' defense whenever Irving penetrated inside and found Horford wide open on the perimeter.

Boston's relentless pick-and-roll offense exposed Milwaukee's poor defensive switchability as Lopez awkwardly lumbered around and failed to protect the three-point line. As Irving told reporters after the game,
“Al is a capable shooter that I have the utmost confidence in. I feel like if they’re going to play that type of defense we should just shoot it every time. At one point, I think Brook (Lopez) and John Henson were in the paint... I hope we shoot 80 next game if they play defense like that.”
The Celtics improved to 6-2 as Mike Budenholzer’s Bucks (7-1) suffered their first loss of the season. Stevens, like Irving, was confident about his team’s 55 three-point attempts.
"Since the second half of the OKC game, we've played pretty good offensively... We've gotten good shots. We've generated good ones. Tonight, we didn't settle as much. We still had some possessions we'd like to have back, but I thought that we took what the defense gave us."
Irving and Gordon Hayward both looked terrific as they continue recovering from last season’s injuries. Irving is nearly back to form, utilizing elite quickness and incredible ball handling skills to break down defenses.

Hayward still looks uncomfortable at times, but he’s improving every game and last night contributed season-highs of 18 points and five assists.
What makes the win even more impressive is that the Celtics were without Jaylen Brown, one of their best defenders. Semi Ojeleye stepped up with 10 points, five rebounds, two steals and all-around terrific defense in his first start of the season.

Meanwhile, Morris has scored 118 points off the bench through eight games, which is the highest scoring output of any Celtics’ bench player since Dino Radja in the 1993-94 season.

Last night’s win was huge for Boston’s confidence as the team grows more comfortable playing alongside one another.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was easily the best player on the court, but the “Greek Freak” and his undefeated Bucks were exposed and outplayed by a team that was ultimately without one of their best players in Brown.

The Celtics have rolled to four straight wins since they started having fun in the second half in OKC. So while the Bucks and Toronto Raptors each have just one loss under their new head coaches, look for the Celtics and their #1 ranked defense to surge to the top of the Eastern Conference standings in November.

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Friday, October 26, 2018

All It Took Was Some Fun

The Celtics stormed back from a 16-point halftime deficit against the Thunder last night in a 101-95 victory.

Boston closed the game on a commanding 16-1 run. They also poured in 40 points in the third quarter after scoring just 34 in the entire first half.

Something clearly sparked a change during halftime. Who would have guessed that the adjustment was something as simple as remembering to have fun?

The Canadian Press
As Jayson Tatum told reporters after the game, “Nobody was smiling. Nobody was having fun. And that was the difference in the second half.”

He also said Brad Stevens told the Celtics they were playing well and just needed to loosen up.

Many coaches might not react that composedly to a team that missed all eleven three-point attempts in the first half while exhibiting frustrated body language and overall lack of confidence.

But their struggles gave way to renewed energy and big smiles at the start of the third quarter when the Celtics caught fire and knocked down nine three pointers in less than ten minutes.

Overall, Boston outscored Oklahoma City 67-45 in the second half. Marcus Morris played a critical role off the bench with 21 points and 10 rebounds. He also led the team in plus/minus (+16) and drilled a three-pointer with 28.7 seconds left to give Boston a 98-95 lead.

Four Celtics (Tatum, Morris, Al Horford, Kyrie Irving) finished with at least 15 points as teamwork and quick ball movement facilitated their second-half scoring barrage.

Tatum tied his season-high with 24 points, leading the Celtics in scoring for the third time in five games. The dynamic 20-year-old is already playing at an All-Star level with averages of 18.8 points and 9.6 rebounds per game.

Horford also energized the offense when he shockingly knocked down three treys in a 41-second span.

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
Horford gave credit to his point guard, saying that “Kyrie looked at me and said ‘Hey, we’ve got to set the tone. We have to be more aggressive.’”

Aggression and confidence are vital to the Celtics’ success. They have one of the most talented and versatile rosters in the NBA and a brilliant head coach.

They also currently rank atop the Association in defensive rating by a significant margin.

This is largely thanks to four players (Horford, Tatum, Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart) who could each garner consideration for Defensive Player of the Year.

Boston has not dominated opponents, but the season outlook is trending up with last night’s performance serving as a stark reminder to the rest of the NBA that the Celtics are still clearly one of the fiercest teams.

As Irving and Gordon Hayward continue working back to full health, game-changing explosive scoring runs will become more common.

According to Irving, “We’re capable of doing that any quarter, anytime… It felt good to go out there and focus on who we are as a team, and how special we can be.”

The Celtics will keep shaking off the rust and gradually improving as Stevens implements a variety of effective lineup combinations that fully access the wide range of talent on one of the Association’s deepest rosters.

It will not be long before the Celtics find their groove as they continue to grind towards ambitious postseason goals.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Lakers Roster is No Enigma

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

After an ugly 0-3 start to the 2018-19 NBA season, the Los Angeles Lakers finally picked up a win last night defeating the Phoenix Suns 131-113.

The Lakers’ struggles have raised plenty of red flags and many NBA fans and experts are still pondering the same question they had during the offseason:

Why would Magic Johnson choose to surround LeBron James with so many controversially polarizing personalities?

Rajon Rondo. JaVale McGee. Lance Stephenson. Michael Beasley.

At first glance, that looks like a squad poised to lead the league in ejections, suspensions and Shaqtin' a Fool nominations.

But according to Johnson, he “watched every [2018 NBA Playoffs] series, so I built this team based on what happened in the playoffs.”

Ultimately, he stacked the roster with excitingly volatile players who would help the Lakers captivate Twitter and dominate media headlines with their unconventional playing styles, combative personalities and flashy highlights.

Johnson sought to maximize TV ratings and jersey sales for James’ first season in Los Angeles while keeping the Lakers relevant amidst the unspoken understanding aound the Association that the Golden State Warriors are heading to their fifth consecutive NBA Finals.

But these controversial free agent signings also serve another purpose.

They protect King James.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images
There is no long-term commitment to Rondo, McGee, Stephenson, nor Beasley because they all have one-year deals. Those four guys are essentially competing for one or two roster spots on the playoff-bound 2020 Lakers.

All four players have also been scapegoated to some extent by other teams in the past, so this season marks a genuine opportunity to reenergize their careers and prove they can contribute in a meaningful role while simultaneously earning James’ respect.

James dubbed these four players as “MUD” in an Instagram post, meaning they are “misunderstood, under-appreciated, determined.” With James closely observing, they know this is their chance to earn minutes for the Lakers of the future.

They won’t compete for a championship this season, but they could as soon as next year once Los Angeles signs another All-Star free agent such as Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard or Kevin Durant.

In the meantime, the locker room is packed with talented but unpredictable players who will serve as perfect scapegoats for Johnson and James to throw under the bus whenever struggles arise.

It will be MUD's fault, not James’, when the Lakers inevitably fail to compete against Western Conference elites this season.

That scapegoating process has already begun for Rondo and Brandon Ingram, who were portrayed as the villains in the brawl with Chris Paul and the Houston Rockets which resulted in suspensions for all three players.

Amidst all that controversy, James completely escaped blame and criticism despite his team’s three-game skid to open the season. Johnson’s plan is working.

Grant Goldberg/Silver Screen and Roll
Johnson is carefully constructing the narrative of James’ Lakers legacy in a manner that influences the media and fans to be patient and forgiving, thus alleviating the pressure on his best player while he simultaneously acquired several of the NBA's edgiest characters.

Having one of these guys on your roster can help you win a championship and Rondo, McGee and Stephenson have already shown early flashes of their intriguing potential as they compete for future minutes.

This is essentially a down year by design with James’ comfort in mind as he acclimates to Los Angeles and embraces his new Hollywood persona as an actor and film producer before next summer when he teams up with other elite players as the NBA landscape drastically shifts.

With Durant, Thompson, Leonard, Jimmy Butler, DeMarcus Cousins and other All-Stars ready to enter free agency, the Lakers will have every opportunity to assemble one of the best teams in the league next offseason.