When it comes to low-hanging fruit, it doesn’t get any riper than the Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers. Through a month-plus of action this season, the Sixers and Lakers have managed to reach seemingly impossible levels of ineptitude, but in very different ways.
A certain level of suck was expected from the Sixers this year. Sam Hinkie supporters even embraced another season chalked full of fringe NBA players with designs on adding another premier draft pick to the organization’s collection of young talent. With the injuries piling up for former third-pick Joel Embiid and the complete and utter lack of a viable NBA point guard on the roster, a third straight season of obvious tanking was probably actually a necessity in Philly. The team’s 0-18 run to kick off the year was worse than most people anticipated, but it’s not as if the team was supposed to contend for the eighth seed.
The Lakers on the other hand – while not talented enough to be good in the eyes of most onlookers – didn’t intend on becoming the joke they’ve devolved into. Their off-season moves (minus the addition of the ball-stopping Lou Williams) should have prevented such organizational decay: Roy Hibbert was supposed to solidify the interior defense. And second-overall pick D’Angelo Russell was supposed to take the reins from Kobe Bryant as the franchise’s next focal point. Anyone who’s been paying attention know’s how those things have gone.
Through 36 combined games, the Lakers and Sixers have combined for three wins. Three wins – and one of those was the product of last night’s head-to-head match-up. The Warriors have three wins since Friday.
The Lakers have a 96.4 Offensive Rating, second worst in the league to Philadelphia’s 91.7. Los Angeles has the worst Effective Field Goal Percentage; the Sixers have roughly one turnover for every assist this year. The Lakers have a delusional, outdated head coach enabling a delusional, outdated former star on a retirement tour; the Sixers have an undrafted rookie running the point and have Nik Stauskas shooting 29 percent on 6 three-point tries a night.
Pointing out the glaring flaws with the league’s two worst teams is a sad game you can play all day if you so please. Gleaning positives from their play is much more difficult, though. So let’s try.
On Tuesday night we were treated to a mesmerizingly bad game between the Sixers and Lakers that saw Kobe shoot 7-for-26 from the field and resulted in Philadephia’s first win since March 25th (!?!). There was no play that better encapsulated what the Sadness Bowl was all about than this one:
But through the horror, there were some nuggets of hope for both teams that should be held on to by Philly and LA fans like Hinkie hugs second round picks. Let’s dive into those now.
Robert Covington and Jerami Grant
Recent drafts have seen the Sixers invest heavily in their front court in the form of Embiid, Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel and Euro-stash Dario Saric who probably profiles best as a power forward. Hinkie’s desire to draft the best players available rather than addressing obvious areas of need has left the Sixers’ perennially bereft of skill on the wings. Instead of established veterans manning the perimeter, Philly has deferred to second-rounders and undrafted guys to operate around their young bigs.
In Robert Covington, we’re seeing the results that opportunity can yield. After working his way through a knee injury to start the year, Covington has been the Sixers’ best player over the last six games. Since November 21st he’s average 18.8 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists and a nutty 4.3 steals while shooting 44.7 percent on 8 three point attempts a game; he hit five triples on Tuesday night alone.
His play over the last season-and-a-quarter has been perhaps the biggest bright spot for the Sixers in that time; he looks to be a real, starting-caliber, three-and-D player – the type of player that is worth exponentially more than the roughly $1 million he will earn annually through 2017-18.
Making a similar pay-cheque for the same amount of time is Jerami Grant, who was Philadephia’s next-best player against the Lakers. His offensive game isn’t as refined as Covington’s, but he’s got beastly potential on the defensive end and has even flashed an improved touch in close – he’s hitting 60 percent of his shots around the rim this season after shooting just 44.4 percent from inside five feet in his rookie season in 2014-15.
He also ruined the one high-percentage shot Kobe attempted last night:
— SB Nation (@SBNation) December 2, 2015
Grant doesn’t quite look start-worthy because of his lack of an outside shot, but as an athlete who can play both forward positions, the Sixers could do a lot worse. It’s future roll players like Covington and Grant who will eventually be crucial to the Sixers once the team makes a push for competitiveness. And in the meantime, they’re two of the more capable pieces on a largely incapable roster.
Uhhhm … the Sixers’ court looks cool?
Even in a winning effort it’s hard to find more than one or two positives with the Sixers. Nerlens Noel is scoring under 0.70 points per possession as a dive-man in the pick-and-roll and has seen his blocks-per-game cut in half from last year; Jahlil Okafor is working through off-court issues; the offense is about as bad as the Warriors’ offense is good; and the team’s defense has dropped to 20th overall after flirting with the top-10 last season. Searching for signs of hope with the actual players – most of whom probably won’t be around when the Sixers are good again – is a futile exercise. As a result, you have to derive joy from elements of Sixers games that have nothing to do with the actual players on the court.
Thankfully for anyone who voluntarily endures a game at the Wells Fargo Center, the new 76ers court design is among the league’s best.
The center court logo is perfect, and the rest of the layout is simple but bold. With many team’s adopting a monochromatic scheme in the paint, the Sixers blue-with-red-trim looks different despite being about as classic as it gets. And because the hardwood is a light shade, the floor pops in contrast with the arena’s theater-lit stands. It’s a silly thing to be positive about, but with the Sixers you have to dig deep. The team may stink – but at least they’re doing it in style.
D’Angelo Russell got to play – and dunked!
The Lakers might actually be a worse overall team the the Sixers because of their putrid efforts on the defensive side of the ball and the absolute cluelessness of Byron Scott, who continues to prioritize his veterans over the Lakers’ exciting young prospects. D’Angelo Russell is the most hyped of the young trio that also includes Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson, but he also seems to have the least trust from Scott.
In 17 games this season, Russell has been completely benched in the fourth quarter five times. Rather than giving Russell opportunities to play, fail and learn – a la Emmanuel Mudiay in Denver – Scott has opted to ride veterans like Williams, Nick Young and Kobe in the search of hollow, meaningless wins. The results have been piss-poor. Despite Russell not playing up to the standards of his 2015 draft classmates, he’s still been statistically better than Kobe and only slightly worse than Young and Williams. Yet Kobe’s Usage Rate sits at more than 30 percent, Williams’ is 23.4 percent and Young is the same as Russell’s at 20 percent.
Last night was a step in the right direction though. Rather than look on while his team fought to push the Sixers to 0-19, Russell played every second of the fourth quarter. And while he scored a pedestrian 8 points on 8 shots in the frame while fetching just one rebound, it’s the kind of bumpy, imperfect in-game experience that is going to foster his development. We even got to see him throw down a gnarly slam:
— Silver Screen & Roll (@LakersSBN) December 2, 2015
Russell’s playing time has actually been on the rise for two weeks or so. Since November 20th, Russell is an encouraging second to Clarkson in minutes per game at 34.2 – up almost 10 minutes from his first 11 game as a Laker. If the Lakers really are committed to letting Kobe to shoot at a ludicrously poor rate on his farewell tour, Scott has to at least make sure Russell is getting minutes along side him. Standing around watching Bryant dribble out the shot clock isn’t the best way to incite development, but it’s certainly better than watching Kobe do his fourth quarter dance from the sidelines.
Jordan Clarkson is a player
Future Utah Jazz offer sheet recipient Clarkson is the best player on the Lakers right now. Frankly, he’s blowing away the competition. Like Russell, Clarkson has been handcuffed from truly taking control over the Lakers’ offense due to the presence of ineffective, high-volume teammates. He’s made quite a mark when given the chance though, scoring more efficiently than any of the Lakers’ back-court players. In the loss to the Sixers, he scored 12 points on 6-for-10 shooting while the rest of the team went 2-for-12.
His shooting numbers truly stand out when compared with the likes of Kobe, Williams, Russell and Young. Of the Lakers’ high-volume guards, Clarkson has easily been the best shooter from the field (47.2%) and from behind the three-point line (42.6%). And unlike his possession-swallowing peers, he’s not forcing threes or settling for long-range twos. Better than 75 percent of his threes have been taken while open or wide open according to NBA.com’s Synergy data. By comparison, about 42 percent of Kobe’s three point tries are coming when he’s tightly guarded. Clarkson’s superior shot selection doesn’t end there. More than 40 percent of Clarkson’s shots are coming from within eight feet of the basket. His average length of field goal tries is 12.9 feet, a full eight feet closer than the free-shooting Young.
He’s still working on filling out the rest of the stat sheet. At 6’5, Clarkson has the height to be a solid rebounder for his position, but has grabbed fewer rebounds per-36 than 37-year-old Kobe. And his scoring instincts definitely cut into his ability to be a play-maker. His future might be as a dynamic scorer who can terrorize as a second-unit star, but for now, he’s the best thing Lakers fans have to watch in a long season that isn’t even a quarter of the way finished.
But it could be worse … they could be Sixers fans.