Swaggy: The Return

The Lakers history and Nick Young’s history is a study in contrasts. The local kid who loved to score the ball and promote himself and who was good for television ratings was celebrated. At the same time, he was the organizational piece the Lakers spent all off-season trying to package to the lowest bidder. The market bottomed out for Young in 2015 as he had little value considering he was one-dimensional and proud of it. One year later, the Lakers spent the offseason in 2016 trying to trade him again to the same shut doors, and even floated around the idea of waiving him by way of the stretch provision. If Swaggy lasted through Luke Walton’s training camp, the thinking went, that would have been a surprise- or miracle, take your pick- since he had one foot in the door and one foot out, so much in limbo. But Young shocked himself and everyone else by impressing new coach Luke Walton with his willingness and dedication.

It was that willingness and dedication that convinced Steve Kerr that Nick Young could fit in with his cohesive group of champions who hold each other accountable, something Nick Young has flirted with his whole career but has never taken seriously. His first time back in his hometown, to face the team he loved playing for, he is promising extraordinary things. It’s the Swaggy way.

In 2016-17, Nick Young had the best season of his career doing what Swaggy was born to do: shooting the ball. He  was the 17th ranked shooting guard (Real Plus-Minus). It was a rejuvenated Nick Young year, even as he sat many games after the All-Star break because D’Angelo Russell was showcased as the shooting guard, which signaled the Nick Young experiment and experience was just about over.

Young opted-out his deal which left room for someone else, perhaps someone whose defensive rating was better than 114. (With the Lakers, Young’s defensive rating was 115.) The Nick Young replacement, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, had no such defensive holes. His lowest defensive rating was 111 and that was his rookie year. In effect, the Lakers replaced the offensive heroic Young with the versatile and defensive Caldwell-Pope.  Caldwell-Pope has a different understanding of the NBA game. Unlike Young, he’s a basketball player more than he is an entertainer, caring about pick and rolls and points off of turnovers more than he does the lights and flash and Twitter beefs.

It is not to subtract anything from Young who accepts his identity with a flourish. It is why the Lakers signed him.  Young was a show piece and filler until the Lakers could get serious about the NBA. The Lakers made this Nick Young bargain with eyes wide open. Entertain us. We’ll indulge you.  It didn’t matter that the rest of the league smirked at Swaggy being Swaggy while the Lakers remained confused and stuck in the sand. It was profitable and filled the entertainment void.

It worked.  The fanbase that can be hard and unrelenting embraced everything Young was and tolerated what he was not. He was the local kid who grew up in South Central, had a tragedy story, overcame it. But often Young was a punching bag too. He would celebrate his own meager displays of excellence in the midst of a wretched season. Look broken, the fans demanded of him when the Lakers were ruined by 40 points. Critics pounded Young for his aggressive nonchalance, for going through the motions, for his highly questionable shot selection and self-promotion, make or miss.

Not Missing Swaggy?? Field Goals Attempted FG% 3-Point % Real Plus-Minus (SG) Offensive Rating
Nick Young 2016-17 10.6 43.0% 40.4% 17 118
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope 2017-18 11.5 42.5% 42.5% 21 104

When Swaggy signed with the Warriors, there was a collective sigh from the L.A. crowd. Nick Young was loved but not exactly appreciated. His story was so black L.A.- growing up in South Central, ducking and hiding from gang influence, going to high school in the Valley, a murdered brother, a family in grief, going to USC and then the NBA lottery ticket. Of course he would find himself on a team with Gilbert Arenas, living through the guns in the locker room fiasco. He helped the Clippers in the playoffs, was in Larry Brown’s doghouse in Philly before the Lakers rescued him.

But, Nick Young was never going to help the Lakers long term. There was just so much he didn’t do on purpose. On a bad team, he was a mascot. He made you forget how miserable these last few years were. With more talent came more expectations. Versatility is the name of the game now. There was some hope that after the D’Angelo Russell video fiasco, Young had conformed to adulthood and had been dragged by the neck into something he had long avoided: maturity. For the most part, he met the expectations. Nick Young grew up. Sort of.

Laker fans who were both comfortable and uncomfortable with NIck Young were truly happy he was in Golden State. And curious. How was it going to all work? Swaggy wasn’t serious. The thing about the Warriors that gets hidden in the offensive brilliance is they are very serious. Could Swaggy fit in? Could he be more than a show?

It hasn’t necessarily been exceptionalism. He’s not getting the minutes, the lowest of his career. His free throw shooting is a career low, no more high eighties. Nick was never passing the ball. Check. He didn’t get steals. Check. He didn’t block shots. Check. He’s never scored 6.7 points in his career. He is doing so now. Everything is different in the Bay for Swaggy and nothing is different.  It is kind of a Swaggy-lite.

The detritus of the NBA, the flash, the lights, the colors, the media attention, the crowds, the energy, is a Nick Young thing. He brings that with him in the summer and the Drew League where he captivates the Compton crowds over and over. The irony of all ironies is that Nick Young, the local, is in his best place to come back to L.A. and the Drew League, the summer of 2018, with something really, really special.

A championship ring.



photo via llananba