Archives For December 2004

With the over-hyped Lakers/Heat game just five shopping days away (what do you mean Lakers/Heat, there are more than two players in this contest?), the number of mainstream media NBA writers becoming soap opera writers is about to reach record numbers. Don’t blame them, they can’t help themselves — they’ve been trained to go after the story, and this is a juicy story, even if its barely relevant to the Lakers future. For example, Mark Heisler couldn’t write his NBA column about the questionable idea of the Lakers getting Jason Kidd without spending the first three quarters of the story rehashing the Kobe’s past 12 months.

If you are a Laker fan and you have to listen to this all week, just repeat after me the Tripper Harrison chant: It just doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t matter.

What matters to the future of the Lakers is not what happened in the locker room last season, but what is happening there this season. It doesn’t matter what the Shaq/Phil/Malone triumvirate think, what matters is what the Odom/Butler/Rudy T. triumvirate thinks.

Kobe has been given his chance. What happened last season will have no impact on future players wanting to come here if the word of mouth among players (not talk radio speculation) is good and the team wins, or shows it can with a little help. The chance to play for a historic franchise in a major market, to play with one of the games greats, and to win a title will draw players, so long as the word-of-mouth passed along at summer pick-up games and Manhattan night clubs says Kobe is a good teammate and Los Angeles is a fun place to play.

If, three years from now, Caron Butler is playing in the northeast and Lamar Odom in the Midwest, both going on ESPN every chance they get to say Kobe ran them out of town, then Kobe will have blown it. If, three years from now, Rudy T. has written a book talking about how Kobe is uncoachable, then the future will be lost.

But right now this team is forging a new identity, and what matters is how that turns out. I don’t want to say the last off-season was a joy or that everyone has behaved well — just about everyone involved, from Shaq to Kobe’s wife, have been acting like 12 year olds — but what matters is what comes next, what comes now. What matters is where this Laker team is three years from now, and what it is doing today to get there.

It’s too early to write that story, so what we’re going to get instead is a more soap opera. It just doesn’t matter.

Two Steps Back

 —  December 18, 2004

We’ve given each other some hard lessons lately
But we ain’t learnin’
We’re the same sad story that’s a fact
One step up and two steps back

One Step Up
Bruce Springsteen

Welcome to a weekend cornucopia of thoughts, starting with last night’s Laker loss and moving on to a bunch of other stuff collecting in my inbox:

• Defense. Last night against Washington it was transition defense. In previous games it was perimeter defense or interior defense. In all its forms, the Lakers don’t play it consistently and that has been their biggest weakness this season.

• Last night’s biggest defensive culprit was Chucky Atkins. Sure, he scored 23, but he must have given up 40 (I don’t chart the game so I have no idea what that number actually is). Did you notice that in the overtime, when they weren’t on a fast break, Washington used a high pick-and-roll with whichever guard Atkins was on, Gilbert Arenas (37 points) or Larry Hughes (33)? It worked, so they kept going to that well.

(I don’t want to let Kobe off the hook here. Sure he had a triple double, but his defense was not much better than Chucky’s until the end of the game.)

• Right now, more than anything, the Lakers need a true point guard who can play defense. (And Tierre is not the long-term answer.)

• The Lakers other big problem last night was turnovers. Last night the Lakers had 17 (the Wizards had 6), which was a big part of Washington’s 20 fast break points (double the Lakers total). Like poor defense, this follows the season pattern for the team — even in wins they often have more turnovers than their opponents — and also could be partially solved by a better point.

• Don’t know if you caught the Sports Guy’s latest column about his observations at Clipper games, but he spends a little bit of it on the Lakers. He gets into the soap opera crap too much for my taste, but does agree with me about the need for a point guard. Anyway, he wrote one thing that really caught my eye:

During the Clips game, with Kobe on pace for a shot a minute — he finished with 32 shots in 37 minutes — Odom snapped in the third quarter and started screaming at everyone: Kobe, Rudy T., Atkins, you name it. “GET ME THE (EXPLETIVE) BALL!” How could you blame him? He knew he could take Moore off the dribble. So they ran a few plays for him and Odom scored eight of the next ten points: Easy points, too. He could have scored 40 against this Clippers team; nobody could guard him.

Well, guess what? Kobe didn’t like that. He launched the final three shots of the quarter.

I’d be lying if I said I remembered that exact situation and he is trying to be hard on Kobe, but it does fit another theme for this team — not sticking with what works. Example A: Jumaine Jones against Orlando. We do it often, turning away from the hot hand or play to go to something else.

Some of that has to fall on Rudy T., who either isn’t calling what works and wants to vary his routine for no good reason, or he isn’t forcing his players to stick with it.

• By the way, back to my point guard theme. Before the season, in the clustterf%$&*@! that became the Gary Payton trade, the Lakers almost got Marcus Banks. At the time missing out on him really pissed me off, now I’m not so sure it was a bad thing. Reading Boston Celtics blogs and some news accounts, Banks is not loved:

Doc (Rivers) is so unhappy with Marcus’ play, that he’s fine using (Ricky) Davis at the point:

“I thought Marcus struggled in the first half, and if you’re going to struggle in the first half I’ve got to go in another direction,” said Rivers. “And I had to go with Ricky tonight. Is that where I want to go? No. But, you know, if I’m going to tell Al (Jefferson) that he has to earn minutes – if I’m going to tell Kendrick (Perkins) that he has to earn minutes – then I’ve got to tell Marcus he has to earn minutes, as well.”

• The excellent site Hoops Analyst has crunched the numbers and posted a list of the most-improved players so far this year. Topping the list: King James. Which is amazing. Within the next 18 months he will pass Kobe as the best perimeter player in the game.

• While we’re talking stats, Kickerblogger has posted the league leaders in PER so far this season. At the top of the list is the usual cast of characters — Duncan, Garnett, Nowitzki. Kobe is ninth.

• The Lakers remain one of the most marketable teams in the nation — they rank second in sales of merchandise bearing their logo. The Knicks top the list and the Bulls are third. Which just goes to show it’s nice to have a team in a big city, win or lose.

• I wrote a few weeks ago that Deavon George was going to start practicing with the team, but that turns out not to be the case yet. He apparently is still several weeks away.

• Brian Grant, on the other hand, is starting to practice with the team as of Sunday. Joel Meyer said earlier in the week the target date for Grant’s return was Christmas day, although that may be a tad optimistic. I just hope it’s soon, a low-post defender and rebounder sure would help right now. (Another question, when he comes off the IR, who goes on? Sahsa? Slava? Luke?)

On Tap: The Washington Wizards:

 —  December 17, 2004

My get-to-this-file is full, but tonight it’s a family Christmas night decorating the tree with my wife and daughter, so everything save the preview has to wait. (Sure, my daughter is just six months old and really won’t “get” Christmas, that doesn’t mean my wife pretend she’s going to love it.) Check back over the weekend for an interesting news and notes post.

As for tonight, break out the retro uniforms for a Laker/Wizards match up (the Lakers are wearing the 1959-60 unis, from the last season in Minneapolis).

Washington (at 12-8, much better than expected) comes to town touted as the fourth highest scoring team in the NBA at 100.7 ppg, but for the last three games in a row the team has been held to double digits. They lost two of those three (beating only New Orleans) and that’s no coincidence — the Wizards like to get up and down the court, 45% of their shots come within the first 10 seconds on the shot clock and when they do that their eFG% is a healthy 52%.

Slow Washington down into a half-court game and their shooting falters — from 16 to 20 seconds gone on the shot clock their eFG% is 38.1% (for comparison, the Lakers are at 46.6%), in the last four seconds of the clock the Wizard eFG% drops to 29.5% (43.8% for the Lakers). The Wizards need the easy buckets that come in transition because they are not good jump shooters. So far this season 73% of their shots are jumpers and the eFG% is a low 37.5%.

Leading the scoring for Washington are two players Laker fans are familiar with from the Western Conference — Antawn Jamison and Gilbert Arenas.

Jamison will be a challenging match up for Lamar Odom — Jamison has a PER of 20.7 in the four, while holding his oPER is 13.7 (for comparison, Odom’s PER is 20.5, but his oPER is 18.7, meaning Odom needs to focus on defense and stay out of foul trouble).

Arenas poses a problem for the Lakers have struggled with this season — a point guard who can score (averaging 21.6 points with a PER of 19.1). Look for Kobe to cover him, at least some of the game.

The other player who has been a key for Washington is center Brandon Haywood, who leads the team with a +17.5 Roland Rating and has really stepped up this season like team suits had long hoped. They count on getting a boost off the bench from Kwame Brown, but he has not been consistent.

Tonight could be a big night for Chris Mihm and others in the low post area — center is the Wizards weakest spot defensively (oPER of 18.2). The other spot where they are worse than average is the point guard position, we’ll see if Tierre Brown can repeat last night’s performance, without the turnovers.

The last time the Lakers had the second game of a back-to-back at home it was similar — fast-paced Orlando came to town, but the Lakers controlled the tempo and won the game. If they can play good defense and keep the Wizards in the starting gate this is a game the Lakers should win, turn it into a horse race and the Lakers may get passed in the stretch.

Now That’s More Like It

 —  December 17, 2004

Let me add my voice to the chorus — what the hell are the Dodgers doing?

Oh, wait, not that chorus, this is a Laker blog. Let me try again:

Let me add my voice to the chorus — last night’s win in Sacramento was, by far, the best game the Lakers played this year.

So many things went right. Lamar Odom was aggressive early, finally. And the Lakers got him the ball in a position where he could do damage, 15-18 feet out, isolated on a guy, Chris Webber, who couldn’t cover him (Webber wasn’t the most mobile of defenders in his younger days, now he’s approaching pylon status). In the second half, Miller started to help out on Odom, and other guys stepped up. (Personal side note to Lamar: In post-game interviews, don’t refer to yourself in the third person. It leaves this bad, Bob Dole ringing in my ear.)

Kobe was at the heart of that second half run, penetrating, scoring and dishing it out. Everyone was making the extra pass — and hitting the open jumper. There was good play from the bench — Tierre Brown had 15 points (but 4 assists and 3 turnovers), Cook had 12 and Jones had 8 and played good defense. Overall, the defense was not spectacular but it was good enough.

Part of it is that everything looks good when the shots are falling, the Lakers’ eFG% was an insane 62.7%. (We also should note that Sac missed more than its normal share of open looks, especially Peja, which helped, too. The Kings’ eFG% was 48.3%.)

But this win was more than just the hot hand. It was Kobe’s best game — getting others involved early, picking his spots well to get his shots (no off-balance leaners at the buzzer). The Lakers held the Kings to 9 fast break points. They scored 50 of their points in the paint.

This game was a sign of maturity — shaking off a tough loss to get a quality win on the road against one of the five best in the deep West. While there have been setbacks, this Laker team is getting better as the season goes on (just like we all knew would happen but have been impatient waiting for). After a harsh loss on Tuesday, this game was a ray of hope for the future.

And isn’t hope the best of things?

On Tap: The Sacramento Kings

 —  December 16, 2004

Looking for positives as the Lakers head into Sacramento for the second game of a tough road trip, I came back to this: The Lakers are worth more than the Kings.

According to Forbes magazine, the Lakers are the most valuable franchise in the NBA, worth $510 million. That is 14% more than last year (easily outpacing inflation, in case you were worried about Dr. Buss’ lifestyle). For the record, the New York Knicks are second at $494 million, followed by Dallas ($374 million), Houston ($369 million) and Chicago ($368 million).

Actually,on the court the Lakers should be somewhat optimistic coming into the game in Sacramento — the last time these two teams met, the day after Thanksgiving, the Lakers hung close and lost by just three. Since then the Lakers have improved as a team. Well, as long as you throw out that game a couple of nights ago.

That last loss to Sacramento featured some of the Lakers recurring problems this season. Start with the fact Los Angeles led by three with 1:19 left in the game, then gave up a 7-1 run to lose. Or, you can look at the turnovers — the Lakers had 12, Sacramento 8 (for the season, the Lakers average 3 turnovers a game more than their opponents). Figuring that Sacramento scores an average of 1.08 points per possession and the Lakers 1.07, the four more turnovers than Kings last time around accounts for an eight-point swing.

Sacramento gets great play out of its starting five, a group that has an impressive eFG% of 51.8% and bests the team it is out against 61% of the time. (Compare that to the Lakers, whose starting five have an eFG% of 49.4% and best their opponents 35.2% of the time.)

Last time these two met, the Lakers inside duo of Lamar Odom and Chris Mihm did a good job offsetting the inside play of Chris Webber and Brad Miller, which when you look at the Kings PER by position is where they are getting the best play on offense. The Lakers actually outscored the Kings in the paint, 44 to 38.

What hurt the Lakers (and many other teams) was not being able to stop the King’s small forward Peja Stojakovic, who led the Kings with 26. Defensively, the three is the position the Lakers give up the most points against, an oPER of 18.7. Also, don’t forget the Kings have Mike Bibby and we counter with Chucky Atkins, not a matchup in our favor.

Last time these two teams met, Brian Cook had a then-season-high 15 points of the bench, and Jumaine Jones added 10. Kobe had a game high 40, but took only 17 shots from the field. What he did do was draw fouls — Kobe was 15 of 19 from the free throw line.

After the ugliness of two nights ago, I’m not sure what to expect from these Lakers. If they shake it off and get a win (or even come close), it would be a sign that this team really is maturing and improving. We shall see.

What Are Those Numbers?

 —  December 15, 2004

Not long ago, Dean Oliver, author of a watershed basketball numbers book, “Basketball on Paper,” was hired as a consultant with the Seattle Supersonics. The move was reminiscent of Bill James — a man who had for decades been thinking outside the baseball box — becoming a Red Sox consultant.

I throw that out there not to point out the obvious winning trends in both places, but rather to point out that the use of detailed, relatively complex statistics to measure player performance is something becoming part of the sports establishment. Baseball’s new wave of statistics (well, a bunch go way back to Branch Rickey, but that’s a story for another day) started coming into the light when the book “Moneyball” came out and shot up the best sellers list.

The new wave of basketball stats are not nearly as well known — PER has not come near the level of OPS — but their day is coming. And, if I and some other bloggers can push that envelope along, all the better.

My use of those stats in this blog has led to a host of questions to me (well, host may be an overstatement) along the lines of “what is going on here?”. So, following is a series of definitions of the stats you’ll see here most, with links to longer definitions and equations. (If that’s your thing, start here.)

First, one more thought. In the same way that baseball statistics are valid because of the number of trials — a starting major leaguer gets more than 500 at bats per season, for example — basketball stats are also valid. There are 82 games a season and that means most teams have upwards of 7,400 offensive possessions per season. A star player like Kobe Bryant may take upwards of 1,100 shot per season (1,178 last year) but even a role player, such as Chris Mihm last season in Boston, will take hundreds (381). The volume is there to make valid analysis.

PER, or Player Efficiency Rating. This statistic is one you’ll see a lot and comes from NBA stat guru John Hollinger, who has his own site and puts out a Basketball Prospectus book every season. I’ll let him explain PER (from his site):

The formula, which I call the Player Efficiency Rating (PER), adds the good (made shots, steals, assists, rebounds, blocked shots, free throws), and subtracts the bad (missed shots, turnovers, fouls) by assigning a point value to each item (I arrive at the point values in a fairly tortuous way, and that’s one of the parts I’m saving for the book). The rating for each player is then adjusted to a per-minute basis (so that, for example, you can compare subs with starters in the frequent ‘he should start ahead of so-and-so’ debates), and also adjusted for the team’s pace. In the end, one number sums up the players’ accomplishments (the statistical ones, anyway) for that season. I’ve set it up so that the league average, every season, is 15.00, which produces sort of a handy reference guide:

A Year For the Ages: 35.0
Runaway MVP Candidate: 30.0
Strong MVP Candidate: 27.5
Weak MVP Candidate: 25.0
Bona fide All-Star: 22.5
Borderline All-Star: 20.0
Solid 2nd option: 18.0
3rd Banana: 16.5
Pretty good player: 15.0
In the rotation: 13.0
Scrounging for minutes: 11.0
Definitely renting: 9.0
On next plane to Yakima: 5.0

PER is a very good measure of what a player contributes offensively, and that can also be extrapolated to what a team gets from a position on the floor. I think the best evidence of how well PER works is to see who is at the top of the list this year, so far:

Tim Duncan…… 30.51
Kevin Garnett… 30.32
Dirk Nowitzki… 30.05
Amare Stoudemire 29.14
Dwyane Wade….. 26.82
LeBron James…. 26.40

Kobe leads the Lakers with a PER of 23.7, a number held down by his shooting percentage and turnovers.

oPER or Opponents Player Efficiency Ratings. This is the same as PER, but done to whomever a player is guarding to give you an idea of the defensive performance of a player.

This is a flawed system when applied to one player because of zone coverages, switch offs and the rest of the way defense is played in the NBA. That said, it does work to give you a general idea of what a player is doing.

However, oPER it works pretty well when applied to a position. For example, the Lakers this year are allowing an oPER of 10.9 against opponents shooting guards, well below the league average of 15. However, they are getting burned at the three (18.9) and the four (18). This basically matches up with what we see — Kobe (playing 88% of the Laker minutes) is shutting down two guards, but inside the Lakers are no match defensively.

eFG% or Effective Field Goal Percentage. The problem with basic/traditional field goal percentage, particularly when talking about guards, is that it counts a made three-pointer the same as a made two pointer — the equivalent of a football stat that counted touchdowns and field goals as the same. Clearly those are not worth the same amount, and neigher is a two=ponter and a three-pointer in basketball — a three-pointer is worth 50% more on the scoreboard. So eFG% gives players that bonus (50%) for making the more difficult shot (the equation can be seen as eFG% = (2PM + 1.5*3PM) / FGA or eFG% = (FGM + 3PM/2)/FGA).

It’s not a perfect measure, but it gives you a better idea of how a player is really shooting, if they are taking a number of three pointers.

eFG% can also be applied to how well a player or team is doing defensively.

Roland Rating. This one is a measure of a players value to his team and is easy to find at 82 Games. The explanation:

The best gauge of a player’s worth to a specific team comes from looking at the difference in how the team plays with the player on court versus performance with the player off court. The on court +/- number represents the team’s net points with the player on the floor per 48 minutes, while the off court number is the team’s net with the player off the floor per 48 minutes. The Roland Rating is the difference between the two, with a positive number indicating the team has played better with the player than without.

For example, so far this season Kobe leads the Lakers with +21.2 followed by Jumaine Jones (+16.2) and Brian Cook (+5.6). What’s interesting is that with Kobe on the court (averaged out for 48 minutes) the Lakers are only +2.3, but with him off they are -18.9.

Points Per Possession. I haven’t used this too much yet, but it’s a favorite of basketball sabermetrics people, so you will as the season wears on. It is just what it sounds like — the average points per possession a player or team gets. This is always worked out to an averave of 100 possessions. A thought from 82 Games:

An accepted formula for calculating possessions amounts to Field Goal Attempts minus Offensive Rebounds plus Turnovers plus Free Throw line trips earned. We believe there is some inherent unfairness in this scheme on many levels (i.e. a bad pass costs you, an assist gets you nothing…or giving free possessions to prodigious no-shoot offensive rebounders).

Top Five-Man Floor Units: This uses the +/- system applied to various five-man units, and how they perform against the five-man units they are out against. Part of this is to create a percentage that is the number of times (out of 100) they have bested the opposing five.

There are other stats out there, applied to passing and the like, but lets save those for another day.

Sleepwalking in Seattle

 —  December 15, 2004

Bill Parcells has a saying, “You are what your record says you are.”

The Lakers are a 12-9 basketball team, one that cannot compete with the top five teams in the West (we are 0-5 against Phoenix, Seattle, San Antonio and Sacramento — and we haven’t seen Minnesota yet, but I’ll count them in the group). That may well be 0-6 after Thursday night. The Lakers are a fighting-for-a-playoff team with some obvious holes.

The Sonics gave us a shocking reminder of that. Last night’s loss in Seattle felt like one big step backwards after a weekend where we stated to feel good about out team. Everything the Lakers seem to have started to do right, they did wrong — and got thrashed for it.

First, the Sonics exposed the Lakers poor rotation on perimeter defense (as have the Suns and others before), leading to too many open shots for a good-shooting team. Defensive rotation is a hard thing to point to statistically, but one glaring season stat on Lakers defense is obvious — when Laker opponents score 100 points or more, the Lakers are 0-8, when the Lakers hold opponents under 100 they are 12-1.

Another magic number for the Lakers seems to be 21. As in 21 assists. When they reach that plateau they are 9-3, when they don’t they are 3-6. Put more simply, when the Lakers spread the floor and share the ball they do better — also evidenced by the fact Kobe averages 19.7 shots per game in Laker wins and 23.3 in Laker losses. Last night it was all isolation plays for the Lakers, and just 12 assists.

There were plenty of other problems: Lamar Odom returned to his invisible man imitation; bench play was lacking (only Jumaine Jones showed energy); Chucky Atkins was the guy getting open looks in the first half but had an off night; Tierre Brown came in and shot as bad as Atkins; etc…

Lets not take anything away from the Sonics, they are for real. Not only can they shoot — we knew that — but they played aggressive, smart defense, holding the Lakers to 39.5% shooting (oddly, at the end of the first half the Lakers were 1 of 11 from shots right of the key, outside the lane). But don’t just take my word or your eyes for it — one of the best in depth basketball analyzation sites on the web, Hoops Analyst, did an excellent piece where it was pointed out the Sonics are not a flash in the pan.

They’re success has happened more because they seem to have found solutions to their problems than because of players who are on an early season tear. There’s nothing dramatic here. The improvement in rebounding and turnover differential is good for probably around 6-7 points, while the additional free throws are good for another 4-5. Add in the improved defense and you have a team that’s contending.

(As a side note, a similar analysis of Phoenix said that the wheels will come off that bandwagon. These breakdowns are well worth the read.)

That game hurt because I thought there was progress, but when the Lakers were confronted with a real challenge bad habits came out like an alcoholic at the company Christmas Party. Maybe things will be different in Sacramento, but my optimism has faded. Did everyone else feel as kicked in the gut as I did?

Update: If you want to read more on the Suns and Sonics start, Knickerblogger (the best NBA blogger, for my money) gets into the act today.

It’s Gotta Be The Shoes

 —  December 14, 2004

Kobe has specially made Nike shoes, Air Zoom Huarache 2K5 in purple and gold, that will be unwrapped for the Christmas Day game. Starting in March, you will be able to buy and wear them yourself.

Just don’t expect Nike to advertise that fact.

Though still on the hook for a five-year, $40 million endorsement deal with Kobe Bryant, Nike has no plans to aggressively market the embattled Lakers guard, despite plans for Bryant to debut a new shoe on Christmas, according to multiple industry sources contacted by

More than Mitch Kupchak regrets that two-year, $3 million a year deal with Slava right about now, Nike regrets its deal with Kobe. He was arrested when the ink was barely dry on the deal, forcing Nike to backpedal. The lack of a conviction meant Nike was locked into a deal, but they had no idea what to do with Kobe.

The PR issues surrounding his arrest could have been overcome if Kobe were an endearing figure playing on a title contender. But he’s not. Kobe is an aloof personality who often comes off as cold and practiced in interviews, and with the recent changes in the team has gained the reputation as a manipulator. Personally I like his interview style, he seems cerebral, but that doesn’t play that well for many in this country. Maybe he’s different if you’re sitting having a beer with him, but on camera he’s not warm (in the same way Shaq can be) and that hurts his cause.

Time may change all this for Kobe. Three years from now, if his legal problems are far in the rear-view mirror and the Lakers are winning, Kobe may be very marketable. America is a very forgiving country (unless you are Bill Buckner in Boston). But for now, Kobe is collecting easy checks from Nike.


By the way, if you aren’t familiar with him, let me say up front that Darren Rovell is one of the best things on the ESPN site. The “global leader’s” news about the Lakers, Dodgers and other pro and college teams is good, but you can find better elsewhere. What is hard to find are good specialty writers, such as sports business writers, and Rovell is as good as is currently going.