Archives For December 2004

On Tap: The Memphis Grizzlies

 —  December 20, 2004

Back in November, the Lakers went into Memphis for the second half of a back-to-back and produced one of those complete dud games that leave us all shaking our heads. Much like Friday night.

Tonight, they catch Memphis in a back-to-back, but that’s not necessarily good news — Memphis is 4-2 in those second games. That said, this is the kind of game the Lakers should win (they are 6-1 in recent games after giving up 105 points), but we can only hope that the Dr. Jekyll and not the Mr. Hyde Lakers show up.

That early season win against the Lakers was one of the few bright spots for Memphis in the first month of the season, and less than two weeks after that game coach Hubie Brown was gone, with Mike Fratello taking his spot pacing the sidelines. In December, the Griz are 6-5 (the Lakers are 4-4).

Last time around, Memphis took advantage of two things that have become a recurring problem for the Lakers: 1) Poor defensive rotation on the perimeter that left a lot of open three pointers (Memphis shot 44% from behind the arch for the game); 2) They grabbed 17 offensive rebounds.

Memphis has another strength playing to a Laker weakness — their leading scorer is Pau Gasol playing the four (a very good PER of 25.0), a spot where the Lakes oPER is a high 18 (remember the league-wide PER average is 15). Gasol led the Griz with 22 the last time they played the Lakers. They did plenty more damage inside — Memphis scored 50 points in the paint in that game, compared to 32 for the Lakers. The Griz also had 15 more fast break points.

This may be a slow-paced game — the Griz average fewer possessions per game (89) than the Lakers (who have upped their possessions from 90 to 95 per game after playing Phoenix and Seattle). The keys for tonight starts with consistent defense for the Lakers (as it will every game until they start doing it). If the Griz starting guards Mike Miller and Jason Williams start the game getting open looks at threes and penetrating at will — ala Gilbert Arenas and Larry Hughes — it is going to be a long night at Staples.

The Lakers need a big game from Lamar Odom — the Griz’s weakest point defensively is the four (17.7 oPER). Last game he had 14 points and 11 rebounds, this time if he can get involved early — like in Sacramento — it would pave the way for the Laker offense and, maybe, get Gasol in foul trouble.

The Lakers also need to get good bench play — the two leading Roland Rating players for the Griz are Earl Watson and Shane Battier, the first two guys off the Memphis bench. (Battier started the last game against the Lakers and scored 18.) The Lakers need to be able to match that intensity off the pine — Jumaine Jones missed that last Memphis game and may play a big role playing at the four.

While I talked a lot about the last game between these two, in a lot of ways you can throw that game out — if Dr. Jekyll shows up this is a completely different Laker team. After the stunningly sad performance against Washington a couple nights ago, I expect the Lakers to come out with something to prove tonight.

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?