Archives For January 2005

Problems? What Problems?

 —  January 20, 2005

Last night is the kind of confidence boosting win the Lakers needed — beating a team they are fighting with for playoff position. Now, if we follow form, we will squander that next game out, but I’m not going to let that dampen my spirits. It was an entertaining game with so many things to like, I’ll try to keep the negative down today.

I liked the new starting lineup — not as much because Caron Butler was at the two as Jumaine Jones at the three. Check out the Roland Ratings on the Lakers and notice Jones leads the team, even Kobe — when Jones is on the floor good things happen. He ran the floor in transition and he played good defense. Rudy T. should stick with this for a while.

For all my frustrations, this may be the happiest I’ve been with Rudy T.’s in-game management. I’d still like to see Mihm in at the end of games for defensive reasons, but we got some stops and i’m only looking on the bright side today, so that’s all the airing this topic gets.

The Lakers played defense — for the first time since Kobe went down they held a team below its season average in eFG% (Minnesota’s was just 42.6%). Garnett and Szczerbiak shot the ball well, no surprise there, but the Lakers let Sprewell take more shots than any of his teammates and the strategy worked — Spree was just 35.1% eFG%.

Chucky Atkins can be a true point guard. Him scoring 25 is not a shock — his scoring has never been his problem — but it was the penetration and 11 assists that we hadn’t seen before. He pushed the ball up in transition. This was the kind of performance we’ve needed at the point all year — not the scoring but everything else. His best game of the year and he provided the funniest moment of the night — on the ESPN feed they had a mic on one of the refs, and during a break he came up to Atkins and said, “I knew you were good but I didn’t know you were that good.” Classic.

Lamar had key buckets down the stretch and was solid — but that end-of-the-first-quarter foul was stupid (for those that forgot, the Lakers had a foul to give and Lamar took it). That’s not a foul your star player makes — Kobe and Lamar should never take that foul. In this case it was Lamar’s second and he didn’t have any extra considering he was guarding KG. And, KG took advantage of this late and blew around Lamar and there was nothing he could do. (By the way, some weak-side help defensively would have been nice in that situation, but Mihm was sitting on the bench.)

By the way, Brian Grant and Chris Mihm played at the same time last night. It was more because of Lamar’s foul trouble, but hopefully Rudy T. liked it (he should have) and we’ll see it again.

How confident is Sasha — asking for a clear out against KG? Then taking him to the hole and hitting the shot? Those are some big brass ones, my friend. That said, his way-to-upright man-to-man defense is something other teams are looking to exploit — the T-Wolves went right at him every time. Even Fred Hoiberg — the guy who leads the league with 98% (52 of 53) of his made baskets before last night coming off an assist from a teammate — took Sasha to the hole on the dribble. However, our rookie is only going to get better playing. I like how the minutes broke out — Sasha had 22 and Tierre 9. And I like Sasha coming off the bench for now, allowing Rudy T. to pick better defensive matchups for him.

On Tap: The Minnesota Timberwolves

 —  January 19, 2005

Here’s one reason Laker fans can be optimistic heading into tonight: The fivesome that put on the 24-7 spurt that pushed the Lakers past the T-Wolves a couple weeks ago was Atkins, Butler, Jones, Cook and Mihm. No Kobe needed.

(Look at the 82games breakout of a the Lakers best five-man squads and that group ranks second in +/- thanks to that performance. So, of course, Rudy T. has not played that grouping together again since.)

Three games into the “Kobe, we don’t need no stinkin’ Kobe” part of the season, tonight it is Rudy T.’s turn to make a move on the chess board. After Kobe went down, the Lakers started to run the offense through Odom in the post, and that got them two wins (I’m counting Cleveland). Then Utah, made adjustments — Matt Harpring played physical defense on Odom and, when he got the ball and tried to spin toward the middle, the double team came quick.

So what’s Rudy T. to do? Allow me to make a couple of suggestions. First, if a bigger body is going to play Lamar, get him the ball a little farther from the basket, allow him to face up and then beat the guy with his speed. Second, have players cutting into the space created when the double-team comes. We’ll see what actually happens.

As for the T-Wolves, we covered them a couple weeks ago and little has changed (they’ve gone 3-8 in their last 11). In brief — the offense is still good but Latrell Sprewell has fallen off considerably. Their defense, however, sucks.

Tonight the Wolves will be without the services of Sam Cassell, who is out with a bad hamstring. That’s no big boost for the Lakers because Troy Hudson takes his place at the point, and he scored 20 in the last meeting. Also, Mark Madsen — still heir to Gene Gene the Dancing Machine — is on the IR and will miss the game.

The Lakers were inconsistent when they had Kobe in the lineup and some things have not changed with him out. I really have no idea what to expect tonight.

The Tao of Rudy T.

 —  January 19, 2005

Some Laker fans who thought he would be the next Pat Riley are now calling him the next Randy Pfund. As the season has worn on and the Lakers have remained inconsistent at both ends of the floor, more and more fans are turning their frustration toward the guy pacing the sidelines — Rudy T.

And he has opened himself up for criticism. The thing is most of what we getting with Rudy T. should not come as a surprise — including the volume of three pointers. His rotations, affinity for players who haven’t necessarily earned it and game management may have us yelling at our televisions or at Rudy himself in Staples Center (although, from the seats I usually have, it disturbs the people around me more than the coach). The thing is, all of it fits with his offensive philosophy and what we have seen in the past.

The rain of three pointers this season is a perfect example and should not come as a surprise — all of Rudy T.’s teams have been that way. His basic offense is built to have the three as a key weapon. From 1992-93 (his first full season as head coach of the Rockets) to 2000-2001, the Rockets were never lower than fourth in the NBA in the number of three pointers attempted. Four of those years, they led the league in attempts — including both championship seasons. (Those numbers dropped his last couple of years in Houston, particularly when Yao Ming came to the team.)

Those Rocket championship teams had the best center of that time (Hakeem Olajuwon) who forced teams to collapse their double teams in the paint, then with a kick-out and a quick pass guys like Vernon Maxwell, Kenny Smith, Mario Elie and Robert Horry got good looks. When Clyde Drexler came on board, that gave the Rockets a slashing guard who could get inside defense and break them down, providing even more open looks on kick-outs.

Sound familiar? While the players have changed and the system now relies on isolation plays such as Kobe’s penetration, the concept of getting a double team or mismatch inside then kicking out for a three remains the same. So far this season the Lakers are averaging 22.9 three point attempts per game, second in the league.

I have a hard time blaming people for being what they are — blaming Randy Moss for being Randy Moss is a pointless exercise. Same goes for Rudy T.

That’s not to say I’m not frustrated with Rudy T.’s penchant for sticking with a rotation or players, even if it’s not working. Phil Jackson used to leave a struggling Laker squad out to figure things out for themselves — he had the luxury. Phil’s teams were going to the playoffs and he could afford an early-season loss to teach a lesson. Rudy T. has no such cushion, yet he sticks with what he’s got rather than changing things up.

Lets use the last game against Utah as an example. Without Kobe, Rudy T. understands that the Lakers perimeter defense is suspect, so he plays more zone and has some early success. But, as NBA teams do, Utah adjusted and Raja Bell starts shooting over the top and killing the zone in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, Chris Mihm sits on the bench. Rather than going with an Atkins-Butler-Odom-Grant-Mihm lineup (the best defensive unit the Lakers can put out, despite its weaknesses) he leaves in Brian Cook, who gets burned defensively far more than the couple good plays he makes, and leaves in Tierre Brown. The Lakers stay in the zone. And lose.

Rudy T. loves Cook — he can hit the three — and Brown — the Lakers second best guard at dribble penetration — because they fit his philosophy better than Mihm or someone like Luke Walton.

We’re not even halfway through the first season, it’s really too early to have a complete grade on Rudy T. And things certainly are not all bad — the bottom line is the Lakers are 20-16 and the sixth seed in the West, a good spot. But I have concerns as to whether Rudy T.’s offensive philosophy is the best fit with the Lakers current — and likely future — makeup. I know his offense is not the “return to Showtime” Buss and Laker fans envisioned.

But with his big contract, I guess we’ve got a few years to find out how it all meshes.

For The Love Of Three

 —  January 18, 2005

My mind is mush after spending much of the night up with a sick daughter. (Well, to be accurate, my mind is more mushy than normal.) So, today I bring some random thoughts held together by nothing but your imagination.

• Kobe is officially going to be out for at least two more weeks, or six more games, after a re-examination on Monday. My guess (based on nothing) is that he misses the eight remaining games of this Staples home stand (yes, I know one game is technically an away game against the Clippers) but returns for the East Coast road swing that follows.

• That could be a long six to eight games, by the way.

• First Golden State shot 4.1% better (eFG%) than they have for the rest of the season. Then Utah comes in and shoots 51.1%, well above their season average of 47.8%. Both teams also shot above the average the Lakers have given up to opponents this season (47.3%). The bottom line here — the Lakers miss Kobe’s defense more than his offense.

• The Lakers returned to plenty of old, bad habits against Utah — Lots of isolation plays and standing around (watching Lamar instead of Kobe); 27 three point shots despite the fact they weren’t hitting them (not enough of the shots were open looks off kick-outs); the Lakers lost the turnover battle by 5, and the offensive rebound battle by 2; as a result, the Jazz had 11 more shots than the Lakers. The Lakers stayed close thanks to 16 more free throw attempts.

• When Lamar got the ball in the low post, Utah doubled. And that pattern happened a lot, especially late, and the Laker way of dealing with it was predictable — a pass out to the guard for a three. Where were the cutters? There was better success in the first half when he got the ball in a mid-post position, giving him more room on drives (and other options).

• Yes Mihm was in foul trouble early, but where was he in the fourth? How does Rudy keep forgetting him? Did we need Cook in the game so we could take more threes?

• As for Sasha, a solid game on offense, but he still gets lost defensively at times. His man-to-man coverage is not impressive. In Italy the last few years Sasha played in a league that is known for playing a lot of zone, he looks comfortable in that defense but confused in man-to-man. That, at least, is something that can be taught over time. Still, against teams with more athletic guys at the guards, Sasha may see less court time.

• The Lakers ran a lot of zone defense against Utah and the Jazz destroyed it. Raja Bell just shot over the top of it. The Lakers need to change up their defensive schemes more often, different looks on different trips.

• Luke didn’t play again, but this time it is because he was sick. He’s day to day (but then, aren’t we all).

• I said before what matters about the future of the Lakers is not what Shaq says about Kobe but what the current Lakers say — if the word of mouth is good free agents will come. That’s why a Caron Butler quote in the Daily Breeze made me smile.

“Everything I heard about him is the complete opposite,” Butler said. “He’s a good person. I’ve definitely learned so much from him. I want to know what it takes to get there. He’s got three titles. He can be remembered in the same breath with Michael (Jordan) and Magic (Johnson). I just sit back and listen and learn.”

And You Thought the NBA Could Be Boring:

 —  January 18, 2005

Be glad you didn’t have to watch this.

(Thanks to Gorilla Mask for the link.)

On Tap: The Utah Jazz

 —  January 17, 2005

If you were going to play one team when you’re leading scorer will be watching the game with his ankle elevated and iced, the worst defensive team in the league would be your top choice.

Welcome to Los Angeles, Utah Jazz. Glad to see you.

The Jazz give it up so easily you’d think they worked for Heidi Fleiss. It’s the kind of confidence-boosting game the Lakers need before Minnesota and others come to town.

Tonight we also get a close look at the on the trading block point guard Carlos Arroyo. He got a big contract last off season and was considered the point guard of the future in Salt Lake, now he sits in coach Sloan’s dog house. If the Lakers do make a trade — and I think it’s still better than even money that they don’t — this may be the most likely option.

Utah’s defensive efficiency this season is dead last in the league — they are giving up 107.4 points per 100 possessions (the Lakers are 22nd at 103.6). Teams shoot well against them (49.5% eFG%) and get to the free throw line 33.3 times per game against them, more than any other squad in the league.

In fact, the only team that seems to have struggled scoring against Utah was the Lakers, but I think we can throw out the last game between these two — the second game of the season, when the Lakers’ eFG% was 33%. To quote Chick, “The Lakers couldn’t throw a pea in the ocean” that night. I doubt that sad an offensive performance will be repeated, plus Andrei Kirilenko blocked eight shots in that game, and he’s on the IR right now.

The Jazz miss Kirilenko badly — he was their most valuable player by far.

That said, the two guys who burned the Lakers last game will be the two starting forwards for the Jazz tonight — Carlos Boozer at the four and Matt Harpring at the three. Boozer hit 10 of 13 shots that game, Harpring hit 9 of 11 and was 2 of 2 from beyond the arc. This means that Lamar and Caron not only need to pick up the offensive production tonight, they need to play big on the defensive end as well.

The Lakers should be able to score from just about any position on the floor (the only place Utah’s oPER is below the league average is center). It will be interesting to see what kind of defensive adjustments Utah makes to playing the Lakers after the Golden State game.

Even without Kobe, this is a game the Lakers can win if they put in the effort on defense and they take care of the ball — the Lakers shoot better than Utah, they just can’t have a bunch of empty possessions.

Right now the Lakers are 1-0 with Kobe on the IR (2-0 if you count games they had to win without him). If they can stay above .500 with him on the bench, it will be a huge boost for the squad. Plus, don’t we all love the idea of the Lakers finally winning three in a row with Kobe just watching?

Perimeter Defense

 —  January 17, 2005

I kept asking it, poster gatinho asked it, I think everyone was asking it — where was Sasha in the second half of the Golden State game? Rudy T. gave him the start, and then never played our favorite rookie in the second half, opting instead for Tierre Brown.

I think the answer is defense. Where I think Rudy T. missed the boat is the problem is bigger than just Sahsa — without Kobe the Lakers could be in trouble on the perimeter.

Saturday night the Lakers faced (and beat) a Golden State team that is one of the worst shooting teams in the league, an eFG% of 44.8%. But against the Kobeless Lakers, their shooting improved to 48.9% and they really hurt the Lakers from the outside. The question is: Was that a one-night problem because Fisher was hot, or are we going to see the already-bad Laker perimeter defense get worse until Kobe returns? I think we start to find that out tonight.

But lets talk about Sasha, and Rudy’s rationale. For those that missed it, Sasha was given the start in Kobe’s two-guard spot, played 18 minutes in the first half but never saw the floor in the second half. His time went to Tierre.

My first question: If Sasha was good enough to start in Kobe’s place, why did he almost never get any run before that game?

On to Golden State. Sasha was better for the Lakers on offense. Tierre hit just 5 of 13 shots (eFG% of just 38.5%) while Sasha hit three of four (2 of 2 from beyond the arc). Using +/- for the game, the Lakers were -1 when Sasha was on the floor (or -2.6 if he played the full 48), while Tierre was -5 (-8 for the full game). A few more details: Sasha was taking one shot every 4.5 minutes, had an assist every nine minutes and a rebound every 6. Tierre was taking a shot every 2.3 minutes, had an assist every 10 minutes and a rebound every 5 minutes. Since Sasha was shooting so much better and the team played better with him on the floor, I think we can safely say Sasha outplayed Tierre on offense.

I think Rudy T. thought Sasha’s defense, particularly on Fisher, was inadequate. It was — I counted 14 of Fish’s points coming while Sasha was on him (Fish outmuscled Sasha a couple of times, the kid needs to put on a little weight). Also, Speedy Claxton would be too fast for Sasha, so a switch was not in order.

The problem with this line of logic is, Atkins didn’t slow down Fish either. Heck, everyone had trouble with Fish — he’s always been a streaky shooter and when he’s on he can hit anything. Just as San Antonio.

Without Kobe the Lakers are without a stopper on the defensive perimeter, the problem in Oakland was not just Sasha. There are times Rudy T. frustrates me to no end — this was one of those cases. Sasha deserved more time on the floor.

On Tap: The Golden State Warriors

 —  January 15, 2005

Bill Simmons calls it the Ewing Theory, and we’ll see if it applies to the Lakers starting tonight. The idea is simple — when a team’s superstar goes down everyone else steps up, without him to rely on they aren’t lazy and are more relaxed and creative. (Sorry about that link being subscription, but talk to the bean counters at ESPN).

Tonight should be interesting, with plenty of questions. The Laker offense is going to run through Lamar Odom, but will he get the ball down on the block — like he prefers — or out on the wing? How will Golden State defend him (and the Lakers)? Double Odom? Deny him the ball? Will the Laker offense keep the spacing and motion it had for much of the game against Cleveland? Will guys like Luke, Sasha and Slava get playing time? How bad is the Laker defense on the perimeter going to be without Kobe? Without Kobe playing, will any fans besides gatinho show up?

The good news for the Lakers is Warriors are in the second game of a back-to-back, having lost to Seattle last night. That makes it eight losses in a row for the Bay Area squad.

The bad news for the Lakers is the Warriors expect to get their best player and scorer, Jason Richardson (17.7 PER), back tonight. In a preview of what the Lakers may have to face, he missed the last eight games with a sprained left ankle. He was a big part of their offense. To use a crude stat: In a four-game win streak before Richardson went down the Warriors averaged 105.5 points per game, in the next seven they averaged 87.1. Last game against the Lakers, Richardson had 22.

The other guy the Lakers need to worry about is Speedy Claxton (16.27 PER). Last time they played he had just 9 points, but we know he’s better than that and we’ve seen our defense against point guards. That is especially true without Kobe being there to take him on key trips down the floor.

That said, the Warrior offense is the 26th most efficient in league, scoring 95.8 points per 100 possessions, and their shooting percentage is 28th at 44.8% eFG. What holds them back is the Warriors take a lot of jump shots, 71% of their shots (64% for Lakers, for comparison) and Golden State has an eFG% of just 39% on those jumpers.

(As a side not only I may find interesting, median eFG% for an entire team in league right now is 48%, with the Lakers shooting 48.4%. To provide some context, the median was 47% last year. I wonder if the new hand checking enforcement is the reason for the increase — teams are getting better penetration.)

The Warrior defense is solid, allowing 101.3 per 100 possessions, 11th in league. Teams shoot fairly well against them, 49% eFG%, but they are ninth in league in creating turnovers. This will be a key for the Lakers tonight (again) — taking care of the ball.

The last time these two hooked up, Dec. 3, Kobe was barely a factor in a Laker win. Butler led the way with 27, Kobe had just 10. This also could be big night for Odom, oPER of 17.1 against the four (but they can focus on him, so we shall see).

The Lakers luck out with a stretch of easier games — Utah, Clippers, Golden State coming up — while Kobe is out. If they can play .500 ball, the team will make a big step forward. That starts tonight.