Archives For April 2005

Season Grades Start Coming In

 —  April 19, 2005

The first season grade for the team is in and it’s from Chad “I’ll go public with rumors faster than Hacksaw” Ford on ESPN Insider. Without giving out specifics of pay-per-view content, he blames everything on Kobe, including saying he forced Rudy T. into retirement. That made me more suspect of Ford than before, if that was possible.

Then he gave the team a C- for the season, which sounds about right to me. (I chalk him being right up to the “a broken clock is right twice a day” theory.)

The way I see it, the Lakers are that kid in class who did very well then suddenly had big changes that disrupted his life at home, and when that happened his grades fell. That’s to be expected. What you really want to see is the kid not continue the downward spiral and turn into a laughingstock but shake out of it and return to form.

In the case of the Lakers that return to form will not be instantaneous, but there needs to be substantial progress next season. That means smart moves in the off-season, starting with bringing a top-flight coach.

In the coming days I’ll be doing more of an in-depth end-of-season report card/look to the future, starting with team management (likely on Thursday). I hadn’t planned to give an overall grade, but C- seems right to me.

On Tap: The Golden State Warriors

 —  April 18, 2005

Yesterday against Dallas the Lakers made a fourth quarter run — +13 — with an interesting lineup: Kobe, Sasha Vujacic, Luke Walton, Jumaine Jones and Devean George. This is a lineup of guys essentially all the same height, between 6’6” and 6’8”, something Isaiah Thomas might love. Yet it was a group that was able to defend (even Nowitzki) and pass the ball around, two things we have seen little of this season. On the flip side, it was guys Laker fans have high hopes for in Caron Butler (-16) and Chris Mihm (-18) that held the team back for a night. I’m not advocating this new lineup as a starting five, just pointing out something that shows this team has the depth to be successful.

With this Laker team we are all watching the games and looking ahead: Can Sasha grow into a good NBA player? (The last two games his defense has been much better, he’s only 20 and with continued work he can become a competent defender. A more consistent jumper would be a nice thing to develop, too.) Are Butler and George part of the long-term future of the Lakers or just the best trade bait? (Can they be both?) Will Slava ever see the court and was his signing Mitch’s biggest error?

This team can be turned around, if you want to see what just the right player can do check out tonight’s opponent, Golden State. They were bottom feeders who brought in Barron Davis to create one of the league’s best backcourts and they are 16-10 since.

When healthy, there is no question Davis is one of the best points in the league, what has worked in the Bay Area is that he has paired well with Jason Richardson, who can use his quick shot to take advantage of Davis’ passing skills. In the last 10 games Davis has averaged 28.6 points per 48 minutes, 12.5 assists and 2.9 steals (both also per 48). Those assists have raised a number of players scoring averages — Mickael Pietrus has jumped from a season average of 22.48 points per 48 to 27.4 in the last 10 games.

By the way, since we all hear a lot of “Why didn’t the Lakers get Davis?”, I don’t think Davis and Kobe could have blended their games any better than Kobe and Odom. All three of those players like to have the ball in their hands to start plays and two guards who both want the ball all the time is a recipe for disaster. That was moot though, I don’t think the Lakers had what New Orleans wanted in a trade.

Golden State will join the Lakers in the hunt for an inside presence this off-season — Adonal Foyle is not the answer (but he is pretty expensive and under contract through 2009). Get any help inside and they are a team poised to be much better next year. That is one of the big challenges in the West — Minnesota, Golden State, the Clippers and the Lakers all should be better next year and be playoff contenders. The East, while it has some good teams at the top, is simply not as deep.

We’ll see how Sasha’s improved defense stacks up against a very good back court tonight in the Bay Area. We’ll see if a same-size lineup gets on the court tonight, and what it can do.

Monday Morning Reading

 —  April 18, 2005

Two quick things to read this morning. First, don’t assume all Laker teams are doing poorly. Second, another great article from Eric Pincus at Hoopsworld — 15 things to think about. One quote to whet your appetite:

Teams aren’t going to go out of their way to send talent to the Lakers. In fact they’ll probably do their best not to help the Lakers, unless LA is giving them the absolute best offer. In other words, LA will probably have to overpay to get a deal done.

Not The Worst Ever

 —  April 17, 2005

With just three games left in the season, counting today’s likely loss to Dallas (how much fun will this game be to watch with both Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant questionable?), The Daily News’ Steve Dilbeck started the first of many Laker season wrap ups and report cards (including starting here on Thursday).

His assessment: This is the worst Laker team ever. Is it really? If you look at the numbers, does this team rate out worse than every other Laker team in history?

It’s certainly right up there. But when you look at the numbers the worst Los Angeles Laker team is the 74-75 team.

When I went looking for the worst team, I narrowed the field down using two criteria — having less than 40 wins and missing the playoffs. That alone left us with just three Los Angeles Laker teams (and one from Minneapolis, the 57-58 squad): this 2004-05 squad (currently 34-45), the 93-94 team (33-49) and the 74-75 team (30-52). Let’s break them down.

We’ll start on offense, the one area this season’s team has not been bad. The current Lakers have an offensive efficiency of 104.9 (points per 100 possessions), ranking them 8th in the NBA this year. The 93-94 team had a rating of 101.4, which had them 19th in the league (out of 27 teams). The 74-75 squad had a rating of just 93.4, but you have to keep in mind the league average that season was just 95.1. (Teams averaged a lot more possessions per game back then, the Lakers averaged 109 per game that season and the league average was 107.2. For comparison, the Lakers are averaging 93.8 possessions per game this season and the league median is 93.85 — and that’s up from last season.) All that said, the 74-75 squad was 15th out of 18 teams in the league in offensive rating.

As for shooting, this year’s Lakers are shooting a solid 48.5% (eFG%), which ranks them 11th in the league. The 93-94 squad, with Vlade Divac leading the way, shot worse at 46.5%. The Gail Goodrich-led 74-75 team shot 45%, however that is straight shooting percentage, no three-point line then. (You can’t really compare shooting percentages now and then because of the three pointer — this year’s Laker team is shooting just 43.8% with traditional shooting percentage, but they’ve taken 1,763 three pointers, the vast majority of which would not have been taken that far away without the line).

Defense was bad on all these teams. This year’s version of the Lakers has a defesive efficiency rating of 107.6 (again, points per 100 possessions), which has them 29th, or next to last in the league. The 93-94 team had a rating of 106, which was 19th in the league. The 74-75 team was the worst defensive team in the NBA that year, with an efficency of 97.4.

We can use another measure over time, RPI. This year’s Laker team has an RPI of .491, 19th in the league. The 93-94 squad was .471, 18th that season. The 74-75 team, .463, second to last in the league/

So to recap, the 74-75 team was last in the league defensively and third from the bottom of the league in offense. Something else that should be familiar to current Lakers fans — that 74-75 team didn’t take care of the ball well, losing the nightly turnover battle by an average of 2.2, and they couldn’t keep teams off the offensive glass, allowing opponents to grab 34% of their missed shots (and we thought the 2004-05 Lakers were bad at 29%).

Sadly, this year’s edition of the Lakers can be part of the “worst Laker team ever” conversation. But they don’t win the title.

(As a side note, this piece would not have been possible without the great basketball-reference site.)

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By the way, I hope the best for Kobe and his wife. As someone who was watching some of the last season’s NBA finals games from his wife’s labor room (she said it was okay, she said it would help distract her from the pain, but the game was pretty painful itself), I get just how scary a pregnancy can be. While my wife’s pregnancy was not near as difficult as what Kobe and his wife are going through, it had moments where I have never been more frightened, true life-threateneing moments.

Take your time, be with your wife Kobe. Be a family, that’s what is important. Don’t listen to what others tell you and come back when you’re ready. (By the way, any bets on who the first idiot talk radio guy is who says “Kobe should be playing” is?)

The NBA’s Image

 —  April 15, 2005

One of the fun things about having a blog is you get interesting email, like the one I got from Ryan, an University of Illinois freshman doing a paper on the NBA’s “image problem” and looking for comments on topics ranging from the proposed age limit to the glory days of the 1980s. We can question whether I was the right person to ask, but it got me to clarify my thoughts about issues around the game I have mulled over for a while.

I wrote Ryan back with a lengthy commentary on the image issue, and have decided to post it here as well (with a few edits). Please add your thoughts as well.

I see the NBA’s “identity crisis” as more of a culture clash than a series of on-the-court concerns, and it mirrors a clash taking place throughout society but this one is amplified because of the media attention focused on the NBA.

On one hand you have the vast majority of the players and a large part of the broader-base of fans watching from home being more urban, younger and part of a “hip-hop generation” (I use that for lack of a better identifying term). But for the most part they are not the ones who can afford to be season ticket holders and they are not the corporate sponsors — that is a group that is white, middle to upper class, older and unsure of all things hip hop. (I accept that these are rather broad categories and certainly not a total picture, but I think it does paint a generally accurate picture.)

NBA marketing people try to walk a fine line here, catering to both groups while trying to offend no one. When it comes to their biggest stages, they play it safe — at the All Star game this year the halftime musical line up looked like the Country Music Awards. The only “hip” artists were crossover acts like Outkast.

But the NBA is in bed with rap and the hip hop crowd — remember that the vast majority of rap albums are bought by white youth — even if it tries to play that relationship down. Those who do not like the new style may harken back to the “golden era” of Jordan, but he was the first guy to wear his shorts long and had “Air Jordans” out before having your own shoe was common. Jordan ushered in the NBA’s hip-hop relationship.

Now, that’s not to say that the NBA and its players don’t bring a fair amount of this “image problem” on themselves. There’s a well-known list here — topped by the fight earlier this season in Detroit — of players acting foolishly at best, like criminals at worst.

And the Olympics disaster/style of game plays into this perception. The NBA game has evolved into one of isolation plays rather than the “team play” we think should win. (Even if that perception is flawed — the winner of the NBA title last season was the best team, if healthy the Spurs will be favorites this year because they are the best team. My Lakers had Shaq and Kobe, but won because of the team around them of good, fundamental role players.)

By the way, the Olympic loss falls only somewhat on the players and more on the NBA/USA Basketball for the team they assembled. They put together an NBA All-Star team that could sell jerseys with little consideration for the way the game is played internationally. The closer three-point line and wider base of the lane makes it very different than the NBA. We needed Michael Redd and shooters, but put together a team of isolation players.

One thing that contributes to this image problem — not just in the NBA but also in all major professional sports — is the money. It’s not just what the players earn so much as it makes them hard to relate to for the average fan. Ken Burns in his Baseball documentary noted that in the 1960s the average major league baseball player made six times what the average American worker made. Now, the average NBA player make $3.7 million a year, about 123 times what an average American worker earns.

I’m not sure that the NBA will every get back to the image it had in the 1980s, but I’m not sure it wants to. The fact of the matter is, the league, the owners, the players are all making far more money now and that’s what will drive this. If you say that is driving away fans long term, I counter that in a couple of years when LeBron James is approaching Jordanesqe popularity and is competing for titles, the television ratings and popularity of the sport will be back near all time highs. This is cyclical. Ratings for the playoffs will be down this season not because of the level of play but because the love them/hate them Lakers with Shaq and Kobe won’t be playing in the finals.

As for the proposed age limit, that’s a band-aid fix on the issue of fundamental play. Better fundamental play is going to have to come from high schools, youth leagues and work its way on up. But I can’t see the NBA seriously putting in the age limit — I think it’s a negotiating ploy for the ongoing CBA negotiations — because it’s the former high schoolers who are selling tickets (and shoes and jerseys) right now. Garnett, McGrady, James, Stoudemire, Kobe and the list goes on and on to Dwight Howard in Orlando, drafted last year — they are the future of the NBA, hip hop or not.