Archives For July 2005

Looking Back at Kurt Rambis

Kurt —  July 29, 2005

One of the things I wanted to do during the slow off-season was reflect on some of the Lakers from the past, to take a stroll down memory lane with both statistics and a my rose-colored rear-view mirror. Of course, this off-season has been anything but slow so far, so I haven’t gotten around to it.

But Kurt Rambis has been on my mind lately. He was the coach of the Lakers Summer Pro League team. More prominently, when watching Ronny Turiaf play in that league I thought he could be the Kurt Rambis for a new generation (and hopefully still can be). Then there was a discussion in the comments this week that had me pulling up Rambis’ career numbers and taking a look — and that alone brought back good memories.

If Rambis came out of Santa Clara University today he would be undrafted — he was a third-round pick of the Knicks back in 1980. (Rambis is probably the second best player to come out of the school, behind Steve Nash, but I bet Nash never looked this good in college.)

Before the start of the 1980-81 season Rambis was cut by the Knicks (who decided to keep second round pick Dewayne Scales of LSU at the four). The next year the Lakers picked up Rambis and gave him a chance — that first year he averaged just 17.4 minutes per game but was already showing the hustle that made him a crowd favorite. His offense was nothing to speak of but he was grabbing an impressive 16.8% of the available rebounds when he was on the floor and his defense was very good —opponents were scoring seven points less per 100 possessions than the league average, a better defensive rating than any other Laker that season. And he had those glasses. And that 1981-82 Laker team went on the win the title.

By the 1983-84 season, Rambis was an entrenched part of the Laker dynasty years. From that season through the 88-89 season, Rambis would be in the top 10 in the league in rebound percentage grabbed (that last season with Charlotte). While his defense, rebounding and effort are what we all think of first (rightfully), what he did offensively can be underrated — he didn’t take many shots but he became an efficient scorer. During his time with the Lakers he never took more than 14.5% of the team’s shots when he was on the floor (for comparison, Magic, Kareem and Worthy would be in the 23-28% range), but he shot between 52% and 59.5%, and from 1983-88 he averaged a quality 1.20 points per shot attempt. It helps that the shots I remember him taking were either offensive rebound putbacks or lay-ups created by a no-look pass from Magic, but Rambis was able to find his offensive niche on a team that didn’t need him to score.

But let’s not waste time talking offense — the Rambis we most remember came in the playoffs, mixing it up with the Celtics. Forget Celtics — mixing it up with Kevin McHale. Specifically, McHale clotheslining Rambis during game two of the 1984 NBA finals. If a tackle could turn the tide in an NBA final, that would be the instance. Personally, I respect McHale and what he did on the court and in the front office, but I’ve never really forgiven him for that one. I still remember how angry I was at the time and how I wanted to jump through the television screen and take a run at him (of course, as a skinny high schooler, that would not have gone well for me). I don’t hold a grudge against McHale today the way I do, say, the ever-biased Tommy Heinsohn, but there’s still a part of that day’s anger floating around in me.

Sometimes we Laker fans forget Rambis’ lost years — in Charlotte and Phoenix— before coming back to the Lakers for his two last NBA seasons (including the season that had been the last time the Lakers didn’t make the playoffs). When he retired his career numbers were those of a quality NBA player — 53.4 field goal percentage, 16.8% of available rebounds grabbed (14.6 per 48 minutes), 1.15 points per shot attempt and a defensive rating that was better than the league average — but they fall far short of the impression he left on Laker fans. He became a cult figure and as popular as any of the team’s superstars.

He’s been with the organization ever since retiring, including an underrated stint as head coach. He’s a company man, in the best sense of the phrase. He’ll be back on the bench next season, sitting near Phil Jackson and spending his practices teaching Andrew Bynum the fine points of boxing out.

And every time I see him, I’ll think of the man in glasses and smile just a little.

Fast Break

Kurt —  July 27, 2005

Just a few general thoughts and notes in the inbox:

• The latest Carnival of the NBA is up at The City and shows you just how many new NBA blogs are out there — and how much action there is in the off-season.

•Gonzaga University has set up an email account where you can send get well wishes to Ronny Turaif. It is ronny@gonzaga.edu. The reports are that his heart surgery went as well as could be hoped.

• Apparently, his high school coach isn’t sure Andrew Bynum is ready for the NBA right now. I’m not sure anybody really does (nor should we fans expect it). The real questions that need to be asked are these: Will he ever really be ready for the NBA? What would be better for his development toward the NBA — two years of college or two years of limited playing time but plenty of practice time and more focused coaching on the NBA level? We’ll know the answer to the first one in three to five years, the second one we may never know.

(By the way, that is some good reporting by Bresnahan in the Times today, providing some background and fleshing out the overall picture of Bynum. I wish, however, that he and others would stop with the Shaq comparisons — Bynum is not that style of player and will not be asked to play a Shaq-like role in the offense.)

• Great read about Kobe’s return to Nike advertising — you can always count on Eric Neel to be smart and well written.

• Computer programmer or serial killer? Think you can tell them apart? (Thanks to Rob at 6-4-2 for posting that link first.)

• I liked HBO’s Entourage last season, but this season it has really hit its stride. It’s now must watch at our house. No show gets better cameos (Ralph Machio and Pauly Shore had the best ones so far this season).

• Great off-season topic over at Hoops Analyst — the best trades in NBA history. They are breaking it down by division, so far having covered the Atlantic, Central and Midwest.

• That is one athletic team the Washington Wizards will have on the court next season — Antonio Daniels at the point, Gilbert Arenas at the two, Caron Butler at the three and Antawn Jamison at the four. We’ll see what kind of defense that group will play (Daniels is good, however everyone else mentioned is below average), but on offense they should be a real entertaining group.

• If the Lakers waive Brian Grant as part of the one-time luxury tax cuts, expect him to end up in Miami (thanks to Ben Maller for posting that story).

• For the record, I didn’t read Basketball on Paper while on vacation. The new Sarah Vowell book, Assassination Vacation, is an entertaining and clever read that also shows why history should be fun and not feared. (Plus, you have to love a writer that in her last book said she loves Pop-a-Shot.)

And The Point Is…

Kurt —  July 25, 2005

After a week of breathing crisp, pine-scented air, relaxing with my family and looking at stunning vistas, I couldn’t wait to get back in front of a computer.

I didn’t think you’d buy that. But upon returning there were a couple of unsettling pieces of Laker news and one other thing I wanted to catch up on.

The first is the sad irony that Ronny Turiaf’s heart is too big. I hope he gets himself healthy — I get the feeling that whether or not he ever sets foot on an NBA court he is going to be a success. The passion he showed just in Summer Pro League not only won over the fans (including me and my wife) but also will serve him well in any endeavor. I sincerely hope that endeavor is as the Lakers future power forward, but that is out of everyone’s hands but the doctor’s.

The loss of Turiaf — who would have played limited minutes at the four — is not as damaging as the run on point guards in free agency. Antonio Daniels wisely did what was best for Antonio Daniels, taking the five-year contract in Washington over the reported two offered by LA. That short-term offer implies the Laker front office strategy is to have Kobe, Odom and Bynum (if he blossoms) as the core and the only bigger contracts on the books after the end of the 2006-07 season (Bynum will still be in his rookie deal but can be resigned for the max when it ends), then use free agency to plug in whatever pieces will need to go around them. That will hurt the Lakers in the short term, but building for three years from now appears to be the goal.

With Daniels signed other points have started to pick their new homes. The problem remains that last season the Lakers were weakest (using PER) at the point guard — the position provided the least on offense and gave up the most on defense. And who is left on the board this year for the Lakers to pick from does not thrill me. The rumor is the Lakers are looking at are Tyron Lue. While Laker fans may remember Lue fondly from the 2000 title run, the fact of the matter is that is the only season in his career where his defensive numbers were better than the league average (for his career, he has give up 111 points per 100 possessions to the players he covered, when the league average has been 104; last season his he gave up 113 pts. per 100, not significantly different than Chucky Atkins 115; last season his opponents PER was 17.6, with the league average at 15). Lue is not a great defensive answer for the Lakers.

The better answer may be Marco Jaric, but the Clippers want a sign and trade and I’m not sure who the Lakers have the Clippers want. (Well, Kobe, but that ship has sailed.) Maybe somebody else will come available via trade or the one-time luxury tax cuts. I hope so.

One final note: Friend of this site Kevin Pelton has put up a good piece at 82games.com talking about the growth of new statistical analysis in basketball. I’m not just suggesting it because he mentioned Forum Blue and Gold (although, let’s face it, it helps, but I’m not sure it belongs in the company mentioned) but because if you find the kind of things going on here interesting, you’ll find that you are not alone.

Summer League Notes, And More

Kurt —  July 15, 2005

For the next week, posting will be very light from me as I go on vacation with my family. Where we’re headed is not completely unplugged from the world (although I will be somewhat), so if there is a big Laker story I’ll try to get a post up. In the short term, here are notes and thoughts from the Lakers SPL game against the Miami Heat Wednesday night, plus some other stuff. If anything big happens put a comment in, that will be the first place I’ll look.

• Wednesday night against the Heat, Andrew Bynum had his best game by far. He seemed more comfortable in the offense and was “thinking” less about what to do, and that led to a much more aggressive Bynum on the court. He pushed back hard trying to get post position (he still needs strength, but he’s using leverage better). He fought harder on the boards, he had 10 total but five on the offensive glass. He had two blocked shots — one of a Qyntel Woods who was trying to dunk (one of the best plays of the SPL so far) and another all the way out near the three-point line on a rotation. He was more aggressive looking for his shot and was 6 of 10 from the field.

It’s still too early to say what we’ve got in Bynum, but his growth through the first four games gives me hope that he does have a high basketball IQ, is a good study and a hard worker. After the improvement I’ve seen, I’ve become more optimistic about his future.

• Now to the Lakers’ past at center — Vlade is retiring due to his back problems. Henry over at True Hoop has a good piece up about him, talking about what a good person Vlade was. I, for one, will miss him. Update: Laker management is saying that no decision has been made. Believe what you want.

• Here’s my concern about Ronny Turaif — his hands. He seems to fumble half the entry passes he gets in the post, good ones or not. The quicker guys he’s facing come this fall will exploit that more. He and Mihm in the game together would be an all bad-hands team inside. It’s something correctible, but certainly an area he needs to work.

• A lot of people who have been to the SPL are higher on Smush Parker than I am. Don’t get me wrong, I like him, but he’s only 2 of 9 so far from three-point range (although his overall eFG% is a very healthy 56.3%). Other parts of his game are good — he’s made good passes and mainly good decisions, and his defense has been solid. But, folks, this is the summer league, so we’re judging him against flawed competition. Give him an invite to camp and see if he can earn a spot as a backup point, if not send him to the NDBL as insurance. He’s been a nice find, but this is a league of end-of-the-bench guys and wanna be end of the bench guys — let’s not go overboard and say Parker should be a starter or even have a guaranteed NBA contract.

• By the way, Sasha Vujacic is 5 of 11 from three point range so far in the SPL, with an eFG% of 51.6%.

• After watching him in person, a lot of teams are going to regret not taking Wayne Simien earlier in the draft — the Heat got a steal. He is very polished on offense and a solid defender who can step in and play now. Those concerns about whether he was 6-7 or 6-9 were very overrated.

• Devin Green has been an interesting case on the Laker SPL team. He’s a very smart player, always seemingly in the open space, making a good cut to the hoop or in the right place for the rebound. At the end of the night his numbers are good, but he does it quietly. He doesn’t stand out athletically, which makes me think that at the NBA level (where good players are both smart and athletic) he will struggle, but he’s going to be a good fit for a minor league or European team. He may get a Laker camp invite, and I have to say I’m impressed. He strikes me as the guy who some day might make the best coach of any of his teammates.

• With Chucky gone, the Lakers really need to land Antonio Daniels, or what else is there at the point? He visited the Lakers practice facility and with team officials on Tuesday, however on Thursday his agent said Daniels is fond of Portland coach Nate McMillan (I can’t see Portland happening, by the way, they don’t need a starting point guard). If the Lakers get just one free agent deal this summer, let this be the one. Please.

• It took me a while to find the good beer at the Summer Pro League. You can’t go up to the food stand, you need to go to the “beer tent” area, where you can get bottled beer like Corona or Heineken, as opposed to the draft domestic swill in the rest of the place.

• By all reports, Kwame Brown didn’t like playing with the ultra-competitive, yelling at teammates Michael Jordan. Kobe is the same way. Has Kwame matured, or his skin thickened?

• Another Kwame note from one of the DC-based guys I talked to: One prevailing theory is he plays harder when he gets more offensive touches. If that’s so he may not like it in LA any more than Washington because Kobe and Lamar are still options 1 and 2. I’ll be curious to see what Kwame’s number of shots/percentage of team’s shots are. (By the way, the other theory is he gets more touches when he plays harder.)

• In a surprise to no one, Stu Lantz will be back as a color commentator, but now along side Joel Meyers.

Kwame Comes To Town

Kurt —  July 14, 2005

During the Civil War, Confederate general Robert E. Lee consistently defied military convention and took big risks, many of which paid off. Historian Shelby Foote said that Lee was not, by nature, a big risk taker, but circumstance forced him to be — his army was smaller and not as well equipped, if he’d done the expected he would have been crushed (well, at least a lot more quickly).

I don’t think that, by nature, Mitch Kupchak is a risk taker. But after a 34-win season, I don’t think he or the rest of the Laker brass thinks they have a choice. Hence the pick of Andrew Bynum and now the trade of Caron Butler for Kwame Brown.

Last night at the Summer League Laker game, I had the chance to meet and talk with Hoopsworld’s Eric Pincus (a great guy, by the way). I don’t want to steal any of his proprietary information, but look at the trade this way: Would you be willing to trade Caron for Kwame if the alternative was Lamar Odom starting at the four again? Mitch was, and those were his choices.

As I said before, Kwame has a long way to go and the question is can Phil Jackson get him there.

There are doubts about his work ethic, but will a change of scenery and a new coach change that? Last season Brown shot 64% inside but just 32.8% from outside jumpers, but according to those that have watched him, many of those were fade aways that started on the block (this is not from Pincus, but from a couple of people who know the Wizards well). He has a nice jump hook, but because his first step is great but his jumper iffy, defenders play off him. If the jumper becomes consistent is scoring threat goes up.

His rebounding has never been good for a power forward (a career 13.8% rebound rate [percent of available rebounds grabbed]), can Phil get him to focus on that? The scouting report on him is that when he wants to be, he is a good rebounder.

That scouting report I got also said he is a good man defender but not a great help defender. For his career, he averages just 1.4 blocks per 48 minutes (for comparison, Chris Mihm is 2.5), can Phil get him to improve this part of his game?

One thing you’re going to keep hearing is, “he can be like Jermaine O’Neal.” Let me say, statistically, I’m not sold on that. In the four lost years in Portland, O’Neal never played more than 13.7 minutes per game on average, Kwame played more than that his rookie year and averaged more than 30 a game two seasons ago. What’s more, O’Neal’s rebound rate was close to his career average of 16% and his FG% was close to or better than his career average of 46.4% in those Portland years (the same is true of points per shot attempt and other factors). What changed in Indiana is that he got the chance to play 30 minutes a game in a system that fit him and so he took a much larger percentage of his team’s shots (his last year in Portland he took 15.3% of the chances when he was on the floor, that jumped to 19% his first year in Indiana and was at a career high 32.3% last year). The bottom line is the skills were there for O’Neal, he just needed the right setting and the chance to display them.

Kwame has yet to show those skills are buried in him, but he’s going to get his chance now. It’s a big risk, but the one the Lakers felt they had to take. The scouting report I got said the issues were effort and focus, often problems of young players. If Phil can get all that potential out of him, the trade (and the money going to Phil) will be well worth it.

As a side note, I don’t really care who the throw in is on the Lakers end. Personally I’d rather get rid of Chucky Atkins so I hope that’s who the Wizards take, but it really doesn’t matter much.

(Because of this trade news, I’m delaying a post on last night’s Summer League action until Friday morning. Check back — the good news is Andrew Bynum had his best game by far and gave reason for optimism.)