Update: Kobe is off to a fast start on the offensive end, but his defense is the focus of a good piece over at 82Games.com (done by friend of the site, and stats wiz, Kevin Pelton). A must read.
A couple years ago they brought in some veterans that were supposed to get them an NBA title. It got them a long way, but not as far as they hoped. Then the team imploded, a coach left and the result was trades and moves that left the team with a superstar and little around him â€” a team trying to rebuild on the fly while their star is still at his peak.
Things are not that much different in Minnesota and Los Angeles.
Two teams trying to turn the corner from rebuilding to playoff caliber this season hook up tonight in Minnesota. After the first four games of the season, Laker fans are optimistic after a 3-1 start to the season.
Letâ€™s talk for a second about the Laker win in Atlanta last night â€” apparently the Lakers only needed to play 24 minutes of defense in that game. They still are having trouble stopping dribble penetration, both out on the perimeter and with poor help from the inside, but the more disruptive style of defense Kobe and Smush (and the entire team) played in the second half frustrated Atlanta. (As an unrealted note, I thought Joe Johnson looked better than he did in the bit I saw against the Clippers and than he did statistically â€” the reason is they let him play two guard rather than the point.)
Kwame Brown is struggling, and it is more than just the foul trouble (although maybe his hand is part of it). On offense he is not looking for his shot unless heâ€™s isolated on the block, heâ€™s picked up a number of three second violations and heâ€™s also not looking for passes that come to him (as happened the third quarter, when Odom elevated to fake a shot and instead passed to Kwame, who had already spun away to try to get rebounding position). So far this season Kwame is averaging just 13.4 points per 40 minutes, 7.5 rebounds and 5.1 turnovers per 40 minutes. On the other end of the court, he is slow on defensive rotations, which is part of what is leading to his foul trouble. (Although, I will say this about the Atlanta game, there were some â€œinterestingâ€ calls made against both teams, that was one poorly officiated game.) There are moments he looks good when he attacks the hoop, but he needs to do that more and stop looking to pass first (like Mihm, he might be better with some early scores that establish that threat then passes more as the defense adjusts to him).
But letâ€™s be honest, what is really concerning about his play is this was the book on Kwame coming in. We had all hoped he would turn that corner. He may still, but now there are doubts.
While weâ€™re talking big men, Mihm is far more effective when he gets the ball in the high post rather than the low post. Kwame may be as well, if he would attack more. But with both of them, get them the ball at the elbow early in the offense, send the cutters and things seem to go more smoothly.
On to tonight:
Like the Lakers, the Timberwolves have been playing better overall defense this season, with a defensive rating of 96.1 (points per 100 possessions). Last season they were at 103.7 and teams shot 47.2% (eFG%) against them, this season that is down to 44.2%, and teams are shooting just 19% from beyond the arc against them.
Trenton Hassell likely will be asked to slow the on-fire Kobe (just like the scoreboard in Atlanta), and he may be more up to it than anyone else Kobe has seen this season. Hassell had an ordinary defensive season last year, but is better than that over his career and the early numbers at 82games.com suggest he is back to his peak form (but it is too early take them as gospel).
That means other players for the Lakers are going to have to step up and take on some of the offensive load. And not just Smush.
Minnesota is shooting the ball well so far this season, with a team eFG% of 50.3% (compared to the Lakers 51.9%). Leading the way, of course, is Kevin Garnett, who is shooting 60.7% on the season, a true shooting % of 74.5%. However, he is taking fewer shots and is averaging 21.4 points and 9.8 rebounds per 40 minutes, numbers both down from last season (23.3 and 14.2).
Still, Garnett is going to get his and Kwame Brown on his best days canâ€™t stop him. The key will be slowing the rest of the T-Wolves attack, particularly Wally Szczerbiak (who has done a pretty good job of slowing himself this season by shooting just 38.7% [eFG%] and is 1 of 11 from beyond the arc) and former Clipper Marco Jaric (55.3% on the season). So far this season, looking at PER by position, the only places that Minnesota is getting much production is the three and the four.
The Lakers are 5-15 in the second game of their last 20 back-to-backs. But this is not a game they should get blown out of, and if they can hang around, run the offense and play efficiently on that end, this is a game they can win at the end. And then the optimism will be overflowing in Lakerland.