Archives For November 2005

The Good Stuff

Kurt —  November 10, 2005

Sometimes I feel I focus too much on the negative, on the things that need improvement, but there are a lot of things to smile about five games into the Laker season, and not just that they are above .500:

• What was the biggest problem with the Lakers last season? Say it with me: Defense. This season things are much better. Last season the Lakers gave up 108 points per 100 opponent possessions (29th in the league), this season it is way down to 97.5. The biggest reason for the Lakers defensive disaster last season: Not creating turnovers. Last season opponents turned the ball over on just 12.5% of their possessions, this season it is at 18.1%. It’s really early, but that is a very good sign.

• Kobe came into camp 15 pounds lighter and is causing defenses problems because of his quickness this season. That and his quick-release and willingness to resurrect the lost art of the mid-range game in the NBA. How many times a game is he running off a weak-side pick (or curling in at about the free-throw line), catching the ball and going up before the defense can even think about getting the double team over to him? He looks rejuvenated this season.

• Smush. What can we say? Before the season we just hoped for good defense, some smart plays and if he added some offense that would be a bonus. His line after five games: 16 points, 4.1 assists and 3.1 steals per 40 minutes played. And lots of energy out top, as opposed the lethargy we watched last season.

• The Lakers are doing some nice things with the triangle, maybe not as constantly as the coaching staff (or fans) would like, but they are getting it done. And it’s not just the stars. One example that springs to mind was against a youthful Atlanta squad: Sasha had the ball as the initiator and threw it to Brian Cook just above the high post on the weak side, then Sasha cut toward the corner using Cook as pick. Sasha got open so Cook passed back to Sasha while the big man (Uruguay’s Esteban Batista) stepped out on the pick-and-roll switch. But the guard (I forget who) came over the top and also went with Sasha, and frankly you don’t need to double-team him. Cook, wisely, slid out to his favorite spot on the floor, the three point line almost straight on (he was the most accurate shooter in the NBA from that spot last season), got the return pass and buried the three. Yes, they did it against the second team from Atlanta, but they used smart play against youthful players and took advantage, and we’ve seen a fair amount of that.

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Congratulations to Kobe Bryant and his wife, Vanessa, who are expecting their second child in May. That’s one thing I have in common with Kobe.

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Today is the one-year anniversary of Forum Blue & Gold, and while I usually get a lot of kudos in the comments when I mention milestones, that’s not why I’m bringing it up. Rather, I want to thank all of you who have made this a regular stop, made comments, sent me emails and generally made this a lot more fun for me than I ever expected. Some time next week odometer will tick over and this site will get its 100,000th visitor, a number that once seemed astronomical to me but has come up very fast. It is all of you that really make this place special, have given me rare opportunities and that’s why I just wanted to say — Thank You!

And keep coming back, this is shaping up to be a fun time to be a Laker fan.

On Tap: The Minnesota Timberwolves

Kurt —  November 9, 2005

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 — 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.

Let’s talk for a second about the Laker win in Atlanta last night — 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 — 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 he’s isolated on the block, he’s picked up a number of three second violations and he’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 “interesting” 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 let’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 we’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 can’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.

Bloggers NBA Rankings

Kurt —  November 9, 2005

The first week of the season brought a few changes to the bloggers poll NBA rankings (of which I am taking part), but not at the top. The top 5:

1. San Antonio
2. Detroit
3. Indiana
4. Dallas
5. Miami

Apparently some of my fellow bloggers missed the mediocre 2-2 start the Heat got off to, or missed the fact they are without Shaq for a while, or they are just high. At least high I can understand, certainly more than saying right now they are the fifth best team in The Association.

Right now the poll has the Lakers 18th. Let’s just say I had them a little higher.

On Tap: The Atlanta Hawks

Kurt —  November 8, 2005

Steve Belkin was right.

Not for the right reasons — his was more about a power play than issues about a player — but trying to reject the Joe Johnson trade was the right move. Count me in with the group that think the Hawks overpaid — both the contract and in terms of draft picks — to get Johnson out of Phoenix this past off-season.

Johnson is a good player and had a spectacular last season: He shot 53.6% (eFG%), shot 47.8% from three point range, had a true shooting % of 55.6% and earned the praise he got. But Johnson also benefited from the Suns’ system — he was the fourth option in the Suns attack, meaning he was getting open looks thanks to the defense collapsing on Stoudemire and Nash. It’s a lot easier to shoot 48% from beyond the arc when the looks are all open. Ask Kobe about the quality of looks you get when the defense is focused on stopping you.

This season Johnson is shooting 48.4%, 35.7% from three-point range and 51.2% true shooting%. By my calculations, he is -9.1 (per 48 minutes) so far this season.

Not that rebuilding a team is easy. Last season the Hawks won just 13 games and if they double that total this year it could be considered a success. They are going about the rebuilding by seeing how many young and athletic 6-7 to 6-9 players you can put on one roster — Johnson, Josh Childress, Josh Smith, Al Harrington and rookie Marvin Williams. That’s a nice collection of young talent but they have little outside of the two and the three.

So far this season Atlanta has spent a lot of time “going small” and trying to up the tempo, which leads to some exciting plays and great dunks from Smith but does little to cover their weaknesses. Big men such as Zach Randolph, Elton Brand, motley-haired Chris Kaman, and Mickael Pietrus have had big nights against the Hawks in the first three games. Chris Mihm and Kwame Brown have a chance to shine here (or, in the case of Mihm, continue on his hot streak).

Sadly, the Hawks are especially hamstrung in the paint because of the untimely death of center Jason Collier.

Former Laker Tyron Lue is getting significant minutes in Atlanta (24.3 per game), which should tell you all you need to know about how thin they are at the point. While Laker fans tend to remember him fondly and think of him as a good defender because of the 2001 finals against Philadelphia, that is not the case — he is a career defender with a defensive rating of 111, worse than Chuck Atkins career average (although he was slightly better than Atkins last season, but not by much). He’s not good on the perimeter and players tend to just shoot over him. One guy rumored to have looked good for the Hawks so far is rookie Salim Stoudamire out of Arizona. He’s shooting 47.9% and is 5 of 9 from three-point range — I watched him torch UCLA enough to know he can fill up the basket.

For the Lakers this is a key game on the four-game road trip — after the Atlanta game they will fly all night to Minnesota for another game tomorrow night. Lose in Atlanta and there is the real chance of an 0-2 start to the trip heading into Philly. If the Lakers play like they did against Denver on Sunday this is a game they should win, but don’t get back in transition and let the young Hawks use their athleticism and it could be closer to the Phoenix game. The Lakers are playing well enough to spur optimism in all of us, but they are not good enough to look past anyone, especially on the road.

Fast Break

Kurt —  November 7, 2005

Lot’s of work that they pay me for today, so just passing along my notes rather than organizing them into a coherent post:

• Sunday night’s game was the best the Lakers played this season, particularly in running the triangle. Look what happens when you run the offense smoothly — not only does Kobe still get his, but the front line gets involved. Chris Mihm had a very good game (the kind we saw flashes of last season and hope to see more of than that this season) and Kwame, while less so in part due to foul trouble, had some moments. That’s not to say things are perfect, still way too many turnovers, for starters (19 total, 4 from Kwame).

• I’m waiting for someone in the media to write a “Kobe Bryant is being more selfish” article because his scoring is up and he is averaging 7 more shots per 40 minutes than last season. But, the offense is giving him better looks, plus is fade away is unstoppable, and that is leading to more efficient scoring than last season. So far this season he is shooting 49.4% eFG% (up from 48.2% from last season), he is averaging 34.3 points per 40 minutes (27.1) and his true shooting percentage, which includes getting to the free throw line, is 56.5% (56.3% last season). His rebounds also are up from 5.8 per 40 last season to 6.3 so far this season.

(For those that don’t know, true shooting percentage is the same as points per shot attempt, just divided in half. While I still prefer the per shot stat, the general consensus in the hoops statistical community is that the TS% is a more understandable, digestible number and it should be the standard. So, I’m going to bend to the will of the people.)

• Lamar Odom is still not shooting the ball well for the season (40.2% and 3 of 16 from beyond the arc) but he’s getting in the flow better the last couple of games. He’s averaging 15.6 points, 5.8 assists and 2.4 turnovers per 40 minutes.

• Phil Jackson is right to be complaining about the Lakers on the offensive glass — they are rebounding 25.6% of their misses. Last season they got 29.5%, and the pace they are on this season would have had them 27th in the league.

• What’s the deal with Kobe’s tights? By all accounts it is just a way to keep his legs warmer and looser.

• In a comment, John asked what I predicted for the Laker first three games in the previous poll. I had 1-2 (picked before the first game, by the way). As was also said in the comments, I’m very happy to have been wrong. That said, if the Lakers can go 2-2 on this road trip it will be a success. They need the opening night win in Atlanta, because then they fly all night to take on Minnesota, and we’ve seen the Lakers in the second game of a back-to-back.

On Tap: The Denver Nuggets

Kurt —  November 5, 2005

New Rule: Watch the backdoor lob.

The Nuggets, one of the trendy preseason picks to be one of the best teams in the Western Conference, come into Staples Center looking for a little revenge after a 1-2 start that includes a loss to the Lakers in dramatic fashion last Wednesday. This is also an important game for the Lakers because after it they leave on a four-game road trip that has some challenging games (Philadelphia, Minnesota and Memphis).

Denver will be back with George Karl on the bench this time around (his time in David Stern’s penalty box is over). That should improve game management decisions on their end.

One thing the Lakers need to do this time around is watch the backdoor lob to Marcus Camby. I mention that again because no matter how many times Denver ran it the Lakers never seemed to catch on.

Denver’s defensive adjustments from the first game should be interesting — last game Kobe was double and triple teamed and although he still got his points the Nuggets tried to make the other Lakers to beat them. Smush stepped up, as did Devean George and Brian Cook. Will Denver keep the same strategy or will Smush have a new friend hanging on his hip? (If that friend is Earl Boykins the Lakers need to post Smush up.)

By the way, if you’re looking for more Smush talk, check out the latest from Mike over at the Show Time Laker blog, where he talks about what Smush brings to the triangle that the Lakers have lacked. (As a side note, you should start making that blog regular reading because Mike, also one of the moderators at Lakersground, has scouts-eye analytical skills and his stuff will be worth reading.)

Have I mentioned defending the backdoor lob yet? The Lakers need to try it.

It took about five minutes of the first game between these two to see how much the Nuggets missed Voshon Lenard last season — with the strong front line they have they need an outside shooter, so he was getting a number of good looks. However he has not fully regained his touch yet, shooting just 46.4% (eFG%) on the season, well below his career 49.5% average. and he is just 1 of 11 from three-point range (he’s a career 38.6% shooter from beyond the arc).

The Lakers are going to need a defensive effort than we saw against Phoenix — especially because Denver’s scoring is so balanced. In the last game against the Lakers they had six players in double digits but none over 20 points, in their win Friday at Portland it was the same thing save that Camby had 23. Also, the last game between these two had 101 possessions in regulation, a very quick pace, so the Lakers need to play better transition defense than the other night.

In the first game the Lakers held Denver to 47.5% eFG% and they need to be back at that level or better at Staples. It would help if Lamar Odom can step up on offense and make Carmelo Anthony work on the defensive end more, or better yet get him into some foul trouble.

One last thing: Defend the damn backdoor lob. Please.

Fast Break

Kurt —  November 4, 2005

Just a few quick thoughts 72 hours into the NBA season.

• We’re just 2.4% of the way into the Laker season, so I’m trying not to get too high over one quality and exciting win, or too low over one ugly loss.

• Did last night’s loss to the Suns remind anyone else of last season’s Lakers? The ones that didn’t play good defense, didn’t rotate on defense, couldn’t stop the pick-and-roll, didn’t create turnovers and when they got in trouble went to isolation plays? If I have confidence in one thing this season it is that the current coaching staff will not let that kind of sloppy play go uncorrected or unpunished (play poorly and you get benched now).

• Smush —WOW! He has been impressive those first two games, shooting much better than expected from the outside (and on three pointers) and playing solid defense against two of the best backcourts in the West. Against Phoenix, guarding Nash in a losing effort, he was +4 for the night (while playing 37 minutes). As Christian said in the comments of the preview, if Smush can play at 75% of that for the season it will be big for the Lakers. Heck, even Kevin Pelton likes him (same comment thread). My one concern: There are moments he seems to get a little overconfident and tries to do too much — he needs to stay within himself. Take the open threes, keep moving on offense and keep playing pesky defense and he will be a big fan favorite.

• Phoenix still isn’t very deep — only two guys off the bench played more than 15 minutes — but the guys who are coming in are very efficient so far. And that was a perfect use of Brian Grant — six minutes against the opponent’s bench players (and he was +8 in that role).

• There is little about TNT’s hoops coverage that doesn’t annoy me. Does the first game of their doubleheader ever end on time? Don’t we always miss the start of the second game (like last night)? Why do they have this problem and not so much ESPN? Kenny and Charles, need I say more? Plus of I like the pairing of Marv Albert and Steve Kerr, so they stick Reggie Miller in the middle of them for a Pacers game? Courtside Times readers apparently feel the same way.

• What can stats do for you? It’s the first part of a very interesting three-part discussion of the advantages and limitations of the new breed of basketball statistics over at CourtsideTimes.net. This is put together by the best in the business, Knickerblogger.

• How poorly is Slava playing right now? In the European Championships just concluded before the season he was scoring a poor 82 (points per 100 possessions used) and giving up 121, shooting the ball on 33% of his team’s possessions (a higher rate than Kobe last season) and allowing opponents to shoot 51% against him. Thanks to holymoly from APBR for putting together the stats for Euro 2005 and posting them.

• What do preseason games tell you about a team’s regular season? Not much at all. But that doesn’t mean this 82games.com story isn’t a good read.

On Tap: The Phoenix Suns

Kurt —  November 3, 2005

The rumors of the Sun’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

At least that’s what I came away with after watching the second half of their opening night game against Dallas. Yes the Suns lost (in double OT), but they looked good doing so (well, except for the last 8 minutes) against a team I like. This is not the same team without Amare Stoudemire, but they’re not bad either.

Tonight they get a Laker team that is playing its second game in as many nights and had to go to OT on the front end. But oh, what a game! Certainly not in terms of execution as both teams were sloppy (the Lakers turned the ball over on 20.5% of their possessions, as did Denver) but it was entertaining at the end nonetheless.

One of my first thoughts of the end of the game, both regulation and overtime, is how much this reminded me of Phil Jackson’s previous teams. Those teams were always killers at the end — yes they had MJ to take those crucial shots in Chicago (and Kobe in LA), but it was always a team thing with key stops and clutch shooting. Kerr hit some. Paxson hit some. Pippen hit some. If you left the door open just a crack they were going to bust through it. Denver left the door open just a crack and the Lakers acted like winners.

A few other quick thoughts from Denver before the focus shifts to Phoenix:

• That Kobe guy is pretty good. We should keep him on the roster.

• Great debut from Smush Parker, especially on offense. Early in the game Denver didn’t rotate out to him quickly, they dared him to shoot from the outside. He responds by shooting 79% (eFG%) on the night and scoring 20. He gets a dunk over Miller (a move I bet he picked up at the cage) that ended up all over ESPN highlights. He struggled some defensively, but Andre Miller and Earl Boykins give a lot of guys trouble. Bottom line, he played 40.5 minutes and was +9.

• Devean George was also +9 for the night and had some tough minutes trying to guard Carmelo as Jackson tried to send Chris Mihm a message. George did a good job pestering ‘Melo. (By the way, all four of Mihm’s five fouls were on the offensive end.) We’ve all got concerns about the Laker bench but if George can continue to play like that it will be a big boost.

• The triangle was in about third gear most of the night and often players were breaking out of it for isolation. Odom does not look comfortable running it yet.

• What’s bugging me about Kwame Brown is his instincts don’t appear to be very aggressive. He pulled down three offensive boards but each time (as I recall), rather than go right back up he looked to kick out. When he is aggressive to the basket, whether on rebounds or in the offense, he is effective, he just needs to do that consistently. To his credit, when he missed the game winner in OT he hustled and got his own rebound, then found Kobe. One game’s worth of +/- doesn’t mean much, so take it with a lot of salt, but he was last on the team (-11), while Chris Mihm was first (+11).

• Good to see Andrew Bynum get in the game, and he acquitted himself fairly well. He made some nice defensive and rebounding plays, and he learned that Kenyon Martin has hops.

One thing that was very weak for the Lakers last night was transition defense, which they had better fix tonight against Phoenix if they want to be close enough for last-second heroics.

With Amare out Steve Nash appears to be taking on more off the offense (good news for you Nash fantasy owners), taking 25 shots against the Mavericks and having 9 assists. Backing up Nash is Leandro Barbosa, who struggled so much running the point last season that when Nash was down everyone would say, “look how bad they are without Nash.” I’m not sure a guy should get the MVP because his backup sucks, but that’s a debate for another day. It should be noted, however, that Barbosa is 23 and has the potential to be better — he had eight points in 17 minutes and led the Suns with a +/- of +11 against Dallas.

Shawn Marrion had great season last year — he can run floor and hit threes, and while at it grabbed 11.6 rebounds per 40. However, with Amare out Marrion may spend more time at the three than the four (where nobody could match his quickness) and that may hurt his productivity.

Just like last season, Phoenix’s starting five is very good, but the bench is suspect — in a double-overtime game only Jim Jackson and Boris Diaw saw significant minutes.

The Lakers need to control the tempo tonight, not let Phoenix turn the game into a track meet because the Lakers have just run an event (last night). How good is Phoenix without its real MVP? Good question, but they won’t be a gimme and the Lakers need to move on from last night’s win quickly. No matter how much fun it was.