Archives For November 2005

On Tap: The Philadelphia 76ers

Kurt —  November 11, 2005

This game has two interesting defensive questions to be answered:

1) How does Smush hold up against the ultimate penetrating small guard in the league (and does Kobe spend some time on him too)?

2) What lessons did the rest of the NBA take away from the Laker collapse at the end of the Minnesota game, when the T-Wolves went largely to a zone and the Lakers looked lost?

The first question is the one that will be the fun one to watch (and will get all the media attention). Iverson takes a lot of shots but has never been efficient with them — he’s shooting just 39.8% (eFG%) for the season and has a true shooting % of 48.2% (which takes into account free throws), both very low (for comparison, Kobe is at 50.4% eFG% and 55.8% TS%). What Iverson’s penetration does do is tend to get other team members good looks. Chris Webber is the only other Sixer who takes a decent number of shots, but he’s shooting just 46.2% this season. The guys who really benefit by the good looks are Andre Iguodala (shooting 68% this season) and Kyle Korver, who is shooting 41.2% from beyond the arc.

The second question was something a lot of people seemed to notice — it was in my notes, it was picked up on by the AP writer (and Henry at True Hoops). The Lakers were tired at the end of that game in Minnesota and started to make some questionable offensive choices (leading to poor shots). But they also seemed not to recognize and react to the zone defense Minnesota put out there. In this league, it doesn’t take long for word of any weakness to get around. Whether or not the Lakers really struggle against zones (the triangle, if run properly, should overload it) or if that was the aberration at the end of a back-to-back we shall see soon, because the Lakers are going to get tested with it again. Likely in the City of Brotherly Love, but certainly somewhere soon.

The Sixers have been playing well, they have a two-game winning streak that includes a win over Dallas. The Lakers are fortunate to catch Philly with the athletic Samuel Dalembert out due to injuries, but that certainly doesn’t mean this is a gimme. This game and Monday in Memphis are both games that the Lakers are capable of winning if they play well, but could also easily loose if they aren’t ready mentally. Two toss up games. The kind of games playoff teams find ways to win more than they lose, even in November.

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As a side note, I’m going out of town this weekend, a local getaway for my wife’s birthday. Use the comments to talk about the game, I’ll check in over the weekend. But no new posts until Sunday night/Monday morning. Have a good weekend everyone.

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.