Season review — the Centers

Kurt —  June 5, 2006

This is the last in a series of season review articles. Which, for me, is like being done with my finals. I’m going to get a beer now.

Will the real Kwame Brown please stand up.

In the first half of the season, Brown shot 46.3% and grabbed 13.6% of the available rebounds. In the second half of the season, he shot 57.1% and grabbed 14.1% of the rebounds. Then when Chris Mihm went down with a severely twisted ankle, Brown stepped up and played maybe the best basketball of his career, helping the Lakers to the playoffs.

The question that may most impact next year’s Lakers is which Kwame Brown will show up come next November. Will it be the one from the second half of the season, one who has spent the off-season working on his weaknesses? Off-season work has not been Kwame’s forte in the past. Plus, I think we’d be foolish to forget what happened in the summer of 2004: The second half of 03-04 season was another period of Kwame playing his best ball, and the Wizards went into the summer with the plans to make Kwame a featured part of the offense the next season. Then he broke his foot before camp started, and while the team moved forward Kwame didn’t catch up, he was never right mentally or physically that season. By the playoffs he was feuding with teammates and being barred from the team.

Has maturity and working with Phil Jackson changed that? Has Kobe’s work ethic rubbed off on Kwame? If so it gives the Lakers a young athletic man in the middle (or at least someone who can hold that spot until Andrew Bynum is ready) and allows the Lakers to dangle their best piece of trade bait, center Chris Mihm

In the playoffs against Phoenix, both Kwame’s strengths and weaknesses were on display. In the first few games he went to the hole hard early and was a key part of the Lakers establishing a presence inside the Suns could not match, This probably came to a head in game 3, when Kwame had a 13 point, 11 rebound night (he had 12 and 10 in game 4). All season, when asked to play man defense in the post Kwame did very well, particularly against classic centers like Yao Ming and Shaq (opposing centers shot just 48.2% against him and had a PER of 13.5, both numbers showing how good Brown can be).

But, as Kevin put very well in Clpperblog the other day, the Suns force you to play a cerebral brand of team defense, and with that they started to expose Kwame. All season his rotations were often slow (they did improve as the season wore on) and if his man could step out to 17 feet or more, Kwame rarely followed, They Suns exposed both those weaknesses and by the end of the series the Lakers defense was 7 points better per 100 possessions when Kwame was off the court and he had the worst +/- on the team in the playoffs (the Lakers were -24 per 48 minutes when he was on the court).

These are the things that can improve this off-season and next year if he puts in the work. Kwame did have one of his best offensive seasons ever this year (he had the best eFG% and true shooting percentage of his career) and the Lakers will count on that to continue and improve into next year. The key for Kwame’s offense is for him to stick with what he does best— use his body to get inside and shoot close to the basket. Brown shot just 31% this season on jump shots but shot 61% when he could get inside (he averaged 3.7 possessions per game where he finished at the basked, and on those shot 66%). For the season, 36% of his offense came when he was single covered in the post. When he gets the ball in the post, on either side, he prefers to turn his left shoulder into his defender — from the left block he does it 57% of the time and shoots 49%, on the right block he does it 58% of the time and shoots 48% (working on other moves this off-season would help). Also, Kwame is better with his back to the basket, when he turns and faces up his numbers are horrible. Which is why having him playing the four in the triangle turned out to be a disaster and why having him at the five is the future.

By the end of the season, Kwame seemed to find his way in the triangle, finding himself in space when Kobe or Smush drove the lane, and 23% of Kwame’s offense came on cuts to the basket.

Let’s assume that Kwame is going to come back stronger and better — then whither Chris Mihm?

There should be interest for a trade — until he was injured last season Chris Mihm was the second most consistent Laker in terms of bringing effort every game. Mihm has more polished offensive moves than Kwame and it showed as he averaged 15.6 points per 40 minutes (to Kwame’s 10.8). But many of their basic numbers were the similar — Mihm had a true shooting percentage 55.8% (Kwame was 54.5%), Mihm had a rebound rate of 14.1.2% (Kwame 14.1% of rebounds grabbed when he was on the floor). Mihm was just willing to use more of the offense when he was on the floor, 16.7% of the available possessions (to Kwame’s 12.4%).

Mihm got most of his shots, 36.5%, while single covered in the post, and in that spot he shot 51% on the season. (Like Kwame, Mihm prefers to turn his left shoulder into his opponents whether he is on the left or right block, but his tendencies are not quite as pronounced). In a sign of Mihm’s hustle, he got 19% of his offense off offensive rebounds, while 14% came off cuts and finding space in the triangle.

Mihm is a pretty average defender, opposing centers shot 50% and had a PER of 15.7. Mihm continued to draw a lot of fouls, 5.5 per 40 minutes played (up from the year before).

The Lakers started the season with Mihm at the 5 and Kwame the 4, but that never really meshed well. However, in his exit interview, Phil Jackson suggested to Mihm the Lakers may try to reverse those roles and have Mihm at the four. Can that work? To be a good four in the triangle you need to be able to hit a 15-footer, and Mihm shot 36.5% on jump shots last season. He shot a good 47% inside of 17 feet, but from 17 out to the free throw line he shot just 37%. The bigger question with moving Mihm to the four is this: In an era of speed and perimeter play, are the Lakers too slow and plodding with both Mihm and Kwame on the floor together?

Mihm is an athletic 7-footer who is still young and has an expiring contract — there will be interest in him for a trade. For my money, the Lakers can’t just trade him for a point guard, he’s too valuable just to go a big for a small, much more would have to be part of that deal. Unless the deal is very good, I’d hold on to Mihm as an insurance policy on Kwame, then make a trade next season before the trading deadline. But, if the good Kwame comes back next season, then Mihm is expendable, especially if Bynum is ready to be an every night backup.

Andrew Bynum may well be the center of the future for the Lakers, and he showed Laker fans all they needed to see when he dunked on then pushed Shaq running down court this season — that takes a lot of moxie for a rookie. And we like moxie.

The place Bynum had the biggest initial impact was on defense, the Lakers were actually a slightly better defensive team with him on the floor than off. Opposing centers shot just 42.6% against him and had a PER of 15.4, good numbers (better than Mihm), which was an amazing feat considering how much weight Bynum gave up to the more physically mature centers he faced. Also, Bynum showed no fear coming on help to block shots — he averaged 2.6 blocks per 40 minutes played, better than both Mihm (1.9) and Kwame (0.9). Still, Bynum has work to do to better recognize NBA offenses as there were many times he seemed lost in space on the defensive end.

Bynum’s offense has shown a lot of improvement from his raw early games, but there is still a long way to go. He shot 74% of his attempts in close to the basket (dunks, lay-ups and other shots inside a few feet) but hit only 44.3% of those. On jumpers he shot just 28.6%.

Most of his offense came when single covered in the post (39% of his points) and on those he shot 37%. From the left block he was pretty balanced which way he went, left 56% of the time and right 44%, however on the right block he turns that left shoulder 65% of the time. In another sign he needs to get stronger, he got no points off of post pins (pushing your defender under the basket, essentially).

Offensive rebounds accounted for 22% of Bynum’s points, and overall he grabbed 13.5% of the rebounds available, not bad considering his youth and need to be stronger. Also, he picked up 19% of his points on cuts to the hoop.

What gives me hope is how much improvement Bynum showed from the days of last year’s Summer Pro League to the end of the season. He showed work ethic and desire, which means the tradition of great Laker big men may continue for years.

Kurt

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7 responses to Season review — the Centers

  1. whoahohoa.. lets straighten out your facts. Kwame didnt come into camp in the summer of 04 out of shape and break his foot. Kwame was working out at home and broke his foot in July playing pick-up ball… He never caught up because the Wizards have (had) a notoriously bad medical staff (see Jordan, Hughes, Stackhouse) that cleared him too early and when he was healthy, the Wizards had a 3 man setup that was working great and saw no reason to change their plans…

  2. Mike, my bad on the timing of the broken foot, which is something I should have looked up but instead trusted my Swiss Cheese-like memory. I made that change. And I’ll grant you that the Wizards medical staff pushed him back too quickly, although that is not a problem limited to the Wiz, all teams do that.

    But to suggest that the Wizards would or could not find a place for him in the lineup when he came back does not mesh with what I was told by people close to the team when I spoke with them last summer when the trade went down (I have a few sources here and there). They questioned Kwame’s work ethic and desire in general and for that season in particular, saying he could have made it back. Directly what I was told is that the Wiz did have some success with the three-man setup and because the team did not pamper and change the offense for Kwame (at least in his mind) upon his return he stopped working much off the court and was not a good presence in the clubhouse.

    As I said, I hope all that is past him, but to assume it is could be a mistake.

  3. With all the talks of revamping the roster, why not keep it intact and add a few ‘minor’ pieces. What about Eric Snow or Penny Hardaway for the veterans minimum? That way, Smush and Sasha can still get some valuable and meaningful minutes. What about Antonio Davis as back-up C/PF. He can still start and play quality minutes if Kwame does not produce or gets into foul trouble. PJ brown is also a possibility. He has a sure shot from 15-17ft and can play the 4 in the triangle. Then get Reggie Evans as combo SF/PF off the bench. Evans, Walton and Cook can then play the SF/ Back up PF by comittee

  4. notreallyimportant June 6, 2006 at 7:26 am

    (3) The problem with that is that it is the path of slow rebuilding. The Laker organisation needs to take a few risks and swing big in order to get the Lakers back into contention in Kobe’s prime.

    Also how many of those players are actually gettable?

  5. 3. The problem is that Smush and Sasha are getting too many “valuable minutes.” I would rather see someone come in that can cut their minutes way down and make them earn them back.

  6. Eric Snow? Penny Hardaway? Antonio Davis? Yeah, I can see that because Vlade DIvac, Aaron McKie and Jim Jackson have worked out so well for the Lakers.

  7. From Pincus: Dairus Miles or Marko Jaric to the Lakers for Mihm? Yes, there is something very much I like about the Lakers reassembling the Clippers.