Archives For June 2006

Playing GM

Kurt —  June 14, 2006

It’s kind of a fun game to play: “If I were GM of the Lakers, I would….”

It’s the idea behind the NBA GM Fix It web site, which today is focusing on the Lakers. The guys behind the site asked me to take part, I agreed, and today they are focusing on the Lakers.

The problem is, like to many things in life, fun and reality have little to do with each other. Here is the first paragraph of my piece:

As much as we all like to sit around on barstools and complain about what our local GM is doing and how we know better, the exercise of actually making player personnel choices from said stool — especially before the playoffs have ended — is a fool’s errand. It’s sports talk radio fodder at best. The reason is simply information — I am one guy at a computer who watches some college games, has 82games.com, the stats I do myself and some draft sites, every GM has an army of scouts, detailed statistical analysis and gets paid to watch more games, in person and on tape, than I have time for with a job and a family. How well GM’s use that information can be debated, but to suggest that we have seen enough to know that the Lakers should take “Player X” with the 26th pick is pure hubris — we didn’t see any of the 20+ individual workouts that Mitch Kupchack and his staff did (or will by draft day). We didn’t get to watch nearly every college game of our guy and his main competition. We love to talk rumors, but we don’t know what trade offers have actually been discussed, which ones are smokescreens and which ones a bored columnist or radio talk show host made up.

I enjoy discussing with the commenters here what we think the strengths and weaknesses of any proposed moves are. But I have tried to focus this site on analyzation not rumors speculation, and the “If I were the GM” idea troubled me more and more as I worked on this piece. In the end, I just should have bowed out, but wanted to be true to my word.

What I ended up with was a pretty basic rundown of my thoughts — that continued development of Kwame and Odom in the triangle will have the biggest impact on how we do next year. That there needs to be a defensive-minded point guard and preferably a veteran. That we should draft the best player available at 26. That I’d only trade Mihm for a deal I love. There’s more detail, but it won’t be new to regular readers here.

But I think my main point is worth repeating — we can hope to follow a plan but there are really limits on what we as fans really know. What Laker fan saw Andrew Bynum coming a year ago? That may end up being a steal, or at least a solid pick, but before the draft we didn’t have the information to make an informed decision. And that hasn’t changed.

Notes at 3 a.m.

Kurt —  June 12, 2006

A collection of notes on this finals, the one 15 years ago, and other odds and ends:

• What may have cost the Lakers the 1991 finals against the Bulls? Mike Dunleavy doesn’t throw away his trash.

Phil Jackson said on his radio show he was handed Mike Dunlevey’s notes after game one (a Laker win), which were scribbled on pieces of paper then just thrown under the bench. Those notes led to changes, such as putting Pippen on Magic. Having the other team’s playbook helps. Having Michael Jordan probably helped a little too.

• I was asked this question in an email by one reader and I figured if he was wondering, others would be to: The Lakers cannot trade the last year of Brian Grant’s contract. I went to the source and asked Larry Coon (he of the NBA Salary Cap FAQ), and he reminded me that for the Lakers Grant is considered a waived player with a terminated contract (even though they are still paying it), meaning there is nothing to trade.

• Two games into the Finals, Erick Dampier is a series best +37.

• Dallas is doing a great job in two areas to frustrate Shaq: 1) making it very hard for him to get the ball by pressuring the passer; 2) giving him a lot of different looks, occasionally doubling with Nowitzki (meaning Shaq has to pass around two 7-footers) and a handful of other times from the weak side with smalls (by the way, Josh Howard is a great weakside defender). Also, they are doing good fronting of him in the post.

• Gatinho made a great point in the comments, even if he isn’t scoring Shaq is not grabbing a lot of boards or doing much else to really assert himself into the series. Three of Miami’s four best runs in game two came with Shaq on the bench.

• I tried to put myself in Pat Riley’s shoes and say “what adjustments would I make?” The problem is there aren’t a lot of adjustments to make, maybe some set plays to swing the ball to Shaq’s side more quickly therefore making it an easier entry pass, but the bottom line is they have to get the ball inside and Shaq has to be a threat for them to have any chance. They also should run Wade off a few more picks with him going right, his strength, because the Mavs are doing as good a job as you can forcing him left. The role players like Williams (-34 in two games), Walker, Posey and others must play better. For the Heat, it’s execution, not adjustments.

• I am taking part in a project called NBA GM Fix It, a new site where a few bloggers have been asked to write an offseason plan for thier team. The site starts today with some discussion of the Denver Nuggets, and we’ll be talking Lakers on Wednesday.

• Best team I saw over the weekend in the World Cup: Argentina. (I have the USA game Tivo’d to watch tonight.)

• About Jordan Farmar, it looks like little has changed — scouts that watched him in Orlando say he could use one more year in college, but he’s coming out now anyway. As much as I liked him in college, if I’m the Lakers I’m going another direction. From Orlando the reports were his defense was average and his offense spotty.

• I don’t get into politics on this site, but I will recommend that people learn about the “Net Neutrality” issue coming to a head soon in Congress. The issues can seem a little “inside the beltway” right now, but it very well can impact the Internet as we know it in a decade or so. The Bruinsnation blog does a good roundup, and there is no shortage of information out there for you to educate yourself on this, but it is not something to ignore.

• And here are a few good Laker jokes to brighten your mood. (Thanks to Henry at True Hoop for posting that.)

And the Winner is….

Kurt —  June 8, 2006

If you’re looking for a safe pick for a champion, go with Brazil. There doesn’t seem to be one in the NBA Finals (smarter people than I, such as Kevin Pelton writing for 82games/Sports Illustrated, agree).

My initial gut reaction to a Dallas v. Miami series was that Dallas would crush them, maybe intentionally dropping one game in Miami so they could spend a few more days in South Beach, but that’s it. However, the more research I did, the more I thought about it, the more I more I thought this match up a good one.

I still think Dallas will win, but I now expect it to go six or seven games and this to be a close and exciting Finals

First things first — don’t expect Dallas to run the Heat out of American Airlines Arena (either one). That gut first reaction I had — something echoed by some scouts and media members — was that Mavs should stay small and just “go Phoenix” on the older, slower Heat. Except, the stats don’t really bare that out — against the 10 fastest-paced teams in the league, the Heat won 75% of their games. However, they won just 54% against the 10 slowest paced teams in the league.

Where the Mavs have the advantage is match ups and Chicago gave the Mavs the blueprint for beating Miami — guards (and others) using dribble penetration to break down the Heat. The Bulls had success with a three-guard lineup — usually Hinrich-Gordon-Deng, sometimes Duhon-Hinrich-Gordon. Hinrich and Gordon had good series and the quick lineup did a few things: The Bulls got shots in the lane; it got Shaq in some foul trouble; and it forced the Heat play the elder statesmen of Gary Payton and Derek Anderson way more than Pat Riley wanted.

The Mavs have a lot of depth at the guard/swingman spot and that is going to create even more match up problems for the Heat —Josh Howard should really benefit. First, he’s going to get a lot of time covering Wade, and while nobody stops Wade Howard may be able to make him less efficient. As for how you do that, well the previously linked Pelton article stole my thoughts — force Wade to go left. Nobody stops Wade but he is considerably weaker and less efficient when forced left, and the length/athleticism of Howard (and Griffin) can force him that direction more often. It’s something to watch for at home, which way is Wade getting to go on his drives.

Another match up advantage Avery Johnson has is to put out lineups that force Antoine Walker to cover either Howard or Stackhouse, which is a huge win for Dallas either way.

The big match up problem for Miami is Dirk Nowitzki, a job now in the hands of Udonis Haslem, although he is going to need some doubles to help out. The problem is, the quick perimeter guys on the Mavs will make the Heat pay for those doubles with penetration. Pick your poison, Riley.

Of course, the match up problems go both ways — how do you deal with a motivated Shaq? You can go with Dampier, but then you give up a lot of offense. Diop? At times. I think the key with Shaq is to give him a lot of looks — front him at times, double him sometimes, single coverage another, and there’s always hack-a-Shaq. Change it up and make him think. The problem is Shaq has seen it all over the year and knows how to defeat them. His mind is willing; the question is if his body can still do it for seven full games.

Shaq presence and Wade’s penetration are a big part of the Heat’s success this postseason — 40% of the Heat’s shots are coming close to or at the basket, while only 30% of their opponent’s shots are that close. It’s why the Heat as a team have an effective field goal percentage of 53.8% in the playoffs, second only to the Suns.

The bit key for the Heat has been defense — they have a defensive rating of 100.2 (points given up per 100 possessions) in the playoffs, the best defensive rating of any team that made it past the first round. For comparison, is Dallas 105.1 on defense, although to be fair remember that the Mavs had the harder road thus far, going through San Antonio and Phoenix, while Miami’s last round was against offensively-challenged Detroit. On offense, the Mavs have and offensive rating of 110.8 (points per 100 possessions) in the playoffs, compared to the Heat’s 106.6.

The Heat are peaking at the right time, and Shaq can still turn it on for a few games. But I think it is the match up problems the Mavs create and their versatility — they can play well with a big or small lineup — will ultimately tilt the floor in their favor. Still, this is going to be fun to watch.

Update: A few quick thoughts from game one of the Finals:

• Not shockingly, Jason Terry led all players as a +12, but Dampier was +11 and Howard was +10, which speaks to what they did defensively. On the other side, Posey was -11 and Williams -10, those two are really going to have to pick up their play and match what the Mavs can do on the perimeter if the Heat are going to make a series of this.

• Look at the game flow and you can see the depth problems the Mavs present, lots of players to choose from and create match up problems with.

• On one hand, you can’t expect Terry to score like that every night, shooting 83% (eFG%), on the other you can’t expect Nowitzki (35.7%) and Stackhouse (36.4%) to be that off every night.

• In Miami, Haslem gets those calls.

• Free Darko (with quote via True Hoop) may have hit the nail on the head:

With the Heat in this series, I think the question is not can they adjust, but did they ever really hit a championship stride in the first place. In the same sense that the Frankenstein Lakers never really did, and probably only lost to the Pistons because of that. Not saying that they would have definitely won, or that they could have gotten to that special place, but their failing to do so definitely seems to have settled shit in advance.

Everywhere from Bristol to blogs, Dallas and Phoenix are being touted as the future model for an NBA roster — multi-talented and athletic big men, strong perimeter teams, and the ability to play at pace. Versatility, match up nightmares, speed. Personally, I think the hype about the “new NBA” is a bit overstated — in a few years everyone will be talking about Greg Oden and GM’s will be looking for the next one. Shaq would be a force in any era regardless of the style of play. Talent wins, and it comes in numerous sizes and shapes.

But due to a couple rule changes, speed and perimeter play are becoming more valuable in the NBA — and pretty soon how to defend that speed will be a big concern of GMs and fans. It’s worthwhile to think about how the Lakers, within the triangle, mesh with these changes.

For the record, those two rule changes are: 1) the much-discussed no hand checking or touches on the perimeter, essentially making good NBA perimeter players hard to guard and great players like Kobe/Wade/Nash/Parker virtually impossible; 2) the current zone defense rule, which has put a premium on versatile big men. (Remember, the NBA had become seemingly all isolation, in part because of the man-only defense rules, which meant you could put a big stiff like Elden Campbell/Greg Ostertag at the three-point line on the other side of the court and his man would have to be within 10 feet of said stiff, too far away to do much as a help defender. Now with the zone rules defenses can sit back more, meaning your big guy has to be a threat outside if he is going to spread the defense.)

The Lakers obviously have one huge advantage in the new system — Kobe. He is now basically unguardable by one person and forces a double team every time he touches the ball. Plus, he is a good defender on the perimeter. I could go on and on here, but the point is obvious — the new rule enforcement has helped Kobe as much as any player in the league.

Then there is Lamar Odom, whose versatility fits well in the new paradigm. Try to cover him with your average power forward and he’ll take him outside and beat him off the dribble or just shoot the jumper. Put a small forward on him and Odom can post him up all night long. By the end of the season and into the playoffs, Odom seemed to be figuring out how to take advantage of those mismatches and get his points within the triangle.

But after those two, it becomes clear the Lakers could use more versatility, particularly in their forwards and centers. The triangle is an offense that can thrive with interchangeable parts, moving guys around to set up mismatches, but you need to have the personnel to do it.

Kwame Brown and Chris Mihm both can be solid inside-presence centers, but neither have the offensive game to step away from the basket, either with a consistent jumper or taking guys off the dribble. That makes it challenging to play both of them together because it means two guys gravitate toward the basket, clogging the lane should Kobe/Odom/Smush try to penetrate. The need for more versatility at the four is a prime reason to look at trades for Mihm (if Kwame proves he can play consistently like he did the second half of last season).

Brian Cook can certainly step outside, but he is a pick and pop guy that struggles when he has to put the ball on the floor (or defend a guy who can). Luke Walton brings some unique passing and court-vision skills, but he is not a fearsome athletic perimeter player. Walton does will within the triangle (and likely in any offense), but he is not a match-up problem for most teams. Devean George provided a little of that, but he is still more outside shooter than off-the-dribble threat. Turiaf will have a growing role on this team, but his game is also near the basket (however, his value goes way up if he can develop a consistent 17-foot jumper).

While it’s easy to point out deficiencies and say “we need a Shawn Marion” the fact is there are only so many of those guys to go around and now everybody is looking for them — every GM wants to find the next Boris Diaw languishing on somebody else’s bench. It may be easier to find these new-breed bigs in the draft, if you think a Shawne Williams or Nick Fazekas or Leon Powe some other guy can grow into that role. What I fear is the Lakers drafting a Kevin Pittsnogle (a less athletic Brian Cook).

The need for versatility is not limited to bigs — look at the success the 6-4 Smush Parker had success posting up Steve Nash in the playoffs. Phil Jackson has always preferred big guards that could be interchanged and I expect that is what he wants in his veteran guard (that and defense).

However, the draft could play a role here too — right now Draft Express has the Lakers taking Mardy Collins, the 6-6 guard from Temple. There are questions about his shot and mixed reports (from what I’ve read) on his defense against quick guards, but his size certainly fits the triangle mold. Daniel Gibson of Texas may be another good fit.

The bottom line is that the Lakers do not need to try to become the Suns, but they can’t ignore the trend toward perimeter play in the NBA. With Kobe they already have a big step in that direction, but they need to keep this trend in mind as they look at free agents and draft picks.

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.