Archives For February 2007

It’s the Offense, Stupid

Kurt —  February 15, 2007

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s been hard to watch the Laker defense of late, for example the Knicks’ guards seemed to get into the paint at will and the defensive rotations have been horrible. And, in the last 10 games, the Lakers have given up an average of 12.5 offensive rebounds a game, just to compound their problems.

I thought the recent Laker slump (4-10 in their last 14) was due to the defense. But that’s one of the reasons I also like statistics — they can point out where your perceptions are off.

In the last 10 games, the Lakers defensive rating has been 108.2 (points per 100 opponent possessions). That’s actually one point per 100 better than they have been all season. Add to that the fact the Lakers played some weak offensive teams of late and I think what this means really is that the defense is playing about how it has all season. (Which is not good, that 108.2 would still have the Lakers 17th in the league for the season, rather than the current 22nd. Those kinds of numbers do not suggest a first-round playoff win.)

However, the bigger problem of late is the offense — the Lakers have an offensive rating of 106.4 (points per 100 possessions) in the past 10 games. That is 3.3 points per 100 off their full-season pace. Or, look at it this way — for the season the Lakers are the 7th best offensive team in the NBA, but in the 10 gamest they would be 22nd.

And it comes down to the central offensive ingredient — shooting. The Lakers are shooting 48% (eFG%) in the last 10 games, well below the 51.2% they are shooting for the season. Kobe’s shooting percentage in the last 10 games is just a hair above his season average, but everyone around him — Odom, Smush, Bynum, Mo Evans, Cook — are way off their averages.

The Laker defense has been bad all season, but for much of the year the offense was bailing them out. Not lately. I doubt there is just one cause, it’s more a combination of missing Luke Walton, Lamar’s knee being weak and that sapping his confidence, the lack of fast breaks and some easy baskets, and just some guys in slumps.

Whatever the reasons, they need to snap out of it.

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As for the Cavs tonight, here are a few notes and things to look for:

In the last 10 games, the Lakers are averaging 2 fewer possessions per game than they had been. As has been noted before by Rob on this blog, the Lakers have done better at higher tempos. Time to push the ball up the court.

Superstitious things that worry me: With All Starts dropping like flies, I’d like Kobe to get through this game healthy.

The Lakers catch a couple of breaks. First, this is the second game of a back to back for the Cavs, who lost by one point in Utah last night. Also, Zydrunas Ilgauskas will miss the game due to “personal reasons,” according to Mike Bresnahan at the LA Times. He didn’t play last night. That may free up Bynum to be more of a help defender.

The Lakers did a solid job last time not letting LeBron get to the basket too easily and forced him to be more of a mid-range shooter. Tonight they also need to do that to Anderson Varejao, who only shoots well close to the basket.

As for Aleksandar Pavlovic, well, he’s colder from the right side of the floor midrange. Better yet, just don’t let him shoot, the Lakers sagged off him a lot last game and paid for it.

Also, one of our regular readers here at FB&G will be stuck tonight, not able to use his season seats and not near a computer or television. If someone is going to the game tonight and can give him some calls with updates, send me an email and I’ll try to get you connected. Thanks.

And let’s hope those reports do not in any way involve what happened at the end of the last meeting between these two.

Magic, Nash and Some Blog Talk

Kurt —  February 14, 2007

There is so much great and interesting stuff put out in the basketball blogsphere the last couple days that to just talk about Lakers’ lack of focus on defense last night seems masochistic. So today bask in the sunshine, the darkness may creep back in tomorrow.

Let’s start with friend-of-this-site Nate Jones of Jones on the NBA, who takes a look back at Magic Johnson’s 1996 comeback (read the entire thing, this is just an excerpt).

Magic would return to the Lakers as a 6th man on January 30, 1996 against the Golden State Warriors. After not playing in an NBA regular season game for almost five years, Johnson came back and had a tremendous impact on the team. The Lakers planned to use Magic as a back up power forward/6th man for the young Laker squad. In his first game back he played 27 minutes, scored 19 points, grabbed 8 rebounds, and dished out 10 assists. He would have his down points (such as the drubbing he and his young teammates took at the hands of the mighty 72 win Chicago Bulls), but for the most part had the Lakers rolling.

They were 13-5 in his first 18 games back with the team when the jealousy of the younger players started to set in. Cedric Ceballos, an All-Star the year before, became upset that he had to give up some of his minutes to Magic and decided to take out his frustrations partying on a lake in Arizona. Despite the Lakers victory against the Western Conference leading Seattle Sonics, Ceballos bailed on the team, upset that he only played 12 minutes and scored 2 points while Magic played 34 minutes, had 14 points, 10 assists, and 5 rebounds. With Ceballos missing and controversy hanging over the team’s head, the Lakers would end up losing their game two nights later (against Seattle again). Ceballos would join the team again in Orlando (where they upset them at home…a big deal considering Orlando was undefeated at home up until that point), but the team was never the same. Guys like Nick Van Exel started to join Ceballos in their jealousy of Johnson. The team was winning, yet the young guys were too worried about their minutes and who the leader of the team was to enjoy it. The Lakers got through the regular season going 22-10 during Magic’s return. But by the time the playoffs rolled around the fight over team leadership had torn the team apart. Despite having home court advantage in the first round, the Lakers would eventually lose to the defending champion Houston Rockets in four games. Realizing that he wasn’t cut out for playing with young players Magic left the Lakers for good.

I was at that Golden State game and it is one of my fondest memories as a Laker fan. The building was electric, like a playoff game but one you just knew was going to go well. I remember Magic setting up in the low post then making brilliant passes out of it that left Golden State looking like a YMCA pickup game team on defense. It was, well, magical. And thanks to Nate for bringing up those fun times.

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Kevin Pelton has put up a story talking about just what Nash — and his absence the last few games — means to the Suns.

Over the last two-plus seasons, Nash’s primary backup has been Barbosa. Barbosa has matured into an explosive scorer with lightning quickness, but he is no Nash, particularly when it comes to distributing the basketball.

Phoenix’s ability to play without Nash can be evaluated by Nash’s net plus-minus rating over the last three seasons – the difference, measured per 100 possessions, in Phoenix’s play relative to opponents. As the table at right shows, the Suns have become more dependent on Nash this season. Only two players in the league (Washington’s Gilbert Arenas and Dallas’ Devin Harris) have higher differentials. Most of the difference, predictably, is on offense: Phoenix’s Offensive Rating drops from 119.6 with Nash to 105.4 without him.

What’s interesting is that Nash missing games, and the struggles the Suns had in his absence, two years ago helped him to the first MVP trophy. That could happen again, which I will add I think is grossly unfair — you are punishing Dirk for not getting hurt (or Kobe or Wade or whomever). Long way to go in the MVP race, but this will be interesting.

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The biggest news in the NBA blogsphere, which many of you already know about, is that the amazing True Hoop is now part of ESPN.com’s empire. I can tell you this has bloggers buzzing.

I think it’s fantastic — both for Henry and the multitudes of NBA fans who didn’t know what they were missing. His is the best basketball blog out there, leading the field like Secretariat at the Belmont. He deserved to get paid (and get paid, well, one could hope). Also, credit is due to Royce Webb (I assume he pushed for this) at ESPN.com for pulling together a bunch of diverse basketball voices at his corner of the Web. You may not love Hollinger or Stein or Ford, but what you get at the site is not the same old talking heads saying the same old stuff. They get it; there is a diversity of voices.

True Hoop’s move has a lot of bloggers wondering what the next step is for the NBA blogsphere in general, and how they can get paid (at least something) in particular. And I’m really a guy without good answers to those questions. I think I’m just starting to get my head around the niche of blogging about the NBA (and in my case an NBA team) fits into the larger blog and online media as a whole. I’m behind on that learning curve. I’ve tried to broaden out doing more mainstream-style blogging at LAist — I don’t really question my ability to write well enough for a more mainstream audience, but to do that well without dumbing down the content is another matter. I think I’m getting better at it. I hope I can take better advantage of future opportunities that roll my way.

But here’s the bottom line — I started FB&G with no expectations. No expectations of readers, certainly no expectations of income. What this has grown into (a community of smart, thoughtful and passionate basketball and Laker fans who can have civilized discussions) is beyond what I dreamed. And I guess what that means is this — I’m not changing the style here. There are professional bloggers doing Laker blogs that are fun and a more mainstream. If I’m going to get paid for this site, well I guess the mountain will have to come to Mohamed (so to speak). Because I like it here.

Preview and Chat: The New York Knicks

Kurt —  February 13, 2007

Turning it around. Call it a slump, blame the injuries, say the season of bad defense is catching up with them, say that Mercury is retrograde so the stars are lined up against us, it really doesn’t matter. What matters is the Lakers are 3-7 in their last 10 and have looked like a team more destined for the lottery than one that could scare the best in the West.

The good news is the team enters a stretch of games where they can turn it around. Starting tonight. It’s New York, a winnable game. That’s followed on Thursday by the chance to show the Cavs that other Lakers than are a threat to score, then the All-Star break to rest up (and maybe a healthy Luke Walton), followed by Portland, the Celtics and Golden State. Winnable games all.

Stepping up. When the Lakers looked sharp a month or so ago, they were getting offensive contributions from everyone. In his last 10 games Lamar Odom is shooting 44% (eFG%) and 28.6% from three. Smush has taken more threes than any Laker the last 10 games and is shooting 30% from range. Bynum is shooting 47.4%. Radmanovic has been a defensive disaster much of the time.

Play during this loosing streak has looked like last season to me, with the downward spiral of Kobe taking on more of the offense because others are missing, which pushes other guys more into a shell, so Kobe has to shoot more, and so on. It’s time to get back to sharing and hitting some shots

The last meeting between these two. On one hand, I’m not sure we can take much from that game because the Lakers were without Kobe and Odom’s knee was wobbly. The results were ugly for LA.

However, there are a couple lessons, and a couple of Lakers need to step up. First in Andrew Bynum, who got in foul trouble because he could not do much with Eddie Curry, which led to Curry getting 27 points on 50% shooting. Bynum simply has to do better. Part of that is denying Curry position on the block and then using his length to bother Curry, all without getting fouls. To be fair that’s a tall order as Curry is good on the block.

But the other part of that is you’ve got to make Curry work on the defensive end, he is not a good defender and you can score on him. Utah made a great late-game comeback on the Knicks the other night because they started running the offense through whoever Curry covered. For the Lakers, this means setting up the triangle positions quickly and getting the ball inside early — not just working it around the perimeter and pinch post.

The other thing is better play on the perimeter. Stephon Marbury and Jared Jeffries combined to be 15 of 23 from the floor for 36 points. Having Kobe on the floor should help with some of that, but it would be a nice change of pace for Smush to fight through a pick and for the defense to rotate behind him.

The Knicks get someone back too. Steve Francis is expected to be back tonight, coming off the bench. Tough match up for Farmar, who needs to show what he can do on defense.

One thought on trades. This is really the silly season for the NBA, as for the next two weeks countless trade rumors will take flight, sometimes based on reality and sometimes on the whim of a speculating columnist. Here’s my point — think about any trade from both sides. Both general managers are looking to improve their teams, and you need to think about what they would ask for. For example, if you were dealing with Mitch Kupchak and the Lakers, would ask for Radmanovic or Cook? Would you want Smush or Farmar? Would you really settle for the lesser of the two? Just something to think about.

Things to look for: Just a win. We need one. This is a team the Lakers could and should beat.

Run the offense, get the ball inside early and make Curry work at both ends. Move without the ball in the half court and push the ball in transition.

On defense, well, did you see Lamar Odom’s quote from yesterday? He said that the guys on the playgrounds in Queens do a better job of communicating on defense, of calling out picks and asking for help, than the Lakers do. So, maybe we do need a little playground on this team.

Stepping Up

Kurt —  February 12, 2007

Over at LAist, in a little preview of Sunday’s game, I stated something for that more mainstream audience I think is understood here: When stars like Kobe and LeBron clash, the guy that gets the win is the guy that gets the best play from his supporting cast.

With that in mind, let’s look at the last three and a half minutes of the game against the Cavaliers. Kobe just tied the score at 81 with a pair of free throws.

3:38. Cleveland brings the ball up the floor and gets the ball to LeBron out beyond the top of the key. Anderson Varejao came out and set the pick, LeBron goes to the right around it but Bynum has five fouls so he lays way back near the paint (all game the Lakers had hedged hard to keep LeBron from driving). LeBron drives deep but rather than shoot over Bynum and Lamar he kicks it to the corner to Sahsa Pavlovic, however, for one of the few times in the game a Laker is ready and Mo Evans is quick to rotate out. So, Pavlovic throws the ball into Varejao at the right block. He spins to the right, gets into the paint, puts his shoulder into Bynum to draw the contact and goes up. He gets the foul, Bynum fouls out and Varejao hits two free throws. 83-81 Cavs.

3:20 Kobe gets the ball out at the left wing extended past the three point line, he waits for Turiaf to come and set the pick, but he fakes going around it to the right and quickly drives back to the left. Larry Hughes stays fairly close, so Kobe takes a 15-foot fade away from the left wing, it comes up short.

3:06 Lebron brings the ball up and again it’s Varejao out high to set the pick, and this time it’s Turiaf’s turn to be way back rather than hedge. Lebron goes pretty much right at him, Turiaf picks up the foul. Lebron hits both free throws. 85-81 Cavs.

2:59 Kobe gets the ball near the top of the key and is instantly doubled. He swings it to Lamar who makes a great quick pass to Turiaf in the paint, who is fouled by LeBron. Turiaf hits both, 85-83 Cavs.

2:50 The Lakers make a defensive change, putting Odom on Varejao, so this time when he sets the high pick the Lakers switch so Odom is on LeBron, not that it really stops LeBron from taking it to the hole. Turiaf comes over to help and gets a foul for throwing a hip into LeBron, although how that was in the act of shooting along the baseline behind the basket when he just threw his hands up is a little odd. LeBron hits one of two, 86-83 Cavs.

2:30 Lakers get the ball to Kobe at the right-wing extended, and he drives to the right, but when the defense collapses he kicks it out to Smush for a three at the top of the key. A Cav defender comes flying at Smush who does the mature thing, just lets him go by, steps inside the line and drains a 20 footer. 86-85 Cavs.

2:05 James is isolated at the top of the key, this time no screen. He drives to the right and draws just about every Laker on the floor. He kicks to Varejao, who has a lifetime to set up for a 16 footer and drains it. 88-85 Cavs.

1:43 After working the ball around the Lakers get it to Kobe at the pinch post (but he has to take a step out for possession), then the double comes quick. Kobe holds the ball up looking for a pass but Larry Hughes knocks the ball free, and Pavlovic picks it up and goes running down for a layup. Smush gets back then commits a wimpy foul so Pavlovic scores and goes to the line for the and one. If you’re going to take the foul, then FOUL and make sure he doesn’t score. Pavlovic hits the free throw. 91-85 Cavs.

1:26 Odom has the ball out top as the initiator. Kobe comes out high to get the ball, Hughes comes out higher to deny. Lamar sees the space that creates and drives to his preferred left, then hits a little step back over Varejao. 91-87.

1:09 LeBron starts a run to the basket from out near half court but Turiaf is there with a nice defensive rotation, so LeBron uses a skip pass to Pavlovic open in the left corner, but he proves he’s human and misses. The ball bounces high off the top of the backboard, that throws off Turiaf’s jump, Varejao taps the ball out and as a couple people goes for it, Kobe knocks it out of bounds.

LeBron takes the ball out of bounds, throws it in to Varejao at the right wing, who seems to catch the Lakers off guard when he just takes the ball to the hole past Odom. Turiaf rotates over but his foot is in the restricted area and he fouls Varejao, who scores but misses the and one. 93-87 Cavs.

:48 Kobe takes it on himself and brings the ball up then just goes to the hole never slowing down, he drives right into a triple team when Gooden blocks the shot from behind. Meanwhile, just a skip pass away, Odom and Smush are wide open for threes.

:40 After the block, Kobe quickly fouls Pavlovic, he hits both. 95-87.

Next trip down Odom and Smush miss desperation threes, and then the Lakers choose not to foul and let LeBron have a dunk. Oddly, the Lakers later choose to foul with 9 seconds left, but by then the point is moot.

Bottom line for the Cavs, in the last three minutes: LeBron had 3 points and other Cavs had 11. They scored on every trip down the floor. Game over.

4-4? At the start of this road trip Phil Jackson said 6-2 was feasible, I was hoping for 5-3, but in the end I can live with 4-4. However, the Lakers need to win today to reach that lowest of goals.

Missing Luke. For the last couple games, the Lakers have been very slow up the court, they are not getting the ball into the post (or the pinch-post at the corner of the free throw line) early, not really running the offense for long enough and the result ends up being desperations shots late in the shot clock. It’s been ugly

It’s frustrating because just three weeks ago the offense was humming. Maybe it would help if Kobe got a few early (within the flow off the offense), but the other key is for other guys to step up and hit the shots when Kobe gets doubled. Toronto got good defense from Anthony Parker, but at key moments they rand aggressive doubles at Kobe and he made passes and nobody else stepped up. They need to get back to the movement, passing and team ball we saw not long ago.

Radmanovic or Cook? When Lamar Odom went down, Phil gave Radmanovic the starting job but after a few games, Cook had stolen it with better play. Things are not much different now (despite Cook’s run-in with Phil). In his last three games Vlad is -25, including being -7 in the last Laker win. Meanwhile, Cook came off the bench to be +11 in Toronto. When you need a win, like the Lakers do, you give the minutes to the guy getting it done.

MVP candidates face off? Before the season started I thought Kobe and LeBron would be fighting it out for the MVP. Kobe is still in the mix (although I think Nowitzki and Nash lead for most voters), but LeBron has not lived up to expectations.

Not that he’s been bad — he’s got a PER of 23.92, which ranks 11th in the NBA (Kobe is 7th at 24.8). But he is struggling by his own standards — last season his PER was a crazy 28.1. At age 22, you’d have to expect an improvement not a decline.

David Thorpe, the best thing going at ESPN.com, broke down LeBron’s game and said that LeBron needs to improve his midrange game because teams have adjusted their defenses.

James likes to drive hard to the hole from the perimeter, and every James drive is an invitation for two or three defenders to rush and trail towards him. So at the very least he must beat his own defender and prepare for the “pinch” defender (the man guarding the teammate closest to James). On pick and rolls, which the Cavs run frequently, he must also deal with his screener’s defender, who often follows James to prevent him from changing directions.

And he sees other defenders as well. One Western Conference scout told me that his team fronts the post on the strong side when James has the ball on the wing, while the weak-side post defender rotates toward the ball and shows as well. In other words, a sound defensive team gives James the impression that all five guys are ready to pounce on anything he does.

This strategy is working for a couple of reasons.

First, James appears unwilling to take (and sometimes unable to make) the midrange shots that are available to him.

Second, he’s forcing the drive. He often seems locked in on getting to the rim, going up against three or four defenders in traffic. He is rushing his right hand drives and going right into the web that his opponents have spun for him, with no angle to the basket and several tall players to contest his shots.

The other Cavaliers. One of the other things Thorpe hints at is that LeBron isn’t getting enough help from his teammates – only two other Cavs have a PER above the league average of 15, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Drew Gooden. Both of them are crashing the boards hard (grabbing more than 17% of the available rebounds) and are scoring 11 points a game.

But only two other Cavs besides James are shooting over 50% — Daniel Gibson, who finally took the starting job away from the long pat his prime Eric Snow, and Donyell Marshall of the bench. The other guy to watch off the bench is Aleksandar “Sasha” Pavlovic, who is averaging 11 points per game the last 10 games, and is shooting 42.9% from three in those games.

Lakers schedule. Thanks to Maneesh for sending me a great link to a new Lakers schedule Web site. Bookmark this one, it’s maybe the cleanest one I’ve seen.

Off-Topic question: We’re about to bring a computer with Vista into our home. Anyone working with it? Love to hear thoughts and ideas, send me an email (at right) or put it in the comments.

Things to look for: The Cavs love to run James off of a high pick and roll. The Lakers need to aggressively hedge on that, not let James get momentum toward the hoop. Defending this has been the Lakers Achilles heel all season, they need to defend it better today.

Cleveland is not a deep team, the Laker bench need to come forward. In particular, Farmar and Sasha should be able to take advantage of the Cav guards off the bench, particularly Eric Snow. Smush should get his as well – the Cavs struggle to defend the point.