Archives For October 2008

Fast Break Thoughts After Two Games

Kurt —  October 31, 2008

Seriously, if you are a Lakers fan, it’s pretty hard not to be sky high right now. Two blowout wins to start the season on national television. The team is playing defense. Bynum locked up for four years. Kenny Smith from TNT last night saying, about Nate McMillan’s comment that the Lakers are the present and the Blazers are the future, “No, the Lakers are the present and the Lakers are the future.”

Let’s try to bring ourselves down to earth a little bit. This is just two games, against borderline playoff teams with key injuries. We’re just 2.4% of the way into a very long season. DJ Mbenga has yet to play. The imported beers at Staples are just so expensive. Okay, I’m really reaching now.

So, who are you going to be for Halloween tonight? Why not go as your favorite Laker?

Let’s go through a few hoops-related things in more detail.

• I love the strong-side zone the Lakers stole from the Celtics broke out this season. At some point a team with good ball movement will test this, but that has not come yet. The Lakers are really communicating on defense, which is new. The bottom line is they have made a commitment to defense; they have the “want to.”

Eric Mussleman liked what he saw as well.

They did a great job of keeping the lane compact and limiting the dribble-penetration…. The weakside corner (3 balls) was the only area of the floor the Lakers didn’t have covered at times as they did a great job scrambling and rotating to open men.

That’s not to say all the questions are answered about defense, as Hassan pointed out in the comments:

The past two games we’ve played, the other team’s main offensive threats have been from the perimeter (Blazers- Roy, Fernandez, to some degree Outlaw, and Aldridge is not a traditional PF; Clippers- The beard, Ricky Davis, Mobley). Both teams have had their main big injured, which has made things pretty easy for Gasol and Bynum. Since toughness was said to be a big issue last year, I want to see the Lakers defend some of the tougher post players.

Kwame a. added to that.

They asked Phil yesterday about the whole “soft” label, and how physical Boston is. Phil said the team is neither soft, nor scared of physicality, it’s just a little light in the pants. This is why our speed and length will be so important. What we lack in girth (not physicality) will be made up in speed and length, allowing us to choke off angles and get into passing lanes. Each games a test. I’m not cherry-picking games in October, I just wanna see the team develop good habits.

• The Lakers aren’t the only team playing more zone. I saw it from the Suns last night, from a lot more teams this season in the games I’ve caught. It seems to be a popular way to stop penetration. It will be interesting to see how teams adjust as the season goes on.

• Derek Fisher has fallen in love with the PUJIT.

For those unfamiliar, that is the “pull up jumper in transition.” He’s missing the shot often and the Lakers aren’t getting anything out of all those speedsters running the floor when he does it. Good things happen when he attacks the rim or makes a pass. Or, pull it out and start the offensive set. But stop with the PUJIT. It’s killing the transition game.

• I think we’ll see a lot of games like the Clippers contest the Lakers bench pulls away from a tight first quarter, and doing so with defense and impressive fast breaks.

• Want to improve your vertical leap (so you can really impress the players at Venice Beach)? You can win a Hoop Skills vertical leap trainer, thanks to Ryan and the boys at Hoops Addict (who have to be happy about their Raptors so far). All you have to do is leave your favorite YouTube or Google Video dunk link. Check it out.

• The Lakers were down by a point with 9:05 remaining in the second quarter to the Clippers, and went on an 85-46 run for the rest of the game.

• Watch out for the Rockets. If you can tell anything two games into a season, and you can’t really but its hard not to start drawing lines, they could be the team the Lakers face the stiffest challenge from in the West. That is, if Yao and McGrady are healthy and Artest stays focused and in line.

But they looked good and deep taking apart Dallas last night.

• The new Knickerblogger stat page is up — and look who has the best defensive rating in the league!

Waiting until just 24 hours before the window closed, it appears the Lakers have reached a contract extension deal with Andrew Bynum. The deal is expected to be a three-year extension for $42 million, which works out to $14 million a year. The Lakers would reportedly have a have a fourth-year option at $16 million. So, in the end, we are talking 4 years at $58 million.

Bynum, who is 21, looked good in the couple of Lakers wins so far this season — he is averaging 10 points, six rebounds and three blocked shots per game, is pulling down 24% of the available rebounds is shooting 53%. He outplayed Clipper center Chris Kaman on Wednesday night. More importantly, he and Pau Gasol seem to be developing a real chemistry, one that will keep the Lakers as contenders (along with that Kobe guy) for the next several years.

This is a pretty fair deal for everyone — Bynum gets a big raise, not quite max but close. The Lakers get a little cushion in case he never fully recovers or reinjures his knees, as the deal can end after three years. Although, my bet, is that in four years the negotiations are far simpler, because he’ll get a max deal.

If Bynum is the future anchor of the franchise when Kobe and Gasol are gone, they need to keep him happy. And that means pay him more than maybe they needed to if they let the market decide is fate this spring (then again, maybe not, he could have drawn a high bid from some team hoping the Lakers wouldn’t match).

Under the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement that rules NBA contract negotiations, the Lakers and Bynum have until tomorrow. Traditionally teams future (or existing) young stars are signed to an extension by the Oct. 31 deadline, it’s a sign of respect from the organization. Chris Paul, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade all signed extensions by that time. Wade and James also signed shorter three-year deals, making them unrestricted free agents earlier. Don’t get a deal signed and, well, ask Bulls fans how things are going with Ben Gordon.

Records: Lakers 1-0 Clippers 0-0
Offensive ratings: Lakers 107.9 Clippers N/A
Defensive ratings: Lakers 85.4 ClippersN/A
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Vladimir Radmanovic, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Clippers: Baron Davis, Cuttino Mobley, Al Thorton, Tim Thomas, Chris Kaman

Lakers notes: That is the way you want to start. Good things were happening everywhere.

The most important thing is that the Lakers defense looked good. The length of the Lakers starters really bothered the Portland shooters, the rotations were crisp, they switched very well (and a lot) on screens, they seemed to communicate and there was very good hustle. Kwame a. added some good points in the comments:

Who says Phil can’t coach defense? I loved the defense last night. I liked the effort on the PNR’s (hard show and recover, forcing the ball handler to go horizontal, not towards the hoop, trapping and playing the passing lane) and how we were denying wing passes.

I also was feeling how Fish, Vlad and Kobe would collapse on the ball when it went into the post.

Also, the 1-2-2 zone we threw at Roy when he was gonna try to penetrate from the top of the key. We did this a little against SA in the playoffs, and I think with Bynum back, it will be even more formidable. Especially when LO is in at the top of that zone, this is where our length will really come in handy.

I liked that zone look and Portland didn’t beat it with ball movement. The Lakers held Portland to 35.7% (eFG%) shooting in the first half.

Offensively, the Lakers did a good job of recognizing mismatches in personnel and exploiting those. The Lakers were 7 of 10 from three-point range for the game. That is a good sign, they only really took open threes from within the offense, and they hit them

I thought that was a great pass by Odom in the first quarter, he drew the defense in and hit a wide-open Sasha. If he had been in the game it would have been a wide-open look.

I think we all hope Oden is back soon and this is nothing serious.

How much can we read into one game? Commenter JD Hastings reminded us that one game is a very poor way to judge a team by looking at the first game from last season.

Sure enough, as we began the game against the Rockets, none of the role players even showed up, doing their best interpretation of their awful showings at the end of 07. Fisher was the only Laker other than Kobe to reach double digits. The team fell behind until Kobe turned it on, looking quite P.O.’d as he single handedly brought the team back and tied the game (maybe even took a lead), only to be devastated when Shane Battier buried the team with a buzzer beating 3.

At the end of the game I text messaged a friend, “It’s going to be a looooong season.” I was sure this game proved nothing had changed and Kobe would be gone within the week. I prepared myself to wander the wilderness…

The next game the Lakers creamed the Suns by 21 points with 8 players scoring 8 points or more and every role player turning in a solid showing.

And we all know how the rest of the season played out. The moral: this one game doesn’t tell us a whole hell of a lot about anything that will be happening come April. Or even January.

The Clippers Coming In: This is the first game for a revamped Clippers roster. People have made the argument that Davis/Camby is a better combo than Brand/Maggette, so the Clippers should be better. That’s debatable (at best), but it only really works if the two stars can stay healthy, and both Davis and Camby have a history of missing games. Davis has a finger issue but will play, Camby is out for tonight.

And, according to Kevin at Clippersblog, losing Camby will make the entire half-court offense tougher for the Clips.

If Marcus Camby is a no-show Wednesday, don’t expect things to improve for Chris Kaman, who’s had — to put it kindly — a choppy preseason. Opponents need to have a reason not to send help down to the block to defend Chris. Marcus Camby at the elbow is one reason. Tim Thomas along the perimeter is another. But neither Brian Skinner nor Paul Davis provide that kind of insurance for Chris in the post.

I’ll happily admit that Baron Davis is one of my favorite players to watch in the NBA — when he is on and focused he can be as good as anyone. He is so entertaining. In the preseason he looked very good, and his Clippers teammates seemed to figure out that if you get out and run with Baron on the break good things happen.

The question is depth. Al Thorton is a good young player, of whom now a lot is expected. Rookie Eric Gordon is going to get a lot of quality minutes. Cuttino Mobley is solid. Tim Thomas is 31 and not on the upside of his career anymore. Then we’re into Ricky Davis and Mike Taylor, guys who had nice preseason, but can they really get key minutes on a playoff team?

But don’t read my opinion, Steve at Clips Nation does a great job and he has his team preview posted. Not that he is sure of all the answers.

Link to Click: One of the better Western Conference previews I’ve seen is up at the very good Pick Axe and Roll blog.

Keys To The Game: Without Camby and with the Lakers in the second night of a back-to-back, if I were Dunleavey I’d go smaller and try to run the Lakers off the floor. Wear them down. The Lakers have the depth and players to match that, but they have to get back in transition defense. That will be key.

Kevin from Clipperblog has another idea:

The best option is physical brutality. The Lakers generally appear least comfortable in their offense when their opponents are banging them around as they move from spot to spot. When that happens, they settle for contested jumpers. Defensively, they’re long, but not great physical defenders – particularly in the post. Both Baron Davis and Cuttino Mobley understand how to apply physicality as a defensive tactic against a team like the Lakers. Kaman has really improved in this capacity. His first couple of years out of Central Michigan, Chris would still occasionally get a little intimidated in the paint. Now, he takes getting beat on the block much more personally, which you can see in his defense. The others are variable. In this regard, slotting Brian Skinner in for Marcus Camby could make a lot of sense. It compromises the Clippers offensively and potentially creates trouble for Kaman, but it would allow the Clips to establish themselves physically against one of the better finesse teams in recent memory.

Where you can watch:In LA we can watch Joel Meyers and Stu on Channel 9, nationally the game is on ESPN. Feel free to watch this and four innings of baseball tonight. Go Rays!

Records: Lakers 0-0 Trailblazers 0-0
Offensive ratings: Lakers NA Trailblazers NA
Defensive ratings: Lakers NA Trailblazers NA
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Vladimir Radmanovic, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Trailblazers: Steve Blake, Brandon Roy, Travis Outlaw, Lamarcus Aldridge, Greg Oden

Lakers notes: No better way to start off the season than with an old rival on the cusp of restarting said rivalry.

Off the court, the Lakers picked up the option on Jordan Farmar. That was the easy part, the harder part comes in the next couple of years as they figure out how much to pay him. But you don’t let an emerging starting PG walk away, so picking up his option year was obvious.

Not much else in terms of Lakers notes, as we just did the team preview. But if you want to read another good team preview, check out the one at SportsHubLA.

Links to Click: ESPN the Magazine reached out to some bloggers (the guys from FreeDarko, Basketbawful, The Painted Area, Hoopshype and many more) and asked about some of the big storylines for the upcoming season, and it is well worth the read. Here is my only printed response (really, the only good one I sent in), to the question: Can Mike D’Antono turn water into wine, or does that only work with fast-moving water?

“He can make wine out of water, but it’s going to be more Sutter Home White Zinfandel than Screaming Eagle cabernet. Great wine starts with great grapes, just like great teams start with great rosters. The Knicks are more Thompson’s seedless than old vine cabernet, but D’Antoni can make something entertaining that the masses in Madison Square Garden will enjoy more than what they have been served in recent years. Knicks fans—and more importantly Knicks ownership—need to remember that making great wines takes time and patience.”

Another link to check out (and frankly, thing to buy) is the new book from the brilliant minds at Free Darko. It hits the stores in a couple weeks, but there are widgets on the site where you can preview pages and chapters. Also, Henry has a glowing review up today at TrueHoop.

The Blazers Coming In: The Blazers have a lot of potential and that has their large fan base pumped up. The Blazers following includes one of the best sets of bloggers in the NBA (including what’s-his-name at ESPN). One of my favorite NBA bloggers period is Dave from Blazers Edge, who does some of the most insightful NBA writing out there. And he consented to answer a few questions from me.

1) There is a lot of hype around the Blazers, and in some quarters growing expectations. What are reasonable expectations for this team this season?

The hype is justified, but timed too early (as most hype is nowadays). The Blazers are going to be superb one day. They’re too young and are integrating too many new players to be superb this season no matter what you think of their talent. A reasonable expectation would be for the Blazers to struggle through a horrific early schedule, take some bruising to their confidence and shuffle the rotation a time or two, then pour it on after New Year’s to fight hard for a low playoff seed. With the turmoil surrounding most of the mid-level West teams right now Portland has a decent chance to get one of those spots. Winning a seven-game series against any of the conference’s elite teams would be too much to reasonably hope for. This will be Portland’s year to experience what a meaningful stretch run and (hopefully) playoff battle are really like, in preparation for when they do it for real down the road.

2) The team played last year without Oden, how are the players meshing with him through the preseason? How are Aldridge and Oden playing next to each other? Has it been better on offense or defense?

We haven’t seen the full Oden Effect yet and probably won’t through a good part of the season. I was in Las Vegas the summer when Amare Stoudemire was recovering from his knee surgery and played in Summer League to build his way back. I literally thought his career was done. He looked nothing like the Amare we had seen before or have seen since. I’m fairly impressed Oden can affect the game as much as he does having undergone surgery himself and having not played for a year. Aldridge and Oden will be fine together on both ends of the floor though. They are near perfect complements. Aldridge likes to play on the wings and use his fluidity and soft touch to score. He can score in the low post but it’s never been his favorite. He’s a new-breed power forward all the way. Oden is all about the post and bulling people over. His strength and size are scary down there. Aldridge will keep enough of his post game and Oden will develop enough of a jump hook to have that chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter synergy, but they won’t interfere with each other as much as two old-school big men would have. Both will be mobile on defense as well once Oden is up to speed. Basically one will stop his man while the other will swoop in from the other side to block the shot. Aldridge is one of the best perimeter defending big men I’ve seen in a long time and Oden fills the lane. Not much conflict there either. Of course a six-game pre-season run isn’t enough to work the kinks out and to learn timing and rotations but you can already see each carve out their territory.

3) What can we expect to see in terms of style of play? What do the Blazers need to do to win?

1. Get the ball inside on most possessions. That doesn’t mean Oden has to shoot or score, but the ball should penetrate to move the defense around. Oden is a willing passer if not an accomplished one yet, which will put pressure on the opposition even if they double him consistently. Last year the Blazers spent 3-4 passes to get a semi-covered jumper. This year those 3-4 passes should yield more dunks, lay-ups, and open threes.

2. Rebound, rebound, rebound. The Blazers were a poor defensive rebounding team last year. They had to send all five men to the boards to be sure of the possession which meant killing any semblance of a fast break or easy points. The Blazer forwards and centers need to own the ball off the glass and get it out.

3. Create more easy buckets. This is the aftermath of the rebounding thing. Brandon Roy and Steve Blake aren’t runners but if you look at the rest of the squad–Rudy Fernandez, Sergio Rodriguez, Travis Outlaw, Martell Webster, Lamarcus Aldridge, even Greg Oden eventually–these guys either naturally belong on the break or are faster than the man guarding them most nights. Portland doesn’t have to install a Mike D’Antoni offense but they do need those six points off of lay-ups they were missing last season.

Mix aggression with reliability on defense. The Blazers were a fine percentage defending team last year. They chose intentionally not to let men by them and did whatever it took to keep shots covered. This meant playing off of guys a lot, sticking to individual assignments instead of roaming passing lanes, and making emergency big man rotations a huge priority. All of that combined contributed to the weakness in eventual rebounding position. Plus the Blazers couldn’t force a turnover against a blindfolded kindergartener with Crisco on his hands. Again, you don’t need a Golden State-type defense but you do need more disruption, more risk-taking, and more confidence in your backstop if those risks fail.

Check out his preview of tonight’s game.

Keys To The Game: Everyone is talking about the Bynum v. Oden matchup. I hope this is the opening bell of a 10-round (year) battle between two real heavyweights. But Reed brings up a good question: Since Bynum has done battle at the NBA level with Shaq/Howard/Yao, is he better positioned for tonight to take advantage of the rookie? I think Bynum could have a good night.

However, the real key to tonight’s game — and the most fun part — will be when the two benches are on the floor. Both teams have a starting five that is good but more deliberate in style, then they go with the change of pace bringing in a deep bench. The Blazers bring in Rudy Fernandez, Sergio Rodriguez, Channing Frye, Travis Outlaw and Joel Przybilla. When the two benches are on the court, this is going to be an up-and-down shootout that should be very entertaining. If one team can gain the advantage there, it will be huge.

Last season the Blazers took 75% of their offensive shots from the perimeter (as jump shots). Dave from Blazers edge said that the goal this year is for Portland to be an inside-out team, and with Oden and Aldridge. The Lakers need to not let them establish an inside presence, to force them back into being a jump shooting squad.

The Lakers cannot leave Blake, Bayless and the Europeans alone to shoot the three, they need to close out on those guys on the wing.

Where you can watch: TNT has the exclusive broadcast rights. So, I’d be shocked if: 1) The game starts on time; 2) Barkley doesn’t make me wince at least once.

Lakers Season Preview

Kurt —  October 27, 2008

Team Name: Los Angeles Lakers
Last Year’s Record: 57-25
Key Loss: Ronny Turiaf
Key Additions: Getting Andrew Bynum and Trevor Ariza healthy, Josh Powell

1. What Significant Moves were made during the off-season?
There weren’t any earth-shaking ones — and there shouldn’t have been. Yes, Ronny Turiaf is now dancing in the Bay Area, and his energy will be missed. But, with the current Laker lineup, Turiaf would have been playing 12 to 15 minutes a game at best, and that is a role that Josh Powell can fill admirably (at a better price). Bottom line, this is a team that went to the finals last year without its starting center and a key defensive player off the bench, and still took a peaking Celtics team to six games. What this team needed was a summer to get healthy, then a preseason (and, really, a regular season) to get everyone on the same page. There was no need for a big move.

2. What are the team’s biggest strengths? Depth, and the versatility that depth provides. This team is 10 deep with guys that could start a lot of places in the league — Lamar Odom is coming off the bench, name another team where that would happen?

That depth provides three advantages. One, the Lakers will win a lot of games because the second unit will outplay other team’s second unit. The Lakers “Bench Mob” led by Jordan Farmar, Lamar Odom and Trevor Ariza come in and change the pace, running and being aggressive on defense. Just like a baseball pitcher, that change of pace can be hard to handle. The Lakers are going to stretch a lot of leads out at the start of the first and fourth quarters.

Second, the depth means that when the inevitable injuries come (hopefully nothing as serious as last year), the Lakers are better positioned than most to weather that storm and keep winning. (Although, as last year showed, the Lakers need their key players ready for the playoffs.)

Third and finally, it allows Phil Jackson, the master of lineup tinkering (he so loves to do that, even in May), a lot of matchup options every night. For example, here’s clear example is that I expect to see a lot of: Looking at the tall and long starting lineup for the Lakers, other teams will try to counter by going small. Do that and Jackson can either just try to pound you inside with the size, or put in a lineup like Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic, Kobe Bryant, Lamar Odom (or Trevor Ariza) and Pau Gasol (or Andrew Bynum) and match the quickness using five guys that can run the floor with you and beat you that way. Jackson has a versatile roster that allows him to match and counter just about anything you throw at the Lakers.

Oh, I suppose I should throw Kobe Bryant in there as a big strength. In case you missed it, he’s pretty good. And Pau Gasol, who got moved to the four due to Bynum and showed that he can thrive in the spot, shooting 66.7% in the preseason and killing it from 15 to 18 feet out. He really opens up a high-low game with Bynum that is hard to defend.

3. What are the team’s biggest weaknesses? The thing about these Lakers are less that there are glaring weaknesses than there are questions that need to be answered. Depending on the answer, it could be a weakness, but you can make an argument that the weaknesses exposed last year have been solved.

One of the most talked about is the defense/toughness issue. The Celtics manhandled the Lakers in the Finals. Some thought the Lakers needed to shake up the roster and bring in an Artest-like player to match up with Paul Pierce. (Really? Because Artest has shown how well he plays within a team system?) The Lakers think that the return of a healthy Andrew Bynum patrolling the paint, along with Gasol as another seven footer, solves that problem. At the end of the preseason, even with the defensively questionable Vladimir Radmanovic in the starting lineup, the Lakers defense looked good, and tough. But the question is still there when the games matter.

The other potential weakness is how this team melds all that talent. Can Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol play together? Will Lamar Odom be happy as the sixth man in a contract year? The indications out of the preseason are yes to both questions. But the key here is Phil Jackson, he is better than any coach in history at getting players to figure out for themselves that fitting a certain role or mold is good for them. He got Dennis Rodman to play within the rules, because he got Rodman to realize for himself that was what was best. It was not old school force of will stuff, it was subtle. Phil will have to work his magic on a deep roster where players will want more minutes. But that’s why he gets paid what he does.

4. What are the goals for this team? After last season, there can be only one goal, an NBA title.

5. What do the Lakers have to do to achieve that goal? I have a simple statement for this team, which is fast becoming my mantra:

The Lakers will go as far as their defense will take them.

This team, regardless of how the player rotations shake out, is going to score a lot of points. It will be, if not the most efficient offense in the league, one of the top three. But that is only half the court. The Lakers do not need to be the 2004 Pistons on defense; they simply need to be in the top 10 in the league, they just have to be good. Not totally unlike the Phoenix Suns of a few years back, the offense will be plenty good but when it gets to the postseason can they stop teams enough? Early indications are the Lakers players get that. With a shot blocker in the paint behind them, you see them pressing more and jumping more passing lanes on the perimeter. This is a crazy long starting lineup with Bryant, Radmanovic, Gasol and Bynum (with the also long Ariza and Odom coming off the bench). They will disrupt a lot of shots with that length. Phil Jackson saw all that size and has actually played around with some strong-side zone in the preseason.

If you really want to know how good the Lakers will be this season, watch the defensive stats.

Projected Finish:
60-22, first in the division and first in the conference