Archives For December 2008

Year in Review (so far…)

Reed —  December 31, 2008

We’re 30 games into the season, in the midst of a lengthy break in between games, and approaching a new year – feels like a good time to take a long look at where the team sits, what it’s strengths and weaknesses are, and how it compares to its chief competitors. In that spirit, and to try and encourage objectivity, I’m going to throw out buckets of statistics to try and spark informed discussion of the team’s current state.

Team Stats

Notes:

• Looking at big picture stats, the Lakers appear weakness free. They score, defend, and rebound at top 5 rates, and their turnovers are respectable.
• They have made significant inroads in catching up to the best defensive teams compared with where they were at last year (now only 4.3 behind the league leader/Boston, compared with 6.6 last year). However, as we’ve all seen, the defense has been inconsistent, with an impressive start and last few games, but a scary stretch in between. Hopefully, increasing confidence in and execution of Rambis’ strong side zone will lead to results closer to what Boston and Cleveland are doing.
• Offensively, they probably are not going to get much better, as they are just off the league leading pace this year (Portland) and last year (Utah).
• They are a strong rebounding team, on both ends of the court, another area where they have caught up to the elite teams compared with last year. As we all hoped, Bynum’s presence alone seems to have solved that problem (which was gaping during the playoffs).
• Their point differential is almost at double digits, and about where the league leader sits each year. Last year they relied on offensive dominance to overwhelm other teams; this year they combine this offense with much improved defense and rebounding, leading to more stable, consistent success.
• Comparing LA to the other two elite teams, Boston and Cleveland, it appears we are right with them, but no one is set apart from the pack. Boston and Cleveland have marginally better point differentials and overall efficiency numbers, but we have the best records vs. playoff and contending opponents.
• It is noteworthy that Cleveland is significantly worse against playoff and contending teams than LA and Boston, perhaps suggesting that their success somewhat comes from beating up on bad teams (and that LA indeed has a boredom problem).
• Records vs. elite teams seems particularly illuminating to me in differentiating between real and pretend contenders. For example, note that Phoenix has 11 losses against playoff teams, is 1-6 against contenders, and is 2-7 against playoff teams on the road (with the wins coming against NJ and Milwaukee). Championship teams bring their A game in “test” games, especially on the road. LA is passing those tests so far.

Player Stats:

Notes:

• As expected, we dominate at SG, PF, and Center. The Bynum/Gasol combination at center puts us at first in the league in net production (PER differential).
• Point guard is a glaring weakness, especially defensively as Fisher and Farmar combine to allow an 18.4 PER. Tellingly, our PGs allow opposing PGs to shoot .500 eFG, the highest of any position against us. It is extremely rare for a team’s PGs to lead in eFG, given that they take so many perimeter shots (on our team, PGs shoot the lowest eFG at .489, with our centers shooting .537).
• Our PFs and Cs are extremely efficient shooting the ball, at .531 and .537 – we really should pound the ball inside at every opportunity. Other teams don’t have an answer for the length and skill of Gasol and Bynum (or Odom).
• Our best lineups feature a few common ingredients: Kobe and Ariza. Odom, Gasol, and Bynum are fairly interchangeable, although Odom appears more often than the others.
• Bynum is featured in all of our best defensive lineups, which we’d expect. This makes it all the more puzzling why Phil has often take Bynum out in offensive-defensive substitutions at the ends of game when transitioning to defense.
• Our team stands out in its depth. While it lacks one uber-dominant offensive or defensive lineup (compared to league leading lineups), it boasts the highest ratio of top 10 or 20 such lineups – there are just endless combinations of effective lineups for Phil to play with. I believe the best is Fisher, Kobe, Ariza, Gasol, Bynum – which should become our closing lineup in the playoffs.
• Odom is the best individual player in point differential per 48 minutes (+15.6), the best on offense (110.6 rating), and the second best on defense (95.0).
• Five other players have a +9.0 or greater point differential rating, revealing incredible depth: Fisher (+12.9), Kobe, (+11.5), Ariza (+10.9), Bynum (+9.9), and Gasol (+9.5).
• The team is 4.6 points better on offense with Gasol on the court than Bynum, and 4.9 better on defense the other way – meaning we get almost identical results, but at opposite ends, when we replace one with the other.

Final Thoughts

This team feels a lot like the 1999-2000 Shaq-Kobe Lakers, which was the most talented, but least experienced of the three title teams. That team was loaded. They finished 67-15, started Shaq, Kobe, Rice, Harper, and AC Green, with Fox, Fisher, Horry, and Shaw all coming off the bench (at a time when most of them were in their primes). Imagine bringing those four off the bench. They finished first in defensive efficiency and fourth in offensive efficiency. Shaq was unequivocally the best player in the league, averaging 29.7 points, 13.6 rebounds, and 3.0 blocks. Yet, despite their regular season dominance, they struggled through the playoffs, beating the Kings 3-2, needing the miracle 4th quarter comeback against Portland in game 7, and letting the outgunned Pacers take them to six games in the Finals. On paper, they were unbeatable, yet they hadn’t quite learned how to play as one and execute under pressure – resulting in choppy playoff play. The subsequent title teams were significantly less talented and deep, had worse regular season records, but were much more dominant come playoff time. I think this current Laker team is going to similarly end up with a sparkling regular season record (64-68 wins?), but struggle against less talented teams in the playoffs as their role players learn to deal with pressure and execute seamlessly, especially on defense (Bynum, Ariza, Farmar). We saw some of the same last year, with players like Farmar, Turiaf, and Sasha struggling at key moments — so hopefully some of the growing pains are behind us — but two of our top 5 players are still not battle tested. In the end, I think whether we prevail against teams like the Spurs, Celtics, or Cavs in intense series will come down to mastery of the small things – which Boston embodied so annoyingly last spring. If we can progress through the season and give our key young players the experience they need, then we should be the champions. No other team is as talented, balanced, or deep (unless, of course, team Lebron trades Wally for a few all stars…).

Your thoughts?

–Reed

Watching Odom

Kurt —  December 30, 2008
Around Smashbox Studios - MBFW - Day 3

The game against the Warriors was a pretty good example of the Lamar Odom conundrum. On one hand, in his 21 minutes Odom had just 6 points and 3 rebounds and was did not seem to stamp his imprint on the game. Then again, at the end of the day he was +22, the best on the Lakers. He leads the Lakers this season in +/-, good things happen when he is on the floor.

So, for fun I re-watched the game and just tracked Odom, watching him on both ends of the court. What I came away thinking is that the +/- numbers are no accident. Here are a few observations:

• He understands the offense very well and spaces out well, then comes crashing to the boards when needed.

He often is set up on the weak side of the triangle, and against the Warriors (as in many games) there was not a lot of ball movement to the weakside to take advantage of Odom and the spacing. (To be fair, against the Warriors that was in part because the Lakers got pretty much whatever shot they wanted on the strong side, that was not a defensive tour d’ force by Golden State.)

I think when the ball sticks, or when Kobe goes Kobe, Odom can be one of the guys who gets hurt the most in terms of touches. But sometimes he finds gaps.

For example, the last possession of the third quarter for the Lakers, the team is running and Ariza tries to feed Bynum for a fast break dunk, but it gets stripped and the ball is loose. Not shockingly Ariza outhustles everyone for the board, but while all this is going on Odom quietly slipped all alone to the corner, Ariza gets him the ball, Odom sets his feet and drains the three.

Then on the first possession of the fourth quarter, Sasha does his best Curley Neal imitation, but Odom finds a space in a gap and gets the ball on a pass, goes up and is fouled in the act. He does that a lot, he just doesn’t always get the pass.

• When he’s not getting touches in the flow of the offense, every once in a while he creates one for himself, and he can be a little predictable doing that.

Here’s an example. There are 40 seconds to going the third quarter, Odom hasn’t gotten a lot of touches and the Lakers need a fairly quick shot for a two-for-one. Odom brings the ball up court after an outlet, gets to the top of the key and decides its his turn, He starts a drive to the basket from the three point arc (with his man way off him), going left of course. It’s pretty easy to see it coming, and Turiaf has seen that plenty. He and smacks Odom’s shot back out to half court.

But Odom adjusted to what happened. And I think we overlook that aspect of him sometimes.

As an example, early in the fourth Odom brings the ball up court after a rebound and gets a little half-hearted drag screen from Gasol, fairly deep, but Odom uses it to attack the rim early in the possession. When the Turiaf comes again looking for a block Odom feeds back to Gasol who closes easily. He makes a similar play a couple possessions later, feeding Gasol when the defense collapsed.

• Odom really plays solid defense. Just a couple of examples.

At the 3:10 mark of the first quarter, his man, Brandan Wright goes isolation, with a spin move into the lane and shoots, but Odom’s length really disturbs the shot that misses. Biedrins outworks Gasol for the offensive board and Golden State starts again. This time Stephen Jackson blows by Kobe and Odom rotates to help, so Jackson dishes to Wright who is going in for the lay-up. Odom recovers and blocks the shot but gets some arm in the process.

1:10 mark of the First Quarter. Odom is part of a soft full quarter pressure, but just after half court he and Ariza trap the Warrior ball handler. That’s a lot of length in a trap, and the result is a pass that goes out of bounds for a turnover.

At 8:01 in the second. CJ Watson blows by Fish in the isolation and Odom comes over to help in the paint, while his man Write slides out for the 12-foot baseline jumper and Watson gets him the ball. Odom is quick and recovers and his closeout helps cause a miss.

At 6:25 in the second, due to rotations, Odom ends up on Beidrens. He does a good job staying in front of him and forces a miss from three feet.

Next trip down the court, Ariza is on Jackson and funnels the driving Jackson to the strong side help, in Odom. And Odom strips him for a steal and brings the ball up himself.

There is a lot of this throughout the game.

• With Farmar out, Odom is doing more ball handling with the second unit.

• A couple of Odom’s rebounds came because he simply outworked Turiaf for the ball. Not a lot of people outwork Turiaf for anything.

Let’s Talk Trade

Kurt —  December 29, 2008
San Antonio Spurs v Los Angeles Lakers, Game 5

I really don’t understand the idea of trading Chris Mihm for Tyronn Lue, the rumor that has gained enough momentum to be taken seriously. But then, any Laker trade rumor is harder to kill than Freddy Krueger.

The Lakers don’t save any money in this proposed deal — Lue actually makes more than Mihm. They trade big for small, and they do it for just a back-up guy to fill in for two months. Because if you’ve seen Lue play at all recently, you know he is no Jordan Farmar.

The Bucks gave Lue the old trade spotlight game Saturday, giving him key minutes against Detroit. What did he do with it: 0-7 from the floor, 0-5 from three, and made Allen Iverson look a decade younger on defense.

Did you watch Sasha Vujacic last night? He can play the point in the triangle. He had 17 points on 6 of 10 shooting, 4 of 7 from three, had a season best six assists to just two turnovers, and looked solid on defense.

Some Lakers fans have this odd, unnatural affection for Lue and think he’s a good defender. He is not. So far this season, opposing point guards are shooting over 60% (eFG%) against him, scoring 23 points per 48 minutes and have a PER of 22.7. That is the same as having a Tony Parker or Chauncey Billups playing against you every night.

And if you thought he played stellar defense against Iverson in the finals seven years ago, you must not remember The Answer stepping over him after hitting a key three late in game one. I remember that.

In the end, this trade would not be a big deal if it went down because neither Lue nor Mihm will see key minutes in the playoffs. (If they do, the Lakers have some serious problems.) But it still makes no sense to me.

A lot of Lakers fans think that this team, this 25-5 team, needs to make a trade. If you think so, this is the rare comment thread here to throw it out.

But, remember, if you want to trade Lamar Odom, you have to remember he is part of a winning three-man front line for the Lakers. You have to replace his production and role on the team, and as much as I think the Lakers can get more from Josh Powell, he is not Odom (the guy with the best +/- on the team).

And, one more thing in your trade suggestions — make sure it makes sense for both teams. Just because you want Devin Harris doesn’t mean the Nets are going to trade him.

NBA Kings vs. Warriors NOV 9
Records: Lakers 24-5 (1st in the West) Warriors 9-22 (11th in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 112.1 (3rd in league) Warriors 106.1 (17th in league)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 102.2 (4th in league) Warriors 112.1 (28th in league)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Luke Walton, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Warriors C.J. Watson, Marco Belinelli, Stephen Jackson, Brandan Jacobs, Andris Biedrins

Lakers notes: After the Laker win, there was a gracious post up at Celtics blog saying that if you are going to call Pau Gasol soft, then you need to give credit when he steps up and performs.

J.D. Hastings in the comments made the same case for Lamar Odom, who is oft-maligned by some Lakers fans.

I want to make sure to mention something I haven’t seen getting enough attention. Lamar Odom’s intensity during the Boston game was a huge factor. He was a team high +17. I don’t think anyone else was even in double figures. The uncharacteristic drive and energy he brought that helped set a tone.

One play on defense he threw KG to the floor before he could get the ball. He was called for the foul, but it was a great moment considering how KG had been manhandling Pau every time down before he could get the ball.

Even the 3 pointers that made me cringe had an attitude with them that the team needed to display against the Celtics. To say nothing of his Kobe-like hook floater in traffic.

Not to take anything away from anyone else (and I do agree with playing Bynum to close), but considering what LO has sacrificed for this team, his contributions are worth noting.

SMT added that Odom pushing KG around after KG threw an elbow at Sasha — Odom from the tough streets of New York will stick up for his friends.

Secondly, Odom has had the best (or tied for best) +/- numbers on the team the last three games. He leads the team in raw +/- for the season, the only player in the double digits positive. Certainly the +/- stat has some flaws as a way to define who is playing well, but the bottom line is that if your team is doing better when you are on the court then when you are off, then you are doing something right. And are a key part of the team’s success.

Welcome Back Ronny: I still miss the guy, dancing around on the sidelines and hustling his butt off when in the game.

I get why he moved on — that was more money than the Lakers should have paid and up north Ronny gets more burn (about 20 minutes a game lately). In his game, Ronny is still Ronny, he is not shooting great but he is getting to the line often and is contributing at both ends of the floor. It will be good to watch him play again.

The Warriors Coming In: In case you missed it, they beat the Celtics, too. This is a team that, like the Knicks, has a different style that can throw teams off their rhythm and beat them if you overlook them. The Warriors are playing at the second fastest pace in the league.

Obviously, this was a team that wanted Monta Ellis as the go-to guy, but he is not back from injury yet. Also out is Jamal Crawford, who has played fairly well in the up-tempo style, and Corey Maggette. That said, they are getting some increased production from other guys.

The guy who is really thriving this season is Andris Biedrins. He is averaging 14 and 11, has an impressive true shooting percentage of 56.7% and leads the team in PER (20.7). Most importantly, he is a real hustle guy, and one of the few Warriors who seems to do that at both ends of the floor. Stephen Jackson also apparently likes the system, and he was the go to guy against Boston with 15 points in the fourth quarter.

Keys To The Game: Discipline is at the heart of what the Lakers need to do. Bottom line with the Warriors right now, they are not a disciplined team. If you are disciplined, you can force them into mistakes at both ends. But, if you get sucked into their game (something the Lakers do all too often) it could look a lot like Friday night for Golden State. The Lakers need to live by the old John Wooden mantra tonight: Be quick but don’t hurry.

If the Lakers can force the Warriors into a half-court offense, this is a good team to trap. That’s because they are not a good passing team. Bad passers and guys don’t get to open spots like they should.

The battle of the boards will be key, the Lakers are longer but they can be lax in that area, and the Warriors are very aggressive on the offensive glass and are eighth in the Association in the percentage of offensive rebounds grabbed. That is a little ironic, because they are last in the NBA in the percentage of defensive rebounds grabbed. The Lakers should be able to get some second chance points in this one.

While teams shoot a pretty high percentage against the Warriors, don’t expect to get bailed out with a foul. They don’t send teams to the line often.

The Lakers need to recognize the personnel on the floor for the Warriors — you can’t let Azubuike or Belinelli shoot the three, they will kill you from there.

On offense, I would love to see a little screen and roll from the Lakers tonight, because Watson is weak at defending it. And he doesn’t get a lot of help, because the overall concern on defense from the Warriors is not impressive.

Where you can watch: 6:30 start here is Fox Sports in LA or the League Pass options nationally.

What I Took Away From Christmas

Kurt —  December 26, 2008
NBA Finals Game 3: Boston Celtics v Los Angeles Lakers

1. A really nice jacket from my brother. Everyone should have a gay brother, it ensures that one truly cool and stylish piece of clothing will be given you each year.

2. The Lakers were the tougher team, the grittier team. They out hustled and out muscled the Celtics. Both teams wanted this one, the Lakers just stepped up in the last 4 minutes and the Celts wilted. (This note may be the hardest for some in the media to get their head around.)

3. Phil Jackson is clearly still looking for his post-Farmar rotation in the backcourt. As Darius echoed in the comments, Van Gundy (who I love as a color guy) was wrong about the Lakers treating this like a playoff game in the rotations, what you saw is pretty much what they have done since Jordan went down.

4. Notes to Celtics fans: You look foolish saying during a 19-game win streak that what makes your team special is they bring it every night, then saying they sleepwalked through the Lakers game. Secondly, don’t complain about the officiating, Kobe Bryant took no free throws either, when do you think that last happened? The refs put the whistles away, and for one game the Lakers were the tougher team.

5. The fact the Lakers were tougher will not stop newspaper columnists and television talking heads from calling the Lakers a soft team during the playoffs. As has been noted by a few in the comments, for the part-time basketball followers in the media, teams are soft until they suddenly aren’t because they won something.

6. Kobe was assigned Rondo and left to roam away from him, which worked at times. This was what the Lakers did in the Finals with moderate success. Really, the key is pretty obvious: Make Rondo a jump shooter. Easier said than done with his quickness, but the Lakers did it for stretches. (If he ever develops a very good midrange game…. watch out.)

6. In the end though, I say about the win what I would have said about the loss — this is December, it has no bearing on June. The win may have been cathartic for fans, but it was 1/82 of the schedule, and the Lakers will have to play better than that in June to win. There certainly was still room for improvement.

7. The best part of Christmas was still the looks on my daughters’ faces opening presents in the morning. By a mile.