Archives For February 2009

Preview & Chat: The Atlanta Hawks

Kurt —  February 17, 2009
Clippers-Hawks

Records: Lakers 42-10 (1st in the West) Hawks 31-21 (4th in the East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 114.5 (1st in league) Hawks 109.5 (8th in league)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 105.5 (7th in league) Hawks 107.5 (15th in league)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Luke Walton, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Hawks Mike Bibby, Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams, Josh Smith, Al Horford

A couple of links: You may have heard there was a fight at the Lakers practice yesterday between Chris Mihm and DJ Mbenga. Check it out for yourself. I think this would have been more fun if Tim Floyd coached the Lakers.

Sasha Vujacic has a new Web site, and I have to say it’s a good one. Find out what Sasha is reading, some game and strategy stuff, just a good all around site. Check it out.

Who Is The Lakers Moneyball Player? The thing that has had me thinking the most lately — and had the NBA blogsphere buzzing — is last weekend’s piece in the NY Times Magazine about the statistical steps taken by the Rockets and how they plucked Shane Battier from obscurity to make him a key players. (I’m not sure how a guy recruited to Duke and selected sixth overall ever gets thought of as obscure, but we’ll let that question slide.)

It got me thinking (and emailing people to discuss) — who is the guy who fits that role for the Lakers? The guy whose contributions don’t always show up in the box score. And the first answer is: A lot of them. Ariza. Odom. Walton. Fisher. Farmar. The Lakers have assembled a team of good players by the new metrics, but they did it the old fashioned way.

I think Odom may be the poster boy for the Lakers guys who do the little things. It’s very hard to define Odom’s contributions because he’s a bit of a chameleon. He does just about everything on a basketball court well, but nothing spectacularly well. Still, the roundness of his game allows him to slide into the cracks and fill in this Lakers team’s weaknesses in a matchup on any given night. He rebounds well, and gets into the lane to shoot (59% of his shots are inside according to 82games), he creates mismatches at the three or the four. He is a better defender than he gets credit for. And, I think this gets overlooked, he’s a leader. He’s the guy in the middle of the circle doing the rap while the players bounce around before a Lakers game. In the Lakers locker room you can tell he is liked and respected.

I think there is one key difference between Battier and Odom, something Reed pointed out: Battier gives thought to what he is trying to do Odom plays on almost pure instinct. Those instincts lead to the “O-dumb” mistakes (coming off three point shooters to help inside when the other team just needs a three, for example). But that is what Odom is, an instinctual player whose natural tendency is to sort of fill in what the team is needing on any given night. With Bynum down the Lakers need scoring, so you see him pick that up. But, to borrow a phrase from Darius, you can’t “tie down or burden him with the expectation of statistics.” He just does what he feels needs to be done. But that that has translated to the best +/- on the team — when he is on the court the Lakers are just better. It’s that simple.

I want to add that I find the NY Times piece fascinating it seems to miss the team concepts of basketball. I mean the story does, not the Rockets staff. The story makes it sound as if Battier is out on an island. Battier is a good man-on-man defender, but what he also does very well is shade his man, pushing him toward a help defender. And, when your help is a 7-6 guy with long arms, you get guys pulling up and taking jumpers rather than trying to finish at the rim. Battier is smart to take advantage of this help, but he has it. He’d be less effective if the big help defender behind him was David Lee.

The Hawks Coming In: To find out a little more about the Hawks, I asked Brett from the smart Hoopinion about his team, and if they really are as perimeter oriented as they seem.

They’re as perimeter-oriented as they seem to be. But, they’re able to succeed with that because Smith, Williams, and Horford have all improved their back to the basket games enough that any one of them can create offense from the low post: Williams almost always for himself (he’s close to being a really good offensive player) but Smith and Horford are both good passers.

I can’t overstate the importance of Williams, Mike Bibby, Flip Murray, and Maurice Evans each having career years from behind the three-point line. I’m naturally pessimistic so take my sneaking suspicion that this year’s offensive success is neither sustainable nor fully by design.

Woodson is never going to run the offense through anyone other than Joe Johnson, matchups be damned, but he does give Bibby a free hand to do whatever he wants to do and Bibby can still get himself open 8-10 times a game and, thus far, he’s been making those shots and taking some of the offensive pressure (some of which is self-imposed, I believe) off Johnson.

On the other hand, the machinations the Hawks put themselves through to try and hide Bibby defensively border on the comic and Johnson may have taken on as much of a defensive load because of Bibby as Bibby has lightened Johnson’s offensive responsibilities. Or, Johnson might be showing the wear of attempting to finish in the top 4 in the league in minutes played for the fifth time in six years.

Keys To The Game: Let us repeat our mantra — pound the ball inside. This is not a team that protects the paint well (look what the Knicks did to them). This is another case where if the Lakers go to their length and skill advantage inside they will open things up on the wings. But things work best inside out.

The Lakers should also be able to control the glass at both ends. Easy points off offensive rebounds would be huge for the Lakers.

This might be a good night for Olympics Kobe to show up — as Brett noted above the Hawks run their offense through Joe Johnson. Nothing fancy, just isolations and some high screens out at the elbow extended. The Lakers know how to defend this, if they are focused. Shut Johnson down, make the other guys make the plays, and your chances of winning go up. Their other guys are capable, but Johnson is at the center of it all.

On defense, make Josh Smith a jumpshooter. Easier said than done, but he is a 35% jump shooter and 65% if you let him get in close. Pull back, take away the drive and dare him to put up a jumper.

On offense, the Lakers need to be smart with passes — the Hawks are long and athletic and will play to deny the pass, particularly on the wings. The Hawks are a good transition team that can be slowed down, but turn the ball over with sloppy passes and you will give them a lot of easy buckets that they need to win.

The other thing is the Hawks, to make up for their size, will double the post. That will leave room for Pau to hit cutters — it could be a good night for the Gasol/Odom high-low game.

Where you can watch: Back home for a 7:30 start at Staples. Fox Sports locally and NBA TV nationally (which means you NBA broadband people will be scrambling. Sorry).

Basketball and Blueprints

Kurt —  February 16, 2009
Phoenix Suns v Detroit Pistons

Terry Porter is getting axed in Phoenix because GM Steve Kerr and owner Robert Sarver made long-term mistakes but they can’t fire themselves.

Not that Porter did a great coaching job, but he was brought in specifically to change the style of play the Suns had been successful with for years. Sarver begged Kerr to take the job, come in and shake things up. In part because a lot of people thought the Suns style couldn’t win a championship (great for the regular season, doesn’t work in the playoffs). I never bought that argument, but to delve into that would be off-topic from what I really want to get at.

Porter did what he was asked, and he is being fired for it. Now Alvin Gentry is going to bring back the old style of play. You know, the one that sold out the building and had the team talked about as contenders.

This is a recurring theme here at FB&G, but I think it is a point that is hard to repeat often enough — winning organizations have a blueprint and stick with it. They know what kind of team they want to be, they hire a coach that will execute that type of play on the court, and then they go get players that fit that system.

I loved what the Collangelo/D’Antoni Suns did, and they followed that plan. They decided they were going to go with a certain style — seven seconds or less, up and down, entertaining — and then they went and got players who could do it. Their stars — Nash, Stoudemire and Marion — were athletic and could run. Borris Diaw couldn’t get off the Atlanta bench but was built for the Phoenix system. Raja Bell was seemingly nothing special, but he brought some shooting to the two and a little defense that the Suns needed.

The Suns defense was average on a per-possession basis, that was not what hurt those teams. What undercut the Suns was depth — as j.d. Hastings pointed out from the George Karl/Doug Moe section of the NBA Coach’s Handbook, if you are going to run like that you need a lot of legs, or the legs you do have can wear down by the playoffs. Sarver, trying to save money, forced the Suns to trade picks and that cut some depth that could have been drafted into Phoenix. That was where the depth could have come from. Instead, D’Antoni ran a seven-man rotation. Legs (and Nash’s back) got tired.

When Kerr came in, the honest thing to do would have been to say “we are blowing this thing up,” except that I don’t think Kerr and Sarver thought they were. They thought that these players could be equally good in another, more Pistons-like style. If they just bring in Shaq everything will be better because of the defense. But that is not how basketball works — only a few players can really transcend style of play. Kobe and LeBron will be impossible to stop if you ran the Four-Corner offense. But that is not the case with 95% of NBA players, the difference between thriving and surviving for them is style of play and fit.

Now the Suns are a mess and getting worse. Amare is off, likely to Chicago (which is another franchise that can’t seem to figure out what it wants to be). Shaq is 37 and now is a second-tier player on a title team. Nash wants out. Sarver needs to cover his financial butt and shed salary (especially after the Porter firing will cost him about $4 million).

Look at that team now and tell me what the Suns want to be.

Here is Los Angeles, Mitch Kupchak took enormous heat (often for things like the Shaq trade that were decisions made way over his head). But when Phil Jackson returned he and the organization there became a clear focus — this was going to be a triangle team. And Mitch went out and got players who can fit that system. Credit also should go to Jerry Buss for letting the basketball people do basketball.

Luke Walton is not as valuable to other teams as he is the Lakers. Derek Fisher is a point guard who doesn’t demand to run the show and have the ball in his hands. Lamar Odom is a power forward who can get a rebound and take the ball the length of the court. Sasha Vujacic can bomb threes. Pau Gasol is the best passing big man from the high post in the game and can drain an 18-footer consistently. Trevor Ariza. Jordan Farmar. The list goes on and on of guys who are not just good players but good players who fit the Lakers system.

The Lakers stuck with their blueprint. So has San Antonio over the years. The Pistons did until they made salary cap moves this season, but you just know Dumars is going to rebuild that franchise the right way in the next few years. Cleveland is getting there, finding a system and guys to fit around their star. It looks like teams such as Portland and even Oklahoma City may be doing it right.

But if those up and coming teams want a lesson on why not to change horses in the middle of the stream, they need only to look to Phoenix.

All Star Weekend Chat

Kurt —  February 14, 2009

NBA All-Star Game
If you read just one thing this weekend, make some time to read this NY Times article, based around Shane Battier but really about the use of statistics in basketball. Yes, it talks about Kobe, but I think the point about how to value basketball players is really the interesting part, and well worth the read. I think we’ll talk more about this, but I want to do it justice. (Thanks to Zephid for the link.)

Aside this, this is the thread to talk about all the All Star fun. Should be an entertaining night of dunks and trick shots on Saturday. Come Sunday, it will be interesting to see which star shows up and wants to be MVP — there always is one who puts out the extra effort going for the prize.

Fast Break Thoughts

Kurt —  February 13, 2009

I don’t get all that pumped up for the All Star game, although I think the H-O-R-S-E competition can be fun (I refuse to call it by the corporate name). But this beauty — from the people at Didn’t Draw Iron — should help. It’s a 2009 All Star Preview done 1980s style.

• I suppose this is a Lakers blog so I should say something about the Lakers, but that loss in Utah doesn’t bother me much. It was a schedule loss — second night of a back-to-back after a tough road trip, while the other team (a potentially very good team) is sitting at home for two days resting. The Lakers looked flat, tired and I can see that. Get some rest over the break and let the fun start with Atlanta next Tuesday (that is no gimme).

• What are the greatest Lakers All Star moments?

• Really interesting breakdown by Kevin Pelton on Amare Stoudimire. The conclusion — Shaq isn’t why his numbers are down, the fact that the Suns have gone away with the pick-and-roll at the top of the arc Nash and Amare is the problem. That play was nearly indefensible; I’m not sure why you’d go away from it.

• Speaking of Basketball Prospectus, here’s a great read on what is going on at UCLA this year — their offense is very good. (They lost last night because their defense was off and Arizona State couldn’t miss, they shot 61% from three.)

• Going to be a really interesting trade deadline, not just because of Amare, but because if you were the GM in Denver or San Antonio or New Orleans right now, wouldn’t you be looking for a little move that could push the team onto the Lakers level? The bigger question than even if that move is out there is if the team’s owners will allow them to do it right now. Teams are fighting to cut payroll, so somebody willing to take a little on could get a steal. But who is going to do that.

• Speaking of that, ESPN is reporting Jermaine O’Neal and Jamario Moon to the Miami Heat in exchange for Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks. Sounds to me like Toronto is trying to free up some cap space early to keep Bosh in town. Also, certainly Marion (if he can be resigned at a fair price) is a good fit if the Raptors are trying to build a running team. I’m just not sure what they are trying to build. As for Miami, pretty much a lateral move I think. Maybe Beasley can play the three now and feel a little more at home.

• I love what Bill James said about the A-Rod situation: “Baseball allowed a situation to develop in which it was in the self-interest of players to use steroids. Now we are very angry with people because they did what the system rewarded them for doing.”