Archives For August 2010

U.S. national basketball team players (L-R) Lamar Odom, Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose take a break while warming up at Madrid's Caja Magica pavillion prior to a friendly game against Lithuania August 21, 2010. The U.S.A. basketball team is in Madrid to play two friendly games against Lithuania and Spain in preparation for the upcoming Basketball World Championships in Turkey later this month. REUTERS/Paul Hanna (SPAIN - Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL)

It may not be a Lakers game, but there is actual basketball on today that is well worth a watch as Team USA faces Spain in a warm up to the FIBA World Championships that begin next weekend.  This is the first time that these two countries have faced off since the 2008 Olympics gold medal game where the Americans beat the Spaniards 118-107 in a thrilling, hard fought contest.

And while this is technically a rematch, the only thing that is truly the same is the name on the front of the uniforms – especially when speaking about the US team.  Because while Spain is missing its best player and current Laker Pau Gasol, the American squad will not return a single player from the team that clinched the Gold in Beijing almost one two years ago to the date.

So, while Spain will surely be looking for a bit of revenge as they warm up for a tournament in which they’re favored by many analysts to win, the U.S. team is really looking to find a rhythm as a unit and sure up some of their weaknesses so that they can continue the run they started at the Tournament of the Americas starting in 2006.  Because while there are some that do believe the US to be the 2nd best team leading up to the tournament, the Americans themselves remain confident and hope to continue to build momentum and show that this country is still the one that rules the basketball world.

But mental state aside, this US team will be tested today.  Because while the U.S. team was able to defeat a game Lithuania team yesterday on the strength of their pressure defense and open court play, today’s game will feature a Spanish team that is better than it’s European counterpart in every conceivable way.  As Matt Moore explains at ProBaskeball Talk:

The contest does lead to several significant questions going into tomorrow’s exhibition against the arguable favorite in the FIBA tournament, Spain. Spain is going to have better shooters, better bigs, better defenders, and better ball athletes. If USA comes out in a shooting slump like they did today, often lost on rotations inside and struggling to contain the boards, that game likely won’t right itself like today did.

As Moore mentions, the U.S. team’s real weakness is with its inside play.  In the past, the one advantage the U.S. team could typically rely upon was its superior talent in the pivot.  However, with nearly every great American big man either declining invitation or injured and unable to play this Summer, the U.S. team is going with a big man rotation of Tyson Chandler (starting Center), Lamar Odom, and Kevin Love.  And despite my personal affinity for LO and Love, those guys are not Howard, Bosh, and Amar’e.  Really, they’re not even KG, Bynum, or Brook Lopez as they don’t possess the size, defensive excellence, or offensive polish of the big men that have donned the U.S. jersey in recent international competitions.  This means that the shot blocking, interior rotations, and ability to plain “beast” it on the offensive end just isn’t there with this group.  This bears watching today.

But besides the interior play, what I’ll really be looking for today is how the guard rotation shakes out and if the U.S. team can show a bit better touch from the outside.  This team, despite the presence of Kevin Durant, Billups, Curry, Granger, and Eric Gordon is not a good outside shooting team.  Because while Westbrook, Rose, and Iguodala have all flashed an improved jumper they’re not quite the consistent shooting group that could off-set the lack of high level interior play.  And when you throw in Rudy Gay and Rondo, what you really have is a team that is built on strong defense that leads to open court chances.  As for the rotation at guard, yesterday against Lithuania, Rondo was put on the bench to start the second half in favor of Westbrook (which turned out to be a very good choice as the young OKC guard was the driver behind the win).  And seemingly every game, there seems to be another guard that steps up to make an impact.  At some point though, a standard rotation will have to shake itself out so that players can get comfortable in their roles.  Maybe that shaking out begins today.

And we’ll all be able to see together.  So, join us here as we observe the action.  You can watch on NBA TV at 12 noon on the West coast and you can also click here to watch the game online at ESPN3.

Master Movements

Darius Soriano —  August 21, 2010

Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (L) drives to the basket on Boston Celtics guard Ray Allen in the first quarter during Game 4 of the 2010 NBA Finals basketball series in Boston, Massachusetts June 10, 2010. REUTERS/Adam Hunger (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL)

In this post, we continue our look at Kobe Bryant and how his commitment to fundamentals has helped make him the player that he is today.

As we’ve stated in previous posts, it’s easy to appreciate Kobe Bryant.  He typically makes at least one jaw dropping play a game that gets Lakers fans and opponents fans alike out of there seats and in awe of what he just did.  I’ve argued before that Kobe is one of the most fundamentally sound players in the game and that his footwork is the foundation for his ability to play the game at the level that he does.  And when you combine his footwork with his ridiculous ability to hit tough shots, you get one of the all time great offensive players that can seemingly do anything he wants on the offensive side of the ball.  And while this ability to hit tough shots can sometimes lead to thoughts of wildness and outside of the box play, I’m a firm believer that Kobe’s game is rooted in fundamental basketball (with a flare for pushing the envelope) and that it’s all the little things – the minute details – that drive Kobe’s game and make him the all around threat that he is.

So today, I share with you a few videos on Kobe’s attention to detail when dealing with everyday offensive situations.  We start with getting open on the wing and executing a catch and shoot jumper.

The threat of Kobe’s jumper is probably his greatest strength as an offensive player.  With nearly unlimited range on his jump shot, a potential made basket is only a flick of the wrist away and Kobe uses that to his advantage when defenders are force to play him on an island.  Notice how Kobe speaks of getting into the triple threat position and then using his jab step as a way of feeling out the defender before he makes his move.  This is why we often see Kobe hold the ball a bit more than we’d all like, but it’s all for a purpose – he’s evaluating all levels of the defense and then deciding what his next move should be.

Next, we see how Kobe uses the threat of his jumper to his advantage by then using his first step to drive by an opponent to get to the basket.

Kobe may not have the lightning first step that he had during his younger days, but that does not mean that’s he no longer a threat to drive to the basket.  At this point in his career, rather than just catching the ball and attempting to drive right by a defender, Kobe often uses his array of jab steps, ball fakes, and hesitation dribbles to get to the rim.  Notice how in the video Kobe speaks about disregarding the primary defender almost immediately.  Understand that when the offensive player is a key focus of a defense’s scheme (as Kobe is), it’s often the secondary (help) defender that can cause the most problems on any given play.  The awareness that Kobe shows when saying that he’s reading the second defender and using that players’ positioning to decide on what side of the basket he should attempt to finish his shot is also something that should be noted.  Kobe literally has multiple decisions to make in the matter of fractions of a second in order for a play to be successful or not.  The fact that he so often chooses right is what makes him special.

Finally, we see what is probably Kobe’s most feared weapon: his pull up jumper.

Executing a pull up jumper at the proficiency that Kobe does is what makes him such a fantastic offensive player.  As the video shows, Kobe is taking into account every little detail when evaluating what he should do on any given play.  He’s reading the body of the primary defender, he’s then moving his eyes to the help defender, he’s looking at his teammates to see if someone flashes open…really he’s just examining the entire floor and looking for an option that will deliver a made basket.  There are few players that can shoot this shot the way that Kobe can.  He’s very strong going either left or right.  He’s just as good using one dribble to get to his spot as he is using multiple dribbles.  He can easily find his rhythm, set his feet, and establish the necessary balance to execute this shot at any given time.  As he relays in the clip, this is the shot that truly makes him a versatile offensive player and the shot that most puts defenders in a position where they’re guessing what’s going to come next.

As we’ve been saying for our entire series of posts, Kobe is truly a fantastic offensive player.  He’s a force with the ball and his variety of moves once he makes a catch is unmatched amongst perimeter players in the league.  Sure, other players may be better shooters or better drivers or even better finishers once they get into the paint.  But no player (although Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant are very close), show the variety of offensive moves and the complete offensive games that Kobe does when working from the wing.  Enjoy watching this guy, folks as it’s pretty rare to see this type of talent with this attention to detail execute the fundamentals of perimeter basketball.  We truly are lucky to watch #24 night in and night out.

Forward Thinking

Darius Soriano —  August 20, 2010

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In recent weeks, the topic of the “positional revolution” has become a hot topic amongst basketball thinkers.  It started with a thought provoking post by Drew Cannon at Basketball Prospectus and has been expanded upon by more thought provoking entriesby Rob Mahoney at The Two Man game.  The concept is a simple one (at least my cliff notes version is): as basketball players become more skilled and are able to perform multiple (and varied) tasks on the basketball court, the confines of traditional positional labeling is becoming too constraining.  And as players evolve, so does the game they play and thus conventional thinking about players’ position(s) can then become obsolete.  A perfect example of this is Dirk Nowitzki as he’s a sharp shooting, ball handling big man that is called a Power Forward but really performs (offensive) tasks on the court that are quite similar to what we traditionally see from Shooting Guards or Small Forwards.  The Mavs run the offense through Dirk at the high post and use him as a ball handler in P&R situations.  However, on defense he falls into a more traditional role as he defends big men and rebounds at a very good rate.  Obviously, Dirk is an extreme example, but he’s not alone in his diversity as a player and his break from traditional roles typically assigned to a player that is labeled a specific position.

And this brings me to our Lakers as others have chimed in on the evolution of the game that we all love – including Kobe Bryant.  During a media session at the World Basketball Festival at Rucker Park in New York, Kobe spoke about the evolution of the game and the influence of international players on the NBA.  An excerpt from an Austin Burton’s entry at Dime Magazine:

Kobe said the influence of international players in the NBA has helped create a “hybrid” culture, where players of all sizes possess skills in all areas and can conceivably play any position on the floor.

“That’s the one difference I’d like to see us kind of shift to,” Kobe said.

This vision of five basketball players, devoid of traditional positional constraints, passing and cutting and posting and shooting and dribbling with equal aplomb, is near.  The concept of players assuming a definite position on the floor and sticking to that role is fading away like one of Kobe’s jumpers, as a new age of hybrids begin to take over the game.

Over at FanHouse, Matt Moore has been following the conversation started by Cannon and expanded by Mahoney and also picked up on what Kobe was saying, adding this:

It’s not surprising that Bryant would lean towards this kind of approach. After all, he himself is not only willing, but voracious in approaching any position on the floor. You could tell Kobe “go guard Nene with one arm” and he’d make a go of it (and Nene would likely walk away wincing a bit, even if he won the war). But the meaning is very relevant. This is one of the greatest basketball players and minds on the planet saying that essentially, the goal should be not only for us to get away from traditional positions, but eventually to homogenize personnel to be able to play within any construct we have. It’s a bold idea, since all of our previous constructs are devoutly built on the idea that a player is defined by what he can and can’t do. Removing limitations from the equations leads us to a new kind of basketball nirvana, where Andrea Bargnaniis not a problem because he’s not a 5, and Tyreke Evans is simply regarded as being of the “awesome position.”

And over at TrueHoop, Kevin Arnovitz is also exploring Kobe’s comments and adds that one reason Kobe (and other members of the Lakers) may be more open to this line of thinking and flashing multi-faceted skills is because of the system that they run:

There’s a reason the Lakers have “a lot of versatile talent that evades convention.” It’s because the team features an offense that de-emphasizes traditional positions in favor of function. In the triangle offense, Derek Fisher — the nominal point guard — acts as a spot-up shooter in the confines of the half court (particularly in corner sets) far more often than he does as a distributor. The wings in the triangle are often the trigger men, and the Lakers can maximize Bryant (their shooting guard) in the post without disrupting the sequential flow of the triangle.

Kevin takes the words right out of my mouth (though he said them much better, of course).  When you look at the Lakers’ roster, there are several players that defy classic models of “positions” in basketball.  Whether we’re talking about Kobe or Fisher, Odom or Gasol, the Lakers have a roster of players that are expected to perform roles within a system that don’t always cleanly match up with the roles of their labeled position.  As Arnovitz points out, Fisher is not a “point guard” in the classic sense as he’s not necessarily a primary ball handler or initiator of offense (though he does perform these roles).  For a more extreme example, look at Lamar Odom.  When LO is in the game, he’s often used as a facilitator of offense and a primary ball handler – all as a “power forward”.  And while he does find himself in the post on occasion, he’s used much more frequently as a creator of offense in isolation sets from the top of the key or as a slasher off the ball that slides into open space when others (Kobe, Pau) draw the opponents defensive attention.  None of these acts are ones that are usually assigned to a team’s power foward.

Even on defense, the Lakers don’t often stick to traditional roles.  For example, as the WCF against the Phoenix Suns progressed, the Lakers started to switch the Amare/Nash P&R where Gasol (or Odom or Bynum) then got matched up on Nash for long stretches of Phoenix’s offensive possessions.  The Lakers’ big men then became defenders of one of the best PG’s in the game and were expected to keep him out of the paint and contest his shots in space.  Meanwhile, Nash’s original defender either rotated to the diving big man or switched to another player on the wing as the Lakers’ rotations took hold and every player was expected to show enough versatility to potentially guard any player on the court.  Other examples of the Lakers defying positional labels on defense are Kobe being switched onto PG’s like Rondo and Westbrook while Fisher guarded SG’s like Ray Allen and Thabo Sefalosha.  Even during the regular season when Kobe sat out injured against the Blazers, rather than starting Shannon Brown (as would typically occur), Phil Jackson decided to start Lamar Odom (with Fisher, Artest, Bynum, and Gasol) so that LO could match up with Andre Miller (a PG that excels at posting up).

There are countless other examples of the Lakers’ philosophies on offense and defense promoting the concept of a position-less team – Kobe as a primary post up player, Gasol as a wing player making entry passes, Ron Artest guarding PG’s, etc - but the overall point is that this is a concept that bears watching in the coming years.  Players are becoming more diverse and we may indeed see that players are filling “roles” on teams (creator, rebounder, etc) rather than being expected to perform the duties typically associated with a specific position on the floor.  And if this does indeed occur, I do believe the Lakers – at least as currently constructed – will be a team that will excel in this type of classification of players as they’re already implementing these concepts into their everyday style.

Dueling Three-Peats

Jeff Skibiski —  August 19, 2010

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As the Lakers look ahead to a possible second three-peat in the last 11 years, ‘Forum Blue & Gold’ plays a game of compare and contrast between the 2000-2002 Lakers and the current back-to-back defending champions. Who would win in a head-to-head match-up of these two teams (assuming we could clone Kobe and Derek Fisher, of course—scary thought for the league)?

The game has changed a lot since the glory days of Shaq + Kobe and Co., especially when it comes to the parity that exists in today’s NBA. During the Lakers’ last three-peat, the tandem, along with a venerable cast of role players, simply overpowered opponents with Shaq’s unmatched size and Kobe’s freakish athleticism. To that end, I vividly remember a Sports Illustrated cover circa 2000 that depicted Kobe and Shaq, with a giant headline that simply read: “Steamrolling.” NBA teams—the current L.A. squad included—still have the ability to dominate the league, but in recent years, the number of teams capable of doing so has drastically increased. Gone are the days when one NBA superpower is head and shoulders better than the remaining 29 teams.

The Lakers opponents in the Finals the past two years—Boston and Orlando—would likely have their way with the opponents that the team faced in the 2000-2002 NBA Finals. Reggie Miller’s Indiana Pacers club represented a solid, well-balanced opponent in the 2000 NBA Finals, but the Philadelphia 76’ers and New Jersey Nets nary offered a fight in the ensuing two Finals, winning a combined one game. In fact, you can make a case that in the championship runs from 2000-2002, the Lakers Western Conference Finals opponents—Portland, San Antonio and Sacramento—would have had their way against the Pacers, Sixers and Nets too.

From a player standpoint, the league has never been more competitive, with an influx of prominent players like Yao Ming and Tony Parker from overseas becoming mainstays on NBA rosters, along with All-Star teams. Sure, the Lakers from the previous three-peat team had to go up against the likes of vintage Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady, but today’s NBA is chalk-full of like-minded athletes capable of leading their teams to titles (LeBron, Wade, Howard come to mind). While the NBA has historically been a superstar-heavy league, the pure global talent on rosters in 2010 is uncanny.

Whereas the Shaq and Kobe Lakers struggled to find a reliable third scoring option—excluding a brief cameo by Glen Rice—the current Lakers have an offensive arsenal that rivals any of the great L.A. lineups. Assuming Pau Gasol is cemented as the default number two option on offense, who even knows what the 2000-2002 Lakers could have accomplished with a player like Andrew Bynum, Ron Artest or Lamar Odom to fill the void as a third scoring option.

While the Lakers of yesteryear boasted several proven veterans like Robert Horry, Ron Harper, Rick Fox and Brian Shaw, they lacked the scoring punch that the 2010-2011 Lakers figure to have off their bench. By 2002, aging role players like Robert Horry and Rick Fox had moved into the Lakers starting lineup, leaving their bench exposed. After an offseason overhaul of the current team’s bench, the Lakers figure boast several weapons off of their bench, which should help dramatically in their bid to three-peat. Moreover, the 2000-2002 Lakers never had a sixth man anywhere near the caliber of Odom. The Lakers won their previous championships in large part due to the sheer magnificence of Shaq and Kobe (and some timely shooting from Horry, Fisher, Fox and Shaw, etc.), but this year’s title-contender will offer a much more balanced attack. Unlike the past two seasons, the Lakers will also throw proven veterans like Steve Blake and Matt Barnes at opponents, which was a key difference between the old and current Lakers prior to this offseason.

From an offensive standpoint, the ever-present triangle offense remains key, though this current Lakers squad strays from it on a more regular basis. The principle inside-out game is still central to the Lakers offense, maybe even more so on the current team thanks to its superior size over the 2000-2002 Lakers. Both teams make defense a priority, as evidenced by the Lakers latest display in Game 7 of the 2010 Finals.

Through it all, one thing that has remained unchanged between this year’s Lakers quest for a three-peat and the 2000-2002 Lakers has been the brilliance of Kobe Bryant and clutch shooting of Derek Fisher. As staples of the team’s past five title campaigns, Bryant and Fish have anchored the team’s focus and chemistry. While Bryant showed signs of greatness during his first three-peat, he is personifying it in this second attempt. His evolution as a leader is, in my opinion, the greatest difference between the 2000-2002 dynasty. If this current team joins the 2000-2002 team in NBA lore, Kobe figures to be the primary reason why.

Unfortunately, barring an epic NBA LIVE duel, we’ll never get to find out what kind of magic would go down if these teams faced off against one another in a best of seven series, so we’ll have to leave the result to our imaginations. Who wins in your ultimate battle of these (possible) three-peat teams?

If you haven’t had the chance, you should go read Dave McMenamin’s article on Jerry Buss’ media session held at a fundraiser event for the Lakers Youth Foundation.  In the piece, you’ll read the the good Dr. spoke on a variety of topics including the Lakers’ payroll, his hall of fame indcution, Shaq to the Celtics, and much more. 

However, the part that interested me the most were Buss’ comments on the Miami Heat.  Here’s a sample:

Suddenly there’s this juggernaut out there that we have a chance to play against and that excites me, that really excites me because, quite honestly, I think we can beat them and I’m looking forward to playing them.  I don’t think it’s automatic that Miami will be our biggest opponent come the end, but on the other hand, I must admit they have the world’s attention and that means we’re going to be on center stage when we get a chance to play them.

He then spoke about the Lakers’ personnel moves of this past summer in relation to the “super team” that the Heat have assembled:

Our intentions were to sign those players prior to Miami coalescing all of the talent that was left over.  I don’t think we reacted to them. Once the season is over, we look backwards on the season and say, ‘Were there any weaknesses? Could we do something to improve this team?’ And we did that quite independently of Miami. … I think we just prepared ourselves for the general war, not specifically for anyone.

All of this interests me not because of the reference to the Heat or because Dr. Buss semi-discounts their chances of being the top contender by lumping them in with other very strong teams like the Magic or the Celtics.  But, it interests me because we got a little insight into the mentality of the Lakers brass when building a team.  You see, the Lakers were intent on not standing pat.  Their goal was to build as strong a team as possible that could manage to defeat any opponent rather than gearing up for one specific team. 

And this is a mentality that has been lost on other contenders over the past couple of seasons.  Look at the 2009-10 Cavs for example.  That team aquired Shaq during the off-season to deal with Dwight Howard and then traded for Antawn Jamison at the trade deadline in order to better match up with Rashard Lewis, both of whom play for the Magic.  This would seem like common sense considering the Magic eliminated the Cavs the previous Spring.  However, these moves proved to be short sighted as the Cavs never faced the Magic in the 2010 playoffs and instead were dispacthed by the Celtics in six games.  You see the Celtics had the perfect counter to the moves that the Cavs made to “improve” as they attacked Shaq in P&R and off ball screen actions that took advantage of his limited mobility on defense while smothering Jamison with a long and (still) athletic defender in KG.  This forced the Cavs to turn to a Lebron-centric offense that the Celtics are built to shut down over the course of a playoff series.  Really, the results were inevitbable as the Cavs roster was not built to beat all comers, but was instead built to beat ones that depended on big man play (the Magic or Lakers) that they never ended up facing.  (I understand that this is a simplistic view and that there is much more nuance to the Cavs/Celtics match up that was not explored.  However, this was essentially the key to the series as the Cavs didn’t have the variety of offensive threats on the wing and their big man that could actually score – Shaq – was a liability on defense while their best defensive big man – Varejao – could not score against the C’s dominant defense.  This left Lebron on an island and even though he performed well on most nights, it was not enough.)

Meanwhile, look at teams like Boston and the Lakers.  These are teams that continue to self scout, identify general weaknesses that matter against every oponent, and them attempt to address them through their personnel decisions.  This past off-season, Boston knew that it was short on big man depth and acquired the O’neal’s (Shaq and Jermaine).  They also knew that they were short on perimeter defenders and back court scoring and then sought to retain Marquise Daniels (who is better than the showed in an injury riddled season last year) and Nate Robinson.  When you combine those moves with the retention of Ray Allen, Pierce, KG, and an improving Rondo and you have a versatile roster that can match up with any team in the league by scoring enough and clamping down on defense.  As for the Lakers, you see the same approach of identifying weaknesses and then moving to improve those areas.  Need a steadier point guard that can play with either the starters or the resevers?  Enter Steve Blake.  Need a back up SF that can defend, rebound, shoot the three ball, and slash off the ball?  Go get Matt Barnes.  Even by retaining Shannon Brown and drafting Ebanks/Caracter, the Lakers addressed their youth and athleticism concerns.   This is how you build a team.

So, while Dr. Buss was speaking on any and all topics I was listening to the parts where he was talking about how this organization was intent on staying on top.  A good friend of mine has always said that even championship teams need a certain amount of turnover to stay competitive.  We saw this last year with the addition of Ron Artest and see it again this season with Barnes, Blake, and Ratliff.  No one can be sure if this will be enough for the Lakers to remain the class of the league, but I’m grateful to Dr. Buss for opening his wallet and to Mitch for working his magic with the agents and players to bring in guys that have made a strong team even stronger by suring up weaknesses with quality contributors.