Archives For November 2010

The Expectations Game

Darius Soriano —  November 18, 2010

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Expectations can be tricky.

Live up to or exceed them and the bar gets raised to a level where anything less than achieving or surpassing those same heights can taint future accomplishments (see: Thunder, Oklahoma City).  Or, don’t achieve what’s expected of you in the first place and it’s a disappointment that is tough to live down, regardless of what transpires in the future.  Yet still, if expectations are low and the achievements reached are far greater than what anyone originally thought possible, a hero’s celebration is sure to follow (Michael Beasley is inching in that direction right now).  Such is life – and sports – and walking a path where you don’t find yourself on one side of this line is often difficult or even impossible.

We see examples of the expectations game all the time in the NBA.  In 2008 the Lakers were an afterthought to start the year as trade rumors surrounded Kobe Bryant and engulfed the Lakers’ organization.  By the time the all-star break came the Lakers were one of the better teams in the league, had traded for Pau Gasol and went on to crash through their supposed ceiling by reaching the Finals.  That team eclipsed what many originally thought possible and were thus celebrated. (Initially, at least. Then expectations shifted, but that’s another story for another day.)  Today, we see what being on the wrong side of fulfilling expectations is like with the Miami Heat and Chris Bosh’s performance under a constant microscope with tags of underachievement being placed on a team (and that specific player) based off what was thought they would be and could achieve this season.

There’s really no way around playing the expectations game.  A player or a team can ignore them the best they can, but in the end others’ beliefs of what you can or should achieve, be, or do in any given situation often take the place of whatever the individual or team has in it’s own plans.

I bring all this up because of the case of two big men.  One of them we’re all quite familiar with – Andrew Bynum.  The other is also a familiar name  – Greg Oden.

Earlier this week, Bynum was asked what his return date would be as he continues to work his way back from off-season surgery of his own.  Rather than go into any details, Bynum said, “I don’t want to change expectations”.  You see, Bynum is quite familiar with how this works.  This is the 4th straight season that he’s missed substantial playing time due to an injury.  Each season a timeline was set for his return and each year that date came and went with Bynum still rehabbing his injury.  Fans (myself included) proceeded to call Andrew a “notoriously slow healer” and now our expectations have been reset and adjusted to the fact that there aren’t any real timelines when it comes to Bynum, only waiting.  We know that one day he will be back and when he is we can go back to placing other expectations on him – to be an all-star, a better passer, or more/less of some other quality that we’d like to see in him or his game.

Fans of the Portland Trailblazers could only hope for the same ability to say that their injured big man will be back.   Because with the latest announcement and the reprecussions of it, it’s not a lock that Oden will ever be a viable player in the NBA again, much less do it with the Blazers (check out this post for a great roundup of Oden articles).  Which, needless to say, is a shame.  Because we’ve all had our own expecations for the Blazers’ big man.  Some called him the best big man prospect since Duncan.  Others said he had the potential to be a defensive game changer in the Alonzo Mourning mold, only with a more refined offensive game.  His size, strength, and natural talent as a player was unquestioned and now with another knee surgery planned and another season missed, questions are all that there are.

However this all turns out, though, I hope nothing but the best  for Greg Oden.  Many are counting him out right now and there’s good reason for that.  While the success rate of players who go though micro-fracture surgery is much better than the days of Chris Webber and Penny Hardaway, it’s still a daunting surgery with a long and rigorous rehab.  That said, Oden seems like a player that loves the game and after working as hard as he has to come back from his other injuries maybe he has one more push to come back in him.  I sure hope so.

Just as a I hope for a healthy return of Andrew Bynum and for him to show us all again why all the fuss about his timelines exists in the first place.  While Bynum, like Oden, has endured more than his fair share of injuries, he’s also had enough court time to show us what’s possible with his game; for the expectations to be based off actual, sustained production and not just the potential of it.  So, I can’t wait to see him back on the court.  If only because the expectations for continued improvement are still there – even if it’s not always fair that it’s the case.

Allen Einstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Allen Einstein/NBAE via Getty Images

From Kevin Ding, OC Register: It was a gray Wednesday in the middle of the country in the middle of November on the second night of a back-to-back set against a nondescript opponent. And the Lakers were great anyway. What can you really prove in an early season mismatch against a fragmented, demoralized Detroit Pistons team? Plenty, plenty. These are occasions when it’s so easy to go through the motions and play down to the level of the competition. Past Lakers teams have done that often, and allow me to flash back to my mid-November column a year ago about how the Lakers started last season:

From Kevin Ding, OC Register: Seven years ago, the Lakers were Team Turmoil with all sorts of distractions on a 2003-04 team that still managed to reach the NBA Finals before falling off the cliff against the more united Detroit Pistons. Back in the venue where he suffered his first and worst loss in the championship round, Lakers coach Phil Jackson saw this season’s installment of the Lakers play with impressive pride, community and execution in a 103-90 dismantling of a Detroit team that is having its own morale issues now. “Everything seemed to go right for us,” Jackson said of the team’s fast start. Although Jackson said he has put the 2004 NBA Finals behind him, Kobe Bryant said in his KCAL/9 postgame interview that he is motivated by it every time he returns to The Palace of Auburn Hills.

From Mark Medina, LA Times: Take the Lakers’ 103-90 victory Wednesday over Detroit for what it’s worth. A win against a sub-. 500 opponent can be deceiving when measuring any the areas of significance against that backdrop. So even if the Lakers clicked offensively and sharpened up defensively, I hesitate to draw big-picture implications out of it. Nonetheless, this can do wonders from a psychological standpoint after coming off a recent two-game losing streak. The Lakers rebounded in a competitive win Tuesday against Milwaukee and proved they could sustain that energy, albeit against a 4-8 team, the following night. The Lakers’ three-game trip came at the right time because the team hit a little bit of a lull after experiencing early-season success, and it was nice for the team finally to hit the road for an extended period of time. A change of scenery always helps keep things interesting and the fact the Lakers came away with two wins from it thus far shows the team has changed up its focus. We’ll see how that carries over Friday at Minnesota.

Dexter Fishmore, Silver Screen and Roll: If you happened to miss tonight’s game, first: congratulations on finding something better to do. Some of us weren’t so lucky. Second: please don’t misread a modest 13-point margin of victory as a sign that the outcome was ever in question. In front of a sparse and depressed-looking Palace crowd, the Lakers jammed out to an 11-2 lead and built the cushion up to 14 at halftime and 26 in the third period before letting the scrubs run out the clock. The Lakers move their record to 10-2 on the season and 2-0 on the second nights of back-to-backs.

From Andy Kamenetzky, Land O’ Lakers: I’m not referring to the pride experienced by a player or fan. Sure, it’s a sweet feeling, but similar to what Chris Rock said about taking care of your kids, the Lakers are supposed to dominate the Pistons. They’re very bad, spend more time bickering with their coach than trying to improve and sport the body language of a crew hankering to quit in ten minutes. There are no bragging rights in beating Detroit. But what this contest does offer, other than a theoretical automatic “W,” is the chance for a starter to get hurt by being on the floor too long or having to expend more effort than legitimately necessary. All Lake Show pride aside, the desire to quickly make this a laugher is more pragmatic than emotional. You want a win and everyone exiting the building in one piece. No more. No less.

Patrick Hayes, Piston Powered: So … how about that Jared Sullinger? At least people won’t grasp at straws based on how well the bench played after the Pistons’ second unit combined to shoot 14-for-42 in the team’s 103-90 loss to the Lakers Wednesday. The outcome isn’t a surprise. For the third time this season, the Pistons played a team that is among the league’s elite. For the third time (following losses to Boston and Portland), the Pistons were never in the game. Rip Hamilton was ejected about five minutes into the game, and maybe having an extra taller defensive player to throw at Kobe Bryant would’ve mattered, but it’s doubtful considering how well everyone on the Lakers played and how poorly everyone on the Pistons played. There isn’t much to analyze in the loss. The Pistons didn’t move the ball well. They didn’t defend. And those two things aren’t much different than a lot of games this season, but the difference was the Pistons compounded the problems by not making shots.

Lastly, Rob Mahoney “articulates the significance of the Lakers as a Second Creation story, a rebirth by which all NBA narratives are shaped,” on Voice of the Floor. Check it out here.

AP Photo/Paul Sancya

AP Photo/Paul Sancya

If blowing out bad teams has a strong correlation to post-season success, the Lakers just took one more step in the right direction in achieving their end of season goal by man handling the Pistons 103-90 on Wednesday night.  Because, make no mistake, the Pistons are a bad basketball team and despite a final margin of 13 points this game wasn’t really that close.

The Lakers just had all the answers on a night where the Pistons showed that they could be a game opponent, but didn’t have the staying power to compete for a full contest.  They had some spark, but not enough flame to really keep up with a Lakers team that burned white hot for the entire contest – save garbage time when the game was already decided.

The Lakers trio of Kobe, Pau, and Lamar were once again the difference as they scored, passed, and rebounded with ease the entire night.  We’ll first discuss Kobe who had an intensity to his game from the opening tip.  When the game started he immediately attacked long time nemesis Rip Hamilton and drew a reach in foul when he bodied Rip up. As the whistle blew, Kobe then extended his arm into Hamilton’s chest to seemingly signal that tonight was going to be a real battle.  Over the next 3 minutes, Kobe poured in 8 of the Lakers first 11 points, including two three pointers on secondary breaks that showed how into the game he really was.  And it would pretty much continue this way the rest of the night for Kobe.  He’d attack to get a shot he wanted and walk away with a bucket or a trip to the foul line for his effort, ending up with 33 points on only 20 shots while going a perfect 8 for 8 from the FT line (with 9 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals for good measure).  The only difference between that initial Kobe run and how he reached his final stat line was that it wasn’t Hamilton that was guarding him for his final 25 points.  Halfway through the first quarter Rip got inexplicably tossed after getting two quick technicals for arguing a touch foul on a Kobe baseline fade away jumper.  Based off how Kobe had it going, I doubt it would have made a difference in either Kobe’s performance or the final outcome had Rip not been excused to the showers, but nevertheless it was a shame to see Hamilton ejected at such an early stage.

Say for a second though, that Hamilton does stay in the game and he expertly defended Kobe the entire night.  I’d likely still be writing this same recap because the advantage that Pau and Lamar had over their front court counterparts was gulf like.  Both Lakers’ big men went wherever they wanted on the court and got practice quality looks against players that either couldn’t be bothered to defend hard or just didn’t have the skill level to do so effectively.  Pau especially looked dominant for long stretches as he displayed his full arsenal of jumphooks (with both hands), turn around jumpers, and face up jumpers from all over court.  He expertly sealed fronting defenders and got easy lay ins when the Lakers went to their high low game off of the high post flash by the weak side big.  All in all, Pau finished with another double-double, tallying 25 points (on 17 shots) 12 rebounds (2 offensive) and one assist, steal, block, turnover, and personal foul.

And then there was Lamar who is showing little affect of the bone bruise on his foot that he was diagnosed with on Monday.  LO too had double digit points and rebounds (15 and 14 respectively) while also dishing out 4 assists on the night.  He looked good in the open court and in creating off the dribble and did a good job of initiating the sets when paired with both the starters and the 2nd unit.  A good all around game from LO.

Where the Lakers fell short was with their bench production.  While Barnes and Caracter did well on the glass throughout the night, the Lakers reserves did struggle to hit shots for most of the evening.  Blake, Barnes and Brown combined to go 3 for 13 from the field and if it wasn’t for Caracter’s 3-5 effort from the field, no Lakers’ bench player would have shot over 35% from the field.  And while every non-Machine nicknamed player did a good job of running the offense and generating decent shots for themselves and each other, the shots just didn’t fall tonight.  (On a side note, Sasha had about as bad a 6 minute stint to close the game that I can recall him playing in recent seasons.  Always the gunner, Sasha was seemingly beyond just aggressive and actually came off a bit selfish after he checked into the game.  Just a bad night for the Machine.)

In the end though, the bench’s performance wasn’t so poor that it cost the Lakers any points from their lead (at least until those final few minutes in garbage time) and for the most part their professionalism and willingness to do what was needed to keep the game well out of reach is exactly what you want from the reserves in a game like this.  Ultimately, the Lakers outclassed the Pistons and while this result could be somewhat predicted, it’s still nice for it to actually happen and for the Lakers’ starters to be able to have ice on their knees while they sit for most of the final frame.  If I was mapping out this game beforehand, the result we saw tonight would be exactly what was drawn up and for that I’m quite happy.  Now, it’s on to Minnesota for Friday night’s game with the T-Wolves.

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Records: Lakers 9-2 (3rd in the West), Pistons 4-7 (10th in the East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 117.6 (1st in NBA), Pistons 104.4 (22nd in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 108.1 (23rd in NBA), Pistons 109.2 (24th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers:Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Pistons: Rodney Stuckey, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Austin Daye, Ben Wallace
Injuries: Lakers: Andrew Bynum (out), Theo Ratliff (out); Pistons: Jonas Jerebko (out), Chris Wilcox (out), Terrico White (out)

Big Man Hunting: As you read in this morning’s links, the Lakers are looking at the possibility of adding a big man to fill in while Bynum advances in his rehab and Theo recovers from Tuesday knee surgery.  The names being thrown around are not inspiring (Jake Voskhul, Sean May, Steven Hunter), but considering the circumstances they shouldn’t be.  Big man depth is key, but when the Lakers are fully healthy, the 4th big on this team is a part time player at most and performs more high fives on a nightly basis than inside pivots from the mid-post.  I thought Dave McMenamin made a good point in his column over at Land O’ Lakers when he said:

One thing I know: Derrick Caracter isn’t going to be the guy. The rookie got a DNP against the Bucks while Gasol played 40-plus minutes for the third straight game. One thing I think: Finding a young, fresh body in the D-League would be their best bet.

I too think that the D-league may provide the best option, especially one that currently plays on the Bakersfield Jam and may have some previous exposure to the Lakers’ systems.  Drew Naymick fits that description and may be worth calling up for a few weeks on an unguaranteed contract that can be voided once all the Lakers bigs return to health and on court action.  Also, don’t think that because the Lakers are looking outside of the current roster that there’s some issue with Caracter.  While remaining high on Caracter’s long term potential is a given, he’s still best when paired with Gasol and he’s prone to the types of defensive lapses that many rookie big men are.  And when it comes to earning minutes from Phil, an understanding of the defensive schemes is a priority (this is why Ebanks seems to have earned more minutes so far than Caracter).  Derrick’s time will surely come, but I have the feeling that he needs more defensive polish and could use more practice reps on both sides of the ball before he’s deemed ready to soak up minutes as a backup big that works in the pivot.

The Pistons Coming in: Oh how the high and mighty have fallen.  It’s hard to believe that it was just 2004 that the Pistons defeated the Lakers in the Finals, using a well-coached, disciplined group of players.  Since that time, the Lakers have come back to play in 3 more championship series (winning two) while the team from the motor city has slowly slipped from contender, to mediocrity, to now being one of the lesser teams in all the league.  Joe Dumars, once lauded as one of the shrewdest GMs in the league, has attempted to remake his team but has fallen flat in nearly every way.  Bad trades (Billups for Iverson?), questionable free agent moves, draft picks that haven’t yet panned out, and coaching changes that just churn out the same poor results are all now contributing to a team that’s 4-7 and seemingly stuck in neutral or, even worse,  reverse.

Recently, the Pistons are getting ink for all the wrong reasons.  Injuries have caused rotations to be shuffled and poor results on the floor have caused spats between players and coaches to break out in the media.  Essentially, this team is the definition of dysfunction and I’m not exactly sure how that’s going to change if these same pieces are stuck together trying to cooperate when it’s obvious that there’s not a lot of agreement going on between the principal parties.

The thing is though, this team has some talent.  While some of their parts are aging (Hamilton, Prince), they have some good players at nearly every position (save big man).  Stuckey has been playing well, Ben Gordon is always a threat to put up big numbers off the bench, and Charlie V has been scoring at a good clip with good outside shooting.  They just don’t have the cohesiveness of a winning team.  (On a side note, there were some folks who root for the Lakers that wanted Tracy McGrady over the off-season.  Well, based off his game log, lets just say I’m glad he’s on another roster.  Granted, his numbers are a bit better of late, but I’m quite happy with Blake and Barnes thank you very much.)

Pistons Blogs: Visit Piston Powered for all the info you’ll ever need on this team.  And if that’s not enough for you, Detroit Bad Boys is also worth your time.

Keys to game: Second night of a back to back tonight and that always means the prospect of tired legs.  This is especially important when monitoring how Gasol is playing throughout the game, as he saw a team-high 44 minutes in last night’s victory over the Bucks.  Andif you read the first part of the preview, you know that there may not be any help on the roster besides the possibility of going small with Odom at Center for limited minutes.  This may mean that Phil gets creative in how he rests Pau by pulling him out at the end of quarters or before mandatory timeouts just to give Pau the maximum amount of real time rest in the minimum amount of game minutes missed.

The bigger issue with a potentially tired Pau is that the weakest part of the Pistons’ roster is their front court.  They start the undersized Ben Wallace, who is years removed from the days that he terrorized the defensive paint through his ability to block shots and control the glass and can now be attacked by a player as skilled as Pau.  After Big Ben, they have rookie Greg Monroe and the undersized Jason Maxiell.  And that’s it.  So, I’d say that the Lakers need to attack inside but much of that will depend on the wind in Gasol’s sails and the defensive approach that the Pistons take in trying to control the Spaniard.  In order to maximize the results from Gasol, I’d love to see him operate more on the strong side but initiated with the Center Opposite offensive initiation that involves an open post being filled by a flashing big man (in this case, Pau).  This way, Pau catches the ball on the move and can potentially use his height and reach advantage in a manner that allows him to get the ball closer to the hoop.

When it comes to containing the Pistons, we look again to the perimeter and their seemingly endless supply of players that have the skill set to hurt the Lakers.  Nearly every Piston guard, wing, or power forward is comfortable shooting the ball out to the three point line and they’ll run a variety of pick and pop plays to get screeners open to shoot the long ball.  Meanwhile, along the baseline, Rip Hamilton and Ben Gordon will be trying to wear out Kobe, Artest, and Barnes by running them off stagger screens so they can catch and shoot off picks and curls into the mid-range area of the court.  These are the types of players and sets that have given the Lakers problems this year and tonight, regardless of the quality of the team they face, they will be tested by them.

One other facet of the game I’ll be watching closely is the pace.  Detroit currently operates at the 4th slowest pace in the entire league (for comparisons sake, the Lakers rank 7th fastest).  But, one of the ways that teams have tried to attack the Lakers recently is by pushing the ball at them in order to avoid facing their half court defense.  Phoenix and Denver do this naturally so the fact that they employed this tactic is understandable.  However, the Bucks did the same thing last night to the point that they were running after made baskets like it was Mike D’Antoni pacing their sideline instead of Scott Skiles.  Tonight, if the Pistons are running after makes or pushing the ball at every turn you can bet that this is the strategy that teams think works best to defeat the Lakers and that we, as fans, better get used to seeing some high scoring games just off the strength that this is what teams are trying.

Where you can watch: 4:30pm start time out West on KCAL.  Also listen at ESPN Radio 710am.

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From Kevin Ding, OC Register: One of the oldest teams in the NBA, the Lakers are absolutely not prioritizing building for the future. That’s why there is only one player in their current playing rotation you could accurately describe as an up-and-coming player. He’s Shannon Brown, who showed again Tuesday night what progress he has made from being a player on the rise only in terms of his vertical leap. Yes, the Lakers’ number of up-and-comers will double to two once Andrew Bynum comes back from his latest knee surgery. But don’t mistakenly believe that is coming as soon as Thanksgiving.

From Mark Medina, LA Times: Their 118-107 victory Tuesday over the Milwaukee Bucks needs to be taken with a dose of perspective, considering the Lakers initial eight-game winning streak invited questions about breaking the 72 regular-season mark and their two-game losing streak brought up concerns that their early-season success was a mirage. Losing three games in a row — which has happened only once since the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol in February 2008 — would open the floodgates up even more. More importantly, the Lakers started off a three-game trip on a good note and they displayed a few positive developments detailed below.

From Brian Kamenetzky, Land O’ Lakers: Something about the Lakers makes teams shoot the lights out, it seems. The Bucks, not exactly noted for their outside gunning, came out red hot from the perimeter, making five of seven 3-pointers in the first quarter, part of a 12-for-19 outburst that included a ton of long jumpers. Milwaukee kept it up through the first half, really. But rather than get impatient, the Lakers kept doing what they needed to do offensively. They didn’t fall in love with the three, taking most of their looks from downtown off passes from the interior or penetration. Meanwhile, Pau Gasol was a steady force inside, scoring 14 first-half points. Artest put himself in the post, as did Bryant. Lamar Odom did good work there, as well, and as a team the Lakers piled up fouls against the home team, earning themselves 19 trips to the line in the first 24 minutes (they’d finish with 29, making 24).

From Dave McMenamin, Land O’ Lakers: Before you start calling Shannon Brown the NBA’s Most Improved Player or the Sixth Man of the Year, here’s another nickname that fits and he doesn’t need a media vote at the end of the year to earn it. How about Mr. Fourth Quarter? Everybody knows how supremely clutch Kobe Bryant is at the end of ball games, but if Bryant is Mariano Rivera, then Brown is one heck of a set-up man. Brown scored a season-high 21 points in just 22 minutes of playing time, going 7-for-9 from the field, 4-for-5 on 3-pointers and 3-for-3 from the foul line. He also added three rebounds and a steal.

From C. A. Clark, Silver Screen and Roll: I don’t remember exactly where I read it earlier today, but some idiot was talking about how tonight’s game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Milwaukee Bucks was going to be different than most of the contests the Lakers have seen so far this season.  Different, because unlike most of the opponents the Lakers have faced so far, Milwaukee is a superior defensive team (ranked #1 coming in) and a terrible offensive team (ranked #29 coming in), so the Lakers might struggle to score a bit more than usual, but should come through with some decent defense.

From Michael Hunt, Journal Sentential: Someone actually asked Phil Jackson on Tuesday night if his Los Angeles Lakers could learn something from the Milwaukee Bucks. The Zen Master could’ve said the 17-time champs have won more titles in the last 16 months than Bucks have in 42 years. He could’ve said Brandon Jennings was 11 years old when Kobe Bryant was fitted for the first of his five rings. But he didn’t. Even if Jackson can knock down the sarcastic barb like Kobe does the occasional game-winning shot, the man with more NBA championships than anyone understood where the question was going. The Lakers haven’t been playing Lakers-like defense at a time when the Bucks have been defending like they’re guarding the last bucket of water on Earth.

From Kevin Ding, OC Register: Andrew Bynum was asked Tuesday if he was still on track for his hoped-for Thanksgiving season debut. “Sounds about right,” Bynum said. Bynum, recovering from offseason knee surgery, was reluctant to divulge much, saying: “I don’t want to change expectations.” It’s possible Bynum was only remaining agreeable to the Thanksgiving estimate, which would mean playing Nov. 26 in Utah, and wasn’t in position to pick a new date. But Bynum, who is needed additionally because center Theo Ratliff is out at least a month because of knee surgery, added that he had a lot to say when he was ready to talk formally.

From Terry Foster, The Detroit News: As Kobe Bryant stood at the free-throw line at The Palace during the Lakers’ visit last season, Michael Lampp stood, cupped his hands and screamed: “MVP! MVP! MVP!” Not an unusual scene, by any stretch. But it is considering Lampp was rooting against his hometown Pistons. “To me he is a legend,” Lampp said. “He is the best player in the game. I know a lot of people will say LeBron James. I think Kobe is in a different category. He lives to take that last shot. He is the most clutch athlete I have ever seen and I cheer for him every time he comes around.” Tonight, when the Lakers visit again, there likely will be hundreds of purple-and-gold Bryant jerseys in the stands.