Archives For September 2011

Over in Lithuania, at the EuroBasket Tournament, Pau Gasol is rolling. He’s playing efficient basketball and again showing why he’s considered one of the best players in the world. In Friday’s Spanish drubbing of Serbia, Pau was the leading scorer with 26 points in only 23 minutes of action, missing only 4 combined field goals and free throws (going 8-10 and 7-9 respectively), while grabbing 8 rebounds, dishing 3 assists, blocking 2 shots, and committing only a single turnover. Needless to say, this is the Gasol we’ve grown to love and appreciate in his Laker career.

But more than the numbers and his overall stellar production, it’s the role in which he’s being asked to play while still producing these statistics that has me encouraged. Simply put, Gasol is being asked to be the man for his home country and he’s delivering in spades.

Gasol is notorious for being one of the game’s most unselfish players and often adapts his game to try and play within the team concept. Even when he speaks out to the press about wanting the ball more it’s nearly always within the context of wanting more touches rather than wanting more shots. When expanding on this idea he’s always speaking within the terms of how to best utilize not just himself, but the rest of his teammates in order to produce the best results. Some view this as a passive-aggressive way of complaining about his teammates (cough, cough Kobe) but I’ve always taken these statements at face value and to mean that he wants everyone (including himself) more involved while not putting anyone above the team’s success.

However, when playing for his home country, Pau is taking on a different role than the highly skilled #2 to Kobe’s #1. He’s being asked to do more; he’s being asked to be the focal point of his team’s success. It’s no coincidence that Spain lost its only game this tournament when Pau sat out nursing a sore ankle or that Spain pulled away from Germany in the 2nd half of their match up when Gasol asserted himself on offense and raised his game. Pau is thriving as the driving force behind his team’s success. If you’re a Laker fan, this is a great development and the biggest reason to be encouraged about Pau bouncing back when the NBA season resumes.

You see, Gasol may be the number 2 behind Kobe, but his value to the Lakers’ success is equal to that of #24. In the Lakers’ recent championship seasons Gasol has come up huge and it’s that level of contribution that will lead to another chance to claim the Larry O’Brien trophy next season. Of course there will need to be a balance to his game as he will be returning to a roster that not only has Kobe, but other talented teammates that deserve the ball and opportunities to help the team. But it’s undeniable that Pau will also need to channel that part of his game that puts him up front as a focal point of the team for the Lakers to win it all as they did in 2009 and 2010. And in order to achieve that level of individual play, Gasol also has to embrace his role as a co-conspirator to Kobe, not a guy that stands behind him.

And make no mistake, Pau is getting that chance as Spain’s leading man this summer. The fact that he’s embracing it and succeeding  is why I’m feeling good about Pau Gasol. And why you should be too.

The other day I wrote about the quest for parity, using a comparison between franchise quarterbacks in the NFL and the super elite basketball players in the NBA. It’s a comparison that doesn’t come without caveats as the difference between the sports and roles players take on for their teams can sometimes be major. You’ll have to indulge me again as the NFL is on my mind again today (and not just because the season kicks off tonight).

I bring up the NFL today because another bit of news from the grid iron caught my eye as it was announced that perennial MVP candidate Peyton Manning underwent neck surgery and will miss at least 2-3 months with the potential to miss the entire season. As a football fan in general and a person that appreciates the best players in the game from any sport, this saddened me.

But it also got me thinking about injuries and how easily a team’s chances can be derailed by an unforeseen ailment. Manning is the engine that powers the Colts franchise and without him they’re likely sunk, competing for a top draft pick next April rather than a playoff berth this winter. Suddenly the Colts have gone from championship contender to also ran. Such is the reality of losing your best player.

This is especially pertinent to me because as a Laker fan I too worry about a closing championship window and how fragile that can be. This past spring the Lakers were swept out of the playoffs in large part because their top players didn’t perform up to standard, but when looking closer injuries surely played a role in their demise. Kobe nursed a knee injury early in the season, an ankle injury towards the end of the year, and sat out most practices to rest aging legs. Pau Gasol came out of the gates as strong as ever, announcing himself as an early season MVP candidate before wearing down physically and mentally after playing heavy minutes without another viable Center on the roster to curb his minutes in the pivot.

Moving into this next season Kobe’s gone to Germany for a knee procedure that he hopes will help him practice more while still having fresh legs during the season but that’s by no means a guarantee. Gasol’s looking to recharge and reestablish his place amongst the league’s best by wearing his national team’s colors this summer but that’s no guarantee against past seasons’ hamstring issues cropping up again. Meanwhile Andrew Bynum hasn’t played a full season in 4 years and as he takes on more responsibility with this team his value and importance to its success only goes up.

Sometimes it’s the things you can’t control that impact your season the most. A lesson that the Colts learned the hard way this morning. For a fan of the Lakers, this serves as a sobering reminder. Here’s hoping the Lakers have a bit more luck in this area next season.

           

Hump Day Reading

Darius Soriano —  September 7, 2011

Below you’ll find a collection of some good reads to get you through the rest of your Wednesday afternoon. Enjoy…

Spain is a monster with Pau, top quality but well beatable without him. He’s easily the most effective player in the tournament, leading in points per 28 minutes (pace-adjusted) ahead of Ante Tomic and Emir Preldzic. Scoring rate is phenomenal. Well on course for most efficient tournament performance in Spanish national team history since ’94, and he already occupies seven of the ten top places in that category.

  • Speaking of Pau, Brian Kamentzky breaks down his game (and rematch of sorts) vs. Germany and one Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki:

First, while Gasol was sluggish early and was a non-factor scoring, Nowitzki wasn’t much better, missing seven of his nine hoists in the first half. Gasol did nice work on Dirk, aggressively getting into the German’s floor space to take away some of his options. Whether in the post or higher on the floor, Pau was far more successful getting a hand in the face of the Finals MVP than he was against Dallas in the postseason. (That Dirk wasn’t hitting jumpers like it was a video game helped, too.) Matched up against Chris Kaman at center, Gasol occasionally lost contact with him in transition, but engaged in the requisite pushing and shoving on the block and generally held his ground (though overall, our friend Dave Miller would have hated how much time Pau spent with his arms dangling by his hips at the defensive end).

After the break, any concerns about Gasol’s health (or susceptibility to mind control) quickly dissipated.

On Spain’s opening possession of the third quarter, Pau made a nice play on the left block, creating space against Dirk with a push into the lane, then reversing to finish through contact with the left hand. Two trips later, Gasol ran his percentage from downtown for the Eurobasket to 80 percent (4-of-5), drilling a jumper from the top of the arc. Later, he displayed some nice footwork against Kaman to face up just below the left elbow before elevating over the quasi-German, would finish the third with 10 points, two steals, and a dime — a sweet dish around Kaman to lil’ bro Marc.

  • Over at Pro Basketball Talk, our old friend Kurt has started a series of posts on what every team needs to do once the lockout ends. He starts out with the Lakers and offers these words of advice:

When the lockout ends, the Lakers need to… get a new point guard and get behind Mike Brown.

Brown has sounded like a guy who has got the right idea — if the Lakers are going to win another title it will be because they use more Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, allowing Kobe Bryant to pick his spots. He cannot carry a team to a title now. Brown has talked about using parts of the Spurs offense from their twin-towers era of Tim Duncan and David Robinson). It’s a smart move.

But Derek Fisher and Steve Blake — the two point guards on the Lakers roster — are not going to be able to run that show. Not well enough. Which means the Lakers need a new point guard. The free agent market is not loaded with good players (unless you think T.J. Ford is a good player, and if you do we need to talk).

The Lakers may have to trade for a point guard (hard to say right now who becomes available once teams see the new labor deal).

There is not a lot of trade bait on the Lakers roster. Some Lakers fans want Andrew Bynum or Pau Gasol moved, but neither of those guys is going anywhere unless a Dwight Howard-level player is coming back. Nor should they be — you win by going big, not point guards. The more likely move is something like Lamar Odom for a reasonable point guard and a backup big. But even that will not be easy to pull off for GM Mitch Kupchak.

Yes, under the 10-year collective bargaining agreement the owners have proposed, the gap is indeed somewhere in the area of $7-8 billion range.

But if you look at the six-year deal the players have proposed, which includes $500 million less in annual revenue (than what they would have received under the old deal) over the six upcoming seasons, the simple math tells a different story:

Over those six years, the difference in proposed revenues that would go to the players adds up to $2.97 billion.

That is still a significant amount of money, but it is nowhere near as significant as what is being put out there publicly.

Moreover, if you look at years 1, 2 and 3 of the proposals, the sides are a total of $870 million apart. (The players are asking for $2.17 billion in salaries and benefits in 2011-12, $2.33 billion in ’12-13, and $2.42 billion in ’13-14. The owners are offering a flat $2 billion per year.)

Or to put it another way, in a business that brought in $4.2 billion in revenues last season, the sides are only $170 million apart for next season.

Does that seem like an insurmountable difference that would justify the cancellation of the season? No — especially given the fact that neither side has said it has put its “last and best” offer on the table.

  • Friend of the site Dave M. continues his good work over at Searching For Slava and has penned a good piece that includes questions about what could be a rocky transition for this Lakers team:

We could be exchanging lists. You and I like exchanging lists. I stop by the front lines and they’re talking about every piece that’s gonna be the same and I’m thinking, it’s never gonna be the same. The sales force couldn’t hit their numbers last year so you fired the supervisor and the foreman and the accounting staff and the stenographers but you decided to keep all the salespeople who forgot how to close? I don’t buy it and apart from wanting to leave something special in Jim Buss’s ice tray and writing in the second person, I’ve gotta believe Mike Brown will bring some new blood into an inherited team. There won’t be any money to spend beyond minimum and some type of mid-level exception which pretty much leaves a trade and they won’t move Kobe or Drew and probably not Pau. And all this presumes a CBA settlement and I doubt they’d dropkick the president of the players association. Would they?

That last bit is important, as before I picked up a basketball there were not a lot of areas where I excelled. This is the complete list: running in circles, yelling, smiling, breaking things, and disrupting my parents’ sleep. With anything involving concentration, I lagged behind the other kids. With anything involving hand-eye coordination, I lagged way behind the other kids.  Coloring inside the lines? Couldn’t do it. Playing a musical instrument? Couldn’t do it. Swimming? Couldn’t do it, and dreaded being forced to try. I was born prematurely and although most of my earliest memories revolve around the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I am aware that I spent lots of time in a variety of doctors’ offices where I was diagnosed with developmental disorders ranging from ADD to Asperger’s to Tourette’s.

For some kids on the autism spectrum in their developmental years, not much progress can be made. For others, treatment can enormously improve quality of life. If you’re really lucky, treatment can eventually eliminate any signs of being different. I was absurdly lucky that my absolute hero of a mom dedicated every second of her time to helping me. Basketball ended up being a huge part of it. She exposed me to Magic, Michael, and Larry through NBA home videos and something clicked with me. I internalized the stories of how hard they worked and wanted to be one of them. Preferably Magic. So I practiced dribbling. Over and over, every day, even though I was terrible for the first couple of years. I kept at it, exhibiting a sort of discipline I’d previously never shown in any capacity. It was the extreme focus that I would have needed to become a good swimmer or violinist or whatever, but I didn’t care about those things. I loved to dribble a basketball.

As we slog into month 3 of the NBA lockout, we all know that the major issue at hand is money. The owners want a bigger piece of the pie than they’ve been getting and want to ensure that their franchises are profitable. NBA teams are businesses, after all, and profits are the way that businesses not only sustain themselves but grow for the future.

However, one of the other talking points the commissioner and owners consistently mention is parity. The logic goes like this: parity equals better competition; better competition equals more interest in the league; more interest in the league equals more money for the league through higher TV ratings, stronger attendance, and more merchandise sales.

And held above all other professional sports leagues as the king of parity is the NFL. You know, the league where there have been 5 different champions in the last 5 years and 7 different ones in the past decade. Where different teams consistently rise and fall into the ranks of contenders; where fans of (nearly) all teams feel that this could be the year their team goes on a magical run to the Lombardi trophy. When looked at in this light, parity is a great thing that every league should strive for and, thus, fight for.

However, parity isn’t truly achieved through the battle ground topics that have come up in the NBA’s current collective bargaining negotiations. Parity (at least to these eyes) isn’t achieved through a hard salary cap, more restrictions on player movement (like franchise tags, exclusive rights free agency, etc), or ensured profitability gained through revenue spits (or even revenue sharing). These things help level the playing field for all franchises and ensure that they have similar resources in order to build a successful organization. But they don’t ensure competitiveness.

Parity is accomplished by the distribution of the best and most impactful players across the league.  For the NFL, that means getting your hands on one of the best quarterbacks and keeping him in your uniform for as long as possible. However, the truly elite quarterbacks aren’t plentiful. There are, maybe, 5 or 6 truly great quarterbacks in the NFL and the teams with those signal callers are the ones that stay at or near the top for the longest periods of time. In fact, these players carry so much value and contribute so much to winning that they can tilt the fortunes of a franchise even when the rest of the roster isn’t managed in a way that would typically lead to success.

Over at one of the better NFL team sites I’ve found (Cowboys Nation), this is explained quite well when discussing the success the Colts and Patriots have had while possessing two of the best QB’s of their eras (Peyton Manning and Tom Brady) while continuously missing on their draft picks:

…of the 41 players the Patriots drafted from 2004 through 2008, only four, nose tackle Vince Wilfork, guard Logan Mankins, kicker Stephen Gostkowski and inside linebacker Jerod Mayo remain.  (Geer missed ’08 backup WR Matthew Slater, so there are five.)

Five players.  That’s it. Three quality starters and a kicker. The players in the 2004-2008 window will be entering years four through eight in their careers.  They should arguably be the core of New England’s or any other NFL club’s squad.

And yet, in the seven seasons played since those draft classes flickered out, the Patriots have won seven consecutive divisions, played in two Super Bowls, and won a championship.

The quirky stat sent me to examine the Indianapolis Colts’ drafts in that same five-year span.  I found six hits, four starters (RB Joseph Addai, S Antoine Bethea, G Mike Pollack, WR Pierre Garcon) and two backups (WR Anthony Gonzalez and TE Jacob Tamme) in Indy’s haul.  Good players, but no big stars.

Like the Patriots, the Colts performed superbly.  They have six division titles, two Super Bowl appearances and a title to their credit the past seven years.  Their GM Bill Polian is considered one of the best football men in the business.

This demonstrates, in part, the value of an elite quarterback.   Peyton Manning’s and Tom Brady’s ability to operate their offenses at extreme high levels despite constant churn on their rosters and in their teams’ coaching staffs has helped their teams overcome drafting records that might hobble others.

What does this have to do with the NBA you ask?

Just as elite quarterback play leads to contention in the NFL, having one of the 5 or 6 best players in the NBA will often lead to contention as well.

How many truly great players are there in the NBA today? Five? Seven? Ten? Forget all-star appearances and scour the all-NBA rosters of the past several years. The players you see consistently – Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Kevin Durant, Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett – are the foundation for title contending teams nearly every season. (Sure, there are exceptions. Paul hasn’t achieved as much as the other players mentioned but he serves as a foundation for a playoff team that would lose 50 games a season without him. He has immense value and is one of the few impact players in the NBA.)

These players are the difference makers in the league; they’re the players you need if you want to compete. Compile one or more of them (like the Heat have with James and Wade or like the Lakers have with Kobe and Gasol) and you have a foundation for success that most other teams will not be able to keep up with.

In a league where there are only 5-10 truly great players but 30 teams, how do you achieve parity? Create incentives for keeping players on the team that drafts them, put a ceiling on spending, or reduce the allure of player friendly markets all you want and the issue of too little top shelf talent remains.

Parity is not a myth, but it is hard to achieve in a league that’s expanded as much as the NBA has. Even with the influx of several young players that look to make the leap into that super-star class of talent (Rose – last year’s MVP, John Wall, Russell Westbrook) there is not enough talent to go around, especially if keen talent evaluators (Sam Presti comes to mind) are able to stock pile talent while less competent GM’s miss on draft picks or don’t spend money wisely.

The commissioner and owners may preach parity and may look to the NFL as the model they want to follow. But, if they look closely, they’ll see that they already have that model in place. Like the few excellent QB’s do for the NFL, the truly elite basketball talent makes a contender out of an average team.

From where I sit, it’s time to stop the talk about parity being a goal of the current CBA negotiations.

Happy Labor Day…Kinda

Darius Soriano —  September 5, 2011

With today being Labor Day, I hope everyone takes the time today to relax, eat some good food (preferably some barbecue), and enjoy (what I hope) is some time away from the day job. After all, history tells us that today is a day “dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”

Actually, I take that back. I don’t hope everyone is taking a day off today. I hope that the owners and the players union are hard at work trying to end this lockout.

We’re now a week into September and the progress has been so slow that meetings where more meetings have been planned can be considered a success. Frankly, that’s nice to hear but we still need more.

You see, I want this season to start on time and still believe it will. But in order for this to happen, both sides need to actively seek a solution together. If either side decides that winning this negotiation is more important than actually starting the season on time, there actually won’t be any winners. We all will lose.

The NBA is entering a period that could easily be described as a second golden era. There are aging veteran superstars putting their stamp on the league (Kobe and Dirk have won the last three championships), established superstars that are on the brink of doing the same (LeBron, Wade, Howard), and a young crop of superstars that are trying to make the league their own through their unique skill sets (Durant, Rose). When you add in the stockpile of other talented players and teams that populate the league you’d have to go back to the mid 80’s and early 90’s to find a time where the league was this strong in the present day with a future that looked just as bright.

Now is not the time to piss it all away by missing games and not getting this season started on time.

So, today, I hope that all of you – the fans – are enjoying your day off (if you’re lucky enough to have one). Devour some ribs, put your feet up, and turn on the tube to whatever entertains you. But for all the players and owners out there, I hope that you’re working towards a solution as the rest of us relax. By my calendar, training camps would typically open within the month. Please try to make sure that we get there on time (or at least within the next 30 days or so).

Thanks,

All NBA Fans