Archives For December 2011

Records: Lakers 1-2 (9th in the West), Knicks 1-1 (9th in the East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 104.6 (13th in NBA), Knicks 100.1 (20th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 98.8 (7th in NBA), Knicks 106.7 (22nd in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Devin Ebanks, Josh McRoberts, Pau Gasol
Knicks: Toney Douglas, Landry Fields, Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler
Injuries: Lakers: Derrick Caracter (out), Matt Barnes (questionable); Knicks: Baron Davis (out), Iman Shumpert (out), Jared Jeffries (out)

The Lakers Coming in: It took three games, but the Lakers finally got their first win of the season in their last contest. Coming off a day’s rest, here’s hoping the team can carry over some of the positives from the Jazz game and continue to cut down on the negatives that plagued them in the losses vs. the Bulls and Kings.

We’re already starting to see improvement in how well the Lakers take care of the ball (committing only 20 turnovers combined in the last two games after posting 17 against Chicago) and in playing defense for full possessions by better closing out on shooters and then finishing with defensive rebounds. That said, the Utah game was only one contest and the Lakers must carry over these good habits tonight if they hope to beat a motivated Knicks team.

The Knicks Coming in: And the Knicks will be motivated after the loss they endured to the Warriors last night. The Knicks were able to keep the contest close (even lead for a good portion of the game) until the Warriors’ defense picked up its intensity and Monta Ellis went into full playmaker mode in the 4th quarter, dishing out assists while also getting his own shot to fall. The Knicks simply couldn’t deal with his speed turning the corner and his ability to break down the defense had the Knicks scrambling around to the point that they gave up a few too many jumpers.

Beyond just last night’s game, though, the team we’ll see tonight is a bit different than the one from last year. Gone is Billups and in is Tyson Chandler. The draft yielded a promising young guard many NY fans are high on (Iman Shumpert), but he’s now sidelined with a knee injury. The Knicks have added Mike Bibby and Baron Davis to try and replace what Chauncey brought them but Bibby hasn’t yet shown he’s any better than the player the Heat happily let walk and Baron is still on the shelf with his bad back. This leaves guys like Bill Walker and Steve Novak earning minutes and while their both role players with skills that can help a team, they’ve not exactly top level depth. We’ll see what this team is capable of once all the parts are healthy and clicking, but that time is not yet now and the team will simply have to take its lumps until it is.

Knicks Blogs: There are several excellent Knicks sites to get great info. Knickerblogger and Posting & Toasting are the two places to start, though.

Keys to game: The Knicks have reorganized their team in the hopes of establishing more of a defensive mindset. With Tyson Chandler anchoring the pivot, scoring in the paint against this team got more treacherous. Running Center based P&R’s is also more difficult, what with Tyson’s foot speed and long arms disrupting driving lanes and passing angles whenever the ball handler tries to turn the corner.

So, the Lakers will need to subtly tweak their offensive sets to better attack the Knicks. While running the P&R shouldn’t be abandoned, it should be run more in doses and at defenders not named Chandler. I expect Amare to start out on McRoberts so LA may be better served running this action with Josh setting the initial screen on Kobe’s man. This would let McRoberts to dive hard to the rim while Gasol circles back to the elbow area to make himself available as an outlet should Kobe get trapped or the dive man is taken away. This will allow Pau to set up for his elbow jumper or to take one dribble to get to the rim and/or turn his back to set up one of his many post moves.

The Lakers should also continue to run their screen actions to free up Kobe at the elbow/top of the key area(s) in order to get him his shots in these preferred spots. Allowing Kobe to make his catches in these areas will also set him up well to unleash is triple threat arsenal on Fields where he can easily get off his jumper or use his variety of jab steps to free him up to get to the rim. These sets will work especially well whenever Murphy and Gasol are on the court as these are the bigs that provide the best spacing and draw their defenders away from the rim for Kobe to more easily get to the basket.

Defensively the Lakers have a tall task in front of them but it will be different than what other Mike D’Antoni units have offered up. In order to secure Chandler, the Knicks had to give up Chauncey Billups and his departure has weakened the Knicks’ P&R game. They use Melo as the creator in these sets more often now – and he’s proven to be a good passer when handling in the P&R – but it’s obvious that Anthony is still most comfortable isolated on the wing where he can use his own triple threat set up to abuse defenders. The diverse ways in which the Knicks use Melo will put a lot of pressure on Ebanks as he’ll need to navigate screens both in the P&R and off ball, work on an island on the wing, and battle in the post against the brutish Anthony. If the 2nd year pro isn’t up to the task, don’t be surprised if MWP makes an early appearance to battle Melo as these two have an extensive history.

Slowing Amare will also be key but he, more than any other holdover Knick, has suffered from the Knicks’ P&R game not being as sharp. Stoudemire is still getting his numbers with relatively good efficiency (18.5 points on 52% shooting) but he’s not yet put up the types of stats that had him mentioned among MVP candidates for long stretches last season. This is likely because he’s shooting a few more jumpers this year than last as he finds himself making catches further away from the hoop and settling for more jumpers. Last night against the Warriors, Amare often floated around the perimeter and served as an outlet when plays broke down and it resulted in him taking long two’s. Maybe tonight he’ll be more aggressive, but I hope the Lakers lay off him and encourage him to flash the range on his jumper. If he buries them, tip your cap and change ends. If he misses, you’ve kept one of the more explosive finishers in the league outside the paint for another possession.

Lastly, I’d like to see the Lakers continue their strong work on the glass. They’ve won or tied the rebounding battle in every game so far and you can see there’s more of a concerted effort to hit the defensive glass by all 5 players. The guards are doing a better job of closing down the foul line and the bigs (for the most part) are attacking the ball when it comes off the rim. That effort will need to continue tonight as Amare and Chandler are two active bodies that will go after offensive rebounds and Melo is one of the strongest SF’s in the game, thus making him very difficult to move out of the lane when he goes to the O-glass. LA will need to keep these three off the glass and the guards will need to make sure that they both help down but not too far so as to give up long rebounds when the Knicks miss three pointers.

Overall, the Lakers need this game to build some momentum moving forward. Bynum will be back in the next contest and bringing him into the fold with a .500 record would be worlds better than this team being 1-3. It’s early yet, of course, but with a shortened season, this team doesn’t want to start in too big a hole.

Where you can watch: 7:30 start time on TNT. Also listen at ESPN Radion 710AM.

Prior to the start of the NBA season, FB&G asked how Lamar Odom’s absence would impact Kobe Bryant’s role with the Lakers this season. Given that Odom was good at initiating some of the offense on his own, it not only alleviated Kobe of some playmaking responsibilities, but it also allowed him to place more emphasis on his own scoring opportunities. Emile Avanaessian shared this nugget at the time:

An unintended benefit of the lockout is that it provided Kobe Bryant with a greater opportunity to rest his achy knees (and whatever else is sore) than he’s had in some time. Odom’s departure totally negates that. Now Kobe must not only navigate his body through a brutal schedule, he will be called upon to do so as the Lakers’ only creator on offense.”

And we are now seeing this manifest itself in the Lakers offense. Steve Blake is a good ballhandler but not an adept playmaker while Derek Fisher is a reputed big shot taker (and he makes them too) but needs others to create opportunities for him. Darius Morris may be young and inexperienced, but he did show the ability to create some scoring plays for himself off the dribble in the preseason. The one problem though, he seemed far more enamored with shooting the ball himself than dishing it off to his teammates.

The end result? Through three games, Kobe Bryant has an astounding usage rate (an estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while he was on the floor) of 39.1 percent. Consider this, the single greatest usage figure in the history of the NBA belongs to none other than Kobe Bryant. He achieved the figure of 38.74 percent during the 2005-06 season, when the Los Angeles Lakers finished with a 45-37 record. And as of right now, he is surpassing that.

The Lakers could almost live with that figure if Kobe was a point guard or a player in his prime; but as the team’s aging primary scorer, the burden on the star’s shoulders is far too heavy. Consequently, the Lakers’ season could go in one out of three different ways:
1. Mike Brown could ride this out until the end of the season. With Bynum set to return shortly from his suspension, it should alleviate some of the ballhandling duties from the Black Mamba since the ball will be going down low to ‘Drew who will occasionally draw double teams and kick it out to shooters for open looks.
2. The Lakers take their early lumps with Darius Morris and hope that he figures out the offense, his teammates and the pace of the game as the Lakers morph into a dangerous playoff team late in the season.
3. Mitch Kupchak uses the trade exception acquired in the Odom trade to bring in Ramon Sessions, Mo Williams, T.J. Ford, J.J. Barea, Jordan Farmar (I’m kidding), or Jose Calderon (completely unrelated but still relevant: Andre Iguodala would look great with this Lakers team) to help the team in the dribble penetration department.

The only problem with the third scenario at this point is that the Lakers may be clinging to the possibility that they have an opportunity to acquire Dwight Howard at some point around the March 15 trade deadline; thus it complicates matters a little given that the team will probably need all the assets in can muster to make an enticing trade proposal to Otis Smith and the Orlando Magic. Although given Smith’s track record as a GM, I would probably low ball him from now until late January and then make a semi-decent proposal and hope he feels overwhelmed. Just remember, the Magic gave Rashard Lewis a contract nearly on par with Kobe’s current one.

Given that Mike Brown is still figuring this team out, it seems as though the most likely scenario at this point may well be that he rides this thing out and hops on Kobe Bryant’s back along with Pau Gasol and Derek Fisher. Through three games, the Lakers are 1-2 but just as well could have been 2-1 if not for the debacle against the Chicago Bulls.

A lot of times, it’s easy to get lost in a narrow view of the season as opposed to stepping back and looking at the big picture. With Andrew Bynum set to return after the Thursday night game against the New York Knicks, we should get a clearer picture of what to expect from the Los Angeles Lakers for the remainder of the season.

Nonetheless, with Kobe nursing a wrist injury and carrying the load like no other player has ever done before in league history, one should pay close attention to how the team fares with and without their starting center. If for whatever reason the former league MVP is still asked or takes it upon himself to do the heavy lifting, Mitch Kupchak may well have to intervene by tweaking the roster for the sake of salvaging Kobe Bryant’s season.

The last thing the purple and gold and its fans want, is a spent Kobe Bryant by the time the playoffs roll around.

Once again, eyes on the big picture.

Wednesday Storylines

Dave Murphy —  December 28, 2011

Three games in three nights. Everyone said it would be a tough test for an older team. Or, for an older team with a new head coach and staff, a shortened training camp and the loss of its 6th man of the year. Plus, new roster additions in the form of late second-round draft picks and journeymen role players. Not to mention torn wrist ligaments for the team’s superstar, and no Andrew Bynum due to suspension. Casual, right?

Christmas Day showed gutty if sloppy resolve. Monday was just a mess. Last night was the first “must-win” of the season and the Lakers came through with a blowout, a markedly sharper performance on a night when they should have been playing on dead legs. If there’s a singular storyline so far, it’s that we’re in wholly unfamiliar territory but we’ll gladly take our first win.

At ESPN’s Land O’Lakers, Brian Kamenetzky details five takeaways for last night’s game, including Pau Gasol’s best game of the still young season.

C.A. Clark at Silver Screen and Roll, points out the many ways things could have gone south for the Lakers, and how the basketball gods instead, frowned on the Jazz.

Chris Sheridan at Sheridan Hoops, writes about the calming breeze, now originating from Los Angeles.

Mike Bresnahan at the L.A. Times, logs the first Staples Center “we want World Peace!” chant.

Also at the Times, Mark Medina from the Lakers blog, points out Kobe’s balancing act – being aggressive at the basket and still getting teammates involved.

Kevin Ding of the OC Register relays Kobe’s assertion that they ‘shoulda won all three’ and that it’ll take some time to break themselves of Phil Jackson-engrained habits.

Over at ProBasketballTalk, Kurt Helin delves a bit deeper into the ‘shoulda’ assertion.

Three losses in a row would have brought out the sharp knives. Observers were beginning to gather and shuffle around before last night’s win. They’ll be tracking the new-look Lakers throughout the season, it’s the nature of the beast. Mike Brown’s candor and determination for accountability have served him well so far. Still, it’s about wins and expectations in Los Angeles and now the Lakers have to do it again against the Knicks, on Thursday night.

– Dave Murphy

The Los Angeles Lakers just completed a fairly challenging portion of their schedule, playing three games in three nights. Although two of the three contests were held at home, it was still difficult for the team to navigate through it given the lack of practice time. Indeed, the players are still getting accustomed to playing with one another and have to do so all the while facing the rigors of the condensed schedule.

With that said, Mike Brown earned his first victory as the Lakers head coach on Tuesday night against the Utah Jazz. The Lakers still have some areas to improve on, but getting the first win out of the way certainly removes the added pressure of figuring things out while being winless.

A few observations from the game:

  • Apparently the Utah Jazz were the younger, quicker and more athletic team coming into the match-up against the Lakers; but they could have fooled us. The Lakers played with a lot more energy, getting the deflections as well as the loose balls and ran down the court for 16 fast break points.
  • The Utah Jazz have historically been a team with a high foul rate; as a result the Lakers made a conscious effort to feed MWP, Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant on the block in an attempt to generate fouls. Also, simply running the court allowed the Lakers to get out ahead of the Jazz players who had to foul in order to limit the Lakers’ easy scoring opportunities.
  • With this being the third consecutive game in as many nights, Mike Brown gave Jason Kapono the nod as Kobe’s back up; playing him 17 minutes. Brown hasn’t quite settled on a rotation yet, as Matt Barnes (who played in Sacramento) failed to see any court time.
  • For the second game in a row, Metta World Peace was productive on offense. He drove to the basket for a dunk, posted up on the block and was able to get himself to the free throw line.
  • The Jazz’s inability to play defense without fouling essentially allowed Kobe Bryant to do less for a change. Indeed, Bryant’s scoring was still needed, but his playmaking abilities weren’t needed as much as in the previous contests.
  • The Los Angeles Lakers surrendered a mere 36 points in the paint thanks in large part to their activity, length and athleticism. The Jazz had trouble finishing at the rim against the likes of Gasol, McRoberts and Murphy (seven blocks between them).
  • Troy Murphy went scoreless against the Jazz in 31 minutes, but his contributions helped the Lakers get the win. The left-handed big man snatched 11 rebounds and dished out four assists.
  • Kobe had a few instances in which he hijacked the offense in the fourth quarter, but he got himself into great scoring position (pinch post, low post and at the wings) and delivered. He scored with his left hand off a spin move, converted a transition 3-pointer and got himself to the free throw line in a three-minute sequence.
  • Despite the fact that the Lakers were blowing out the Jazz late in the fourth quarter, Brown kept Gasol and Bryant in the game for the sake of getting an opportunity to run the offense. The strategy helped the team produce manufacture high percentage shots; but more importantly it may have done something for Pau Gasol’s confidence, whom attacked Enes Kanter in the post on multiple occasions instead of settling for fall-away jump shots.
  • The stat of night may be Pau Gasol’s 12 free throw attempts. A more aggressive Gasol equates to a far more productive Lakers offense.

Perhaps giving some of the young guys on the team some burn early in the fourth quarter could have been a huge benefit to the team, but instead Mike Brown chose to stick with his veterans for the most part. The decision meant that the rotation players got some playing time against Utah’s second unit and the Lakers certainly looked more confident and more in charge during that stretch. The strategy may just help the Lakers be a bit sharper in their execution against the New York Knicks on Thursday.

Projected Starting LineupsLakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Devin Ebanks, Josh McRoberts, Pau Gasol
Jazz: Devin Harris, Raja Bell, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Al Jefferson

The Lakers Coming in: The Lakers are still looking for a win but will now try to get it playing their third game in three nights. I’m not sure if the schedule makers were being kind or a special kind of evil by putting the Lakers’ lone BTBTB stretch at the start of the season (on the one hand it gets it out of the way; on the other, the Lakers are without Bynum and have a new coach with new schemes to learn on the fly) but either way, here they are. Their legs are surely weary and with rotations still be settled on, the comfort level simply isn’t there yet.

The lone positive that I’ve seen in both the Laker losses is that after halftime they’ve come out playing much better, with improved focus and execution on both ends of the court. Whether that’s a product of coaching adjustments or a good old fashioned ear chewing in the locker room is unknown, but I like how this team is playing in the 2nd half of contests. Now, if they could only close out games a bit better we’d be on our way…

The Jazz Coming in: Where the Lakers are already playing their third contest, tonight will be the first official game for the Jazz. Such are the quirks of a 66 game schedule in a compressed time frame. So, expect the Jazz to have fresh legs and the bounce in their step that comes from finally playing a game that counts.

Also expect to see some new faces for the Jazz as they’re now a completely different team than the one the Lakers faced in the playoffs just a few seasons ago. Last year Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer both went east. This year, Memo Okur and Andrei Kirilenko have joined them. These new Jazz are full of youth with Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, rookies Enes Kanter and Alec Burks, and Jeremy Evans all looking to make their name in the league. This team still does have a good veteran presence – Devin Harris, Al Jefferson, CJ Miles, and Raja Bell all bring varying levels of experience to the roster, but make no mistake this team is one that’s rebuilding through the draft. If Favors, Kanter, Hayward, and Burks all reach their potential, they’ll have a very good lineup one day. That day just isn’t today.

Jazz Blogs: Salt City Hoops and SLC Dunk are both great outlets for all you Jazz analysis and news.

Keys to game: If there were ever a game where the Lakers need to dictate the terms of the game, this is it. The Jazz will be full of energy and they surely see a wounded, tired Laker team that they can knock down another peg. The Lakers will need to counter this with deliberate offensive sets that slow the pace of the game and take the air out of what the Jazz want to do on both ends of the floor.

Offensively, this means being patient and running coach Mike Brown’s sets all the way through. When the Lakers have the most success on O, they work the ball from side to side, use the screen actions that free Kobe coming to the top of the key and their big men to the strong side post in order to open up all options. L.A. will need to do this on more possessions than they have been in the first two games in order to get the Jazz D moving, get them to scramble, and the attack in the gaps. Obviously this means a heavy dose of Kobe and Gasol in the post and at the elbows, but this is also a game where Ebanks, Barnes, and MWP will need to work the creases of the D and make themselves available for the types of passes that create easy buckets. What I’d like to avoid is the de-evolution into isolation ball that plagued the Lakers down the stretch of both the Chicago and Sacto games. Kobe is to blame for some of this approach, but as it was under Phil Jackson, his teammates are complicit in this approach by giving him the ball and watching him work. The onus is on everyone – Kobe, his teammates, and Mike Brown – to keep the focus on ball and player movement.

Defensively, the Lakers face another speedy guard that will play a lot of P&R basketball with shooters spacing the floor to open up the driving lanes when coming off the screen. The Lakers will need to show out hard on Harris, make him give up the ball and then go back to playing strong positional defense by recovering to their men from their help positions. LA’s lack of foot speed has made this difficult but the accuracy the Bulls and (especially) Kings showed in shooting the long ball only exacerbated the issue. It’s understandable that fatigue will be an issue, but the Lakers will need to rotate to Bell, Hayward, and Miles whenever they’re camped in the corner and make them put the ball on the floor to create their own shot. The latter two are capable playmakers off the bounce so closing out with discipline is needed but I’d rather run them off the three point line and/or contest hard than let them bomb away taking clean looks.

The Lakers will also need to continue their good job of protecting their defensive backboards. The Jazz offer four above average big men (Favors, Jefferson, Millsap, and Kanter) who all seek out contact on the glass and like to bang underneath. Gasol, Murphy, and McRoberts (who is questionable with a sprained toe) will all need to do work on the glass to combat the Jazz bigs. But the Laker wings and guards must also do their part by closing down the foul line and pinching the bigs from the backside in order to wall off the paint to aid on the glass. Ebanks, MWP, and Barnes are all capable rebounders and their efforts will be needed tonight. (On a sidenote, one player that really needs a body put on him is Jeremy Evans. He’s a leaper and loves to come in for tip dunks when no one boxes him out. Whenever he’s on the floor, he must be marked as he will put one down on your head if you’re not looking out for him.)

Where you can watch: 7:30 start time on TNT. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.