Archives For August 2012

Once the Dwight Howard acquisition became official, the first thing fans did — after praying at the altar of Kupchak, of course — was talk about how the Lakers would be a better defensive team. After all, before this past season when Tyson Chandler helped turnaround the Knick’s porous D, Howard had been the reigning 3 time defensive player of the year. And in contrasting his game with Andrew Bynum’s, Lakers fans were giddy at the prospect of having a more mobile big man that could hedge/recover in the pick and roll, still protect the paint by blocking and deterring shots, and do it all while not suffering on the defensive glass.

However, when comparing Howard to Bynum on the offensive end of the floor, many do not see an upgrade. In fact, many see Bynum as the better offensive player — or at least a player with a more polished and diversified attack. While I won’t get into who’s better, I can say that those critiques hold value. Over the years, Bynum has become one of the more polished pivotmen in the league. His combination of size, foot work, and touch around the rim make it so. Add in a burgeoning face up game and Bynum’s a fantastically efficient scorer with a hunger to bury his man.

But, that doesn’t mean Howard isn’t extremely effective in his own right. His game isn’t as aesthetically pleasing as Drew’s, but prettiness isn’t all that matters. Putting the ball in the basket consistently does and Howard does that quite well. Going into next season, we’ll find that Howard may do it differently than Bynum did but that he will boost the Lakers’ offense when he’s on the floor. Let’s explore how…

Howard in the post
One of the long held beliefs in criticizing Howard is that he “doesn’t have any post moves”. I’ve often bristled at this critique because it ignores the fact that Dwight does have a steady arsenal when working from the block, just one that is more mechanical in nature; one that is built off his ability to compromise his man with a combination of quickness and power rather than technique.

Per My Synergy Sports, Howard posted up 57.5% of the time, producing .88 points per play, while shooting 49.9%. All of these numbers are very good — they ranked him 55th in the league in this category — and in comparison to Bynum (54.6% post ups, .89 points per play, 46.2% shooting) we see that Howard produces at a level that is at least equal to (and some would argue better) than the man he’s replacing.

As mentioned, Howard uses a combination of quickness and power to set up his post work. Often times he’ll turn and face when working form the post and then jab step to get his man off balance before exploding into his move. From the left block, he loves to go middle and shoot a rolling hook and will counter with a drop step/spin move to the baseline if his man cuts off his drive. Because Howard has excellent burst and underrated feet when getting going to the rim, this primary/counter attack he’s developed is more than effective.

He also offers straight post up moves as well. When working from either block Howard will turn and face but then power dribble back into a standard back to the basket position to knock his man off-balance. From here, he can turn over either shoulder to shoot a little jump hook. From the left block he’s shown that he can hit a little lefty hook going baseline and from the right block he clearly likes to turn back over his left shoulder and shoot his righty hook off the glass. To be fair, these hook shots lack touch as he shoots them more like shot puts rather than flicking his wrist like Bynum (or Gasol) shoot theirs. But, Howard has shown he can make these shots with good consistency, regardless of how they look coming off his hand.

Overall, I liken Howard’s post up game to the boxing style of a puncher who is jab dominant but will then hurt you with his overhand right when you guard against his quick left (sort of like Lennox Lewis or Vlad Klitschko). This type of fighter doesn’t try to hurt you with a variety of punches — no upercuts, crosses, etc — he simply wears you down with his primary weapons over and over again. This may not be the most fun fight to watch, but they continue to win because they’re two trick ponies that mix up those tricks enough to do damage.

Howard in the Pick and Roll
Where Dwight is in a league of his own is as a finisher in the pick and roll. Dwight produced a staggering 1.36 points per play (2nd in the NBA) while shooting an absurd 74% in this action. If you compare this to Bynum (1.12 ppp, 57.1% shooting) you see a marked improvement, even though Bynum’s numbers are excellent. Howard’s quickness in darting into open space combined with his ability to make the difficult catch while finishing above the rim make him an absolute terror.

Beyond his finishing, however, the authority in which Howard dives into the teeth of the defense instantly draws extra defenders to him. This magnetism creates the floor spacing and passing angles his teammates feast on. With Howard on the floor the three point shooting percentages of Ryan Anderson, Hedo Turkoglu, and Jameer Nelson were all much better than when he was on the bench.

This upcoming season, I expect to see the same type of impact from Howard on his Lakers teammates. Whenever Nash and Howard share the floor, the Lakers can run a high P&R and generate a good look simply due to the fact that Howard is going to set a crushing screen and then dive to the rim where he’ll either be able to make a catch and finish/get fouled or will draw in the defense in a way that opens up his teammates. Think of the open shots that can be created for Kobe or Pau or Ron or Jamison or Meeks…I could go on and on and this only considers the Nash/Howard scenario. Change this up to Kobe/Howard or even Pau/Howard (remember the Pau/Bynum P&R that produced so many good plays?) and the options open up even more.

Simply put, the Lakers have added one of the best pick and roll finishers (and Steve Nash to help set him up) to a team that finished 27th in points per play in having the roll man finish. Howard has the ability to transform this aspect of the Lakers’ offense in a similar manner to the way we expect him to help their defense.

What about the foul shooting?
There’s no avoiding the fact that Howard is a poor foul shooter. Last season he made only 49.1% of his FT’s and is a career 58.8% shooter from the stripe. In comparison, Bynum shot 69.2% last season and is a career 68.7% shooter. In pressure situations Howard’s not someone you want at the foul line and there will be times (probably many of them) where we’re all actively rooting for Howard not to catch the ball out of fear he’ll be fouled and will have to sink meaningful free throws. There’s just no getting around the fact that Howard performs poorly in this area and as a result, the Lakers’ team percentage will be drug down by his performance at the line.

However, what’s not said enough is that one of the reasons that Howard can have such a negative impact at the line is because he gets there so often. Last year Howard shot 10.6 FT’s a game, a mark that led the league by 2 attempts a game. Furthermore, Howard also led the league in fouls drawn at a whopping 8.5 per game, a full foul and a half more than the next most hacked man. If you compare Dwight’s numbers to Bynum’s (5.6 FTA’s per game, 4.7 fouls drawn), the difference is stark in terms of who is getting pounded more.

The fouls drawn per game is particularly important here. Dwight is essentially averaging a shade over 2 fouls drawn per quarter. In the NBA, teams shoot FT’s on an opponent’s 5th team foul. By getting hacked as often as he does, Dwight not only earns himself FTA’s but does so for his teammates as well as evidenced by the fact his team’s FT rate dipped to .232 when he sat versus .327 when he was on the floor.

Dwight’s already joining a team where Kobe shot the 4th most FT’s a game (7.8 per contest). Think of how many more Kobe can shoot simply because their opponent is in the penalty and a touch foul on the perimeter or a battle with his man for post position turns into a trip to the foul line. The same can be said for Nash when he’s trying to attack off the dribble or Gasol when he’s fighting for post position or going after a defensive rebound. Or what of the cleaner opportunities these players will get due to the fact that the opponent is actively trying not to foul? Or the better shots they’ll get because the opponent’s best paint defender is saddled with fouls and on the bench?

The Lakers will surely suffer some due to Howard’s penchant for missing while taking his own FT’s. But much like when Shaq was soaking up contact a decade ago, the Lakers will also benefit in the form of extra FT’s as a team that their better shooters can feast off of.

The Big Picture
Overall, Howard won’t always look like the best offensive player. His robotic post moves will have you longing for more Pau (or wish that Bynum was still here) and his FT shooting will have you wincing at least once a game. But his work in the P&R, how he runs the floor, and his ability play above the rim are among the league’s best. Add in the fact that he grabs nearly 4 offensive rebounds a game (and will open up those chances for Pau too), is a capable passer out of the double teams he sees, and the fact that his so called deficiencies of post scoring and foul shooting still come with great value embedded, and Dwight’s going to be a great addition on the offensive side of the ball.

*Statistical support for this post from NBA.com

Friday Forum

Dave Murphy —  August 17, 2012

Earlier today, Darius wrote about additions to the Lakers coaching staff, and ways that the Princeton offense and pick and roll can coexist. If Jordan, Bickerstaff & Clifford do indeed finalize their deals, they’ll be joining fellow assistants Kuester, Ham & Person. Along with with head coach Mike Brown, that’s a large coaching staff to go with a formidable new All-Star lineup. It should be apparent by now, that the team is going all in this season, with players, personnel, and an ambitious melding of strategies.

Henry Abbott at TrueHoop, wonders whether Kobe Bryant & Steve Nash could be the next great ‘good cop/bad cop’ combo.

The Kamenetzy brothers at the Land O’Lakers offer a summer roundup podcast.

Kevin Ding at the OC Register reports that assistant coaches Eddie Jordan, Bernie Bickerstaff and Steve Clifford are set to join the Lakers staff.

C.A. Clark from Silver Screen & Roll is joined by J.A. Sherman from Welcome to Loud City, as they discuss the Lakers and the OKC Thunder.

Mark Medina at the L.A. Times talks with Brian Schmitz from the Orlando Sentinel about the adjustment period that Dwight Howard could face.

Jabari Davis at Lakers Nation asks if Dwight Howard & Pau Gasol could be the best center/power forward combo in NBA history.

In other news, Kobe Bryant is still not on Twitter, great imposters notwithstanding. Maria Burns Ortiz at ESPN Go has the story.

***

While the upcoming season promises a multitude of storylines, the lead-ins will often target Kobe. This isn’t some vague conspiracy rant, although I have been known to do that. There are precedents here, and lots of them. Put a super-team together and you’re daring observers to question it, or preordain it for greatness in a classic expectations game. This goes with the territory, it is part and parcel with NBA basketball which is more closely aligned with entertainment and pop culture than any other major league sport in this country. And all of this is fine, it is familiar territory for the Los Angeles Lakers and their fans. Bring us your lights, your cameras, your huddled commentators yearning to breathe fire. There’s plenty of room at the table.

 

- Dave Murphy

It’s been a summer of change for the Lakers. In all, they’ve added 6 new players to the roster and that’s not even counting the two draft picks chosen in June. Beyond adding talent that will have an impact through playing, however, the Lakers are also looking to bolster their coaching talent. Kevin Ding has the scoop:

It hasn’t exactly been a secret around the NBA that Lakers head coach Mike Brown has been courting Eddie Jordan to join his staff as an assistant coach. The official hiring of Jordan, who played for the Lakers in 1980-83 and ’84, is expected to occur in the coming days — and Brown will be hiring longtime NBA sage Bernie Bickerstaff, too. The Lakers are also adding Steve Clifford to their staff. Clifford has been an Orlando Magic assistant — with Dwight Howard — since 2007. Before that, Clifford was with the Rockets and Knicks.

Adding coaches of this caliber certainly makes the Lakers a better team. All of these men have a great deal of experience, have won (or helped win) their fair share of games, and will give Brown more teachers to help mold the team into one that can reach the goals they set.

In Jordan, specifically, they’ve locked down the man that will surely have a big hand in shaping the Lakers’ offense next season. Jordan is a Princeton Offense disciple, learning at at the foot of the great Pete Carril while serving as an assistant coach with the Sacramento Kings. Since, he’s helped develop the offense with the Nets, Wizards, and 76ers as an assistant and head man to varying levels of success. He’ll now be asked to bring that offensive expertise to the Lakers.

The offense, in general, has a lot of good principles that should aid in the success of this Lakers’ group.

First and foremost, the offense brings back a read and react system that will enable the Lakers to better diversify their offensive attack. The Lakers should be better able to counter what the defense is trying to take away and thus produce good scoring chances even if a first option is taken away. This was something the Lakers struggled with a great deal last season, especially when defenses crowded the paint to take away their post options.

Second, the offense should provide the team with a bit more balance. Too often last year, the Lakers sets were run for one of two options: either to create a shot for Kobe or to create a shot for one of the Lakers big men. While this approach can’t really be argued with — after all, you want your offense to be built around your best players — the Lakers over reliance on shots to be created by these players left the team struggling to generate quality looks when a set break down. If Kobe was denied his initial pass and pushed out beyond the three point line, if Bynum was fronted, or if Pau couldn’t make a clean catch at the elbow the Lakers went into scramble mode and their sets got disjointed quickly.

Third, there are simple strategic measures an offense like this one brings that will help immensely. By bringing back a two guard front the team should achieve much better floor balance, aiding in their transition defense. The two guard front also aids in floor spacing, naturally allowing more room to operate. Spacing and floor balance also aid in player positioning in general, translating to good offensive rebounding chances, better passing angles, a stronger ability to read the floor and where defenses are trying to help from, and countless other facets of offensive basketball that can be the difference between getting a good shot or not on any given possession.

Of course, there’s still a question of how the players the Lakers have on their current roster fit into this offense.

Kobe and Pau are natural fits for this offense. Gasol especially so with his ability to play in the high or low post, his innate feel for passing, and how he instinctively reads a defense and can move into the proper positions to counter. Kobe, with his history in the Triangle, also has strong foundation for success in this O. He reads defenses well, makes smart cuts off the ball, and his all court game translates to being able to play in a two guard front, on the wing, or even shift to the high or low post depending on need.

Pau and Kobe aren’t the only key players on`the Lakers, however. Steve Nash and Dwight Howard must also fit into these sets. To be honest, though, I’m not that concerned. Nash can fit into any offense you put him in. He can be a shooter and floor spacer regardless of what offense the Lakers run and his ability to work in isolation from the top of the floor will still have value in this O. As for Howard, he too can play in the high or low post based off the strength of his ability to turn, face, and then beat his man off a quick drive to the rim. Plus, Howard is a good passer out of the post due to all the double teams he’s faced over his career. Both players have enough skill and variety in their offensive games to fit in just fine and their ability to finish plays playing off the ball will be of great value.

All that said, it should also be noted that the Princeton offense has enough flexibility to allow these players to freelance as well. In watching tape on the Kings teams that gave the Lakers such fits a decade ago and the Nets teams that went to back to back Finals in that same era, there were countless possessions where those teams went to pick and roll sets, wing isolations, and straight post ups in order to generate good shots. The Lakers did the same thing under Phil Jackson when running the Triangle offense. If you want a more current example, look at the Minnesota Timberwolves in how they run their offense.

Rick Adelman’s “corner offense” has many of the same principles of the Princeton O (remember it was Adelman who both Jordan and Carril coached under in Sacramento). With the Wolves, Adelman runs countless pick and roll actions with Ricky Rubio at point guard, utilizing his ability to break down the D off the dribble and create shots for himself or his teammates. Rick has cleverly integrated principles of his offense  into more classic sets that optimize the talents players like Rubio and Love bring to the floor. Jordan and Mike Brown can do the same with the talent they have at their disposal next year.

And, in the end, this is what I expect from the Lakers in the coming season. The beauty of having an offensive system rather than simply running sets or plays is that a team has a foundation to lean in trying times. However, with the talent the Lakers have at their disposal, it’d be silly to think they won’t take advantage of individual mismatches in order to score points. Some nights that may mean featuring Gasol in the post. Other nights it will certainly mean a pick and roll heavy attack between Nash and Howard. Other times it will mean going to Kobe on the wing and letting him create in single coverage.

The Lakers are blessed to have several players that are difference makers on their own or in tandem. However, with the hiring of Eddie Jordan, the Lakers look to also be bringing in a system that they can rely on to help them be efficient on offense without having to rely on that talent to produce. This will help the starters, but also the bench players score when needed. It will give all the players a foundation they can build on throughout the season to be the offensive machine they hope to be.

There will definitely be an adjustment period. Not only from the standpoint of implementing the new system but in meshing the players that will need to run it effectively. But in moving towards this system the Lakers look to be getting back to a style of play that has led to multiple championships. And it starts with the addition of some very good coaches to work in tandem with the great players they’ve already brought in.

The question posed in the title might seem utterly ridiculous given that it’s a widely accepted fact that the former Magic big man is the best center in the league and also perhaps arguably the second or third best player in the NBA.

Many will readily admit that he is the standard by which all active defensive players should be measured and that no one does a better job of fighting for position and tracking down rebounds during games in addition to his offensive responsibilities. Thus, Dwight Howard is an elite player; and once again, many are quite fine with this notion.

But here’s the problem: when it’s time to quantify that, he tends to get shortchanged. Sounds preposterous right? Well have a look at the MVP voting in the past few seasons and it paints a perfect picture of how undervalued the best center in the game is.

One can forgive the fact that Howard came up 7TH in voting for the 2011-12 season given the fact he missed a small chunk of the season and kind of turned off voters because of his trade demand — although one could argue that his request should in no way affect his candidacy — but what about his previous seasons?

He finished the 2010-11 regular season second in MVP votes to Derrick Rose, but one could make the case that he would have finished third if LeBron James wasn’t carrying a huge bull’s eye on his back that stemmed from the Decision and the Miami Heat welcome party.

The 2009-10 season saw D12 finish fourth in voting behind LeBron James (winner), Kevin Durant, and Kobe Bryant respectively.

And if we look back to the 2008-09 season, the former Defensive Player of the Year finished fourth again behind LeBron James (winner), Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade in that specific order.

This is not to say that Howard should have won the Maurice Podoloff trophy in three of the past four seasons, but perhaps he should have obtained more votes and finished higher than where he eventually landed. Granted, voting occasionally comes down to biases — a voter that resides on the east coast may have more chances to watch a player from the Eastern Conference than one in the Western Conference — as well as other subjective requirements that make it tough to accurately gauge who should win the Most Valuable Player award.

But in this case, the argument isn’t that Howard should have won, but rather that more consideration should have been thrown his way.

Normally, when voting for the award, it’s impossible not to look at the player’s production, his contribution to his team and obviously the team’s overall record. Typically, fans and voters alike look for a player to be one of the best in the league, to be dominant in games and to lead his team to somewhere along the lines of a top five record in the NBA. It’s not a perfect science, but this partly explains why LeBron James has won three out of the past four MVP trophies, and why Derrick Rose won the award at the conclusion of the 2010-11 season.

But if we look deeper, we’ll notice that Howard’s performance in the past four seasons was more than worthy of finishing in the top three in voting.

During the 2008-09 regular season, Howard led the league in rebounds per game and blocks per game all the while putting up 20.6 points per game for an Orlando Magic team that finished with an impressive 59-23 record (fourth best record in the league).

His brilliant defense combined with his presence on offense allowed an Orlando Magic team to not only have one of the best records in the league but also to make it all the way to the NBA Finals before falling at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Given that the Cleveland Cavaliers finished with a 66-17 record and that the Lakers finished with a 65-17 record, one can understand why LeBron James and Kobe Bryant finished first and second respectively in voting. Both were playing at the top of their games with teams that finished with the two best records in the league.

Mind you, the Miami Heat finished with a mediocre at best 43-39 record on the strength of Dwyane Wade’s superhuman performance that season as he finished second to LeBron James in player efficiency ranking thanks to his Jerry West-like statistical line of 30.2 points per game, 5 rebounds per game and 7.5 assists per game on 49.1 percent field goal shooting.

Clearly a case can be made that Wade’s impressive season could warrant supplanting Howard’s; but Dwight’s team won 16 more games and the current Lakers’ center was an overall plus-6.7 that season in terms of plus-minus rating (according to NBA.com’s advanced stats tool) whereas the player formerly known as Flash was a mere plus-0.3. Although D12 should have gotten the nod, one can understand why Wade got more votes given his great performance that season.

If we jump to the 2009-10 regular season, Howard somehow got lost in the shuffle and finished fourth in MVP voting. LeBron James won his second Maurice Podoloff award on the strength of his Cavaliers having the best record in the league all the while submitting the best PER in the NBA.

Kevin Durant finished second in the voting with the Oklahoma City Thunder going 50-32 and earning the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoffs. KD led the league in scoring that season and also submitted good rebounding numbers, which in the mind of many made him a stud that OKC could not do without. The Thunder forward finished the season with a plus-3.5 plus-minus rating, mind you his defense at the time needed some work.

The case for Durant was a relatively good one at the time it seemed, but sometimes the benefit of hindsight can help give some perspective. Kobe Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers had the best third best record in the league while the Black Mamba played to his usual standards as he submitted a cool 27, 5 and 5 line for the season and enjoyed his last season as an at times elite level defender. His great defensive energy came in spurts during the regular season and showed up during the playoffs, but Bryant was clearly a top player in that season and perhaps should have finished higher than Durant in MVP voting given the multiple facets in which he affected games (scoring, playmaking and defense).

But one thing that is definitely clear is that Howard should have cruised to second place once all the votes had been accumulated at the end of the 2009-10 season. The perennial All-Star once again led the league in rebounds per game as well as blocks per game and provided his stellar brand of defense as usual and led the Orlando Magic to the second best record in the league. Much like he is today, he was a matchup nightmare and a player that often had to be doubled in order to limit the damage he did on the interior against opponents. And keep in mind, much like he had for most of his career, D12 appeared in all 82 regular season games and yet finished fourth in the voting.

In addition, one can easily make the claim that no one did more with less in terms of talent than both LeBron James and Dwight Howard during this stretch. Both players had to maximize the talent of those around them regardless of how poor it was and yet they respectively led their teams in 2010 to the two best records in the league despite glaring weaknesses on their squads as well as the fact that they constantly had to play at a high level for their teams to be competitive even against some of the weaker teams in the NBA. And somehow James was crowned as the most valuable player in basketball whereas Dwight was nothing more than afterthought.

Considering Dwight Howard’s level of production in recent seasons and the almost surreal level at which he defends, it seems awfully silly to sit here and regurgitate the fact that he has been at least for the past three or four seasons one of the three best players in the league and that his high level of play has not only kept the Magic contending for playoff appearances but also put them in the top echelon of teams judging by their overall record of 207-105 (66.4 percent winning percentage) in the last four seasons. And yet, it seems necessary to throw out reminders given that few seem to have recognized this.

Perhaps the issue is not Howard himself, but rather how fans, media members and other players view the league as a whole. Indeed, it’s easier to appreciate a perimeter player’s game given the beauty, grace, aesthetics and polish that one can directly see in it. Thus, watching the likes of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Dwyane Wade operate on a basketball court is far more enjoyable for most than observing Dwight Howard battle on the block for post position, rebounding position and what have you. In addition, there is a stigma associated to centers, where more just seems to always be expected.

Consider this tidbit, in the last 20 NBA seasons, only three centers have been crowned as the league MVP (Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Shaquille O’Neal), with the most recent one getting awarded in the spring of 2000 (O’Neal).

It may not be fair, but in order for Howard to ever get great consideration for the prestigious individual honor, he may have to surpass the terrific level of play he has given fans and the league in recent seasons.

But there may be an ace in the hole for the former Olympian: should he produce at the same rate during the 2012-13 season that he has in the past and that the Los Angeles Lakers win somewhere between 60 and 69 games, voters might not be able to ignore D12 anymore considering that he would be doing it on a juggernaut and in a huge market.

I have this saying that I like to use: “win, lose or draw; everything is always bigger with the Lakers”.

And Dwight Howard might just be the one to prove it…

Statistical support provided by NBA.com

Wednesday Storylines

Dave Murphy —  August 15, 2012

What a difference a year makes. This time last summer we were in the midst of a nasty lockout and still reeling from the aftermath of Hurricane Jim. Phil was gone, the staff was gone and the season was in doubt. This has been one of the faster rebuilds in recent history, second only to Miami’s decision year. As it stands now, we have only three players left from the 2010 championship team. Mike Brown heads into his sophomore season with the Lakers holding a very good hand. Roster set, check. Olympic Gold, check. You may now return to your usual summer programming.

Andy Kamenetzky at the Land O’Lakers, takes issue with comparisons between the 2004 and 2012 superstar Lakers teams.

Brian Kamenetzky at the LOL reflects on Kobe Bryant’s final Olympics, and the last years of his NBA career.

Mark Medina from the L.A. Times brings perspective to the Dwight Howard trade, from the point of view of former Lakers great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Kurt Helin from ProBasketballTalk references the Times interview as he looks at the Andrew Bynum years, and the way things ended with his mentor.

Ben Rosales at Silver Screen and Roll brings news of a new addition to the coaching staff, Steve Clifford from the Orlando Magic.

Jeff Miller from the OC Register gives some just dues to Mitch Kupchak for his yeoman’s work.

Andrew Ungvari at Lakers Nation dials up the praise meter as regards Jim Buss.

***

I’m looking for one more link to add and probably taking way too much time doing it, and I come across an article about Brian Cook, how he’s hoping to play a little more NBA ball before it’s all said and done. And I don’t know why, but it makes me smile. Cookie was a funny kind of player. He usually seemed content to shuffle around and jack up some outside shots and every now and then he’d surprise you and jam past a couple guys and throw it down. Just to show he could.

- Dave Murphy