Archives For August 2012

Goodbye, Big Fella

Darius Soriano —  August 10, 2012

Andrew Bynum came to the Lakers as the youngest player ever drafted into the NBA. Taken out of high school with the 10th pick in 2005 – the highest the team had drafted in over 10 years – the Lakers gambled that the young big man would develop and become a franchise cornerstone. He had immense size, good hands, and an inquisitive mind. He also had little basketball experience, never completing a full season in high school. For all intents and purposes, he was a blank slate that would need to be molded and developed. No one really knew what he would become. Everyone, though, had hope.

And so it began.

In his first season he showed that he would be willing to compete, producing a sequence we all remember. After being used as a catapult and getting pogo’d into the hardwood by a Shaq tip slam, Bynum raced up the floor and delivered quick retribution with a nifty spin move and a strong finish of his own. For good measure, he let the former franchise big man know he’d arrived by delivering a bump that the Diesel countered with one his trademarked pork chop elbows. On that night Bynum showed he’d stand up to anyone and that he had some skill to play with the big boys. It was one of the few highlights in a season of mostly watching and learning but it was something.

Fast forward a few years and you have a disgruntled Kobe wondering when the investment in the young fella would ever bear fruit. A parking lot video full of pot shots soon became the story of the day with everyone wondering how Bynum would respond. As it turned out, quite well. Using that video as a bit of extra motivation, Bynum came into camp ready to be a contributor; ready to start his ascension as one of the better young big men in the league.

In 2008 Bynum showed that all the hard work was paying off. Tutoring sessions with Kareem helped produce a foundation of strong footwork that all big men need to be effective. With solid feet, his young legs provided the spring for him to play a dashing, above the rim game. His long arms and good hands meant no pass was ever out of reach. Lob city wasn’t a thing in 2008, but with Kobe and Bynum running the 2/5 pick and roll, it probably should have been. Bynum dunked everything in sight, or at least tried to. The chip on his shoulder was pronounced and it came attached to a body that was primed to unleash havoc. Kobe was happy, the Lakers were surprising the league by ranking among the West’s top teams, and everything was looking up.

Until, of course it wasn’t.

On that fateful January night in Memphis, Kobe crashed into his young big man’s knee. The face of the franchise who once sarcastically scoffed at young Bynum now gasped as he saw that the guy he’d just started to lean on toppled over in pain, clutching his leg. Bynum would be done for the year. The Lakers would go on to trade for Pau Gasol and reach the Finals anyway. And thus, a new stage in Bynum’s career was born.

Bynum came back the following year hoping to build on what was the start of his previous season’s breakout but found a team that had changed with him in street clothes. Pau had become the anchor in the pivot, his exquisite passing and all around game one of the pillars of the triple post offense. Lamar Odom also raised his level of play. Properly slotted as the team’s do it all big man, scoring some nights, assisting on others, always on the glass, always everywhere defensively. Together with Gasol, they were the ones that closed games; they were the ones whose versatility blended so nicely with Kobe. The team went on to win the title, Bynum playing his role as de facto starting Center who closed games cheering on his mates from the bench. His contributions were necessary to win but the credit was doled out to the guys that did the heavy lifting at the end.

But even with a role somewhat in flux, Bynum just continued to improve. His athleticism wasn’t quite the same but his body became transformed. His shoulders and arms chiseled, he began bullying his man more with straight post ups. In the process of working more from the block, his game also became more refined. Less frequent were the above the rim finishes, instead replaced with righty jump hooks and counter spins to the baseline. He’d flash a face up jumper, a lefty jump hook. Then he’d lower the boom with a lob just to show he could still do that too.

In 2010 the Lakers went on to repeat as champions. Bynum took a larger role but was still part of the three-headed big man monster. The Lakers don’t win without him gutting through a meniscus tear and playing the final three series hobbled; they certainly don’t grab all those offensive rebounds in game 7 against the Celtics without him occupying defenders and giving his all. Bynum showed us all that winning was all that mattered and that he’d be willing to make the sacrifices to do so.

But here is where the story gets complicated. Surgery to repair his torn meniscus was delayed by a trip to the World Cup and a surgeon’s vacation. The procedure itself changed from routine to more complex – a change that would aid in Bynum’s long term health but also extend his recovery period. He’d start the season on the shelf and his team would feel the effects of that later. Pressed into longer minutes, Gasol wore down. Bynum wasn’t quite himself upon return and took time to find his stride.

By the time the playoffs came the Lakers looked weary from long playoff runs and heavy minutes, though Bynum looked as good as he ever had. His game was showing full polish by April of 2011. The lefty jump hook was part of his arsenal. As was all the nifty baseline work born of drop steps and quick spins. He took on more responsibility in that post-season but it didn’t really matter. The Lakers were swept. The defense crumbled, Bynum’s frustration led to a terrible foul on J.J. Barrea and quotes about trust issues.

All the while though, Bynum simply continued to improve. By this past season, the potential that was so often attached to his name became actual production. A fully healthy season produced season highs in minutes and averages in points and rebounds. He’d clinch a game versus the Celtics with a power post up move that one of the league’s best defenders looked helpless to stop. He’d have a 30 rebound game. In a playoff game he’d record a triple double that included 10 blocked shots. He earned his first all-star berth and was named 2nd team All-NBA. He’d asked for more, gotten more, and delivered.

There have been missteps along the way. This past season showed a player not yet fully aware of what it means to be a leader. Some games he loafed. Others he went off and did whatever he felt like doing on any given possession on both sides of the ball. He’d sit out of huddles. He’d miss a meeting. His honesty, while always welcomed to an eager press corps, wasn’t always the right thing to say in public. And, I could go on. Despite all that, though, Andrew Bynum showed a great self awareness. He knew what he was, how he was perceived, and worked through all of it to become a fantastic player.

There’s something to be said for watching a player develop on the team you root for. Bynum went from chubby and unpolished to the 2nd best Center in the league. He did so through injuries and surgeries. Through trade rumors and a role in which he wanted to be more than what he was being asked to do. He never really got credit for how much work he put in, consistently being called lazy or not caring enough about basketball.

I never understood those claims. You don’t come back from injury better than before without working hard or without caring. You don’t mold your body by putting in the hours. You don’t refine your skills, develop counters, and keep adding new facets every year without caring. You don’t speak your mind either. I for one, will miss seeing Andrew Bynum play for the team I root for. He helped win two championships and gave us many moments to remember during his 7 years with the team. He grew up – not fully, but a great deal – during his time in Los Angeles.

And now he’ll get his shot to take his game even further in Philly. Good luck, Andrew Bynum.

Wow. Wow. WOW. To be honest, even now, I’m still in shock.

Earlier today I wrote that I seriously doubted the rumored 4 team trade that would land Dwight Howard on the Lakers would happen. Well, I was only partially wrong (and couldn’t be happier about it). The rumored deal has been re-worked and the framework for a Howard trade has been agreed upon by all parties. A call with the league is set for tomorrow morning to get final approval. From ESPN’s report:

A four-team trade that would send Dwight Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers is complete, multiple sources told ESPN on Thursday night. A source with direct knowledge of the talks told ESPN.com’s Marc Stein the Lakers will receive Howard, the Denver Nuggets will acquire Andre Iguodala, the 76ers will receive Andrew Bynum and Jason Richardson, and the Magic will get Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington, Nikola Vucevic and one protected future first-round pick from each of the three teams. In addition, the Magic will be getting other pieces, including 76ers No. 1 draft pick Moe Harkless, a source told Stein.

One name you don’t see listed there is Pau Gasol’s. In what can only be considered a coup by Mitch Kupchak, the Spaniard is staying in Los Angeles and will team with Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, and Dwight Howard to form a starting lineup for the ages. As if getting Howard wasn’t enough.

But let that reality sink in some more. Dwight Howard will be a Laker.

He is the premier big man in the league. In the season before last, he was the runner up for the MVP award. He’s won 3 defensive player of the year awards. He’s a superstar of the highest order, bringing two way impact that that’s felt on the floor and from a marketing perspective. There was no bigger fish to be had this summer and he’ll be wearing the forum blue and gold next season.

Of course, there are some concerns. First of all, he’s currently not able to play basketball. As of this writing, he’s rehabbing his back after season ending surgery. Second of all, he’s made no commitment to the Lakers beyond next season. One of the reasons he’s even available is the fact that he’s not under contract beyond next year and has expressed the fact that he’ll test the free agent waters once his current deal expires.

However, it’d be silly to think the Lakers haven’t thought those issues over one hundred times over. Howard has been rehabbing his back in Los Angeles and it’s fair to assume they’ve done their due diligence on his progress and are comfortable that he’ll be ready to play at a high level next year. As for keeping him beyond next season, the Lakers will not only have Howard’s Bird Rights but can sell him on the history of the franchise and the team’s status as perennial contender for the championship. There are few, if any franchises, that can give Howard the market, dollars, and chance to win that the Lakers do and you can bet they’ll spend the upcoming campaign convincing him that his future is with this team.

All that said, those are concerns for another day. Today, the Lakers and their fans can celebrate. They’ve nabbed the league’s best big man. Its premier defensive player. Its best pick and roll big finisher and one of the few elite hedge/recover defensive bigs. If there’s a single player that could have taken an already primed team to the next level, it was Howard.

After the Nash acquisition, the signing of Antawn Jamison, and the return of Jordan Hill the Lakers were already on the doorstep of being one of the few teams that could claim challenger status to the Thunder and the Heat. Now, the Lakers have kicked in that door and placed themselves right in the middle of the conversation. They’ve made a fantastic team even better.

Kudos to Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss. The front office that just a season ago was questioned on the trade of Lamar Odom and its ability to make the necessary moves has transformed the team in a single summer. They’ve spent the money, made the prudent trades, and held on to the guys they’ve wanted to.

It’s really unbelievable. Dwight Howard will be a Laker. I still can barely believe it.

It’s been a while since a juicy Dwight Howard trade rumor was floated in the press. So, if you were starving for one, here’s your fix via Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports:

There are other players involved in these fluid talks, but a framework of the possible deal includes Howard and Denver forward Al Harrington going to the Lakers, Philadelphia guard Andre Iguodala going to the Nuggets, Los Angeles center Andrew Bynum moving to the 76ers, and Los Angeles forward Pau Gasol and Denver guard Arron Affalo going to the Magic, sources told Yahoo! Sports.

The report also states that “a deal is not considered imminent” and it’s that part of the report that we should probably be focussing on most.

First of all, four team trades are difficult to execute. There are a lot of parties to appease and all it takes is one GM not getting exactly what he wants to kill the entire deal. We saw this with the proposed three team deal the Brooklyn Nets were trying to manufacture earlier this summer in trying to acquire Howard. And that was only 3 teams, not the rumored 4 team deal presented above.

Second, while there are exceptions to the rule, Mitch Kupchak has rarely executed a deal that was leaked. Mitch typically works in silence and seeing reports of talks have normally equated to a deal withering on the vine. For every deal like Sessions or Steve Nash where there was rumored interest or leaks of the Lakers jumping into the fray, there are countless deals like ones for Michael Beasley or Chris Paul (sorry to bring it up) that never came to fruition for whatever reason.

Third, the details of this deal seem a bit off. The Lakers have consistently positioned themselves as not wanting to give up both Gasol and Bynum in a trade for Howard. Of course, you can look at this trade as two separate deals: Bynum for Howard and Pau for Al Harrington. However, the Lakers have also been very hesitant to give up Pau for lesser talent with reports for more than a year stating that the Lakers are asking for too much in any deal in which they surrender the Spaniard.

Of course there are financial concerns as well. Al Harrington makes much less money than Gasol and the combined salaries of Howard and Harrington would be less than what Pau and Bynum make. However, the other side of that equation is that Harrington’s contract runs into the year that the repeater tax would kick in and any deal that lasts that long limits the Lakers’ financial flexibility in a year they’ll need to be under the tax. I’m not yet convinced the Lakers want any money on the books that year beyond Nash’s salary and what either Bynum or Howard (should he be acquired and re-signed) make that year. Harrington would muck that up.

Ultimately, there’s a chance that this deal could happen (or a version of it). But history – both in terms of how the Lakers operate and the stance they have taken in regards to a Gasol trade – have me beyond skeptical.

Wednesday Storylines

Darius Soriano —  August 8, 2012

In terms of the NBA calendar, we’ve officially entered into the period best described as the dregs of summer. News is slow as teams are holding off on inking free agents, trades are non-existent, and most of the news involves teams filling whatever coaching or front office vacancies they may still have. Not exactly the blockbuster action a lot of fans are hoping for. That said, there’s still some happenings going on, both with the Lakers and around the rest of the league:

  • It’s been discussed plenty, but the Lakers are still after some wing help. When looking at a list of the top 20 free agents still on the market, there are some desirable names still to be snatched up that could bolster the Lakers’ perimeter rotation.
  • The name residing at the top of a lot of Lakers observers’ wish list is Jodie Meeks. He’s young, has a rep as a shooter, and should come cheap.
  • It’s that last point, however, that is now in question. Meeks’ agent has drawn a line in the financial sand, stating his client won’t play for the minimum. I don’t blame Meeks’ agent for trying to leverage bigger dollars for his man. After all, that’s his job. Plus, once a player signs on for the minimum, it’s hard to escape that fate in future deals. Mickael Pietrus and Kenyon Martin are two players who took the minimum last year to play for playoff teams and now they’re struggling to find offers above that this summer and are languishing unsigned still hoping for a bigger offer. Meeks is still at a point in his career where he’s looking to get that first “big” contract and this may be his one shot to get it.
  • Moving on from potential Lakers, to current ones, the question must be asked: are the Lakers alienating the franchise Center they currently have in pursuit of the one they’d rather have? This is a question we’ve asked before ourselves and it’s one that is difficult to answer. Bynum, for all his outspokenness, isn’t always the easiest player to read and when you add his agent to the mix (David Lee doesn’t have the best history in negotiations with the Lakers) it’s hard to know what Bynum will do when it’s time to decide where he’ll play out his next contract. Know this, however: Bynum has leverage and may just use it of pressed hard enough.
  • Of course, another Laker big man is making news and doing so because of the work he’s doing on the court. At TrueHoop, Kevin Arnovitz named Pau Gasol as one of the 10 players performing very well these Olympics:

He has snatched those 25 or so minutes he spends on the floor for Spain and made them his personal exhibition. It’s difficult to tell if Gasol is being guided by the desire to answer those who question his fortitude November through June, or if he truly feels more comfortable in that Espana jersey. Whatever the case, Gasol has eagerly moved to the post, but has still experienced a ton of success as a face-up jump shooter.

  • Pau is playing so well, in fact, that he’s on the verge of tying an Olympic record.
  • One Laker not playing as great in London is Kobe Bryant. His offense has been up and down and his defense has not been up to the standard he showed in the 2008 Beijing games. In fact, Tom Haberstroh says that for Team USA to get back to its defensive roots, Andre Iguodala should grab more of Kobe’s minutes.
  • It’s highly doubtful that Kobe’s minutes are reduced and it’s very likely that Team USA will win the gold medal anyway. Plus, as Marc Stein told Beckley Mason, Kobe’s not worried about how he’s playing and says he’ll be ready to close should the moment present itself.

Beyond that, though, it’s doubtful Kobe will need to “close” any games in the way he’s asked to do so often for the Lakers. LeBron James is coming off a championship where he dispelled a lot of the doubts that he could be the man down the stretch. Kevin Durant is also quite good at burying opponents down the stretch of a close game. Instead, Kobe can focus on making the little plays, like he did in grabbing a key offensive rebound down the stretch of the Lithuania game that gave the Americans an extra possession used to extend their lead and pretty much ice the game. It may not be the role he’s used to, but it’s one he can perform quite well for this team and help them achieve their goal of bringing home the gold.

This off-season the Lakers have worked to shore up their most damning perceived weaknesses. In trading for Steve Nash, they’ve added the playmaker at point guard that also gives them elite shooting from the perimeter. In signing Antawn Jamison, they’ve bolstered their bench by adding a scoring threat that also has the ability to space the floor from the PF position. With rumors of a transition to the Princeton Offense via the hiring of Eddie Jordan and the hard looks at back up SG options like Jodie Meeks or Leandro Barbosa, the Lakers look to be going all in by fixing their offense.

It’s not difficult to see why the Lakers would take this approach to their off-season. Last year they were mostly an average offensive team, ranking in the mid-teens most of the season before a late push settled them in at 10th in offensive efficiency. All year the team struggled to find the right mix between a Kobe-centric offense and one that featured the big men, often running disjointed sets that left the team working against the shot clock with at least one of their big three threats (usually Pau Gasol) not being used in a manner that optimized his skill set.

And while the addition of Ramon Sessions – whose stellar play after being acquired gave the Lakers are real offensive boost – masked these issues for a stretch, the offensive woes returned in the playoffs. Against both the Nuggets and the Thunder, the Lakers struggled to produce consistent offense against a packed paint that took away their post options, ultimately not able to aptly pose a perimeter threat to keep defenders from digging down on their big men.

Solving these issues should have been a priority going into next season. A few more buckets or better offensive execution down the stretch of games may have found the Lakers in better position to advance farther in the playoffs than they did.

However, while I’m ecstatic the Lakers have attempted to fix their offensive issues with deft acquisitions, I also know they’ll need to be better on defense next season if they hope to be a much better team. What’s not mentioned enough about the Lakers again failing to advance out of the second round is that it was their defense that failed as much as their offense.

In the 14 regular season games in April, the Lakers posted a defensive efficiency of 109.5, or the equivalent of being nearly 2 points per 100 possessions worse than the worst defensive team in the league. If you thought that was some sort of fluke, consider that in the 17 regular season games in March, the Lakers’ defensive efficiency was 103.1 which would have ranked them 19th on the year if they’d played that way all season. These numbers were dramatically worse from earlier in the season when the Lakers didn’t post a defensive efficiency worse than 98.6 in December, January, or February.

In the playoffs, the Lakers’ defensive slippage was just as pronounced when they posted a defensive efficiency of 106.5 over their 12 post-season games. Some of that is surely related to the fact that the Lakers played two of the league’s better offensive teams in Denver and OKC. But the fact remains that stops – especially key ones – were hard to come by for a group that sorely needed them.

After adding defensively challenged players like Steve Nash and Antawn Jamison only the need to be better on D is only highlighted further. More than ever next season, the Lakers will need a sound defensive scheme and fully committed players buying into making it work. Last season that wasn’t always the case as guards too often got caught on screens without recovering. Big men, meanwhile, were frequently out of position playing much too low on picks (Andrew Bynum) or sliding too high at bad angles (Pau Gasol) to deny the penetration that diced up the defense. Add to that wings that didn’t always close out hard or didn’t race to the paint to help the helper on the back line and the results were spotty at best by the end of the year.

So, improvement will be needed. Luckily, the Lakers have some ingredients to become the defensive team that they need to be. With Kobe shedding some pounds he should be able to better navigate screens and chase his man around the perimeter. Ron’s improved health and conditioning should also help him return (close) to his standards from previous seasons. And, of course, if Bynum can focus more of his energy into being one of the elite game changers he has the ability to be, the Lakers can be one of the better defensive teams in the league.

And, in a strange twist, the offense can also help them. If the Lakers do end up running the Princeton O, they’ll return to a two guard front that will promote better spacing and floor balance. This will help them in transition – an area where they’ve long struggled whenever their twin towers share the floor. Plus, if the Lakers can return to being one of the elite offensive teams, they should also be able to better control the pace and flow of the game by making the other team take the ball out of bounds at the end of possessions rather than getting run at after misses.

If all of these things can come together, the Lakers can show the better defense they’ll need to be one of the elite teams. It won’t be easy, but it will be possible. It will take the same defensive commitment on the hardwood that the front office showed off it to improving the O this summer. And, come October, the players and the coaches mustn’t lose sight of that.

*Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com