Archives For September 2012

A popular thing to do right now is to openly question why the Lakers won’t win. Just ask Mark Cuban. And while I don’t agree with Cuban’s grasping-at-straws question of players “not wanting to be there”, I do understand that nothing is set in stone for a team that’s yet to practice together, much less play a game. Handing the Lakers any title beyond “one of the most talented teams” is a reach in its own right as there are still things that can go wrong with questions that need to be answered and sorted out.

So, while many are rightfully high on this group of Lakers it doesn’t mean there aren’t concerns when looking at the team. Below are X things that are at the front of my mind when taking a critical look at this roster:

  • Can Kobe and Steve Nash’s minutes be kept down? I’m not as concerned about how “old” these guys are as much as I’m concerned about making sure they don’t play heavy minutes. Last season Mike Brown showed a penchant for leaning on his best players for heavy minutes in the pursuit of wins that, in the end, didn’t matter as much as the freshness of his player’s legs.

We’ve already talked about Nash in the context of improving the players around him, but if we’re being honest we must also account for the fact that he can’t play 48 minutes to help every player at all times. His optimal minutes per game will likely hover around 30 per contest and Brown will need to find ways to maximize Nash (and the players he shares the floor with) in those minutes in order to not him down.

As for Kobe, Jodie Meeks will aid in cutting Kobe’s minutes at shooting guard. However, with the Lakers’ small forward depth chart currently consisting of Ron-Ron and Devin Ebanks, there may be a need to slide Kobe up to SF to soak up some of those minutes if either player isn’t performing up to standard (or if injury strikes *knocks on wood*). Managing Kobe’s minutes and making sure he’s not over extended will be key to how well this team plays late in the year. Getting a handle on this from the outset of the season is important.

  • Building on the question about Nash’s minutes, who will win the back up point guard job? Steve Blake is the incumbent and Brown clearly trusts him. Down the stretch of last season, Brown closed games with Blake over Sessions and at times even went to a small backcourt with Blake at SG rather than play Ebanks or Barnes in that spot. However, Chris Duhon came over in the Dwight Howard trade and Darius Morris showed signs of improvement in Summer League and is said to be working on his game a great deal in the lead up to this season.

One of these three players will need to seize the job because Nash will need his rest. None of them are perfect solutions as all possess severe flaws in their game that can make them liabilities when playing too much. However, (and this is a point I”ll make again later) it’s important that Brown decide who’s going to be his main guy and not jerk players’ minutes around. Last season Brown couldn’t decide on a small forward rotation early in the season and the uncertainty didn’t do any of those players any favors. Ebanks went from starting to never playing, Barnes went from not playing to starting to being the steady back up, and Ron went from second unit leader to first unit 5th option. Having a similar role reversal play out in the fight for back up PG minutes needs to be avoided.

  • How will the big man rotation shake out? Last season Mike Brown tried to play a four man rotation with his big men and admittedly struggled with it. At the start of the season he commented that both Murphy and McRoberts had earned the chance to play and he tried to get both on the floor in various combinations with Bynum and Gasol. Ultimately, this approach failed — for a variety of reasons I should add — and it wasn’t until Jordan Hill cracked the rotation that Brown settled on a three man shuffle that he didn’t waver from.

Next season, Brown again will enter the campaign with a group of 4 bigs that will all deserve minutes. Jamison will offer sorely needed scoring punch as a stretch PF while Hill’s defense and rebounding will fit nicely in a variety of lineups. However, Brown only has 96 PF/C minutes to dole out each night and finding the right balance will take a lot of thought and discipline. Brown may find some reprieve from this challenge while Howard is unavailable, but once he returns roles will need to be sussed out and stuck to. The jerking around of minutes can’t continue but players that can contribute positively must also find a way onto the floor to help the team and keep the players’ minutes manageable.

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While the list above is heavy on questions regarding Mike Brown, the reserves, and his rotations, these aren’t the only open questions. Dealing with injuries — both known (Dwight Howard) and unknown (will the Lakers stay healthy?) loom large. How quickly the players pick up new schemes, integrating Howard once he returns, and finding the right balance between structure and freelancing on offense will also need to be sorted out.

As it stands, the Lakers are a finished product on paper but a bunch of scattered puzzle pieces in terms of actual on court play. Time will tell how quickly and to what extent (if at all) they put it together.

Wednesday Storylines

Dave Murphy —  September 12, 2012

In his latest post, Darius focused on one of the Lakers’ new assistant coaches, Steve Clifford, and the potential impact on the team’s defensive mindset. Change continues to be a large part of the evolving story. Former lead assistant John Kuester has been reassigned to scouting, putting another piece of the puzzle into place. News updates on Dwight Howard’s rehab have also been front and center, giving some positive indicators on his progress since having back surgery. And as we enter the endgame of a national election cycle, I can’t help but think of parallels in sports, media and all else. There’s always a spin, no matter which side you’re on.

Ben Golliver at Eye On Basketball, uses the Mark Cuban remarks as a framing device for a larger chemistry conversation.

Kevin Ding at the OC Register brings the news of Dwight Howard’s first team training session.

Brian Kamenetzky at the Land O’Lakers provides an overlook for coaching changes that are no less aggressive in nature than the summer roster shakeup.

Lisa Dillman at the L.A. Times reports on the Lakers and social media wars.

At some point, the Lakers conversation always seems to come around to money. A recent article in Businessweek shows how the money is spent, and actually spent smartly.

The Lakers have a crowded roster heading toward training camp. Ryan Ward at Lakers Nation looks into the rumor that Leandro Barbosa may still be in the mix.

With all the talk about the run-up to the NBA season, Jordan White at Hardwood Paroxysm discusses the ABL with fellow staffer Amin Vafa.

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Perception is in the eye of the beholder as the old saying goes. Whether in sports, politics or personal conversation, our inner dialogue colors all that we see and hear. Or as John Lennon said, “The more I see, the less I know for sure.” Training camp is a little more than two weeks away. And with it some answers, and inevitably, more questions.

- Dave Murphy

What was rumored for weeks is now hard news: the Lakers have added three assistant coaches — Eddie Jordan, Bernie Bickerstaff, and Steve Clifford — to Mike Brown’s staff. They replace Ettore Messina and Quin Snyder (who both left for CSKA Moscow) and John Kuester (who has been reassigned as an advanced scout). These additions bring clarity to the Lakers’ bench by adding seasoned coaches who will help the team on both sides of the ball.

The names most recognized, of course, are Jordan’s and Bickerstaff’s. They’re former NBA head men that have made their way around the league for years. They may not be household names to the casual fan, but diehards know who they are and know how they’ll help the team. Jordan will be tasked with implementing the Princeton Offense and Bickerstaff will likely be a consigliere of sorts, lending a veteran voice to Brown.

Of the trio of new coaches the man who’s least known is Clifford, but he’s also the coach that most intrigues me. Because while Jordan and his new offense are supposed to turn the heads, it’s Clifford’s background on the defensive side of the ball that will be just as important to the Lakers’ success in the year ahead. Remember, down the stretch of last season the Lakers’ defensive efficiency fell off a cliff. In April the Lakers posted the 6th worst defensive efficiency in the league, posting a mark of 109.5 (which was only tenths of a point better than teams like the Cavs, Bobcats, and Warriors). In the playoffs, the Lakers posted a better efficiency number (106.5) than in the season’s final month, but ranked 12th out of the 16 playoff teams.

Next year, they’ll need better. Clifford (as well as Dwight Howard’s addition) should help a great deal.

For those that are unaware, Clifford has spent the better part of the last 12 years around some of the better defensive minds in the game. He was an assistant to Jeff Van Gundy (along with Tom Thibodeau) with both the Knicks and the Rockets and for the past 5 seasons he served in the same position under Stan Van Gundy with the Magic. In coaching next to these three men, Clifford has surely picked up invaluable experience in how to coach defense and been exposed to some of the best defensive schemes the NBA has to offer.

Furthermore, Clifford will likely share some of the same defensive philosophies that Mike Brown already has in place, at least if we use the schemes of the teams he’s coached for as a guide. All of those teams ran a hedge and recover scheme on pick and rolls and all of them liked to funnel drives from the corners to the middle where shot blocking big men could challenge shots. Plus, those teams also showed a risk averse approach to defense where gambling for steals was shunned in favor of playing strong position D that led to contested shots. These are the same principles Mike Brown learned at the altar of Popovich, honed in Cleveland, and brought to the Lakers last season. The fact that Clifford has coached on staffs that embraced these same principles should not surprise.

Having a background in these schemes should also breed continuity and familiarity with a team that will have enough change to deal with on the other end of the ball. Next year’s defense shouldn’t be too different from last season’s, only more refined. The fact that Dwight Howard is already familiar with this scheme is important, but the fact that it’s the same scheme he’s won multiple DPOY’s in is even more so. Combine this fact with the foundation of next year’s roster is entering their second year playing in this type of scheme and the team should be better across the board in understanding and executing on that side of the ball.

We’ll see how much of the defense Brown surrenders to his new assistant coach. After all, Brown was hired with a defensive pedigree of his own and he already has a coach on staff (Chuck Person) who’s acted in a “defensive coordinator” type of role for the Lakers. However, Clifford brings defensive chops from his previous stops that will be a very good addition to the Lakers. On its own, his familiarity with Howard is already a key variable in how he can help the team. But in coaching next to the aforementioned defensive minds, Clifford also brings a pedigree of his own that can’t be ignored and that surely played a part in him being hired by the Lakers in the first place.

So, while all eyes are on Jordan and the new O, don’t be surprised if Clifford and the revamped D are just as important next season. If they Lakers want to win at the highest level, they’ll certainly need it to be.

*Statistical support for this post from NBA.com

Friday Forum

Dave Murphy —  September 7, 2012

News has mostly ground to a halt as players and front offices alike are mixing rest with preparation for what promises to be another fantastic NBA campaign. But even as stories trickle in, more slowly than they will a month from now, there are matters of supreme importance to discuss…

Knowing how crowded the existing roster is heading into training camp, I found this article by Baxter Holmes in the L.A. Times to be quite interesting. Reeves Nelson, the disgraced UCLA forward who was kicked off the squad last December, is being offered a non-guaranteed $700K contract and a camp invite. The invite itself isn’t so unusual – there will be other training camp bodies and contracts. Nelson however, has been hanging around the Lakers periphery for a while – invited to work out before the draft, and invited to summer league as well. As Reeves tells it, he didn’t get off the bench until the last couple of games in Las Vegas because the coaches were testing his character. The bar keeps getting higher for a kid who’s an enormous longshot in the NBA and it’s an intriguing contrast to the high-profile stories of Howard and Nash.

Speaking of longshots, the Lakers also signed Greg Somogyi, the 22 year-old four-year center from UCSB. Somogyi’s one selling point is that he’s 7’3”. There’s not a lot to say about the guy, although Tim White at Opposing Views has written a very decent, if not wholly complimentary article. Does anybody remember Sean Bradley, the 7’6” center who would fall down in a stiff wind? Somogyi has less balance, and isn’t as tall. I’m sorry this paragraph is so much shorter than the others. Can you say filler?

One of the most publicized recent storylines has been the saga of Dwight Howard, the poster boy for ill-conceived spontaneity. As relayed by Arash Markazi at ESPN, the latest chapter had Dwight tweeting that he intended on working with Laker legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, before actually speaking with the man. The two quickly set things right with a meeting, photo-op and much mutual admiration. What is somewhat lost in the shuffle, is the desire shown by the league’s top center, to grow his game. In the most elemental of ways, imagine Dwight Howard with improved pivot mechanics and a more fully realized offensive game – it’s a scary good thought and highly possible under Kareem’s watch.

The man who brought Dwight to the Lakers — as well as every other player on this roster not named Kobe — gave a nice interview to Sam Amick of Sports Illustrated. In it, Mitch Kupchack spoke of expectations for the future, insights from the past, rumors of his retirement, and much much more. It’s a great read as a Lakers fan, but, in general, it’s also insightful to see the mindset of a man tasked with building a winner and understanding the stakes of rudder-ing the Lakers organization from a personnel standpoint.

When it comes to comparing basketball players, there is no story that has had longer legs than Kobe and Michael. Kelly Dwyer wrote a piece in Ball Don’t Lie last week, exploring the comparisons and including the recent ‘identical plays footage’ that has gotten so much attention. I’ve never been particularly interested in the who’s better narrative, but have simply enjoyed watching each player throughout their respective careers. It’s not to say that comparisons are unwarranted – Jordan’s influence on Bryant is undeniable and has been fully admitted. Yet, for those who aren’t Bryant fans (and they are legion), the similarities have provided a platform from which to negate his value, his accomplishments, his dedication, his rings, his gold medals, and the tens of thousands of points, because of one singular argument – he’s not Michael.

Today, the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame will enshrine its new members, offering their achievements up for consumption another time for us fans to revel in as we did so many times in the past. Across the world wide web, many are paying tribute to these men’s accomplishments and contributions to the game (while also giving us some of the not so positive things as well). Be it our very own Silk who shot “20 foot layups”the villain only his hometown loved, the small-ball innovator, the windy city scribe, or two names — one a fleet forward nicknamed Jet, the other a bruising big man who “got all the rebounds” — from hoops history that have long earned this honor, these men helped advance this game; they made it more enjoyable to be a fan.

On the other end of the spectrum from the legends whose names ring out, are the league’s rookies. These are the guys that will be hazed when camps start next month and learn the ropes of the pro game through brand new experiences between now and next summer. Some will learn by watching, others will be thrown into the deep end to swim with the sharks of the league; the Kobe’s, LeBron’s, Durant’s, and CP3′s of the association. The learning curve will be steep for many of them but they’ll survive, I’m sure. One player I’ll certainly be rooting for isn’t a Laker, but the path he’s on — as shown in this video — certainly inspires and resonates.

This was initially supposed to be  Wednesday Storylines which then turned into Thursday and naturally became Friday, because that’s how I roll. Many thanks to Darius for coming in and putting a half-finished post together.  This could be one of those assembly line comedies and you know which guy I’d be. Hope y’all have a good weekend.

- Dave Murphy

Lakers Countdown: At #1…

J.M. Poulard —  September 6, 2012

As evidenced by our Lakers title team countdown, the franchise has seen its fair share of terrific teams as well as some magical seasons that its fans will be hard pressed to forget. Indeed, since moving to Los Angeles, the franchise has captured the NBA title eleven times and the FB&G panel voted in order to rank these teams and find out which one was truly the greatest Los Angeles Lakers team of all time.

Before we delve into the team that made it to the top spot, here’s a chance for some of you to review the previous teams if you missed the start of our countdown:

11. The 2001-02 Lakers

10. The 2008-09 Lakers

9. The 2009-10 Lakers

8. The 1999-00 Lakers

7. The 1981-82 Lakers

6. The 1979-80 Lakers

5. The 1987-88 Lakers

4. The 1984-85 Lakers

3. The 2000-01 Lakers

2. The 1971-72 Lakers

And without further ado, as voted by the FB&G panel, the greatest Los Angeles Lakers team of all time…

The 1986-87 Lakers

In June 1985, the Lakers finally conquered their demons and defeated the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals and won the title, finally getting some redemption after losing at their hands the season prior with the championship hanging in the balance.

With the ghosts of the past no longer an issue, many wondered if the Lakers could repeat and win the title once again at the conclusion of the 1985-86 season.

Instead, the Los Angeles Lakers faltered in the first round of the 1986 playoffs against the Houston Rockets while the Boston Celtics won the world championship and earned the title of best basketball team ever.

Although, other teams still enter the discussion, such as the ’71 Bucks, ’72 Lakers and the ’96 Bulls to name a few, many still believe today that the ’86 Celtics are the greatest professional basketball team ever assembled.

Given that Magic Johnson has stated on the record that he measured himself against Larry Bird, the idea that the former Sycamore and his teammates could earn such praise must have annoyed him.

Coincidentally enough, at the end of the Lakers 1986 playoff run, Pat Riley came to the conclusion that it was time to turn the team over to his superstar guard.

The Lakers had always been Showtime under Riles, but the first option had always been Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Mind you, things needed to change for the betterment of the team.

With Abdul-Jabbar now 39 years old, it was important to save his legs during the regular season, but it was also incredibly hard to ignore that Magic Johnson was a stud scorer waiting for his chance to show off his skills and James Worthy’s offensive repertoire had to be showcased more given how effective it was. And just for good measure, the Lakers also had a solid shooting guard in Byron Scott that knew what to do with the ball when it went his way.

The NBA’s all-time leading scorer wasn’t being forgotten, he was simply going down a few notches in terms of the team’s pecking order. Make no mistake though, he was still an integral part to the team’s success.

The Lakers in the Showtime era had always been a great offense, but the transition to a more Magic oriented offense combined with the improvement of their wing players made them an offensive juggernaut. They beat teams in transition, in the half-court, in the paint, from 3-point range, from midrange and from the post. There was nothing that defenses could do to stop or limit the damage; the best teams could do was hope to stay close by putting up enough points.

The 1986-87 Lakers boasted the best offensive efficiency in the league and used it to manufacture a couple of modest win streaks. Indeed, they opened up the season with nine victories in a row, then closed out December and opened up January with an eight-game stretch without a loss and then went on a 10-game win streak in early March and then got another one started at the end of the month going well into April that would last 11 games.

The Lakers had a fantastic offense, but they also possessed the seventh best defensive efficiency in the league, which made an explosive combination for opponents.

The Lakers had the athletes to aggressively defend on the perimeter but they also had tough interior defenders in A.C. Green, Kurt Rambis and Mychal Thompson to help out their wing players and also limit the productivity of opposing big men. And just for good measure, the team had a terrific combination of veterans and old players, thus they had the ability to apply full-court pressure and also employ a terrific half-court zone trap that often flummoxed opponents.

Put it all of that together, and the purple and gold finished the regular season by winning 21 out their final 24 games on their way to a 65-17 record (tops in the league) and an average scoring margin of plus-9.3; spearheaded by league MVP Magic Johnson.

As good as the regular season performance was, the title of best team ever had to be earned during the postseason.

Los Angeles opened the playoffs against the Denver Nuggets (37-45) and completely took them apart in three games. In a series that the Nuggets probably hope all footage has been destroyed, the Lakers’ lowest scoring output in the series was 128 points in Game 1 and furthermore, Pat Riley’s team outscored Denver by an average of 27.3 points per game during the series. Needless to say, the Nuggets never had a chance.

In the second round, the Lakers faced off against the Golden State Warriors (42-40) and took them out rather easily in five games. Their lone defeat against the Dubs (Game 4) came as product of a historical scoring burst that is now simply referred to as the Sleepy Floyd game. Floyd torched L.A. for 39 second half points, with 29 of those coming in the fourth quarter while being guarded by the Defensive Player of the Year in Michael Cooper. Read that sentence again, the Lakers lost a game in which a player put up almost 30 points in one quarter against the best defensive player in the NBA; let’s just say the odds of that one happening ever again are pretty slim.

Nonetheless, the Lakers “regrouped” in Game 5, and defeated the Warriors by double digits. Not too coincidentally, their average scoring margin during the series was a healthy plus-10.6.

The victory against GSW set up a Western Conference Finals against the Seattle Supersonics (39-43) that ended up being another cakewalk for the Lakers. They swept the Sonics and won every game by an average of 11.3 points to punch their ticket for a finals dance with the Boston Celtics (59-23).

The Los Angeles Lakers opened the NBA Finals at the Forum by winning the first two games by an average of 16 points. The series then shifted over to Boston for Game 3 where the Celtics capitalized on the brilliant efforts of Larry Bird (30 points, 12 rebounds), Kevin McHale (21 points, 10 rebounds) and Dennis Johnson (26 points, seven rebounds) on their way to a six-point win.

With L.A. leading the series 2-1, Game 4 became a pivotal contest given that a Lakers victory would give them a stranglehold on the NBA Finals.

With Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Byron Scott struggling from the field in the fourth game of the NBA Finals, Magic Johnson once again shifted into scorer mode and gave the Celtics nightmares by scoring 29 points on 12-for-20 shooting. The superstar guard was unstoppable as usual but he provided the exclamation point on this night by hitting the game winning hook shot over the outstretched arms of Kevin McHale. Johnson’s final scoring play of the game would lead many to dub this particular contest as the Junior Skyhook game (if you click on the link, scroll to the bottom of the page to get the play-by-play of the final 2:09 minutes of the game).

With a chokehold on the series, the Lakers lost Game 5 at the Garden but flew back to Los Angeles and defeated the Celtics in Game 6 to clinch the championship.

Magic Johnson was named the NBA Finals MVP on the strength of his 26.6 points per game, 13 assists per game, 8 rebounds per game and 2.3 steals per game on 54.1 percent field goal shooting in six finals games.

The ’87 Lakers finished their run with a 15-3 playoff record as well as a plus-11.4 average scoring margin during the postseason. The regular season performance combined with the postseason play makes them unquestionably the best Lakers title since moving to Los Angeles.

Nonetheless, one can’t help but take notice of their Western Conference opponents; and how mediocre they were. Indeed, their toughest conference foe by virtue of record was the Golden State Warriors and they only won 42 games that season; and thus the Lakers’ record in the west can on the surface seem like fool’s gold.

But once we factor in the point differential, it paints a different picture.

We can’t fault the ’87 Lakers for playing awful opponents during the playoffs, but we can fault them for not taking care of business. And the truth is, they did. During their run in the Western Conference playoffs, the Lakers averaged 123 points per game, and had an impressive average scoring margin of plus-14.8.

In addition, Riley’s troops won postseason games against conference opponents by 16.8 points, which is what one would expect a dominant team to do at the expense of teams with inferior talent.

And just for good measure, their four wins against the Celtics in the NBA Finals came by an average of 11.5 points. Thus, they may have faced a string of weak teams heading into the championship round, but they dismantled those teams and then managed to defeat a team that many had viewed the previous season as the greatest of all time in six games with each victory coming on average by double digits.

Although it’s debatable if the ’87 Lakers belong in the conversation of greatest teams of all time — and they probably do — given their superb play, the FB&G panel unanimously voted this unit as the greatest Los Angeles Lakers team ever.

And it’s now obvious why.