Archives For October 2012

From “Basketball Reasons”, Silver Screen & RollIs it time to panic? No wins, six losses, even with Dwight playing 33 minutes?! No, so go ahead and keep your Lakers flags flying on your cars. This is preseason, and the beginning of a very long journey for both the Lakers roster and the coaching staff. Through the first half of preseason Mike Brown was steadily playing lineups where Ronnie Aguilar and Reeves Nelson were featured players, so yes, there were many losses to be had. Quite frankly, the preseason is for the coaches and players to rediscover their identities, and this is a team that has plenty of searching to do with Steve Nash taking over as floor general, a widely new bench, and Dwight Howard having played only one game. Is it discouraging to not have a W in the left column yet? Yeah, sure. But there is good to be found in the Lakers preseason, and growth as a team is far more important than wins that mean nothing. 

From Mark Medina, LA Daily NewsA day removed from his first basketball game in six months, and Dwight Howard’s already focused on how to improve. Though he’s fully rehabbed from back surgery, Howard described his entire body as “pretty sore” and planned to receive treatment immediately following Monday’s practice at the team’s facility in El Segundo. “They said my back is going to ache,” Howard said of the team’s training staff. Following the Lakers’ 99-92 preseason loss Sunday to the Sacramento Kings, Howard graded himself a B after posting 19 points on 8-of-12 shooting, 12 rebounds and four blocks in 33 minutes. That’s because he committed five of the team’s 22 turnovers, shot 3 of 8 from the free-throw line and admitted rustiness.

From Dave McMenamin, ESPN Los AngelesDwight Howard had a big smile on his face a day after making his debut for the Los Angeles Lakers, but he still feels the sting of how things ended in Orlando when he thinks about his trophy shelf. Howard was recognized as the best defender in the league as well as the best interior defender when NBA.com announced the results of its annual survey of the league’s 30 general managers Monday, but Howard still wants to know why he isn’t the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. “I thought I should have won it last year, to be honest with you,” Howard told reporters after practice Monday. “I was a little bit upset about that.”

From Kevin Ding, OC Register: Who is Jim Buss? Not the next Jerry Buss or Jerry West or Mitch Kupchak. He is his own man with his own ways – preferring to analyze his way through a life that outsiders might assume has been fed to him via purple and golden spoon, figuring out which can of food was the best deal per ounce before anyone ever stuck it on those supermarket price labels, contributing to the Lakers’ success with his statistical analysis that he summarizes with confidence: “I use a system that has proven to be right.” Buss, who turns 53 next month, sat down for an exclusive interview with The Register as the Lakers prepare for their latest run toward an NBA title. “I’ve felt the last two years, we had a chance to win the championship,” Buss said. “Adding two Hall of Famers, basically, to this squad? To me, you kind of erase that ‘we’re taking steps’ idea. We’re here. Do what we’re supposed to do.”

From Eric Pincus, Los Angeles TimesThe general managers have spoken. The results of the annual general managers survey were released by John Schuhmann of NBA.com, and naturally the Lakers were heavily featured. Will the Lakers win the 2013 NBA Finals?  According to 70% of the general managers who responded, the answer was a resounding “no”  (they picked the Miami Heat). The Lakers did come in second, with 23.3%. The majority  (60%) agreed that the Lakers would return to the NBA Finals after a two-year absence.  The Oklahoma City Thunder received 36.7% of the vote.

From Janis Carr, OC RegisterDwight Howard was sore “all over” after playing his first game in 197 days Sunday, but he reported no lingering pain in his surgically repaired back. Steve Nash said his ankle, which he twisted Sunday, was pain free, too. That was the good news coming out of Monday’s Lakers practice, less than 24 hours after the team finally debuted its projected starting five. The downside? Kobe Bryant sat out practice because of a strained and bruised right foot, and Metta World Peace took part in noncontact drills only wearing a splint protecting the middle finger on his right hand. Both players suffered the injuries in Sunday’s exhibition loss to Sacramento.

-Ryan Cole

This Lakers team is improved from last season. Simply look at their roster.

The additions of Nash and Howard are upgrades to the players they replaced and that’s true even though one of the guys who’s departed was second team all NBA last year. And though it may not seem like it, this is also true for the players occupying the team’s bench.

Consider the following:

  • Jodie Meeks should be Kobe’s primary back up, a position that was manned by Jason Kapono, Andrew Goudelock, and Steve Blake last season. Kapono isn’t currently employed, Goudelock may not make the Lakers’ roster, and Blake is a point guard.
  • Devin Ebanks will be the primary back up at SF replacing Matt Barnes. Barnes is the more proven player, but early returns say Ebanks is very much improved from last season and offers tangible qualities like size, length, and speed that Barnes either lacks or are diminishing. Even if you call a Barnes/Ebanks swap a wash (which would be fair), I’ll take the younger player on the upswing and not look back.
  • Antawn Jamison is the team’s swing forward and replaces Troy Murphy and Josh McRoberts. Murphy, like Kapono, doesn’t have a job at this point and McRoberts is trying to find his way in Orlando. Even though Jamison hasn’t yet looked great off the bench, he’s a superior player to Murphy and has a better skill set for this Lakers team than McRoberts.
  • Jordan Hill is a returning player but is worth mentioning here because of his small sample of games for the Lakers last season. Once he became a rotation player, he never relinquished his spot and proved to be valuable contributor down the stretch of the season. Like Jamison, he’s a superior player to Murphy (while also being a superior player to McRoberts as well) and, health permitting, having him for an entire season will be an upgrade.

Go down the line and this group trumps last year’s. Considering how much lack of depth hurt the Lakers’ last season, this is a good thing.

That said, when you zoom in on this group of reserves there’s a common theme. None of these guys are stand out players as individuals. They are, in the truest sense of the word role players. Their skill-sets are ones that are meant to complement others, not shine on their own. (Contrast this to the Kings who brought Marcus Thornton and Aaron Brooks off their bench, both of whom could start for several teams in the league and have been ‘instant offense’ players their entire careers.)

For the reserves to be at their best, then, they’ll need to be integrated into lineups with starting players, not trotted onto the floor together like an NBA version of a line change in hockey. These guys simply don’t have the requisite talent as individuals to carry a unit and shouldn’t be asked to.

This seems to be something that Mike Brown understands even though he’s not yet shown it this preseason. Before the Lakers’ first exhibition game against the Warriors, Brown spoke at length about what he wanted to see from his team in that game and through the exhibition season. One thing he commented on was that the odds were very high that at least one and probably two of his big four would be on the floor at all times when he sorted out a regular rotation.

Due to injuries, that plan hasn’t yet come to fruition, but we did start to see some of that Sunday night against the Kings. Before Brown brought back in all his starters to close the game, he used the lineup I’ve argued would be the best P&R lineup when Nash, Meeks, Ebanks, Jamison, and Howard all shared the floor. We only saw that lineup for a short time, but it was good to see that combination if only briefly.

When the season gets into full swing, however, we will need to see more of that. The Lakers don’t have a modern day version of Vinny Johnson to bring off their bench. There is no James Harden or Lamar Odom waiting in the wings. Brown will need to supplement his reserves with the right combination of starters to maximize his bench production. And, if he does this correctly, the bench may still be outscored in the classic sense but we won’t see nearly as many long stretches of poor play when substitutions are made.

The preseason hasn’t quite proven this true yet, but this Lakers bench is better. They’ll just still need help from the starters to make sure they’re affective.

PANIC.

I’m just kidding. Don’t panic. Yes, the Lakers lost again. And, yes, they now have as many wins this preseason as the number of points I’ve scored in the NBA. In going 0-6 so far, the team has shown strides but is still a ways away from being the team many think they can be.

This is a good thing considering we’re still a long ways away from when the Lakers will need to be that team. The goal is to be the best they can be in May and June so there’s good news in the fact that today is October 22nd. The work in progress continues but at least there is progress. And while it’s a bit concerning the Lakers starters closed the game and came from ahead to lose, it was always going to be a process with this team.

Now, for some observations from the game especially on Dwight Howard…

  • Howard looked healthy, but this shouldn’t be a surprise. He’s been practicing, full contact, for some time now and reports have had him doing things in practice that he’s been doing in games his entire career. That said, seeing that athleticism translate to the floor was great to see. It was also nice to see him take some shots, deliver some of his own, and not be any worse for the wear when the game was over. He played 33 minutes and while his conditioning did suffer by the end of the game, he looked pretty much like the physically imposing guy the Lakers traded for.
  • The rust in Howard’s game was evident, however. He lost the handle on a couple of back down moves. He got stripped of the ball on multiple occasions, both when he was diving to the rim and when he was set up as a passer at the pinch post. On a play where Kobe hit him with a pocket bounce pass out of a P&R, Dwight bobbled the ball before securing it and going up to finish. He made the basket and earned a trip to the line but the way he didn’t make a clean catch stood out to me more.
  • Dwight’s defensive activity — even with a couple of high stakes, late game plays where he didn’t help fast enough — was exactly what the Lakers have been missing on a consistent basis. It’s natural to compare Dwight to the man he’s replacing, and I’ll try not to do too much of that this season. Howard is simply in a different class in terms of his instincts on how to move around the floor, the ability to get from spot to spot, and in how he challenges shots to really alter them. In the first half alone Dwight hedged and contained a ball handler perfectly on a P&R set, rotated to a penetrating King and challenged the shot without fouling to force a miss, and even hedged out on a curl play where he stepped out to contest a jumper when his wing teammate couldn’t get around the screen. What stood out wasn’t just the ease and effort in which he did these things, it was the way he did them naturally. Simply put, Dwight has a tremendous aptitude for defense and last night, even in his first game back, it showed.
  • Things that need work: just because Dwight can catch lobs, doesn’t mean you have to throw them. The team had several exciting plays that made the highlights. Howard’s first basket was a fantastic high/low action between him and Pau. Kobe threw a “three flies up” moon ball out of a hand-off sequence that Dwight hammered home. Nash even got into the action with a sweet lob from the arc when Dwight walked his man up the lane line and then spun back-door. But, several of the Lakers’ 22 turnovers were on lobs to Dwight. Some were tipped away, some were off target, and some Dwight just couldn’t handle. The lob will be a weapon this year, but they went to it a bit too many times.
  • Nash still looks to be looking for the right mix of running P&R’s and getting the Lakers into their Princeton sets. I know it’s easy to blame Mike Brown every time Nash runs a standard set and he ends up just camping out around the arc but we should remember that Nash has the freedom to run what he wants. He can start possessions with a P&R, he can pull the ball back and run another if he wants. He’s Steve freaking Nash, no one is going to get mad at him. To my eyes, it actually looks like Nash is purposefully running a lot of traditional sets to help everyone (including himself) get acclimated to the new scheme. After all, Nash knows he can run a P&R and create a good shot but getting everyone on the same page in this new offense still has question marks. They need the extra reps.
  • There will be several jokes made about Kobe’s leaning, fading, contested three pointer to tie the game at the end. I happily acknowledge that I thought that was a suspect play call and that there had to be a better option available considering the amount of time in the game. Now that that’s out of the way, Kobe scored 21 points on only 12 shots. For the preseason he’s shooting 50% from the floor, 87% (41-47) from the FT line, and has a TS% of 66.5%. Yes, it’s only preseason. And no, we shouldn’t take too much away from this. But, it’s fair to say that Kobe has looked good this exhibition season and while Nash and Howard get the headlines, Kobe is still chugging along doing well.

The Lakers play the Kings for the second time in 3 days tonight, this time back at Staples Center after returning from Las Vegas. In the last contest, the Lakers showed as much desire to get a W that they have the entire exhibition season but still could not get it done. The Kings were hot from the outside and kept the Lakers at arm’s length all night by knocking down key shots every time the team tried to make a push. Kudos to them. Seriously. The young Kings looked into the game and as much as the Lakers didn’t want to lose you could tell the Kings really wanted to get a win.

Tonight, though, the Lakers may be getting reinforcements. Dwight Howard is officially listed as a game time decision but I’d bet that he plays. While the team has been cautious in bringing him back, Mike Brown said after Saturday’s practice that if Howard were cleared by the doctors he’d be in the lineup tonight. With news out of Lakers’ practice not giving us any indication that Dwight would be ruled out, I’m using that lack of a declaration as an affirmation that he’s likely to play. Of course, I could be wrong, but I’m of the mind that it’s doubtful he suffers any sort of setback between now and game time and that he’ll be ready to play.

For the Lakers, this is good news (and that is an understatement). Not that I expect Howard to be up to the standard he’s set throughout his career tonight. He’s not played in an NBA game since April and he’s sure to show signs of rust. There may be some missed rotations on D, some missed shots that he’d normally make, and a general sense that the game is moving a bit too fast for him. All of this would be normal so adjust your expectations accordingly.

That said, the Lakers are deep enough into the preseason that there’s now little else they can learn about this team without starting to get all their injured players back on the floor. Howard, of course, is the most significant of these players. Having Howard back allows Mike Brown to start to experiment with rotations that he’s more likely to use in the regular season and, thus, start to find a comfort zone with which player combinations work and don’t.

Brown can also start to see how his offensive and defensive sets look — in a non practice environment — in live action with Howard anchoring the pivot. This information will only help inform him further in starting to develop his team as a cohesive unit. That process must begin somewhere and the sooner Howard is in the fold, the better in that respect.

All that said I’ve been of the mind that the Lakers should hold off on bringing Howard back until he’s absolutely ready and still believe that. So, if he ends up sitting tonight I’d be okay with that. I’ve also been preaching patience in this preseason in terms taking too much stock in the results of the games and my position hasn’t changed on that either.

These games aren’t to be judged on wins or losses, but more about the positive steps the team is taking towards becoming better. These last couple of games the Lakers have moved forward and, despite the losses, that should be looked at as progress. Getting Howard back would be another step in the right direction but if that doesn’t happen tonight, the team can take solace in the fact that it will happen relatively soon.

I can’t lie, though. I do hope it happens tonight.

The Other Kobe-LeBron Debate

J.M. Poulard —  October 20, 2012

For the past few seasons, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James have been the two biggest names in basketball and thus have been endlessly compared to each other.

The conversation is about to take a new turn as people in the media and fans alike have begun to stir the narrative in a different direction as it pertains to both athletes.

Although there will be times when it happens, the argument of rings (five versus one), MVP trophies (three versus one), Finals MVPs (two versus one) and All-Star game MVPs (four versus two) is now a thing of the past.

Instead, the conversation has slowly shifted to the inability of both players to consistently deliver late in ball games, but with a twist: both are now being compared to each other.

In what has become perhaps the most fascinating and yet somewhat under the radar topic in the NBA, many are clamoring for one superstar to emulate the next one.

Advance analytics has made it as such that many feel as though Kobe Bryant is overrated in crunch time, and thus should take a page from LeBron James’ book and hit the open teammate if the situation calls for it late in a tightly contested ball game. Mind you, those that “simply watch the games” will stand by Bryant and speak of him in reverential tone given the many hearts he has already cut out.

On the other side of the spectrum, the game watchers will tell you that LeBron could learn something from Kobe’s assertiveness down the stretch of games given his penchant for dishing off the ball whenever he senses the extra defender approaching whereas Bryant is more than happy to take the big shot regardless of the amount of defensive attention. However, stat geeks will argue that James’ production in the clutch goes far beyond just the shot, as he defends at a high level, rebounds well and helps his team produce high percentage shots.

In a nutshell, the argument has become as such: Kobe needs to be more like LeBron; but James needs to embrace his inner Black Mamba.

It’s an intriguing conversation considering the many views involved with respect to the Mamba and the King. Seriously, both players faced heavy criticism last season for their shot selection or lack thereof late in ball games and yet the narrative has become that they should both try to follow in each other’s footsteps.

Try to wrap your head around that one.

Obviously, the debate completely ignores how terrific both athletes are in the last five minutes of the game in facets other than scoring.

Kobe may coast during games on defense, but when things get tight late in the fourth quarter, he typically turns on the intensity as well as his level of aggression and bumps, grabs, pulls and gets into the personal space of whichever perimeter player has it going. His brilliant 16-year career has afforded him a level of respect with the officials that most players can only dream of, but the Lakers superstar still understands how to get up into his opponent and force him towards his help defenders all the while avoiding getting exposed off the bounce.

Also, he is a terrific playmaker that understands how to anticipate defensive rotations and either takes advantage of them by creating a shot for himself before the help can get to him, or by feeding a teammate on occasion for an easier shot.

Lo and behold, LeBron James has some of the same qualities in his game.

The newly crowned NBA champion is an excellent on and off the ball defender late in ball games that uses his chiseled frame to keep opponents away from the basket by bodying them up, and much like Bryant, he keeps his hands low into his defensive stance but high enough to contest jumpers without fouling. Watching both players operate on the defensive end late in ball games is a thing of beauty, given that they not only take advantage of angles and the knowledge of where their help is coming from, but they also understand how to defend areas as well as individuals quite physically all the while avoiding the whistle.

Furthermore, some may lament LeBron’s assertiveness in late games, but he actually does a good job of creating shots for both himself and for teammates. Many will point out that he shrinks in the big moment and prefers to defer to either Dwyane Wade or possibly another teammate; and there is some truth to that. There have been occasions in which he has been more than comfortable relinquishing the reins to Wade and camp out on the weak side of the court as his superstar teammate went to work and brought the game home.

Mind you, to think such has been the case for the entirety of his tenure in Miami would be completely erroneous considering the plethora of plays he has made with games hanging in the balance.

Part of the problem for Kobe and LeBron is perception.

During the 2010-11 regular season, LeBron missed a couple of game winning shots in a couple of nationally televised games in a row and the narrative eventually became that he could not seal the deal in crunch time. As it pertains to Bryant, once clutch statistics became available, people started paying more attention to the amount of missed shots in the final minutes of ball games and thus the perception has become that both players need to learn from each other because of perceived failings.

The irony of it all of course is that both players are not only great in clutch situations, but one could make the argument that they are the best perimeter players in the league when the last five minutes of the game rolls around. Have a look at how they stack up against Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade; players that currently carry huge reputations for clutch production; below is a spreadsheet with their clutch figures — clutch situations are defined as the last five minutes of the game with the scoring margin within five points — courtesy of NBA.com’s advanced stats tool, projected over 40 minutes (points, rebounds, assists, field goal percentage, field goal attempts and free throw attempts per game):

Player

PPG

RPG

APG

FG%

FGAG

FTAG

Carmelo Anthony

38.3

10.5

2.1

37.8

37.9

8.8

Kevin Durant

38.2

10.5

0.5

39.2

31.6

11.1

LeBron James

33.6

12.7

6.4

45.1

23.9

14.2

Kobe Bryant

32.5

6.8

5.2

36.1

27.7

12.5

Dwyane Wade

25.3

5.1

6.0

42.2

20.7

11.0

Between scoring, setting up teammates, rebounding, defending, making shots and getting to the free throw line, there might not be two players better than James and Bryant in the NBA when the game is up for grabs. Their output during the entire course of the game as well as its final moments is matched by very few; and yet the current debate centers around their inability to come through with the game on the line.

Superstars that can avoid these situations are far more valuable than those that cannot, but should it arise nonetheless, there are very few players in the league that are more trustworthy in the clutch than the pair.

Neither needs to become the other one, instead we should simply embrace how unique both superstars are and how they achieve success in different ways.

A basketball player is far more than his final shot, and yet this seems to be how superstars are measured at the moment. But if we look at the totality of the contests, we’ll notice that there is far more to being great than just making the final shot of the game.

*Statistical support provided by NBA.com.