Ryan Kelly is the Square Peg in the Square Hole

Darius Soriano —  January 22, 2014

Mike D’Antoni’s offensive system is predicated on several principles that nearly all successful offensive systems are built on. Spacing is critical. Ball movement is not just encouraged, it is required. Penetration into the paint via the dribble and via the pass create the movement by a defense that fuels the shots the team wants to take — three pointers and shots in the paint (preferably at the rim).

In order to bring these principles to life, D’Antoni typically relies on three key positions: point guard, center, and power forward. Collectively these three players combine to make everything go. The point guard is the trigger-man for the entire show. He reads the defense, makes the right passes, and decides where the ball should go. He works in tandem with the center who is the main screen setter and the player who establishes the offensive paint by diving to towards the rim. When the center and point guard have a strong chemistry, they can be the dual pillars that have the ability to torment defenses.

The third piece to the puzzle, though, is nearly as important. While the shooting guard and small forward are natural wings and, based solely off their positions, start plays behind the arc it is the power forward who must have a combination of perimeter and paint skills to truly make the offense thrive. The perfect power forward for this type of attack should have enough range to be a threat behind the arc, be good enough off the dribble to attack closeouts by defenders rushing at him after trying to help in the paint, and enough passing ability to be a playmaker for others when he ends up in the creases of the defense.

Looking at those qualities D’Antoni would want in a power forward, it should not be a surprise that Ryan Kelly has found his way into the lineup as a steady rotation player. Though shooting only 29.7% on three pointers this season, Kelly has range on his jumper to beyond the arc. When defenses close out on him, he has enough ball handling ability to take a power dribble into a pull-up mid-range jumper or multiple dribbles to get into the paint and either finish with a floater or draw a foul. He is also smart enough to read defenses effectively and clever enough with the ball to deliver passes on time and on target to a teammate for an open shot.

These skills matter because they not only help Kelly be productive, but they help the team’s offense flow more smoothly. In the last 5 games (including 3 starts), Kelly is scoring over 12 points a game while shooting nearly 48% from the field. His assist numbers aren’t anything to write home about (he’s getting about one a game), but he’s showing that he knows where to move the ball to and not taking unnecessary chances when he’s put in a decision making role.

From the team’s standpoint, the Lakers’ offensive efficiency is 106.0 when Kelly is in the game. The sample is small — Kelly has only played 338 minutes this season — but that mark would rank 8th in the entire NBA (right in between the Thunder and Suns) if produced over the course of a full season. That number isn’t only about Kelly, of course, but his ability to fit squarely into what this offense wants from the position he plays certainly helps.

It also helps that in 144 of his 338 minutes played, Kelly has been flanked by a rejuvenated Pau Gasol and a better than expected Kendall Marshall. When those three share the floor the Lakers post an offensive efficiency of 105.7 and a defensive efficiency of 99.1. Considering the Lakers have a negative efficiency differential of 4.7 on the season, the +6.6 differential when those three share the floor is telling.

Ultimately, though, maybe it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. After all, when Mike D’Antoni’s teams are at their best they rely on the point guard, the center, and the power forward. Which just so happen to be the three positions that those guys play. And nothing against Jordan Hill (whose play has suffered lately), Chris Kaman, or Robert Sacre, none are really power forwards in this offense and none really duplicate the skill set that Kelly brings to the floor.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that Kelly is the better player overall, but what is becoming clearer is that he may be the best fit at PF rather than trying to shoehorn those other guys into that role.

Darius Soriano

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21 responses to Ryan Kelly is the Square Peg in the Square Hole

  1. MDA just might work if you could find a 4 that would both shoot the 3 and play defense… somehow that combination seems extremely rare.

    Scary thought: If Russel Westbrook accepts a Manu-role for OKC, then they just might be unbeatable if Reggie Jackson can sustain the development he is going through right now.

  2. Wouldn’t it be better if we had two of them? Thad Young is available from Philadelphia.

  3. You’re right, Darius. Kelly is the best PF for MDA’s offense and there should be no doubt about it.

    But the game is also played on defense, where he certainly is not the best option available (to the eye test, specially since we have a small sample size), and is not a good rebounder. The question is this, aren’t Hill and Kaman widely regarded as better NBA players than Kelly, even if their skillsets differ? If you’re sacrificing two better players for a lesser player then it means one of three things:

    a) You, as the coach, believe that your offense trumps individual skillset and is better than any other offense in the NBA. You don’t adjust the offense to your available roster because your offense is so good that you must adjust the roster to your offense, defense be damned.

    b) The world is wrong. Kaman cannot shoot the midrange jumper nor score in post plays. Hill is not a good rebounder and doesn’t provide good enough PnR defense to overcome his offensive shortcomings. You’re the coach and you know better.

    c) You know who are the best frontcourt players. You know that you need Kaman’s post presence and Hill’s defense. However, your offensive knowledge is restricted to the one you currently use and you wouldn’t have a clue on how to change it. Therefore, let’s use the best players for YOUR offense.

    I’m leaning towards a), but maybe it’s b).

    Anyway, back on Kelly’s performance. I’m glad that he is playing better, even though I’m still not convinced. I hope he can be a pure stretch four and that we are able to retain his services if he proves he’s worthy of it. And if the plan is to keep MDA as the coach for next season, then by all means give him playing time. But what if our next coach is not MDA? What if we get a coach who prefers a physical PF, wouldn’t we be better off using Hill? I know I’m all over the place with this, but maybe Kelly will never get a fair assessment of his value due to the fact that he’s playing under MDA’s offense, which inflates his stats and overall impact in the game.

    And I’ve been saying this for years now… Stretch fours are important in today’s game and the Lakers should have one incorporated in their roster. It gives them flexibility and is a good change of pace on those games that the defense is overpowering the offense. It’s just sad that Kelly isn’t earning his minutes because he “deserves” them but because the coach is oblivious on how to use the other two guys.

  4. MDA just might work if you could find a 4 that would both shoot the 3 and play defense… somehow that combination seems extremely rare.

    Shawn Marion was indeed a very rare player. Marion is still a pretty decent player now at age 35. And he, Nash, and Stoudemire were the drivers of MDA’s success in PHX. Darius suggests above the 1, 4 and 5 are the key guys on a D’Antoni team. Also, speed and 3P shooting are obviously important.

    And the Lakers have committed 48.5M to a 35-year-old SG with serious injury issues who is not a great 3P shooter. Yes, that man is Kobe Bryant, but the questions remain.

  5. Ryan Kelly has shown some nice things recently, but I ask myself. “what’s his ceiling?” Is he a Ryan Anderson type or more Steve Novak?? Can he ever be a starter on a team with Championship aspirations or is he just a stop gap starter on a bad team? How will he fare against the Nowitskis and the Aldridges? I like Kelly, but I see him as a second unit player. Currently, Aldridge of Portland is the gold standard at Kelly’s position. Time will tell if Kelly can ever approach that level.

  6. very clever darius; square peg; square hole. what you’re really saying is same old dog; same old trick. one would think the front office would have figured this out by now. keep the drum beating; eventually they’ll hear it; or continue to tune it out like some kind of donkey’s square peg; round hole. one can only hope, right?

    otherwise, great insight as always.

    Go lakers

  7. I am more of a traditionalist — someone who prefers conventional skill sets in combination with positions on the court. So for me a stretch four is more of a 2nd team luxury. I would prefer my center and power forward to be defenders and rebounders. Pat Riley’s ‘Rebounds = Ring’ mantra sticks in my head. With that said, Laker fans know that we had a non-traditional player on Riley’s Lakers in Magic and that worked out pretty well.

    The issue with these non-traditional players is on the defensive end. How do they match up against opposing players. My thought is that if you can either switch off defensive responsibilities (e.g. Kelly guards a Three) then this could work. Additionally, if the center and SF (on the floor) can pick up the rebounding slack we should be fine.

    I should note that there is a difference between having a non-traditional player and making the changes necessary to make it work and having a system that only works with specific role/non-traditional players. MDA fits into the latter category.

  8. I have math problems. If a 4 like Kelly shoots 30% in 3s but the guy he guards scores 20 and shoots 60% on 2s and gets 3 or. 4 offense rebounds how is that better then :

    A guy like Hill who shoots 43% from 2 and his guy scores half and he get twice the rebounds and avarage 2 offensive rebounds himself.

    I need to go attend my sons 4th grade math class and relearn math.

  9. George: I should note that there is a difference between having a non-traditional player and making the changes necessary to make it work and having a system that only works with specific role/non-traditional players. MDA fits into the latter category.
    ___

    This is very true of MDA. We are a team that obviously needs to acquire talent. Does the FO make trade and draft decisions based on what MDA wants or what is best for the franchise. If the FO does the right thing and makes decisions based on what is best for the team going forward then we risk having the players misused by MDA (DHoward/Gasol).

    It dovetails into a sidebar discussion in a previous thread. Doesn’t the FO think these things out before hiring a coach?

  10. Maybe this is why Kobe and MDA don’t mix as well as they should — I heard an excerpt from a Kobe interview and he was talking about his preferred ‘form’ of basketball. Kobe said he was old school and liked the ‘smash mouth’ game that he watched as a little kid.

    Of course a set with a traditional center and power forward frees Kobe up to create from the wing. But the underlying implication is that MDA’s approach does not fit with Kobe’s.

  11. Darius,

    Thanks for the write-up and the insights. I think it’s clear (and no surprise to the primary commenters on this web site) that Ryan Kelly is an ideal fit for Mike D’Antoni’s spread-the-floor offense. We are well aware of MDA’s penchant for “stretch 4s,” mobile power forwards, and quick ball-movement all around. But the bigger question remains: is this the way to achieve success in today’s NBA? Let’s take a quick look at the top 7 teams in the NBA (in winning percentage) and their power forwards.

    Indiana, 33-8, .805, Power Forward–David West (12.4 ppg, 6.6 rpg)
    OKC, 33-10, .767, PF-Serge Ibaka (14.3, 8.9)
    San Antonio, 32-10, .762, PF-Tim Duncan (14.5, 9.8)
    Portland, 31-11, .738, PF, LaMarcus Aldridge (24.2, 11.6)
    Miami, 30-12, .714, PF-LeBron James (26.2, 6.7)
    LA Clippers, 29-15, .659, PF-Blake Griffin (22.6, 10.0)
    Houston, 29-15, .659, PF-Terrence Jones (11.6, 7.7)

    Several interesting observations can be gleaned from this list. All the PFs are important contributors to their teams, some spectacularly so. Not one averages less that 11.6 ppg or 6.6 rpg. Of these 7 PFs, 5 are strong defenders–West, LBJ, Ibaka, Tim Duncan, and (IMO) Terrence Jones. Two are OK defensively–Blake Griffin and Aldridge.

    But most importantly, not one–NOT ONE–is a stretch 4. They are all, by and large, traditional PFs. D’Antoni, then, is the outlier. His philosophy actually runs counter to the prevailing pattern of success in the NBA. The best teams in the league, clearly, do not gravitate to stretch 4s. Rather, they put a premium on defense (Indiana, Miami, San Antonio, Portland, even OKC) and rebounding. And they have talent. But they do not base their offenses on the skills of a PF who can shoot 3s. LeBron comes closest to a PF who shoots 3s. But he’s certainly not a stretch 4 and he also plays the 3 position a great deal.

    So the question remains: Why? Why are the Lakers so enamored of a stretch offense since that is NOT the prevailing way to win games in this league? Why are we devaluing players such as Jordan Hill and Chris Kaman who are strong rebounders and provide at least a modicum of resistance in the paint? Why are we sacrificing defense and rebounding for a 3-point shooting, spread-the-floor offense which other (successful) teams steer away from?

    These are all questions which the FO must answer when they determine the future direction of this team after the season is over. In the meantime, we continue with what I believe is a dubious strategy.

  12. “Stretch” can mean different things to different people. Bigs with shooting range are immensely valuable in this league. Ibaka shoots 47% on shots 16-23 feet. David West is at 46%. Duncan and Aldridge are at 42% and 41% respectively. Bigs who can shoot to and beyond the mid-range open up space for penetration and post up play. If you look at the spacing when Kelly is on the floor, you see how much more space Gasol has to operate in the post. You can also notice that when Pau is crowded and he passes to Kelly, big men feel the need to close out on him and he’s doing a good job of attacking that close out.

    I have my issues with D’Antoni, but attacking his offensive system is not really viable. You can argue this team plays at too fast a pace — I have done that myself — but the principles he wants his team to play by in the half court are used all over the league from Miami to San Antonio and in OKC and in Portland. These are some of the best teams in the league on that end of the floor.

  13. Darius,

    I don’t think that we have a problem with D’Antoni’s offensive system. Actually, we were quite fond of that ball movement earlier in the season. Our main problem is that he “appears” to be sacrificing rebounding and defense for the sake of “his” offensive system, which is just wrong, in our opinion.

    You can’t win without good defense and rebounding, regardless of how potent your offense is. So, why doesn’t he fix what’s easier to fix, which is defense and rebounding (Kaman and Hill)? Defense is the way for teams with less talent to balance the game against a stronger opponent and we can all agree that we simply lack top tier talent. His offense is actually that last thing in my very long list of complaints about him, and I’m pretty sure that it wouldn’t be a complaint if he fixed everything else (defense, rebounding, pace, substitution patterns, communication with the press throwing a player under the bus, alienating every serviceable big man…).

  14. We may disagree with the strategy, but, for this year, we have to live with it. Making comparisons is fair game, but simply complaining about it/the coach would seem to be counterproductive. The FO simply isn’t going to tell us what they are thinking; nor should they. We will know at the end of the year what they think of MDA.

    If there is a trade, perhaps that will give us a clue.

  15. Renato,
    Have you looked at the defensive numbers of the different front court pairings? I have. Here are the team’s defensive efficiency numbers when the following big man pairs are in the game:

    Pau/Hill: 111.0
    Pau/Kaman: 104.9
    Pau/Sacre: 118.4
    Pau/Kelly: 96.4
    Kaman/Hill: 96.3

    What is clear is that the best pairings are Pau/Kelly and Kaman/Hill by a long shot. So, to me, the more pertinent question isn’t a trade off between Kelly and either Hill or Kaman to play next to Pau, it’s whether Kaman/Hill should be playing *instead* of Pau/Kelly as their own pairing. That is what the numbers support.

    I should add that I thought the Pau/Hill pairing would be good on D. They are awful. Neither wants to leave the paint and while Hill is good defending the P&R, with no coverage back out to the perimeter to guard rangy PF’s it has not worked. The Pau/Sacre pairing is even worse. The Pau/Kaman pairing is okay, but still below league average in terms of points allowed per 100 possessions.

    I think the bigger point may just be that the Lakers don’t really have good defensive players. This is something we said about them to start the year, so it really shouldn’t be a big surprise.

  16. darius; should be insta-graming (if there’s such a word) your exact words into the visitor’s locker room over at America Airlines arena before tip off tonite and again at halftime in case you know who did not get the message the first time:

    What is clear is that the best pairings are Pau/Kelly and Kaman/Hill by a long shot .

    Go lakers

  17. Great write-up by Darius and discussion by all. Surprising defensive efficiency stats–love it. I see R. Kelly with perhaps more upside than many. He is no great athlete, but not bad either at his length moving around the perimeter. Apparently he is a hard worker in the weight room and is taking to heart the diet directives from the training staff. I expect him to come back next season stronger, quicker and a better rebounder as he gains core strength and muscle mass. Whether he can improve enough to be a starter on a good team is the question.

    p.s. Try to watch the Mavericks contest online tomorrow: it is going to be beyond epic with 40 ft waves forecast!

  18. Problem with your defensive pairings is a very small sampling as Kelly just started playing and the competition on his 3 starts have been avarage at best. Watch what happens tonight and aganist Indiana and show me those numbers .

  19. Darius,

    Thanks for the defensive efficiency numbers. That actually supports much of which I’ve been saying for the last few weeks–that Kaman and Hill should get more burn. I simply was not aware that they had done so well defensively when in the game together.

    The Pau / Kelly pairing is, of course, based on a fairly small statistical sample. But, anecdotally, I have noticed that the defensive intensity overall has picked up over the last 3-4 games. I hope that it continues.

    All of this serves to underscore Renato’s central point: defense and rebounding win games. In the NBA, that’s axiomatic. In fact, it’s true in college, too. One need only look at the Indiana Pacers to see the truth inherent in that statement. Indiana is outstanding in rebounding AND defense. And they win. Indiana offers a very powerful argument for the rebounding / defense first philosophy. It’s difficult to argue with success.

  20. Kelly obviously has his faults on defence and is still learning how to be an NBA player. It is such a shame that we have not been able to harness the talents of a former Laker, who was (not that long ago really) one of the best stretch PF’s out there – Lamar Odom. I sure he would still have something to offer, but maybe neither party is interested.

  21. Thanks for the numbers Darius.

    I was quite surprised to see the Pau/Kelly numbers. But since it’s a small sample size for both the Pau/Kelly and Kaman/Hill pairings, it would be nice to check the average offensive efficiency of their opponents to check if what we see matches the numbers. Obviously this is an insane request but I guess most NBA teams know these numbers.

    But assuming those numbers would hold if the sample size was larger, wouldn’t it be safe to assume that having Pau/Kelly play just over 30mpg and having the Kaman/Hill combo play the remainder 18mpg would help the team? (Obviously there would be other pairings, but I think you get what I’m saying).