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Fast Break Thoughts

Darius Soriano —  April 7, 2014 — 32 Comments

Some random thoughts on the goings on around the league, including our beloved Lakers…

  • All year Mike D’Antoni has said that the team’s most consistent performer is Jodie Meeks. Hard to argue there as the man has had his best year as a pro and made some big strides in several areas of his game from last year to this year. One stat that stood out to me most about Meeks’ season is that this year he is shooting 63.3% in the restricted area this year. Last year, Meeks only shot 51.3% in the restricted area.
  • Commenter Mid-Wilshire has noticed that Jordan Hill is having a pretty nice close to the season:

In the last nine games, these have been Hill’s numbers (pts., rebounds, and blocks):

Clippers — 22 pts., 9 rebounds, 0 blocks
Dallas — 14 pts., 10 rebounds, 2 blocks
Sacramento — 18 pts., 15 rebounds, 4 blocks
Phoenix — 6 pts., 3 rebounds, 1 block
Minnesota — 10 pts., 7 rebounds, 0 blocks
Milwaukee — 28 pts., 16 rebounds, 0 blocks
New York — 9 pts., 5 rebounds, 4 blocks
Orlando — 28 pts., 13 rebounds, 1 block
Washington — 9 pts., 14 rebounds, 4 blocks

According to my calculations, that results in averages of 16.8 pts., 10.2 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks per game.

  • Hill hasn’t been the most consistent player over that stretch and the Bucks and Magic games stand out both because of the level of production as well as the quality of opponent. That said, it’s good to see Hill is healthy (he had that knee issue that kept him out a couple of games before this stretch) and that he’s getting the minutes to perform on the court. I don’t know if Hill will be a Laker next year, but I still believe he can be a quality role player on a very good team.
  • One player I have liked much more than I thought I would this season: Nick Young. The guy can still be a gunner and take shots that would make a heat-checking Kobe Bryant blush, but Young has played hard and has done so with a smile on his face. In a season that has been mostly down in the dumps from a win/loss perspective, Young has brought some fun to the year.
  • Should Ryan Kelly make the All-Rookie team? On the surface, this may seem like a crazy question. But when you dig into the stats you’ll find that Kelly is 8th in PER for rookies, 5th in True Shooting %, joins Giannis Antetokounmpo as the only non-guard in the top 12 of assist ratio (while ranking 4th in turnover percentage), and has gotten better as the year has progressed. I don’t know if he’ll make it or not (I lean towards no — his games and minutes played aren’t comparable to some of the lottery picks), but to say Kelly has been anything but a very fine pick at #48 would be underselling him this year. Even with the holes in his game.
  • One more Kelly stat, per nba.com/stats: the Lakers are 6.5 points per 100 possessions better on offense when Kelly is on the floor versus when he sits. Of the players who are part of the rotation (sorry MarShon Brooks, you don’t count) that is the best number on the team (second is Nick Young at 5.5 points better per 100 possessions).
  • On a non-Lakers’ note, what is going on with the Pacers? I mean, look at this from Ed Kupfer:
  • At one point, Indy looked like a real threat to challenge the Heat and reach the Finals. Right now there’s a real question if they’ll make it out of the 2nd round.
  • No NBA games tonight, but there is this thing called the NCAA Title Game that some folks may want to watch. I’m horribly out of touch when it comes to the college game this year, so you can take my Kentucky pick with a whole pile of salt. What can I say, I like Julius Randle’s shoes.

The season has pretty much come full circle as the Lakers play the Clippers for the last time this season. On opening night — that seems like so, so long ago doesn’t it? — the Lakers upset the Clips in one of high points of the year. What followed was about 20 games of relatively inspired play by an upstart Lakers’ group.

Ultimately, though, those moments didn’t last and what has transpired is one of the worst seasons in franchise history. Meanwhile, the Clippers have had one of their best seasons in franchise history, charging hard for and reaching the 3rd seed in an ultra-competitive West. They will look to make a lot of noise in the playoffs and try to do what another Doc Rivers coached team did by grinding its way through the post-season in search of the ultimate prize.

Things couldn’t be more different between these two teams and, not just because of the time that’s passed, today’s game couldn’t feel any further removed from that upset in late October.

Today’s game matters mostly because of how it can impact the standings. As noted above, the Clippers are currently sitting in the 3rd seed, 3 games up on the Rockets. It is unlikely Houston — who has been playing without Dwight Howard lately — catches the Clippers, so falling down the standings doesn’t seem likely. However, the Clippers are only 2 games behind the Thunder for the 2nd seed in the conference and with a nice push to close the season and any sort of stumble from the Thunder, the Clips could find themselves moving up. To close the season, then, the Clippers will play as hard as they can to maximize their seeding and to try to fine tune their game heading into the playoffs.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Lakers are also looking at the standings and are seeing how their current string of losses (3 straight) have kept them in the 6th spot. Right above them are the Jazz who they face in the 2nd to last game of the season. If the Lakers lose out — which is quite possible considering their strength of opponents (minus the Jazz) — they may be able to get all the way to the 4th worst record in the league and hurdle both the Jazz and the Celtics in the process. That’s looking way ahead, of course, but down the stretch there really isn’t much to look forward too save for a nice performance from one of the individual players.

With the implications of this game set, I think it is safe to say that the outcome may be as well.

The Lakers will play without Pau, Xavier Henry (who has been ruled out for the year), and Steve Nash. Chris Kaman is questionable with his calf strain and Jordan Hill came out of Friday’s game gimpy with a sore ankle (as did Nick Young). In other words, the same old story for a team who just needs the season to end. The Clippers, on the other hand, are starting to get their players back even if they are still a bit banged up too. Jamal Crawford and Danny Granger are likely out of this game, but J.J. Redick is back in the lineup as a needed shooter to space the floor. Blake Griffin is also likely to play even though he’s been suffering from back spasms and turned an ankle in their loss to the Mavs on Thursday.

Forget the injuries, though, the Clippers are simply the better team. They have more talent and are coached in a manner that seeks to optimize that talent on both sides of the ball.

As the Lakers’ season mercifully comes to a close in a week, the Clippers’ will just be beginning. As noted at the top, things really have come full circle.

Where you can watch: 12:30pm start time on ABC. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.

With the Lakers’ loss to the Kings on Wednesday night, they fell to 2nd to last in the West and boast the 6th worst record in the league. With only seven games left to play, the Lakers place in the standings is pretty much the only compelling storyline left.

Will they stay in 6th? Will they “climb” the standings and get to 5th or even 4th? A few games to watch as the season comes to a close are the Lakers game against the Jazz in the 2nd to last game of the year and the two games the Celtics play against the 76ers. Those three games may mean the difference between staying in 6th or moving up in the lottery. This is what the Lakers are fighting for now.

On the other end of the spectrum is Friday’s opponent, the Mavs. On Thursday night they held on to get a much needed win over the Clippers, advancing their cause to make the playoffs in the process. The Mavs’ magic number is now 6 and they control their own destiny to make the tournament.

Of course, playing a hard fought game against the Clippers isn’t exactly the best set of circumstances to be in when coming into Staples to play the Lakers. The Mavs have the Lakers outgunned from a talent perspective, but fatigue can be a great equalizer. Add in the fact that the Lakers can get hot from behind the arc and have been carrying the mantra of “player haters” who want to try and spoil playoff teams’ hopes and this creates an interesting scenario that bears watching.

All things being equal, the Mavs should win this game simply because they are the better team. Add in the fact that the Lakers remain banged up and shorthanded (my guess is that Pau and Nash both sit out again and that Xavier Henry may join them) and a full strength Mavs team looks even better on paper than they already did.

But the games aren’t played on paper (something people who watched last season’s Lakers know all too well) and if the Mavs come in tired, unfocused, or a combination of both and the Lakers have a chance to steal a game. (As an aside, I don’t know which fan base would be more upset if this actually occurred considering how much wins and losses mean to both franchises right now.)

As for the X’s and O’s of this game, there are a few match ups that I am interested in seeing. First, is the battle of the point guards where Jose Calderon and Kendall Marshall will face off. On most nights Marshall is outmatched physically and is relegated to either chasing a quicker player around or forced to play an opposing shooting guard or small forward (whichever is the lesser offensive player) in order to be hidden defensively. Calderon is neither a speedster nor an overwhelming physical talent, so Marshall will likely match up with him all night. What Calderon is, however, is crafty with his dribble and a strong pick and roll practitioner. Marshall will have his hands full trying to navigate screens and will have to choose wisely when deciding whether to go under picks and give up jumpers or chase over the top and allow Calderon an angle to penetrate.

The equation gets trickier when Dirk is setting the screen as the big German will either flare to the arc to spot up for a three pointer or dive to the FT line area where he can get into the middle of the defense and either shoot his jumper or try to work a mid-range post up that draws help defenders and opens up teammates. It will be interesting to see how Ryan Kelly (and Jordan Hill) do when defending the big German and whether they can effectively move him off his preferred spots to make him more of a passer than the efficient scorer he’s been all season (and all his career).

The other match up I am interested in seeing is Kent Bazemore getting some minutes on Monta Ellis. While I envision Meeks starting on Monta, I can also see Bazemore getting some chances on Ellis when Marion slides up to PF or when cross-matches occur. In recent games Bazemore has been more active in using his length to try and disrupt ball-handlers and has been pretty good about getting on ball steals. Monta has always been an attack player, but has really cut down on shooting threes this season in favor of trying to get into the teeth of the defense more. I am interested in seeing if Bazemore can keep Monta out of the paint and use his length to contest his jumper as well as force him into turnovers when he tries to create off the bounce.

Offensively, I am interested in seeing how much the Lakers can use tempo to their advantage to try and wear the Mavs down. As mentioned, Dallas should be a bit tired and the Lakers would love nothing more than try and increase the pace and make Dallas get into a chaotic game, increasing the chances for mistakes to be made. At the end of the Clippers game the Mavs showed cracks in how they handle defensive pressure and did a poor job of keeping their poise and playing smart. If the Lakers can recreate that environment in this game, Dallas will have issues.

Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.

I typically believe that the simplest explanation is usually the best one. While conspiracy theories and grand schemes are fun to contemplate, the truth is often less sexy and probably pretty boring.

This brings me to Mike D’Antoni and, at least in the view of many observers, his puzzling rotation decisions from game to game. For some context, here is Eric Pincus of the LA Times on Jordan Hill’s lack of time in Tuesday’s game against the Blazers:

On March 27, the Lakers’ Jordan Hill scored 28 points with 16 rebounds against the Bucks in Milwaukee. Five days later, he couldn’t get off the bench, outside of Coach Mike D’Antoni’s rotation. “Yeah, man. I don’t know. I’m all out of words. I don’t know what’s going on,” Hill said after the Lakers’ 124-112 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers. “It’s getting old now. Can’t be frustrated.  Can’t be mad. I just need to stay humble. “Hill, who will be a free agent this summer, said he is open to returning to the Lakers but not for more of the same. “Of course not,” Hill said when asked the question. “Who would?”

Forget for a moment the implication Hill makes about not wanting to return next season (should things stay this way) and instead focus on the fact that within a 5 day span Hill went from key player (and starter) to a DNP-CD. Hill’s situation is not unique, of course, as the player who replaced him in the lineup can surely attest. Chris Kaman went from a string of games planted firmly on the bench to suddenly getting a boatload of minutes and even starting against the Blazers next to Pau Gasol.

After the game, D’Antoni’s explanation was pretty simple:

“There’s not enough minutes,” D’Antoni after the loss. “You just can’t play 12 guys just in and out, in and out, in and out. … It just doesn’t work…You’ve got to make choices and you don’t know before you make the choice that it’s the right choice,” D’Antoni said. “You probably know afterwards. You just go on your gut, you go on what you see from previous games.  You go on the opponent and then just try to make the best choice you can.”

I, for one, tend to believe what D’Antoni is saying. In a different quote he explained that, in looking to the future, part of the plan is to play Ryan Kelly and Robert Sacre. With Pau a lineup mainstay, that doesn’t leave many minutes for the rest of the front court players. Likely one, or both, of Hill and Kaman will suffer by being left out of the rotation. This is just how things go.

I don’t have to agree with D’Antoni, but it is easy to draw a straight line to get to his conclusions. I have long discussed how this roster is out of balance and when that occurs someone is bound to get squeezed. It just so happens that the players feeling that pinch are guys who, on the surface, are the better players. They are the established veterans and, in most situations where trying to put the best talent on the floor is the goal, they would see time over their teammates who are younger and less effective (at least over the long haul) than them.

This is where things get less simple, however, and start to veer off track from the first sentence of this post. At this point in the season, the Lakers aren’t necessarily about winning each game — at least not entirely. Mike D’Antoni is trying to put his best players on the floor, but is also trying to play his young(ish) players minutes. He is trying to stick to his system, but is also trying to see what can work on the edges of that system by pairing multiple bigs in the same lineup.

This leads to the type of inconsistencies that have served as the backdrop of the team’s rotations for nearly the entire season. It doesn’t help that the coach can be fickle, trying to ride a hot hand only to bury the player when that hand turns cold. Jordan Hill’s game against the Blazers is a prime example of that — in the game immediately following his big game, he shot 5-12, didn’t go to the FT line, and saw his rebounding rate fall off. After that game his minutes got reduced and then last night he didn’t play at all. So, there is an argument to be made that inconsistent performance can lead directly to inconsistent minute allocation as the coach seeks workable solutions.

The flip side to this argument is how much this lack of lineup consistency (and some would argue trust in the player) contributes to the dips in production. I don’t know of any study to confirm this, but I would imagine no one plays as well when uncertainty of role and playing time exists; when minutes can be so unpredictable that a guy can go from having a key role one night to a nonexistent one the next. No one likes looking over their shoulder every night; everyone would prefer to have the peace of mind that their role is somewhat stable.

What does this have to do with the Kings game tonight? Nothing. At least not really. When it comes to tonight I think the coach will play who he thinks will help him win, while still trying to ensure that certain needs are addressed regarding the playing time of young players (like Kelly and Sacre, and to a lesser extent Kent Bazemore). This may make for wonky rotations or things that on the surface don’t necessarily make sense. And it will certainly lead to things that people do not agree with. That doesn’t mean an explanation is missing, however. There certainly is that.

Where you can watch: 7:00pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.

Don’t look now, but the there are only 15 days left in the regular season. In that span the Lakers will close with 9 games, starting tonight with the Portland Trailblazers. Beyond them, the Lakers will also have tilts against the Clippers, Rockets, Warriors, Spurs, Grizzlies, and Mavericks — making it seven of their final nine games coming against teams either in or actively trying to make the playoffs.

In other words, the Lakers are in a prime position to play spoiler. The West is so compacted that teams seven through nine are in a virtual tie while seeds four through six are only separated by 4.5 games. A lot can happen with margins this small, and while I don’t envision a team jumping from 6th to 4th, a shuffling around of those teams by a spot or getting into/falling out of the race is totally possible. And with the Lakers having every single team in the West race besides the Thunder on the docket, they have a chance to be the guys that do the damage. Just ask the Suns who, after losing to the Lakers, now sit in 9th place and on the outside looking in to the playoff picture.

The flip-side is that they also have a chance to get blown out of the water by teams playing for real stakes while the Lakers are trying to play spoiler. Because as dangerous as the Lakers can be (again, ask Phoenix) they also have the ability to be awful. If the threes aren’t falling and their defensive intensity is what it’s been since the all-star break, any game can get away from them quickly.

This is especially true against this Portland team. For the season the Blazers are 6th in offensive efficiency, scoring 108.2 points per 100 possessions. They have shooters at every position and do  wonderful job of working through and off LaMarcus Aldridge to generate offense. They are wonderful at moving the ball and taking advantage of defenses that don’t rotate consistently or who over-pursue the ball in the hopes of making the hero defensive play. In other words, the things they do well on O are the things the Lakers struggle to contain. Again, this has the chance to get out of hand quickly.

Of course, the Lakers always have a chance. If they get hot from deep or if the Blazers lay an egg, this game can be close throughout. If the Lakers show some discipline and hunt good shots more than just let it fly, they can test a Blazers’ D that isn’t nearly as impressive as their offense. If they can get Lopez or Aldridge in foul trouble early they can work against big men who do not pose the same deterrent defensively and will have a chance to put up points. We have seen the Lakers do this to the Blazers before so any outcome would not surprise me.

That said, don’t get your hopes up. When it comes to this time of the year, I think the motivation to stay in or better your playoff odds always trumps playing for the chance to knock a team out. And when measuring the talent levels of both teams, things definitely favor the Blazers.

Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.