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It seems that as soon as the championship parade at the Coliseum was finished, Laker fans have been collectively holding their breath in anticipation of an off-season in which two of the team’s most important contributors, and popular players, were free agents. Over the next 45 days Laker fans have been saddened (from losing the Los Angeles born-and-raised 24 year old blossoming small forward Trevor Ariza), maddened (by one David Lee-not the restricted free-agent Power-Forward- but the agent who engineered the Ariza exodus), intrigued (by the idea of Ron Artest and all that his signing means to the Lakers), scared to death (by the idea of Ron Artest and all that his signing means to the Lakers) and, relived (that the LO saga, which was very public and very arduous, ended the way it should have).

During all of this we have glanced around at what other contenders have been doing… “How are the Cavs gonna use Shaq?”-“Does Rasheed have anything left in the tank?”-“Theo Ratliff still plays basketball??”…we have all seen the tracker at the bottom of ESPN and heard the pundits applaud and deride various GM’s. This post seeks to go into the moves that top contenders have made this off-season and see how these moves help them match-up against our beloved Lakers. The way I see it, there are 5 other teams besides the Lakers that legitimately have a shot at winning the title next year: Orlando, Boston, Cleveland, San Antonio and Denver. Because Denver didn’t make any big off-season moves (although I like them getting Lawson and Afflalo for guard depth) I will be looking at the first four teams mentioned above.

ORLANDO MAGIC

Last Season’s Record: 59-23
Playoff Outcome: Reached NBA Finals, losing to the Lakers 4-1.

Players Added/Retained: Vince Carter, Brandon Bass, Marcin Gortat, Matt Barnes, Ryan Anderson
Players Lost: Hedo Turkoglu Courtney Lee, Rafer Alston, Tony Battie

Big Risk, Big Reward Move: Acquiring Vince Carter. In deciding to let Hedo walk and pulling the trigger on the Vince Carter move, Magic GM Otis Smith has made the decision to go all-in with this team for the next couple of years. Along with Vince, the team added big-time payroll in the form of solid PF Brandon Bass and highly sought-after backup C Marcin Gortat. These moves have put the Magic in heavy tax territory. Vince only missed 2 games last season, and he is still capable of tossing up 22-24 pts a game. The guy can create off the dribble, pass better than most give him credit for and hit a high percentage from behind the arc (38%+). However, the big risk involved in this move is how he will affect the team chemistry, most notably the team defense of a team that went to the finals last year. Courtney Lee, even though a rookie last season, showed the ability to guard Ray Allen, Kobe Bryant and anyone else he was asked to cover. This is Carter’s chance to show he can be part of a winning team. Considering his sulky past behavior and almost open admission that he quit on the Raptors, Carter will have to show he can play winning ball. To do this he will have to buy in on defense

Low Risk, Big Reward Move: Signing Matt Barnes. Barnes will be able to provide 3pt shooting and toughness on defense. Any playoff team could use these things, but Barnes may fit particularly well on the Magic. Most likely having to match-up with the Cavs and/or the Celtics in the playoffs, Barnes provides a player (along with Pietrus) that can, in theory, guard Paul Pierce and Lebron James for long stretches.

Stan Van Gundy’s Rest of Summer Wish List: Dwight Howard working on his back-to-the-basket game, Jameer Nelson getting healthy for the beginning of camp and Pietrus and Gortat staying injury free at the Euro Championships.

How Do They Match-up with the Lakers: Even though the Lakers won 4-1, I don’t need to remind folks how close 3 of the games were, and how great of a season the Magic had. However, much like the Lakers, next year’s Magic will be different. They have added length in Bass and Anderson and have kept Gortat. This will help them against the Lakers main strength outside of Kobe-the frontcourt trio of Gasol, Bynum and Odom. The Magic have also added a player to guard Kobe, Matt Barnes and a player who can score with Kobe, Carter. This is all to supplement their core of Howard, Lewis and Nelson. The Magic should be strong contenders next season, but the toughest job may fall on SVG and it will be interesting to see how he tinkers with the lineup. The main strength the Magic had was the two-SF frontcourt with Hedo and Rashard. Now SVG can go to a bigger lineup with Bass or Gortat teaming with Howard in the front-court. This may be the move that allows them to be a better team.

BOSTON CELTICS

Last Season’s Record
: 62-20
Playoff Outcome: Knocked out in 2nd Round by the Magic 4-3

Players Added/Retained: Rasheed Wallace, Marquis Daniels
Players Lost: Stephon Marbury, Miki Moore, potentially Glen Davis

Big Risk, Big Reward Move
: Signing Rasheed Wallace. This move wasn’t financially risky, as Wallace received the MLE over 3 years, but the move is risky in a basketball sense. Rasheed’s FG% has slowly been decreasing over the last few years and his interest level seems to have taken a corresponding dip. Maybe it was the rut the entire Pistons organization was in (unable to get past being a good team), but Rasheed doesn’t seem like the guy to lead the Celtics back to the top. This move suggests that Celtics GM Danny Ainge feels the team can once again count on KG to be the player he was in 2008 and Wallace can essentially be a combination of Leon Powe and PJ Brown. If Ainge is wrong on KG then the Celtics will again be undersized and undermanned. If Ainge is correct and Wallace is hitting from beyond the arc and giving Howard fits on defense, then the Celtics will again be the class of the East.

Low Risk, Big Reward Move: Signing Marquis Daniels. The Celtics have basically gone through two seasons in which Ray Allen and Paul Pierce have not had a suitable backup. Now they have one for each and it comes at the price of one player. Daniels can handle the ball and create for others off the dribble. If he can adapt to their defensive philosophy, he will be a great piece because Paul Pierce looked dead tired towards the end of that Magic series, and Daniels will allow him and Allen to get much more rest during the regular season.

Doc Rivers’ Rest of Summer Wish List: KG is getting healthy, Ray and Pierce are getting rest and Rajon Rondo is shooting 1,000 18 foot jumpers a day.

How Do They Match-up with the Lakers: A front-court of KG, Perkins and Rasheed, coupled with the ability to throw Allen and Pierce out against Kobe suggest the Celtics match-up quite well with LA. In the Finals the Celtics lack of depth would not be so glaring as rotations shorten up, so not having a quality back-up PG isn’t too much of a concern should the Celts meet the Lakers in the finals. However, any injuries to their front-court would severely hurt the Celts chances and should make re-signing the still in-limbo free agent Glen Davis a priority.

CLEVELAND CAVALIERS

Last Season’s Record
: 66-16
Playoff Outcome: Knocked out in the ECF by the Magic (4-2)

Players Added/Retained: Shaq, Jamario Moon, Anthony Parker
Players Lost: Sasha Pavlovic, Ben Wallace, Joe Smith

Big Risk, Big Reward Move: Acquiring Shaq. Although the price was not too high, the implications of acquiring Shaq are huge. Shaq had a strong year last year, but his team didn’t make the playoffs and his defense, especially on the pick-and-roll was even worse (if that is possible). Furthermore, everyone knows how he feels about his post touches, so how will his presence in the paint affect LBJ’s ability to drive the lane, and how will his lack of mobility hurt the Cavs defense. These issues and the risks associated with them are exacerbated by the fact that LBJ will be constantly questioned about his free agent status and the team will carry a higher profile with Shaq on board. Yea, this is the type of move that either works out really well, or really bad.

Low Risk, Big Reward Move
: Signing Anthony Parker. Parker is a legitimate 6’6 swingman, something the Cavs sorely needed. He is a low-maintenance guy in the sense that he doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective. He will play well off LBJ because of his spot up shooting ability and he will be even more important on the other end of the court because he will now allow Mike Brown to have a lineup devoid of 2 midget guards.

Mike Brown’s Rest of Summer Wish List: Shaq doesn’t get hurt on his reality show, LBJ keeps working on his ever-improving jumper,

How Do They Match-up with the Lakers: Adding Shaq to an already tall and long frontcourt helps the Cavs match-up size wise with the Lakers. They have multiple defenders to throw at Gasol and Bynum. In addition, signing Moon and Parker now gives the Cavs two more guys to guard Kobe than they had last season (when they had a total of 0 guys to guard Kobe). The length the Cavs have added on the wings may prove to be more significant than trading for Shaq, however, the Cavs still lack a versatile 4 man and in a series against the Lakers that means they have nobody to cover LO. Adding a 4 man that can defend the perimeter and hit the 3 may be the difference between a title and losing LBJ…get on the phone Danny!

SAN ANTONIO SPURS

Last Season’s Record: 54-28
Playoff Outcome: Knocked out of 1st Round by Dallas 4-1

Players Added/Retained: Richard Jefferson, Antonio McDyess, Dajuan Blair, Theo Ratliff
Players Lost: Bruce Bowen, Fabricio Oberto

Big Risk, Big Reward Move: Acquiring Richard Jefferson. This was an aggressive move by Spurs Owner Peter Holt, who usually doesn’t foray into tax-territory. By making this move the Spurs are signaling that they want to compete as much as possible while Duncan is still an elite player. However, adding payroll doesn’t guarantee success. Getting Jefferson means the Spurs are committed to playing Duncan as its Center with Ginobli, Parker and Jefferson on the perimeter and McDyess presumably as the other big. Jefferson will have to show that he can fit with the Spurs system

Low Risk, Big Reward Move: Drafting Blair. I was hoping the Lakers drafted Blair when he was available, and I am sure the Spurs are were ecstatic. Blair is a natural for the Spurs, he is a rugged defender and a rebound specialist. His size may not meet the measurables NBA scouts drool over, but if he is able to stay healthy, he will be the Spurs 1st contributing big off the bench.

Pop’s Rest of Summer Wish List: Tony Parker gets healthy, Manu Ginobli stays healthy and Tim Duncan gets plenty of rest

How Do They Match-up with the Lakers: As I mentioned above, the Spurs are going to be playing with Duncan as their tallest player. The Spurs had their best success with Duncan as PF and a legitimate Center covering him defensively and hitting the mid-range jumper. McDyess is no slouch on defense and can definitely hit the mid-range jumper, but at 6’9, he will have problems trying to guard either 7’1 Gasol or 7’0 Bynum. The Spurs have closed the talent gap between the two teams, but in spite of adding Ratliff, Blair and McDyess, the Lakers should still enjoy a size advantage against the Spurs. Also, the Lakers have the wonderful luxury of having Odom as an X-factor against Spurs, who don’t have a versatile 4 man to guard LO.

–Kwame A.

Deconstructing Kobe

Reed —  June 16, 2009

There is no doubt that this title meant as much to Kobe, and to the public’s perception of his legacy, than perhaps any title has meant to any player in recent memory. In that spirit, we have been showered with stories praising Kobe, dissecting his relief, evaluating his transformation, figuring his place in history, analyzing his relationship with Phil and his teammates, etc., etc., ad nauseam. This has been fun, even if much of it is puffy, revisionist, or based on somewhat distorted generalizations about the facts (both statistical and otherwise).

But we’ve also seen something of a Kobe backlash. This must be the case with Kobe, who polarizes and divides the sports world in strange ways usually associated only with religious/political figures. When you watch Kobe, you care. You don’t lukewarmly clap as you do with Lebron, Wade, Paul, Duncan, or even Jordan. You follow with whole-souled loyalty and love or unbreakable hatred and opposition. No matter where you stand, you care about Kobe; you are interested in him; and you watch him with real emotional investment. Accordingly, having Kobe push through the finals every year is a boon for the league. No one stands at the water cooler debating Spurs-Pistons, or even something seemingly epic like Celtics-Cavs.

The sports world might be more obsessed with Kobe’s legacy than perhaps any player in league (or sports) history. Jordan dispassionately ascended to the pinnacle; Duncan and Shaq are casually placed somewhere in the top 5-10 range; we didn’t argue about Magic and Bird’s place, they just kind of arrived near the top. But we argue and wrangle and declare Kobe’s place in the hierarchy of gods with a different spirit – one attended by stretched stats and forced comparisons. By the time his work is finished he’ll have put together a stunning body of work. If he plays another 5-6 years and LA makes several more deep playoff runs, we could be looking at something in the realm of 5-6 titles, 8-9 finals appearances, multiple finals mvp awards, 15-16 all nba first teams, 12 all nba defense teams, 3-4 all star mvp awards, 3rd all time scorer, all time playoff scorer, two time olympic gold medalist, not to mention the unparalleled highlights. He’ll have won the title with two wholly different teams, both opposed by (potentially) all time top 5 greats in their prime (Duncan and Lebron). This may be optimistic, but it’s more possible than you think.

The Kobe haters sense this and know that this title acts as a swift and final counter to their long paraded criticisms. They see that Kobe is on his way to achieving something un-rebuttable (if that is a word) and that drives them mad. And so, we hear old and new criticisms whispered (or trumpeted in Simmons case) against Kobe:

This Laker team was just the least flawed among a flawed group of contenders.

Kobe still has not learned to trust his teammates and make them better.

His relationship with Phil and his teammates is staged; they can’t stand him at heart.

His numbers look sparkling but he was inefficient and selfish; the real credit belongs with Ariza, Gasol, and others.

Even with this title, Kobe is not Jordan and is now worse than Lebron.

The goal of the Kobe hater is clear: undermine, undermine, undermine. Now, as a Laker blog we are duty bound to defend our shining knight. More significantly, we are a blog devoted to reason, evidence, and substantive discussion. We despise fluff and all of its corollaries. As this recent wave of Kobe attacks are based on shallow and/or false interpretations of the factual record (or no facts at all), they will be addressed in turn. Above all of that, I’m bored and enjoy arguing, so I will take on take on some of these Kobe criticisms.

Now, in full disclosure, I am an unabashed Kobe homer. But I am reasonable and mostly capable of objectivity. Above all, I support my conclusions with facts. I don’t interpret facial expressions, read minds, reconstruct conversations, or analyze hugs and handshakes. Such is irresponsible journalism, and, even though I am not a journalist, I find it somewhere between silly and offensive.

1. Kobe is Not Jordan

This is often used in support of the go to anti-Kobe argument: that he is not Jordan. How many times have we all heard this? “Yeah, well, he may have X, but Kobe’s still not Jordan no matter what he does.” The most relevant and simple response is, of course, who cares. We have nothing riding on Kobe being Jordan. We care about titles and glory for LA and we receive an abundant portion of both. Furthermore, as Dex noted so eloquently, why this fascination with ranking athletes? Given the wildly different context in which every superstar plays, we are fundamentally incapable of objectively comparing them. Wilt vs. Shaq? Stockton vs. Cousy? Bird v. Lebron? There’s no way to accurately make these comparisons. But even if we could, why do we need to? More Dex: we don’t sit around and rank Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Joyce. They are all transcendent geniuses and we simply appreciate that they mastered their craft and brighten our world in different, though always brilliant ways.

Nevertheless, as Kobe comparisons with Jordan will never go away, let’s ensure that they proceed on the facts, not some revisionist and agenda-driven notion of them.

This chart represents four sets of finals statistics from MJ and Kobe. Which set is the most impressive? It has to be Player D, right? Although he shot a somewhat lower percentage from the field than Player B, this is more than overcome by the higher free throw and 3 point %’s, along with significantly higher rebound and assist totals. Players A-C is Jordan during his last three finals runs (98, 97, and 96); Player D is Kobe in 2009.

Beyond showing that Kobe is indeed firmly in Jordan’s ballpark (at least “Phase II Jordan”), these statistics rebut a few attacks levied against Kobe recently. First, they show that Kobe is as willing of a passer, if not more so, than Jordan – and this is at the end of Jordan’s career, when he was supposedly the most team-oriented. Kobe has been accused of recklessly jacking up shots on a solo mission, with Jordan held up as the prototype. But Jordan shot as frequently as Kobe, even though his shooting percentage in two of the three finals is lower than Kobe’s. Jordan didn’t just pass to Paxson one day and ride off to a pass-happy, gunner-controlled sunset.

Did Kobe take some ill advised shots? Undoubtedly. But what does that prove? What superstar wing doesn’t? Besides Jordan, only two other players in nba history have averaged 30 points and 7 assists in the finals – Kobe and Jerry West. Kobe’s unselfish playmaking in the finals is nearly unparalleled. By way of comparison, Wade, who gets so much credit for his 2006 finals run, averaged 3.8 assists per game – half of Kobe’s total.

Second, Kobe was as efficient as Jordan during his last three title runs. Jordan’s free throw and 3 point percentages were lower every year. Much is made of Kobe’s struggles in games 3 and 4 of the finals, but Jordan was equally capable of having an off night. In the 98 finals Jordan shot over 50% once and put up shooting nights of 9-26, 14-33, 15-35, and 13-29. In the 97 finals, Chicago lost games 3 and 4 as Jordan shot 9-22 and 11-27. In 96 against Seattle, two of the final three games witnessed 6-19 and 5-19 performances. My point is that it is disingenuous to knock Kobe for having an off game now and then. Yes Kobe sometimes forces things when he doesn’t have it, but it is revisionist history to say that Jordan didn’t sometimes do the same. Much like Kobe’s Lakers, Jordan’s Bulls were complete teams that were fully capable of winning when he showed his mortal side. And, like Kobe, Jordan was capable of controlling a game even with a struggling jumper.

When evaluating and comparing efficiency, we also need to place these performances in their proper context. Kobe’s last two finals runs have been against the teams that finished first in defensive efficiency (Boston and Orlando). Is it fair to hold it against him that he shot a few percentage points lower than usual? Continuing the above comparison, Jordan’s 98 finals were against the league’s 16th ranked defense (Utah), and the 97 finals against the 9th ranked defense (Utah). If Kobe played against Milwaukee or Dallas in the finals (two middle of the road defensive teams), what would his numbers have looked like?

Now, my point is not that Kobe is as good as or better than Jordan. He has obviously not put together an equivalent body of work. And, it is fair to point out that Jordan was 32-34 during the three finals runs listed above (although with much less mileage than Kobe will have at a similar stage due to college and baseball). More importantly, Kobe has not approximated Jordan’s first three finals runs, which are simply off the charts. For example, 1993 against Phoenix: 41 points, 8.5 rebounds, 6.3 assists on 50.7% shooting. Although even these great early finals runs for Jordan need to be read in context. With respect to the Phoenix series, note that (1) Phoenix had the 9th ranked defense, and (2) the league shot almost 2% points higher in the early 90s compared with recent seasons. I keep harping on the former point because it is salient — in any year it is difficult to maintain peak efficiency against the very elite defenses. Consider that in those same 1993 playoffs Jordan faced the league’s #1 defense in the conference finals (New York) and had a nightmare series, averaging only 10 makes on 26 attempts, good for 40% shooting. In the first three games of this series, he shot 10-28, 12-32, and 3-18. In the final game he went 8-24. That represents 4 of the 6 games (although he did have a huge 54 point explosion in game 4, when the Bulls were down 2-1 and needed a win).

Still, Kobe’s not Jordan. His career resume and best playoff performances still fall short. We don’t ultimately care, but many of the arguments that attempt to discredit Kobe by pointing to Jordan simply get the facts wrong. I don’t want to hear that Kobe’s on a stubborn solo mission, won’t pass, and has too many mortal games — and have Jordan thrown in my face. Kobe just put up a finals that was on par with and probably eclipsed Jordan’s last three finals, and he did so against the league’s best defensive team.

And, in some respects, I’m glad Kobe’s not Jordan. I’m glad he doesn’t “command” a room the same way. Kobe’s devotion is basketball and basketball alone. (Can you imagine if Simmons told Bird he wasn’t as good as Magic because he couldn’t “command a room”? He’d be appropriately slapped in the mouth). Maybe Kobe will also avoid some of Jordan’s pitfalls along the way — diminishing comebacks, failed front office ventures (the irony is that Kobe got more out of Kwame than Jordan ever did). But that’s all besides the present point. By any measure Kobe just put up a grade A finals for the ages — even if it’s compared to the Basketball Prototype.

2. Kobe is Not Lebron

Now, this is also true: Kobe is not Lebron. But now I’m speaking metaphysically as opposed to comparatively. The common argument goes something like this. Lebron is better than Kobe because his stats are far superior; the only reason Lebron didn’t beat Orlando and Kobe did is because Lebron’s teammates forsook him.

The truth is that Lebron’s stats against Orlando (and during the regular season) are far superior to Kobe’s, but they don’t tell the whole story. Lebron and Kobe’s stats vs. Orlando:

What do we make of these numbers? Well, in terms of pure volume Lebron wins out. He also shot a significantly higher percentage from the field. But I want to extrapolate from the team offensive efficiency and three point shooting numbers. Both LA and Cleveland demolished Orlando’s league leading defense with 110 ratings, but LA did it as a team and Lebron did it alone. One way of viewing this is to praise Lebron over Kobe; the other is to recognize that Lebron was less capable of opening up the game for his teammates. I posit that Kobe’s refined offensive game actually is much more conducive to creating and enhancing teammate opportunities, even if Lebron is usually praised as the more willing passer.

Ric Bucher actually got me thinking about this in a Simmons podcast. He said that while Lebron put up sparkling numbers, he did so very inefficiently – but not in the sense that he shot a low %. Instead, Lebron’s lack of post game and three point shooting force him to dribble endlessly while searching for an opening to penetrate, eating away at the shot clock and leaving teammates standing stagnant. The result was often a powerful Lebron drive or free throws, but it came at a heavy cost for team play – the defense can largely play him one on one, play off him a few feet, and stay at home on his teammates. Orlando did this beautifully and Lebron fell for the trap, leading to his teammates really struggling to get easy opportunities from the field. It was Lebron or nothing every possession.

Compare this with Kobe’s game against Orlando. Kobe is the single best post up guard in the league – his strength, footwork, and moves render him deadly on the block. As a consequence, Orlando had to double team Kobe every time he got the ball down low. Furthermore, Kobe’s unlimited range force his man to stick with him out past the three point line, even on the weak side. Kobe can score from anywhere with very little effort, whether it’s in the post, outside the three point line, on a pick and roll, in the midrange, etc. He’s also a deadly free throw shooter so the defense has to play him honest. The result? Kobe is much more capable of efficiently breaking down a defense than Lebron. Why was Fisher wide open for the game-winning three in overtime of game 4? Because Orlando had to double Kobe in the post. Why did Trevor Ariza shoot dozens and dozens of threes with no one within 10 feet of him? Ditto. Why do Pau and Odom work such an effective high-low game after Kobe initiates the pick and roll? Because the defense knows Kobe can pull up quickly from anywhere. Why did Gasol see so much single coverage? On and on we could go.

This is how a team starting Smush Parker, Brian Cook, and Kwame Brown finished 8th in offensive efficiency in 2006. Think about that. So, while Kobe may not shoot the same percentage from the field as Lebron, his diverse, quick-hitting, polished offensive game makes him much more capable of breaking down the heart of a defense and opening up opportunities for others. All of those easy shots were there for Fisher, Ariza, Gasol, and Odom because of Kobe. And credit to them for rising up and making them.

I recognize that Lebron may have had a superior regular season than Kobe, but remember that one of them consistently cracked the elite teams and the other did not. In terms of driving a team to success, Kobe is still miles ahead of Lebron.


3. Kobe Remains a Poor Leader; He Does Not Make His Teammates Better and They Dislike Him

This is the final criticism I’ll address, and by far the most infuriating. There are variations on this theme, but the attacks usually boil down to Kobe being simply unlikable and/or selfish.

First, Kobe as likable. Really analyzing this requires the kind of facial expression and lip reading mastery that I don’t yet have a degree in (Simmons rejected my application). And, while I do believe that Kobe’s teammates like him, at least much more than they ever have before, that is ultimately besides the point to me.

Kobe is the leader of that team; the general. I honestly don’t care whether he has bubble baths with the guys after hours or not. I don’t care whether he makes them laugh or plays cards with them. I’m guessing that Lebron, and most nba alpha dogs, are much better at these things than Kobe. The question is whether the leader commands his teammates respect and brings out the best in them on the court. And it is simply dishonest to say that any other superstar in the league gets more out of his teammates than Kobe.

First, it is acknowledged by all, friend and foe, that Kobe had a transformative effect on the other Redeem Team members. He is unmatched as a worker, professional, and student of his craft, and this quickly rubbed off on Lebron, Wade, Howard, Melo, etc. They were all quick this year to point this fact out and credit Kobe for their career years. Everyone, even Simmons, recognizes this (although he did find some way to pervert Kobe’s Olympic experience into a “mistaken” and “foolish” sharing of trade secrets… blah blah barf. Simmons, here’s a column suggestion, how about comparing Paul Pierce’s splendid USA basketball experience in 2002 with Kobe’s?). The maturation of Lebron, Wade, Melo, Howard, Paul, Deron and co. seems to be initiating another golden era for the league (leaving behind the carter-iverson, spurs-pistons and other ice-age-ish periods). Shouldn’t Kobe get some credit for this?

If Kobe proved so powerful in transforming superstars on the Olympic Team, then why don’t we believe he has had a similar impact on his Laker teammates over time? If you look back at recent Laker teams and players, you’ll see that this has to be the case. The last few Laker teams are absolutely littered with mediocre players that achieved some measure of never to be reproduced success next to Kobe.

Kwame Brown. Smush Parker. Chucky Atkins. Brian Cook. Chris Mihm. Kareem Rush. Jumaine Jones.

Where are they now? Will we ever hear from them again? Do you realize that the 2006 Laker team won 45 games in the West with Smush Parker starting 82 games (3rd leading scorer), Kwame Brown 49, Brian Cook 46, Chris Mihm 56, and Devean George as the 6th man? Really ponder that. Will Smush Parker ever play again in the nba? Will Brian Cook ever play in the rotation again for a playoff team, much less start? Consider that Smush Parker has a 12.5 PER playing on the Lakers and a career 6.9 PER otherwise; for Brian Cook it is 14.6 with Kobe and 8.5 without. Doing this kind of PER comparison could be its own post.

Now think about Kobe’s teammates on these finals teams. Will Radmanovic ever start again for a finals team? Will we ever hear from Sasha or Walton again if they leave Kobe’s side – and both have been critical performers on finals teams? How many career three pointers did Trevor Ariza make before Kobe gave him his shooting program last summer? (Nine). Would Gasol ever have made an all nba team or been considered a top 10 overall player on Memphis? How much money has playing with Kobe earned Ariza, Sasha, Walton, Smush, Cook, Kwame, Turiaf, Fisher, etc., etc.

Some people in life are simply uncomfortable with mediocrity. They do not stand for it. Kobe is that teacher we all had in high school that was all business, made you do four hours of homework every night, show up every day, and pour everything you had into each assignment, paper, or test. You hated that teacher. You may have often complied out of fear, but by the end you learned a hell of a lot more than you ever had before and appreciated it. That’s Kobe Bryant. He may not be Mr. Kicks and Giggles, but you will absolutely work your tail off and play better than you ever have before under him. As Jerry West said recently, “Kobe approaches the game the right way. Not smiling around and glad-handing guys on the other team. I watch some of these guys laughing and joking before the game or on the bench. If it’s that damn funny … maybe that’s a sign of weakness.” And all of this is on top of how easy he makes the game for others on the court, which we’ve addressed.

Bill Simmons just wrote an article that alleged Kobe has not changed from last year. He even pointed to fancy numbers showing that Kobe’s playoff performance this year was similar to last year. He doesn’t realize that he’s proven my point. No, Kobe has not changed from last year. He’s the same dominant superstar that drove his team to blitz through the most brutal conference in decades. But his teammates have changed, and Kobe was the one that changed them. That is the story of these playoffs — the transformation of Gasol, Ariza, and Odom from timid softies to rise to the moment men. They now own Kobe’s work ethic and killer instinct. And they are doing things that no one thought they would ever do. Just like Lebron and Wade and Howard and Melo before them… The Lakers won 65 games; they did not lose three games in a row all year or two in a row during the playoffs. They were 4-1 in closeout games and simply crushed their opponents in each of the four wins. Why? Because the team possessed the spirit of Kobe.

4. Finally, a Word to Mr. Simmons

I like Bill Simmons. I am genuinely excited when he writes a new column on the nba. I will buy his new book the first day it comes out and probably enjoy it. But sometimes you need to call a spade a spade. Bill’s had a rough playoff run. He’s said things like:

• “I have been saying that for 2 months now. What we’re watching this spring is basically the 2006 Lakers, only with Gasol replacing Chris Mihm, Kobe being 15% worse, Bynum being 20% better and Ariza being a slight improvement over Ariza. It’s a limited team that lacks toughness and can be beaten.”

• “The ’09 Cavs are the ’91 Bulls reincarnated… everyone keeps underestimating them and nobody realizes that they are about the blow thru these last 2 rounds.”

• “The Magic just needed 7 games to beat a Celtics team that had 2 scorers with dead legs, Scalabrine/Marbury/House as their bench and actually ran a game-ending play for Glen Davis. Don’t start thinking Orlando is good please.”

• “Dwight Howard couldn’t score 40 points in a game if he was going against Yi Jianlian’s chair.”

These ironclad, can’t be otherwise predictions have proven not just wrong, but embarrassingly wrong. That would be okay given that he’s just a fan like the rest of us – we all are wrong and most of us didn’t see Orlando coming. But he has the hubris to persevere in omniscience. Whenever Simmons is wrong, he always follows the same pattern: (1) blame the failed team’s coach, and (2) use hindsight to tell us what the losing team should have done to win. Just admit you blew it, Bill. Admit that you misread Cleveland, Orlando, and LA. Admit that instead of blaming Cleveland’s loss on bad coaching and the failure of Cleveland’s role players you should have considered these facts before making your predictions – that Brown’s offensive lack of creativity and the playoff inexperience of Cleveland’s role players might be a problem after all. Monday morning quarterbacking doesn’t become front page espn writers.

While we know you have to undermine LA’s title as a Boston fan, do you really want to start comparing how our team was built with Boston’s current roster? Do you really want to talk about non-repeatable good fortune? Do you want me to list your quotes damning Doc and Ainge for openly tanking in 2007? Do you really believe that LA’s roster is some cosmic accident wholly unlike every other title team in history? Because if you do, I have some Paul Pierce 2002 FIBA World Championship cards I need to sell.

And, while you were quick to point out that LA didn’t have to play Boston in this years finals (which is assuming a lot), you failed to note that Boston was lucky not face Ariza or the one-legged Bynum. Do you have any idea how painful it was to watch Radmanovic guard Pierce as opposed to Ariza? I would gladly replay the 2008 and 2009 finals, both against Boston, with LA’s current team. Would you?

But, beyond that, Simmons most recent attack on Kobe is agenda-driven nonsense. We get it, Bill. We know you hate Kobe. We know you hate that he now has more titles than Bird. We know it eats away at you that the Celtics are probably a one and done band of mercenaries while the Lakers are built for the long haul. We know that the Lakers have won 9 titles and been to 15 finals in your lifetime compared to 4 and 6 for the Celtics. We know those 60s Celtic rings came in a different NBA — pre-expansion, salary cap, globalization, etc. We know that, as a Celtics fan, you have sworn a blood oath to discredit and undermine LA and Kobe at all costs – even if it infects the tone and quality of your writing. But, please, give us Laker fans the courtesy of relying on actual facts and evidence to support your arguments. Don’t rewatch the finals celebration a dozen times searching for one missed high five or false smile. Don’t read Phil’s mind. Use your army of researchers to give us something meaningful to actually chew on and think about. Because what I see when I study Kobe is the game’s preeminent player, leader, teammate, and winner.

–Reed

Tale of the Tape

Reed —  June 2, 2009

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics” – Twain

As we have four days to ponder, evaluate, fret, puff, antagonize, argue, morally lecture – and generally do the types of things fans do when they’ve been walking an emotional tightrope for six months and the end goal is within sight – let’s take the time to analyze the tale of the tape.

1. Big Picture Season Stats

Record: LA (65-17); Orlando (59-23)
Point differential: LA (+7.7); Orlando (+6.7)
Home/Road: LA (36/29 wins); Orlando (32/27 wins)

Offensive efficiency: LA (109.8 – third); Orlando (107.2 – eighth)
Defensive efficiency: LA (101.9 – fifth); Orlando (98.9 – first)

Pace: LA (96.9); Orlando (94.6)
Rebound rate: LA (51.5 – fifth); Orlando (50.7 – ninth)

I don’t think there’s much to take away from these big picture numbers. Based on past years, both teams have legitimate title level credentials. Orlando won more games and has a similar point differential to LA’s 2008 team. Both teams are strong on the road. There isn’t a significant difference in pace to suggest one style would help/hurt either team. The big difference is that Orlando is the elite defensive team in the league and we are an elite offensive team. Sound familiar? Hopefully we see a different conclusion this time around.

2. Nitty Gritty Season Stats

Points from 3s: LA (20.0, 36.1% – 17th); Orlando (29.9, 38.1% – 2nd)
Points from 3s given up: LA (21.4, 34.5% – 24th); Orlando (16.2, 34.2% – 2nd)

Interior points: LA (37.8 – 5th); Orlando (31.7 – 21st)
Interior points given up: LA (35.4 – 23rd); Orlando (28.8 – 2nd)

“Clutch” player (production per 48 in last 5 minutes of a close game):
• LA: Kobe (56.7 points, 8.5 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 45.7% fg, 40% 3s, 92% ft)
• Orlando: Lewis (28.0, 7.0, 2.7, 51.1, 43.5, 84.0); Turkoglu (26.6, 9.3, 3.6, 35.7, 20.0, 88.0)

Bench (production per game):
• LA (29.5 points, 14.1 rebounds, 7.7 assists, +449 on the year)
• Orlando (23.3 points, 12.0 rebounds, 4.5 assists, +199)

PER differential ranks by position:
• LA: PG (26th, -3.2), SG (2nd, +9.6), SF (12th, +0.9), PF (10th, +1.3), C (2nd, +6.6)
• Orlando: PG (7th, +2.5), SG (26th, -3.7), SF (11th, +1.6), PF (7th, +2.7), C (1st, +8.9)

Notes:

• Orlando’s use of the three as a weapon cannot be overstated. They not only use it offensively, but they defend it as well as anyone, ending the season second in both points scored and allowed from behind the arc. They force teams to shoot poorly from three, but also force them to shoot infrequently (which is as important). This results in a monstrous 13.7 point per game advantage from deep for Orlando. In possessions where Orlando attempts a three, their offensive rating is 114.5 (which would lead the league); in possessions where they attempt a two point field goal, their offensive rating is 98.8 (which would be last in the league).
• Orlando also does not give up points in the paint, finishing 2nd in interior points allowed. That means that they understand fundamental defensive principles – make teams shoot long 2s and limit threes and points in the paint. As a consequence, they give up the fourth most points in the league on two point jump shots, but that’s obviously a category you want to lead the league in (LA is actually third in the league in two point jump shooting percentage, so perhaps they are positioned well to counter Orlando’s defense). Think Boston all over again, but maybe better.
• On offense, Orlando applies the reverse of their defensive philosophy – its either a three or points in the paint every time. They finished last in the league in points from perimeter two’s. This is a well designed and coached team. No fool’s gold here.
• The PER differential stats tell us that these teams feature the two best center rotations (Howard/Gortat and Pau/Bynum), but that LA enjoys a massive advantage at SG. We’ll see if Pietrus can mitigate that to some degree. Orlando has a big edge at PG. While their stats may be inflated by Nelson’s early season performance, ours may not fully reflect how badly Fisher has slipped.
• LA has a huge advantage with Kobe at the end of games compared to Lewis and Turkoglu. Call me master of the obvious. That said, Lewis proved repeatedly through the playoffs that he has ice in his veins.

3. Playoff Stats

Laker individual playoff stats:
• Kobe is making a living at the line, averaging 8.5 attempts and making almost 90%. Everybody else is really struggling from the line.
• Gasol: 18.2 points, 11.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 2.0 blocks, 57% shooting. Solid. But he needs to step up his game against Howard (21.7 points, 15.4 rebounds, and 62% shooting).
• Ariza is shooting 50% from three; Odom 52%; Brown 48%; Fisher 23%. None of those look right.

Orlando individual playoff stats:
• 5 players make 1.3 or more threes per game; all shoot over 35%.
• Turkoglu is the engine of their offense, but he’s only shooting 41% and commits 2.7 TO’s per game.
• As expected, it’s Howard or nothing on the boards. He’s averaging an insane 15.4 and the next closest (Lewis) averages 6.1.

Lakers in wins:
• Kobe: 30.8 points, 50.8 FG%, 20.8 FGA, 3.9 3FGA, 8.9 FTA
• Rebounds: +1.6
• Gasol: 17.6 points, 11.3 FGA
• Ariza + Odom: 26.0 points
• FTA: 30

Lakers in losses:
• Kobe: 27.2 points, 39.3 FG%, 24.2 FGA, 5.7 3FGA, 7.7 FTA
• Rebounds: -1.0
• Gasol: 19.3 points, 13.3 FGA
• Ariza+Odom: 18.2 points
• FTA: 25.5 points

Orlando in wins:
• 3s made/attempted: 9.4/24.0 (39.2%)
• Rebounds: +1.4
• Howard: 22.0 points and 16.0 rebounds
• Alston+Pietrus: 26.0 points

Orlando in losses:
• 3s made/attempted: 7.1/22.3 (32.1%)
• Rebounds: -3.1
• Howard: 21.1 points and 14.4 rebounds
• Alston+Pietrus: 18.5 points

Home/Road splits:
• LA: 106/99 points, 43.2/41.5 rebounds, 22.6/17.3 assists, 48.6/44.4 FG%
• Orlando: 99.7/97.4 points, 40.6/36.5 rebounds, 16.8/21.0 assists, 45.3/47.7 FG%

Notes:

• While we often (and rightly) maintain that a principal key to victory is getting Gasol the ball, the story is more complicated than that. He scores and shoots more often in losses than victories. Instead, if we are looking for simple trends, then three big things stand out in Laker wins vs. losses: (1) Kobe plays and shoots much better when they win; he also shoots less frequently; an efficient Kobe means victory; (2) Odom and Ariza are our wild cards; when they are firing on offense we have too much talent; and (3) we get 5.3 more assists when we win. All three things are related, obviously.
• The following things happen when Orlando wins: (1) they rebound; (2) they shoot and make more 3s; and (3) Alston and Pietrus play well. Howard’s production stays roughly the same either way.
• LA plays much, much better at home than the road, as the numbers show a wild swing in points, shooting, rebounds, and assists. We’ve seen this all spring. Orlando is much more steady, actually shooting and passing better on the road. This makes winning the first two all the more critical for LA.

4. Playoff Lineup Stats

Lakers:
+/-: Odom (+15.8), Kobe (+13.2), Pau (+5.6), Brown (+3.0), Walton (+2.6), Farmar (+2.5), Fisher (-5.1), Ariza (-5.3), Bynum (-6.1), Sasha (-7.6)
Best 5 man lineups: (1) Farmar, Kobe, Ariza, Odom, Gasol (+28 per 48); (2) Brown, Kobe, Walton, Odom, Gasol (+26); (3) Brown, Sasha, Kobe, Odom, Gasol (+22)
Worst 5 man: (1) Fisher, Kobe, Ariza, Pau, Bynum (-12); (2, 3) Farmar, Sasha, Walton, Odom, Pau/Bynum (both +1)

Orlando:
+/-: Lewis (+10.4), Gortat (+7.7), Pietrus (+2.2), Alston (+1.4), Turkoglu (-.1), Lee (-1.2), Johnson (-2.7), Howard (-8.3)
Best 5 man: (1) Alston, Lee, Pietrus, Lewis, Howard (+33); (2) Johnson, Pietrus, Turkoglu, Lewis, Gortat (+32), (3) Alston, Pietrus, Turkoglu, Lewis, Howard (+16)
Worst 5 man: (1) Johnson, Pietrus, Turkoglu, Lewis, Howard (-11); (2) Alston, Lee, Turkoglu, Lewis, Howard (-7); (3) Johnson, Lee, Pieturs, Lewis, Howard (+6)

Notes:

• Both teams start with one of their worst lineups; LA’s starting 5 is their single worst and Orlando’s is their 2nd worst. This encourages blogging fans to think they could run the rotations better…
• Fisher is a huge weak link; playing either Farmar or Brown makes LA much more productive (but it doesn’t seem to matter which one).
• Walton is sneaky good; Odom deserves the minutes over Bynum, both in terms of +/- and 5 man lineups.
• Puzzling numbers for Gortat, Howard, and Ariza. Not sure what to make of it, other than the inherent limitations of stats.

Final Thoughts:

These are two very evenly matched teams. Based on what we see in the stats, I think LA’s keys to the series are:

1. Chase Orlando off the three point line. Again, master of the obvious. I think everything they do offensively, including Howard to a large degree, operates to set up the 3. See if Howard and their drives can beat you before you overhelp off the shooters. This is counterintuitive, but they are a strange brew.
2. Ariza and Odom vs. Alston and Pietrus. The production of each pair is strongly tied to each team’s success. This is probably because you know what you will get from the principals on each team, and these are the role players capable of making more than modest contributions.
3. Rebounding. Orlando rebounds much more poorly when they lose than when they win; we rebound a little better when we win; on net, this points to controlling the boards as a key factor.
4. Kobe. If we get four more Teen Wolf Kobe games, we cannot be beat, notwithstanding what Orlando does (and that does not mean chucking Kobe, it means unrivaled master of his craft Kobe — see Denver games 5 and 6). Gasol is what he is – efficient, but he his production falls within a fairly narrow range. When Kobe shoots well from the perimeter, takes the ball to the basket, and gets to the line, he simply breaks down a defense and opens up opportunities for everyone. Thus, the better he plays, the more his teammates produce, and vice versa. We often overlook him because he’s always great, but there are degrees of greatness and we need Game 6 against Denver Kobe, and not 2008 Boston Kobe.

Prediction: LA in 7, but either team could win in 6 or 7. Orlando is better than Denver and LA could have easily been down 3-1 to them at one point. Ultimately, I see Kobe having four more “I refuse to lose” games in him, and he and Pau will get enough periodic help from Odom, Ariza, and others to secure victory. Pau plays Howard to a near draw, Ariza is the unsung hero, and LA wins a close, hard-fought, but not panic-less series.

–Reed

Records: Lakers 63-17 (1st in West); Grizzlies 23-56 (12th in West)
Offensive Efficiency: Lakers 112.8 (3rd); Grizzlies 103.6 (28th)
Defensive Efficiency: Lakers 104.9 (6th); Grizzlies 109.6 (21st)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Fisher, Kobe, Ariza, Gasol, Bynum; Grizzlies: Conley, Mayo, Gay, Arthur, Gasol.

Thoughts on the Portland Loss:

This loss hurts on a few fronts. First, is the obvious implications regarding home court versus Cleveland. We are now two games behind Cleveland in the loss column and I don’t see them losing two of their remaining three games, especially with only of them away from home (vs. Boston, at Indy, vs. Philly). I was probably one of the strongest advocates of going for home court till the end, believing strongly that we will probably play Cleveland in the finals and that home court could be determinative given how close the teams are in talent. This has been debated to death on the boards, so I don’t want to belabor the point. I’ll just say that my gut feeling is that when teams are fairly equally yoked it is very rare that one team wins in 5 and thus having the final two games at home under the 2-3-2 format is a monstrous advantage. In support of that point, note that since the 2-3-2 format was instituted in 1985, the road team has only closed out on the home team’s floor in a game 6 or 7 three times. In other words, if the home team can get through games 3-5 away to return home, they almost always prevail. If we play Cleveland, I just don’t see us closing them out in 5 games, and that makes life pretty difficult. But, that’s putting the cart well before the horse.

The second ramification of the loss is psychological. I wrote on this after the Boston and Cleveland games in February, but I believe that psychological edges matter in basketball. The most talented team does not always win. Sometimes it is the team that believes in itself – or that least doubts itself. Remember back to the old Lakers-Kings series, when Sacramento had the home court and seemingly more talented teams. On paper, they should have broken through at least once. But they never believed they could and thus Peja and Christie and Webber kept missing the key shots and free throws while Kobe and Horry and Fox and Fisher kept making theirs. Talent gave way to psychology. The same thing happened in game 6 of the finals last year (not that Boston wasn’t the better team, but they weren’t 30 points better – they were just 30 points more confident). I’m not saying that this will happen with Portland and us, or that Portland necessarily has the mental edge, but I do think they’ve implanted a seed of doubt and that concerns me.

Darius also raised a good point about why Portland matches up with us so well on paper:

In the past Portland is a team that we’ve discussed as being built in the Spurs model (I even remember a discussion I had with Kurt and on the boards stating as much), but I actually think they’re built more in our mold and it’s the reason that they match up with us so well. I mean, Kobe/Roy, Blake/Fisher, Outlaw-Batum/Ariza, Aldridge/Gasol, Oden/Drew, Fernandez/Sasha, Bayless/Farmar … all of these guys play almost the exact role for their respective team and are also similar players. The only guys that stand out as not having a direct counterpart (who actually play meaninful minutes) are Walton/LO on our side (and Joel on their side), but those guys are actually unique players across the entire league. LO being an all court PF doing tons of guard things and Luke being a pass first, post up SF who has a tremendous feel for offensive basketball through an understanding of angles and how to play around the basket with and with out the ball (and Joel really is an Oden clone but with a lower offensive ceiling). Anyways, just an observation.

The thing that most concerned me from the game itself is our crunch time over-reliance on Kobe at the expense of the set offense. We had our most success in the second quarter when we pounded the ball inside, took advantage of Gasol, Drew, and Odom’s power-skill advantage, and ran the set offense through them. I understand that Kobe is our closer and has earned the right to take the game into his hands, but why abandon going inside and running the triangle with 5-6 minutes left in the game rather than just for the last few possessions. When you run the Kobe-Gasol high pick and roll for that long you let the opponent know what’s coming and make it easier for them to take your best options away. Too often the result is a contested long Kobe jumper against long, agile defenders (Batum, Outlaw, Roy). Why not keep running things through Gasol until nearer the end – who is so efficient and such a good decision maker? You could make a strong argument that Gasol has replaced Kobe as the better focal point of the offense. Why not feed Kobe the ball within the flow of the offense, when he can get it lower on the block or in a better position to attack and set up others? We saw too many “hero” shots from Kobe down the stretch. We all know he can make those, but given our weapons he doesn’t have to anymore. It’s tough to overcome a 9-24 performance on the road.

Bynum:

I’m very encouraged by Drew’s play. He played 31 minutes in a road back to back and seemed pretty locked in throughout. He lost his legs at the end and was perhaps a bit prone to chucking (especially from the high post early in the clock), but he was also very aggressive, didn’t shy away from contact, and clearly gave Portland problems in the first half. I can envision him being dominant in 3-4 weeks, and that surprises me. If so, we will be in business for the crucial playoff series.

Memphis:

First, I want to review the Gasol trade with the benefit of a little hindsight. Memphis got absolutely blasted at the time. I’m sure many still believe that’s right, but I think the trade is much more of a win-win than Memphis gets credit for. The Grizzlies accomplished several things in trading Pau: (1) long term financial relief – they cut Gasol’s $60M remaining contract and have the league’s lowest payroll this year (a must given their revenue issues); (2) cap flexibility – they’ll be over $20 million under the cap this summer (whether they spend it is another story); (3) lose games to get a better draft pick – if they kept Pau they would have won several more games and not been in a position to draft Mayo, their #1 building block; and (4) acquire young, cheap talent and draft picks – they landed a center of the future in Marc Gasol, Darrel Arthur (with the Lakers pick), and have one more pick to come (Crittenton didn’t work out). Many say that Chicago was offering more with some kind of Nocioni + Gordon/Hinrich package, and maybe that’s true (I question whether Reinsdorf was truly willing to pony up and take on the long term salary), but would Memphis really be in a better position locked into those longer contracts and no man’s land status (too good to rebuild and too bad to contend)? I say, give me Marc Gasol, a few draft picks, the shot at Mayo, and all the cap flexibility.

The key to it all was the inclusion of Marc, who really has developed into an extremely productive NBA rookie. He’s still only 24 and is averaging 11.8 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks on 53/72% in 31 minutes a game. He’s gotten better as the year progresses, upping his stats to 14.4 and 7.5 on 56% shooting in 15 March games. He’s 6th among rookies in PER at 16.67 (and one of those above him, Speights, doesn’t get enough playing time to really be valued more). When I see Gasol play, you see so many of his brother’s strengths, even if he lacks the same absurd length and agility – quiet efficiency, solid screens, great hands and passes, soft touch, unselfish almost to a fault, etc. He’s not going to be a superstar, but you can win a title with someone like that as your starting center.

The Grizzlies are playing much better of late than their season long record reveals. They have won 6 of their last 9, with two of the losses by three points to elite teams (Portland and Orlando). They are not a team to be taken lightly. During this stretch, all of the Grizzlies young building blocks have finally lived up to their considerable potential. Over the last 10 games, Gay is averaging 19.7 points on 50% shooting (48 from three); Mayo is averaging 18 and 4.9 assists on 46% shooting (90% from FT); Conley is averaging 16.4, 4.1 rebounds and 5.4 assists on 50% shooting (53 from three); and Gasol has continued his steady, efficient play. While Oklahoma City has gotten all of the futures buzz, you get the sense that Memphis is also on the verge of breaking through. If the lottery envelopes bounce right, the young nucleus continues to develop, and their owner allows them to use some of that cap space (especially with so few buyers out there), then they could put together a really nice, young, balanced team. Put in Blake Griffin at PF…

Despite their recent strong play, I think they are probably too small on the front line and too undisciplined defensively to beat us if we pound it inside and run the offensive smoothly. Look for Bynum to break out as Memphis doesn’t have anyone to match his size inside.

–Reed

We’ve spent a lot of time today talking about psychology, the Celtics, confidence, etc. Before that mood passes, here is a second round of scattered thoughts on point. Warning: there might be nothing less worth reading than someone playing pop psychologist in the world of sports.

At the end of the Christmas Lakers-Celtics game, a close friend called and, after appropriate gushing, prophesied an extended rough patch for the Celtics. I rejected the notion out of hand – they had just won 19 games in a row, were the reigning champions, had handily defeated LA in the finals the year before – what was one regular season loss to them? Nevertheless, my visionary friend firmly pressed on: “you don’t understand the psychological impact of that loss and the mental fragility of Boston.” The Celtics lost six of their next eight games, most totally unexplainable: a self destructing Golden State, Portland with no Roy, New York, Charlotte, at home to an injured Houston, and a total thumping from the Cavs. Prophecy fulfilled. This made me think more about the hand of psychology in sports.

Every team has a unique identity, earned through months and years of successes and failures; victories and losses; scandals and fights; heroism and selflessness. This identity reflects the team’s psychology more than its physical characteristics. A team is “soft” or “steely” or “united” or “disinterested,” but they are always something.

The current Celtics team has perhaps the most identifiable identity in recent memory. The typical watch word is “intensity,” but I believe this confuses an effect with its cause. Yes, the Celtics are perhaps the most intense team in recent memory, but this trait springs from a more fundamental characteristic – one that I think captures their psychological identity: insecurity. Now, at first blush that sounds like a petty jab, but when properly understood I think it also serves to compliment our rival. Insecurity, like most primal traits, manifests itself in several ways. On the positive end, it fuels hunger, intensity, work ethic, common purpose, a chip on the shoulder – all to prove naysayers wrong. On the flip side, it fuels self doubt, wild swings in confidence, and a constant need to show others up. Boston is all of these things. They pile on the trash talk; they are hungry, devoted, on a mission; they are white hot with confidence one minute, and full of strange doubt the next; they run off huge win streaks, but then are capable of immediately falling apart; they are, in a word, the team embodiment of insecurity.

For such a successful team, whence this strange insecurity? I believe it springs from the players’ and team’s roots with failure. First Garnett, the spiritual leader of the team and the prototype for insecure athletes. From off the court beginnings to his decade of failed championship questing in Minnesota, KG lived in the shadow of failure for a long time – always labeled as that star who couldn’t get out of the first round, and always afraid of the big shot. We all know people like him – the alpha male who has to be in charge, picks on the little guy, works like a demon, seems haunted by lingering self doubt, and is wildly successful.

For much of the rest of the team, I think the 2007 season sets the stage – the year before the championship. This was probably rock bottom for the Celtics as a franchise. After years of struggling to get over the hump in the east and going through various phases of rebuilding, the team saw salvation in Oden and Durant and (like a few others) shamefully tanked. We all remember the infamous Ryan Gomes quote after being withheld from key parts of a close game:

“I probably (would have played), but since we were in the hunt for a high draft pick, of course things are different,” Gomes said. “I understand that. Hopefully things get better. Now that we clinched at least having the second-most balls in the lottery, the last three games we’ll see what happens. We’ll see if we can go out and finish some games.”

Or this article, titled “Tankology,” from Boston.com, where the author breaks down the evidence, including the team’s shutting down “injured” stars, playing odd lineup combinations during critical parts of games, limiting the best players minutes, etc. The author concludes:

Look, I don’t think the players were trying to lose any of these games intentionally. I do, however, think they weren’t properly motivated to give their best efforts as a team. I also think that Doc intentionally did not make his best effort coaching the team in late, close situations, under the guise of “I wanted to see what the guys would do” or “I thought we had a favorable matchup and didn’t want a timeout to ruin it” even though he had to know the players on the floor would not pull off what he supposedly wanted to see them do.”

At the same time, Jeff at Celtics blog was unleashing a steady stream of tongue in cheek articles monitoring the dive in the standings: “Tanks for the Memories,” “Tank Job Complete,” and “Welcome to Tank Week.” Jeff sums up his feelings when commenting on another’s tanking analysis: “the general feeling that he had (and that I share) is that it is great that we got the 2nd worst record, but we can’t help but feel a little icky about how it all happened.” Simmons chimed in with “From Celtic Pride to Celtic Shame,” and pushed for retooling the lottery system to punish would be tankers.

Several key members of the current Celtics were born on that team: Rondo, Perkins, Powe, Tony Allen. Their first taste of the league was on a team that seemed to break the one cardinal rule in sports: no matter what else you do, when on the court you play to win. They lost 18 games in a row, mostly because they were bad, but also because Doc and Ainge wanted Durant and Oden at any cost. They were the laughing stock of the league and Exhibit A for what was wrong with the league’s draft system. Deep insecurity was born.

When the lottery came and Boston’s plan failed (karma?), all seemed lost for a while. Pierce wanted out unless something dramatic happened. Ainge made a move for Garnett, but he initially refused to join the struggling franchise. He relented only when Allen was added and Kobe made it clear he wanted out of LA. With Garnett and Allen in the fold, a few critical veterans came for cheap (Posey, Allen, Brown, Cassell), filling out the holes.

This is when and how the current Celtics team was born – on the heels of embarrassment and failure. The players and team were full of hunger and intensity, but also faced lingering self doubt. Rondo and Perkins and Powe were easy converts to Garnett’s mantra of work and intensity, but they also shared his ghosts, even if they stemmed from different roots. We see both sides of that insecurity now, with the team exhibiting unparalleled work ethic, intensity, and confidence, but also strange periods of implosion. The bullyish side of the coin leads even rookie point guards like DJ Augustin (who should keep their mouths shut) to say things like: “(The Celtics) come in and intimidate you and try to punk you. But if you don’t back down from them, they kind of fold.” As Wojnarowski noted in his column last month, the Celtics’ antics have stirred up an unusual amount of disrespect from the rest of the league.

Now, let’s tie this back to the Lakers. What is the psychological identity of this Laker team? Does it have one?

This team is clearly distinguishable from the Shaq-Kobe-Phil teams. Those teams, despite the presence of all sacrificing role players like Fish, Fox, and Horry, seemed to carry the primal trait of self love. Shaq and Kobe both wanted to win, but they wanted to win in a way such that they could be The Man. They juggled an intense desire for team success with grand personal ambitions – mvp awards, legacies, media favor, etc. On the positive side, this resulted in steely self confidence down the stretch of key games (that rubbed off on others) and unthinkable on court accomplishments. On the negative side, it resulted in constant bickering, public posturing, division, and ultimately a team blown up well before its time. This is not who the Lakers are now.

Are we, perhaps, more like the Spurs psychologically? Driven by Duncan and Pop, those teams have always been characterized fundamentally by calmness and humility – which translates to being steady, united, moderate, unflappable, and enduring; but also creates complacency (remember that they always start slow and are counted out, only to pull it together at the end). There are some similarities, but the Lakers are still very different.

The truth is I don’t know if this Laker team has found its identity yet. Two things give me hope that the identity is grounded on something that is positive and will endure. First, in contrast with the Celtics, this team was not thrown together patchwork on the heels of disaster. By and large, Mitch added one piece at a time through the draft and modest trades. Gasol is the exception, but for the most part the team has grown step by step together. The core and system have been in place for years. Second, Kobe, Fisher, and Jackson present a united front of leadership and they emanate focus, professionalism, and intense competitiveness. But there’s also a casualness to the team that doesn’t fit with that – Odom, Radmanovic, Walton, Bynum. While Kobe has a killer instinct, I don’t know if the team does. While Fisher is a relentless competitor, the team as a whole isn’t all the way there.

Surely, they are developing, and in the right direction, but until we/they figure out who they are deep down, I sense we’ll always be left a bit unsure of what to expect on any given night. With the Shaq-Kobe teams, we were often frustrated by the drama, but knew that come playoff time the competitiveness and confidence would carry through. I think wins like we saw last night, or on Christmas, or against Cleveland reveal that this team is slowly adopting Kobe and Fisher’s character and developing a mental edge that harmonizes with its physical talents. This will result in an identity based on simple confidence. To me, this development is the last step before we overcome all. When Pau, Drew, Odom, Farmar, Ariza, etc. believe in themselves and their ability to win like Kobe and Fish do then we’ll see the titles roll in.

After last night, I believe we are well on our way.

–Reed

(PS, make sure to read Dex’s brilliant comment).