Archives For

Know Your Enemy: The Phoenix Suns

Reed —  October 7, 2008

This is the latest in a series here at FB&G that will run through the start of the season, focusing on some of the top teams in the West and maybe a couple from the East. Today we talk about recent rivals — the Suns. — Reed

Last Season Record: 55-27 (sixth seed, but had the fourth-best record, just two games back of the Lakers)
Last Playoffs: Lost to the Spurs in the first round in five games
Offensive Rating: 109.5
Defensive Rating: 104.4

The Suns.

No team currently evokes more spontaneous hatred, spite, fear, annoyance, and general negative emotion from me than the Suns. I’m not exactly sure why. The Spurs are the natural rival, or “enemy,” right now – the team we have regularly competed with for titles, dominance, and team of the decade honors. They are the team we don’t want to play in the playoffs. They have the only other player (Duncan) or coach that are relevant competitors with our superstar and coach for places in history. The Celtics are the recent finals opponent and only true epic rival. The Suns, on the other hand, will probably just pass as a cute little blip on the radar. A fun new style, an exciting point guard, but no real substance or accomplishments. Yet, they are the only team I watch with real anti-emotion.

This strange circumstance probably relates back to the crushing defeat in 2006. It was then, after several dark years post-Shaq, that I first allowed myself to hope again, only to have it cruelly snatched away by an opponent that openly despised all things LA (as revealed in Seven Seconds or Less). Immediately after the epic come behind victory in game 4 of that series – the “double Nash turnover, jumpball, Kobe buzzer-beater” victory – my twin basketball obsessive (“Brig”), a lifelong Phoenix native, Suns fan, and friend of Suns management, sent me the following email, summing up the general demeanor of every true Suns fan I have ever met:

An absurd farce of a game. I’m not an NBA fan anymore, it’s like watching professional wrestling – the whole damn thing is rigged. Good luck cheering on your team full of criminals, drug addicts and CBA throw-aways. I hate everything now, the Suns (who have played like garbage, we shouldn’t have even been in the situation for the refs to steal the game from us, since you knew they were going to try if it were close; Marion in particular is a complete waste), the Lakers (who are pure evil, Phil Jackson is in fact Beelzebub, and I refuse to watch any more games, because I can’t stand the camera shots of phony celebrities and every other stupid, plastic, useless Lakers fan), and all things relating unto these two teams and the sport that they play. I renounce the Suns, basketball, and all organized athletics. May Kobe Bryant die of some painful disease and rot in hell.

This captures the Suns fan. Frustrated, desperate, scorned by destiny, tragically scarred, and, mostly, intensely anti-Laker and LA. As a Cubs fan, I can understand the mentality, for nothing has worked out for this team. The Barkley era came and went with no rings, as it happened to coincide with the Jordan era. Then a brilliant team emerges that caught the league by storm with its new style of unselfishness and offensive fireworks, but destiny seemed to firmly snatch away every chance in their window: the Joe Johnson injury in the 2005 playoffs, the missed Amare season in 2006 (when they would have been the heavy favorites with him), the Horry hip check/Amare suspension in 2007, and then the ill-fated Shaq-Marion trade last season, followed by the death matchup with San Antonio. Top to bottom, they were probably the most talented team over the last four years, and yet they could never make the finals. Now, with the rise of LA, Utah, New Orleans, and Houston, their window has probably closed. Again. This delights me.

Now, putting biases aside, let’s look at the state and future of this worthy rival.

2008-09 Outlook

This is the last stand for the Suns as we know them. Nash is 35, Shaq and Hill 36, with no significant young talent ready to take their places. This is a classic “glass half full, glass half” empty team. One person might see extraordinary talent and experience. Another might see over the hill stars and chemistry issues.

First, the glass as half full. A fan could look at the roster and see one of the few teams with two legitimate mvp candidates (Nash and Amare), a dynamic point guard-power forward combination, a veteran all time great and matchup nightmare in the middle (Shaq), steady role playing veterans on the wings (Bell, Hill), a top 6th man candidate (Barbosa), and a few talented and versatile bench players (Diaw, Barnes, Lopez). On paper, that’s a balanced, talented, powerful team.

With the arrival of Shaq, the team’s focus seemed to shift from Nash to Amare, as Shaq’s presence freed Amare from his failed role as defensive and rebounding anchor and allowed him to focus on what he does better than anyone – score efficiently. Amare has become hands down the preeminent scoring big man in the game. After the all-star break he averaged 28.5 points on 59% shooting, 83% free throws (and 10.2 attempts a game). On the season he led the league with an incredible 65.6% true shooting percentage (reflecting field goal and free throw combined efficiency), and was third in PER (behind Lebron and Paul). He finished second in both offensive and total win shares (behind Paul in both). He developed a deadly 20 foot jump shot, finishing 12th in the league in 2pt jump shot % (ahead of Kobe and any Laker), was third in the league in inside fg%, was second in total dunks, and first in “and ones.” He is, simply, the most efficient and productive scorer in the game. And, with the arrival of Shaq to anchor the middle, he is no longer the massive defensive and rebounding liability he was as a center. In their prime, Duncan and Garnett were better players than Amare was last year, but the league hasn’t seen this offensively dominant of a power forward since the young Karl Malone. And, at 25, he’s only going to get better.

Shaq’s arrival didn’t help everyone, however, as Steve Nash’s production noticeably dipped with the arrival of the diesel. The presence of Shaq caused Nash to slip in every statistical category, including a sharp decline in assists from 11.7 per game to 9.9. The reason for this appeared to be that Shaq’s constant presence on the low block hurt the Suns offensive spacing, as the middle wasn’t clear for penetration and cutters. The running game also obviously slowed down, as the team transitioned to a more traditional half court offense centered around their two big men. So, instead of having Nash feeding shooters and cutters, we saw more of Amare isolating on the high post, or Shaq hitting shooters from the low block. A great question entering this year is what type of style Porter will endorse – can he find a way to harmonize Nash’s freelancing and fastbreaking abilities with Shaq’s plodding, power game?

Shaq himself actually played very well after the trade, averaging 13 points, 10.6 rebounds, and 61% shooting in 28 minutes a game. He also instantly changed them from the worst rebounding team in recent memory (they were -5 per game before the trade) to an above average one.

There are, however, clear warning signs. With Shaq, they were only 18-15 (including the playoffs), but only 8-14 against winning teams. Nash showed worrying signs of slippage last year, especially defensively, as he simply could not stay in front of the new band of young, elite point guards in the West. Tellingly, Phoenix went 0-4 against New Orleans, 1-2 against Utah, and were dismissed 4-1 by a Tony Parker led Spurs team (Shaq largely neutralized Duncan, so Poppovich put the ball in Tony Parker’s hands with endless pick and rolls). In the four losses to New Orleans, Nash allowed Chris Paul to go off for 29 points, 4.5 rebounds, 11 assists, and 4 steals. Against Utah, Deron ran wild for 20 points, 4 rebounds, 11 assists, and 53% shooting. In the playoffs, Parker went off, averaging 30 points and 7 assists on 52% shooting. At this point of his career, Nash is simply too slow and weak to guard these opposing point guards, which had devastating effects given Phoenix’s general defensive weakness. Clearly, Nash needs more rest and the Suns are hopeful that new backup PG Goran Dragic is the answer.

There are also warning signs in the front office. After a power struggle with new owner Robert Sarver, Bryan Colangelo left the Suns to tak eover the Raptors. Since then, the team has been run disastrously. In 2004, they owned the 7th pick but traded it away for a later pick and cash. That pick turned out to be Luol Deng, and Andre Iguodala was also still on the board. In 2006 and 2007, the team continued to sell their first round draft picks, trading away the rights to Rajon Rondo, Sergio Rodriguez, and Rudy Fernandez. At the same time they were trading away cheap young talent, they were signing overrated players to inflated contracts, with Marcus Banks landing $21 million and Diaw landing $45 million (D’Antoni was a great coach but horrific GM). These latter moves led the team to desperately cut costs last summer, trading away Kurt Thomas and two unprotected future first rounders to Seattle for nothing. Would there have been a need to sign Banks, Diaw, and trade away Thomas (with two picks) if the team had simply kept Deng, Rondo, Rodriguez, and Fernandez? Of course not. And the team would be better positioned for the present and future. Now, the team faces a need to rebuild around Amare whenever Nash and Shaq break down, but lacks the budding young talent or future draft picks to acquire the necessary players. We’ll see if Kerr can reverse the tide.

With few remaining future draft picks, a bare cupboard of young talent, and the financial inability to take on more salary, the team has no real resources to immediately upgrade their current roster around Nash, Amare, and Shaq. The lack of young players and picks means it will also be very difficult for them to quickly retool around Amare. Thus, if things start to fall apart, they might be in a position where they have to make a few bold moves, such as trading Nash, to put a few strong pieces around Amare for the future. They will also have Shaq’s expiring contract next summer, which will be a huge piece on the trade market. IF they can’t use these pieces to rebuild, they could face a long, dark winter in a year or two.

I see this team as darkhorse title contenders this year. The talent is there. Very few teams have two top 10 players and mvp candidates. Very few surround such stars with experienced veterans at the other positions. But they will need to stay healthy and find a system that harmonizes the talents of their key pieces. And do all of this with a new, inexperienced coach who has to juggle difficult ego’s in Amare and Shaq. The potential is there for great success and great failure. Which, from a Lakers fans perspective, is all we can hope for – great drama and tension from our key rival.

Inside Perspective

Now, back to my friend Brig, who is a true basketball intellectual and friendly with a few higher ups in Suns management. I asked for his perspective on a few issues:

Question: In hindsight, would you make the Marion-Shaq trade over again?

Absolutely. While it didn’t work out in the playoffs as hoped, we faced the defending champions and were in every game. Marion was causing problems with chemistry. He was complaining about shots, he was grousing a lot (saying that D’Antoni didn’t do enough to promote him as an All-Star candidate), and he and Amare never really got along. Amare and Shaq are actually very close – Shaq has been kind of a mentor since he first came in the league. The Suns needed a big presence inside – someone to help with rebounding, clog the middle, help Amare avoid foul trouble by taking on guys like Duncan, Yao, and Bynum for 20 minutes a game. Shaq can certainly do those things. And Shaq is a mean, tough, playoff tested veteran that everyone in the league respects. The Suns needed attitude as much as interior defense and rebounding.

The Suns are also one of the most veteran player friendly teams in the league. They have light practices, a cool, understanding coaching staff, probably the best training staff, excellent facilities, and a great group of guys (by all accounts, Nash, Raja, Grant Hill and Barbosa are some of the coolest guys in the NBA). They have unselfish players (except for Amare, who loves and respects Shaq), and Nash will find a way to keep Shaq happy. So it’s a good situation for Shaq at this stage.

I can now fully reveal my hatred for Marion – an insecure, crybaby little nancy who complained about being underappreciated and underrated, even while he was the highest paid guy on the team and a 4x All Star who couldn’t get his own shot and consistently choked in the playoffs. We had a three-way deal for Boston in place to get Garnett, but Marion refused to go to Boston. Good riddance. He is now lumped in with Sam Cassell, Robert Horry, Jason Kidd, Joe Johnson, Michael Finley, Stephon Marbury and AC Green – former Suns players who are dead to me.

The Suns weren’t going to win it with Marion, and Shaq plugged a gaping hole, so I’d make that trade again, obvious concerns included. There was enormous risk in the move, but they could be unreal if they can get Shaq healthy and keep him that way. Shaq helps in exactly the way the Suns need – defensive rebounding (a fatal weakness before – Marion is a great rebounder, but he doesn’t keep other people from getting offfensive rebounds, which is what we really need); keeping Amare out of foul trouble; increasing FT attempts (Suns are the best FT shooting team in the league, but other than Amare, never get to the line – Shaq, though a terrible FT shooter, puts other teams in the penalty); gives the Suns a low post option when Amare isn’t on the floor to open things up for shooters, and provides size to discourage penetration. And, perhaps most importantly, toughness and intimidation. All NBA players fear and respect Shaq, even at his age now.

Question: What direction are the Suns heading? Should they go all in this year for another title run or should they cash in on Nash while he still has value?

Definitely have to go all in one more time. There is no sense in attempting to “rebuild” at this stage. Shaq is likely completely untradeable. The Suns will not trade Nash. It is unlikely the Suns would deal Amare (I’m just not sure who they would deal him for that would fit with Nash and Shaq and approximates equal value). So, as long as you have to pay three max-contract guys for multiple years, your only choice is to try and contend. Also, Diaw is awful, and nobody will trade for that guy. You can try, but it’s not going to happen.

The Suns did a pretty good job of addressing their needs this offseason. They needed: (a) a versatile, atheltic defender who can guard rangy 4s (like Dirk or Bos) and wings (like Kobe or McGrady); (b) a reserve point guard for Nash, someone who can fit into the system and is young enough to groom behind Nash, but competant enough to start playing minutes now; (c) a mobile big who can defend the pick and roll and crash the boards. Through free agency and the draft, they picked up Barnes (the wing defender), Dragic (the backup point guard), and Lopez (the energy big). Add in an offseason to integrate Shaq, and the team could be markedly better next year.

I think a lot of the problem last year can be attributed to cohesion – just not having played together and integrating a drastically different piece to the system (it’s not like the Suns traded Marion for Nocioni and Noah, or for Granger and Jeff Foster – those would have been easy pieces to integrate). Shaq can’t score on pick and rolls, so he has to get the ball in the post to be effective, and the Suns just aren’t used to that. So this has led to turnovers, which leads to increased scoring from opponents. This year, I’d expect the team to be on the same page and the pieces to fit together more efficiently.

Question: How do you feel about Porter as the coach?

It’s as good as can be expected. He’s got a good reputation among veteran players, so I think both Shaq and Nash will respond well to him (though I worry that Shaq will resent him for not being Shaw). He played on some great Portland teams (those teams are right up there with the Stockton/Malone Jazz and the Barkley Suns of great, non-title winning teams). He’s coached under Adelman and Flip Saunders, so he’s had some great apprentice opportunities on good teams with great offensive minds, and he’s played for Popovich. Plus, he was a decent head coach for a mediocre Bucks team. I don’t think he’s as good D’Antoni, but he’s as good as we can get under the circumstances.


Question: How will Dragic fit in?

Dragic has actually been on NBA radar screens for a couple of years, so I’ve seen more of him that most other Euro prospects. He reminds me of Keyon Dooling – very athletic, an excellent defender, great size for his positions, but a questionable decision-maker, a technically-sound but inconsistent shooter, and (unlike Dooling) frail physically. I understand the Suns’ attraction – he’s an almost ideal backcourt mate for Barbosa, because of his size and defense, and ability to be effective without taking a lot of shots, and he’s a nice understudy for Nash (international guy, humble kid, team-oriented). But he clearly does not have Nash’s vision or shooting ability. I feel a little about Dragic the way I feel about Lopez – the right idea (i.e., exactly the kind of player we need), but I’m not sure that the player we picked is good enough. In Lopez – we clearly need an athletic, defensive-minded front-court partner for Amare in the future (and to spell Shaq and defend the pick-and-roll now), and Lopez is that exact kind of player. But he had a less-than-stellar collegiate career – the numbers say he won’t be that good. Same with Dragic – ideal type of player, great fit, but his numbers in small European leagues say that he either isn’t that good, or isn’t ready to assume a big role (and being Nash’s backup next year is a big role). Maybe getting Lopez out of his Brook’s shadow (he played much better when Brook was suspended last year), and getting him working with Cartwright/Shaq/Amare will help him accelerate his development, and getting Dragic into some top flight competition (obviously Tau Ceramica, one of the top Euro teams, agreed with the Suns that he’s ready for prime time), and putting him with Porter and Nash will help him develop. I’m cautiously optimistic.

Question: Tell me about how the Suns approach scouting for the draft. Are they refocusing their energies on the draft after selling all those picks?

Yes, they are very interested in drafting good young players now, although they are severely handcuffed by the picks lost in the Thomas and Shaq deals.

The scouts have a cutting edge computer program, where they can literally call up video clips of any player in the draft based on certain categories, like “transition defense” or “three-point shots” or “post-up possessions”, and the computer will run a series of clips of the good and the bad of that player in those circumstances. Just awesome.

They approach workouts wisely. A lot of what the scouts are looking for is preparation – does the player take the workout seriously, came in prepared and in shape, and showed good work habits and competitiveness. I think it’s as much an evaluation of character as it is of basketball ability.

Also, it’s an intelligence test. They throw a lot of sets and install plays quickly to see how well the player remembers and reacts and takes instruction and coaching.

It’s also about trying to measure players against other draft picks. This is particularly important where the player (1) comes from a smaller school or played overseas in a non-elite league; or (2) only has a year of college experience (or less), and thus may have only played against elite talent at his respecitve position twice, even if the guy played for a top college team. Even for major programs in top conferences, there are only maybe 10 NBA caliber guys at any position in college at any given time. Most teams won’t play all of those guys, so for a freshman, you may have only evaluated him playing against someone of his own caliber once or twice.

Also, his college team may not have allowed him to exhibit all of the skills you’re looking at. Someone like Hakim Warrick or Jared Dudley were forced to play as power forwards in college, but they aren’t well suited for those positions in the pros. So you need to evaluate their skill sets for other positions, which you can’t do in game tapes. Top to bottom, the scouting department is first rate.

Final Thoughts

I hope the Suns are great this year. The Lakers season will be more interesting and rewarding if they battle the Suns all year for the division and then have to worry about them in the playoffs. And the league is simply a better place when Nash, Shaq, and now Amare are involved in important games. But, ultimately, I don’t think this team can beat LA in a series, so I welcome their relevance without great fear. There are just too many concerns and too much has to go right for them to come out of the West.

Finally, lest there be any question about the importance of this rivalry, here is Brig’s immediate response to the Gasol trade last winter:

Do you realize that you have sold your immortal soul to a franchise that would sooner defile everything you love and hold dear than extend a hand of fellowship to mankind – a dark necromancer haunting us all?

I am a well informed NBA fan, and understand completely the implications of this trade. But I refuse to be cowed by evil – even in such a monstrous and terrifying form.

The Suns: fun to hate; always frustrated; the perfect rival.

–Reed

Breaking Down Team USA

Reed —  August 8, 2008

Due to particularly oppressive slave-driving from The Man, I was not able to watch any of the Team USA exhibition games. However, my good friend Kyle (my arch nemesis during hundreds of heated and poorly played pickup games during law school), has been breaking down the games and roster in a series of long emails that warm the soul during oppressive work weeks. Since his thoughts were so insightful, and with Kurt out of town, I asked Kyle to fine tune those emails into the following Team USA breakdown. — Reed

On Sunday night, the USA Basketball team officially begins its latest pursuit for Olympic gold and for recognition as the greatest basketball country in the world. In preparation of this, I have put together a breakdown of each player’s performance over the last few weeks during the exhibition schedule. While I tend to be a stat guy by nature, for this analysis I primarily used my observations of the games. I am not going to recap any of the games (plenty of other sites have done that), just the overall performance of each player. Unless noteworthy, I will not discuss their performances in any specific game, just my overall impressions. For those of you who have watched the games, your impressions may differ from mine so feel free to chime in. For those of you who didn’t see the games, don’t blast the analysis based on your NBA experience. As has been well documented on this site and others, the international game is vastly different from the NBA game and NBA skills do not necessarily translate into international skills or vice versa (see Carlos Arroyo). Away we go:

J. Kidd: The decline is significant, noticeable and not at all troubling (unless you’re a Dallas fan). Kidd will play the first 4-6 minutes of each half and then will likely sit out the rest of the time. He took two shots in five games, which is about right. He still runs an effective break but his ability (or lack there of) during half court sets hamstrings the offense. I am glad he is on the team for leadership and experience but even more glad he doesn’t get the bulk of the playing time.

K. Bryant: Pardon the blaspheme but so far, Kobe has not looked very good. He is gambling far too much on defense and when the other team scores in a half court set, it is usually Kobe’s guy that does the scoring. That can’t happen as Kobe is supposed to be our defensive stopper (our Doberman if you will). He needs to stop going for the home run on defense and stay put with his guy and stay more aware of back screens and back cuts, both of which have been used effectively against him. It is as if he is so juiced to lock his guy down, that he has forgotten all of the basic defensive principals that have made him one of the better defenders in the league over the last decade. Offensively, Kobe has looked out of sorts. He keeps taking long 3’s, which doesn’t make sense. If they are going to give you thee points for shooting a mid range jumper (the international three line is just behind the collegiate three line), take the mid range jumper. With all of the above said, Kobe has not yet had to guard any good players and when he finally does, I think he will shine. I would like to see USA use him more like Redd on offense. Set some off the ball screens for him and get him open 3’s, like they consistently do for Redd. He is just as good of a shooter when open, but since he doesn’t move on offense (not at all, not even a little), he ends up getting the ball four feet behind the 3 line and chucking up some terrible looking shot.

L. James: His strength is unbelievable compared to the international players. I think he is playing exceptionally well and will likely be the MVP of the Olympics (not sure if they have that award, but if they do, he will get it). On defense, he is playing consistently and doing a good job of getting into the passing lanes. He is rarely burned by his own guy and when he is involved in the pick and roll defense, USA is in good shape. His height and speed allow him to trap the ball handler and effectively prevent the pass to the screener. I think this has impressed me the most. On offense, he has played within the system for the most part and is I think our 3rd most effective offensive player (I will discuss the other two below). He attacks the rim, like he should, but he is also getting into the paint and creating little six foot jumpers that are essentially gimmes. He is also shooting well from the outside which makes him practically unguardable. He took over the Australia game down the stretch, which is the reason we won.

C. Anthony: Offensively, I have no complaints. He is a bit of a chucker but he has been tagged as the team’s first offensive option so I am ok with that and in some ways like it. For purposes of offensive rebounding (Howard), it is nice to know where a lot of the shots are going to come from. He settles some for his jump shot but it is consistent enough that I don’t mind too much. The only exception to this was the Australia game where he ended up going 4-13. It is imperative that Coach K keeps tabs on Anthony if we are going to win gold. When Anthony is on, he is perfect for international basketball because of his size, strength and quickness off the dribble (relative to the speed of his opponent, who is usually the 4). When Anthony is off (see Australia game), he is a gigantic liability as he is our worst defender (by a fair margin) and not committed to rebounding. As I said, on defense, Anthony is just terrible. Doesn’t move his feet and lets his guy get too many offensive rebounds. As he is the 4, it is critical that he spends a lot of energy on the defensive end fighting for position and keeping the other big off the glass. Anthony has not really shown a willingness to do that yet and it has hurt the team some. I think the good teams are going to use Anthony in the pick and roll and USA will have to rotate out of position to make up for his poor defense which will eventually leave some outside shooter open. This is what scares me the most right now.

D. Howard: Fouls way too much and lets the physicality of international basketball get to him. This is a major issue and makes me even more furious that Chandler didn’t make the team. What is Howard doing that Chandler can’t do? You cannot run the offense through Howard because there is too much zone defense in international play and because the trapezoid lane makes it difficult to get good post position. Howard is there to rebound (on both ends), block shots (doing that very well) and be available for the around-the-rim pass. All things that Chandler does just as well as Howard. The reason Howard is always in foul trouble is that in international ball, the refs (A) suck, (B) suck, (C) suck and (D) like to call petty fouls against the interior defensive players, even though the bigs may have been elbowing each other for 20 seconds before the offensive player got the ball. In terms of what Howard is doing, I love it and think he is great. A bigger concern right now for Howard is that he appears to be in Coach K’s dog house. Coach K doesn’t like how Howard has gotten chippy with the other players and Howard’s tendency to gloat after good plays (he did this a lot during the five exhibition games, more than any of the other players, which was frankly shocking to me as I thought Howard was the nice, humble Christian). This bugs me too as the days of US dominance are over. Lets hold off on the showboating and rim hanging until we actually win an international tournament that matters. Hasn’t happened in six years.

D. Wade: Remember when Wade was in the discussion for best player in the league with Lebron and Kobe? Me either. But I do remember when he was a lock for an All-Star spot. That Wade happens to be back, wearing red, white and blue and playing the best basketball on Team USA. His windmill ally-oop dunk the other night was jaw-dropping (I actually let out an And-1 Mix Tape Tour like ‘holla, and as a white, middle aged guy, that is something). He is playing angry right now and it is positively scary. He is attacking the rim and breaking ankles left and right. The best is that somewhere along the lines, he picked up the Ginobili side-step that looks like a travel but isn’t. To complete his comeback and to once again cement his spot in the All-Star game starting line-up, he has been consistently hitting his outside jumper. On defense, he’s omnipresent and getting his hands on every loose ball. I am not sure of the stats but it feels like he is getting a lot of rebounds for his position. Just a force of nature and has answered all the questions about his come back. I love him coming off the bench by the way (though I would have him in my starting line-up). He is Ginobili 2.0 (two Ginobili references in one paragraph, nice), All-Star quality that comes in after a few minutes when the other team is getting a little winded and just creates havoc.

C. Paul: Disappointment so far, though he had an improved game against Australia. Some flashes of brilliance when he takes the ball into the paint but way too many turnovers and terrible defense. His outside shooting has improved, which is nice, but he keeps trying to make street ball plays which is nonsensical (please accept the fact that we cannot run most of the teams in the Olympics off the court). I think he has been tagged as the Kidd back-up, which is fine, but he has still not found his international groove yet. Maybe he is just too small for the very physical nature of FIBA, I don’t know. What I do know is that he needs to settle down and play more conservatively or he is going to cost us a lot of points. As I mentioned above, in the Australia game, Paul looked much better. When he got by his guy and the Aussies didn’t rotate to him quickly enough, he used his little teardrop to effectively score. That is the Paul that is dominating in the NBA. Too fast to keep in front of you and smart enough to immediately decide if he should shoot or pass. I think he was trying to be too much like J. Kidd in the first few games. In the last game he played like Chris Paul and we need Chris Paul.

D. Williams. Second best player so far. He is the perfect FIBA PG and a pretty darn good SG. He is a bulldog guarding the ball and plays the passing lanes as well or better than anyone on the team. I think the coaches thought Redd would be the zone buster but turns out Deron gives you everything Redd does plus a ton extra. He runs the break almost as well as Kidd and certainly better than Paul (Paul is trying too many dumb passes). He is hitting his outside shot consistently and every ball that leaves his hands looks like it is going in. He rebounds well, both high (jumping for boards) and low (running in and grabbing the lose boards). As mentioned, he is defending superbly. Finally, his penetration is the best on the team at this point and he can finish around the rim with power and/or finesse. He was also involved in my favorite play so far. During the Russia game, the Russians ran a pick and roll against Williams, who ended up switching onto Russia’s giant center. The center then tried to get position on Williams in the paint. The center might as well have been trying to move a house. Williams didn’t budge and I’m pretty sure the center got an elbow in his kidney for his efforts.

M. Redd: Giving us exactly what we expected, if not a little more. I like his energy on the offensive end (running around screens and trying to get to the open spot) and his determination on the defensive end. He is a great addition to the team.

C. Bosh: Nancy, first class nancy. Doesn’t rebound well against big men, doesn’t finish around the rim (no jumping ability and small hands) and isn’t hitting his outside shot. I’m not sure how many times he is going to drop a perfect pass before Coach K goes with Boozer over Bosh. I hate Bosh and hate him even more because Chandler should be on the team, not him. To boot, he sucks on defense and makes terrible decisions on the pick and roll (consistently gets screened and then guards no one as his guy rolls to the basket forcing the other players to rotate, leaving someone open). The only positive thing I have to say about Bosh is that he hits his free throws, unlike the rest of the team. I’m telling you right now, if Bosh gets major minutes once the elimination games start, we will lose.

C. Boozer: I think he has played well. He is the second best rebounder behind Howard and does a good job defending the rim as the center, even if he is undersized. He finishes weakly around the rim but his weak finishes tend to go in (a la Malone). As I discuss more below, the best thing about Boozer is the way he plays with Williams.

T. Prince: Fine. He should be the 12th man. He is too skinny to be a great defender in FIBA. Still, he rebounds well, gets his long arms in the passing lanes and hits the occasional open shot. I like him but his game doesn’t translate too well in international basketball. I don’t see him getting many minutes at all. Sure would have been nice to use this spot for either another big (hello Chandler) or a player committed to playing in 2012 (hello Durant).

Now for a few general impressions on the overall team, though most of it you can glean from my thoughts above.

Offense: What I expected. Constantly pushing the ball to create easy offense and when forced, going into isolation or pick and roll basketball. If forced into a half court game, Wade and Williams, or at least one of them, need to be in the game. They give us our best chance of breaking down the defense and then hitting the open players around the rim or at the 3 line. I’m a little disappointed that we still don’t have any plays at all. Maybe they are being saved for the actual competition, lets hope that is the case. The only time our players seem to have a purpose on the offensive end (at least in half court sets) is when Redd is in the game. Then we run a Pistons type offense keyed at screening players to get Redd open shots. I like this offense but feel we should also run it for Kobe, Anthony and Williams, all of whom can hit the open outside shot. I would also like to see more pick and roll rather than throwing the ball to Anthony and Lebron at the elbow which is our go to play. I hate when we try the Shaq offense with Howard (throw the ball into the paint and hope he scores or they double him). Howard is not skilled enough yet and the bumping and grabbing allows by the refs almost always leads to unnecessary turnovers. Howard should only get the ball when he is in a position to finish, not when he will be forced to create.

Defense: I have mixed emotions about our defense. On the one hand, we are playing aggressive and seem totally committed on the defensive end. On the other hand, we are being too aggressive and getting exploited because of it. The best part of our defense has been our commitment to trapping the pick and roll and our efforts at pressuring the ball up the court. This forces teams out of their sets which is key, as well run offenses can still beat USA. What has hurt us the most on defense is that the players are so keyed on ball denial and high pressure on-the-ball defense, that they expose themselves to back cuts and back screens, both of which have been used effectively against Team USA. Kobe is especially guilty of this. While a high pressured defense creates turnovers and thus avoids us having to run offensive sets, it also leaves us vulnerable to the Princeton style offenses that are so prevalent in international play. What is most frustrating is that many of the players on the team are great team defenders (Kobe, Lebron, Wade, Williams, Paul, Howard) but for some reason, when they landed in China, they checked their defensive IQ’s at customs. Obviously we are more athletic than our opponents, but when a team has good guards and solid passing big men (hello Spain and Argentina), a high pressured defense often results in open baskets for the other team. Sorry to rant, this is really bothering me. We need to control our emotions on the defensive end and play a more team oriented style of basketball. Finally, our defensive rebounding is not perfect but what did we expect? We don’t have a four other than Anthony, who is Tin Man like in his heartlessness. I think the guards are doing an adequate job of trying to help out and Howard is really flexing his muscles when he can stay in the game.

Best Line-Up: This is obviously debatable, but I think our best line-up is Williams, Wade, Kobe, Lebron and Howard. Williams has been the best PG so far and with him and Kobe on the court together, Wade’s and Lebron’s penetration should lead to a lot of made 3’s. I would play a lot of pick and roll with Williams and Wade (using Howard as the screener). I would also try to run Kobe off of some screens and get him open looks. When the offense breaks down, we would have the 3 best playmakers on the court (sorry, Kobe isn’t one of them at this point). On the defensive end, we lack size but only just. Lebron is huge compared to most international players so he can play the 4 just fine. Kobe is certainly tall enough to play the 3 with ease. Williams is a big PG and can guard either guard position. In terms of subs, I think Paul goes in for Williams. No Kidd at all, he gets to play the first few minutes but then must cheer from the bench. As for Wade, when he comes out, I would either put in Redd or move Williams over to the 2 spot. Kobe’s primary back-up should be Lebron (i.e., Lebron or Kobe should be on the court at all times, same with Williams or Wade). For Lebron, bring in Anthony or Boozer. If Williams is in the game, I would make a special effort to use Boozer rather than Anthony. Though they didn’t play together often during the five exhibition games, when they did, the chemistry was palpable (shocking right, teammates for 82 games a year play better together than guys who play 10 games together each summer). Howard can be spelled by Boozer or Bosh. Prince and Kidd should stay off the court as much as possible, unless it is a blow-out.

Conclusion: I have serious, serious concerns about our team. We still don’t have an offense and on defense, we are too arrogant in thinking our athleticism will overpower our opponents. I am hoping beyond hope that Coach K has some offensive sets up his sleeve. I’m also hoping that we can figure out how to tone down our defense when needed. If my hopes are in vain, I think we lose in the elimination round, probably in the semifinals. If you have watched international basketball over the last five years, you know very well that America has the best players in the world, hands down, but that we are not the best team, probably not even top three. Can great players beat great teams? Didn’t happen in LA vs. Boston and I don’t think it will happen in the Olympics. Am I totally hopeless? Absolutely not. I trust Kobe and I trust Coach K. I think there is more there than they have let on, or at least that is what I’m going to be telling myself until August 24th (the gold medal game).

–Kyle

Slot Machine

Reed —  July 25, 2008

How much is a stubborn, awkward head-band-sporting Machine worth?

Unfortunately, that has become a complicated, perhaps even messy, question and one that must be answered by Mitch in the next few days. I’m not going to delve into the suddenly competitive Euro market issue, as that’s been covered deeply elsewhere. What I do want to look at is whether LA should pay Sasha what he’s asking – a reported $5 million a year over several years (4-5?).

The problem is that there is a fundamental disharmony between what Sasha is worth (i.e. what others would pay him on the open market) and what the Lakers can afford to pay him, given their payroll problems and the opportunity cost.

First, his market value. Sasha is undoubtedly worth the $5 million a year he seeks. Our feelings on this are tainted by the unfortunate (and similar) contracts recently given to Walton and the Vladrad. But, putting them aside for the minute, a player’s market value is best determined by what others with similar skill sets have recently been paid. And (as no doubt put out there by his agent in the recent news bites), players with similar skill sets consistently receive the money he now seeks. Comparable players:

• Posey, (2008 stats) 31 years old, 24.6 minutes per game, 12.08 PER, 4 years, $25 million.
• Pietrus, 26 years old, 20.0 minutes per game, 12.76 PER, 4 years, $25.1 million.
• Gibson, 22 years old, 30.5 minutes per game, 11.77 PER, 5 years, $20.8 million.
• Miles, 21 years old, 11.5 minutes per game, 14.30 PER, 4 years, $15 million.
• Kapono, (2007 stats), 26 years old, 26.4 minutes per game, 13.87 PER, 4 years, $24 million.

These 5 players comprise the most recent free agent signings that compare to Sasha in terms of skill set and team role when they hit the market. How does he compare?

• Sasha, 24 years old, 17.8 minutes per game, 15.06 PER, ? years, $?? million.

Sasha has the highest PER by far (Miles doesn’t really count given the low minutes and non-role) and is younger than the three highest paid (Posey, Pietrus, and Kapono). While he’s only had one good season, he is as “proven” as any except Posey. Furthermore, that line doesn’t really capture Sasha’s production and value to the team last year, as he was not given regular minutes until almost halfway through the season. (True, that might also be said of the comparables listed above to varying degrees, but none of them were buried on the bench early, only to emerge during the second half and playoffs with starter’s minutes and production). Sasha’s season in two halves:

• November-January: (34 games): 14.1 minutes per game, 6.8 points per game, 1.0 threes per game, 40.6 3fg%.
• February-April (38 games): 20.6 minutes per game, 11.7 points per game, 2.3 threes per game, 46.5 3fg%.

It took the Machine a little while to find his groove and the trust of Phil and his teammates, but find it he did. The second half stats are really remarkable. Only two players shot higher than 46.5% from three over the year (none making as many) and only five made more than 2.3 per game (none as accurate). You can argue there was no more proficient three point shooter in the league than Sasha during the second half of last year – when he finally had a defined niche and his teammates’ trust. Remember, this production came during perhaps the most competitive conference race we’ve ever seen. Every game counted.

This ability to spread the floor became particularly dangerous once Gasol joined the equation, providing consistent low post offense and passing to spot up shooters. Consider that the single most offensively efficient 5 man unit in the league last year was: Farmar, Sasha, Kobe, Odom, and Gasol, which had a mind boggling points per possession of 1.37, along with a dominant .99 defensive rating – by far LA’s single most effective lineup. The number three most efficient offense? Also Machine inclusive: Farmar, Sasha, Kobe, Odom, and Turiaf – at 1.28. By the end of the season and the playoffs, he was the de facto fifth starter, playing all of the key minutes instead of the Radman.

Defensively, Sasha was somewhere between very good and above average, holding opposing SG’s to a 14.9 PER. He might not possess Prince’s quickness and length, but he is tenacious, dogged, and annoying. Who can forget the time during the playoffs where he was floored while defending a screen and roll, bounced up to scream in the offender’s face with woodpeckery head movements, hairband almost coming dislodged, and then returned to pestering his man a little too closely. We remember painfully Allen beating him for the fateful score in game 4, but we also need to remember Sasha glued to Korver’s fortunate mug through screen after screen, severely outplaying him in an important matchup (Korver shot 37.5% from the field in that series and 33% from three, compared with Sasha’s 45% and 43% from three). Sasha may have been inconsistent in the playoffs, but he’s certainly proven that he plays with heart and is not scared of the moment. Of all our role players, he’s the one with the most “Rick Fox” in him. The one most likely to become an icy, arrogant, effective role player in title run after title run.

So, given the market and his production, Sasha is not being unreasonable in asking for $5 million a year over a few years. Something like 4 years, $22 million. Given that he hasn’t yet hit his prime and the cost of similar players in free agency (much less the ability to sign any at a comparable age given the nature of restricted free agency and the budding European market), why doesn’t LA just pay him, retaining a proven triangle performer and 6th man?

As we all know, the problem is Buss’s budget. While he’s notorious for being willing to go all in for splashy, high priced acquisitions (Shaq, Pau), Buss is (or should be) equally notorious for always trimming fat in often painful ways to make room for those stars. Yes, Buss is a golden owner and committed spender (and we can’t forget that given the only reason we got Gasol was because we were willing to trade straight expirings for his long term contract when Chicago wouldn’t), but he imposes limits. Remember how thin the Shaq-Kobe teams became with time. Remember Buss’s refusal to grab Pippen for peanuts when available during Houston’s firesale.

Right now, there are rumblings that LA’s bottom line budget (before taxes) cannot exceed $81-83 million. If you assume Karl is back for minimal salary, that is 11 players signed for $76 million. It becomes clear there simply wasn’t room for both Turiaf and Sasha, given the size of Turiaf’s front loaded offer. It also becomes clear that if Sasha is signed for $5 million, LA is stuck with the vet minimum or second rounders when filling out the other two roster spots, one of which needs to go to an insurance big. So, given that opportunity cost, what do you do? Pay Sasha and rely on something like Mihm and Mbenga as your backup bigs? A fairly reasonable plan given that Bynum is essentially taking Turiaf’s place on the front line. But, with Ariza likely leapfrogging Luke and Radman on the depth chart, bringing Sasha back probably relegates one or both of them to expensive non-rotation players. Or, do you divide Sasha’s money and throw $3 million per year at two players – something like Kwame and Evans? Thoughts?

(Permanent damnation to the first commenter to turn this discussion into another lifeless trade Lamar debate. Just kidding. Kind of.)

As for me, I agree with the always prescient Dwyer: pay the Machine.

–Reed

Update: This issue might be resolved very quickly… OC Register is reporting possible decision this afternoon.

Update:
The USA Today has confirmed it as a done deal.

(I’m tied up at work today, so this will be brief. Fill in thoughts in the comments. –Reed)

Records: Lakers 51-24 (3 seed); Mavs 47-28 (7 seed)
Offensive Ratings: 114.2 (3rd); 112.8 (8th)
Defensive Ratings: 107.2 (6th); 106.9 (5th)
Projected Lineups: Lakers: Fisher, Kobe, Radmanovic, Odom, Gasol; Dallas: Kidd, Terry, Howard, Dirk, Dampier

Dallas Coming In: Dallas posted their win of the season last game, with a decisive, critical win over Golden State. The victory was huge on several fronts: the unexpected return of Dirk, gaining a game and the tiebreaker over Golden State, and — perhaps most importantly — the first victory over a winning team since the Kidd trade (they had previously gone 0-10). The Mavs now have a 2 game edge on the Warriors with the tiebreak, so their playoff standing looks much more secure than a few days ago. Dirk is still limited with the ankle and knee sprains, admitting that he’s mostly relegated to being a spot up shooter on offense and unable to run in transition.

This means more reliance on Josh Howard, who is on a tear, averaging 30.2 points over the last 5 games. Howard is probably the key matchup for the game, as he seriously exposed Radmanovic and Walton in the last matchup, constantly burning them with penetration in the first half. The Lakers might be wise to go to the Fisher/Sasha/Kobe lineup to better defend Kidd/Terry/Howard on the perimeter.

Most consider the Kidd deal a disaster, but the numbers only show them being mildly worse with him than Harris. With Kidd on the court, the Mavs offensive rating is 112.4 and the defense rating is 105.3. With Harris on the court, the Mavs had a 117.3 offensive rating and a 106.5 defensive rating. Surprisingly, Kidd has hurt the offense and helped the defense, but this actually makes sense given his inability to contribute in an isolation rich offense and the team’s inability to defend big guards with Terry and Harris out there together. The real problem with the trade lies in the other pieces lost in the deal — 2 draft picks and Diop, who was probably their best defensive player (the Mavs had a team leading 102.9 defensive rating with Diop on the court).

The local media has been all over the Mavs lately — questioning the Kidd deal, blasting Avery’s coaching, and constantly recalling the past two playoff collapses. Avery in particular is under serious scrutiny, with almost everyone calling for his head for refusing to stop micromanaging and just turn the offense over to Kidd. While this is probably heat of the moment overreaction, there is a clear tension between Avery’s desire to call plays and run isolation sets and Kidd’s increased effectiveness in transition and while freelancing. Something has to give, and I’m guessing it will ultimately not be the new $20 million point guard.

Lakers Coming In: Gasol came back and his ankle seems to have responded well. The second half of the Portland game was the first time in a while that the defense has looked sharp, it being only the third in fifteen games that they have held the opponent under 100 points. The Lakers are in a heated battle for the division and playoff seeding, so it is critical they win games like this at home, especially with Dirk hobbling. No one wants to drop to the 5 seed and face Utah in the first round. My keys to the game:

(1) Odom needs to attack Dirk on offense, as he has no chance staying with Lamar’s speed with his leg injuries;

(2) Defend the perimeter. Make Howard and Dirk take contested jump shots. Force the ball to Kidd late in the shot clock — make him score. This might mean less Radmanovic and more Sasha.

(3) Rebound. Two games ago, Dampier looked like Dwight Howard, going for 17 and 16 before fouling out. Gasol is still rusty, but he needs to do a better job of keeping a body on Damp and holding Dallas to one shot.

Your Thoughts:

Two great comments I saw recently:

Drrayeye on putting all our pieces together as they return from injuries:

The Zenmeister has fifteen “pieces,” but two of his biggest pieces, Pau and ‘Drew, have never played together at all. Two of his most dependable pieces, Kobe and Derek, have nagging injuries that will not go away during the playoffs. At least one of his pieces, Trevor, will not be making his return debut until the playoffs. We’ll have to make due with Ira, a wiley veteran stand-in. There may even be minor stand-in roles for Mbenga and the other Kobe. Only time will tell.

The Zenmeister needs to put Humpty back together again when Humpty was never together in the first place–and Phil does not have all the kings horses or men (though his backup support is pretty good). Zenman better understand the Japanese “just in time” approach to product delivery perfectly!

Nomuskles with a running recap of the Portland game.

Seeding Thoughts:

Open questions for the forum: Are we better off as the 3 seed playing Houston in the first round, but then facing San Antonio or New Orleans on the road in the second? Would a healthy Dallas be the scariest 7 or 8 seed in playoff history? Who is the one team you would absolutely want to see on the other side of the bracket?

–Reed

Records: Lakers 50-24 (3 seed), Portland 38-36 (trying to finish above .500)
Offensive Ratings: Lakers 109.6 (3rd), Portland 104.1 (15th)
Defensive Ratings: Lakers 102.9 (6th) Portland 105.3 (18th)
Projected Lineups: Lakers- Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Vlad Rad, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Blazers- Steve Blake, Martell Webster, Travis Outlaw, Lamarcus Aldridge, Joel Pryzbilla
Gasol is Back! (Probably)

The Home Stretch: This is the home stretch for the Lakers, the last 8 games of what has been a great season. We have talked a lot about potential playoff opponents and we peruse the box-scores of other teams to see who is winning and who is losing. The main thing the Lakers need to do going into this home stretch is focus on them. That means improving perimeter defense, not settling for jump shots and most importantly, get healthy.

Next Year is not looking bad in Portland: Not only do the Blazers bring back one of the best young nucleus’ in the league (one that won 13 games in a row), it is adding 2007 #1 pick Greg Oden to the mix…and a lottery pick this year.
Last Time These Two Met: The Trail Blazers: The Lakers took a one point lead into the 4th quarter, but lost by 8, 119-111. That game was in the Thorn Garden (where we play them one more time 4/8) and the Lakers have had a history to forget at the Blazer’s place. The key to the Blazer win was their bench, especially Jarret Jack and Travis Outlaw who combined for 39 pts.

If You See a 7 footer at Venice Beach…It won’t be Greg Oden, he has been told no more pick-up games.

Vin Scully: Got a chance to watch the Dodger game last night, and Vin Scully made me smile at least 5 times. Just like Chick used to do, he seamlessly transitions from talking in-game strategy to the background of a reserve’s nickname, all while providing simulcast quality play-by-play. It made me realize how lucky LA is to have Vin, and was to have Chick.

Keys to the Game: Brandon Roy is not playing tonight, and the Blazers are coming off a home loss to the Bobcats (sound familiar)…which all makes me nervous. The Lakers got outscored by 10 pts last game in the “points off of turnover” category, so taking care of the ball tonight is important. Also, Outlaw is a tough match-up for us and seeing how we signed Ira Newble for the rest of the season, maybe he plays tonight. Last, Aldridge is a Laker-killer in the making, we cannot allow him to take 18 ft jump shots uncontested and on the block, we may have to double him. Offensively the Lakers should (like everyone has been saying) run their offense inside and be patient. One thing Phil doesn’t do as much with Kobe as he did with MJ is post him up.

Where to Watch: FSN West and League Pass, 7:30 pst

–Kwame A.

Building a Champion: Redux

Reed —  April 1, 2008

Last July, when we were all frantically in GM and trade machine mode, I wrote an article called, “Building a Champion,” where I tried to analyze what went into the title teams of the last 10 years and how the Lakers matched up. The big picture points:

(1) Title teams need 2-3 stars who complement each other and collectively perform the fundamental basketball skills at the highest level;
(2) Title teams always have veteran, older role players who understand the nuances of the game and are willing to sacrifice personal glory for team success;
(3) The Lakers, as then constituted, were not built for immediate contention as they neither possessed a core of stars who covered the needed breadth of skills nor the veteran role players who understood the game’s intricacies. Kobe and Odom were the only “stars” and they were largely redundant in what they offered; the role players were overwhelmingly young and developing.

Fast forward to today and everything (miraculously) has broken right, leaving us as unquestioned grade A contenders, even in the midst of the most competitive landscape the league has seen in years. Fisher arrived. Bynum emerged as an all star producer. Farmar, Sasha, and Turiaf took steps forward. Radmanovic found his shooting stroke and showed enough (even if limited) focus. Slowly, Kobe believed and found it in him to trust his teammates. Cook became Ariza. Kwame became Gasol. Suddenly, we have the most talented team in the league, 1-12.

But, how do we compare with past title teams? Are we another complete Spurs title team or another Mavs/Kings false hope? Do we have the requisite skill bases covered or do fatal flaws remain that will haunt us against the best teams in big playoff series? Applying last summer’s championship blueprint to the present roster:

1. 2-3 Stars that Complement Each Other

The foundational ingredient of any title team is the presence of 2-3 stars that complement each other. This means that between them they perform the various fundamental basketball skills at an elite level. Look back at the last decade of title teams:

• Shaq, Duncan, and Sheed provided low post scoring
• Shaq, Duncan, and the Wallaces provided interior defense and rebounding
• Kobe, Wade, Parker, Ginobili, and Billups provided playmaking
• Kobe, Wade, Ginobili, and Billups provided clutch scoring down the stretch
• Kobe, Ginobili, Wade, and Billups provided perimeter defense

Obviously, this is shallow analysis, but the point is that you must have stars capable of doing the big work. Very talented teams with multiple stars have failed in the playoffs because their stars were either redundant or lacking in some key area. Nash, Marion, and Amare did not offer interior defense. Nash and Dirk did not offer post scoring or interior defense. Webber, Bibby, and Peja did not offer perimeter defense. The common theme of “almost” teams is that their stars seemed to do the same thing (usually scoring), leaving one key skill unaccounted for. That’s the beauty of Duncan – he dominates the areas of the game that are hardest to find – interior defense and post scoring.

This Laker team seems well positioned on this front – they have 3 legitimate “stars” in Kobe, Gasol, and Bynum and they are not redundant. Kobe handles the playmaking, penetration, perimeter defense, and clutch scoring. Bynum provides interior defense and rebounding. Gasol provides interior scoring and playmaking. Add in Odom’s (often) star quality rebounding and playmaking and you have a solid core of stars who perform all the basketball skills at the highest level.

Of the league’s other title teams, the Spurs (again, Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili), Celtics (Garnett, Pierce, and Allen), Pistons (Billups, Sheed, Hamilton/Prince), and Hornets (Paul, West, and Chandler) seem to also have the bases covered, though some more than others. The Suns, Jazz and Mavs (when healthy) seem to have fatal flaws (Suns – perimeter defense, both by their wings and bigs; Mavs – interior scoring; Jazz – interior and perimeter defense).

2. Veteran Role Players

Look back at the title teams from this decade – they are filled with veteran, older role players who understand the nuances of the game. Horry, Fox, Finley, Bowen, Harper, etc., etc. 21 out of 32 rotation role players from this decade’s title teams were over 30; only 5 of 32 had less than 4 years experience. While young players often seem capable of filling starring roles (e.g. Wade, Kobe), they have traditionally been less adept at successfully filling key lesser roles on championship teams.

When I wrote this post last year many people objected that I overemphasized age and underestimated basic basketball intelligence. This is probably true. Some players get it earlier than others. Certainly someone like Udonis Haslem was able to come right into the league and play like a savvy veteran. The same is probably true of Luke Walton. What makes (many) older players valuable, despite waning physical tools, is their deep understanding of the game, from floor spacing to boxing out to fighting through screens to defending the pick and roll to fearlessness in big moments. For this reason, in the playoffs cagey veterans usually shine while more talented young players come up short (e.g. Barbosa, Doug Christie, etc.).

I have mixed feeling about where our role players stand in this regard. They are undoubtedly talented. In Farmar, Turiaf, Sasha, Radmanovic, Fisher, Walton, and Ariza we have the single most talented collection of 5-12 players in the league. But only Fisher and Walton (to a degree) are playoff tested. A constant complaint all year has been the inability of these role players to correctly play team defense. Do we trust that they will make the “right” play in game 7 in San Antonio? Will Farmar go under a screen too often when he should fight through? Will Radmanovic get burned baseline by a small forward consistently when the plan was to force him into the middle? Will Ronny get into foul trouble when we need him? Do we trust Sasha or Farmar taking the open 3 to decide a series? Do our role players have enough “Rick Fox” and “Robert Horry” in them? I suspect they need to try and fail once before they have the seasoning necessary to win four straight series against stiff competition, but we will see.

3. Other Notes

A few other random thoughts for discussion. First, point differential. This seems to be an even better predictor of playoff success than win-loss record. Here are the point differentials for the last six title teams: 2007: Spurs (+8.4, 1st in the league), 2006: Heat (+3.9, 5th), 2005: Spurs (+7.8, 1st), 2004: Pistons (+5.8, 2nd), 2003: Spurs (+5.4, 3rd), 2002: Lakers (+7.1, 2nd). The 2008 Lakers currently stand at +6.6, good for 3rd in the league. Given the excessive injuries we’ve faced and the late addition of Gasol, I think it is reasonable to say our real point differential is probably at least a point higher, which would put us second in the league and in about the same neighborhood as all the recent title teams.

Second, it simply cannot be overstated how much we have improved at the point guard and center positions with the replacement of Smush and Kwame with Fisher and Bynum/Gasol. In every aspect of the game: defense, scoring efficiency, rebounding, turnovers, etc. Last year, our point guards had the 10th worst collective PER and 4th worst collective PER differential (the difference between what our point guards produced and what they allowed opposing point guards to produce). Our centers were 7th worst in PER differential and 4th worst at PER allowed (defense). PER obviously has its limitations as a statistic, but PER differential is one of the most insightful stats out there because it measures net efficiency – how good were you at (1) creating points with your possessions and (2) creating/valuing possessions versus how good were you at stopping your opponent from doing the same. This year, we see a massive shift the other way. We are 13th in PG PER differential, improving by 13 spots, and 6th in C PER differential, improving by 17 spots.

4. Final Thoughts

Even with the improvement of Portland, New Orleans, Boston, and other teams, I believe we have covered more ground this year than anyone else. We have not necessarily gained the most in terms of wins and losses, but we went from the brink of trading Kobe and starting over with a fractured front office and angry fan base to having the best roster in the league for the next 5 years. No matter what happens this year, we should appreciate the good fortune and enjoy the ride. With the team finally having supporting stars around Kobe that do things he can’t (Odom is great, but he is too redundant to ever be a solid #2), the team is well positioned to fine tune the roster and compete for titles so long as Kobe can perform as an elite player. Though, our chances this year probably lie less with him and more with the ability of our role players to play like veterans – to avoid mistakes, play solid team defense, and hit big shots in the 4th quarter. When they learn to do that, this should be the most complete Laker team in 20 years.

— Reed

Preview and Chat: Seattle Sonics

Reed —  March 21, 2008

Records: Lakers: 47-21 (1 seed); Sonics: 16-52 (Hoping for Beasley).
Lakers Offense: 113.8 pts per possession (4th); Lakers Defense: 106.5 pts per possession (6th).
Sonics Offense: 101.4 pts per possession (30th); Sonics Defense: 109 pts per possession 110.8 (23rd).
Starting Five Lakers: Odom, Vlad, Turiaf, Kobe, Fish.
Starting Five Sonics: Green, Wilcox, Petro, Durant, Watson.
Key Reserves Sonics: Collison, Ridonur, Wilkins.

Seattle Notes: Looking at the recent comments from Shaq and Grant Hill (basically saying they think the Sonics belong in Seattle) I found myself thinking, yea, why shouldn’t they stay. Great city, passionate fans (remember how loud it got there during the Payton/Kemp years) and people willing to put up the money (various billionaires have stepped forward with a plan that splits the bill with the State). Just doesn’t seem right for them to leave.

Laker Notes: The two wins over Dallas and Utah, coming against the two best home teams in the NBA, give the team a much needed boost headed down the home stretch. I think Phil Jackson should be at the top of the list for Coach of the Year. For all those that think of him as guy who can only win with talent, look at what he has done developing Sasha, Jordan, Ronny, even Luke. Finding roles that work for LO, Vlad, he has just pushed the right buttons this year, and with the talent on the roster (especially with the injured players coming back) I like the Lakers chances in any playoff series.

Tonight: The Lakers cannot take the Sonics lightly, they stuck with Phoenix the other night thanks to a sloppy 27 turnovers by Phoenix. The Sonics don’t really have anyone for Kobe, and this could be a game he goes off early and rests late. Regardless, it would be great to see the crisp offensive execution and focused defense by the team exhibited from basically start to finish against the Jazz.

Where to watch: FSN and League Pass (one of the Sonics announcer is the great Steve “Snapper” Jones).

Tournament: Whose bracket is still in tact? Whose bracket is busted? Western Kentucky game was awesome, Stephen Curry from Davidson dropped 40, and is Mayo going pro?

Kwame A.

News: Newble signing is official.