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I must apologize in advance for this post. Normally, Forum Blue And Gold is a great source of basketball analysis. Today you shall have none. The few posts I have written here tend to have a lot of statistics. Today my spreadsheet is empty. No, with the playoffs only seven games away I have found my mind drifting to the psychological. Or to put it bluntly: the mind games.

“You, my friend, are a victim of disorganized thinking. You are under the unfortunate impression that just because you run away you have no courage; you’re confusing courage with wisdom. ” -The Wizard of Oz

Andrew Bynum and Trevor Ariza have not arrived back on court. They have gone beyond the initial diagnosis time line. A lot of fans assume either: A. the injuries were more severe than the Lakers initially let on or B. Gary Vitti doesn’t have the same magic pixie dust they have in Detroit. One of those scenarios is fairly plausible, but those are not the only options. It is possible the Lakers have held back Andrew and Trevor after they fully recovered. There are two very good reasons to do this. Once the Gasol trade happens and clicks, the need to rush Andrew and Trevor back to make the playoffs recedes. This sets the stage for the first very good reason to sit on their return: Bynum’s the franchise when Kobe retires. While his knee subluxation seemed like bad luck, in a way it was very, very good luck. Just ask any Clippers fan. Dr. Buss was not going to risk bringing Andrew back too soon. Remember, he wanted Kobe to have finger surgery (or did he?) which would have most likely killed the Lakers’ playoff chances for this season. Trevor could be around for awhile too; so why damage two players in your potential post-Kobe nucleus?

Of course, this doesn’t really explain why you’d keep them out this freaking long. And I did promise you two very good reasons.

“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable…” -Sun Tzu

Humor me and count the number of times you’ve read an article about a treadmill before this season. Please, take your time. (No, that piece in Men’s Health doesn’t count.) Now count how many times you’ve heard about that miracle/monster/timemachine/torturedevice. Sure, some of that is PR for the fan base. “Look, we’ve bought a treadmill that’s worth three years of the average fan’s salary! We mean business!” But come on. It’s almost like some coach with a reputation for Mind Games was writing a movie for Gene Hackman to star in: Bynum’s so messed up only anti-gravity can save him! Trevor’s still in a humidity controlled boot! Kobe’s finger is going to fall off!

So yes, the second very good reason to hold them back is to play opossum. Though not necessarily in the strictest sense of the term. If those cats have been good to go for awhile, I’m sure the other NBA teams know. But the one thing nobody knows, which coincidentally has Lakers fans tied up in knots, is how will Bynum and Gasol play together. This is the key. Not a single team has faced that Lakers squad. No one knows what that looks like. That is what they call the element of surprise.

“It was all very well to say ‘Drink me,’ but the wise little Alice was not going to do that in a hurry: ‘no, I’ll, look first,’ she said, ‘and see whether it’s marked ‘poison’ or not…” -Lewis Carroll

But that makes no sense. Even the Lakers don’t know what will happen with Andrew and Pau on the floor. That’s just playing Russian roulette. The thing is, the Lakers do have a good idea of what those two will do together. First, Andrew knows the triangle. He passes well within the system, blocks shots and can put the ball in the basket from the post. Second, Pau has had a crash course in the triangle from the center position. He has been at the end of the line of deployment, getting dished to. Now, all he will have to do is think from the other end of the line of deployment he’s been playing on. (The line of deployment runs from the center to the forward on the wing.) In a way, having Pau start the triangle from the center then move to forward has probably quickened his learning curve. It has given him time to absorb the motion while still contributing to the team in a meaningful way. There is no reason to think that, at this point, Pau and Bynum can’t click on first team like Pau did with the rest of the team. If that happens you’re talking about a massive win streak until teams can figure out the weakness. And if you can see that possibility and could choose the timing of it…well, who wants to be the NBA version of the Colorado Rockies?

“East, West, just points of the compass, each as stupid as the other.” -Dr. No

Which brings me to the diabolical genius that is Biz Markie Phil Jackson. My entire line of thinking may be delusional, probably is. But at the very least Phil has taken actual uncertainty about the team’s health and played with it in the press. Given Phil’s history this creates doubt in the opposing team’s minds. “Maybe he is up to something?” He has taken a perceived weakness and used it as a weapon. Not many coaches bother to even try doing stuff like that.

This whole post is so speculative, I almost didn’t put it up. I fully realize it’s the pop psychology version of the trade machine.

But I’ve got this feeling we should pay attention to that man behind the curtain, because in this version of the story, I think his hot air balloon can take all of us home.

-Rob L.

44 Shots

Rob L. —  January 15, 2008

44. That’s how many shots Kobe took to score 48 points in the circus ring known as Key Arena Monday night.

Was it too many? Is the sky falling? Has my agent called me back?

Here are the Lakers individual offensive stats from the contest:

EFG% factors in 3-pointers, TS% factors in free throws, ORTG is points per 100 possessions, POS% is the percentage of team possessions a player uses

PLAYER	        EFG%	TS%	ORTG	POS%
D. Fisher	60.00%	60.00%	117.57	7.15%
K. Bryant	50.00%	50.98%	100.74	35.98%
L. Odom	        20.00%	20.00%	67.5	15.66%
L. Walton	16.67%	29.07%	108.8	7.44%
K. Brown	75.00%	75.30%	118.19	7.49%
R. Turiaf	60.00%	78.13%	132.73	9.46%
T. Ariza	58.33%	65.41%	121.67	6.65%
J. Farmar	100.00%	100.00%	199.27	4.84%
J. Crittenton	50.00%	58.14%	122.37	5.33%

Here is Kobe’s season average going into Seattle:

PLAYER	        EFG%	TS%	ORTG	POS%
K. Bryant  	48.57%	56.08%	110.48	24.48%

Just for a fun comparison, here is the season average for another run-of-the-mill NBA player:

PLAYER	        EFG%	TS%	ORTG	POS%
L. James  	50.94%	55.98%	113.18	23.94%

First, notice that Kobe wasn’t taking all those shots because his teammates were letting him down. Far from it. Only Lamar Odom had an off night offensively. (The whole team had an off night defensively.) Even Luke, who had a terrible shooting night, had a respectable ORtg due to his 7 assists.

Kobe also stayed pretty efficient. His ORtg was down roughly 10 points, but that was accompanied by a roughly 10% increase in possession usage. Your average player does not come close to trading a point of efficiency for a percentage point of usage at that end of the scale. Most players slide into oblivion if they try to go above their optimal norm. Lamar would be a great example. His season average is an ORtg of 104.77 with a POS% of 11.60%. Check his line above against that.

Kobe only had 7 FTA and made 4. That is plain ridiculous. Usually when Kobe puts up 48 or so, a good chunk of that will come at the line. Tonight, only a paltry 4 points.

So when I look at these numbers, I can conclude that Kobe rocks the casbah. He may have taken a lot of shots, but they were for the most part good ones/he was having one of those nights. He just couldn’t have kept up his efficiency levels if he was taking a lot of ill-advised shots. (Though to be fair, for most players every other shot Kobe takes would be ill-advised.) His teammates stayed involved and ran the offense well. Furthermore, while watching the game I never felt that Kobe was trying to do too much. It all seemed to flow fairly naturally, though I wouldn’t argue too hard over the final two minutes and OT. But that’s why the man gets paid.

Oh, that and having the Lakers on top of the Western Conference.

-Rob L.

LO He practiced Thursday. He felt great. He wants to get back on the court. Judging from his radio sound bites, even more so than we want him back. I haven’t seen anything official, but Lamar Odom should be in uniform for the first time since December 10th. And it couldn’t come at a better moment…

This Time It’s Personal Tonight the Lakers face the Charlotte Bobcats. They’re last in the Southeast Division. They have the third worst offense in the NBA. Their defense isn’t much better. But the last time these teams faced off in Charlotte, they handed the Lakers a triple overtime loss, 133-124.

That game took place on December 29th, so the Lakers were without Lamar. The Laker defense was awful in a game that became a shootout. The Bobcats had an offensive rating of 148.7 that night, when they only average 102.8. Part of the reason why is because Emeka Okafor owned the paint with 22 points and 25 rebounds. Gerald Wallace burned them for 28 points, Matt Carroll for 27 and (continuing the Lakers quick guard weakness) Raymond Felton for 22.

Out Of Whack The Lakers also had four players score in double digits. Smush had 12, Luke 14, Kwame 11 and Kobe had 58. Yes, 58. While I normally love that sort of thing, on that night, it was a bad sign. Without the whole team involved in the offense, they seemed to lack focus on the defensive end. You know things are wacky on a night where the Lakers have 8 steals and 11 blocked shots, yet still give up 105 in regulation.

The Good News The team still needs to look out for Felton and Wallace (who recently returned from injury), but this game is at Staples. And did I mention that Lamar Odom is supposed to playing tonight?

That 3OT game should have lit a fire under the Lakers’ butts. I just can’t see how they let the Bobcats take one at home. I’d say this game has a 40% chance of becoming an And1 mixtape on the offensive side. But what I’d love to see, is a nailed-down Lakers defense that’s been re-energized by the return of Odom.

-Rob

Welcome Back We all want to know if Lamar Odom will return to the court this Friday against the Bobcats. Well, judging by this LA Times article, Odom should be ready to roll. Practice on Wednesday seemed to go well for him. Kwame Brown is another story. It looks like we may have to wait for his return a little bit longer.

Mid-Season Report Ladies and Gentlemen, the Lakers have played 42 games out of an 82 game season. That’s about half-way through the year. I am happy to report that the state of the Lakers is strong, indeed. They hold a 27-15 record which is currently good enough for the 5th playoff seed in the West. They have accomplished this in spite of Lamar Odom missing 21 games, and Kwame Brown missing 18 games. All in all, not too shabby.

The Highlights Being at the half-way mark started me thinking about the best plays so far this year for the Lakers. There have been many great ones, but I think this one is my favorite. It may not be Kobe’s most spectacular dunk ever. But I feel that blowing by “Kobe-stopper” Bowen to jam it over Duncan more than makes up for any lack of theatrics. It’s such a power dunk I can hear Kobe thinking, “Yeah!” as he does it.

Now I know everyone out there has their own favorite play in mind. Please post them up in the comments section. I’d love to hear them.

-Rob

I Beg To Differential

Rob L. —  January 24, 2007

Rankings, Rankings, Rankings The NBA is far enough into the season that rankings such as Stein, Hollinger, Sagarin and FOTS (Friend of the Site) Knickerblogger generate heated debate. We the fans often go with our gut in response to outsiders ranking our team.

“Come on, Hollinger! The Lakers aren’t even in the top ten. They’re totally a top ten team.”

As we yell at the top of our lungs, the Staterati attempt to explain the why and how of their systems. There are real differences among the rankings, but one thing you’ll hear just about everyone mention is point differential.

A Win Is A Win, Right? The concept is simple. How much has a team outscored its’ opponents by? This idea migrated to basketball via Bill James. James found a strong correlation between runs scored/allowed and winning percentage in baseball. You can find the formula James used, as well as Dean Oliver’s basketball version here. Because this formula predicts team success fairly accurately, many use it to state what a team’s expected win % is.

And the short hand version of that is, “What’s that team’s point differential?”

Best In The West Which brings us to the debate raging over which team is currently tops in the Western Conference. The three teams in contention are the Mavs, Suns and Spurs. For whatever reason, most people (myself included) think of the Spurs as a little too old. This leaves the Mavs and Suns. Some go with record and pick the Mavs. But there are those out there that look at the point differential and pick the Suns.

All statistics compiled through Monday January 22, 2007

Mavs 34-8, +7.1
Suns 32-8, +8.9

The Mavs had played two more games than the Suns, but their records were comparable. Yet the Suns, on average, beat their opponents by 8.9 points per game. The Mavs, only by 7.1. In fact, the Suns sported the the biggest point differential in the NBA. And that’s just points per game. If we break it down into offensive and defensive ratings (points per 100 possessions) the Suns sport a +10.4 differential and the Mavs +7.7. The Suns are even further out ahead.

Here’s why I think that doesn’t tell the real story in this case.

Strength of Schedule Phoenix has had a much weaker schedule than Dallas to this point. Here’s how it breaks down.

Mavs vs Top 10 Teams 12-6, vs Top 16 18-6
Suns vs Top 10 Teams 4-7, vs Top 16 12-7

Sagarin’s Top 10 Teams are, in order: Dallas, Phoenix, San Antonio, Utah, Houston, LA Lakers, Chicago, Washington, Denver and Detroit. The Top 16 include: Cleveland, Orlando, Minnesota, Indiana, Toronto and New Jersey. If you look only at win-loss record, everything would stay the same except that the Bulls and Cavs change places in the 10/16 breakdown.

The first thing you’ll notice is that Dallas has played 18 games out of 42 against Top 10 teams. 24 out of 42 against Top 16 teams. That’s slightly more than half against the top half of the NBA. Phoenix has played only 11 games out of 40 against the Top 10. They played 19 of 40 against the Top 16, which is much more comparable to Dallas’ schedule. But it is clear that Dallas has faced more elite competition. My thought then, is that the Suns point differential is in part so high because they have beaten up on lowly teams.

The Test What I did was look at the Mavs first 42 games and the Suns first 40. (I know, the sample isn’t identical, but I’m just looking for close estimates.) I compiled point differentials for both teams against Top 10 teams and Top 16 teams. I further compiled two sets of Top 10 numbers: One where the Bulls were in it, the other had the Cavs instead. My hope was to see how the two teams played against similar opponents. Here’s what I found:

Mavs Top 10(Bulls) +2.11, Top 10(Cavs) +1.53, Top 16 +3.83 points per game
Suns Top 10(Bulls) -0.27, Top 10(Cavs) +1.36, Top 16 +5 point per game

And if we switch to offensive rating:

Mavs Top 10(Bulls) +2.39, Top 10 (Cavs) +1.73, Top 16 +4.33
Suns Top 10(Bulls) -0.29, Top 10(Cavs) +1.43, Top 16 +5.25

In both examples the Suns still hold the edge in point differential against the Top 16. But if we look at the Top 10 the Mavs hold the advantage. So at the moment, I’d have to say they are the better team. After Phoenix plays some more Top 10 teams I might come to a different conclusion. But I reserve judgment for now.

[Neither team has that many outlier games. The Suns had one win by 19 and another by 30. But most were closer to ten or less. The same is true of the Mavs who had wins of 27, 19 and 19 along with offsetting losses of 31 and 22 (the first was early season).]

Wrap It Up, Man! Point differential makes sense. It is a useful tool that has proven itself over time. But we must be careful not to use it without thinking. The current Mavs-Suns case is an example of how other factors can corrupt point differential.

Oh yeah. The Lakers are 9-7 against the Top 10, 17-7 against the Top 16. But their point differential is only…

“Whatever. The Lake Show’s going all the way, baby!

-Rob