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Lakers vs. Pacers: Preview & Chat

Zephid —  November 28, 2010

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Records: Lakers 13-3, Pacers 707
Offensive ratings: Lakers 110.6, Pacers 100.2
Defensive ratings: Lakers 100.6, Pacers 96.6
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Pacers: Darren Collison, Mike Dunleavy, Danny Granger, Josh McRoberts, Roy Hibbert.
Injuries: Lakers: Andrew Bynum, Theo Ratliff
Pacers: Jeff Foster

The Lakers Coming in: As we’ve seen over the past couple weeks, when the Jazz get down by 19, they have you right where they want you. After easily their worst shooting night of the season, what better way to bounce back then against Indiana at home, considering the Pacers have never won at Staples Center. However, even after shooting 4-15 from three point range, the Lakers are still second best in 3pt % for the season at 42.4%. While the Lakers are still in the middle of the pack in defense efficiency (102.9), they are still league best in offensive efficiency (112.6). These numbers will probably balance out in the coming weeks when Andrew Bynum finally returns, but for now, the Lakers remain a team that wins using their offense.

The Pacers Coming in: The Pacers have been playing excellent ball coming in to today’s game, blowing out the other LA team, Cleveland, and the Nazgul, with two losses by a combined 8 points to OKC and Orlando. While Darren Collison hasn’t lit the world on fire, Roy Hibbert has emerged as a quality big man, averaging 15 points, 9 rebounds, and 2 blocks a game. And while Hibbert’s foot speed is “questionable” at best (check out this utterly humiliating video showing how badly he gets burned by Brad frickin Miller), he has helped put Indiana in the top 10 in defensive efficiency (100.3), with a big gulf between them and the 11th ranked Lakers (102.9).

Blogs: Jared Wade at Eight Points, Nine Seconds, puts out quality Pacers-centric work in addition to his contributions to Hardwood Paroxysm and his other blog, the aforementioned Both Teams Played Hard.

Keys to game: When the Pacers get hot, they destroy (just ask Miami). Even though the Lakers shoot a much better percentage from three (42.4% to the Pacers 37%), the Pacers actually have slightly more 3PM per game (9.0 compared to the Lakers 8.9); it just takes them 3.5 extra attempts per game to do it. And while most of the damage comes from Danny Granger (2.7 3PM per game), Mike Dunleavy (1.9), James Posey (1.8), and Brandon Rush (1.1) are all highly capable distance bombers. And speaking of Danny Granger, he’s the f’ing man on this team. 22 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, and capable of going off for 30+ on a given night, Granger can catch fire in a hurry and bury opposing teams. And despite my best attempts, Reed adamantly refuses to trade Granger to me in our FB&G Fantasy league (c’mon, who wouldn’t take Wilson Chandler, Tim Duncan, and Aaron Brooks for Granger?).

However, the Pacers do have a weakness, and that is slippery hands. 24.9% of their possessions end with a turnover, with 15.4 total giveaway’s per game. Granger and Collison are the usual culprits (since they handle the ball so much), but it really doesn’t help when your big men, Hibbert and backup Jeff Foster, are averaging 4.6 turnovers a game combined. The Lakers like to get their hands on balls (wow that sounds dirty), so if the Pacers are to have any chance, they are going to need to limit the mishandles.

The Pacers are also a relatively poor offensive rebounding team, ranking 25th in offensive rebound rate (23.7), but are monsters on the defensive glass, ranking 3rd (77.1). As we all know, the Lakers have a tendency to get worked on the defensive boards (69.5 DRR, good for 4th last), so as long as someone gets a body on Hibbert (3.4 OR per game) , the Lakers shouldn’t get crushed on the glass.

As usual, if the Lakers play their game, they should win comfortably. But if the threes start bombing and the Lakers stop running their offense, this could be a slugfest.

Where you can watch: Fox West at 6:30 p.m.

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As it turns out, Darius lied about there not being a recap. Like Willis Reed limping out of the locker room in the Garden, I’m here to save the day (or ruin the day, from the Laker perspective?).

Speaking of saving the day, the Lakers were kept afloat by Shannon Brown’s red hot first half, then carried home by Steve Blake’s clutch shooting. When Brown sank a three after checking in at the end of the 1st quarter, we had no idea we were in store for a bombardment. He sank 3 threes in the 2nd quarter, finishing 5-10 from three for the game, one huge three coming late in the 4th quarter to put the game away.

During the 1st half, the Lakers were really struggling in their half-court offense, with much of the credit going to Joakim Noah. Noah was so active in the post on defense that the first two possessions that the Lakers attempted to get the ball into Gasol led to turnovers. Because of that, Gasol never got into a rhythm (although his effort was questionable from the outset, given his matador defense and lack of lift on his rebounds). Chalk it up to a bad game by Gasol, but Noah simply outworked him on offense and defense. If not for Kobe’s quick start (the first 7 Laker points) and Shannon Brown’s explosion in the 2nd, the Lakers probably would’ve been down by double digits going into halftime.

At the start of the 3rd, it looked like the Lakers were going to pull away, going on an 8-0 run to start the 3rd to go up by 10. But then the Bulls stormed back, riding the power and speed of Derrick Rose. Rose simply got into the lane at will, due to both lackluster perimeter defense and poor help from the interior. The Lakers were unable to wall off the paint, and Rose made them pay with lay-up after lay-up. It wasn’t until halfway through the 4th quarter that the Lakers seemed to figure Rose out, successfully walled off the paint, and made the Bulls take some tough shots.

Other than the defensive improvement, it was great to see the Lakers actually run the triangle in the 4th quarter. With the game tied at 79 with 9 minutes to go, Kobe came in from his regular 4th quarter rest and immediately went to work in the pinch post. The Lakers ran the most basic triangle set, with the lag pass followed by a cross court cut by Kobe into the pinch post. 15 feet from the rim with his back to the basket, Kobe could survey the floor and see where the double teams were coming from. If they came from the top, Kobe would dribble out and find the open man. If they came from the inside, Kobe would hit the cutters going toward the rim. If the double never came, Kobe simply rose up and hit shots. Kobe’s excellent play led to 4 open threes (1 by Brown, 2 by Blake, 1 by Barnes), as well as a jump shot for himself and free throws for Barnes. This put the game at 95-83, the Lakers largest lead of the game, pretty much sealing the game.

Lost in all of this was the excellent play of Lamar Odom, who had 21 points on 7-13 shooting with 8 rebounds. Even though the Lakers had three starters that were basically offensive non-factors (Pau, Fisher, Artest), they still played very active defense, getting 9 steals and 9 blocks as a team. While this wasn’t the prettiest of wins, the Lakers managed to grind it out and execute down the stretch. They also were able to contain Derrick Rose during the key 4-minute stretch that put the Lakers up by 12. Just a good, solid, grind-it-out, team victory. Can’t really ask for much more.

(With Darius and Phillip having the night off, you’re stuck with me, Zephid, giving you your game recap)

Well, I really drew the short stick when it comes to game recaps. To be completely honest, I mostly stopped watching after the 3rd quarter (I feel the same way about writing this recap as Stu Lantz feels about 4th Quarter free throws, Do we have to?). The Lakers were so good, so dominant, that the only thing left in doubt after about the 6 minute mark of the 3rd quarter was the margin of victory. It’s not like the Warriors are a bad team; They’re above .500 and are in second place in the Pacific Division. But if the Warriors had played well and the Lakers had played average, they may have had a chance. When the Lakers play really well and the Warriors play poorly, they have absolutely no chance.

With David Lee out, the Lakers had a crushing advantage in the interior (as opposed to just a normal advantage). 56 points in the paint, including 28 from Gasol, was simply too much for the under-sized and under-manned Warriors. Gasol also had a perfect game, going 10/10 from the floor and 8/8 from the line to go with 9 boards, 5 assists, and 4 blocks, one game after Matt Barnes posted a perfect game against the Timberwolves. Gasol simply had his way with Biedrins for most of the night, using his full repertoire of jump shots, hooks, and scoops.

You can’t really point to any particular Laker and say he had a bad game (except Sasha, because he’s Sasha). Even Artest, who didn’t do much on offense, played lock-down defense on Monta Ellis, helped by the solid hedging of Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol on the inside. Fisher had a strong shooting night, going 4-6, and was very active on the defensive end, gathering 3 steals and a bunch of uncounted deflections. Kobe had a pedestrian 20 point, 6 board, 5 assists night in 27 minutes, but he never forced the action and played very good help defense against Curry and Ellis. And Lamar had himself another double-double of 15 and 10 with a steal and 2 blocks.

Then there was the bench that once again came in and extended the lead. It’s almost getting to the point where you expect every Shannon Brown shot to go in. He had 17 points on 7/10 shooting and 3/3 from three point range, adding to his resume for Most Improved Player. Once again, Steve Blake ran the offense, netting 6 assists, while Matt Barnes brought the energy with 3 boards, 2 steals, and a block. Really, I could copy and paste most of the game recaps about the bench from the past few weeks, and it would be almost the same; these guys have been that consistently good.

There’s really not that much you can take away from a game like this. The Warriors put up a stinker and the Lakers played one of their best games of the year. Those two things added together get you a 28 point blowout. The Lakers played stellar defense and ran their offense spectacularly. Now if only they could get 32 assists on 44 baskets while holding the other team to 35% shooting every game…

Guess Who….

Zephid —  November 8, 2010

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With the Lakers starting out 7-0, I decided to take a look at some statistics just to see what was interesting. For a little fun, let’s play a game of Guess Who…

…is leading the Lakers in PER and FGA?

Answer: Pau Gasol

We all know that Kobe was not 100% at the start of this season, so fans and experts alike were calling for more Pau. While this has been the case for some time, it hasn’t seemed to really happen until now. Pau has a team-leading PER of 28.8, ranking him 3rd in the league behind Dwight Howard (31.9) and Chris Paul (30.4). Kobe has been a none-too-shabby 25.5, but Pau’s current PER is higher than any year Kobe has played, his highest being 28.0 in 2005-2006, or as we know it around here, that year Kobe dropped 81 on the Raptors.

With Pau’s massive uptick in offensive efficiency, it’s amazing to find that he is also the team-leader is FGA per game. With 17.9 FGA per game, Pau is averaging almost 5 more shots a game compared to last year’s 13.0. He is also averaging career highs in assists (5.0) and points (24.1) per game, while having his highest usage rate (24.8) of any year that he’s been a Laker.

How has Pau been so effective? Other than the career high in assists, Pau has drastically improved his inside and mid-range games. Via HoopData, we see that Pau is taking twice as many shots at <10 ft (7.4) compared to last year (3.7), while making 51.9% of them, which is his best mark over the past 5 years. From 10-15 ft, Pau is shooting 54.2% while taking 3.4 shots (both his best marks over the past 5 years).

So while we can expect most of these numbers to decline a bit as the season wears on, it’s a good sign that the Lakers are finally using Pau to the fullest.

…is leading the Lakers in FG%, 3P%, and rebounds per game?

Answer: Lamar Odom

It’s been no secret that Lamar has taken his World Championship success and translated it into an outstanding start to the season. Lamar’s 11.1 RPG is the best of his career, while his 15.9 PPG is tied for 3rd best. Of course, a lot of Lamar’s increased production comes from his increased minutes due to Andrew Bynum being hurt, but Lamar has also been extraordinarily efficient from the field and from three.

Lamar’s 62.7% FG% ranks him 5th among all players projected to make at least 300 shots this year, and it’s been because he has stopped taking mid-range shots. Via HoopData (again), Lamar has taken zero shots from 10-15 feet, while taking 2.7 shots per game from <10 ft, more than doubling his number last season from that distance. Also, Lamar’s work playing center for Team USA seems to have paid off on his interior play, because he is shooting 68.8% at the rim, compared to 58.5% last year and 63.2% from <10 ft, compared to 47.7% last year.

Perhaps most surprising is Lamar’s absolutely confounding 69.2% from three. Not only is that leading the team (and obviously a career best for Lamar), but only 66.7% of his threes have been assisted, compared to 82.8% being assisted when he shot 31.9% from three last year. Clearly the sample size is small, but Lamar seems to have found a rhythm to his shot this year, so hopefully we won’t see a drastic return to his previous form.

…is shooting 50% or better from three?

Answer: Lamar Odom, Derek Fisher, Shannon Brown, Steve Blake

The last reason (in my opinion) for the Lakers success this early in the year has been their torrential shooting from three-point land. While Pau and Kobe have been crushing opponents with their post games, it has been Odom and Fisher who have been really spacing the floor well and giving them the room to operate (Artest also hasn’t been bad, shooting 39.3%, but just not as crazy good as the rest of the team). Then, the reserves have been coming in and picking up right where the starters left off. We all knew coming into the season that Blake was a good spot up shooter, but Shannon has been a revelation this year. The official Hot Spots stats aren’t up yet for this season, but Shannon has been shooting well from all over the court, most notably on the wings. Maybe Kobe gave Shannon the same regimen he gave to Ariza a couple years ago; His shot has looked so smooth that even Phil Jackson has been impressed. Shannon has become everything that Sasha was a couple years ago, except with less hair and more manly (even though he still has a girl’s name). Frankly, it’s great when you see a young player develop, work hard on his game, and have it show on the court.

The Lakers have been playing exceedingly well to start the season. While a number of defensive mishaps have caused mild concern among the fans, these kinks tend to work themselves out, whether it be from the team just having more practices and games together, or from Andrew Bynum’s eventual (hopeful) return. Defense really is the side of the ball where familiarity matters most, since players have to react to the offensive team. As the Lakers play more games, they should get better and become more cohesive. A Laker fan today has few legitimate complaints; we can only hope that the team continues to improve (as frightening as that could be) and stay healthy for when the real season starts.

-Zephid

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The 2010-2011 NBA schedule has just been released and you can look at the Lakers schedule here courtesy of ESPN.  (Here’s a pdf if you prefer a calendar view). And just like last year, I’m going to supply my input on the Lakers record at each stage of the season, and then we all get to see how wrong I am as the season progresses.  Last year I predicted 67 wins, which the Lakers came up just a little bit short (ok, a lot short) at 57-25, so take these with a massive helping of salt and skepticism.

October-November

Highlights: 10 home, 8 away, 2 back-to-backs, 3-game road trip.

Unlike last year, the Lakers don’t have a torrid home schedule in November.  Of the Lakers first 18 games, only 10 are at home, which is much lower considering some of the 21 of 24 and other ridiculousness we’ve had in the past two seasons.  However, the beginning of the season still has a lot of pillowy soft teams.  For all 18 games in the first two months of the season, only 7 will be against playoff teams from last year, 2 of them against what should be a significantly weaker Suns team due to the departure of Amar’e Stoudemire.  The Lakers have two back-to-backs, with the first one coming on home-away on Nov. 2 against Memphis then at Sacramento, the 2nd coming during a 3-game road trip through Milwaukee and Detroit on Nov. 16 and Minnesota 2 days later.

Prediction: 13-5

December

Highlights: 5 home, 10 away, 4 back-to-backs, 7-game road trip

The Lakers start off the month of December with the 2nd-half of a back-to-back, starting on Nov. 30 at Memphis then at Houston the next night.  After a lonely Friday contest against Sacramento at home, the team will have a home-away against Washington/@Clippers (or should it be home-home?), then embark on a 6 game road trip (7 if you include the Clippers as “on the road”).  The only above .500 team in that group should be Chicago, with the other games coming against New Jersey, Washington, Indiana, Philadelphia, and Toronto.  Three of those teams (NJN, WAS, and PHI) are up-and-coming squads with young players who will be more comfortable at home, and 2 of them are teams that are going nowhere (IND and TOR).  Throw in the fact that there is a back-to-back @Washington/@Indiana, and this looks to be one of those road trips where the Lakers probably should win, but will almost certainly drop a couple that the will cause immense fan heartache.

And then comes the mammoth that most of the league will be waiting for: Miami coming to Staples Center on Christmas Day.  The Lakers have three days off before the game, and two days off afterward, so there will be a long time for us fans to hype up this game and then wallow in its aftermath.  We can only hope that Christmas will be more like 2008 (when the Lakers beat the hated Celtics) and less like 2009 (when Lebron James and the Cavs whomped on the Lakers).  And what’s worse, the Lakers won’t have much time to relax, because they end the month with one last back-to-back @San Antonio/@New Orleans on Dec. 28, both of which should be tough contests.

Prediction: 10-5

January

Highlights: 10 home, 5 away, 3 back-to-backs.

While December should be a tough month for the Lakers, January looks a friendlier with many more home games.  The Lakers do have three back-to-backs, the first against Detroit/@Phoenix on Jan. 4, then Cleveland/@Golden State on Jan. 11, and lastly @Clippers/Oklahoma City (and I thought home-home back-to-backs weren’t allowed…).  That last game should be one of the marquee events of the season, when Kevin Durant brings the Thunder back to Staples for what should be a very exciting contest (plus it’s broadcast on TNT, so that means we get Charles Barkley commentary!).  The team will end the month with a lot of rest, playing only 3 games in 10 nights.  Hopefully this means the team will be rested when they meet the Celtics at the end of the month.

Prediction: 12-3

February

Highlights: 4 home, 9 away, 3 back-to-backs, 7-game road trip.

Ah yes, the Grammy’s Road Trip.  Every February, Staples Center gets taken over by the Grammy’s, exiling the Lakers on their longest road trip of the season.  While the Lakers have had some big wins during the Grammy’s trip over the past few years, this season’s version will be just as torturous.  The road trip starts with New Orleans, then Memphis, then back-to-back against Boston and New York, then back-to-back against Orlando and noted Lakersbane, Charlotte, then Lebron-less Cleveland.  Luckily, the Lakers will get the All-Star break to rest (hopefully Kobe, Pau, and Andrew all make the team and then play the first 5 minutes and quit).  With no rest for the weary, the Lakers will return to a loving embrace from a back-to-back with Atlanta/@Portland, then a return to the raucous Ford Center against the Thunder.

Prediction: 8-5

March-April

Highlights: 12 home, 9 away, 3 back-to-backs, 4-game road trip, 7-game home stand

The 2nd week of March brings us what will probably be the toughest portion of the season.  It’s a 4-games in 7 days road trip, featuring visits to San Antonio, Atlanta (a much better team at home), Miami, and Dallas.  This is the part of the season where everyone is gearing for the playoffs, old teams (like the Lakers) are banged up, and everyone is slowing down due to the wear and tear of the season.  That tough week however is followed by the longest home stand I can remember from recent Laker history.  Over the next three weeks, the Lakers will play only 7 games, all at home, with no back-to-backs.  The games will not be easy, with match-ups against Orlando, Portland, Phoenix, and Dallas, but the Lakers should be well-rested.  And if we know anything about this Lakers team, well-rested means lazy, and lazy means dropping games that we expect them to win.

Hopefully the Lakers will put on their focus caps after a couple restful weeks, because they end the season with 3 back-to-backs, Dallas/@Utah (in which it’s always tough to go east on the 2nd night of a back-to-back), then Utah/@Golden State and San Antonio/@Sacramento to end the season.  Sprinkle in another meeting with Oklahoma City and trip up to the always hostile Rose Garden against Portland, and you’ve got a very difficult run up to the playoffs.  The Lakers stumbled their way into the playoffs last year on a soft schedule; let’s hope the increase in potential playoff opponents will increase their focus.

Prediction: 16-5

Overall Prediction: 59-23

Disagree? Let me know in the comments.  My predictions are entirely my own, completely unscientific, subjective, and biased.

Talkin’ Finances

Zephid —  June 22, 2010

I have to confess something: I’ve been on such a high since the Lakers won that epic Game 7 last Thursday that I’ve been scouring the net for any Lakers coverage I can find.  To this end, I even watched the parade on the Fox11 stream online.  After forcing myself to listen to statements like “Derek Fisher could be coming back for 7-8 million” from the broadcast crew, I decided I needed to get some thoughts out about the Lakers financial situation.

Update: I messed up on the calculation the first time.  Thanks to any_one_mouse for pointing it out.  I should proofread more…

First, some assumptions.  If we assume that Adam Morrison’s rights are renounced (as certain as certain gets), Jordan Farmar’s rights are renounced ($2.8 mil), and Shannon Brown opts out ($2.2 mil), both of which are highly probable, the Lakers will have $81,728,202 in salary under contract (not including bonuses).  The luxury tax should come in at around $68 million according to the NBA front office.  Doing the quick math, this implies that the Lakers will have $94 million in player costs this upcoming season.  This is a significantly less than last year’s $112 million, but it is also assuming that the Lakers don’t re-sign Derek Fisher, DJ Mbenga, or Josh Powell.  Needless to say, the Lakers are taking it up the wazoo from the luxury tax, and every dollar that we spend is doubled (refer to Larry Coon’s Salary Cap FAQ for more details).

This also includes the Mid-Level Exception, the only tool available to the Lakers to sign free agents due to being over the salary cap (way over in our case).  The value of the MLE is dependent on the average salary of all NBA players, and usually floats somewhere between $5-6 million.  In the case of the Lakers (and any team over the luxury tax), the use of the MLE is actually $10-12 million dollars due to the doubling effect of the luxury tax.  So if the Lakers actually want to use the MLE, they’ll have to keep in mind that doing so puts them at $104-106 million dollars in player costs next season (and even moreso beyond).

Of the 6 players listed above, the one’s that I think are “most likely” to return are Derek Fisher and Josh Powell.  As Kobe stated in his postgame interviews, Derek Fisher is the heart and soul of this team, and I find it difficult envisioning this Laker team without Fisher next year.  Rest assured, Fisher won’t be signing for $7-8 million like the Fox11 crew were trying to shove down my throat.  The minimum salary for a 10+ year veteran (Fisher is a 14 year veteran) will be $1.35 million, and the best part is that it doesn’t count against the luxury tax, so no doubling.  I have an inkling that Fisher will be fine with $1.35 million, especially considering that other teams are not likely to pay him any more than that.

The one thing supporting Josh Powell’s return is simply this: Kobe Bryant likes him.  As highlighted in an excellent article by Dave McMenamin, Powell is one of the few players that Kobe has genuinely liked as a person and not just as a player, and Phil Jackson also praised Powell’s work ethic during the playoffs.  However, Powell will be a 5-year veteran after this season, putting his minimum salary almost squarely at $1 million.  By comparison, a 2nd round draft pick will make $473,604 next season, less than half of what Powell will make.  This is also the main reason why I don’t expect DJ Mbenga to be back.  While DJ has been a fan favorite, his production can easily be re-produced by a big selected at either #43 or #58 (the Lakers 2 second round picks), and at half the cost.  Whether Powell sticks around will largely be dependent on Kobe’s endorsement.

Assuming the Lakers re-sign Derek Fisher and Josh Powell for their respective minimum salaries and they keep both 2nd round picks, that brings the Lakers total player costs to $97 million, exactly the same as last year’s player costs.  (Update: The veteran’s minimum exception is only the amount above the 2-yr veteran’s minimum amount, so the Lakers still have to pay the 2-yr veteran’s minimum to both Fisher and Powell if this were to happen.  Thus, the Lakers total player costs would actually be closer to $98-99 million.  Thanks to Exick for the correction). This precludes, however, the usage of the Mid-Level Exception.  The best thing about the Mid-Level Exception is that it can be broken up into pieces.  If the Lakers only want to use $3 mil of the MLE, they can use that much and renounce the rest.  Some names that have been brought up in the comments include Steve Blake, Dorell Wright, and Earl Watson in order to fill the void at PG that would result in Farmar and Brown’s simultaneous departure.  Fisher is also not getting any younger, and the need to groom a suitable replacement grows more pressing with every year (although Fisher really knows how to turn it on during the playoffs).  None of the three guys above deserves a full $5 million in my opinion, so I expect the Lakers to try and sign them or someone like them for a little less than that, say $3-4 million, and pocket the rest.

The one thing to keep in mind is that the Lakers are a business as well as a sports team.  While Dr. Buss has shown the willingness to spend on a winner, he also understands that over-spending can severely handicap a team going forward (the New York Knicks are a great example).  While some moves may make absolute basketball sense, it is often the financial side which wins the day.  It’s getting a deal to make both basketball and financial sense that is the goal.

So I went to visit a buddy from undergrad who now goes to med school in Cleveland, and since I grew up in Pennsylvania, I’ve never been to a Lakers game live.  Thus, I decided it would be a cool idea to get tickets to Lakers-Cavs and we could go see the game together.  My buddy isn’t too big of a basketball fan, but he was up for it since I was so excited to go.

We ate before the game and went to Quicken Loans Arena, arriving at about 6:15.  The game didn’t start till 8:00, but we figured that it would be better to get there early and see warm-ups than to get there late and miss some of the game.  Well, we ended up getting there too early, and we had to wait outside the gates for a good 15 minutes.  We finally got in and got to our seats, which were in the 2nd level, 13 rows up (in other words, way up there).  However, I was so psyched to see the Lakers live that it didn’t matter to me; I was sitting on the edge of my seat trying to make out who was who out on the court.

The Lakers were on the near side and the Cavs were on the far side.  For the Lakers, it was mostly the bench guys on the court: Shannon Brown was practicing jumpers on the wing, Sasha and Fisher were practicing threes in some sort of competition where they shoot around the three point line till they miss, Josh Powell was working on his pick and pops, and Bynum was working on his low-post moves.  Oh yea, and Ammo was running along the midcourt line, for some unknown reason.  Shortly after that, Jordan Farmar came out and started warming up as well.

There were a few striking things I noticed during warm-ups.  First of all, Derek Fisher didn’t miss.  It was just three after three after three, all of them going in.  Second, Farmar’s “warm-up” consisted of near half-court pull-up jumpers.  You wonder where the PUJIT’s come from?  Well Farmar practices them; really bad, long distance, off the dribble PUJIT’s, at least before this game.  After a while, I zoned out from staring, and just sorta sat there waiting for the other guys to show up.

All the Lakers and Cavs left the court, presumably for their pre-game talks with their coaching staffs while I continued to zone.  About 30 minutes before tip-off, both teams returned to the court with their full rosters, forming lay-up lines as I screamed like a giddy school girl when I saw Kobe.  Then, it happened.

I wasn’t quite sure why at first, considering there was a bunch of ambient noise in the arena, but the crowd just roared.  Then I saw it was because he had arrived: Lebron.  The crowd was screaming with adulation, and Lebron ate it up.  He strutted; he had fun with the crowd; he really gave them a show.  After his ritual half-court shots which sent the crowd into an absolute frenzy (one of the last ones finally banked in), the two teams got ready for tip-off.

Every time the big screen showed Lebron, the crowd erupted with applause.  It didn’t matter what he was doing or where he was; the crowd loved him.  When J.J. Hickson was dunking on the Lakers, the applause didn’t even come close to when the big screen showed Lebron.  And when Lebron had his two And1’s in the 1st half, the crowd absolutely exploded.  It didn’t matter what the rest of the Cavs did; everything revolved around Lebron.  The Cavs take the lead in the middle of the third after trailing the whole game?  Not even 50% of the sound for a random Lebron appearance on the big screen.  The only thing that came close?  Anderson Varejao’s game-winning foul draw.  Otherwise, the Cavs fans simply couldn’t cheer enough for Lebron.  I don’t think I’ll ever hear a crowd cheer louder than when Lebron hit the jumper late in the 4th to put the Cavs up by 7.  When your pants start vibrating, you know it’s loud.

As for the game, I couldn’t really give you any analysis; being there live, I just lost all objectivity and got sucked into the moment.  Every play became larger than it actually was, and every possession seemed like life or death.  It didn’t help that you get almost no stats and can’t keep track of anything, but the whole experience just became surreal after a while.  I did notice the Shaq repeatedly abused our front line, the Cavs cutters picked our back line of defense apart, and Anderson Varejao did all the little  things to beat our bigs.  But, perhaps the biggest but of all, was that Lebron was able to shoot over our defense, draining multiple threes and jumpers, the part of his game which was perhaps his biggest weakness.

Even though the Lakers lost, being live at this game was an amazing experience.  It was tense throughout, with some pretty decent play from both sides.  However, I think the Laker fan I met in the bathroom who almost got into a fight with a men’s room full of Cavs fans put it best:  “It ain’t gonna matta’ when Lebron goes to New York and ya’ll got nothin’ to cheer about.”

If Lebron leaves Cleveland, basketball will be dead in that city.  They adore him, maybe more than LA adores Kobe.  Whoever wins the championship this year, does it really matter when you think about it on this scale?  If the Lakers do win this year, sure we’ll be happy.  But if Cleveland loses this year, Lebron may leave because of it.  And if he’s ever gone, I asked myself honestly: what will they have to cheer for?  Really makes you think about what’s important in sports.

First off, sad news about Greg Oden losing this season to a fractured patella.  Much as I dislike the Blazers, sports-hate only goes so far (I feel so dirty using a Bill Simmons term).  We Laker fans can sympathize with seeing your young big man go down for the season; it’s a feeling like a punch to the gut that won’t go away.  Best wishes to Oden and a quick, full recovery.

Now, I wonder: after a pretty busy summer, it seems like Mitch Kupchak has it pretty easy these days.  However, I wanted to take a look at what is potentially on his plate and I came up with three things: getting Kobe to sign a contract extension, shedding salary, and bringing in someone to improve the bench play.

1.) According to the LATimes, the Lakers have offered Kobe a max extension, which he summarily rejected.  In a recent article for the NYTimes, Larry Coon tells us that this was probably the smart move, given that the CBA will expire in 2 years at which time the formula for the calculation of maximum salary (Kobe’s salary) may be decreased.  All signs point to Bryant coming back to LA (he’d be pretty crazy to leave), so it’s just a matter of when and at what price.  Perhaps we should just take our minds off it with another look at the ridiculousness from Friday night.  Boy am I glad I didn’t go to bed early.

2.) Going along with our recent discussion of the Taco Unit (love the name, btw) and Adrian Wojnarowski’s couple lines about the Lakers FO wanting to cut salary, I figured I would also take a look at his options to purely cut salary.

Disclaimer: There will be no overt trade speculation allowed in this thread.  This means no statements in a form isomorphic to “the Lakers should trade Player X for Player Y.”  In short, I want to limit the discussion of players.

According to Wojnarowski, Mitch Kupchak is looking to cut salary from the Lakers monolithic $91, 377,313 pay roll.  Frankly, I wouldn’t blame the FO is this was the case.  With a pay roll that size, I can imagine Dr. Buss staring at his poker funds while sitting at some table second-guessing an all-in decision.  He has already shelled out a ton of cash for the team; asking much more of him is just greedy.

So what does this mean for potential trades?  Well, it means that the Lakers are looking to send salary to other teams without taking back salary in exchange.  There are two ways to do this: First, trade to a team with cap space like was done last year with Chris Mihm being sent to Memphis.  Second, trade with a team over the cap that has a large enough Traded Player Exception and is willing to part with it in exchange for a player.

The first option is a little bleak.  The salary cap is currently $57.7 million and according to HoopsHype.com, only 4 teams are under that level: New Jersey (56.7), Portland (56.7), Memphis (54.7), and OKC (52).  New Jersey doesn’t want to take on any more salary because they want cap room for the Bonanza of 2010, Portland’s only intent seems to be moving Andre Miller, and OKC has been extraordinarily frugal during this time of recession.  So unless Chris Wallace feels like helping out the Lakers (*coughagaincough*), I don’t see the FO going this route.  (Note: in the event that one of these teams does accept one of our players for “free,” they do have to give us something in return.  This is usually the form of a heavily protected 2nd round pick, similar to what we received in the Mihm Trade.  Also, we would probably have to shell out some cash to help pay the outgoing player’s salary ($3 mil max), but this will still save us money due to luxury tax payments doubling all of our salaries at this point.)

As for the TPE option, I did a little searching and it turns out that ShamSports.com has an excellent list of Traded Player Exceptions by team, including name, monetary value, and expiration date.  Of these, the only teams with large enough TPE’s ($4 mil if you want to trade away one of our $5 mil players) are: Miami (Banks), New Orleans (Butler), and Orlando (Turkoglu).  Of these teams, New Orleans wants to cut salary now (because they kinda stink and are way over the tax line), and Orlando’s payroll is comparable to ours.  So in other words, we’ve got one potential dance partner (Miami), and they’re definitely not taking on any contracts that extend beyond this year.  (Note: According to Larry Coon, TPE’s cannot be combined.  So even if Chicago wanted to take a a hot, heaping, steaming pile of Adam Morrison, they wouldn’t be able to with just their TPE’s.)

So what’s the rub?  Even given that Mitch Kupchak has made the bench available basically for free, the number of teams that would actually take one of them without us taking any salary in return is very, very small (by my count, 2).

3.) That brings us to the last point: improving bench play.  This may involve trading some of our current Taco Unit guys and maybe even rotation players like Farmar, ShanWOW, and maybe even Fisher.  However, for each person we send out, we would either have to sign another player for a minimum contract, or receive at least as many players in return.  This makes trading Mbenga or Powell pretty pointless, considering they make the minimum and we would have to replace them with a live body anyway, ruling either of them out.  Luke is still hurt, and I’m pretty sure most teams wouldn’t want him for $20 mil over 4 years, so he’s out as well.  And as I said before, no one wants Sasha, even for free.  Most teams would probably rather take a swig of elephant poop juice than take on Sasha’s contract (and Sasha’s play, for that matter).

For me, that leaves us with 4 potential assets that we can move: Derek Fisher’s expiring contract, Ammo’s EC, Farmar, and ShanWOW.  I’m pretty sure we would all riot and storm the Staples center if Kupchak traded ShanWOW, so that rules him out.  Fisher also seems like he’d be tough to lose, considering he knows the system and is a great locker room guy (However, if he’s willing to get traded, take a buy-out, and wait 30 days without flapping his mouth, Jerry Stackhouse-style, there is potential for a great trade for us).  Farmar has also been playing pretty well over the past few weeks, and it’ll be really hard on Fisher for us to part with his primary back-up without bringing someone back to take off some of the load.  So that leaves us with Ammo’s EC.

So what can we do with Ammo’s EC?  First, it is somewhat unlikely that we’ll trade an EC for an EC: one team is going to end up screwed because salaries have to be within 25% of one another.  However, I could see someone wanting to send us a more talented player with a larger EC (say around 6 mil) in exchange for Ammo, saving them some $2 mil this year in salary and luxury tax payments (this kinda defeats the purpose of wanting to cut salary, so it’s also unlikely that Mitch would do this unless he gets an offer he can’t refuse).  However, it is much more likely that we would have to trade Ammo in exchange for some player with a multiple year contract.  If we do this, we’ll end up taking on just as much salary next year as we did this year, which doesn’t seem like it would float Dr. Buss’ boat. So the Lakers may be better off just eating Ammo’s salary this year and letting his contract expire off their books.

In summary, if Mitch is really serious about cutting salary, he’s got his work cut out for him.  Then again, I thought trading VladRad’s contract would be impossible, and Mitch turned him into Ammo’s valuable EC and ShanWOW, so I guess you can’t really rule out anything in this league.

Zephid
P.S.: According to Kurt, Lamar and ShanWOW are not included in Mitch Kupchak’s “Free Bench Players” Giveaway.