Archives For Basketball Strategy

What the Stats Show Us

Bill Bridges —  November 26, 2009

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Since the days of Show Time (and even from the West/Baylor/Chamberlain era), the Lakers have been known as an offensive team. Despite the mantras of “Defensive wins championships” and “No rebounds, no rings”, most fans and all of the press basically ignored these aphorisms as it applies to the Lakers. No, the Laker s are about scoring, and scoring in spectacular ways.
Well if the 2009/2010 Lakers continue at current pace, they are about to shatter  this perception. With basically the same personnel*, they have transformed from an outstanding offensive team that played very good defense to a mediocre offensive team that plays outstanding defense.
In 08/09, LAL was ranked 3rd at offensive efficiency at 112.8 and 6th at defensive efficiency at 104.7. The league average was 108.3. This year the Lakers are 19th on offensive at 105.5 and 3rd on defense at 100. The league average is 106.0. Had the bench been able to maintain large 4th quarter leads, undoubtedly both the offensive and defensive ratings would be better. However, this marginal increase might have pushed the Lakers to 15 – 17th on offense whereas on defense the Lakers would be 1st.
Even with the spotty bench play, the Lakers would be #1 on defense if they had a higher Defensive Rebounding Rate because of their excellent defensive EFG% and . Although recently improved, the Lakers’ Defensive rebounding rate is  .712 which is 24th in the league. Offensive rebounds create shots at the rim or shots while the defense is in scramble mode (remember Tim Thomas’s back breaking 3 in game 6 when the Lakers couldn’t handle the defensive rebound?) and increases the defensive team’s Ortg.
So the questions that come to mind are:
1. Why is the defense so good
2. Why are they so poor at defensive rebounding
3. Why has the offense slowed (and why is the Ortg so much lower)
The answers to all three points are related.  It is no secret that the Lakers have thrived in the paint this year.  Using the NBA hotspots designations, last year the 42% of the Lakers’ FGA was at the rim (for a FG% of 58%). This year whilst shooting a slightly lower FG% of 55%(no doubt due to Kobe’s dominance and Pau’s absence), 44% of their shots are at the rim. No doubt this increases with Pau’s return.
Shots in the paint slows and disrupts the opponent’s offense. Short shots do not create long rebounds. Long rebounds fuels fast breaks. Made baskets is the best catalyst of good defense as the offense begins by taking the ball out of the rim. This is where EFG% is misleading. I’d much rather have a team shoot 60% from 2 exclusively than 40% from 3 even though the EFG% is the same because there are 20% less missed shots that could possibly create transition offense for the opposition.
So shots in the paint improves the Lakers’ ability to get back and get their defense set. Bynum, especially has been hustling back. In addition, the team seems to have a coherent scheme on defending the screenroll. They do not stick to one scheme. Sometimes the defender goes under the screen, other times he fights over. When he fights over, the big consistently shows aggressively and gets back to his man. The Lakers have been very good this year at reducing penetration. Reducing penetration and the resulting kick out for a wide-open 3, results in a defensive 3FG% of .297, best in the league. Their overall FG% defensive isn’t too shabby either at .421, second in the league. Fisher’s perimeter defense has been outstanding – not coincidentally aided by Bynum’s improvement on the show and recovery phases of screenroll defense. Farmar has been surprisingly good also, especially at fighting over screens – a skill I thought he would never ever get.
So nearly 71% of the opponent’s 3 point shots result in misses. Missed 3 point shots create long rebounds.  Long rebounds’ trajectories are more volatile than short shots.  Remember your high school physics? E = ½ mv^2. A long shot by definition has higher kinetic energy and the bounce is both longer and more erratic. Long erratic bounces create more opportunities for the offensive team to rebound the ball. Also, when teammates expect a miss they crash the boards more. Whereas when every shot is going in teammates begin to jog back on defense. Of course, here Bynum’s eagerness the run down on offense to establish the “seal” on offense does not help him in working harder for a tough rebound.  He has improved markedly in this arena though in the last few games and this has helped as has the guards’ aggressiveness in rebounding long misses (in the Knicks game,  Fisher collected 5 defensive rebounds which must be a season high). So as long as the Laker’s deter post offense, reduce dribble penetration, and rotate out to shooter, opponent’s 3FG% will be low. Pau’s return, better guard rebounding, and more focus from Bynum will help, but the Lakers will not lead the league in Defensive Rebounding Rate.
What about on offense. Surprisingly this year’s Lakers have a higher pace than last year’s,  96 versus 94.3 for 6th fastest in the league.  So why is the Lakers’ offensive so much worse this year than last.:
1. Pau’s absense. An obvious factor as he is such an excellent facilitator.
2. Abysmal shooting by the bench
3. LO has not been posting up. He is very effective posting up on the right block but can’t remember more than a few instances when the Lakers used him in this way. It is as if he expected the spate of 3 point shooting in the finals to carry over. It hasn’t LO has reverted back to the mean. And it hurts.
Now that he is in the second unit, LO should be the go to guy in the post. This will increase his FG% give better  floor balance, and create open perimeter looks. LO will pass out of double teams whereas Bynum has trouble doing so. I look for PJ to set up LO down low more often with the second unit. This will dramatically improve the  offense rather than having him floating around on the perimeter taking  jump shots.  Improved offense,  especially low post offense, means better defense. This will help to improve point #2.
I could write an entire post detailing how good Artest has been on defense but anyone who watched him shut down Joe Johnson and Kevin Durant can’t wonder whether the Artest/Ariza trade was an upgrade or not – at least on defense. He is finishing 50% at the rim which is a worry but not surprising.

Since the days of Show Time (and even from the West/Baylor/Chamberlain era), the Lakers have been known as an offensive team. Despite the mantras of “Defensive wins championships” and “No rebounds, no rings”, most fans and all of the press basically ignored these aphorisms as it applies to the Lakers. No, the Laker s are about scoring, and scoring in spectacular ways.

Well if the 2009/2010 Lakers continue at current pace, they are about to shatter  this perception. With basically the same personnel*, they have transformed from an outstanding offensive team that played very good defense to a mediocre offensive team that plays outstanding defense.

In 08/09, LAL was ranked 3rd at offensive efficiency at 112.8 and 6th at defensive efficiency at 104.7. The league average was 108.3. This year the Lakers are 19th on offense at 105.5 and 3rd on defense at 100. The league average is 106.0. Had the bench been able to maintain large 4th quarter leads, undoubtedly both the offensive and defensive ratings would be better. However, this marginal increase might have pushed the Lakers to 15 – 17th on offense whereas on defense the Lakers would be 1st.

Even with the spotty bench play, the Lakers would be #1 on defense if they had a higher Defensive Rebounding Rate because of their excellent defensive EFG% . And lthough recently improved, the Lakers’ Defensive rebounding rate is  .712 which is 24th in the league. Offensive rebounds create shots at the rim or shots while the defense is in scramble mode (remember Tim Thomas’s back breaking 3 in game 6 when the Lakers couldn’t handle the defensive rebound?) and increases the defensive team’s Ortg.

So the questions that come to mind are:

  1. Why is the defense so good
  2. Why are they so poor at defensive rebounding
  3. Why is the offense so mediocre

The answers to all three points are related.  It is no secret that the Lakers have thrived in the paint this year.  Using the NBA hotspots designations, last year the 42% of the Lakers’ FGA was at the rim (for a FG% of 58%). This year whilst shooting a slightly lower FG% of 55%(no doubt due to Kobe’s dominance and Pau’s absence), 44% of their shots are at the rim. Both the rate and FG% should increases with Pau’s return.

Shots in the paint act to reduce the opponent’s offensive efficiency. Short shots do not create long rebounds. Long rebounds fuels fast breaks. Transition offense is the easiest and most efficient offense. Reducing this improves defensive efficiency. A made baskets is the best catalyst of good defense as the offense begins by taking the ball out of the rim and the defense can get set. This is where EFG% is misleading. I’d much rather have a team shoot 60% from 2 exclusively than 40% from 3 even though the EFG% is the same because there are 20% less missed shots that could possibly create transition offense for the opposition.

So shots in the paint improves the Lakers’ ability to get back and get their defense set. Bynum, especially has been hustling back – for the first time in his career. In addition, the team seems to have a strategy on defending the screenroll. They do not stick to one scheme. Sometimes the defender goes under the screen, other times he fights over. When he fights over, the big consistently shows aggressively and gets back to his man. The Lakers have been very good this year at reducing penetration. Reducing penetration and the resulting kick out for a wide-open 3, shows in their defensive 3FG% of .297, best in the league. Their overall FG% defensive isn’t too shabby either at .421, second in the league. Fisher’s perimeter defense has been outstanding – not coincidentally aided by Bynum’s improvement on the show and recovery phases of screenroll defense. Farmar has been surprisingly good also, especially at fighting over screens – a skill I thought he would never ever get.

So nearly 71% of the opponent’s 3 point shots result in misses. Missed 3 point shots create long rebounds.  Long rebounds’ trajectories are more volatile than short shots and harder to gage.  Remember your high school physics? E = ½ mv^2. A long shot by definition has higher kinetic energy and the bounce is both longer and more erratic. Long erratic bounces create more opportunities for the offensive team to rebound the ball. Also, when teammates expect a miss they crash the boards more. Whereas when every shot is going in teammates begin to jog back on defense. Of course, here Bynum’s eagerness the run down on offense to establish the “seal” on offense does not help him in working harder for a tough rebound.  He has improved markedly in this arena though in the last few games and this has helped as has the guards’ recent aggressiveness in rebounding long misses (in the Knicks game,  Fisher collected 5 defensive rebounds which must be a season high). So as long as the Laker’s deter post offense, reduce dribble penetration, and rotate out to shooter, opponent’s 3FG% will be low. Pau’s return, better guard rebounding, and more focus from Bynum will help, but the Lakers will not lead the league in Defensive Rebounding Rate.

What about on offense. Surprisingly this year’s Lakers have a higher pace than last year’s,  96 versus 94.3 for 6th fastest in the league.  So why is the Lakers’ offense so much worse this year than last. Some possible reasons:

1. Pau’s absense. An obvious factor as he is such an excellent facilitator.

2. Abysmal shooting by the bench. (As well as the selfish play, turnovers etc. etc.  let’s not go on …)

3. LO has not been posting up. He is very effective posting up on the right block but can’t remember more than a few instances when the Lakers used him in this way. It is as if he expected the spate of 3 point shooting in the finals to carry over. It hasn’t and LO has reverted back to the mean. And it hurts.

Now that he is in the second unit, LO should be the go to guy in the post. This will increase his FG%, creat better  floor balance, and generate open perimeter looks. LO will pass out of double teams whereas Bynum has trouble doing so. I look for PJ to set up LO down low more often with the second unit. This will dramatically improve the  offense rather than having him floating around on the perimeter taking  jump shots.  Improved offense,  especially low post offense, means better defense. This will help to improve point #2.

4. The lack of free throws. The Lakers have been poor at drawing fouls and going to the line. They are 28th in the league averaging .185 FT attempts per FGA. Free throws are the best quality shots, of course. Free throws also help the defense, for reasons already mentioned. What is odd is that given that the Lakers are the most low-post oriented team and get the most points in the paint in the League, you would think that it would also draw a lot more free throws. Indeed the other teams with low FT/FGA ratios are all perimeter teams; the Knicks, Bucks, Wolves, and Bulls. This is hard to understand.  Perhaps the fact that post play is officiated as a wrestling match whereas the perimeter is a dance hall hurts the Lakers. Pau, Bynum, and Kobe can be pounded inside without a call whereas the slightest incidental contact to Chris Paul draws a whistle. Other factors include that the Lakers do not have a single player who aggressively drive to the rim and finish with the exception of Kobe. And even Kobe drives less than he did before. Contrast the Lakers with Denver. Anthony, Billups, Lawson, and even Smith will aggressively drive to the hole and look for contact. When the Lakers drive, they seem to shy away from contact (other than Kobe – and Fish but then he never gets any calls). The Lakers were poor last year too, ranking 21st in the league. However, this year’s disparity with the highest foul-drawing teams is ridiculous. The difference of the FT/FGA rate of the best team (Denver at .29) to LA was .06  (.29 -.23) in 08/09. This means that last year, for every 100 FGA, Denver shot 6 more free throws than the Lakers. A significant disparity but not overly so. This year that difference is .144 (.329 – .185). That means that for 100FGA, Denver (yes it is Denver again) shoots 14.4 more free throws than the Lakers. This difference is outrageous and I think explains more than any other of the reasons above why the offensive efficiency is so low.

*I could write an entire post detailing how good Artest has been on defense but anyone who watched him shut down Joe Johnson and Kevin Durant can’t wonder whether the Artest/Ariza trade was an upgrade or not – at least on defense. On offense he is finishing 50% at the rim which is a worry but not surprising and has not been a over-dribbling ball-hog at all this year as many feared.

“The 6’8″ Jackson’s wingspan was so prodigious that Bill Fitch (Jackson’s coach at the University of North Dakota) would often have him show off to NBA scouts with something called “The Car Trick,” in which Jackson would sit in middle of the back seat of a 1950s Buick and open both doors simultaneously.”

-Phil Jackson’s official Bio

Length… Sometimes referred to as a player’s wingspan or simply stating, “he’s long.” The famous poster of Jordan’s life size image with reaching “wings” while palming a ball comes to mind.

It’s the distance from the tip of the right middle finger, across and over the barrel of the chest, to the tip of the digits on the left.

Like Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, most of us are square, symmetrical. Our wings comparatively clipped and matching the distance from the bottom of our feet to the top of our head. Embodying the architect Vitruvius’ idea that we were a walking 1 to 1 ratio.

“We found the proportion of Height to Wingspan to be 1.023 which is within 2.3% error of the established value of 1. The one-sample T-test concluded that there is not enough evidence to say the proportion is not 1.”

-Size of a Human: Body Proportions, The Physics Hypertext book

In his own lanky form, it seems Jackson would start to create a prototype of a defensive player. Of course coaches have always coveted length in players, but for Phil and consequently the Lakers, it now seems firmly ensconced as an organizational philosophy.

A philosophy that would begin with Phil himself and solidify in the 7 foot long outstretched arms of Scottie Pippen. The Bulls’ defense would be predicated on his quickness coupled with length.

The commitment to fielding a front court founded on length would be undeniable after the 2004 Finals, when one Kobe Bryant was single covered by Pterodactylean ridiculousness.

“Kobe had a hard time shooting over Prince,” Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said afterward. “I’ve never played against somebody that long before,” Bryant said.

-Felix Gillette, Slate magazine, discussing the 2004 Finals and praising of the “lanky brilliance” of Tayshaun Prince.

(Gilette would also invoke Leonardo and Vitruvius and quote a study in the Journal Biometrika,“Only 9 percent of adult males have wingspans that exceed their heights by more than about 2 inches.”)

So when we see… Good close outs on three point shooters…rebounds kept alive by tips leading to second chance points…passing lanes being filled properly in the strong side zone preventing the skip pass…fronting the post effectively…altered or blocked shots…fundamental stay on the floor go straight up defense…say it along with Joel Myers…“The Lakers length is once again a factor .”

“The team is neither soft, nor scared of physicality, it’s just a little light in the pants. This is why our speed and length will be so important. What we lack in girth (not physicality) will be made up in speed and length, allowing us to choke off angles and get into passing lanes.”

-Kwame a.

“The ball is just calling my name…I just go after it.”

-Trevor Ariza

“He’s a legitimate, 7-1, long-wing-span, natural shot blocker, so add Andrew, it takes us to another level defensively.”

-Phil Jackson on the Pau Gasol trade

You can’t teach length, but you can draft and trade for it.

-Scott Thompson aka Gatinho

Lakerology

Gatinho —  September 12, 2008

In these days where the lobe of our brain that is all things Lakers is like a forlorn castaway on a desert island longing for a sip of fresh water, we can look back on some vids and articles that can fill in the time and simultaneously slake and whet our thirst for even a simple pre-season tilt

Hit the links and enjoy some Lakerology

Speaking of pre-season, this may be one of the more interesting in recent memory. The Return, The Prelude, starring Young Andrew Bynum

What are the effects of a Phil Jackson training camp on Pau Gasol?

Phil Jackson explains the Triangle… “In His Own Words”:

“If your holding the ball longer than 2 seconds, your holding up your team…” Phil Jackson breaks down the offense for the fans.

Tex explains what to do if the defense is sagging in the post, aka the “Two Pass” or “Pinch Post”… where we should see Pau and Kobe a lot this season…

“The Moment of Truth” in the offense… when a players gets within 3 feet of his defender, the rest of the offense needs to move. This is something the regular fan actually can look for in a game. If Kobe’s jab stepping at the top of the key and there are no cutters…there should be a “pressure release” aka “The Blind Pig”…

Creating a triangle in a way that is inconspicuous to the defense… and another triangle axiom, “The player with the ball hits the first open man. It is an offense predicated on player and ball movement with a purpose

“The first principle is penetration.” Another point the layman can look for…How fast do they get into the triangle?… and they are not called “plays”, they are called “a series of options”. And why don’t the coaches huddle with the players at the beginning of time outs?

Jordan Farmar:

A Peace Player, in Israel making a change in the world with a hoop, a ball, and some Woodenesque ideas on teamwork…

…and if you don’t know who the Fanhouse’s Elie Seckback is… you should check him out

From the SI.com vault… where they have archived and allowed access to some of the greatest sports writing and sports writers…

The young, exciting, and surging 1995 Lakers…

What did the Lakers know that nobody else did?…That 6’6″ rookie guard Eddie Jones , out of Temple , the NBA ‘s 10th draft choice overall, would outplay other lottery picks with contracts $50 million richer than his six-year, $13.5 million deal? That Cedric Ceballos , a career backup with the Phoenix Suns , would make the Laker faithful forget recently retired James Worthy? That point guard Nick Van Exel would help them forget Magic Johnson? That through Sunday they would be 21-11, on a 54-victory pace and in third place in the rugged Pacific Division?

Kermit Washington’s infamous punch…

For all his reputation as one of …the strongest, most dangerous customers in the game, off the court Washington is a gentle, sensitive, family man who is popular with both teammates and opponents…

The Immortal Chick Hearn…

…From high above the western sideline of the Los Angeles Forum, the world’s most beautiful sports theater, hello again, everybody, this is Chick Hearn.”

The voice was steady and sure of itself, and it caught the ear. The voice was made for radio, painting pictures in the dark. “Wow, what a tempo! Magic back and forth like a windshield wiper with the dribble drive, he throws up a prayer…air ball. Rebound left side taken by McAdoo, he goes right back up—a frozen rope that time, no arch, but it melted right in the hole…

The announcement that caused the Lakers to trade Vlade Divac to the Charlotte Hornets for the 13th pick in the draft…

…Bryant , a 6’6″ shuffler—except on a basketball court, where he moves like lightning—ambled up to the podium in a vent-less sport coat and fine dress trousers bought at the last minute and in need of a tailor, his sunglasses positioned on the top of his shiny shaved head. His coat had puffy shoulders, masking his frame, which at 190 pounds is as skinny and malleable as a strand of cooked spaghetti. He leaned his goofy kid’s mouth toward the microphone, mockingly brought his fingers to his unblemished chin as if he were still pondering his decision, and delivered the news that insiders had been expecting for a week.

“I’ve decided to skip college and take my talent to the NBA ,” Bryant said.

And finally…

…for what it’s worth. I don’t get out to many shows these days. But Beck in Reno was the highlight of my summer

-Gatinho

The Dark Lord

Gatinho —  June 9, 2008

Previously unheralded outside of hardcore hoops circles, Tom Thibodeau is now being feted as a defensive genius and the architect behind the resurgence of the Boston Celtics. As Karl Rove was to GWB, TT is to Doc Rivers. How else do you explain it? A bottom rung defensive team, populated with defensive sieves like Paul Pierce, supplemented by the likes of Ray Allen transformed into the basketball equivalent of the Steel Curtain. Sure KG had been a fine defensive player and Posey certainly helps. But it takes talent, tactics, and time to become a great defensive team. How can any coach take a brand new group of guys and implement a defensive system in one training camp that is more effective than the vaunted Spurs defense who’ve played together for years?

You have to cheat.

Michael Johnson had supreme talent, and dedicated a decade of hard work to become the best sprinter of our age. In a few short years Trevor Graham juiced up an undersized sprinter in Tim Mongomery, deficient in raw talent, into a world record holder. Much like Trevor Graham, Thibodeau weighed his options. “I don’t have years to turn this team into a defensive juggernaut, their window is too short. I need a short-cut”.

But of course in Thibodeau’s case, he didn’t really cheat. He gamed the system. We’ve been there before. A new tax code comes out. It is clear what the spirit of the code is, the intent. Still, only a fool doesn’t try to find the inevitable loophole to defeat the law’s intentions. Tom Thibodeau is no fool.

Imagine, as the statistician-turned GM Daryl Morey has done, that you digitized every possession of every game. Tagged every sequence and ran it through a massively parallel computing environment. You could search for the most effective plays versus certain defensive schemes, the most efficient player combinations, or other helpful metrics. But this would still require long-term, painful work to improve personnel incrementally. You need a faster solution.

What if you could run the following query through Morey’s machine – as Thibodeau had ample opportunity to do while at Houston. Which fouls are optimum? In other words, which fouls are the refs most likely to call and which fouls are they least likely to call. Even more subtle, which actions that are not really fouls draw fouls and which actions that are really fouls not draw foul calls?

Can such a query be performed on Morey’s server farm? Undoubtedly. What would the results be and would a team trained on fouling without being called have an advantage on defense?

The results might show that statistically speaking the refs tend to call fouls (whether actual contact was made or not) where a defensive player makes an obvious swipe at the ball. Our hunter/carnivore past has blessed humans with a cerebral motor control areas and an occipital lobe designed to focus on motion – much like cats. A wide swipe at the ball whether for steals or blocks (read, Ronny) draws attention and fouls – contact or not. Thus the Celtics rarely swipe at the ball. What they do is grab arms, wrists, jerseys with the minimum of motion – much like a master jujitsu artist. Kobe gets by Pierce on his way to the hoop. Pierce doesn’t swipe, he grabs Kobe’s right wrist. That Kobe twists in air and shoots and scores with his Left hand is a testament to Kobe. That Pierce almost stopped Kobe’s score and didn’t pick up a foul is a testament to Thibodeau.

Contact with the hands, however incidental on a player with the ball draws a foul. Swiveling your hip into the player to throw off him off stride rarely gets called. In fact, on the play, you can clearly see Paul Pierce swiveling his haps ala Shakira into Kobe’s torso as Kobe rises for the running jumper. Maybe Karma rewarded this display by depositing Perkin’s heft onto the back of Pierce’s knee. The Celtics don’t hand check. They hip check.

Morely’s computers might show that off-the ball moving screens are rarely called. In fact, if Ray Allen and Pierce are running around screens. Don’t just set a stationary screen. Like a pulling guard, jut hips, elbows, and shoulders to pick off the defender. If you lay him out great. If he has to fight extra hard or take a more circumnavigatory route, acceptable. Now on this play every once in awhile you’ll be called for a foul. Do it every single play and the percentage of calls drops to a basis point.

These are only the obvious differences between the Celtic’s defensive tactics than others. Undoubtedly Master Thibodeau is employing many more subtle tricks. Of course, while not being illegal (going by the dictum that if the refs don’t call it, it is not a foul – unless Derek Fisher is landing on Brent Barry) this gaming of the system is insidious and ugly. San Antonio actually played great defense against Kobe without fouling him. What if you could play great defense AND foul him without being called. Wouldn’t the Spurs have won a few more games then?

Maybe it is the sign of the times. Belicheck coaches the best football team of the decade but still feels the need to cheat. Yeah, you can play great zone defense (disguised but still zone) with great late help. But isn’t it nice to be able to hip check or hold if all else fails?

Phil Jackson alluded to this in his post game press conference. The Celtics defense is “illusory”. A foul doesn’t appear like a foul and isn’t called one. Just because you didn’t see the ninja doesn’t mean a dagger isn’t in your belly.

So where do you go from here? The NBA is full of copy cats. In the zenith of 7 Seconds or Less, a dozen teams were busy remaking their teams to emulate the Suns. If the Celtics win the title, how many teams will study the tape and incorporate the off-the ball moving screen, the wrist hold, and the hip check into their defensive repertoire?

Much like the success of the Detroit Bad Boys heralded an era of ugly, brutal defensive ball – exemplified by Riley’s Knicks, Thibodeau’s success might lead the league, unexpectedly, into an period of low percentage shooting. The hope is that the server farm is a force for good and light as it has been a force of darkness, that the league office will notice the blatant subterfuge and instruct the officials with video tutorials for next season. A little too late for the Lakers this season. They just have to be twice as good.

-Bill Bridges

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.