Archives For Dwight Howard

After a nearly flawless off-season, we saw all of the Lakers flaws come to the forefront during the pre-season as the Lakers went 0-8 as Mike Brown tried to work around a new offensive system, new personnel, injuries and a roster that was simply too long with too many fringe guys. In the midst of the new personnel and injury reports was the Lakers newest big man who reportedly has biceps the size of ostrich and a smile as broad as his shoulders. More importantly, however, he jumps like a small forward and moves his feet like a shooting guard. Dwight Howard only played in two pre-season games, but how he’s played on the defensive end has already gotten my wheels turning about how the rest of the Lakers are going to have to defend differently with Howard on the floor.

It isn’t a secret that Kobe has lost a step on the defensive end of the floor despite the fact that he continues to rack up All-NBA defensive team awards. However, even when Kobe was at the apex of his defending abilities, he always had the tendency to creep into the paint and try to sit on passes or help out post defenders leaving his man open for jump shots. The Lakers have been burned time and time again by perimeter defenders getting sucked in too deep only to have the ball kicked out to a wide open Jason Terry or Shane Battier. Derek Fisher had this problem, Steve Blake has this problem, and I’ve noticed that Steve Nash has also had this problem in his eight games as a Laker. With Howard in the middle now, more than ever, the Lakers perimeter defenders should be encouraged to stay home on their man and force guys to beat them off the dribble instead of giving up wide open jump shots because Dwight can jump like a small forward and move his feet like a shooting guard. This first video is a perfect example of the good Howard will bring to the defense being negated by the bad habits that the Lakers perimeter defenders are going to have to change to maximize Howard’s talents.

Howard’s man, Jason Thompson, clears out from the left wing to the right block to create an ISO for Demarcus Cousins. Howard follows Thompson but stays help side to help out on any penetration. As the play progresses, Howard keeps an eye on both his man and the ball as Steve Nash comes down from the wing to unnecessarily front Thompson. This is problematic for two reasons: 1) Howard is already between Thompson and the ball, which makes Nash’s action redundant and 2) Nash is essentially using Thompson to set a screen on himself should the ball be kicked out to Isaiah Thomas, his assignment, in the corner. Tyreke Evans comes around Cousins and receives a handoff and drives baseline with Artest trailing and out of position to make a play. Dwight slides over and makes a great play on the ball as Thompson is boxing out Nash. Unfortunately, Evans recovers the block and kicks it out to Thomas who receives the pass and is already in rhythm to shoot the ball by the time Nash gets his first foot out of the paint. Nash exudes tons of effort to try and get back out to Isaiah but his efforts are futile. Splash.

While some of the faces to this Lakers team are new, the problems presented are not. The Lakers were consistently burned by kick out jump shots last season and it’ll likely continue to be a problem this year. However, this year that issue seems more correctable with Dwight, rather than Andrew Bynum, in the middle. A lot of this preseason has been focused around this team “gelling” together and this concept has been discussed about the offensive end of the floor ad nauseam. What hasn’t been discussed nearly enough is how they’re going to need just as much time to gel on the defensive end of the floor. Just like they’re going to have to break some bad habits and get used to the Princeton Offense, they’re going to have to do the same with Dwight in the middle as he corrects a lot of mistakes around the perimeter — but only if they’re making the correct mistakes.

As fantastic as Howard is on the defensive end, he can only do so much which is why the Lakers are going to need to play tighter coverage around the perimeter. Dwight can help clean up guys getting blown by or a defender losing his man on a back cut, but he [probably] can’t clean up a skip pass that leads to a wide-open corner three or a kick out from the post to the wing. Take the following for example.

The play begins with Kobe guarding Tyreke Evans, who kicks the ball to the corner and runs a cross screen action with Thomas Robinson in the paint. Kobe haphazardly follows Reke into the screen while watching the ball and follows the first body he feels behind him instead of finding his guy then getting back into a help position. Dwight does his job and stays with his man as neither screen was any good. As the double-cross screen is happening, Isaiah Thomas dumps the ball into James Johnson on the right block (being guarded by Artest). As he turns to face the rim, Robinson begins to clear out (taking Kobe and Howard with him) and Reke cuts through the wide-open for what should be an easy layup. Instead, Howard comes back across the lane and blocks the shot as its on its way up.

What can’t be overstated enough is how he’s going to change the complexities of this defense simply by his ability to move in ways that Andrew Bynum could not. Two years ago, I wrote a bread down post after Chris Paul picked and rolled the Lakers defense to death, and said if Andrew Bynum could continue to move his feet like he did in this single play, then the Lakers defense would be much improved. Of course the Lakers went on to win that series but their defensive efforts were not improved as they were eliminated in four games by another team who abused P&R sets. Now, the Lakers do have a guy who has the ability to hedge on the P&R, move his feet and recover on P&Rs and made Steve Nash look half way decent on one action that the Kings ran.

That was a fantastic example of how the Lakers perimeter defenders can take advantage of Howard’s range on the defensive end. After the Howard hedge, Nash was able to get back in front of Jimmer both times he received a screen. Also, Kobe was in a good spot defending Francisco in the corner. He still got sucked in trying to help in the paint, but as the P&R action was happening he kept one eye on Garcia and had only one foot in the paint, giving him a short enough distance to where he could effectively close out on a shot if the ball was swung to the corner. Even Pau did a great job of playing the back side of the cutter while Howard recovered from the hedge then used his length to close out on DeMarcus Cousins’ 17-footer.

It’s going to be a long process getting all of the guys on the same page on the defensive end of the floor, but this team is definitely better off with Howard prowling in the paint and beyond altering shots, correcting mistakes and finishing possessions with rebounds. I’m looking forward to seeing what ways the perimeter guys adjust to playing with a defensive force behind them, starting with their opening night game on this Tuesday.

How’s this for some breaking news?

Apparently, the day Lakers fans have been waiting for is getting closer. According to Marc Spears of Yahoo! Sports, Dwight Howard could be taking the floor for the Lakers in an actual game really soon:

Barring any complications with Howard’s back over the next couple days, the Lakers are optimistic the All-Star center will make their first appearance for them on Sunday. “He is making progress,” one Lakers source told Yahoo! Sports. “There is a good chance he can play Sunday.”

Howard has been getting closer and closer in recent weeks. He started camp doing only non-contact drills, escalated to contact work in non-scrimmage settings, and then was finally cleared for all activity — except playing in actual games — shortly after. In recent days, he’s spoken of needing to get his conditioning up so that he could be prepared for real game situations.

Well, it seems that day is almost here. Soon enough we’ll see those Nash/Howard pick and rolls, high-low actions between Howard and Gasol, and Howard working with Kobe in two man games on and off the ball to help each other get easy looks. We’ll see him be a presence on defense, work the glass. and help set that physical tone that’s been missing so far this preseason.

Of course there will be some rust in his game and he may not be the exact player we expect (that 20/20 game may have to wait), but at least he’ll be back on the floor soon. Hopefully, as the report states, that will be this Sunday.

In what can only be music to Lakers’ fans’ ears, Dwight Howard has been cleared for full contact in 5 on 5 scrimmages. Mike Trudell of Lakers.com has the update:

Marking the next step of his rehabilitation process from back surgery in April, Dwight Howard was cleared on Tuesday for full contact, 5-on-5 scrimmages with his teammates. With that clearance came a minutes limit for the three-time Defensive Player of the Year, as he’ll work back in steadily instead of all at once. Howard had previously participated in 5-on-5-on-5 drills, but had been kept out of full 5-on-5 scrimmages.

With this hurdle now cleared and assuming no set backs, it’s only a matter of time before Howard is cleared to participate in game action. This makes it extremely likely that Howard will be ready for the start of the regular season on October 30th and maybe even sooner (allowing him to play in one, or more, of the Lakers’ preseason games). Again, this is fantastic news especially with Jordan Hill now on the shelf with his own back issues.

Of course, the Lakers will still plan to take it slow with Howard and not rush him back — a philosophy I’m on board with one hundred percent. While it’s important for Howard to find a chemistry with his new mates, we mustn’t forget that he has been participating in offensive and defensive drills since the beginning of camp to the point that Mike Brown remarked, “As much as he’s practicing, to me, he’s back.”

So, even though Howard back-tracked somewhat in stating that he’s not necessarily looking towards playing in the preseason as a goal, it’s very nice to hear that he continues to progress and get closer to being ready to play in real game action — whatever that timeline turns out to be.

Conflict Resolution

Emile Avanessian —  September 26, 2012

Imagine watching your dad parking a brand new Corvette in the garage, knowing that it’s all yours, but having to wait six months to get your license.

With the strangest summer since… well, yet another strange summer in Lakerland in the rearview, the goings-on of recent months have begun to take root in reality. Learning – while watching fireworks rain down on the Hudson – that one of the game’s true maestros will conduct the Lakers’ offense this season (and the next couple to come) is enough to slap a perma-grin on the most cynical of mugs. That said, not until the deal was legally consummated and Steve Nash presented to our euphoric lot (and the crestfallen masses) did his arrival begin to feel “real.” Even so, not until we see a purple- or gold- (or, on Sundays, white-)clad #10 tightrope the baseline – as only he can – will the 50-40-90-laced dream otherwise known as “Steve Nash, Laker point guard” truly be an actuality.

In similar vein, not until we’ve watched one of the NBA’s most incisive penetrators attack the paint and revisit the strategic misstep that brought him eye-to-(I dunno, chin? Nose?) with the league’s most dominant interior defender, or until an errant attempt on offense is rerouted through the Lakers’ goal with devastating force will “Dwight Howard is our freaking center!” be cemented in reality.

Thing is, for reasons that I struggle to explain, the notion of Steve Nash manning the controls of the offense, while no more enthralling, has proven easier to accept than has that of Dwight Howard assuming  the role of Laker legend in the middle.

Simplistically, it may just be the passage of time. The Nash trade was announced on July 4, while Dwight was not Westward bound until August 10. Perhaps an extra five weeks of the Steve Nash Experience engendered a familiarity that’s not yet emerged in our relationship with Dwight Howard.

Eh. Unlikely.

Perhaps it’s preexisting familiarity. Born of eight years of divisional cohabitation and three playoff encounters – including 2006, in which the eighth-seeded Lakers squandered a commanding 3-1 series lead to the top-seeded Suns before succumbing in seven, and 2010, when an overachieving Suns squad took two from the eventual champion Lakers in the Western Conference Finals – Steve Nash has squared off against the Lakers 56 times in his 17-year career, 47 after rejoining the Phoenix Suns in 2004. For all the hype surrounding every Kobe-LeBron “duel,” and the compelling, evolving rivalry with the Oklahoma City Thunder, it’s difficult to think of an opponent whose path has more often crossed that of the Lakers, or one that has left a more indelible mark in the collective mind of Laker Nation. I know what they say about familiarity and contempt, but under the right circumstances it’s also been known to breed respect and admiration.

Meanwhile, over the same eight-year period (since entering the NBA in 2004-05), due obviously to his Eastern locale, Dwight Howard faced the Lakers just 20 times. And while 16.9 points (56.8% from the field) and 12.8 rebounds (3.55 ORB) per game is hardly pedestrian, most fans (this one for sure) are likely hard pressed to recall even one truly memorable performance turned in by Dwight against the Lakers –  and that includes the five encounters in nine days comprising the competitive-but-hardly-epic 2009 Finals.

More than either of these, however, is the degree to which each man impacts the roster. While each represents a significant improvement over his predecessor(s) in the Laker lineup, Nash is the Holy Grail, an oasis amid the Smush Vujamarsessisher desert, while Howard “merely” kicks the center spot up from All-Star to All-World. Again, though, this smacks of oversimplification.

I mean, as good as Andrew Bynum was, is and may be going forward, Dwight Howard is, right now, Andrew Bynum actualized. Howard is the most physically imposing and dominant big man since Shaq, with a dedication to conditioning mocking that of his fellow Orlando defector. Prior to 2011-12, Howard had missed an average of one game per season over his first seven in the NBA. And last season, the most injury-plagued and distraction-laden of his career? The one in which he missed 12 of 66 regular season games and had his back cut on upon at season’s end? (NOTE: These playoff stats are from the spring of 2011. In putting together this section of the article, I went with my Basketball-Reference muscle memory and totally overlooked Dwight’s absence from last year’s playoffs. HORRIBLE snafu on my part.) He capped it off with a six-game playoff run in which he averaged 27 and 15.5, and made not only 63% of his field goals, but 68.2% of his free throws (60-of-88).

Additionally, the consistency with which he has handled his business on the court is nothing short of staggering. Over his past six seasons, Howard has averaged no worse than 17.6 points per game (20+ four times) or 12.3 rebounds per (14+ three times), and just once (56.9% last season) posted a True Shooting Percentage below 60%. Howard is not only (by far) the NBA’s best center, but an evolutionary Moses Malone. A certified superstar. Were he to retire tomorrow, Dwight Howard would be Hallward bound.

Why then – again, despite incredible happiness and renewed optimism – am I unable to fling myself head over heels for the player with the greatest potential to pen the next chapter in the Lakers’ glorious tome?

Because Dwight Howard is a frightening study in paradox.

Despite a granite frame, physical gifts the likes of which the position has rarely seen and the advantage of youth over his veteran backcourt mates, it is Dwight who’s most recently faced the most potentially debilitating injury.

He is the 26 year-old manchild who led Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu and Jameer Nelson to the Finals, but has been accused (wrongly) of lacking the killer instinct of his top teammates – noted high-functioning sociopath Kobe Bryant and less-abrasive-but-equally-bloodthirsty Steve Nash – and… hey, cool elephant, dude… (Far more accurately) of holding hostage and tearing asunder the only NBA franchise for whom he’s (thus far) ever suited up.

Now in the role for which he was seemingly created. In the city, with the franchise that will deliver to him the ceaseless attention he seeks. He’s got a roster around him that’s not only prepared to win now, but consists of a trio of transcendent talents whose skills beautifully complement his own. Unfortunately, his contract offers the organization the least in terms of long term security and leverage, and his track record of accountability and, ahem, in just this scenario is, well… dicey at best.

Prior to the moderately coherent babbling above, my joy, optimism and trepidation over the Lakers’ acquisition of Dwight Howard has been available exclusively in 140-character increments. I could present semi-legitimate explanations involving travel, work schedule, evil corporate web filters and a comprehensive, gaming-inducing immersion into college football. And I wouldn’t be lying. Thing is, as much as any of these obstacles stood in the way of long-form pontification on D-12, the fact of the matter is I really was not sure what my thoughts were on the matter.

I’m still not entirely certain.

Dwight is obviously a monumental pickup and an upgrade over an already excellent center. I am prepared, eager, to welcome him into my sporting family. I look forward to the lane being off-limits to the opposition, to dominating the glass, to top-of-the-square catches on alley-oops, to five months of open spot-ups in the corner for Metta, to the ascent of the pick-and-roll to its highest elevation, to the two-man game with Pau Gasol, and to regular 20-20s. A healthy (thus far there is no reason to believe that he’ll be anything but) Dwight Howard, a generational superstar at the peak of his powers, will rank among the great acquisitions in NBA history. That said…

To ignore to manner in which he handled his business with the Magic, and the unseemly manner in which he orchestrated his exit from Orlando would be to willfully rejoice in the suffering of a fan base whose emotions and allegiances mirror our own (remember Kobe in 2007?). I have not one iota of blame for fans in central Florida whose anger over Dwight’s conduct – the false hope, the wishy-washiness, the contradictions, the insincere people-pleaser routine – does not subside for some time. That said…

While I did not initially celebrate the arrival of Dwight Howard with the childlike enthusiasm that came so easily for Steve Nash, I think I have arrived. I’m not sure the process leading up to Dwight’s departure from Orlando will ever not feel kinda gross. And yes, like anyone entering into a relationship with someone with checkered past, my guard may be up a bit higher than normal for a little while. But, as with Shaq, Kobe, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum, I look forward to watching – with a clean slate – the growth and evolution of Dwight Howard, as he pens what are certain to be the defining chapters of his legendary career.

Dwight Howard is our freaking center.

Welcome to the Strategy Session. In this space we’ll explore different aspects of the game from a strategy standpoint. It may mean looking at a coaching decision — like determining a rotation. Or a specific offensive play that we think will work. Or it could be an examination of a defensive scheme. Sometimes we’ll use video others we’ll just blab away for a while on the topic of the day. Hope you enjoy it.

At the beginning of last season, the Lakers looked to be (at least) one player short from elite status. Sure, their top three players were as good as any other trio in the league, but outside of them they had a mash-up group of guys that would need to provide their best case scenario nightly in order for the Lakers to get that extra boost.

At the trade deadline, however, reinforcements arrived, mainly in the form of Ramon Sessions. Sessions flashed game changing speed and an attack mentality that helped boost the Lakers’ offense whenever he was on the floor. However, over time — especially after a shoulder injury curtailed his aggressiveness, the tighter defenses of the playoffs took hold, and the Lakers adjusted their offensive approach — Sessions’ aggressiveness waned and the Lakers again struggled to produce offensively at a consistently dangerous level. Thus, Ramon Sessions is no longer a Laker.

When Sessions was at his Laker peak, though, Mike Brown made the strategic decision of always having either him or Kobe on the floor at all times. The reasoning behind this was simple: for the Lakers to be at their best offensively they’d need a balance between the post and the perimeter. The only way to achieve that balance would be to have at least one offensive threat who called those places home on the court at the same time.

Brown’s strategy, then, was to not only have at least one of Kobe/Sessions on the floor at all times but to also do the same for Gasol/Bynum. This upcoming year, Brown would be wise to do the same with his new perimeter and post-up dynamic duos of Kobe/Nash and Gasol/Howard.

I understand that the hope is for all four of these players mesh seamlessly when they share the floor. The only way the Lakers are going to achieve at the levels they want to this season (aka win the championship), these guys will all need to blend together and find a comfort level where their games can not only co-exist, but collaborate to make each other better.

All that said, the Lakers are in the unique position of having two duos whose games not only compliment one another’s, but can be the foundation for an elite offense.

In Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, the Lakers have acquired one of the best pick and roll guards and the best pick and roll finisher in the league. They are, essentially, a symbiotic match in how their skills are best deployed. Mike Brown would do well to find line-up combinations that feature these two players as often as possible. Pair them up, flank them with shooters (Meeks and Jamison) and let them run a lot of one/five pick and rolls like they’ve both done their entire careers.

Ideally, I’d like to see Mike Brown use a substitution pattern that subs Nash out around the six minute mark, Dwight at the 8 to 10 minute mark of the 1st quarter, and then send them both out at the start of the 2nd quarter (or near the end of the 1st quarter). This would match them up with a lot of team’s 2nd units and let them wreak havoc against teams’ reserves by pounding them with P&R’s with the Lakers’ best shooters supporting them.

Opposite of Nash/Howard, Mike Brown could then use alternative lineup combinations around the duo of Kobe/Gasol. Remember, these two were the foundation for three Finals and back to back championship teams. Last season their chemistry suffered some, but I think it’s fair to say that both men will be rejuvenated this upcoming season. And, if both can be played together frequently — while being used as the key scoring options for their unit — I think we’d see a return to the chemistry of season’s past.

Plus, the games of Pau/Kobe would seem to be good matches for the other role players not playing with Nash/Howard. In Steve Blake the Lakers have a PG who is more adept at sharing ball handling duties and spacing the floor next to a more dominant perimeter creator. And Jordan Hill’s defensive ruggedness, penchant for attacking the glass on both ends, and offensive game that’s built off cuts and put-backs is nice match for Gasol. This unit could play together for stretches in the 1st, 2nd, & 3rd periods with Brown then using his starters as the primary closers every night (if they’re even needed to close).

Ultimately, we’ll see what Mike Brown actually chooses to do. But, with the way the Lakers’ roster is built they’re in a unique position of having two sets of wing/big-man duos that can not only compliment each other well but do so within the context of what the Lakers want to do on offense. In Nash and Howard, Brown can direct his troops to free lance a bit more by leaning on the pick and roll prowess the two newcomers bring to the table. With Pau and Kobe anchoring the O, the team can shift to the Princeton’s more formal structure and return to the read and react roots that those two have thrived under in their time together.

Basketball can be a complex game. All five players on the floor must be in synch for the best results to be produced. However, basketball can also be quite simple where the two man game — a style we’ve all played since we were kids — can be the foundation for a unit’s success. It will come down to personnel groupings and rotations, but the Lakers have the pieces to produce two of the best two man games in the league. I’m excited, to say  the least.

Fast Break Thoughts

Darius Soriano —  August 31, 2012

There may not be a lot going on at this time of the basketball year but that doesn’t mean there aren’t topics of interest to discuss. So, let’s go around the league (and beyond it) with some fast break thoughts…

  • We’re at an interesting point in the Lakers-as-super team news cycle. We have, essentially, completed the inevitable circle of coverage that occurs when moves like this happen. The stories went from ” Wow, I can’t believe the Lakers got Nash and Howard, they’re going to be amazing” to “Look at everything they can do on offense/Here’s how the Lakers will be amazing” to “Here are some things that may hold the Lakers back from being amazing” to “Let’s not crown the Lakers yet, the Thunder and the Heat are still the best teams until proven otherwise”.
  • For what it’s worth, I’m still of the mind that we need to see some games before we know anything beyond what their potential is. That said, based off talent alone the Lakers have catapulted themselves into the conversation of having the best team in the league. And, since talent matters so much, this is pretty important. So, at this point, my analysis stops at “the Lakers are one of the 3 to 4 teams that have a legitimate shot to win it all”. And, frankly, that’s enough for me.
  • I don’t know about you, but I’m still getting used to the fact that when I see a link to a Dwight Howard story it is, essentially, now a Lakers’ story. It hit me again the other day when I clicked on a link about Dwight playing pop-a-shot in China and there he was in his home Lakers #12 jersey. It’s still sort of surreal.
  • Speaking of Dwight, Eddy Rivera (and his crew of fine writers at Magic Basketball) have been producing fantastic content as part of their Dwight Week series. You should visit and learn everything you’d ever want to know about the newest Laker big man.
  • There’s a general sense that the Spurs are boring. It’s been talked about for years and has come to be what they’re known for. Well, I know of at least one Spur that isn’t: Greg Popovich.
  • One thing I love most about the off-season is that it gives me a chance to watch film, dive into the numbers, and give me a bit more insight into the league at large heading into the next season. In that regard, I’m always looking for more places to help me learn more. So, you can only guess at how happy I was when Tom Haberstroh (of ESPN and the Heat Index) dropped a link to VORPed. There’s so much time lost surfing around that place. Be careful.
  • Thing I can’t stop smiling over: Steve Nash’s shot chart from this past season. In case you were wondering, green and yellow are the colors you want. Good luck double teaming off that guy.

  • Lastly, a while back several of us at FB&G did a roundtable review of Jack McCallum’s Dream Team book. One of the themes touched on in that book was that regardless of what other guys had accomplished at that point of their careers, the trio of Michael Jordan, Magic, and Larry Bird were always held at a higher level of esteem. They were the exclusive club that no one else could penetrate. I’d imagine that today, the same is likely true. Those names ring out like few others in basketball history. Last week I was reminded of this by a great video. Check it out for yourself:

After what’s been a stellar offseason of work for the Lakers, the questions about this team are starting to come up more and more. It’s not so much that there are doubts about how good they can be (over the past week we’ve heard several players comment about how good the Lakers are on paper), but rather a closer examination of some of the things that can potentially trip this team up from reaching their ceiling.

One such question revolves around leadership. After all, the Lakers have brought in two players in Nash and Howard who are accustomed to being the face(s) of their team(s). With them joining Kobe and, to a somewhat lesser extent Pau Gasol, the Lakers now have multiple players who are used to having a voice in the deciding the direction of a team.

The initial question — Kobe/Nash question — is one that’s been raised by several people, but most notably Henry Abbott at TrueHoop. In a very good post that explored multiple angles to the potential pitfalls of their divergent leadership styles, Abbott cites some situations that show this partnership in leadership could work out quite well. In referencing the perception that their leadership styles won’t mesh:

Not so, says former Suns front office guy Amin Elhassan, who knows Nash well and carries a healthy fear of Bryant. He told me on TrueHoop TV recently that he sees the pairing as “the perfect marriage of good cop, bad cop. Kobe’s the guy who gets on guys — which some people would criticize and say Steve didn’t do enough of in his career. And on the other hand you have Steve to kind of build guys up and build their confidence up, which obviously has been a criticism of Kobe. … I think it’s a perfect, perfect marriage.”

I started to wonder if there were examples of teams that really had paired both kinds of leaders side-by-side. How did that turn out?

A clue comes from a footnote of Bill Simmons’ “The Book of Basketball.” In the tiny type at the bottom of page 478, there’s a Phil Jackson quote, borrowed from a must-read 1999 S.L. Price Scottie Pippen profile in Sports Illustrated:

“On the Bulls,” says Jackson, “[Scottie Pippen] was probably the player most liked by the others. He mingled. He could bring out the best in the players and communicate the best. Leadership, real leadership, is one of his strengths. Everybody would say Michael is a great leader. He leads by example, by rebuke, by harsh words. Scottie’s leadership was equally dominant, but it’s a leadership of patting the back, support.”

Wow. Take a note, Laker fans. Elhassan is looking like a genius: “Good cop, bad cop” is how most people’s pick as the best team ever was led.

I’d point out that you don’t have to actually stray far from recent Lakers’ (and Kobe’s) history to find an example of good cop, bad cop working out quite well. Derek Fisher and Kobe shared a similar leadership dynamic for a recent group of players that went to three straight Finals and won back to back championships. Much like Nash is perceived to be, Fisher was the man that would inspire his mates through his words and pick them up when they were down.

Of course, this current incarnation of the Lakers isn’t just a good cop and a bad cop. They’ve also added Dwight Howard to the mix. And with the big man comes a more fun loving approach to the game (an approach that’s received a fair amount of criticism, I might add) that can surely affect a team and its locker room.

However, I don’t think Howard’s loose, kind of goofy ways will be much of a problem (if one at all), even though there are some doubts. As I told D.J. Foster of ClipperBlog in a recent conversation, I think Dwight’s approach can actually provide another balance to the leaders already in the room.

When the Lakers made their surprising run to the Finals in 2008 one thing that stood out to me was the fun that team had playing together. That team enjoyed being and playing together; had fun on and off the court together. One of the reasons for that was having some young players like Bynum, Farmar, Sasha, and Ariza and the exuberance they had in making that run.

But another reason was because of Lamar Odom. LO was known to keep the locker room loose, to never get too up or too down, and to always have a smile on his face. While they’re certainly different individuals with different life experiences (and levels of — perceived, at least — maturity), that sort of sounds like Dwight Howard. Having him in the fold may end up being the perfect compliment to aging, grizzled veterans Kobe and Nash. Every team needs to take their jobs seriously, but they also need to enjoy playing the game together in order to mesh fully. A team can only reach its full potential if they’re 100% together, after all.

Of course, leadership is never that simple and the characterizations presented above are a bit simplistic. I’ve seen Dwight be as demonstrative as any other player in talking to a teammate. The same can be said of Nash, who I’ve observed barking for one of his guys to get to the right spot on the floor. I’ve also seen Kobe take a guy aside and explain to him calmly what to expect on the upcoming possession (as well as heard teammates recount all the times he’s taken them under their wing to aid in their development). All these guys are complex; they’re human. They’re going to show all sides of their personality when trying to get the most out of their guys.

Next year, we’ll see the many sides of these men in their quest to guide this team to where they want to be. But, from where I sit, they look to have the right mix of personalities to get where they want to go. And, I’d much rather have that be the case than not.

The Laker Way

Emile Avanessian —  August 21, 2012

I stand corrected. It appears the “new Laker fandom” will bear a striking resemblance to that which preceded it.

Ever since Andrew Bynum schooled J.J. Barea on the nuances of Newtonian physics in the spring of 2011, it was apparent that the Lakers — as then constituted — required a facelift. As that spring gave way to summer, and summer to lockout, lockout to, well, more lockout, and ultimately to the most frantic NBA silly season ever, the Lakers looked to have gone full Jerry Jones, swapping championship lynchpins Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom for the best possible solution to their long running point guard dilemma, Chris Paul. Upon learning from David Stern that their health insurance policy did not cover cosmetic overhauls of this magnitude — let’s see if this analogy has legs, huh? — the Lakers were forced to pull a page from the playbook of many a courtside patron and “just get a little work done.”

No sooner had he “returned” from New Orleans than a dejected Odom was rerouted to the defending champion Mavericks, in exchange for a draft pick that reimbursed the Lakers for the legislated theft of Chris Paul — a pick that might just have materialized in time to select Little CP — and an $8.9 million handful of magic beans. Hold this thought.

Almost (if not) universally panned at the time, the saga seemed an ugly manifestation of the new Jimmy Buss era. Ascribed to a desire to jettison an emotional landmine, presumably of equal importance was the resulting cut in payroll. Between the new CBA and Short Buss/Gob/[insert pet name of your choosing], the Lakers were (yeah, I’m irrational and entitled. whatever) falling back to the NBA pack.

In the months that followed, they went back under the knife, turning Luke Walton and a first round pick into the point guard upgrade Laker Nation pined for, and then sending talismanic on-court liability Derek Fisher to Houston, in exchange for Jordan Hill. Ramon Sessions immediately cleared the shin-high hurdle of expectation (inspiring more than a few $e$$ion$ tweets along the way), averaging 12.7 points and 6.2 assists per game and posting a True Shooting Percentage of 57% (thanks to 48.6% from beyond the arc), while Hill showed flashes of becoming a badly needed frontcourt spark plug.

In the aforementioned pair of trades, the Lakers claimed no better than one draw and one defeat. There is a case to be made that the two trades did nothing more than cost the Lakers an ever-so-scarce first rounder (seriously, are we sure Mitch Kupchak didn’t once cut a shady deal with Joe Smith?) to rent a lead guard whose performance waned with time — though not so much that he opted against opting out of his contract — and a lotto-bust-turned-glue-guy that might have priced himself out of their budget with seven 6 and 6’s.

Fair enough.

That said, however, there is also a case to be made that the value of addressing your most glaring weakness — with a possible long-term solution (didn’t happen, but still) — while simultaneously inspiring goodwill among fans likely trumps the yield of a mid-20s draft pick. Hell, keeping Jordan Hill probably accomplishes that on its own.

Sure, the acquisition of this generation’s original #PointGod is a rising tide that lifts many a personnel decision, but that itself is merely a product of a longtime philosophy — one built on an ideal combination of patience and decisiveness, with zero parts fear. For more than three decades Mitch Kupchak (and Jerry West before him) and Jimmy (and for the three decades prior, Jerry) Buss have continually taken to the tightrope — if not in pursuit of improving the roster, then forcibly, at the hands of a disgruntled star (be it Magic in 1982, Shaq in 2003-04, Kobe in 2007 or Odom last winter) — and continually resisted the temptation of simple self-preservation (y’know, the type that seeks the comfort of “winning every trade” en route to building Replacement Player Voltron) in the interest of delivering true difference makers.

It is understanding, in the summer of 2004, that the differences between Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant could no longer be worked around, and trading Shaq — perhaps a year or two early — in favor of the next decade of a purported franchise killer. It is, 11 months later with the Lakers clearly in decline and the remainder of Kobe’s prime hanging in the balance, selecting high schooler Andrew Bynum (while I begged for Danny Granger). Though Bynum was a project, his is twice- (perhaps three times) in-a-decade potential. It’s unlikely that in June 2005 the Lakers’ brass knew much more than we did regarding the path Bynum’s career would take, but they understood that should he realize even (arbitrarily) 60% of his potential, his value, on the floor and as an asset, would likely exceed that of an athletic wing, even one as talented as Granger. And given Bynum’s roles in both hanging another pair of banners in the rafters and the acquisition of the greatest center since Shaquille O’Neal, clearly they were correct.

In the weeks that followed, the second-best member of the 2004-05 Lakers and a future All-Star, Caron Butler – who is also a Kobe favorite and (in possibly related news) the rare member of the first post-Shaq Laker squad not openly starstruck in Bean’s presence – was shipped to the nation’s capital, in exchange for MJ-protégé-turned-ham-handed-cake-vandal Kwame Brown. In all likelihood the downgrade was not lost on Kupchak – though it must be said that Kwame Brown, a 22 year-old big man four years removed from being a #1 overall pick, presented an interesting value proposition — though neither was the realization that building the Western Conference’s version of the Gilbert Arenas-led Wizards offered little long term value.

Meanwhile, with Bynum developing at a pace one would expect from an 18 year-old big man, Kobe, fearing the remainder of his prime would be frittered away in NBA purgatory, (inadvertently) publicly lobbied for the front office to cut ties with Bynum, in favor of Jason Kidd. Upon the front office’s refusal to oblige his request, Kobe shifted his focus and, in the summer of 2007, demanded that he himself be traded, preferably to the Chicago Bulls, preferably in exchange for a less-than-optimal package. In this, the most terrifying time to be a Laker fan since November 1991, Kupchak stayed his course, recognizing that he was under no obligation to act in haste, and refused to become footnoted as the man that traded two of the top dozen players in the game’s history.

Banking on Kobe’s dedication to his craft (and his legacy) winning out, the Lakers tipped off the 2007-08 with their frustrated superstar in tow. And then a funny thing happened…

While Kobe brooded and plotted his exit from L.A. (though he still balled), a rare underdog Laker squad, behind double-double averages from Odom and Bynum (who was lost for the season after just 35 games) and 20.8 points and 5.6 assists in 48 combined minutes per game from Derek Fisher and Jordan Farmar, unexpectedly returned to the top of the Western Conference. Winners of 19 of their first 29 and 27 of their first 40, the Lakers were rewarding Kupchak’s steadfastness in not parting company with a transcendent talent. The extent to which they were true contenders was debatable, but the greenness of the grass elsewhere could no longer be a given for Kobe.

Having not only traded a future All-Star to acquire Kwame Brown, but also having given him a three-year/$24-million contract to stick around, the Lakers looked to be a bit of a bind with their bust-y big man. That winter, as he did again this summer, Mitch turned the tables on that pair of increasingly fruitless personnel decisions. As tends to be the case with the habitually successful, good fortune smiled upon the Lakers — in the form of a stalled counterparty desperate to cut costs and salvage value for a big money star. On February 1, 2008, in one of the great redemptive trades in recent history, Kupchak parlayed Kwame (along with Marc Gasol, who unexpectedly blossomed into a top-shelf center) into one of the world’s most unique, talented and uniquely talented big men, Pau Gasol.

The rest you are probably familiar with. Having significantly upgraded the frontcourt without creating new holes elsewhere (sound familiar?), the Lakers won 27 of their final 36 in the regular season, locked up the West’s top seed and coasted through the playoffs, dropping just three games en route to the Finals.

A lackluster Finals performance and a pair of postseason disappointments gave rise (and longevity) to more undeserved criticism than any team-first top-15 talent that’s helped anchor a pair of title teams should ever have to endure. In addition, they sparked endless speculation regarding Gasol’s future with the franchise. In the face of mounting pressure and dwindling rationality, thanks in large part to Pau’s incredible maturity and professionalism, rather than selling low on an all-world talent, Kupchak held tight. (Note: yes, in December 2011 he did in fact trade Pau, but in doing so he was procuring the services of Chris freaking Paul)

Meanwhile…

Crucified at the time (yeah, I did it too) for gifting Odom, a valued contributor to the defending champions, and again at the trade deadline for seemingly foregoing the opportunity to salvage value in exchange, Kupchak again conducted a clinic in opportunism. With the Lakers sliding further down the Western Conference totem pole, in classic Laker front office fashion, he masterfully capitalized on one of the assets at his disposal. Using the flexibility afforded by the $8.9 million trade exception, Kupchak facilitated the Phoenix Suns’ transition into transition, landed one of the great point guards of this generation and one of the best shooters of all time — Steve Nash.

Meanwhile…

On a different front, trade winds continued to swirl around Andrew Bynum. Ever since the Jason Kidd chatter of years past, he had been rumored… let’s just say that any rumor not involving Gasol (and even one that did) was constructed around ‘Drew.

As he had with Kobe and Gasol, Kupchak (probably with some input from Jimmy) took a measured approach, valuing Bynum (rightfully) as elite asset and refusing to swap a super-skilled 7-foot, 285-pound, 24 year-old (how is he still so young??) for whatever shiny object du jour happened to be dangled before him. Additionally, when it seemed the Dwight Howard saga (putting it mildly) might conclude with the Lakers stranded in the cold, Kupchak held his ground, refusing to package Bynum and Gasol in exchange for Howard, as Orlando was demanding. And in the end, with a Joe Johnson trade here and Brook Lopez max-out there, the urgency Orlando had attempted to instill in the Lakers not only subsided, but reversed field.

In thinking about the recent chain of events in Lakerland, I am reminded of a decade and a half ago. A once-in-a-lifetime big man and (though we didn’t know it at the time) wing within the Lakers’ grasp, then-GM (and Kupchak’s mentor and hoops Jedi) Jerry West, having resisted the urge to trade away Vlade Divac — around whom (if memory serves) rumors had swirled (as much as they could back then) — the season prior, parted ways with his starting center only when payoff was the payroll flexibility required to secure a transcendent big man like Shaquille O’Neal… and an 18 year-old Kobe Bryant.

Hate the Lakers for past success. Hate them for their inexhaustible resources. Hate them for residing in a top-tier market with perfect weather. Understand, however, that more than any of these, what’s set them apart is the ability to maintain composure when the stakes are highest. West understood in ’96 what Mitch Kupchak has since mastered. The skill lies not in knowing precisely who will come available and when, but in the knowledge that someone will hit the market, and that the flexibility to deal and willingness to pounce without fear are the ultimate difference makers.