Archives For Laker Analysis

I usually try to look at why things happen rather than the end result. In other words, process does (and always will) matter to me and getting to root of an issue is what I try to do on a consistent basis when I watch games (and, consequently, when I write about them here or elsewhere).

Normally, then, when discussing the Lakers’ putrid defense I would try to explain what is actually making it, you know, putrid. This might lead to an exploration of the team’s transition woes, their inability to stay in front of their men on the perimeter, how some of their wing defenders are habitual gamblers, how their bigs fail to protect the rim adequately, and how the lack of communication between the five players on the floor exacerbate all of the above.

Unfortunately, though, I don’t want to write a dissertation on the Lakers defensive deficiencies.

So, rather than get into how dribble penetration allowed on the perimeter exposes slow-footed big men who, even when they do rotate, aren’t then protected by the perimeter players who should be helping the helper but don’t, I’ll just post a few numbers that basically confirm the team’s terribleness. Since the All-Star Break, the Lakers are:

  • Tied for 29th in the NBA with a defensive efficiency of 112.2
  • Last in defensive rebounding percentage at 68.6%
  • 27th in fast break points allowed at 17.2 points per game
  • Last in points in the paint allowed at 51.3 points per game
  • Last in opponent’s effective field goal percentage (which accounts for the value of three point field goals) at 54.5%

To put some of these numbers in context, in every single one of those categories the Lakers’ post all-star game number would rank last when measured against the current worst number posted for the season. Said another way, whatever team ranks last for the season the Lakers’ numbers since the middle of February are worse. Read those last two sentences again.

Never have I believed that the Lakers have quite on Mike D’Antoni. When you watch the games, the team continues to play hard, an observation that even the opposing team’s broadcast crew makes nearly every game. That said, what is clear is that even if the team is playing hard, it is not playing smart. Nor do I think that “playing hard” translates to all aspects of the game at all times. Often times players do not make the extra rotation defensively, do not sprint back in transition to slow the opposition, do not give the effort to defense that they generally do to offense.

Whether this is due to coaching, the player’s individual bad habits, or a combination of both is open to interpretation. What is not, however, is whether these things are happening and the negative effect it has on the the team’s ability to compete game in and game out. And no matter what side of the player vs. coach of the debate you fall on, the fact is that it is a major problem moving forward. Not necessarily this year (there is little left to play for or prove in these final nine games), but for next year and beyond.

After all, do you want players who go hard on one side of the ball but not the other? Do you want a coach who is the one who oversees these things happening? These are the questions the front office will need to ask themselves this summer when reflecting on this season and forecasting out to future ones.

Because, ultimately, the Lakers cannot have another year where their defensive numbers mirror the ones they have put up the 2nd half of this season. Not unless they’re okay winning 20 some odd games each year.

Throughout his career Kobe Bryant has rarely been one to hold his tongue when it comes to speaking what he sees as the truth, but over the past few seasons, that’s been even more true. Put a microphone in front of Kobe and he’s going to give you his unfiltered opinion on whatever topic he is asked about.

It should come as no surprise, then, that when Kobe announced he would not return this season he was very open about his thoughts on this season and what his expectations for the Lakers are moving forward. While the entire sit down is worth your time, the part that was most compelling, at least to me, was when he spoke about next year’s team and whether he could wait another year after this off-season to improve the roster:

No, nope, not one lick. Let’s just play next year and suck again. No, absolutely not, absolutely not. It’s my job to go out there on the court and perform. No excuses for it. You have to get things done. Same thing with the front office. The same expectations they have of me when I perform on the court, the same expectations I have for them up there. You have to be able to figure out a way to do both.

On top of those comments, were these given within the last couple of days:

The one sure-fire way to be a contending team is to have an abundance of talent (newsflash, right?). And in today’s NBA, the way you accumulate high end talent is by drafting it (the Thunder), signing it in free agency (the Heat), or trading for it (the 2008 – 10 Lakers). And once you have that talent in house, you have to be able to pay for it. It’s a pretty simple formula.

The problem for the Lakers is that none of those things are really possible next season. And a lot of it has to do with the CBA.

Let’s start with the draft since that is the one thing that the CBA really does not affect. The Lakers are primed to have a very good pick in the upcoming draft. That player should aid in bolstering the team’s core talent and, hopefully, be a building block player for years to come. But that player is only one guy. The Thunder didn’t get good with just Durant. They got good when Westbrook, Harden, and Ibaka were added to Durant (not to mention the time that was given to let them develop). The only drafted players the Lakers will have on their roster next season will be whoever they pick this June, Robert Sacre, and Ryan Kelly. While I like Kelly and Sacre, let’s not confuse them with elite prospects.

But when it comes to trades and free agency, the Lakers are really stuck in dealing with the rules that govern the league.

While the Lakers have cap space to offer free agents or to use as a mechanism to absorb money in a trade for a high salaried player, the rules say the team cannot go over the salary cap unless they are using that money to sign their own players. That last point is a crucial one, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

So while you (or Kobe) can say “we just need to sign (or trade for) player X, Y, Z” it’s really not that simple. The Lakers can spend all their cap space on a marquee free agent (or two if those guys decide they want to take a bit less), but even in the most ideal world the roster would still be one built around Kobe and that marquee free agent (or two). The same is true for a trade — the Lakers can try to work a deal for a quality veteran (say, Kevin Love) and offer to sign and trade one of their own free agents (say, Pau Gasol), but even if that were to happen the Lakers would have Kobe, Love, and….not much else. Yes the could fill out their roster with role players,  but the types of players they’d be signing are the exact type of guys they signed last off-season (guys like Jordan Farmar, Nick Young, Xavier Henry, Wes Johnson, and Chris Kaman; guys who took less money to play in L.A. for the Lakers or guys who no one else wanted and are looking to redeem their careers with no other option but to take the minimum).

Let’s go the other way, then. Let’s say the Lakers should maximize their spending by inking their own players via their Bird Rights and building up the roster that way. Only, if you do that, you’re essentially committing big dollars to the likes of Pau Gasol, Jordan Hill, Nick Young, and Farmar. In other words, you’re going over the cap to keep the same team you had this year. This, as far as I know, isn’t what Kobe means when he says he wants a quick turnaround. In fact, I’d imagine it’s the opposite.

This is the part of the story where I tell you this is actually, at least partially, Kobe’s fault. After all, he took a huge salary in the coming seasons and that salary is what is eating away at the team’s cap space and limiting their ability to sign multiple high level players. And there is some truth in that. If Kobe and the front office had been able to agree on a contract that paid him less, those savings could have been transferred into the pockets of other players the Lakers would want to acquire.

That said, what’s also true is that the Lakers are simply in a position where the rules are somewhat against them. By having so many contracts expiring at the same time, the Lakers will fall beneath the salary cap. This, then, puts a limit on what they can actually spend on players this summer. (If you even wondered by Pau Gasol makes more money than LeBron James, this is why — LeBron took less than the maximum salary (just like Wade and Bosh did) so that their contracts could fit into the Heat’s cap space.) Further, because all those contracts expire at the same time and the assets they do have under contract aren’t that valuable around the league, they cannot easily flip those pieces into the better players that would accelerate the rebuild in the manner that Kobe describes in his quotes above.

This is the reality the Lakers face. And, ultimately, Kobe must face it too. There is only so much you can do when all your talented players diminish in quality at the same time while simultaneously lacking alternative assets to improve your roster via the other avenues the CBA allows. So, while Kobe can talk about turning things around quickly the fact is the Lakers aren’t in any position to actually make that happen. Unless you see LeBron, Bosh, and Carmelo all deciding they want to make $7 million a year to come play for the Lakers. Yeah, me neither.

With only 15 games left in this forgettable campaign — or maybe it is a memorable one for all the wrong reasons — the shift in focus from this season to next is basically complete. Wins and losses this year matter more from the perspective of how they impact lottery odds and draft position than anything else.

With that, the questions that are being asked now relate to prospect watching and the NCAA tournament, who the team should draft should players X/Y/Z be available, what free agents the Lakers should chase, and whether or not Mike D’Antoni should be retained. Nearly everyone has strong opinions on these questions (especially the last one) and these have become the major talking points in this final month of the season.

I would argue, however, that the biggest question isn’t any of those listed above, but a more foundational one: whoever coaches the team next year, will he be flexible enough to adapt his philosophy to the roster he has at his disposal?

If Mike D’Antoni is that man, I think it is very much fair to doubt that this will be the case.

Whatever you think of D’Antoni, it cannot be argued that last season he showed a fair amount of flexibility in what offense he ran in attempting to maximize his roster. No, Pau Gasol wasn’t optimized, but at least he played next to Dwight Howard often. He was also utilized as a decision maker in the team’s HORNS sets, playing a fair amount at the elbows with the ball in his hands.

Beyond Gasol, the Lakers’ offense also featured a fair amount of direct post ups for Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant. Both preferred to work from the post and both got opportunities to do so — even if both would likely say they wanted more of those chances. Both also got to work in isolation more than a typical D’Antoni offense would allow. Go back and watch the tape and you will find many times where Kobe and Dwight got the ball in the mid post (or further), had teammates clear a side, and then got a chance to work one-on-one against their defender. These are the types of actions both players have utilized most of their careers and D’Antoni did a decent job of accommodating them last season — something I don’t think he got enough credit for.

This year, however, those adjustments have not been present. Gasol is better utilized this season than last, but has been used more as the lone big man on the floor in an offense that resembles what D’Antoni would traditionally run. The HORNS sets that were so prevalent last year have all but vanished and have been replaced almost entirely by sets predicated on pick and rolls or ball reversals through the big men at the top of the key.

This style has also led to an abandonment of nearly all lineups that feature two traditional big men, especially as the season has progressed. This has translated to D’Antoni swapping out Hill and Kaman in favor of Shawne Williams, Ryan Kelly and Wes Johnson as the primary frontcourt partners for Pau. And while all three of the latter players have their strengths (with Kelly projecting well as a nice offensive player as a stretch big man), I don’t think it can be argued who the more effective players are at this stage of their respective careers.

The counter to this is that lineup data shows what groups have been more effective this season and an examination of these groups point to the more successful lineups having guys like Williams, Kelly, and Johnson playing the PF. However, when adjustments to playing style are not necessarily made and there is an emphasis on pushing the pace and taking shots early in the clock (the Lakers play at the 2nd fastest pace this year), I would argue you are probably not going to get the most out of a lineup that features two of the Pau/Kaman/Hill trio on the floor together.

Ultimately, maybe D’Antoni didn’t see enough of a talent disparity between the bigs he chose to play versus the ones he did not to make the types of adjustments he did the year before. It’s not like Hill and Kaman are Dwight Howard and necessarily deserve to be catered to. It probably also helped that Kobe wasn’t on the floor to dictate more of how the offense was deployed — remember, he was a major beneficiary of the teams HORNS sets last year. In the end, though, what D’Antoni showed this year was that his marriage to his system mattered more than making adjustments to maximize the likes of Hill or Kaman.

This was his right, of course. He is the head coach. And I have long argued that if you’re going to be held accountable for the results the team produces, you might as well go about achieving those results in whatever manner you see fit. That said, when heading into the next season the Lakers must ask themselves if this year’s inflexibility in terms of style of play and in lineup deployment will carry over into future seasons. If that answer is “yes”, the answer to whether this coach stays on may be the opposite.

Unless you live in a cave, you know that Phil Jackson has signed on to be the Knicks’ new Director of Basketball Everything (or something to that effect). The full details of the deal have yet to come out, but initial reports say that Phil will be paid around $12 million annually to be, among other things, the new face of the franchise and shepherd them into the future by, well, being Phil Jackson: owner of championship pedigree. How this plays out for Phil and Knicks isn’t yet known and popular opinion seems to be that he’ll either succeed because he’s Phil Jackson or fail because of James Dolan which, if you are asking me, sounds like a pretty good deal. I wish Phil nothing but the best in this endeavor — and it will be an endeavor, but that’s another discussion.

Of course, Phil’s trek back to his NY roots has brought to the forefront the major question of why is he taking this job with the Knicks and not the Lakers. This isn’t just a fan question either. Kobe Bryant is seemingly asking it. As is Magic Johnson. Phil should be a Laker, only he isn’t. For many, this is a development that induces anger.

I don’t really blame people for being mad. Phil is a charismatic guy who has had a lot of success with the Lakers. The fact that he left three years ago after his team played terribly against the Mavs doesn’t resonate as much with fans as the 5 championships he won with the franchise. This is understandable. Again, I like Phil Jackson and would have welcomed him back into the fold without the bat of an eye. He’s Phil Jackson.

But he is not coming back and that brings forth a reality that many aren’t seemingly ready to face. This is Jim Buss’ team; this is Jim Buss’ time to lead.

Tell the truth, you just got a lump in your throat didn’t you? You heard some ominous music playing in your head, right? Did you get the sudden urge to change the channel even if your TV isn’t on?

I get it. Jim Buss doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in fans these days. A wretched team this season and the sour taste of last season combined with the departure of Dwight and now Phil will do that to you, I know. The Lakers are down in the dumps and it’s All. Jim. Buss’. Fault.

Except, you know, it isn’t.

I am not here to defend Jim Buss. But I am also not here to rip him to shreds. Jim Buss has proven, as an executive, to be…actually I don’t know what he’s proven. His record is mixed. He has held his current title of Executive Vice President, Basketball Operations for the past 9 years. Before that his title was Assistant GM to Mitch Kupchak, a title he held for 7 years. Doing the math, that is 16 years in the Lakers’ front office “handling basketball related decisions that range from the scouting of players and the NBA Draft to trades and the signing of free agents” according to the Lakers’ media guide.

No one person deserves all the credit or blame for the team’s successes or failures over those years. As has been reported multiple times, the Lakers made most major decisions with input from Dr. Buss, Jim, and Mitch Kupchack with the good Doctor having the final say. Pinning any one decision on anyone besides Dr. Buss — while he was alive — is likely just spin, be it to praise or condemn someone. The fact is, the Lakers experienced a lot of success over the years and have fallen on hard times recently. Credit and blame can be doled out however one wants, but doing so without remembering that every major decision was made by all three of the aforementioned people with Jerry having the final say should probably be put out there first.

Now that Dr. Buss has passed, however, the Lakers are mostly in Jim’s hands. Even though he is not technically the owner — the Lakers were left to all the Buss children in a trust and they cannot sell without every child approving — he is the highest ranking executive on the basketball operations side. The buck, then, stops with him when it comes to player and coach matters.

As mentioned above, this likely gives you pause, but I prefer to see it as an opportunity for Buss to attack the perception that he is some sort of incompetent. For reasons that have nothing to do with ability, this will not be easy. The Lakers are a team of free-agents-to-be paired with players who have great name recognition but are injured and have question marks heading into next season. They have cap space to spend, but with the aforementioned roster issues aren’t necessarily the most desirable landing spot for free agents. They look as though they will have a high draft pick in a talented draft, but it is rare for a single draft pick to turn around the fortunes of a franchise right away.

And then, of course, there is that pesky perception of how good Jim is at his job. Whether it is true or not, the idea that Jim doesn’t have the ability to build a winner damages his, and by association the Lakers’, chances to turn things around quickly. And the only way to change that perception is to do the thing that is made even harder by how he is viewed. If this sounds like an inescapable spiral, it sort of is. The Lakers are in a position where they need several things to go right over the next summer or two — nailing their draft pick, Kobe returning to form, having some smaller FA signings work out very well, etc. These things aren’t impossible, but that’s a lot of things going right in a short amount of time.

The flip side of this, however, is that none of those things happen overnight. It takes time for a draft pick — especially an 18 to 19 year old kid (whose name isn’t LeBron, Shaq, Duncan, Alcindor, Wilt, etc) to prove he’s ready to play at a high level night in and night out and shift a team’s trajectory upward almost instanteously. We won’t know about Kobe’s progress and how he’ll hold up over the course of a rigorous NBA campaign until several months into next season. Free agent signings can always be spun positively on July 1st, but the act of them living up to (or surpassing) the value of their contract comes over the long haul.

This is how winners are built. I understand fans have little patience for stuff like this, but in many ways there’s no choice this time. This isn’t like when Phil Jackson took over the team that Del Harris couldn’t get over the hump. And it definitely isn’t like the team Pat Riley took over that won a championship just a couple of years earlier. There is no ready made roster here that is one piece away. The Lakers are rebuilding and need the time it takes to forge a foundation that a contending team can rest on for years to come.

Doing this any other way would be disservice to everyone involved. And while I have no way of knowing this, I have a feeling the people who know this best just so happen to be Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak. Whether people are willing to give them this time is another story entirely, however.

Just as I said there was no reprieve for the downtrodden in my preview for Tuesday’s match up with the Pacers, there is no rest for the weary as the Lakers head into Memphis today to face the Grizzlies on the second night of a back to back. The Lakers took another loss on the chin in Indiana, with the trend of a relatively close first half turning into a blowout loss continuing for the umpteenth time this year.

After that game the Lakers’ two veterans with championship experience spoke their minds about their team and, not so subtly, took shots at their head coach in the process:

As I mentioned after the game, comments like these are rarely the response to the game that was just played — especially when said game was against one of the league’s best teams. No, these are more likely issues that have been brewing for some time and, with another 20 point loss, came to a head last night.

As mentioned, Pau and Jordan are the only two Lakers who have championship experience on this roster. They, more than their teammates, have an intimate knowledge of competing at the highest levels with the stakes are highest. For that reason, I tend to give their comments a bit more weight — though, if these words came from any other Laker I would still see them as valuable and informative.

It should also be noted, however, that Pau and Jordan are players who likely have the most individual reasons to speak out at this point in the year. It’s no secret that Pau hasn’t looked to fondly at his role within D’Antoni’s offense or how the big men have been used in general. He’s recently commented about a preference to play bigger lineups (again mentioning that playing small hurts the team last night) and has talked about running the offense more through the post since this coach’s arrival last year. Farmar, meanwhile, is in a real timeshare at point guard with Kendall Marshall, playing only 24.5 minutes a night his last 5 games and only 24 minutes a night in his last 10. Add to this that he’ll no longer likely see any minutes in a small backcourt next to Marshall with the arrival of Brooks and Bazemore (as well as Meeks’ return from injury), and a thirst for heavy minutes (30+ a night) will not be quenched the remainder of this year as long as relative good health endures for the rest of the perimeter players.

I’m not saying these issues should make statements made by these guys less true or that they should hold less weight, but it’d be disingenuous to not mention these things. Especially with both players entering free agency this summer.

In any event, it will be interesting to see how D’Antoni navigates these waters over the last part of the season. One of the main strengths of this team this year has been their willingness to play as a unit and not speak too much in terms of their individual goals. Credit should be given to the coach for this (as well as the players), but as the losses mount and other pieces who have not been part of the team’s fabric of unselfishness are incorporated into the group, this situation can get more difficult to manage quickly. If the Lakers are evaluating D’Antoni using other variables besides wins and losses, managing the players’ egos and keeping a healthy locker room is likely one of the key areas and he will need to show he’s able to perform in this area (and better than he did last year, I’d imagine).

As for tonight’s game against the Grizz, one of the key things to watch is the coach’s lineup construction and how he matches up with the size his group will face.

Starting Wes Johnson at PF seems like a real possibility and he will be tasked with guarding Zach Randolph. Z-Bo is that rare mix of a finesse finisher who gets position on the block like a bull, so Wes will have his hands full in trying to keep Zach off his spots. Doing so without fouling will be even more difficult. My hunch is that we’ll see a fair amount of Kaman and Hill tonight (and probably even Sacre) to try and battle Randolph down low, but Wes will get his shot too and how he performs will, at least in part, reflect on the coach who put him in this position.

Another defensive question that must be answered is who guards Mike Conley. The Lakers have tried to hide Kendall Marshall in certain match ups and one against Conley would be one that makes sense to do so again. Conley’s quickness and ability to create shots in the half court for himself or teammates by working off the dribble is an area that Marshall can struggle to contain. Putting Bazemore or Meeks on Conley might make more sense, but that leaves open the question of who Marshall then guards. Lee is a fine off-ball worker who has regained some of the form offensively that had him as one of the more respected role-player-guards in the league. Tayshaun Prince isn’t much of an offensive threat, but he’s a fine post up option against smaller players. Putting Marshall on either player presents issues that would need to be addressed and can create holes in a defensive scheme that is already extremely leaky.

On the other end of the floor the Lakers should try to establish the post early and hope that Pau can find his groove against his brother Marc to a level that creates openings on the perimeter for the Lakers’ wings to get (and make) open threes. The team would also be wise to involve Randolph in enough P&R’s defensively that Marc Gasol is forced into help situations early in possessions with the result being other players having to recover on the weak side to Pau and shooters posted in the corner. If the Lakers can get the Grizz scrambling defensively, they can hang tough in this game. If they can do so in the 2nd half, they can even be close down the stretch where anything can happen.

Of course, that’s a lot of ifs. And the Lakers are severe underdogs for that exact reason. But if the goal is still to compete and win games down the stretch, these are things they’ll need to do well. And if they want to erase some of those hard feelings expressed after the Pacers’ game, being competitive in (or even winning) a game like this would help do that.

Where you can watch: 5pm start time out West on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.