Archives For Laker Analysis

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.

The news hit right before game time — Steve Blake was actually in his warm-ups and was ready to play against the Rockets — but in an instant the third longest tenured Laker (behind Kobe and Pau) was a Laker no more. Blake was shipped off to the Warriors in a 2-for-1 trade that netted the team young swingmen MarShon Brooks and Kent Bazemore.

The mechanics of the deal aren’t as straight forward as you’d think, but Amin Elhassan of ESPN summed up the deal as three separate trades:

  1. Steve Blake traded to the Warriors into a Traded Player Exception (TPE)
  2. MarShon Brooks traded to the Lakers into a TPE
  3. Kent Bazemore traded to the Lakers into a minimum salary exception

Those are the mechanics, the business side of this. Of course, that’s not the only part of a deal like this.

I, for one, will miss Steve Blake a great deal. Others may not feel this way and it is somewhat understandable when you consider the full picture of his time as a Laker. Blake was brought in as a $4 million/year point guard who was supposed to fit into the template as an ideal Triangle point guard. He had a reputation as a shooter, but not necessarily a playmaker and was supposed to thrive as an off-ball worker in Phil Jackson’s scheme. It didn’t play out that way, however. Blake had his moments under Phil, but never really flashed the consistency or high level three point shooting the team was hoping to get. That, combined with his salary, had fans turning on him early in his tenure and never really coming around on him as a player with value.

Which is a shame. Because while Blake’s salary should be a factor in how he’s viewed as a performer, what I saw when he played was someone who always gave his all while on the floor, always talked about the success of the team as his number one priority, and always carried a chip on his shoulder with an extra level of competitiveness that isn’t always seen in players — even at this level. He never wilted from a big moment, never blamed a teammate when something went wrong, and never did anything less than he could to try and help the team win. If that meant playing out of position at shooting guard, he’d do it. If it meant coming off the bench or having his minutes cut, he’d accept that too. Blake is the type of teammate everyone respects and the type of player who coaches love to have on their side.

The hardest part about trading Blake now is that he had finally come into his own as a contributor in a scheme that seemed to suit his skills best. Unlike the off-ball work he was asked to do under Phil Jackson and Mike Brown, Blake had the ball in his hands under Mike D’Antoni and was showing what he could do with the added responsibility. He proved he could make plays for his teammates in both the half court and when running the fast break. He also showed that he really could shoot well enough to be a long range threat. Blake had his best games under this head coach. Now he will try to do the same for Mark Jackson out in Oakland.

I wish him nothing but the best moving forward.

And speaking of moving forward, the players the Lakers got in this deal fit the profile of players they’ve been chasing for the past year. Brooks isn’t a former lottery pick, but he’s a former first round pick who has flashed an ability to score the ball well. His rookie season saw him score over 12 points a game while playing about 29 minutes per night. Since that point, however, he’s seen his minutes and production dip. In his 2nd season with the Nets he only played 12.5 minutes per night and in stints with the Celtics and Warriors this year he’s only appeared in 17 total games. Brooks’ issues seem to lie most with his shot selection and his ability to play NBA level defense. The latter is an issue most young players have, but that doesn’t alleviate the concern. The former is an issue that can also be aided with coaching, but that doesn’t mean it actually will be. Some players are what they are and never really grow out of the habits that they’ve had most of their basketball playing lives.

Whether Brooks is one of those players or not remains to be seen. But know that the Lakers acquired him to get a long look at whether he is redeemable as a player and whether the promise he showed as a rookie can be harnessed again. Brooks, after all, is only 25 and is only in his 3rd year. He is entering his prime and whatever skill he has is about to be combined with what should be his peak physical years. The Lakers, like they did with Xavier Henry and Wes Johnson and Kendall Marshall, are hoping he can show why he was a first round pick in the first place and do it under their watch.

As for Bazemore, he’s had a winding road to the NBA, going undrafted and then having spent time in the D-league trying to round his game into form. He’s probably best known for his legendary sideline celebrations, but he’s also been a summer league demon and flashed an ability to use his athleticism and physical gifts to look like a capable a pro. The issue is, however, that he hasn’t shown the skill level to match his physical tools and that has left him out of the Warriors’ rotation the past two seasons. This past summer they experimented with him as a point guard and tried to rework his jumper to get him to be a compliment to Steph Curry, allowing Steph to play off the ball more offensively and guard the lesser of the two guards defensively. That, though, never materialized and now the Warriors have turned to Steve Blake to do that job (after also failing with Toney Douglass and, to a lesser extent, Jordan Crawford).

If Bazemore is really going to stick in this league it will have to be as a “three and D” perimeter player in the half court and a guy who is opportunistic and a strong finisher in the open court. His defensive potential is enormous as he has great length and enough foot speed to guard three positions. That, like Brooks’ offensive talent, must be harnessed, though, if he is to become a rotation player in this league. Just as his offense will need to be at least replacement level. It’s one thing to have a somewhat broken jumper if you play Tony Allen level defense — but even that is getting harder to do as spacing has become so crucial in the league — but Bazemore is nowhere near that level now. So he must refine his offensive game so he can be a somewhat capable half court player. Because if he doesn’t, he’ll find himself sitting on the bench a lot in Los Angeles, just as he did in Oakland.

The Lakers will give him his shot, though. And he has some potential to make a wise man out of a gambler.

All in all, then, what these trades do is signal the continued transition of this team, in this season. Trading Blake means salary savings and a peek at two young players who have some promise. It maintains financial flexibility moving forward and, at least in the short term, actually adds healthy players to the rotation for coaches to evaluate. I can’t say from a management perspective I am mad at this approach. It is hard to see a player you like leave, however. And with the trade deadline nearly here, I don’t think it will be the last time I say that today.

Don’t Call it a Tank

Daniel Rapaport —  February 17, 2014

This season has been a nightmare. There’s simply no denying that. The Lakers come out of the All-Star break at 18-35 and have a better record than exactly three other teams. The injury bug has taken the form of a tarantula who’s robbed the team of any opportunity to develop anything resembling a rhythm (when you’re without five of your top six scorers for multiple games, building chemistry on the court isn’t realistic). To put it bluntly, it’s the worst season in recent memory for the purple and gold.

From a purely basketball perspective, the most beneficial move for the future of the franchise would be to tank the rest of the season in hopes of landing a top-3 pick (Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins of Kansas, as well as Jabari Parker of Duke are considered by scouts to be capable of turning a franchise around quickly). Holding Kobe out for the rest of the season makes sense; the team has gone 5-22 in their past 27 games and have shown no signs of being able to put together a winning streak.

That’s why it’s easy for those who don’t watch this Lakers squad to diagnose them as tankers. Kobe’s been out much longer than he expected, and the Lakers recent form suggests a conscious shift from trying to sneak into the playoff picture to trying to sneak into a top pick. But for those of us who watch this team on a nightly basis, it’s remarkably clear that this team isn’t tanking. Not one bit.

I’m proud of this squad. Sure, their record is bad, but they’re significantly outmatched talent-wise on each and every night (except when they play the Bucks, the most difficult NBA team to watch that I can remember). When you watch them play, you can’t help but root for them – and root hard. They fight, they battle, they play with pride – something last year’s team was incapable of. For all the crap head coach Mike D’Antoni has taken from fans, I can’t imagine any coach getting much more out of this group.

Last Thursday’s game against Oklahoma City is perfect evidence as to just how wrong it is to say that this team is tanking. The Thunder came into the game having won 20 of their last 27. Kevin Durant has been nothing short of sensational this season and all signs point to him winning his first MVP in a few months. The Lakers, on the other hand, had eight available players. Eight.

It would have been the perfect opportunity for a tanking team to pack it in and try and head to the all-star break without any additional injuries. Well, that’s not what happened. The Lakers played inspired and incredibly hard, and it took a 35-21 fourth quarter for OKC to finish with its nose ahead. Both coaches’ quotes from after the game are telling as to the identity of this Lakers squad.

“I thought the effort was terrific,” D’Antoni said. “They battled the whole game.”

It’s been a common theme this year. The team just doesn’t have one ounce of quit in them. Sure, it’s important to remember that D’Antoni wants to keep his job and is in the business of justifying losses. But for a coach of an 18-35 team, he’s been unusually proud of his team and has voiced that opinion often. That’s because he knows what everyone should know by now: it’s simply not feasible for the team that the Lakers put on the floor tonight to win more games than they lose in today’s NBA.

“When you play against an NBA team that’s prideful like the Lakers, they’re going to have a good game,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said after Thursday’s game.

Prideful. Sound like a team that’s tanking?

Look, I’m not sure tanking even exists in the NBA. It’s a weird notion, isn’t it? That players would try less than their hardest so that their team can lose more games and reward the players who took part in the tanking effort by replacing the with new top-draft picks? Imagine this scenario: at the end of every year, your office participates in a draft for new talent where the order is determined by the profits your company makes. Your company has been struggling in recent years and believes the only way it can return to past glory is by reloading with fresh, young faces. Would your natural reaction be to participate in the tanking effort? Wouldn’t your competitive nature kick in, prompting you to want to prove your worth so you can survive the rebuild?

The vast majority of this Lakers squad is only guaranteed one year in purple and gold. The Nick Youngs and Wesley Johnsons of the world aren’t in the business of helping the organization acquire Andrew Wiggins. They’re in the business of showing the Lakers’ (and other NBA teams’) front office that they are valuable contributors who warrant playing time in the NBA.

Some have pointed to the Lakers’ lack of in-season personnel moves as evidence that the team prefers losses to wins. While it’s true that Mitch Kupchak has been relatively inactive this season, it’s important to remember that this season is distinctly different. In the past, there’s been an emphasis on winning, and winning now. Keeping that same mentality wouldn’t be smart from a basketball or a financial point of view. This past offseason, the front office assembled a team of rentals that, when fully healthy, are probably good enough to be in the hunt for one of the final playoff spots. The team hasn’t been healthy all year, so it’s easy (and convenient) to point to the roster and say “hey, this team is designed to lose.” But that’s simply not so.

If the Lakers really wanted to tank this season, they would have traded Pau Gasol already. It’s as simple as that. They’d have shipped him to Cleveland for a package that would have provided additional financial flexibility, but wouldn’t be worth what an aging Pau still has left to offer. That would really bottom the Lakers out and turn them into one of the worst teams in the league even when fully healthy. But that’s not the Laker way.

This team has given us plenty to be proud of. Their record just isn’t one of those things. But to say that they’re tanking is an insult to the team’s effort and to an organization that has as much pride as the Lakers do.

Week At A Glance

Andre Khatchaturian —  February 10, 2014

Just when we thought the injury bug was finally terminated, Steve Nash once again limped across the court in pain in a loss at home against the Chicago Bulls. Adding to the list of injuries are Jodie Meeks, Pau Gasol, and Nick Young.

The Lakers practiced with just eight guys today. Because of the injuries, they had to bring back Shawne Williams earlier this week. To put it short, the Lakers injury situation this season has been more terrifying than an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

That being said, they were able to muster two wins this week – albeit against two of the most atrocious teams in the league in Cleveland and Philadelphia. That said, a win’s a win and the Lakers will take it.

Because of the injuries, a player who would barely step foot on the court is finally getting some playing time and he’s making the most of it – Chris Kaman.

Over the last four games, Kaman is averaging 16 points per game, along with six rebounds, 1.5 blocks, and a +7.5 in just 21 minutes per game. He’s also shooting 56 percent over that span. Prior to this, Kaman hadn’t played since January 17, where he only received six minutes of action.

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What’s interesting is that Kaman, who has put up significantly better numbers than teammate Robert Sacre, has played in fewer games than the second-year center. No, he’s not Shaquille O’Neal, but it’s good to see Kaman finally get the playing time he deserves and it’s been paying dividends.

Only five other Lakers have played in each of the last four games – Kendall Marshall, Sacre, Ryan Kelly, Wes Johnson, and Steve Blake.

Blake has received monster minutes since his return from injury and like most point guards in Mike D’Antoni’s system, he has been solid. He’s averaging 8.3 assists in 38 minutes per game. However, rust has showed in his shooting as he’s just making 32 percent of his field goals attempts.

Marshall, another point guard who has thrived in D’Antoni’s system, has seen his minutes diminish ever since Nash’s return. Kendall played at least 35 minutes in every game in the 2014 calendar year. He saw his minutes slashed to the low 20′s the night Nash returned. He played 37 minutes as a result of Nash’s injury during Sunday’s game.

Despite his diminished playing time, Marshall continues to excel. He’s averaging 9.3 points and 7.8 assists per game along with a whopping 61 percent field goal percentage. Marshall’s dominance in limited time shows just how effective he can be off the bench. It’ll be interesting to see how he fares when he’s actually on a good team.

It’s pretty impressive that the Lakers were able to pull off one of their best weeks in recent memory with such a depleted roster. Kaman and Marshall, as mentioned above, had plenty to do with the Lakers’ success. The Lakers play two more games at home against Utah and Oklahoma City before getting a well-deserved All-Star break.

 

An Exercise in Team Building

Darius Soriano —  February 10, 2014

When it comes to winning in the NBA, there are many ways to skin a cat. Talent will be the common denominator amongst all contending teams, but the styles in which they play can be radically different while still producing fantastic results.

You can look at teams like last year’s Grizzlies or this year’s Pacers and see teams built on a foundation that mirrors what you’d find in the early 2000′s or mid/late 1990′s. Frank Vogel coined the term “smash-mouth basketball” to describe his Pacers and when looking at the Grizz they have sought to play a similar style. Power post ups played through skilled big men with all purpose perimeter players was their ticket to success. Combine that offensive style with harassing, physical defense and you have a recipe for success.

Contrast that to the style that the Heat and the Spurs play. Both are more reliant on dynamic perimeter play and big men who can play out to 18 feet in isolation or thrive as both pop and dive men out of the pick and roll. They emphasize the three point shot via the spacing their schemes promote and want to give their best players the ball in space to create out of motion or P&R sets. Defensively, both teams attack opponents a bit differently (the Spurs prefer to pack the paint while the Heat blitz opponents on the perimeter and use their athleticism to recover), but that is largely a reflection of the talents of their individual players rather than a commitment to any one type of scheme.

The Thunder, meanwhile, offer a mix of both of these styles. They emphasize the three point shot because they have this generation’s premier shooting forward (Durant) and fantastic attack guards (Westbrook, Jackson) who thrive when the floor is opened. They also, however, employ several bruiser type of big men who excel doing the dirty work and enjoy hanging around the paint. Add a unique talent at PF — Serge Ibaka is the rare jumpshooting big who can defend the paint defensively — and they can blend styles well, though they are still mostly a perimeter oriented team offensively who attacks that paint via the drive rather than the post up.

When looking at the Lakers, it’s easy to see that, under Mike D’Antoni, they are trying to build more in the model of the Heat and the Spurs when forming their offensive attack. They want space on the perimeter to be able to run P&R’s. They want skill on the wing and bigs who can work in the paint, but also work away from the hoop to further promote spacing for shooting and driving purposes. This isn’t a bad model — both those teams were in the Finals last year — but we shouldn’t act as if it is the only model. After all, the Pacers look like a real contender this year and the Clippers join them as another team built around a power forward who does his best work in the paint and a point guard who would rather play at a slower tempo in a more traditional style.

The question moving forward, however, isn’t whether or not D’Antoni’s approach can work — as noted it obviously can — it’s a question of whether the Lakers are better suited to continue down that path and whether the talent they can acquire will be optimized trying to play that style.

Said another way, what is the easiest way to build a team and what form should that team take in order to get back to contention the fastest?

I don’t really know the answer to that question and a lot will depend on what talent becomes available and who the Lakers end up signing in free agency and drafting this June. But it is always worth remembering that while recent champions play a certain way, there is more than one way to skin a cat and the Lakers would be wise to keep an open mind about their talent acquisition and try to build the most flexible roster possible in order to compete long term rather than shoehorning their talent into a style that may not maximize all the pieces they have at their disposal. And they should keep this in mind whether it fits the mold of their current head coach or not; whether it fits the skills of their aging stars or not.