Archives For Laker Analysis

Whenever a team loses, the gut instinct is to try and establish who messed up so you can assign blame. When a team loses on a last second play the way the Lakers did against the Bulls, that instinct is even stronger.

As Pau Gasol said after the contest, “You don’t lose a game on a single play, but to lose a game like that on a layup still hurts.”

Yes. Yes, it does.

After the game, Mike D’Antoni spoke about the play in question and, per Mark Medina, defended his decision to have Manny Harris in the game and tried to explain what the plan on defense was:

D’Antoni said Harris was just following instructions, which entailed defending the inbounds pass so he could rotate to the perimeter wherever needed. “He played on the backside,” D’Antoni said. “He thought he was going to pop a guy out and he didn’t do that, We didn’t slide over to cover for him.”

In the clip above, you actually see Harris start the play standing between Taj Gibson and the basket only to get a signal from the bench to move into a position behind the Bulls’ Forward. When the play started, Harris found himself woefully out of position to defend the simplest cut in the game, a dive right to the front of the rim. Harris got pinned on Gibson’s back and Pau couldn’t recover in time to bother the shot enough to force a miss.

Hindsight is 20/20, but I see multiple errors with the Lakers’ defensive strategy that must come back to the coaches.

In the article quoted above, D’Antoni notes that Harris is a good defensive player who was a better option than some of the Lakers who were on the bench at the time. Harris is a good defender, so I’m not questioning that. However, having Harris defend Gibson specifically is a tactical mistake. Gibson was bullying the Lakers all night, pushing around everyone not named Jordan Hill on the offensive glass and in the post. Having Harris — who is a shooting guard — defend the Bulls’ power forward is a mistake.

Second, I don’t really see the value in having Pau defend the inbounder. Yes Pau is long and has the ability to disrupt an entry pass. However, without a second big man in the game to help guard the rim, the Lakers found themselves out of position to guard the type of shot that could beat them easiest. Granted Pau wasn’t as active defending the passer as he needed to be, but with only wings and Ryan Kelly in the game, the team wasn’t in a position personnel wise to guard the paint should a pass find its way in there.

Overall, it just seems like the Lakers’ coaches outthought themselves on this final play. Playing Harris isn’t a bad choice, but playing him over Johnson or Hill or even Meeks — players who have more experience — was probably a miscalculation. Having Pau defend the inbound in a hope he disrupts the pass rather than zoning up the paint to contest any lob pass or quick shot at the front of the rim also comes off as over-thinking things. And having Harris change his position from playing between the ball and his man to playing on the top side so he could be in better position to close out on a jump shooter on the perimeter is also getting too cute defensively when what was really required was playing a hard-nosed final second of defense.

Of course, if the Lakers get a stop on that final possession and the decisions the coaches made played a key part in making that happen, no one says anything. But that’s not what happened. In fact, it was the opposite.

Pau is right, of course, you don’t lose a game on a single possession, but the decisions the Lakers’ coaches made on the final play certainly tests that theory.

Week At A Glance

Andre Khatchaturian —  January 18, 2014

The Los Angeles Lakers finally snapped their six game losing streak this week and they did it in dramatic fashion against longtime rival Boston. The Lakers had an up and down week and were inconsistent as evidenced by two losses to Cleveland and Phoenix.

The Good: The Lakers scored over 100 points in all three games this week. With their defense struggling all season long, they need the offense to consistently put up 100+ in order to stay competitive in games. They were able to do so this week.

The Lakers shot 60 percent from three point land in Boston after shooting around 30 percent in the 13 games leading up to the showdown at the Garden. Kendall Marshall, Jodie Meeks, and Wes Johnson were all spot on from beyond the arc. The trio combined for 23-of-50 from three point land.

Speaking of Marshall, he continues to show that he’s the real deal. He has 53 assists in the last four games, which is 12 more than anyone else during that span. In the win against Boston, he hit the go ahead three pointer late in the fourth quarter showing signs of clutch.

Ryan Kelly also played the best game of his young career at Boston – scoring 20 points and playing a critical role in the fourth quarter. In fact, he’s the only player on the Lakers during the last 14 games to have a positive plus-minus rating at +0.4. Those aren’t from garbage minutes, either. Kelly played in all 14 games and averaged 18 minutes.

Finally, Pau Gasol continues to play well as he continues to put up vintage Pau numbers — at least offensively. This week he averaged 22.7 points and 11.3 rebounds per game.

Oh, and the victory over the Celtics meant that the Lakers have now beaten their cross country rivals five of the last six times. Nothing better than dominating your biggest rival.

The Bad: The Lakers continue to excel in the art of not defending well. Yes, of course, they have injuries and Mike D’Antoni’s system doesn’t exactly stress defense but check out these atrocious numbers:

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In other words, bet the over.

I actually tried to see how many times Laker fans won Jack In The Box tacos this year at Staples Center (the Lakers won and held the opponent to less than 100 points) and was surprised to see that number was six times in eight home wins. What does this mean? It means that the Lakers win when they defend. Simple as that.

They got a break last night because they were on fire from three point land and because the Celtics are the Celtics. The fact of the matter is the Lakers continue to be an awful defensive team and that’s why they fell into that awful slump.

Fans can make all the injury excuses they want. The team still has guys like Jordan Hill, Pau Gasol, and Jodie Meeks who have been in the league. There’s no excuse why Gasol has the second worst defensive rating on the Lakers.

Offensively, turnovers continued to be a problem for the Lakers. After just turning it over 12 times against Cleveland, the Lakers coughed it up 36 times over the last two road games. In the win against Boston, they did a great job in the first quarter with just one turnover. However, in the last three frames they averaged six per quarter.

The Lakers also got killed on the offensive glass this week. Their opponents averaged 15 offensive rebounds per game while the Lakers just had 7.3. The disparity in offensive rebounds means that opponents are getting more opportunities to score.

Finally, it was clear that all the losing was causing some Lakers to get frustrated. Nick Young’s punch toward Phoenix’s Alex Len resulted in his suspension from the game against Boston. The Lakers can’t afford to lose players for no reason with all these injuries bringing them down. It was only one game but the team needs to be more disciplined even when they frustration sets in.

What’s On Tap: The Lakers play two sets of back-to-backs this week. Tomorrow they have a matinee at Toronto before playing an MLK showdown against the Bulls. Then, after a couple days off they head to Florida to take on both the Heat and the Magic.

Week At A Glance

Andre Khatchaturian —  January 13, 2014

Nothing has gone right for the Lakers in the last 11 games. They’ve only won one game during that span and most of the losses have been ugly…and that’s putting it lightly. The team hasn’t lost 10 of 11 since 2005 — the last year they missed the playoffs.

Seven of the ten losses have been by margins greater than 10 points. Their latest loss was a 36-point drubbing from the Clippers. At one point in that game, the Lakers trailed by 43.

It doesn’t matter whether Laker fans are on board with tanking or not — the fact remains that the team rarely goes on slumps like these historically. Times are, of course, different these days. The team lacks confidence and has been marred with injuries all season long. In fact, only four Lakers have played in all 11 games during this horrid slump — Jodie Meeks, Jordan Hill, Nick Young, and Ryan Kelly.

It’s hard to find any bright spots because everybody is playing poorly — especially on defense. Over the last 11 games, there isn’t a single Laker who has a defensive rating below 100. Pau Gasol, who has been pretty solid offensively during the slump, has the worst defensive efficiency at 115.2.

Pardon me while I go vomit.

Every cloud has a silver lining, though. The silver lining throughout this slump has been the play of Kendall Marshall. Let’s rephrase that — the offensively play of Kendall Marshall. As awful as the Lakers have defended under Mike D’Antoni, he’s incredible in elevating the game of point guards. Marshall has thrived under D’Antoni’s system — averaging 0.92 points per play as the P&R Ball Handler. The team averages 0.7 points per play in P&R Ball Handler situations this year so it’s clear that Marshall has improved the P&R for the Lakers.

That’s where the good news ends, though. Even the proponents of Operation: Tank can’t be happy because the Lakers still aren’t bad enough. Along with the Kings and Jazz, there are still five Eastern Conference teams that have a worse record than the Lakers. This means that the probability that the Lakers land a top three pick are still pretty low.

It’s hard to imagine that the Lakers will continue their free fall. Kobe Bryant and Steve Blake should be back eventually – though it may be wise for the Lakers to begin considering perhaps shutting down Kobe for the rest of the season. That said, knowing Kobe’s competitiveness that probably won’t happen.

Until his return, the Lakers are in for a tough test. They begin their annual Grammy Road Trip this week when they head to Phoenix on Wednesday to start a string of seven games away from Staples Center. The road trip will begin after a home tilt against Cleveland tomorrow. They will also play against the Celtics at the Garden in one of the most storied rivalries in sports – a rivalry that can now be considered dormant because of the two teams’ performances this season.

Even in the Lakers’ best years, the Grammy Road Trip has given them fits. They went 6-0 in 2009 during their championship run, but aside from that year, they’re just 33-31 in the last 10 years (excluding 2009).

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Again, these were competitive Laker teams that made the playoffs essentially every year. This year’s Lakers will most likely struggle big time during the grueling trip which features a match against LeBron James and the Miami Heat in South Beach.

Every coach has a philosophy. From that philosophy a style of play is born, a system is spawned, and a team’s identity is forged. Mike D’Antoni is no different. The Lakers’ head man wants many things out of his team — offensive spacing, ball movement, quick decisions that promote teamwork — but he also wants his teams to play with a certain tempo; a certain pace.

One only look at his history as a coach to know that this is true. In the 10 seasons he coached either the Suns, Knicks, or Lakers heading into this season, his teams only ranked outside the top 5 in pace in one campaign (the 2009-10 Knicks ranked 8th). Every other season his teams have played at one of the fastest paces in the league, regularly ranking in the top 3 and leading the league multiple times.

When D’Antoni was hired, he spoke about playing fast at his introductory press conference. His explanation waffled some — he didn’t quite own that he wants his team to play so fast, just that he wants his team to generate good shots — but he didn’t back away from the idea that playing a high number of possessions in games would be a good thing, especially for last year’s Lakers:

Books, papers and articles are funny because they have that catch line: ‘seven second or less.” I don’t even know how that came about, but that’s OK. My whole philosophy is 24 seconds or less. I don’t care if it’s seven, 10 or 20. You just have to get one good shot in those 24 seconds and that’s what we’ll do. I’ll expect us to be a little bit more up tempo – not seven seconds. There’s no reason why there’s not a great flow, whether that’s 13 seconds or 20 seconds. I was talking with Steve: ‘You have the best team, so why not play the most possessions you can play if you’re the best defensively and offensively?’ Anytime possessions are cut down, then a bad call, a missed shot then you have a chance to lose. If we keep possessions up here, then statistically, we have a lot better chance to win. That’s what we’re going to try and do.

D’Antoni’s take on playing fast is a common, data driven statistical approach in today’s NBA. More possessions favor the better team as they have more opportunities to show that they’re better. Over the course of a high possession game, the team with more talent will have more chances for that superior talent to win out. D’Antoni’s argument about playing fast, in a vacuum, made a lot of sense. When he was hired he saw a roster that had high profile names like Kobe, Howard, Gasol, and his old MVP Steve Nash. With Metta World Peace, Antawn Jamison, and Steve Blake the team had veteran players to flank that top shelf core. We all know it didn’t play out well for that group, but D’Antoni wasn’t alone at looking at that group of players and thinking the raw collection of talent could win at amazingly high levels.

This season, however, the Lakers are not nearly as talented. Even before injuries ravaged the roster, the Lakers were a fringe playoff team that was going to struggle to even make the second season much less win a round (or more) if they got there.

Yet, as of today, the Lakers play at the 3rd fastest pace in the league. If you take D’Antoni’s comments from his introductory presser, one has to wonder why exactly the team is ramping up possessions in games and, in the process, exposing their talent to the extra rigors that come with facing players better than theirs.

An argument could be made that playing fast actually made a lot sense before all the team’s injuries. With a full roster, the Lakers had a nice group of athletes who thrive in an open court environment. Add in the fact that teams aren’t used to playing at the tempo the Lakers play at every night and there is an element of surprise that forces opponents to adjust to that style during a contest. That adjustment may or may not be successful and if it’s the latter the Lakers have a distinct advantage that can help them win games.

Right now, though, this argument doesn’t hold water. The Lakers are without their top 3 point guards. Their starter at that position wasn’t even on the team a month ago. The back up is Jodie Meeks who, even though he’s having a very good season and has improved his work off the dribble, is a natural shooting guard and should not be tasked with leading an offense, much less an uptempo one where quick decisions and reading the entire floor in a split second are mandatory.

Beyond the issues at point guard, the Lakers have big men not necessarily built (or accustomed) to playing at such a fast tempo. Gasol is better suited playing at a slower pace where he can work from the post in more half-court oriented sets. Ditto for Chris Kaman. Robert Sacre is young and can get up and down the floor fine, but he’s not a great offensive player at this point and also does his best work in pick and roll sets where he screens and dives hard to the rim where he can be set up for easy shots by his teammates. The Lakers’ best big man for playing at this tempo is Jordan Hill, but his minutes have been cut in recent weeks, averaging 17 minutes a game over his last 5 (down 3 minutes from his 20 minute average over the season).

There are also defensive issues that come from playing so fast. The Lakers are bad in transition defense to begin with, but playing fast often leads to more turnovers which put even more stress on that transition D. The tempo the team plays at also seems to drive players into spots on the floor (both short corners, bigs and guards all crashing the paint via dives and penetration out of early possession drag pick and rolls) that create an unbalanced floor that make it harder to transition from offense to defense even when it is not an open court chance.

Yet, here the Lakers are averaging the third most possessions per game in the league.

Pace isn’t the team’s only problem nor its biggest. We talk about it all the time, but injuries have ravaged the roster and created a domino effect where players are forced out of position, new players have been introduced, and roles have been shuffled around just to try and stay competitive. But with all that change, their have been no adjustments in style to try and aid the remaining players to put them in better positions to succeed.

I can understand wanting to keep some semblance of a coach’s philosophy in place; to keep the identity and style consistent. But, even with that being the case, I have to wonder if maintaing the breakneck tempo with this version of the team available is really the best option.

Pau Gasol will not be going to the Cavs via trade. Per Brian Windhost of ESPN:

The first round pick from the Kings that the Cavs are sending to Chicago is more than mildly protected, needing to be outside the top 12 in the upcoming draft and outside the top 10 in any of the drafts from 2015 through 2017 (which, at this point, may not occur based off their franchise trajectory as of now). The right to swap 1st round picks this year is also protected and can only occur should the Cavs make the playoffs (they are currently on the outside looking in, sitting in the 12th spot).

The Lakers, then, hold onto Pau. Which, isn’t necessarily a bad thing right now.

As an aside, there is a common misconception about what a Pau Gasol trade would have meant for the Lakers, at least in relation to the deal that was supposedly on the table with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

While more recent reports had the Lakers continuing to stand their ground in seeking at least one other asset (a draft pick, a young player, or an established player who could be a part of next year’s team or traded again for more assets), the key benefit  of the deal from their perspective was a financial one.

The injury-ravaged Lakers have been considering whether to execute a Gasol-for-Bynum trade because it would get them out of the luxury tax for the first time in seven years. More important than the $20 million in instant savings would be easing the pressure of going into the repeater tax in either 2015 or ’16, sources said. If a team is in the luxury tax in four out of any five years, it triggers the repeater tax.

This, of course, is very true. The Lakers stood to save a bunch of money this season AND dip below the luxury tax line. However, what’s not spelled out in that excerpt — in fact, it wasn’t really spelled out in many places — is that the Lakers will be below the luxury tax line next season simply by letting Pau Gasol’s contract expire and then renouncing his rights in free agency (which is almost a given).

What’s also not spelled out is that the Lakers, should the sentence I just typed hold true, will also find themselves below the tax line the following season simply due to CBA mechanics that make it extremely difficult to get above the luxury tax line without committing big money to your own free agents via their Bird Rights. As it stands today, the only Lakers who will be coming off the books in the summer of 2015 are Robert Sacre and Steve Nash (and potentially Nick Young and Kendall Marshall should stay with the team beyond this season). Simple math, even when accounting for free agent signings this summer and whatever draft pick is added, make it extremely difficult to get above the tax line when you consider who the Lakers would need to commit big money to.

Said another way, the Lakers are very unlikely to be a tax paying team in either of the next two seasons and, thus, are very unlikely to pay the repeater tax. If they simply let free agency play out in a normal way, they’ll avoid those heavy tax payments that were the supposed impetus to trading Gasol to the Cavs and will maintain the benefit of the flexibility that trade would have offered them anyway.

Even in saying all that, let’s not act as though the Lakers’ only chance to trade Gasol evaporated with the Cavs pulling the trigger on a deal for Deng. Gasol has played well of late — in his last 10 games he’s averaging 18 points and 10 rebounds on 51% shooting — and if his production stays relatively stable until the trade deadline the potential for trade partners to materialize could increase. We’re looking at another month or so of time before that date comes.

Whether the Lakers find a deal they like enough to follow through with a trade is another story, but it’s not impossible to imagine them finally finding some sort of package that fits into their short and long term goals for building a team. In other words, Pau may still be a Laker today but there’s still plenty of time on the calendar for that to change.

And, so, more things change, the more they stay the same. Over the next month or so, I think we’ll find this to be especially true when it comes to Pau Gasol being in the middle of trade rumors.