Archives For Laker Analysis

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.

Week At A Glance

Andre Khatchaturian —  February 2, 2014

As the Lakers continue to lose, the question shifts to Kobe Bryant and whether a return this season is even worth it. Bryant is still recovering from his injury and has repeatedly stated that he does want to play again this year.

But that’s Kobe’s opinion. Kobe is never going to back away from competition. He’s the same guy who wanted to play 48 minutes every game last season during the final stretch for the playoffs. In other words, Kobe’s decisions aren’t the most logical ones.

Resting Kobe means the Lakers could have their $50 million man return healthy next year for a new campaign. Why risk another injury during a meaningless season?

The Lakers have now lost 18 of their last 21 games and are just a half game ahead of the Sacramento Kings for dead last in the Western Conference. Though they have looked good in some of those losses offensively, their defense continues to be horrific. They have allowed triple digits in 14 consecutive games. Whether one blames the offensive-minded Mike D’Antoni or the injuries — it doesn’t matter because Kobe isn’t going to help bring that number down. Defense is a collective effort and just because Bryant will be hustling and playing defense it doesn’t mean the rest of the team will.

On this shorthanded team, there’s a good chance Kobe may try to do too much and put himself at risk for another injury. If he gets hurt once more, that’ll be three times in a 12-month span and that’s something nobody wants to see.

The Lakers have invested plenty of money in Kobe Bryant over the next two years. They saw what can happen already when they rush to bring him back. It would be wise to do what’s best for the team’s future and rest him. The positives outweigh the negatives heavily.

Regarding the players that are actually on the floor and playing for the Lakers, there are two guys who have continuously produced over the last month: Pau Gasol and Kendall Marshall.

Gasol seems to be realizing that he’s going to be looking for a new contract at the end of the year and he’s playing like a guy who’s going to be pursuing big money. In January, Gasol averaged 20.8 points, 11.9 rebounds, 3.9 assists, and 1.7 blocks. He’s been playing actively on both ends of the floor.

Meanwhile, Marshall looks like a player who may actually stick with the squad come next year. He recorded his eight and ninth double-doubles this week and is continuing to show that he could be an effective point guard in the NBA.

Speaking of point guards, the Lakers got good news this week as Jordan Farmar, Steve Blake, and Steve Nash all practiced. It’ll be interesting to see what Marshall’s role will be when all three of their point guards return to the court. But for now, he’s enjoying his starting minutes.

The Lakers brief home stand ended and they’ll head back on the road this week. They’ll do a back-to-back in Minnesota and Cleveland before finishing off the week in Philadelphia.

The list of things the Lakers don’t do very well is long. You don’t end up with one of the worst records in the league if this weren’t a true statement. But if we were looking for the thing the Lakers do worse than any other team in the league, rebounding would be it. If you don’t want to take my word for it, here are some simple numbers:

  • The Lakers are dead last in rebounding differential, getting out-rebounded by 5.9 a night
  • The Lakers are dead last in total rebound percentage, grabbing only 46.8% of the available rebounds a game
  • The Lakers are 29th in defensive rebounding percentage, grabbing only 71.3% of the their opponent’s misses
  • The Lakers are 27th in offensive rebounding percentage, grabbing only 21.7% of their own misses

These numbers essentially back up what the eye test tells us. When a shot misses, the other team grabs it more often than the Lakers do. It really is that simple.

The question, though, is why?

If you look at the comments of any game thread on this site (or, I’d imagine, any other Lakers-centric one) the blame will be placed squarely at the feet of the head coach and his rotation decisions. Fans wonder why Chris Kaman languishes on the bench while Robert Sacre plays. Fans wonder why Ryan Kelly gets more minutes than Jordan Hill. These are coaching decisions, after all, and they seem to dramatically affect the Lakers’ ability to rebound well.

Those claims aren’t totally without merit. Per Basketball-Reference, Kaman and Hill have the team’s 2nd and 3rd best defensive rebound percentages (defined as the % of defensive rebounds a player grabs while he is on the floor) at 26.1 and 23.8 respectively (1st is Pau Gasol at 26.4, by the way). Meanwhile, Sacre (15.8) and Kelly (12.5) lag far behind. Kelly’s number seems especially shameful, sitting at less than half the rate that Pau and Kaman’s are at.

Those are the individual numbers of the players, however. What about how the team rebounds with these guys on the floor? These numbers give us another layer of information and get us a bit closer to the root of the issue.

Per NBA.com’s stats tool, Sacre still scores low with the team grabbing posting a defensive rebound percentage of 67.9% when he is on the floor. This is the worst number on the team. You would think, then, that if Sacre rates poorly in this area that Ryan Kelly would too, but that’s not the case at all. When Kelly is in the game, the team has a defensive rebound percentage of 73.4%, 3rd best amongst players who have played 350 minutes. More head scratching comes when looking at the team’s numbers when Hill is in the game. Though he is, overall, the team’s best rebounder in terms of total rebound percentage and third best defensive rebounder the team only grabs 70.5 of the available defensive caroms when he’s on the floor (which is the 9th best mark of players who have played over 350 minutes).

The story that these numbers start to tell is that you really can’t just pin the Lakers’ rebounding problems on the big men. Sure, they are part of the problem as we’ve all seen them miss box outs, not hustle to grab rebounds that are out of their immediate area, and, in general, simply get beat on the glass too often — especially on shots taken outside of the paint where classic rebounding technique (bodying your man and reading where the ball is going) matter most. They, as a group, must be better to hold down the glass and can’t just point the finger in another direction when the team continues to get hammered on the backboards.

That said, if we’re really looking to assign blame, the guards and wings deserve more than what they’ve received to this point. The Lakers defensive woes on the perimeter are a major factor in how poorly the team performs on the glass. When guards get beat off the dribble, the big men often have to slide over to help and challenge shots. When they do, the guards and wings must rotate to the paint to “help the helper” and body up the opposing big men who their teammate left behind. This isn’t just true on standard straight line drives, either. When the ball is penetrated and kicked out, that triggers defensive rotations that, when the ball is swung from side to side, often result in a big man rotating to the perimeter to contest a jumper. When that occurs, the Lakers wings must be better not just in seeking out a big body to box out, but in closing down the FT line area and grabbing the rebounds that carom out beyond the paint.

Too often what I see are wings who are either hopeful that their athleticism will get them to a ball or, worse yet, don’t even make the effort to move into the proper position to be factor in recovering a miss. Rather than fight and try to do the dirty work, they’re more than content to either leek out or stand and watch while a loose ball gets claimed by the other team. This, as much as the bigs getting beat, is a huge problem that needs addressing. And it has little to do with the big men and even less to do with the coaching and substitution decisions.

In the end, the big men will be the ones who get most of the flack since they’re the players whose job descriptions are “rebounding”. And as long as two of the team’s better rebounders (Kaman and Hill) don’t play as much as they could (or in Kaman’s case at all), D’Antoni will also catch heat. But, in reality, the perimeter players need to take more ownership of this issue than they have to this point and start to do the fundamental things more often to help the team. Because rebounding isn’t just the responsibility of the big men, it’s everybody’s.

With that said, you have to continue to monitor your roster as the season goes on. That’s the job as a general manager. You have to be more realistic. Most of the time, we start the season with a certain ratio in mind. It could be 80 percent looking at the current season, and 20 percent at the next season. If you have a chance to win a title in a given season, maybe you sacrifice the next year to a certain extent. Or, maybe that ratio changes with injuries, from 60-40 in December, to 50-50 in January or 30-70 in February looking to the future. Now, the coach is 100 percent focused on winning that year, but part of the manager’s job is to have the future of the organization in mind.

(Via Q & A With Mitch Kupchak, Lakers.com)

The Lakers are, for all intents and purposes, a bad team. Losers of a large amount of their last many (do the actual numbers even matter?), they are in a position where they must start to tinker with the ratios Mitch Kupchak mentioned in his candid, revealing sit-down with Mike Trudell earlier this month.

Injures have decimated this roster beyond a level where they can be truly competitive night to night. The injuries have gone on for so long, however, that the roster we see in front of us has become the new norm and we start to evaluate them based off whether they are winning and losing.

I do this myself.

A bad defensive approach to a final play cost the team a game in Chicago. Playing an overmatched Ryan Kelly against Carmelo Anthony while limiting the minutes of Jordan Hill and Chris Kaman (as the Lakers got killed on the glass) might have done the same against the Knicks. I find myself frustrated with the details that, for all the team’s lack of competitiveness, seem to cost the team games.

But should I be?

The Lakers are, for all intents and purposes, a bad team.

Forget, for a moment, about tanking and the potential talented draft pick that may come the team’s way this summer. Forget the salary cap limitations of Kobe’s extension. Forget who is available in free agency next year (or even the year after) too. Instead focus on what talent is on the roster now and what is most valuable about them.

Is maximizing their talent and trying to win as many games as possible what’s best? Is finding out what the team has in younger players who have not yet had the opportunity via extended minutes to prove if they really belong?

As someone who hates losing, I can identify with the mindset of wanting to win now. Why does Jordan Hill play so few minutes when the team struggles so much on the backboards while Ryan Kelly is grabbing so few of the available caroms? Why is Chris Kaman a regular recipient of DNP-CD’s while Robert Sacre is a fixture (even in limited minutes) of the rotation? These are questions I find myself asking on nearly a nightly basis and I know I’m not alone. Especially since I don’t think it can really be argued who are the better, more refined professional players at this stage of their respective careers.

As someone who appreciates the idea of player development, however, I can also sympathize with the idea that, at some point, the Lakers need to find out what they have in these players. Is Sacre more than a 4th or 5th big man on a good team? Can Ryan Kelly, with some of his athletic limitations, actually be a rotation player in a league that is demanding more and more from its power forwards on both sides of the ball? The sad reality is, that while I want to win as much as the next guy, there really may not be a better time to seek information that helps answer these questions than this season.

This is the fallout of forward thinking.

Maybe that’s why, in the heat of the moment when the battle is being decided, it can seem so backward.

I find myself struggling with this idea more and more, especially when remembering that these decisions really don’t exist in a vacuum; that we really cannot forget about the draft in June, free agency in July, and how to build a roster with an aging Kobe Bryant taking up a substantial portion of the salary cap. The answers to questions about the young players on the roster are vital when put in the context of roster construction for future seasons.

That doesn’t make accepting the decisions that go into seeking out those answers any easier. And, for all we know, this isn’t even what the head coach is doing.

But as Mitch Kupchak said, at some point an organization has to start to adjust its view from the current season to the next. For Lakers’ fans, maybe the hardest part is that the reality of that usually comes around May, not in late January.

Week At A Glance

Andre Khatchaturian —  January 25, 2014

Despite missing a chunk of the lineup and traveling across the entire Eastern seaboard in a week, the Los Angeles Lakers have to be extremely happy with how their Grammy road trip ended no matter what happens tomorrow afternoon in New York.

Think about it. At one point this week, the Lakers couldn’t do five-on-five drills during practice because only nine guys were healthy enough to practice. They had two sets of road back-to-backs. They’re giving regular minutes to two D-league players (Manny Harris and Kendall Marshall) and head coach Mike D’Antoni still refuses to give big boy minutes to his most efficient player, Jordan Hill.

After beating the Toronto Raptors, the Lakers lost a heartbreaker in overtime against the Chicago Bulls and went toe-to-toe against back-to-back champion Miami before running out of gas in Orlando. The Lakers have to be tired.

Of course, just saying giving the team an A for effort isn’t going to cut it. There are still several legitimate issues that could be taken care of — even with the depleted roster.

Let’s start with Jordan Hill’s playing time. The power forward has the third highest offensive rebound rate in the entire league yet he’s still only averaging 19.8 minutes per game. Heck, Shawne Williams who is no longer on the team still has a higher MPG than Hill.

Hill also has the highest PER on the Lakers – hovering over the 19 mark. This essentially means he’s the most efficient player on the Lakers, but he receives laughable playing time.

The reason why this is frustrating to see from afar is because the Lakers are the worst rebounding team in the league. When one looks at the basic stats, they see the Lakers rank 20th in rebounding – averaging 42.6 boards per game. However, the advanced stats tell the real story. The Lakers are dead last in rebounding percentage and grab only 46.9 percent of all rebounding opportunities.

This is how Tobias Harris gets 20 rebounds in a game and the Miami Heat, who are also an awful team on the glass, out-rebound the Lakers, 48-35.

When a team doesn’t get defensive rebounds, they give their opponent more chances to score. On the flip side, if they do get offensive rebounds, they get more opportunities to score. It’s a simple concept that shows how valuable rebounding is and one would think that if a team had the third best offensive rebounder in the game, he’d get more action.

Hill, however, got fewer minutes than Manny Harris last night.

The numbers show that Hill doesn’t get tired when he plays a lot. He’s played four games where he’s logged over 30 minutes and he averaged 12 rebounds. Also, in back-to-back situations he averages two more rebounds per game than he does after a day of rest. This isn’t to say that he should average 40 minutes per night, but perhaps a little bit more than the peanut minutes he’s getting right now would help the Lakers on the glass.

Other than this, every excuse regarding injuries is valid for the Lakers. They have been ravaged by the injury bug all season long and as a result, have been forced to play inexperienced players. Because of this, they have struggled mightily on defense. The Lakers haven’t held an opponent to fewer than 100 points in 11 games.

That said, they have to be happy with the effort and the surprising play of Kendall Marshall. Last night against Orlando, he dished out 14 assists and only had one turnover. He also added 19 points. Those are numbers elite point guards like Chris Paul or Rajon Rondo put up on a regular basis. Marshall still has a lot to learn — his defense is suspect and he turns the ball over too much — but if this continues, then Marshall may have locked up a spot for himself on the roster for the foreseeable future.

The Lakers finish up their Grammy trip against the Knicks tomorrow afternoon on ABC. They won’t have a welcome return home, though, as they take on one of the league’s best teams in the Indiana Pacers. The Lakers will close out the week at home against the Bobcats.