Archives For Laker Analysis

Week At A Glance

Andre Khatchaturian —  January 4, 2014

The Lakers wasted a tremendous opportunity this week to get back on track. They had two games against Utah and one each against Philadelphia and Milwaukee but they were only able to muster one win.

The loss against the Bucks essentially showed the country why pundits and Vegas had predicted the Lakers to have a win total in the low 30s this year. I don’t care how many injuries a team has – going down 14-0 in the first six minutes against the league’s worst team at home is inexcusable.

And the loss against the Sixers? That was a team who had just one road win all season and was suffering a 13-game road losing streak. Instead, the Lakers made Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young look like All-Stars in the loss.

The Lakers could have won 45 games this year and made the playoffs, but let’s be honest – these injuries haven’t helped at all. The Lakers used their sixth starting point guard in Friday’s win against the Jazz. The effort has been there, too. Guys like Ryan Kelly, Robert Sacre, Kendall Marshall, Jordan Hill, and Xavier Henry have been doing their best all season long.

But that effort went away momentarily in the losses against the Jazz, Sixers, and Bucks. Those are games that can be won with effort alone. If the Lakers put the same energy they did in the Heat loss on Christmas, they would’ve been able to win.

In the Sixers loss, the Lakers outrebounded Philadelphia and held the Sixers to just 41 percent shooting. However, the Purple and Gold shot just 36 percent. They took 37 threes and made only 12 of them. They didn’t work hard to get good quality shots. They just bombed threes and missed them.

Then on New Years’ Eve, the Lakers were outrebounded by the Bucks, 51-39, and once again shot just 36 percent. Mike D’Antoni’s seeming disdain for Jordan Hill continued in that game as he only played him 11 minutes. That might explain why they were outrebounded by the fifth worst rebounding team in the league.

The Lakers finally woke up against the Jazz last night, though. Pau Gasol had a monstrous performance amidst the trade rumors of him going to Cleveland and Kendall Marshall became the newest point guard to elevate his stats under Mike D’Antoni. And let’s not act like he’s the next Magic Johnson – the Lakers were playing the Jazz. Nonetheless, it was an admirable performance by a guy who went from starting in the D-League to starting for the Lakers in less than a month.

The Lakers may have snapped their six-game losing streak this week, but now stand at 14-19 with a brutal schedule ahead. Kobe isn’t coming back anytime soon and Gasol’s days may be numbered. They need those two to make any type of run.

The rest of the Lakers season essentially becomes Survivor: Lakers Edition. Those who play hard, have a shot of staying with the team next year. Right now, guys like Hill, Farmar, and Henry have to like their chances of being wanted to stay in LA – that is unless of course they get contracts from elsewhere.

The biggest audition is Mr. D’Antoni’s. The proponents of #TankCity fail to understand that D’Antoni can’t afford to tank a whole season in favor of a draft pick. If the Lakers are bottom feeders and he loses his job, what good does a top five pick do him? He might as well have a gun to his head right now and the clock is ticking. D’Antoni needs to prove that he could at least coach this team to a .500 record. The more he wins with this roster, the more leverage he gains and the higher the chances are of him coaching the Lakers next year.

Maybe that’s why he played Marshall over 40 minutes in the win against the Jazz. His biggest strength is elevating point guards. Now that he saw what Marshall can do in a small sample, he’s hoping he can ride him to victory and a chance to coach next year.

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This is a list of point guards that played under D’Antoni before he joined the Lakers. All of them had better numbers with Mike at the helm. A few of them (Lin, Nash, i.e) had their best years with D’Antoni. So last night’s performance was no surprise. It would’ve been a surprise if we saw the Lakers allow fewer than 80 points a game for a five game stretch with D’Antoni as coach. But point guards elevating their game? Been there, done that.

The Lakers won’t be playing against cupcakes much longer. After a home affair against the Nuggets, they play three “road” games in four nights. Tuesday and Wednesday features a Texas two-step at the Mavs and Rockets. Then, the team returns to Staples Center to play a road game against the Clippers on Friday.

Note: This piece was written before Saturday night’s game against the Warriors. I’ve chosen to erase the game from memory, as you can’t really tell anything about a team playing without its three point guards and two best players on the second night of a back-to back. I suggest you do the same.

I’ve come to the conclusion that Mike D’Antoni hates attention. He must.

With all eyes off Lakerland after Kobe’s newest injury, the Lakers comfortably beat the far more talented Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday night. Nick Young led the squad with 25 points on only 14 shots (and even dished out a season, and quite possibly career high 4 assists). Xavier Henry filled in at point guard admirably, taking relatively good care of the ball for a 6’6” SF who likely hasn’t brought the ball up the court since high school. Pau looked springy again in the post on his way to a near-triple double. The crowd cheered approvingly all night. After the game, Coach D’Antoni was visibly pleased, even acknowledging that Swaggy P’s antics “get him going.”

For at least one night, MDA wouldn’t have to answer questions from national media. His disgruntled face would be spared from SportCenter. Instead, he was free to enjoy an upbeat locker room with relatively little interference. Because when Kobe’s not playing, people lose interest in the Lakers.

Which is more than fine for Mike D’Anotni.

You guys know the numbers already, but I’ll give you a quick refresher as to where the purple (blue) and gold stand through 27 games. This season, the Lakers are 13-14 and sit in 10th in the stacked Western Conference. If Los Angeles was lucky enough to be located somewhere east of the Mississippi River, the Lakers would be in solid playoff position at 4th in the East (I feel like every basketball piece written this season, regardless of content, isn’t complete without a jab at the historically awful East). In games were Kobe doesn’t play, the Lakers are 11-10. When you consider the personnel that MDA’s had to work with in those 24 games, that record becomes nothing short of remarkable.

Pau Gasol is a career perennial all-star and probably a future Hall of Famer who still has a tremendous basketball IQ and is a valuable locker room guy. But he’s no longer a go-to type player, a guy you can throw the ball to in the low block and know you’re getting a bucket. Thus, shifting the focus of the Kobe-less offense to Pau simply wouldn’t keep the Lakers competitive. Instead, the Kobe-less Lakers rely on a run and gun offense built heavily on three point shooting and fluid ball movement. Guys like Wesley Johnson, Shawne Williams, and Xavier Henry- who casual Laker fans didn’t know existed until this year- see significant minutes. It’s a distinctly different Lakers than any of us are used to seeing, with a new player leading the team seemingly every night. If I’d had told you before the season that a this team sans Kobe, with Pau Gasol averaging only 14 points a game, would be 11-10, you wouldn’t have believed me.

Here’s some perspective. After the Golden State Warriors signed Andre Iguodala in free agency this summer, many (including myself) foresaw them contending to come out of the West. Just look at their roster! Steph Curry gave Popovich headaches aplenty in last year’s playoffs and might be the greatest shooter in the history of the NBA. Klay Thompson’s emerged as the second half of one of the league’s most devastating backcourts and, like Curry, simply cannot be left open. Iguodala is an all-star who earned a place on the 2012 gold medal winning Team USA. Harrison Barnes could very well blossom into a bonafide star. David Lee, while overpaid and unpopular this season, is a two-time all star and Andrew Bogut is an elite defender. I could go on, but I think the moral of the story is clear: The Warriors have more talent than the Lakers do. Way more.

After Saturday’s blowout victory of the laughably shorthanded Lakers, the Warriors moved to 15-13 on the season. That means the Dubs are exactly one game better in relation to .500 than the Kobe-less Lakers are. Chew on that for a minute. A team whose top 6 contributors are an over-the-hill Pau, Jordan Hill, Nick Young, Xavier Henry, Wesley Johnson, and Steve Blake has the same record in basketball games as a team who goes with Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Barnes, Lee, and Bogut.

And for that, Mike D’Antoni deserves more than one hat tip. Every single time the Lakers notch a win against a team with far more talent, like Friday’s W, I’m genuinely surprised. But as I watch this team more and more, I’m starting to realize that that’s not the correct reaction.

Because this is what Mike D’Antoni does.

He takes teams who, on paper, look dead in the water and guides them to victories by milking his players for every ounce of production they have in their bodies. A quick peek at MDA’s tenure with the Phoenix Suns illustrates this nicely.

We all remember the seven-seconds-or-less Suns by recalling images of those hideous orange uniform and Nash’s equally hideous haircut. But what made those teams so successful was the depth of Nash’s supporting casts. In 2005-06, D’Antoni somehow got 13.3 points and 6.9 rebounds per game out of Boris Diaw- both career highs. Shawn Marion enjoyed the prime of his career playing in D’Antoni’s offense, averaging 20.1 points and 10.8 boards over a three-year stretch. Between 2005 and 2008, Leandro Barbosa was good for 15 points a game. While excellent players, neither Diaw, Marion, nor Barbosa has been able to replicate that kind of production anywhere else. In short, D’Antoni got the most out of his players in Phoenix, just as he is this season in LA.

Based on the above info, you’d think Mike D’Antoni would have earned a reputation as one of the league’s finest coaches. But this simply isn’t the case. Because when the focus of the NBAsphere shifts to D’Antoni, he crumbles.

After reveling in relative anonymity to the tune of a 253-136 record in Phoenix, D’Antoni was brought in to revive one of the league’s struggling juggernauts (sound familiar?) in the Knicks. But the personnel of that Knicks squad-especially ball-stopping Carmelo Anthony- didn’t take to the D’Antoni system, going 121-167 in 3+ years. Unable to escape the spotlight of New York, D’Antoni was fired. He failed, and did so publicly.

So, which Mike D’Antoni will we see in the remaining 55 games? Will we get the offensive mastermind who gets the most out his roster, or the quick-tempered guy who’s unable to adjust his coaching style to fit his team?

I’m afraid that with D’Antoni, as has been the case with this Laker team all season, it’s just impossible to predict.

As we’ve discussed plenty, Kobe Bryant’s return has meant a noticeable shift in how the Lakers play when he’s on the floor.

As it’s been for almost his entire career, Kobe is the center of the Lakers’ universe and with that comes a hyper-focus on him and a tilting towards what works for the team when he is on the floor. As Kobe’s game has evolved, that has meant the team has evolved with him. When he was younger and more of an open court player, so was the team. As he’s aged and become more of a post up player who is at his best working at the elbows and the shallow wing, the team has slowed down to accommodate him. Through all that change, the team has been successful so as the old saying goes, if it ain’t broke…

What the Lakers face now, however, is a team that was built to play a certain way with Kobe’s presence an uncertainty. Through training camp and the preseason, the conversation about how the team would play in relation to Kobe always came back to the simple fact that there wasn’t a firm idea of when Kobe would be back to influence such things. In other words, the team would play a style that fit its personnel and it would cross the Kobe bridge when he was on the floor and part of the game plan. Well, that time is now. And, it seems the answer is that this team will have two identities. From Ramona Shelburne:

One thing that won’t change though, is the difference in the way the starting unit will play compared to the reserves.

D’Antoni said he expects Bryant and Pau Gasol to play a two-man game when they’re on the court together because each are so good at creating their own shots.

The second-unit needs to create shots “collectively.”

“Yeah, just naturally,” D’Antoni said of how the starting unit will function differently with Gasol and Bryant. “They have to. Kobe’s a hell of a shot creator and so is Pau. So they’ll play one way. And then that other group is going to have to do it collectively. Hopefully we can get that started a bit more.

“They’re going to play distinctly a little bit different until we get guys back and completely legs under us and get poing guards back in there to even it out a little bit.”

Even before Kobe’s return, the team dealt with some of these same issues. At the start of the season, Mike D’Antoni played a lot of “big” units with Chris Kaman and Pau Gasol together with Steve Blake running the point. These units relied heavily on their HORNS sets, played a lot of high-low between the bigs, and really tried to work the ball inside out. The pace was slower and the actions were more methodical. When the second unit came in, the identity shifted towards a more frantic style with Jordan Farmar captaining a group I dubbed the “chaos unit”. Farmar teamed with a combination of Jodie Meeks, Xavier Henry, Nick Young, and Jordan Hill to form lineups that pushed the pace, either played in isolation or ran multiple pick and rolls in the half court, and generally got after teams defensively by pressuring ball handlers (even picking up full court at times) and jumping passing lanes.

But as that second unit found success, the contrasting styles between the two units disappeared. Kaman found his way out of the lineup, Jordan Hill became a starter, and Steve Blake started to play more aggressively by running more P&R’s and looking to attack the paint off the dribble. What used to be two styles became one and the team started to win more games.

Now, however, Kobe is back and the team is back to playing those two distinct styles. Whether Jordan Farmar’s return — he is, reportedly, roughly a week away from coming back from his torn hamstring — can serve as a bridge between the two units remains to be seen, but at some point the Lakers will need to forge more of a single identity rather than having two distinct ones. Whether that means Kobe and Pau find a way to play faster (think of how Pau ran the floor in the game against the Grizzlies while Kobe looked to pass ahead more often) or the return of the point guards means a more controlled second unit, something will need to give.

The ideal, I think, would be somewhere in the middle: a more balanced attack overall where the guys with the younger legs continue to provide a level of energy that the older players try to match for their minutes on the floor with the flip side to that coin being when it’s time to grind out possessions at the end of close games, the veterans could then take center stage and provide the support that the younger players can lean on. When the Lakers were last winning championships, this was actually more of the model they used with Farmar and Lamar Odom anchoring a bench unit that was a little bit more reckless but still willing to conform to the structure of the Triangle when needed.

If this group could do the same, they may just find some of that early season magic again.

Week At A Glance

Andre Khatchaturian —  December 15, 2013

For over a month, the Lakers built an identity without Kobe. They finally had it figured out it seemed like, as they were 10-9 and had momentum.

The identity of the Lakers was forced to change once Kobe came back this week, though. The Lakers struggled – losing their first three games with Kobe in the lineup before finally winning last night in Charlotte.

It’s important to note that Kobe has not played with many of the new guys on the Lakers squad like Nick Young, Shawne Williams, Wesley Johnson, and Xavier Henry. Kobe didn’t have training camp with these guys and as a result, there may be a little bit of rust.

Kobe is averaging 65 touches per game. The league leader, John Wall, is averaging just over 100. One would think Kobe would be closer to that based on his history of taking control of a game. However, we haven’t seen that Kobe yet.

We’ve seen a combination of facilitator Kobe (13 assists in loss to Thunder), rusty Kobe (6.3 turnovers per game), and clutch Kobe (huge shot and free throws in fourth quarter in win at Charlotte).

But we haven’t seen dominant Kobe. It’s as if the Lakers have been trying to maintain their identity as a balanced scoring team with Kobe in the mix. This is a very new concept for Kobe and as a result, the chemistry just hasn’t been there yet and it will take time to develop.

For the next 20 games, expect the Lakers to be just as up and down as they were in the first 20. They’re going to be searching for an identity yet again and I have a hunch that we’re going to be seeing a more Kobe centric offense as the season progresses. The Lakers simply can’t win with Kobe getting only 65 touches per game. Kobe won’t allow it either. He’s an alpha male and he hates losing.

Finally, now is the time to rant on D’Antoni’s obsession with recency bias. His coaching decisions have been incredibly interesting this past season. One player has a great quarter? Oh, let’s start him. One player has a lousy stretch of six minutes of play? DNP. Coach’s decision.

Take Robert Sacre for instance. After a few solid efforts off the bench, all of a sudden he was in the starting lineup. However, after a poor nine minute effort in Sunday’s game. He was benched at home against the Suns.

I understand that the team is trying to develop an identity by trying out different lineup combinations. But how is a team supposed to develop continuity when there is constant change in the lineup.

We’ve seen the same thing happen with Jordan Hill and Jordan Farmar (when he was healthy). Their playing time would get significantly cut when they had a bad game and vice versa when they had a great game. These are two players that should be starting every game. The numbers show they have been two of the most effective Lakers this season. They should not having their playing time fluctuate so drastically.

We even saw it last year with the benching of Pau Gasol.

With Kobe back in the lineup, at least we’ll have one constant – Kobe will get his playing time and his touches.

The Lakers have another tough week ahead of them. Their road swing continues as they play Atlanta and Memphis back to back. Then they return home for a tilt against Minnesota before heading to the Bay to play Golden State.

It’ll be interesting to see if we see more of “Dominant Kobe” this week especially after his great play in the fourth quarter at Charlotte. We may have to if the Lakers are going to go above .500 again.

 

Week At A Glance

Andre Khatchaturian —  December 7, 2013

After splitting a pair of games this week, the Lakers are just 2.5 games behind the Los Angeles Clippers for the Pacific Division. This is great news considering the Lakers have been playing without Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash.

That’s about to change, though, as Kobe announced that he will be in the starting lineup Sunday night when the Lakers play host to the Raptors.

What a fitting opponent to return against, too. The Mamba has shredded the Raptors throughout his career. In 29 career games against Toronto, Bryant is averaging 28.3 points per game (second-most against any team).

He’s also provided impressive heroics against the team from up north. We all know about the 81 point explosion back in 2006. However, Kobe has also hit a trio of game winners (2010, 2012, and 2013) against the Raptors.

There are many questions surrounding Kobe’s return. How long will Mike D’Antoni play him early on? How effective will he be? How healthy is he? All of these questions will be answered this week. That said, even if Kobe is 80 percent of what he once was, he’s going to be a major boost to the Lakers.

The Lakers dynamic will surely change with Bryant in the lineup. In last night’s win over Sacramento, six different players scored double figures. With Kobe in the lineup, we may not see that again. Hopefully, it’s not going to be the Kobe show where he shoots 30 times per game.

From what we’ve seen early on, the Lakers have a lot of players who can produce. Xavier Henry, Jordan Hill, Jordan Farmar (when he’s healthy), Pau Gasol, Shawne Williams, Wesley Johnson, Nick Young, Steve Blake, and Jodie Meeks have all had shining moments during this season.

In fact, the Lakers have had nine different leading scorers in their 19 games this season. No Laker to this point has cracked the 30 point mark this season. Such a notion would be unheard of had Kobe been healthy.

Kobe could easily become the leading scorer every night for the Lakers, but there’s no doubt that he’s excited about the fact about having great help on his team. Kobe is always most effective when he’s a facilitator. When he takes a lot of shots, it’s usually a sign that no one is helping him and he has to take over the game on his own. This year’s squad has a plethora of players that can make shots. Kobe doesn’t have to take over games anymore.

The Kobe-less Lakers were pretty much asked to just stay afloat at .500 until their star returned. Going into Sunday, they’re one game above .500 and they’ve won six of their last eight games. In fact, they’re a game better than they were last year at this point and that was with Dwight and Kobe.

They showed great heart against the West’s best Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday night, coming back down from two double-digit deficits only to run out of gas late in the fourth quarter of that game.

Then, last night the Lakers were down by as many as 10 points in the 3rd quarter. It didn’t matter. They roared back to outscore the Kings 25-13 on the road to win by six points thanks to a three-point barrage by Jodie Meeks.

Last year’s Lakers were entitled and flaky for many. This year’s team has shown resilience, heart, and has dealt with adversity in ways no one imagined.

Take Robert Sacre for instance. He was drafted 60th overall in 2012. People can badmouth the Lakers draft day decisions all they want, but Sacre has been a great pick. He has battled hard and he was rewarded with his first start of the season on Friday night. He had three starts last year, but that was because the team was riddled with injuries. He earned last night’s start.

In limited action, Sacre is averaging over a block per game and is shooting over 54 percent from the field. This week, in two games he averaged 11.5 points, 6.0 rebounds, and shot 66.7 percent. Plus, for the season, when Sacre has been on the floor the Lakers’ efficiency marks have been outstanding. They have boasted an offensive efficiency of 121.2 and a defensive efficiency 95.4 during his minutes. This is a small sample, but it certainly contributed to why he has seen an uptick in minutes lately.

His hard work, though, is a microcosm of the entire Lakers team. Most of these guys are fighting for contracts. Many of them play for the league minimum and are working feverishly to get a fat paycheck over the summer. It’s moral hazard at its best.

And now Kobe makes his long awaited return. The Lakers play four games this week. After their tilt at home with the Raptors on Sunday, they’ll play host to the Suns on Tuesday before heading out to Oklahoma City and Charlotte to finish off the week.