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What is up, guys? So, it’s been a minute – hopefully this look ahead to Game 5 of what promises to be yet another oddity (different flavor, at least)of a Laker season finds you in good health.

When we last crossed paths, overstating the disarray that surrounded the Lakers would have posed quite the challenge. Wrapping up a season defined by tumult – the passing of a patriarch, upheaval and uncertainty on the bench, devastating injuries, the Next Great Laker eyeing the exit seemingly on arrival and cupboard shockingly devoid of youth, athleticism and, frankly, NBA talent – with Kobe Bryant shelved indefinitely and without a trump card to pull from their perpetually stacked deck, Mitch Kupchak and Co were staffed with the task of assembling transitional roster (I’ve gotta get diplomatic immunity for that, right?), on the cheap, without hamstringing their ability to go shopping next summer.

While acknowledging the myriad challenge that lay before the Lakers’ front office – the aforementioned financial constraints, an ascendant contender down the hall (still owned by a racist slumlord – never forget) also equipped with the “hey, ____, wouldn’t be cool to live and play in L.A.?” sales pitch – what emerged from the summer’s personnel machinations read like an obituary for optimism:

Chris Kaman, huh?… Hey, apparently Jordan Farmar’s back – Ok… Xavier Henry… at least he was a lotto pick?… Wes Johnson?! Isn’t that just English for Nikoloz Tskitishvili?… NICK YOUNG?!?! Really? Swaggy @$%4%$ P?!?!

It was dark.

On the other hand…

Though I’m not one to vocally advocate for openly tanking a season, I’m not not one to vocally advocate for openly tanking a season. And hell, if you’re ever going do it, this is supposedly the year… And man, if you’re in, might as well only do it once, and be the freaking Lakers of tanking.

Yeah, about that…

One week ago, the NBA’s island of misfit toys, err, the Lakers, opened the season with a matchup against their noisy neighbors, under the watchful eyes of a triumphant legacy, a legacy that, well… the hell with it – Oh, Doc. Shrouding the achievements of Baylor, West, Magic and Kareem so that giant Jared Dudley can watch over your squad? C’mon man! That’s just sad. Just slap a Pacific Division banner and Loy Vaught’s #35 on one of the other walls and be done with it.

Whew! That felt good. Sorry. Where were we? Oh yeah…

Last Tuesday evening, the Lakers’ curious collection kicked off its season as a near-double-digit underdog against the Clippers – and frankly my specs were not sufficiently rosy to allow me to expect what was to come. Unencumbered by the expectations that typically accompany the arrival of November in Lakerland, behind an early spark provided by Pau Gasol and fueled spectacularly by the desire and tireless effort of the Gallows Humor All-Stars, the Lakers took the fight to L.A.’s presumed contender. Not only did the Lakers dominate the offensive glass (15 off the bench – 11 from Jordan Hill and Chris Kaman), attack the paint and unleash an awesome 3-point barrage en route to 76 bench points (!!; That’s like a week’s work for your average Laker bench!) and a 13-point win, the backdrop against which they did so made for one of the most enjoyable victories in recent memory. For the first time in a long time, a Lakers win brought with it exuberance, and not relief. The Lakers as plucky upstarts.

With all due respect to the individual and collective abilities of the men comprising the 2013-14 Lakers’ roster, in an unaltered state it’s difficult to examine this crew and – in the absence of heroism the likes of which we’ve never seen from a still-rehabbing Kobe – concoct a scenario in which the accomplishments of this squad outstrip those of its 2012-13 predecessor. What we do have, however, is a collection of largely useful basketball players, without long-term financial commitments, looking to revive an NBA career, pen a successful final chapter, audition for a supporting role with a contender, capitalize on an opportunity to justify lofty draft status, or some combination thereof. And Nick Young.

And the opportunity to watch these guys work like hell to reclaim, reroute and resuscitate their NBA careers. And Nick Young.

The first stanza of the Lakers’ 2013-14 season has run the gamut. The euphoric haze of the shocking dismissal of the Clippers dissipating in Oakland, as the Lakers were rolled, lit up by Klay Thompson. Two nights later they once again flirted with an upset, challenging the (admittedly Duncan-less) defending Western Conference champion Spurs before coming up just short. And on Sunday, clinging to victory against the Atlanta Hawks after surrendering a double-digit lead they’d held throughout the game.

78 to go. It’s time to settle in.

Two years into their own retool-not-rebuild amid the professional twilight of their own generational great, face of the franchise, the Dallas Mavericks’ attempts to find a running mate of comparable stature for Dirk Nowitzki – via the pursuits of Chris Paul, Dwight Howard and Dallas native Deron Williams – have anticlimactically yielded Monta Ellis, Jose Calderon, Sam Dalembert and DeJuan Blair. Tonight in Texas, the Lakers kick off what is certain to be a challenging three-game trip against the Mavs, with matchups against the Rockets and Pelicans looming Thursday and Friday, before returning home for six of their next seven games. And with Dallas looking at three road games of their own in the next four nights, starting in OKC tomorrow, they’ll surely muster their best shot for the Lakers.

Offensively, Dallas will present the Lakers with a range of challenges. Like the Lakers, the Mavs prefer to play at a breakneck pace (fourth in the NBA in pace; the Lakers rank first), but, through three games, have managed to do so far more effectively than the Lakers, ranking third in the NBA in Offensive Efficiency (111.3 points/ 100 possessions), and rank in the top 12 leaguewide in each of the “Offensive Four Factors”: eFG% (12th), Offensive Rebound Rate (11th),Turnover Rate (10th lowest) and FTA/FGA (3rd). The strong defensive effort from Wes Johnson will be huge here, as will the Lakers’ work on the offensive boards. (Note: Jordan Hill and his stellar 23.2% ORB Rate are banged up, but will be in action)

Not terribly surprisingly, however, a squad on which the Dirk/Monta/Calderon trio is logs roughly 100 minutes per night does not hang its hat on the defensive end of the floor, ranking 23rd in the NBA. Despite a similarly pedestrian ranking offensively (20th in the NBA), the Lakers must exploit the Mavs’ shortcomings at the defensive end – namely by getting to the line, as the Mavs’ .352 opponents’ FTA/FGA ratio ranks last in the NBA, and perhaps easing up a bit on the gas, and emphasizing lineups featuring both Pau and Chris Kaman, a handful to begin with, but potentially a nightmare for the Mavs with Brendan Wright out of action and Dalembert and Bernard James their only active bigs.

Beyond this as has been the case through the season’s first week (and likely will be going forward), the most vital components to a Laker victory will at the offensive end be energy, aggressiveness and outside shooting. In other words, Xavier Henry must build on the best week of his NBA life.

Enjoy the game everyone!

What we have is a player that in 4 of the past 5 years has posted better PER’s as a C while also being one of the best post up players in the league. Yet, the running notion is that he’s better off playing a different position. It seems, what we’ve done is mistaken Pau’s versatility to play PF as an indicator that he’sbetter playing that position. We’ve overvalued his height advantage, overplayed his strength deficiency, and concluded that his best fit is one that explores the facets of his game that aren’t as strong (his mid-range shooting) as the ones he’s used to his advantage his entire career in both the NBA and internationally (his post up game). The reality is, though, what we’ve really done is not looked closely enough at the advantages of him playing C.

That’s an excerpt from a post written last summer. At the time, Gasol was clearly on the trade block and the argument was pretty simple: Pau Gasol, to be at his best, needs to play more Center and whether he stayed in Los Angeles or was shipped to another team, he needed to get back to playing more in that spot in order to get back to being the player we knew him to be.

Well, we all know what happened next. The Lakers traded Andrew Bynum for Dwight Howard and, with that acquisition, Pau spent another season playing a lot of PF and saw his offensive numbers and efficiency once again slip. It didn’t help that Pau battled numerous injuries, nor did it help that Mike D’Antoni initially jerked around his role by turning him into a sixth man where he clearly wasn’t as comfortable (or happy). But, ultimately, Pau’s struggles can mostly be linked to him spending more time away from the basket, roaming around the perimeter and becoming a stretch-y PF who didn’t spend enough time as a scoring option from his preferred spots at the elbow and the low block.

Heading into next season, however, that can all change. Dwight Howard is in Houston and Andrew Bynum is in Cleveland. There is no younger player to appease with touches or to feed the ball to encourage his growth. Pau is, once again, the clear cut best big man post option on the team and should see the majority of the touches on his preferred spot on the left block.

Continue Reading…

Building a team is as much about the assets you have as the ones you hope to obtain. You want more shooters? How about a lock down wing defender? What about a hustling big man who does all the dirty work or a shot creator from the back court who can generate offense when the shot clock is winding down?

Join the club, everyone wants more of those things. And with a high demand for players with those skill sets, getting them is easier than simply asking.

In order to get those types of players you need assets to obtain them. Be it trade pieces or the salary cap space (or exceptions as an over the cap team), you need to give something to get something. The Lakers, meanwhile, don’t have a lot of assets to work with to get the skill sets they’d like to add to the roster. That means the ones they do have need to be used carefully and maximized if the team hopes to take a step forward rather than simply treading water (or even taking another step back).

In an attempt to gauge how the Lakers will move forward this off-season, it’s best to look at some of their most valuable assets (while speculating how they might be deployed) and how they can contribute to building a viable contender next season. Let’s get to it…

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Sunday night marked the arrival of a new, long-term houseguest in Lakerland – the ghost of roster future.

In the absence of Kobe Bryant – a scenario initially not expected to come to fruition for handful of years – all eyes will be on Dwight Howard to recapture his MVP form of years past and anchor the team at the both ends of the floor. In short, after having the luxury to allow Howard to acclimate to his new surroundings and battle back from injuries at his own pace, the Lakers now need their franchise center to act the part. Sunday night marked Howard’s first game as the team’s long-term anchor, and Dwight delivered, devastating the Spurs to the tune of 26 points, 17 rebounds (6 offensive) and three blocks (plus a dubious goaltending call on a Tim Duncan hook I the lane), flashing his once-unrivaled speed and power in the post, and truly dominating on the glass. The result from a team perspective was no less encouraging, as the Lakers, in the maiden voyage without their superstar and leader, took a major step in sealing the postseason berth has at times seemed so elusive, with a 91-86 victory over the San Antonio Spurs.

However, Dwight was not alone in elevating his game in Kobe’s absence. Steve Blake turned in crowning performance as a Laker, connecting on four of eight 3-point attempts en route to 23 points, to which he added five rebounds, four assists and a pair of steals. Providing a much-needed spark off of the bench was Antawn Jamison, who kicked in 15 points, burying three of five 3-pointers himself, and grabbed six rebounds in 20 minutes of burn. Lending additional support were Jodie Meeks, who despite hitting just three of 11 shots, hit a massive pair of 4th quarter 3-pointers, as well as Pau Gasol, who simply could not get a thing to drop. However, despite a putrid 3-for-17 showing from the field, Pau left a positive mark on the game with 16 rebounds (5 offensive) and three blocked shots of his own.

It must be said that the Spurs were far from their best on Sunday night, with just two (Tim Duncan and Matt Bonner) of 10 players that took the floor making at least half of their shots. Duncan, though outquicked by Dwight in the early going and unable to keep him off of the glass, played a fantastic game, scoring 23 points on 11-of-22 shooting (including a pair of thunderous throwdowns in the second half), grabbing 10 rebounds, handing out four assists and swatting three shots. Of historical significance, with his final bucket of the night, the greatest power forward the league has ever seen ran his career tally to 23,759, good for 22nd on the NBA’s all-time list, two points ahead of the previous holder of that distinction, Charles Barkley. Unfortunately for Duncan, who, like pre-injury Kobe, is more than a decade and half in and still playing some of the best ball of his career (24.4 PER, 21.2 points and 11.8 rebounds per 36 minutes and career-best defensive rebound and block rates), he received little support from his normally reliable running mates.

Chief among the struggling Spurs were Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard, who shot a combined 2-for-15 from the floor (1-for-10 for Parker, 1-for-5 for Leonard) and combined for just 12 points, though it worth noting that the duo combined for 11 rebounds and 12 assists. Also, despite managing a double-double of his own (11 and 10), Tiago Splitter missed eight of the 13 shots he attempted, more than a couple of which were seemingly easy layups. Danny Green managed an identical 5-for-13 from the field, hitting just two of seven 3-point attempts, while Nando de Colo, Cory Joseph and DeJuan Blair managed just four points on 2-for-11 shooting. Now, it’s clearly unreasonable to expect two of the Spurs’ top three starters to shoot worse than 15% from the field while one of their starting bigs blows numerous chances at the rim, but a fair amount of credit is owed to the Lakers’ perimeter defenders, who challenged the Spurs’ on their 3-point attempts, forced an inordinate number of long 2-point jump shots and, in perhaps the greatest testament to their performance, held the Spurs to a single unsuccessful corner 3-point attempt.

That the sustainability of some of the offensive efforts can be called into question, and the Spurs did little to help themselves in a game that was certainly winnable are true, but tonight, wholly irrelevant. With the playoffs in the balance, in the absence of their emotional talisman and offensive catalyst, the Lakers put forth excellent effort at both ends, and ultimately had enough to gut out a massive victory against an elite Spurs team playing for its own playoff positioning, setting the stage for a win-and-you’re-in showdown with the Houston Rockets Wednesday night at Staples.

 

Fast Break Thoughts

Darius Soriano —  March 14, 2013

Last night’s game with the Hawks actually provided two losses — one from the game itself and one in the form of the Lakers’ superstar shooting guard to injury. Kobe’s ankle looks like it’s about nine months pregnant and the team says he’s out indefinitely with a severe ankle sprain. So, with plenty to discuss in Laker-land, here’s some fast break thoughts on the injury bug, the playoffs, and other general musings…

  • Was the play dirty? That’s the question of the day and that gets complicated rather quickly. On twitter I used that term, but would amend it to say, instead, that it was simply an unsafe play by Jones. There are plenty of ways to contest a fadeaway jump shot, but walking into and underneath an airborne player is one of the more dangerous ways to do so. Here’s a screen shot of Jones contesting Kobe’s shot:

Kobe Ankle

  • The reason why I’d say “unsafe” rather than “dirty” is because the latter implies intent. I’ve no clue what Jones’ intent was and prefer not to get into that at all. This in’t the real world where we get to go into a court room, hear testimony, and make a determination. There’s no “you can’t handle the truth” moment coming here. So, I see no need to get into that. Instead, let’s focus on the act and that act was Jones walking underneath a player in the air. That’s an unsafe play no matter how you slice it. I’m not out to disparage Jones or judge his actions through the prism of what I thought he meant to do. What he meant to do isn’t as important as what he actually did. And, in this case, the pictures and video show what he did.
  • What’s done is done, though. Arguing over it is less important than what happens next. The Lakers, simply based off their press release, imply Kobe will miss time. And, while there’s a train of thought that Kobe won’t miss any time (he is Kobe after all), I think he’ll miss at least a game and maybe more.
  • If that ends up being the case, the Lakers’ lack of depth on the wing will be a big challenge to overcome. Forget for a second that it’s Kobe missing time and simply focus on the fact that he’s currently the team’s starting shooting guard and its backup small forward. Coach Mike D’Antoni’s first substitutions are typically for Jamison to come in for Clark and for Meeks to replace Ron. That latter substitution slides Kobe up to SF where he’s a fixture of a small ball lineup. If Kobe can’t play any SF, who will?
  • Meeks and Blake are undersized for SG, much less SF. Ron has actually been playing PF more than SF if you look at who he defends on a nightly basis. Does this mean more minutes for Clark? He’s seen a decline in his minutes and production over the last month and isn’t exactly 100% healthy either (he’s had ankle, knee, and finger issues lately). Ebanks is glued to the bench and has played exactly 11 minutes since the turn of the calendar year. I don’t see this going well if Kobe is out for a prolonged period.
  • That said, knowing what we do of Kobe, he’ll get treatment on his ankle 24/7 until he can get back on the floor, though. He’s really not human in that regard.
  • In better injury news, Pau Gasol says he hopes to be back next week and it’s being reported he’ll return to the lineup as a starter. This is good news on both fronts. Yes, on both fronts. Before Pau got hurt, we were already starting to see a trend where Clark’s value as a starter was slipping from a team performance standpoint. The starting lineup that included Clark was essentially playing even basketball, their plus/minus numbers flat and their efficiency differentials hovering near zero. Meanwhile, when Clark was replaced by Pau, those numbers were beginning to trend up in a way that reinforced all the preseason belief that these players actually could perform well together as complementary pieces. Yes the sample was small and there were issues to work out defensively, but the numbers and the eye test support the “Big four plus Ron” lineup was starting to make headway as a cohesive unit.
  • Even though Pau will return as a starter, his biggest value should still come as an anchor for the 2nd unit. The bench has really struggled to create consistent offense outside of some good chemistry between Steve Blake and Jamison in the P&R. With Pau back, he can be the man in the middle whose passing and ability to score from all over the floor serve as a ballast for the bench.
  • Furthermore, his defense should also be quite useful. The Lakers’ defense is actually 3.4 points per 100 possessions better when Pau is on the floor versus when he sits, per the NBA’s stats database. It’s often easy to forget that even though Pau isn’t the best option to cover perimeter oriented bigs, he still can protect the rim with his length and do so without fouling. Don’t get me wrong, teams will still attack the paint when Dwight sits, but I’d much rather have Pau back at the basket than a combination of Jamison and Clark.
  • How the rotation shakes out when Pau is back will remain to be seen (and we’ll cover this in detail when he does return), but I would not be surprised to see Clark become more of a SF backing up Ron with Jamison taking the majority of the PF minutes when Pau is out of the game or playing C. Simply based off recent trends and how this coaching staff has deployed lineups in the past, I could see a bench lineup of Blake, Meeks, Clark, Jamison, and Pau starting the 2nd quarter, for example. But, I could also see Clark on the bench with a Dwight, Jamison, Ron trio next to Kobe (or Meeks) and Nash (or Blake) getting big minutes with Clark the odd man out due to Jamison’s greater ability to stretch the floor.
  • Getting away from Laker stuff for a second, show of hands (or, in the comments below) of who would want to do a FB&G March Madness bracket challenge. We didn’t do one last year but I’m considering doing one again this year, but only if the demand is high. We’d figure out a prize for the winner.
  • Also, I’m interested in reviving the FB&G mailbag, but only if there’s interest in it. If you have questions, you can email me by clicking that envelope on the right side of the banner at the top of the site. Just put “mailbag question” in the subject line and ask away.
  • Lastly, friend of FB&G and video maker extraordinaire LD2K has produced another gem that is worth your time. Here you go: