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Lakers’ fans, maybe more than any other fan-base, love to have their whipping boys. Typically, these are guys who don’t consistently play well, but also fit snugly into two different categories: 1). Guys who fans think should play a certain way, but don’t (Pau needs to be tougher!) or 2), Guys who aren’t seen as earning their paycheck. Players who have fallen into the latter category in recent seasons range from Lamar Odom (when he was making near max money before the Lakers went to the Finals in 2008), Luke Walton (whose six year contract at the full mid-level was instantly criticized by a certain sect of fans), and, most recently Steve Blake (who, in his first few years of his contract, didn’t live up to what fans expected from a guy making $4 million a year).

It’s Blake’s inclusion on this list that’s always been somewhat puzzling to me. Not because Blake was playing well and didn’t deserve some criticism for his on-court production, but rather because as a back up point guard making less than the mid-level, I never really viewed Blake as either A). overpaid or B). not playing hard or giving it his all on the court. Sure, Blake could have played better and there were times I wanted more from him considering his skill set. That said, when a player competes hard and is put in a position to be a role player who mostly plays off the ball and is only given limited opportunities, I don’t necessarily think it is fair to jump on him when his production isn’t what you’d want. Critique is one thing, but some of the blowback Blake has received in his time as a Laker has gone way beyond fair criticism.

This season, though, the much maligned Blake has turned those criticisms upside down by playing some of the best basketball of his career and certainly his best as a Laker. Consider the following:

*Since becoming the starting point guard 3 games ago, Blake has dished out 37 assists while committing only 8 turnovers.

*In those same three games, Blake has assisted on 47.4% of the Lakers’ baskets when he’s on the floor. In the past 40 years, with a minimum of 40 games played, only 12 players have put up an assist percentage over 47 over the course of a season. The guys on that list include names like Magic, Stockton, Chris Paul, Steve Nash, Isiah Thomas, and Deron Williams.

*Scoring wise, Blake hasn’t been amazing, but he has been scoring 11 points a night while shooting 44% from the field (including 50% of his two point shots — a pretty big feat for a guy whose two point percentage is normally in the low 40′s).

In essence, what we are seeing, is a player who is both comfortable in the offense he’s being asked to run and operating in an offense that finally allows him to show off more of the skills that made him a priority signing 4 years ago. As Mike D’Antoni said at halftime of the Pistons’ game, Blake is getting comfortable with the reads within this system and that comfort is showing on a nightly basis.

On this set, the Lakers start out running an half-hearted pin down action on the back side to free Jordan Hill up at the top of the floor to receive a pass. This flows seamlessly into a swing pass to Blake that sets up a pick and roll between Blake and Hill. Blake, reading that the D is a bit lax, goes away from the pick towards the baseline and draws a double team. After pivoting and finding Hill as a release valve, Blake instantly runs another P&R with Hill and drops him a nice pocket bounce pass along the baseline that Hill gathers and then rises up to sink a jumper.

On this next set, Blake again runs a P&R with Hill. This time, however, Blake accepts the pick right away and darts down the lane line to threaten the D. When Blake draws a second defender, he patiently strings out his dribble and waits for Hill to create an angle to receive a pass. Once Hill is open, Blake bounces a picture perfect pass to his big man that Hill is able to scoop up and turn into an easy basket.

On this last play, Blake has the ball high with Pau inching up to set a pick. Blake reads the D and decides again to go away from the screen and pressure the D by pushing the ball at Tony Allen who is covering Jodie Meeks in the corner. As Blake continues his dribble, you can see the Grizzlies defense respond to his hard dribble combined with Pau’s sliding towards the paint. Blake has successfully occupied his own man, taken Marc Gasol with him towards the hoop, and turned Tony Allen completely towards him in a help position. With Allen’s head turned, Meeks cuts right behind him and Blake hits him with a bounce pass that Meeks turns into an uncontested lay up.

None of these assists are spectacular passes where Blake is making the highlight play. But just because these are simple actions doesn’t mean Blake doesn’t deserve credit. In every one of these plays, Blake is manipulating the defense by keeping his dribble alive and attacking specific spots on the floor. By threatening the defense, Blake is successfully occupying multiple defenders and then picking out the open man with textbook passes that set them up for uncontested shots. What he’s doing epitomizes floor generaliship and is a key reason that, at least right now, this team doesn’t miss Steve Nash much at all.

No, Blake isn’t the scoring threat that Nash has been in his career and, despite good numbers from behind the arc for the season, Blake won’t garner the same attention off the ball that Nash has (and still does). That said, what Blake is doing with the ball in his hands is just as much (if not more) than Nash could be expected to do at this stage of his career and goes to show how much Blake really can offer this team offensively. Again, he may not be doing anything that gives you visions of Magic Johnson, but his technical precision and ability to make the play in front of him certainly reminds of a late career Stockton or, maybe more apt, what Mark Price used to do for those old Cavs teams.

Not bad for a guy who used to be every Lakers’ fan’s whipping boy.

Lakers’ camp is in full swing and while we still don’t know a lot, we are getting snippets of information about a variety of topics. Steve Nash and Pau Gasol are looking good. Jordan Farmar looks primed to excel in a system that is a better fit than the one he last played in while a Laker. Wes Johnson is also getting nice reviews, using his length and athleticism to flash some defensive potential while also knocking down his outside jumper.

To this point, however, these bits of news were all delivered via word of mouth from players or members of the coaching staff. What we haven’t had the chance to do is actually see any of these things happening. Well, that’s now changed. At least somewhat:

What we see in the video above is a brief clip of the Lakers scrimmaging in a recent practice. At certain points the team seems to be going three-quarter speed and all we really get are positive plays, but that doesn’t make footage like this entirely useless. In fact, some of the things we see can give us good hints into what the team will be doing in the pre-season.

A few notes:

*Nearly every half court set looks to involve at least one screen and roll as a way of initiating the offense. Even when the team runs a classic HORNS set (with both big men starting out at the elbows), Nash uses the set up to initiate a P&R with Kaman at the elbow rather than just entering the ball into the big man and starting the sequence of cuts and screens that would typically follow.

*We’re still seeing a lot of actions that lead to big men shooting jumpers out of half court sets. Kaman did a lot of floating around 15-18 feet away from the hoop and Pau did a lot of flashing into open spaces into the same areas. Both big men are capable of hitting shots from that distance, but both are also more than capable of doing work closer to the basket. I hope to see more of the latter during the pre-season.

*Speaking of the big men, Pau and Kaman were on the same team in the scrimmage action. I don’t think this is anything to be overly concerned about as D’Antoni has already said he thinks both bigs will share the floor during the season. That said, I still have my concerns about the team’s defense when those two share the floor.

*It’s easy to see some of the quickness the team has picked up with guys like Wes Johnson, Farmar, and Shawne Williams running around the perimeter and crashing into the paint. It remains to be seen if those players can make the same types of hustle plays against the caliber of athlete they’ll see on other teams (rather than some of the athletes they see in their own practice), but it’s nice to see guys getting to loose balls and creating positive plays through that hustle.

*All we saw were makes, but it sure is nice to see Nash, Pau, Kaman, Farmar, and others knock down some long jumpers. If the Lakers are going to be a top 10 offense this season (which they’ll need to be if they hope to compete for the playoffs), they’ll need their shooters to hit shots and create the spacing to help their teammates who work in the post and want to get into the lane off the dribble.

The point in all this isn’t to draw too many conclusions about what the team will do on either end of the floor. But, footage like what we saw above does offer some hints as to what this team will try to be. As they continue to evolve and incorporate their entire roster, we should see even more of what they’re capable of. But, even if it’s only in the form of a brief clip of a scrimmage, it’s nice to see the Lakers playing basketball again.

The Dark World

Ryan Cole —  August 6, 2013

Sometime as a fan you need some inspiration to get through a trying season. Injuries, losses, and free agency all seem to have taken its toll on Laker fans across the world, leaving some hopeless about the state of the Lakers franchise moving forward.

Check out this pretty cool Youtube video from LD2K. It entails the trials and tribulations of this past season, and the perceived dark times that the Lakers are now facing as they move on without Dwight Howard, and as Kobe Bryant recovers from surgery on his ruptured Achilles.

Without a doubt this clip will give you hope, and have you itching for the upcoming 2013-2014 season.

Clash of the Titans

Darius Soriano —  August 3, 2013

The Lakers have a proud history of employing the best big men the game has ever seen. Just look up into the rafters of the Staples Center and you’ll see the names Mikan, Wilt, Kareem, and Shaq; these are true titans of the game, the players whose size, strength, and skill made the Lakers one of the most winningest franchises in all of sports.

Wilt and Kareem, specifically, represent not only two of the players who greatly shaped the Lakers’ history, but the history of the league. Both are considered all time greats and their contributions and, thus, their names will live on forever when discussing the NBA. If you rewind to the 70′s, there was a time where those two titans squared off against each other. Kareem, the up and coming Buck and Wilt, the aging but still very effective Laker.

In the video below does a great job of capturing some of those battles. A couple of things that stand out are how skilled Kareem was and how fluid his movements were. He moved like a seven foot gazelle, yet still had the ability to throw down the hammer when needed. Wilt, meanwhile, comes off less polished, but much more powerful. Wilt would bulldoze his man, though he too could slither around the baseline and play a finesse game when needed.

That contrast in style made for some epic battles. Hope you enjoy the clip.

Terry Teagle hit a turnaround jumper from the right baseline and became the answer to a trivia question. It was Teagle’s jumper that propelled Magic Johnson past Oscar Robertson as the all-time assist leader at 9,888 total assists. Since that fateful day in 1991, that number has been passed multiple times and Magic no longer holds the all-time record. That honor goes to John Stockton. Magic, meanwhile, sits 5th on the all-time list behind Stock, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash and Mark Jackson.

But where Magic sits on the all time list now doesn’t matter much. He was easily the best passer many people (including me) ever saw. Just as some scorers have every type of shot imaginable in their arsenal, Magic could throw any type of pass. He hit players in stride streaking to the hoop and led them to the open spot. He rocketed one handed bullet passes, scooped underhanded outlet passes, and bounced passes through traffic. He saw things other players didn’t and put the ball into places that didn’t seem possible. He made his teammates better by making the game easier for them.

That April night started with Magic needing 9 assists to overtake the Big O. Magic got to 9 before the first half was over and did so in classic Magic form. He ran the break, directed the half court offense, accepted double teams, and just continued to hit the open man. He made the complex play just as easy as the simple one and blended the spectacular with the routine.

Some players are once in a generation talents. Magic, though, was a once in a lifetime one. I simply don’t believe we’ll ever see another like him.