Archives For Western Conference

Records: Lakers 20-13 (5th in West), Thunder 26-7 (1st in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 103.3 (15th in NBA), Thunder 108.9 (2nd in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 100.7 (11th in NBA), Thunder 102.4 (14th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Thunder: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Daequan Cook
Injuries: Lakers: none; Thunder: Nick Collison (questionable), Thabo Sefolosha (out), Eric Maynor (out for the season)

The Lakers Coming In: As Darius pointed out yesterday, on the floor the Lakers have fared pretty well of late, and will be looking to kick off All Star Weekend with what would be their biggest victory of the season.

Not coincidentally, the bigs are in great form, with Andrew Bynum averaging 16.1 (on 56.3%), 13.9 rebounds, 2.3 blocked shots and just two personal fouls per game in February, while Pau Gasol has averaged 17.9 and 13.1, while connecting on 47% of his field goal attempts. Kobe continues to be Kobe, delivering roughly 26- 5- 4 this month, though he’s struggled with his shot, as evidenced by field goal and free throw percentages of just 40.6% and 79% (compared with his season averages of 43.9% and 82.5%, respectively). And the bench – deservedly much-maligned all season – has been not-atrocious (small victories, people), led by Matt Barnes (8.5 points, 5.8 rebounds in his last 8 games) and Steve Blake, who’s recorded 3+ assists in 6 of his last 7, the lone exception being his 5-triple, 17-point outburst against Portland Monday night.

However, as Darius also pointed out yesterday, the Lakers’ recent run of solid form is not the main story swirling around this team. If it’s not one with this team, it’s sure to be another. Between The Veto, the charitable contribution of Lamar Odom to the Dallas Mavericks Repeat Fund, incessant Dwight chatter, Kobe’s divorce and Metta’s media squabbling with Mike Brown, there’s arguably been more to monitor off the floor with these guys than there has on it. And now we have the latest episode of The Adventures of Team Turmoil.

An ugly, remnant of December’s near-acquisition of Chris Paul (y’know, other than the lack of a point guard worthy of NBA starter status), the Lakers’ desire (or lack thereof) to part ways with Pau Gasol – and everyone’s thoughts on the matter –are the hot topic du jour. However, as speculation about the Lakers’ need (and preparedness) to make a major move have ramped up, a more troubling issue seems to be simmering just beneath the surface – the Lakers’ front office, once the NBA’s paragon of stability and leadership, has begun to more closely resemble Gob Bluth’s gaming ship, anchored to past greatness only by an increasingly embattled Mitch Kupchak.

We know for a fact that the Lakers are willing to surrender Pau Gasol in exchange for a young franchise cornerstone. We also know that Pau, one of the league’s top 15 players and arguably its most skilled big man, always the consummate professional, is at least slightly (I’d wager more) upset by this. Finally, Pau Gasol remains a Laker, and a damn good one at that. That’s about it.

Meanwhile, however, this episode has greased the tracks for Kobe, who – in both a show of support for Pau and a desire to maximize his chances at Ring #6 – has hinted at his growing frustration with the organization’s new regime. Since, we’ve gotten a “you do your job and let me do mine” rebuttal from Kupchak and a players-only meeting (usually good for a short-term boost), but nothing to suggest that calmer waters are imminent.

With all of that said, the Lakers have now won 6 of their last 8 outings (including 4 of the last 5), including wins over the Blazers and Mavericks in their last two, and at 20-13, sit a single game behind the greatest Clipper team ever for the West’s #3 seed. It’s conceivable (if not likely) that given the torrent of frustration and distraction that continually washes over this team, moments spent on the court are among their least stressful these days. With the All-Star break (and a few days to refuel) imminent, look for the Lakers, win or lose, to put forth maximum effort against the class of Western Conference.

The Thunder Coming In: I feel like there is an inordinate amount of chatter these days centered on the Thunder’s flaws and the “wide openness” of the West come playoff time.

It’s true. This is by no means a perfect team – they are turnover-prone (a league-high 15.9% of the time), mediocre on the boards (15th in Offensive Rebound Rate and 24th in Defensive Rebound Rate), lack a traditional low post scorer and have seen their second unit hamstrung by injury, but make no mistake, these guys are good. Really, really good.

For starters, only the Miami Heat are more efficient offensively (by one point/100 possessions) and boasts a higher True Shooting Percentage (57%, v. 56.9%) than the Thunder.

Next, and I feel like we are beginning to take this a bit for granted, OKC’s 1-2 punch is nothing short of devastating. In Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook (or, in the interest of staying neutral, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant), OKC features a top-two duo that is an absolute nightmare for perimeter defenders, getting to the rim at will (11.8 attempts per game), finishing once they get there (66.1%) and delivering from distance (47.4% on long 2s; Durant is 36.7% from 3).

Once you’ve got your brain wrapped around that pair of potential 40-pointers, it’s time to deal with the NBA’s best bench player, (I cannot remember where I saw this comp – apologies to whomever I am stealing this from) this era’s Manu Ginobili, James Harden. In addition an extremely impressive stat line (16.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game, 47/37/86 from FG/3-pt/FT and 21.1 PER), Harden is the ultimate glue guy, as Royce Young describes:

It’s really hard to explain to people how important Harden is to the team. He’s not just a great sixth man. He’s like the mediator between Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. What he provides is just so necessary to the flow of the team. It’s like he’s a pressure-release valve so that Durant and Westbrook don’t have to do everything. He scores, passes and operates a terrific two-man game with Nick Collison. He plays well with Durant and Westbrook and plays really well running the Thunder’s second unit by himself. It’s hard to say he’s more valuable than Durant or Westbrook, but it’s closer than you think.

And finally, while OKC does not rank among the NBA’s elite at the defensive end, the shortcomings of a susceptible perimeter defense (27.4 FGA at the rim – 2nd worst in the NBA) are masked effectively by Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and (when healthy) Nick Collison, a last line of defense that effectively defends the rim (7th lowest FG% allowed at the rim; #1 Block Rate) and does not give away points at the free throw line (a league-average .215 FT Rate allowed).

Flawed? Yes. But warts and all, this is the best team in the West.

Thunder Blogs: Daily Thunder consistently cranks out some really excellent work (check out some of Royce Young’s thoughts on tonight’s matchup here), as does Welcome To Loud City on SB Nation.

Keys to the game: It’s impossible (well, maybe not impossible, but pretty tough) to predict what the Lakers’ roster will look like following the trade deadline. What we do know, however, is that Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum are here now, while Dwight Howard, Deron Williams and Gilbert Arenas are not. All BS aside, let’s see where this Laker team is at. For all of the gaping holes on the roster and turmoil surrounding this team, the Lakers have managed to win more than 60% of their games thus far and remain well-positioned to finish in the top half of the West playoff picture.

OKC represents a brutal matchup for, well, anyone. While it would be silly to expect Thursday night to deviate much from that script, there are a couple of factors that could play out in the Lakers favor.

First and foremost, the Lakers must rely on their interior defense and rebounding, particularly at the offensive end, to control the tempo of the game (at 93.8 possessions per game, OKC plays at the third-highest pace in the league; at 89.9, the Lakers are 21st) and keep the West’s most potent offensive attack under control. This entails keeping Gasol and Bynum, both of whom are rebounding at an elite level and are playing excellent defensive ball this season, out of harm’s way, with harm in this represented by OKC’s pair of whistle-drawing projectiles.

To this end, the perimeter D will be called upon to challenge OKC’s perimeter scorers. In addition to providing the clamored-for offensive spark that too-often has been missing, this is an area in which the Laker bench, namely Matt Barnes (and, though not a bench player, MWP), must provide value. If MWP still possesses any of the elite defensive skill he exhibited in the 2010 playoffs against Durant, this would be an opportune time to conjure it up. Another defensive matchup that could loom large is Barnes on Westbrook, as RW’s speed, power and perpetual motion are too much for Kobe to deal with while also trying to offset OKC’s firepower at the offensive end, and Derek Fisher and Steve Blake… HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!!

Sorry. Moving on…

Provided the Lakers are able to keep Bynum and Gasol on the floor for big minutes, the massive duo in the middle will be vital to the team’s success on the offensive end as well. Bynum has a decided size advantage over any front line defense the Thunder can put forth, and the Lakers will do well to feed the beast in an attempt to control tempo, collect some easy buckets and use the aggressiveness of OKC’s bigs (particularly Ibaka) against them to lure them into foul trouble. This become double important with Nick Collison banged up – he will be limited by a biceps injury if he plays at all, as with AS break looming, and no worse than 26-8 in the bank, this may be a good opportunity to get him an extended period of rest.

In spite of all that’s gone (and continues to go) wrong, the Lakers still rank among the NBA’s better teams. These trying times, rather than tearing the team apart, appear to be having something of a galvanizing effect on this crew. Even so, it is admittedly a tall order ask any team to roll into OKC and down the Thunder. However, I would not put it past this frustrating, but talent, but oh so exasperatingly frustrating team to notch a signature road wins against a legitimately elite opponent when no one expects them to do so.

Where you can watch: 6:30pm start time on TNT and KCAL.

Matt Scribbins provides insight and analysis throughout ESPN’s TrueHoop Network, including at HoopData and Magic Basketball. He graduated with distinction from Iowa State University last spring, where he was also a member of the Cyclone football team. In the fall, Matt is part of Football Outsiders’ Game Charting Project. You can also find him on twitter: @mattscribbins

Last week, I broke down the Lakers’ tendency since the All-Star break to entice opponents into low percentage shots. With the playoffs magnificently close, here is a look at how the Lakers’ main intra-conference foes shoot from various locations. 

Your Attention Please

Some offenses intentionally shoot long jumpers to help their transition defense.

Some defenses intentionally leave players open from long range (e.g., Rajon Rondo). On the other hand, Kevin Durant may have a hand in his face at all times, and research has shown shooting percentage decreases with tight defense.

Red cells in the charts indicate a player shoots below league average in the specified zone. Players who only attempt shots near the rim are not included in this piece. Also, please remember some players may attempt six shots per game in a specific zone while another player may attempt only three from the same distance.

The number after each team name indicates NBA shooting rank using effective field goal percentage as the barometer. The number below each zone indicates the team’s rank in the specified zone, according to shooting percentage. Effective field goal percentage is used for three point shots.

The following designations will be used: Zone 1 (within two feet of rim), Zone 2 (3-9 feet), Zone 3 (10-15 feet), Zone 4 (16-23 feet), Zone 5 (three point shots).

All statistics were updated the final week of March and are courtesy of hoopdata.com.

San Antonio Spurs #3

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A playoff matchup between the Spurs and Lakers would pit strength against strength and break the record for “live by three, die by three” remarks. The Lakers defend three-point shots better than anyone in the West, and the Spurs’ shooting percentage in Zone 5 is the best in the NBA.

As noted last week, the Lakers have coaxed opponents into more long jumpers since the All-Star break. San Antonio is great all over the court but struggles mightily in Zone 4. It should be noted only the Magic and Clippers attempt fewer shots in Zone 4 than the Spurs.

The Spurs’ offense is led by Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. The Lakers can make the Spurs’ offense feckless if they force these guards to pull up in Zone 4. The duo can wreak havoc with penetration, but Rajon Rondo actually shoots better on long jumpers than Ginobili or Parker.

The Lakers second half defensive surge has been led by great defense in Zone 2 and San Antonio is the second best shooting team in the NBA in Zone 2. The defensive dominance from Lakers in Zones 2 and 5, combined with the Spurs offensive success in these zones, sets the stage for a classic series.

Dallas Mavericks #1

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This isn’t breaking any news, but Los Angeles will end a series versus Dallas post-haste if they pry the ball from Dirk Nowitzki’s hands. Dirk’s 2011 shootings percentages have skyrocketed from his 2010 marks everywhere besides on three-point shots.

Most notably, his current shooting percentage on long jumpers is the best on his Hoop Data profile, which dates back to his MVP season. In 2010, Dirk made 46% of his shots in Zone 4. This season, he has improved his mark by over 17%. Furthermore, Dirk’s shooting performance in nearly every zone is his best over the last five seasons. His only declines are in Zone 2 (46% in 2008), and Zone 5 (63.2% in 2010), hardly a setback in either category.

Jason Terry is also an elite shooter. Zone 2 is the only spot Terry shoots below average. Over 60% of Terry’s attempts come beyond 16 feet from the hoop.

Jason Kidd is a below average shooter everywhere, but he basically only attempts three-pointers.

The second-tier players for Dallas are decent near the rim, and shaky beyond the arc. If the Lakers can force Barea and Beaubois to hoist it from deep, the footage may make Mark Cuban wish there was no such thing as HDTV.

The most notable difference between the teams sandwiching the Lakers in the standings are their offensive ranks in Zone 4. Dallas is the best shooting team in the NBA between 16 and 23 feet, and the Spurs rank 24th.

Oklahoma City Thunder #14

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A playoff matchup between Los Angeles and Oklahoma City may turn into the cutest series ever. The Thunder is the epitome of a team the Lakers revamped defense is designed to stop.  Oklahoma City is a young team who can shoot all over, but shooting is different than making. The Thunder is a below average shooting team from every area on the floor excluding shots in Zone 1. They are elite within two feet of the rim, but the NBA’s worst shooting team in Zone 2.

Kevin Durant is the league’s leading scorer, and his shooting ability receives great accolades. Maybe, though, his shooting isn’t as great as advertised. Durantula actually shoots below average from 16 feet and beyond. Two small forwards on contending teams in the East (Paul Pierce and Hedo Turkoglu) shoot significantly better in Zones 4 and 5. Even The King Without a Ring has a better percentage than Durant in Zone 4. 

Unfortunately for Scott Brooks, Russell Westbrook’s shooting percentages resemble Jason Kidd’s. Even worse, Westbrook shoots a dozen more shots per game than Kidd does. He attempts 6.9 shots per game in Zone 1, only trailing Carmelo Anthony and dunk heroes Dwight Howard and Blake Griffin.  On the plus side, Oklahoma City’s point guard can slice defenses, and his turnover rate is better than other great players at his position.

James Harden is the team’s sniper, but he doesn’t make Ray Allen blush. He merely hits league average beyond the arc, and his skills don’t travel inside Zone 4.

Percentages point to a simple strategy against the Thunder’s offense: make Durant shoot outside, make Harden shoot inside, and convince Westbrook to shoot everywhere.

Portland Trailblazers #22

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Only masochistic Portland fans should watch this team shoot. Below average percentages in every zone cannot excited the Rose Garden faithful.

One would surmise the Blazers must lock it down on defense, but they actually allow the eighth highest effective field goal percentage in the NBA. Portland makes their money by owning the best turnover rate differential in in the Association.

All-Star snub LaMarcus Aldridge is a monster inside, and he deserves credit for shooting better in Zone 4 than Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Manu Ginoboli, and Tony Parker. Making the feat even more impressive is the fact Aldridge attempts more than four long jumpers per game.

Gerald Wallace’s numbers are from his 2011 campaign in Charlotte. He appeared in more games for the Bobcats, and his numbers from Charlotte are more consistent with his career averages.

Memphis Grizzlies #21

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This is quick – Memphis is decent inside, and a disaster outside. If it is any consolation, fans in Memphis can smile knowing Marc Gasol shoots better inside nine feet than his All-Star brother does.

The Grizzles lost a great shooter when Rudy Gay went out for the season. Mike Conley is currently the best outside threat in Memphis, and he attempts over five shots per game in Zones 4 and 5.

Final Horn

The Lakers are rolling and it may not matter who they take on in the playoffs. Nonetheless, they could face the best shooting team in the NBA and also the third best shooting team during their Western Conference run. If Denver pulls off two upsets, the Lakers could also face the second best shooting team in the NBA.

All of the listed teams are at least close to average near the rim and below average in Zone 4, with Dallas being the only exception. The Lakers will be in great shape if they continue to limit attempts near the hoop and coax their opponents to launch long jumpers.

-Matt Scribbins

More Mailbag!

Darius Soriano —  August 17, 2010

Lamar Odom tries to shoot around a reporter's microphone while being interviewed at a U.S. national basketball team practice in Las Vegas, Nevada July 21, 2010. REUTERS/Laura Rauch (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL)

It’s time for another installment of the FB&G mailbag.  If you’d like to submit a question, click here and fire away.  Thanks again to everyone that has sent in questions.  Here we go…

When Phil Jackson retires, does that mean the end of the Lakers’ championship window? After all, the all-powerful team has been struck down a notch and the HEAT has garnered a year of experience for themselves. As a Laker fan, it is the season after this that has me most worried.

-Anonymous

I think losing Phil Jackson will be a blow to the Lakers.  However, I would not say that the Lakers championship window would “close” based solely off the fact that Phil would no longer be the coach.  Because, while extremely important, there are many other factors that go into winning a championship besides coaching.

At the top of that list is talent and, even without Phil as the head man, the Lakers will still have one of the best rosters in the league when Phil departs.  Just when looking at the Lakers top 5 players – Kobe, Pau, Bynum, Odom, and Artest – you have the makings of a championship roster, even if we’re talking 3 years from now.  And this only references talent that is in house and on the court.  When you look at Mitch Kupchak’s recent ability to build a championship team by drafting well and winning trades, it’s easy to forecast the Lakers continuing to build a strong roster even as the team ages – especially when considering the market advantages the Lakers possess by being based in Los Angeles and the brand advantage they have of being one of the most storied organizations in all of sports.

And while I agree that there are fast rising teams around the league (Miami, OKC) and traditional powers from the past few seasons (Orlando, Boston, Spurs) it’s still unknown how those teams will develop and grow over the next few years.  Will the new collective bargaining agreement be an impediment to building upon their already impressive rosters?  Will the Heat and Thunder respond to heightened expectations and beat back the pressure in a manner that leads to them dominating the league?  I don’t pretend to know the answers to the these questions nor do I want to cast doubt on either of these teams.  But in the end, I believe the Lakers will be right there battling for the title for seasons to come.  And as a fan, that’s really all I can ask for.

Do you think that with the recent additions of Matt Barnes and Steve Blake that the Lakers get into the top 10 in 3 point shooting?  I know these past few years the Lakers have not been a great perimeter shooting team (for example, when facing the zone defense vs. Phoenix in WCF).

-Daniel

Considering the Lakers tied for 23rd in the NBA in 3 point FG% last season, if next year’s Lakers were to jump into the top 10 would seem like a miracle.  However, it’s actually not that far fetched.  Consider the following:  last season the Lakers shot 34.1% from behind the arc, making 532 of their 1,562 attempts.  As I mentioned, that ranked them 23rd in the NBA in 3 pt. FG% (tied with Minnesota).   Denver was the 10th ranked team in the NBA, shooting 35.9% on their long ball attempts.  Using this past year as a template, the Lakers would have only needed to hit 33 more three pointers on the same number of attempts to raise their percentage to 36.2% – a percentage which would have ranked them 9th in the NBA right above the Hawks.

Now also consider that this past season both Kobe and Derek Fisher shot below their career averages by shooting 32.9% and 34.8% respectively (compared to 34% and 37.3%) and were well below their averages from the season before (35.1% and 39.7% respectively).  So, if Kobe and Fisher revert anywhere close to their career averages, the Lakers should be a better three point shooting team next season overall considering that combined, Kobe and Fish took about one-third of the Lakers attempts from deep.  Then, when you replace Farmar with Steve Blake and consider the possibility that Ron Artest will be more consistent from three point land next season and you have the ingredients for a major jump in three point shooting accuracy.

This isn’t to say that I’d call this particular Lakers’ team a great shooting team.  Nor am I guaranteeing that all the things I mentioned earlier are sure to happen or are even likely (I could see Kobe struggling from deep again and/or Fisher continuing his regression as a shooter), but the potential for a big jump in three point accuracy is there for this team.  And in the end, I do believe that the Lakers will shoot better to the point that if they aren’t in the top 10, they’ll be right on the cusp.

I understand that Shannon and Sasha have different weaknesses and strengths.  But why did Sasha fall out of favor with Phil and the coaching staff and not get any burn last year while Shannon got a lot despite a regression in his game?  Is it a personality issue?  Is it because Sasha got almost the entire 09 regular season to show what he had and Phil finally lost patience? 

If that was the case, was last year’s regular season the same principle applied to Shannon?  He had a great 09 playoff run so coaches gave him the entire 10 season to work through his game like they did with Sasha in 09. 

Will Shannon be on a tighter rope this year and the coaches looking at him and Sasha equally?  Or does Sasha’s personality bother the staff so much that he’ll be glued to the bench unless there’s a huge separation between him and Shannon.

-Jason/Chownoir

Not being in the locker room or in the practices, I can’t speak to any potential personality issues that exist between Sasha and the coaches.  And while Sasha did have that spat with Brian Shaw that earned him an extended stay in Phil’s doghouse, Sasha’s minutes were sporadic at best to that point in the season.  So, I believe that Sasha’s shorter leash has been based off his experience in the league and specifically his tenure on the Lakers and in the Triangle offense.  Essentially, Sasha should been better tuned into how the coaches wanted him to play and acted accordingly.  The fact that he still made the same mistakes that he’s been making for several seasons all while not bringing the consistency as a shooter that earned him time in 2008 led to a diminished role and a lower tolerance of his mistakes.

Meanwhile, this past year was Shannon’s first full year with the team.  To be fair, he was still learning his role and was still feeling out the Lakers’ sets.  And while Shannon made plenty of mistakes too, those could easily be explained away by his relative inexperience in the Triangle at a time when the Lakers coaches were (seemingly) imploring him to explore more facets of his game.  Personally, I was frustrated at times with Shannon’s decision making, but along the same lines, players do not improve if you don’t give them room to fail and then learn from those mistakes.

All that said, I do believe this season will be the litmus test for Shannon and that there will be greater expectations on him to perform well and do so within the confines of his role.  I think the coaches will be less patient with him and that he may too find himself glued to the pine if he doesn’t “play the right way” by making the correct reads and moving the ball in the manner that every player is expected to do.  Remember too that Shannon saw his minutes greatly reduced in the Finals when he made several defensive mistakes against Ray Allen while struggling on offense himself.  Phil then turned to Sasha as a defensive presence against Allen and the Machine performed well in his limited minutes.  So next season, even though Shannon just got re-signed and Sasha is reportedly on the trading block, I believe this competition may be more open than a first glance suggests.  I think that Shannon definitely has the upper hand as he’s the more athletic player, seemingly takes coaching better, and has more upside as a contributor on both ends of the floor.  But, that doesn’t mean that Sasha can’t/won’t have a role if he’s on the roster and next season may prove to be the year that the Machine makes his way back into the rotation.

For the last 3 years the top of the West has been in a constant state of flux. We’ve faced 3 different teams in the WCF, and the first 2 (San Antonio and Denver) have both failed to win a playoff series the following year. That trend looks likely to continue with Phoenix losing Amar’e.  With all that said, who do you see emerging as the main threat to the Lakers’ conference supremacy in 2010/11? I think Portland and Houston will be very dangerous IF their big men are healthy. What’s your take?

-Joel

I think the easy choice in who will truly challenge the Lakers are the Thunder.  The argument is easily made that, besides the Celtics, OKC gave the Lakers the stiffest challenge of any competitor and that with the experience they’ve gained and the continued growth of Durant and Westbrook that they’ll make a major leap next season and be a team that makes the conference finals.

However, the team that I’m probably most high on is the Houston Rockets.  In a recent post at TrueHoop, I mentioned why I believe Houston has a chance to step up and challenge for the #2 spot behind the Lakers and I’m not wavering in that belief.  Yes, a lot will depend on the health of Yao and Kevin Martin.  And as I mention in TH piece, I’m skeptical about the individual defense of Aaron Brooks, Scola, and Brad Miller.  However, when it’s all said and done I think their combination of top notch talent (I truly respect Yao Ming and think he has a tremendous impact on both ends of the floor), role players, and coaching will take them a long way this season.  Plus, I really like the acquisition of Courtney Lee in the Ariza trade.  While I love Trevor and think he’s getting a bit of a raw deal in the analysis of how he played last year, I think Lee is a great combo guard that will bring some of the guard skills that Ariza lacked.  I also think he’s a versatile enough defender that he can play some PG against the CP3/Deron/Paker/Nash/Westbrook’s of the world that Houston doesn’t always need to close the game with Brooks or Lowry while also being able to play next to either of those guys if the line ups dictate it.  Mind you, I don’t think Lee is some sort of star, but he’s another very good role player that will compliment the games of Martin and Yao very well.

(With Lamar Odom joining Team USA for the World Championships this Summer) Do you think the wear and tear will affect Odom come the season? Will he get the training camp jitters out now or will he be bringing in a new sense of discipline this year?

-Travis

There’s always the concern that playing for Team USA will wear Odom down.  He’s not the most durable player to begin with (though he’s been much better in recent seasons) and there’s surely a chance that he could end up suffering during the season from tired legs or just feel the affects of playing summer ball at the World Championships.

All that said, I think this is a great thing for Odom and will serve him well in preparing for the upcoming season.  Based off his tenure in the league, Odom will be a leader on this team and that will require a focus and discipline that should help him when the Lakers pursue their third straight championship.  I also think playing some Center in the international game is a good prep for his role on the Lakers as it will require that LO rebound and defend the paint while also moving well off the ball when teamed with explosive guards and wings.  Plus, just as with the Lakers, Odom will come off the bench for Team USA so there will not be a big change in his current role in LA.  Really, outside of the injury/fatigue risk, this should really help Odom in getting ready for the upcoming season and I’m really happy that he’s getting the opportunity to play.  I’m a firm believer that nothing get’s you ready for a season quite like playing with other excellent players and Odom will get that chance with this group.  And while the most talented guys won’t be on this particular U.S. team, this should still be a beneficial experience for LO and one that helps the Lakers.

What Would Tex Say?

Bill Bridges —  May 27, 2010

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All basketball fans have been heartened over the news over the last 6 months or so that Tex Winter is doing so much better. Since he is doing better and presumeably watching Phil Jackson’s team, we can guess that Phil and Tex have spoken recently about the problems Phoenix’s zone defense has posed to Tex’s beloved triple post offense.
Phil: Tex, I’m returning your call. I presume you want to talk about our execution – or lack thereof against Phoenix’s girly zone defense.
Tex: Phil, actually I think the triangle is being run well. Guys are getting some penetration via post passes, splitting the top of the zone on occasion and the shots we are getting are usually wide-open.
Phil: Yeah, our shots are wide open…
Tex: But the shots we are getting are exactly what Phoenix wants to give us.
Phil: Your triangle teaches the players to take the first open shot available. In fact, we criticize our players when they pass up wide open shots.
Tex: Hey, don’t call it my offense, by now, Mr. Hall of Fame, the offense is as much a part of your legacy as it is mine.
Phil: Hmmm
Tex: Phoenix isn’t really playing a traditional zone trying to cover all attack zones on the court. I mean, a priority of most zone defenses is to stop the corner 3, the most devastatingly effective shot in the NBA. The girly zone actually is begging for our guys to take the corner 3.
Phil: Not all our guys, just Artest and Odom
Tex: And Farmar, Brown, even Kobe and Fisher. They don’t want to give up layups to Pau.
Phil: And because in the triangle, we have taught our guys to take the open shot…
Tex: Artest shoots the open 3 whether early in the shot clock or late.
Phil: The other problem Tex, is that we are just not drawing any fouls.
Tex: Yeah, foul shots would slow the game, stop their transition offense, give Kobe a rest, and…
Phil: Instead, the long 3′s are creating long rebounds and fueling their transition game. I’m not sure what to do ….
Tex: You have to disregard the zone.
Phil: What do you mean?
Tex: You look at the Phoenix’s zone and see a 2-3 zone with defenders at each attack zone.
Phil: Yeah, that is a zone… I don’t know what you are getting at.
Tex: Instead, just look at the tape.
Phil: OK
Tex: After the first triangle set-up pass and the ball is in Fisher’s hands on the right wing, what do you see?
Phil: (Stops the tape). I see the zone setting up…
Tex: No , what do you SEE?
Phil: What do you mean?
Tex: WHO do you see
Phil: I see Nash…
Tex: Stop, who is behind Nash.
Phil: Stoudemire…
Tex: Who is in front of Nash?… Forget this. I’m faxing over a diagram for you to look at…. Did you get it?
Phil: Kobe… aha…. I get it.
Tex: It is obvious isn’t it?
Phil: Crystal
Tex: Swing the ball quickly to Kobe. Now you have Kobe Bryant one-on-one against the most defensively challenged guard in the league. Kobe will get past Nash easily or draw a foul. After he gets past Nash…
Phil: Amare has to cover..
Tex: The most defensively challenged PF in the game…Kobe scores or draws a foul.
Phil: If Lopez comes over to help..
Tex: Dunk for Pau.
Phil: You know if they were playing man and put Nash on Kobe, I’d go to him every single possession and why am I not exploiting this match up just because they are playing zone.
Tex: This strategy also solves your other problem.
Phil: What is that?
Tex: Other than Kobe and Pau, your players are dumb
Phil: Hey, they are your players too.
Tex: All the players that can drive to the basket, Odom and Artest, should drive on Nash and Stoudemire.
Phil: They will get some charging calls against them, Nash is a world-class flopper.
Tex: So what, a few charging calls. But at least you’ll be initiating the contact and knocking Nash over a few times will wear him out and will help your defense by the 4th quarter. Tell your guys…
Phil: Attack Nash
Tex: Or Dragic or Barbosa
Phil: And Stoudemire to get penetration. Which will result in layups, dunks or fouls.
Tex: And if, and only if, all else fails take the open 3 late in the shot clock. And never early in the shot clock because that open corner 3 will always be there.

All basketball fans have been heartened over the news over the last 6 months or so that Tex Winter is doing so much better. Since he is doing better and presumeably watching Phil Jackson’s team, we can guess that Phil and Tex have spoken recently about the problems Phoenix’s zone defense has posed to Tex’s beloved triple post offense.

Phil: Tex, I’m returning your call. I presume you want to talk about our execution – or lack thereof against Phoenix’s girly zone defense.

Tex: Phil, actually I think the triangle is being run well. Guys are getting some penetration via post passes, splitting the top of the zone on occasion and the shots we are getting are usually wide-open.

Phil: Yeah, our shots are wide open…

Tex: But the shots we are getting are exactly what Phoenix wants to give us.

Phil: Your triangle teaches the players to take the first open shot available. In fact, we criticize our players when they pass up wide open shots.

Tex: Hey, don’t call it my offense! By now, Mr. Hall of Fame, the offense is as much a part of your legacy as it is mine.

Phil: Hmmm

Tex: Anyway, Phoenix isn’t really playing a traditional zone trying to cover all attack zones on the court. I mean, a priority of most zone defenses is to stop the corner 3, the most devastatingly effective shot in the NBA. The girly zone actually is begging for our guys to take the corner 3.

Phil: Not all our guys, just Artest and Odom

Tex: And Farmar, Brown, even Kobe and Fisher. They are desperate not  to give up layups to Pau.  Yeah, that Phoenix defense is like a siren, a temptress that lets you nuzzle her navel all night long but…

Phil: But won’t let you go any lower…  And because in the triangle, we have taught our guys to take the open shot…

Tex: Artest shoots the open 3 whether early in the shot clock or late.

Phil: The other problem Tex, is that we are just not drawing any fouls.

Tex: Yeah, foul shots would slow the game, stop their transition offense, give Kobe a rest, and…

Phil: Instead, the long 3′s are creating long rebounds and fueling their transition game. I’m not sure what to do ….

Tex: You have to disregard the zone.

Phil: What do you mean?

Tex: And forget about the triangle

Phil: What? What are you saying, forget the triangle and forget the zone. Tex, I thought you were feeling better.

Tex: You look at the Phoenix’s zone and see a 2-3 zone with defenders at each attack zone.

Phil: Yeah, that is a zone… I don’t know what you are getting at.

Tex: Instead, just look at the tape.

Phil: OK

Tex: After the first triangle set-up pass and the ball is in Fisher’s hands on the right wing, what do you see?

Phil: (Stops the tape). I see the zone setting up…

Tex: No , what do you SEE?

Phil: What do you mean?

Tex: WHO do you see

Phil: I see Nash…

Tex: Stop, who is behind Nash.

Phil: Stoudemire…

Tex: Who is in front of Nash?… Forget this. I’m faxing over a diagram for you to look at…. Did you get it?

Suns Zone

Phil: Kobe… aha…. I get it.

Tex: It is obvious isn’t it?

Phil: Crystal

Tex: In a situation with 10 equal players, the triangle gives the offense the advantage.

Phil: (a delighted glee escapes from his lips)

Tex: But you don’t have 10 equal players. Swing the ball quickly to Kobe. Now you have Kobe Bryant, the best one-on-one player in the world against the worst one-on-one defender in the league. Kobe will get past Nash easily or draw a foul. After he gets past Nash…

Phil: Amare has to cover..

Tex: The most defensively challenged PF in the game…Kobe scores or draws a foul.

Phil: If Lopez comes over to help..

Tex: Dunk for Pau.

Phil: You know if they were playing man and put Nash on Kobe, I’d go to him every single possession and why am I not exploiting this match up just because they are playing zone.

Tex: This strategy also solves your other problem.

Phil: What is that?

Tex: Other than Kobe and Pau, your players are dumb

Phil: Hey, they are your players too.

Tex: Maybe I’m not being kind. What I mean is, instead of trying to be smart, run the triangle and take open shots…

Phil: As you taught them to…

Tex: All the players that can drive to the basket, Odom and Artest, should just drive on Nash and Stoudemire. or Dragic, Barbosa… with aggression. And not try to over think how the triangle functions against the zone.

Phil: They will get some charging calls against them, Nash is a world-class flopper.

Tex: So what, a few charging calls. But at least you’ll be initiating the contact and knocking Nash over a few times will wear him out and will help your defense by the 4th quarter. Tell your guys…

Phil: Attack Nash

Tex: Or Dragic or Barbosa

Phil: And Stoudemire to get penetration. Which will result in layups, dunks or fouls.

Tex: And if, and only if, all else fails take the open 3 late in the shot clock. And never early in the shot clock because that open corner 3 will always be there.

Phil: I knew I should have adopted the Princeton offense…

Tex: (Hangs up)

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Over the past week we’ve tried to give as much insight as we could on the upcoming WCF match up with the Suns.  But, in order to get more of an insider’s perspective I exchanged emails with Michael Schwartz of the excellent Suns blog Valley of the Suns.  Michael was kind enough to answer my questions on topics such as the Suns defense, Steve Nash’s longevity, and who he has winning the series.  When you’re done here, you can go read the answers I provided to his questions over at his site (represent us FB&G’ers well).  Thank you to Michael for taking the time.

Recently, much has been said of the Suns’ improved defense.  I mentioned it myself in my preview of this series of when the Lakers have the ball.  However, some question if the improvement is real or if it’s exaggerated.  What have you seen from the Suns on that side of the ball?  Are they a better defensive team than earlier this year?  Than in years past?

They certainly are better on both counts, but then again that’s not saying much. One of the biggest differences is that Grant Hill (believe it or not) has stepped up as a legitimate wing stopper in these playoffs. Andre Miller didn’t do much when the Suns switched Hill onto him after Miller shredded Richardson in Game 1, and Ginobili was terrible from the field (a combined 4-for-19) in two of the games of the series thanks in large part to Hill. Getting Robin Lopez back should also help a lot. He’s without question the Suns’ best interior defender. He defends the paint and can at least put a body on Bynum/Gasol better than anybody else on this roster. The other big difference is the bench. While Nash and Amare will never be confused with all-world defenders, the bench unit defends very well across the board. It’s kind of the Suns’ defensive lineup. There’s also been an attitude adjustment. From Day 1 Gentry has preached taking pride in defense, and the Suns have bought in. Stoudemire has talked about defense being fun for the first time in his career, and Hill has spoken about how the Suns actually talk about needing to get stops in huddles. That might sound obvious for most teams, but that’s not exactly how a D’Antoni huddle used to go.

It’s been reported that Robin Lopez will make his return in this series.  What are your expectations for him in this series considering he’s coming off an injury and hasn’t played since late March?

Suns people have said it all along, if you’re expecting Robin Lopez to be your savior then you’re in trouble. But he will certainly help. Being that he hasn’t played in a game since March 26 I expect some rust, particularly at the offensive end, but the Suns don’t need him to score. Offense is always a bonus with Lopez. I do expect some of that rustiness to translate into a propensity to pick up quick fouls (a problem for Lopez to being with), but I think he’ll definitely help the Suns on the boards and be one of their better options on the Lakers’ bigs. I do question how many minutes he can play effectively, though.

You asked me if I thought Kobe was still in his prime. That question got me thinking about Nash and his continued strong play after many had expected him to start to decline by this point in his career.  How much longer do you think he can perform at this level?

I really think he can play at a high level like this for two more years, at which time he will be 38. Nash just enjoyed the best season ever for a 35-plus point guard bar none, and aside from a blip in stats during the first half of 2008-09 when Terry Porter slowed things done, he hasn’t slipped from his 2004-10 prime despite turning 36 back in February. What he’s doing is really unprecedented, certainly from a statistical standpoint but also from the fact that he’s the No. 1 guy on a conference finalist at 36 despite having never before reached the Finals. Nothing Nash does surprises me at this point, and I think he can still be this guy for another couple years and possibly still an effective player a few years after that as the transition to the Dragic era begins.

Speaking of Nash, everyone understands that he and Amar’e are what make this team go; they’re the stars and get much of the praise when discussing the Suns’ success.  However, who would you say is the next most important player to the Suns?

Jason Richardson. When he scores 20 or more points, the Suns are 31-4 this season, including 5-0 in the postseason. The reason is because, like you said, you know that Nash and Amar’e will play like stars every night. When the Suns get that third star offensively, they’re just deadly, especially considering they are normally flanked by two more shooters that you can’t leave open. When J-Rich is hitting his threes and very involved in the offense, the Suns’ offense is virtually unstoppable. Another name to keep in mind: Jared Dudley. It doesn’t always show in the box score, but according to advanced stats guru Wayne Winston, the Suns are +95 points in 234 minutes with Dudley in and only +4 in 246 minutes when he’s out. Of course, some of this has to do with the fact that they are terrible with Jarron Collins and he didn’t play much with Dudley, but that’s still a staggering statistic to me.

When I’ve discussed this series, I’ve mentioned that I think the combination of the Lakers big men and Kobe will put enormous stress on the Suns defensive schemes.  Do you agree with this sentiment?  Is there a particular match up that concerns you the most?

I think those guys put enormous stress on anybody’s defensive schemes, and I absolutely agree with that sentiment as it comes to the Suns. Really I’m most concerned about Gasol. Amare and Frye are obviously better on the offensive end, and Amundson might be too small to do a good job on Pau. Then there’s Robin, but we don’t know how many minutes he’ll play or even how effective he’ll be. I’d expect to see some zone principles once in a while as well as some doubling, but unlike in the Portland series when the Suns sometimes just loaded up on Aldridge, you obviously can’t do that against Pau and the Lakers. So yeah, I think defending Pau (and really Bynum and Odom, too) will be a big headache for Phoenix.

On the flip side of that coin, what match up do you have the most confidence in?

I’m confident that the Suns will bait Ron Artest into shooting threes, and you know how that often turns out. What the Suns have done really well defensively in the first two rounds is forcing the players whom they want to shoot the ball to beat them. Against Portland that meant containing Aldridge and Miller but letting bench players and their weaker starters shoot it. Against San Antonio that meant loading up on Ginobili and forcing Jefferson and McDyess to take jumpers. In that same vein I would expect Artest (and really Fisher, too) to get some jump shots. If Artest is feeling it then the Suns are screwed, but I’d certainly rather see that than easy hoops for Pau and Bynum.

Finally, who do you have advancing to the Finals?  And as a bonus, who do you think is coming out of the East?

Well, the easy answer is I think the Orlando Magic will be in the Finals. They’ve steamrolled everybody so far, and I just don’t see any way that Boston is good enough to beat them four times (not that I thought the Celtics would take down the LeBrons either, of course). At the risk of being skewered for  homerism, I’m picking Suns in 6. A lot of the advanced stats favor the Suns (which is why Hollinger and Winston are taking Phoenix in 6 as well), and the Suns are playing as well as anybody in the league right now, and that was without Robin Lopez. They play so well together as a team and have such great chemistry. Then there’s the fact that Nash and Hill know this could be their last chance at a Finals and the fact that teams naturally don’t possess that same killer instinct after winning it the previous year. All that makes me thing the Suns will pull the upset.

Thanks again to Michael for taking the time to answer my questions.  His insight on the Suns will surely help us when looking at the upcoming games in the series.