Lakers Snap Utah's Record Home Winning StreakThe Utah Jazz had not lost at home in 2008, tying a franchise record with 19 home wins, but the Lakers snapped that streak on Thursday with a convincing, wire to wire 106-95 victory. Playing without injured seven footers Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, the Lakers relied on strong performances from Kobe Bryant (27 points, eight rebounds, seven assists) and Lamar Odom, who notched his fourth straight double double (21 points, 12 rebounds, six assists). Deron Williams led the Jazz with 26 points and 12 assists and he tied for second on the team with seven rebounds. Carlos Boozer also played well (23 points, 15 rebounds) but the Jazz never mounted a serious threat after the Lakers opened the game with a 20-7 burst punctuated by an Odom dunk, an Odom three pointer (assisted by Bryant) and a Bryant dunk.
From an analytical standpoint, the main story of this game is that Utah could not contain Bryant's dribble penetration, which consistently led to defensive breakdowns that resulted in scores for Bryant, easy baskets for Lakers' bigs or wide open three pointers (the Lakers shot 10-22 from three point range).
Watching the Lakers dominate this contest, my thoughts turned to an interesting question: How many times have Bryant and the Lakers been counted out this season by the "experts"? The first time was before the season even began, when some people suggested that perhaps Bryant would hold out or not play hard if the Lakers did not either trade him or acquire some better personnel. Of course, anyone who understands anything about Bryant realizes how absurd those thoughts are. Bryant scored 45 points in a hard fought, two point loss to Houston on opening night and then led the Lakers to victories against Western Conference powers Phoenix and Utah in the next two games. That pretty much put an end to any talk that Bryant would give any less than his best.
When Andrew Bynum emerged as the first Lakers post player who can consistently catch and finish since the Shaquille O'Neal trade, the Lakers steadily moved up the Western Conference standings. Bynum was hardly dominating--his statistics (13.1 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 2.1 bpg) essentially match what Zydrunas Ilgauskas does for Cleveland (13.5 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 1.7 bpg), with Bynum shooting better from the field and Ilgauskas shooting better from the free throw line--but he did enough to convince some people that he is more valuable than Bryant. That notion is amusing to anyone who actually watched the Lakers play and understood that a substantial portion of Bynum's offensive production resulted from all of the defensive attention that Bryant attracts. Yes, Bynum displayed the rudiments of a back to the basket post game as the season progressed but for the most part he feasted off of lobs and offensive rebounding opportunities that came about precisely because the defense could not afford to focus on him as long as Bryant was on the court.
After Bynum got injured, the "experts" wrote off the Lakers for the second time this season, saying that in the tough West the Lakers would struggle to make the playoffs. Instead, Bryant shouldered more of the offensive load and the Lakers went 5-5 in the first 10 games that Bynum missed. That mark included losses to Phoenix, San Antonio, Dallas and Detroit, the latter three on the road. Bryant averaged 35.3 ppg and 8.8 rpg while shooting .558 from the field in the last six games of that stretch, during which the Lakers went 3-3, including a road win in Toronto when Bryant scored 46 points and a one point loss in Detroit when Bryant scored 39 points. Despite being without Bynum for those 10 games the Lakers still had a 30-16 record, the sixth best mark in the league.
Enter Pau Gasol. Adding the one-time All-Star to a team that just 10 games earlier the "experts" said would not even make the playoffs turned the Lakers into a powerhouse. They went 14-3 in the next 17 games and moved into first place in the West. Then Gasol sprained his ankle during a win over Toronto and the "experts" wrote off the Lakers for a third time, declaring that a four game road trip to New Orleans, Houston, Dallas and Utah would send the Lakers plummeting in the standings. Instead, Bryant averaged 29 ppg in 42.5 mpg and led the Lakers to a 2-2 record, good enough to keep the Lakers on top of the standings in the West. The formula for top teams is to win half of their games on the road and at least 75% of their games at home, a combination that results in more than 50 wins overall.
Are the Lakers as good without Bynum and Gasol as they are with them? Of course not. Can they win the championship without both of those players? Of course not--it is far from certain that they would win a seven game series against the Spurs even with those guys and 100% certain that they would not win such a series without them. However, that does not change the fact that Bryant is without question the driving force behind the Lakers' success. Al Jefferson is far more productive than Bynum--how well is his team doing? What track record of sustained success does Gasol have prior to playing with Bryant? Bynum and Gasol are good players who definitely ease the load on Bryant by providing size, length and skill in the paint but Bryant also eases the load on them by attracting extra defensive coverage.
Here is a good thought experiment: give Gasol and Bynum to Steve Nash and give Shaq and Amare to Bryant. What do you think would happen to each of those teams? Or give Gasol and Bynum to Ginobili/Parker in exchange for Duncan and either Kurt Thomas or Fabricio Oberto. How would that turn out? The answers to these questions should be painfully obvious but based on the way that the "experts" keep counting out Bryant and the Lakers apparently the answers are not so obvious.
It will be fascinating to see how all of this pans out in the MVP voting. For the past two seasons we have heard that Bryant was essentially disqualified from winning the award because his team did not win 50 games. So unless the Cavs go 11-2 the rest of the way then LeBron James is disqualified this year, right? Meanwhile, Bryant's Lakers have the best record in the West even though Bynum has only played in 35 games and Gasol has only played in 18 games as a Laker. Chris Paul has been mentioned a lot recently as an MVP candidate and some people say that Paul does not have as good a supporting cast as Bryant. Paul's All-Star big man, David West, has averaged 19.8 ppg and 9.2 rpg in 61 games and his other top big man, Tyson Chandler, has averaged 11.6 ppg and 12.3 rpg in 64 games. One could certainly make the case that they form a better duo than Gasol and Bynum do but even if you think that Gasol and Bynum are better they have only played half as many games as the Hornets' big men have--and the Lakers' two top big men have not even spent one second on the court together! While we are talking about supporting casts, it is worth mentioning that New Orleans' third leading scorer, Peja Stojakovic, is a three-time All-Star who finished fourth in MVP voting once and who currently ranks sixth in the league in three point shooting percentage. Injuries slowed Stojakovic the past couple seasons but he is healthy now and does not turn 31 until June.
LeBron James and Chris Paul are wonderful players. I'd rank James just behind Bryant and I'd put Paul third, albeit some distance behind Bryant and James. However, using the criteria that led to Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki winning the past three MVPs, it is hard to understand how Bryant could not win this year's MVP. Kevin Garnett perhaps merits mentioning but he is essentially playing the role this season that Detroit's Chauncey Billups played in 2005-06; he is the best player on the team with the best record but that team has multiple All-Stars, which resulted in Billups and Garnett not posting individual numbers that stack up with what the other MVP candidates are doing.
posted by David Friedman @ 6:54 AM