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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Gasol, Bryant Lead the Way as Lakers Stampede Past the Bulls

Pau Gasol scored a season-high 34 points on 14-21 field goal shooting as the L.A. Lakers beat the Chicago Bulls 116-109 to improve their league-leading record to 8-1. Kobe Bryant added 21 points, a team-high six assists, five rebounds, three steals and two blocked shots, while Andrew Bynum contributed 18 points, nine rebounds and three blocked shots. Bryant twice drove to the hoop, drew the defense and then fed Gasol a behind the back pass for an easy dunk, including a first quarter move in which Bryant split the trap a la Mark Price before penetrating into the lane and passing to Gasol; Bryant also had several feeds to Gasol and Bynum that were not assists because they resulted in free throw attempts instead of made baskets.

Derrick Rose led the Bulls with 25 points and a game-high nine assists. It is obviously very early in the season but Rose has impressed me more than any other rookie so far: he can shoot, pass and rebound, his defense is adequate--particularly for such a young, inexperienced player--and he plays at his own tempo, not allowing other players to force him to slow down or speed up. Rose is very quick, handles the ball well and has already mastered his own variation of the teardrop shot used by penetrating guards as diverse as Mark Jackson and Tony Parker. Point guard is probably the toughest position to play as a rookie, so Rose's performance so far is that much more impressive.

Ben Gordon scored a highly inefficient 23 points on 6-22 field goal shooting, including 3-11 from three point range. Is his salary based on field goal attempts per minute? Gordon would actually be a great sixth man for a strong team that could control his minutes and shot selection but injuries to other players have forced him into a starting role for the Bulls and that is less than ideal because he is an undersized shooting guard who is not a great ballhandler or defender.

Gasol scored 18 of his points in the first quarter, becoming the first Laker other than Kobe Bryant to have that many points in a quarter since Shaquille O'Neal scored 18 points in a quarter in a March 21, 2003 game versus Boston. The Lakers exploited the obvious size advantage they enjoyed with Gasol and Bynum matching up against Drew Gooden and Joakim Noah; Gasol scored 13 of the Lakers' first 15 points. Bryant did not score a point in the first quarter and despite Gasol's outburst the Lakers only led 30-29, a score that is not good for L.A. for two reasons: the Lakers gave up far too many points and they were only up by one point at home against an inferior team. The Lakers played poor defense on several possessions--giving up wide open jumpers and, even worse, easy layups--and they also blew several point blank scoring opportunities at the front of the rim; if they had been a little sharper the score could easily have been 40-21 in their favor.

Sometimes it is hard to figure out what--if anything--Lamar Odom is thinking about. He had good boxscore numbers (10 points, eight rebounds, five assists) but fouled out after only playing 22 minutes. At the start of the second quarter he missed a layup, grabbed the rebound, made the putback--and then grabbed the ball and shot another layup, earning a delay of game warning. That did not have an effect on the outcome of the game but could have been a critical gaffe if it happened in the second half of a close contest; a second delay of game call is a one shot technical foul. Also, teams like to preserve that first delay of game call in order to use it to get a look at the opposing team's inbounds play late in the game and then stop the action before the inbounder passes the ball. Odom complained about every foul called on him even though most if not all of the fouls were obviously correct. This is why the Lakers are so much better off having him in a reserve role as opposed to perpetuating the dream that he could be Bryant's Pippen-like sidekick; the more that you have to rely on Odom on a game to game basis, the more you are going to be disappointed but as a reserve player the Lakers don't need as much out of him and on those occasions when he breaks out with a 20 point, 10 rebound game it will be icing on the cake.

Bryant took his usual rest at the start of the second quarter and when he returned to action at the 8:37 mark the score was tied at 36. In less than three minutes, he scored eight points as the Lakers went on a 15-2 run. The Lakers pushed their lead to 57-40 after Bryant's behind the back pass to Gasol for a dunk but then Gordon and Rose helped the Bulls close the half with a 16-4 run to pull within 61-56 at halftime.

At the start of the third quarter, Bryant again asserted control over the game, hitting a jumper and a three pointer to make the score 65-56. After Gasol missed a jumper, Bryant stormed into the lane and tipped the ball toward the basket; he missed the mark but kept the ball alive long enough for Bynum to reel it in and convert a three point play. Lakers' announcer Stu Lantz noted that Bryant receives no boxscore credit for that kind of hustle but Bynum would not have scored without Bryant's extra effort (a glance at the official play by play sheet actually shows that Bryant was credited with an offensive rebound and a missed field goal attempt). It is still early in the season but so far we are seeing that two of the themes that I repeatedly mentioned in the offseason were right on target: (1) Phil Jackson is not going to play Bynum, Gasol and Odom together at the same time because none of those players is a legit small forward; (2) Bynum is not a franchise-level center who creates his own offense but rather a young, athletic big man who rebounds and defends but whose offensive game at this stage mostly consists of catching lob passes, scoring on putbacks and occasionally using his developing repertoire of post moves. Bynum's minutes are up slightly compared to last season but his scoring average, field goal percentage and rebounding average have each declined (his shotblocking and turnover numbers have improved, though the latter can mainly be attributed to him not being relied on to do much more than dunk the ball). He is still rounding into shape after recovering from the injury that cost him the second half of last season but it should be obvious that he is not, as some laughably suggested, the best or most valuable player on the team.

After that initial Bryant-fueled burst to start the third quarter, the Lakers only managed to add three more points to their lead, enjoying a 90-74 advantage going into the final 12 minutes. Bryant was on the bench at the start of the fourth quarter and when the score reached 97-78 it seemed like his services might not be required for the rest of the night--but even with Gasol and Bynum on the court, the reserves were not able to maintain that comfortable margin. The Bulls cut the lead to 107-97 by the 3:50 mark--a very workable margin at that stage--and Bryant was forced to shed his warmups and finish the job. He came into the game with the Lakers on offense and seven seconds remaining on the shot clock and coolly drained a three pointer to let the Bulls know that playtime was over. The Bulls never cut the margin into single digits and a couple minutes later Bryant was able to go back to the bench. When a star player has sat out the first eight-plus minutes of the final quarter, you can be sure that his coach did not want to have to put him back in the game--but Phil Jackson understood just how tenuous the situation had become. I know that some people think that this Lakers' team would be very good even without Bryant but if you believe that then you need to focus more intently on two things: (1) How exactly Gasol, Bynum and others get wide open shots when Bryant is in the game; (2) how often large Lakers' leads shrink to dangerous levels when Bryant is on the bench. According to the definition of "clutch" used by "stats gurus" (less than two minutes remaining in a game that is closer than five points), Bryant's fourth quarter three pointer was not "clutch"--but that may have been the biggest possession of the game. If Bryant had not been brought back in and the Lakers failed to score, the Bulls would have been very much alive and would have had a ton of momentum. Although the Lakers have the best record in the NBA, several of those wins are directly attributable to Bryant either hitting a key shot like that and/or going on a scoring run at a key juncture--and Bryant's ability to consistently be productive at those important moments clearly demonstrates that he still has the same skill set that earned him last year's MVP and that, on lesser teams, enabled him to set numerous records while winning back to back scoring titles.

Interestingly, although Gasol was easily the highest scoring player in this game, his plus/minus number was just +1, while Bryant's plus/minus number was a game-high +22; incidentally, we can also see the limitations of looking at unadjusted plus/minus numbers by considering the fact that Vladimir Radmanovic--who was nearly invisible while scoring five points on 1-4 shooting--had the third best plus/minus number (+16) just because most of his minutes coincided with Bryant's. What Bryant has done so far this season is just lay in the cut, so to speak, as a scorer; he's not trying to go out and get 40 or 50 points and often he is hardly even attempting a shot in the first quarter as he surveys how the opposing team is defending him and sees which of his teammates may have the hot hand--but if and when things get tight or the Lakers hit a lull then Bryant drops about 10 points in a brief run, like a sniper picking off several targets in rapid succession and then calling it a day. I'm not sure which role is more difficult--sustaining production over a whole game to score 40 points (but also knowing that even if you miss some shots you are going to get up 25 or 30 attempts) or having the ability to seemingly turn your scoring off and on at will.

The Lakers played nine games in 23 days to start the season but will play six games in an 11 day stretch that started on Tuesday, so the upcoming week and a half will be an excellent test for them. They suffered their first loss of the season on Friday night versus Detroit and the most disturbing aspect of that game was how the Pistons pushed the Lakers' big men around, including a 10 point, 10 rebound performance by Kwame Brown, the former Lakers' starting center who has been thrust into a temporary starting role for Detroit due to injuries. Brown outplayed Bynum and Rasheed Wallace had his way with Gasol in a game that surely reminded Lakers' fans of how the Celtics overpowered Gasol in the NBA Finals; no one can question that Gasol is a very skilled player but he still has to prove that he has the necessary mental and physical toughness to be a key contributor on a championship level team--I had thought that he passed that test last year versus Utah and San Antonio in the Western Conference playoffs but Gasol had a setback against Boston.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:13 AM

14 comments

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14 Comments:

At Wednesday, November 19, 2008 9:02:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

To say Odom could be a Pippen-like sidekick is to indicate that Bryant is Jordan-like....I wont get into that annoying scenario.

Rose is a terrific player and a joy to watch. There arent many nowadays who come into the NBA and are ready to play. True indeed its 10 games in but hes been very impressive. Im interested to see how he plays against the other top guard in the league.

The best part of Tuesday nights are the NBATV segments with Rashad, Payton and Webber. Absolute comedy. Payton is comedy and TNT needs to put him on primetime. He was saying who shouldnt be on the allstar ballot and guys like Collision who shouldnt be in the league. Straight comedy. And hes right a lot of these guys shouldnt be in the NBA. And why are Curry and Marbury on the ballot when they havent played. I understand they probably do the ballot before the season but take them off.

 
At Wednesday, November 19, 2008 9:11:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

And what about Karls comments about Iverson? You have to write about those. I think Karl was right anyway. Iverson has always been a gunner and player out for himself. But Karl had to know what they were getting when they got Iverson.

 
At Wednesday, November 19, 2008 5:06:00 PM, Anonymous Allen said...

In thinking about why certain players rate so highly on PER and Wages of Wins (besides the fact that rebounds differ in quality, yet they are given equal weight), in the case of Bynum and Garnett, I think what favors them is what they DON'T do. They don't turn the ball over, and they don't take three point shots, and a bunch of other things that would show up as negatives in the box scores. So in some sense, they are benefitting in these numerical systems because of their LACK of skill, not because of some great judgment they have in not attempting bad shots or making bad passes.

Faulty premises (stats and lack of stats represent skill of player), faulty results.

 
At Wednesday, November 19, 2008 5:16:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Madnice:

I've already made it very clear that I don't think that Kobe is equal to or better than MJ--but it also should be obvious that he is the closest player to MJ since MJ retired. As for Odom, I never touted him as Pippen-like--quite the opposite, in fact. I was merely reemphasizing what I have said all along: it was never realistic to expect Odom to be the second best player on a strong playoff team.

The segment with Payton reviewing the All-Star ballot was funny. The reason that certain players are on the ballot is that the league mandates that at least three players from each team be selected. Being on the ballot does not mean that you are really an All-Star level player, obviously. As for taking people off of the ballot, I'm sure that if you think about that for a moment you will understand why that is not logistically feasible, at least for the printed ballots that have already been distributed to the arenas.

 
At Wednesday, November 19, 2008 5:16:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Madnice:

I've already written extensively about the Iverson-Billups trade from the perspective of both teams but the next time I do a Denver or Detroit game recap I probably will work something in about what Karl said.

 
At Wednesday, November 19, 2008 6:31:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I won't rehash old arguments here. So far Bynum has not played as well as he did last year. Of course, neither has Kobe, although this was a very nice performance from him.

In response to Allen re the WOW, I would point out that you have to remember the position adjustment, which corrects for the tendency of bigger players to commit fewer turnovers. The reason why Garnett comes off so well is not because he commits fewer turnovers than a guard, but because he commits fewer turnovers than other big men. Every player gets compared to the average for his position.

I would also point out that the conclusion that big men are much more important than little men in the NBA, that frontcourt players account for most of the production of wins, is one shared by both the box score stat people and the adjusted +/- people.

Obviously, there are outstandingly productive players at every position, but the consensus at this point from all the stat guru types is that there is much less difference between the smalls than there is between the bigs, which means that having a great big is much more important.

I didn't see this game and I won't comment on it, except to say that Bynum seems to be playing outstanding defense and to be getting back into his groove. I also struggle to believe that Odom played poorly with the numbers he posted in 20 minutes, despite his petulance.

Owen

 
At Thursday, November 20, 2008 6:38:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen:

Kobe is doing exactly what has been required of him so far for his team to post the best record in the league and his numerous clutch performances so far--both in terms of hitting big shots and initiating momentum changing runs, as I've described in my game recaps--clearly demonstrate that his skill set is still good enough for him to go out and get 40 or 50 points if that were required; I suspect that within the next month or so we will see him have some games like that as the schedule gets tougher and the other players are not able to produce on a nightly basis.

The prediction/projection/assumption (whatever you choose to call it) by WoW that Bynum was/would be/could be/is more valuable/more productive/more efficient than Bryant was/is/will for quite some time be completely absurd. Bynum will be better than Kobe around the time that Kobe turns 40--maybe, if Bynum stays healthy and works on his game.

I noted that Odom was productive from a statistical standpoint in his limited minutes but that his play was, shall we say, idiosyncratic. As I predicted during the summer, this will be an ongoing issue with the Lakers. If the Lakers keep winning at this clip then it will just be a minor distraction but if they go on a losing streak then the whole issues of who should start and how the minutes should be allocated will become problematic.

In one of your earlier comments you said something to the effect that you would like to see Kobe get a non-serious injury that causes him to miss a few games just so we could see how good this team is without him. However, your "evil" plan is not necessary: just watch how the team plays when Kobe is on the bench--how much more difficult it is for players to get open shots and how many times the other team mounts a comeback that necessitates Kobe returning to save the day. There have been plenty examples of both phenomena early in the season. Furthermore, if Kobe were out for an extended period then both problems would become worse, because all the other players are asked to do now is to survive 10-12 minutes a game without Bryant; if they know in advance that he is out for the whole game then there is much more pressure on them to sustain productivity over a greater period of time.

 
At Thursday, November 20, 2008 9:35:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

David....Ive read you blog for years so I am aware what you write. I know you wrote about the trade....I thought the comments were interesting and didnt see you comment on them yet. Very George Karl like but he should have said them when Iverson was there. He knew what he was getting with AI.

I know they cant take them off. Having 3 per team on the ballot is a scenario that the NBA needs to change. At the end of the day it doesnt really matter. But it was good tv.

Bryant knows he can score at will anytime. What he is doing is great for the team because he is letting the other players play. And by doing that he is giving them confidence and showing that he has confidence in them. They are 8-1, will probably win 60 plus, and get back to the NBA Finals. Will they win this year? It will probably be a rematch of the Celts vs Lakers.

 
At Thursday, November 20, 2008 5:13:00 PM, Anonymous Allen said...

Another example of Mark Price's influence on the league, this one from Hollinger's Per Diem column today regard Marvin Williams 3 point proficiency:
"Of course, getting free in the corner doesn't matter if Williams can't convert the shot. That's why he's been learning from one of the best. Williams credits daily workouts with newly hired shooting guru Mark Price for his long-range accuracy."

 
At Thursday, November 20, 2008 6:03:00 PM, Anonymous Allen said...

Madnice - why so defensive when Kobe is compared to Michael Jordan? Obviously if he is closer than anyone currently playing, that makes him "close to MJ", relatively speaking.

 
At Friday, November 21, 2008 2:51:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re Kobe - According to 82games, so far this year the Lakers have been 6.7 points better on offense with him off the floor and .6 better on defense.

Now, that may be an artifact of the numerous blowouts the Lakers have already had. It may be a commentary on the fact that the Lakers second unit is much better than anyone else's. It may even be incorrect, who knows. You certainly have seen something different.

But anyway, it would appear that there isn't any evidence to support the contention that the Lakers can't survive without him. The Lakers have so far posted exactly the same Efg with him off the court, have had an 11% higher assist rate, and have been much better at offensive rebounding.

I would expect this all to change. Kobe's box score stats have been pretty poor this year. History shows what he is capable of. Right now, Trevor Ariza actually has a higher gross Win Score so far. And I wouldn't expect Kobe to get outplayed by Ariza this year.

Re Bynum - His stats are down from last year. i could credit that to his injury, but he has been spry on defense. We shall see about Bynum, my bet would be by the All Star break he will have his offensive game rolling. And I will stick to my prediction that by the end of next year he will be a more valuable player than Bryant, as he was in limited action last year.

Owen

 
At Friday, November 21, 2008 3:45:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen:

I vote for "artifact," with a second vote for the Lakers' second unit being better than most if not all of the second units that they have faced thus far. In my game recaps I explained very clearly the exact nature of Kobe's impact thus far, so there really is nothing for me to add.

Ariza is a fine bench player; the idea that he outplayed Kobe for any stretch--other than a small sample size like a quarter or two--is absurd.

Asserting that Bynum was more valuable than Kobe last year is ridiculous; Bynum is a dependent player, as I have noted previously: his offensive game largely consists of catching lob passes and converting putbacks. He is developing a post game and his jumper has improved but right now he is a young big man who rebounds and blocks shots in limited minutes while playing alongside the best player in the game plus a veteran big man (Gasol) who is more versatile than he is. The Lakers made it all the way to the Finals without Bynum, including a series victory over the defending champion Spurs. Do you really think that if the Lakers had swapped a healthy Bynum for Kobe that they would have even gotten out of the first round, much less advance to the Finals?

 
At Monday, November 24, 2008 11:49:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

Allen....not defensive at all. Let each player be who they are. Its annoying with the comparisons. People forget how unbelievable Mike was. Just enjoy todays players and leave it at that.

 
At Thursday, November 27, 2008 5:59:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

reggie

kobe closer to mike than odom is pippen but not as good as mike theres nuthing to discuss he no jordan lakers are very good with kobe without not as good if you swap kobe for bynum they might make playoffs kobe got to finals and won 2 games without bynum he is a great player and way more valuble than bynum. reality is lakers is very talented and will win ring lebron is mvp been the best player this year kobe plays a diffrent role than lebron and done what he needed to do to win games he won his mvp he aint tripping on that anymore.

 

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