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Monday, December 08, 2008

Lakers Are a Good Example of the Difference Between Talent and Depth

Being a talented team is not necessarily the same thing as being a deep team. A perfect case in point is the 1985-86 Boston Celtics, who went 67-15 in the regular season before winning the NBA championship. Their starting lineup included three of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players (Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish) plus a former Finals MVP who should be in the Hall of Fame (Dennis Johnson) and a three point marksman who was a future All-Star guard (Danny Ainge). The first player off of the bench, Bill Walton, won the Sixth Man Award and was a former regular season and NBA Finals MVP (he is also on the 50 Greatest Players list). That is obviously a talented team. However, the Celtics were not particularly deep: in the playoffs Boston essentially went with a seven man rotation and the starters averaged between 32.8 and 42.8 mpg.

This year’s L.A. Lakers may be deeper from players 1-10 than the 1986 Celtics were but it would be foolish to say that they are more talented than Boston was that year. Frankly, a lot of people overrated both the L.A. Lakers' talent and depth last season, particularly after L.A. acquired Pau Gasol. The Kobe Bryant-Pau Gasol-Lamar Odom trio was very effective but the Lakers lacked frontcourt depth, had no solid defender at the small forward position (unless Bryant played that spot) and even though the bench players performed well at times all of their weaknesses were exposed during the NBA Finals by the Boston Celtics, who also did not show much concern about the starters—other than Bryant. Bryant did a lot of heavy lifting while leading the Lakers to the NBA Finals, averaging 31.9 ppg while shooting .509 from the field in three Western Conference playoff series, including a victory over the defending champion San Antonio Spurs.

That is an extraordinarily high level of efficient production by a shooting guard, particularly one who receives as much defensive attention as Bryant does—and when the Celtics sent waves of defenders at Bryant in the NBA Finals to force anyone else on the Lakers to beat them, no one else could. As Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said recently, "We know that Boston literally said, 'We've got to take Kobe out, we just have to throw our defense at them.' We have to have more guys fit into our offense if we're going to be a team that can compete with those clubs." It should be obvious that a team that is truly blessed with either Hall of Fame talent or superior depth cannot be beaten by a team that throws its entire defense at one player—that was the recipe to beat Michael Jordan’s early Chicago Bulls teams but it did not work once Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, B.J. Armstrong, John Paxson and others became key contributors.

Some people believe that the Lakers are the most talented team in the league this season. In addition to the players who helped the Lakers make it to the 2008 Finals, the Lakers have added two key players to the rotation: center Andrew Bynum (who missed the second half of last season and all of the playoffs due to injury) and small forward Trevor Ariza, a midseason acquisition who never had a chance to get fully acclimated to the Lakers, in part due to injury. Bynum is certainly a starting caliber player, while Ariza is an excellent bench player who can be a starter in some situations, so putting them in the mix not only improves the Lakers' starting five but--by relegating Lamar Odom to the bench and providing a defensive alternative to Vladimir Radmanovic at small forward--the Lakers' bench is finally as good as last year's press clippings suggested. The Lakers have a good mixture of size, length, quickness, shooters and passers. They are a deep team but they are not as talented as the great teams in NBA history—or the current Boston Celtics, for that matter, a team that has three future Hall of Famers in its starting five plus a young point guard who seems to be blossoming into an All-Star caliber player right before our eyes this year.

It is possible that the Lakers will win 70 games this season. For the sake of discussion, let's say the Lakers win at least 68 games. That has only been accomplished by five teams in NBA history: '96 Bulls (72 wins), '72 Lakers (69), '97 Bulls (69), '67 76ers (68) and '73 Celtics (68). All of those teams won championships except for the Celtics, who lost to the New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals after John Havlicek injured his shoulder; the Knicks went on to win the title (the nucleus of that Knicks team also won a championship in 1970). Those Bulls teams had two members of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players List (Jordan and Pippen), plus Dennis Rodman, who would be a sure-fire Hall of Famer if not for his off court antics. The Lakers had two of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players (Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West), plus Hall of Famer Gail Goodrich. The 76ers had Top 50 players Chamberlain, Billy Cunningham and Hal Greer. That ill-fated Celtics team had Top 50 players Dave Cowens (the regular season MVP in 1973) and Havlicek.

The current Lakers have future Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant but the only other player on the roster who has made the All-Star team even once is Pau Gasol (2006). If the Lakers win 68 or more games and then seal the deal by capturing the championship that will truly be a remarkable feat considering the lack of Hall of Fame talent on the roster.

Despite all of the talk about how talented the Lakers are, what really has happened is that a team that did not even have five quality starters as recently as the early portion of last season now has a legitimate playoff caliber starting lineup plus a solid bench; in case you’ve forgotten, the Lakers won six of their first nine games last season with Chris Mihm, Kwame Brown, Ronny Turiaf and Luke Walton each getting multiple starts.

Clearly, this year’s squad has more depth than the group from two years ago that started Kwame Brown at center, Smush Parker at point guard and Luke Walton at small forward. This year, Brown is averaging 4.1 ppg and 4.1 rpg for Detroit; ironically, he had by far his best game of the year versus the Lakers, "exploding" for season-highs in points (10, a total he matched in one other game) and rebounds (10). Parker is no longer in the league, while Walton has gone from starting 60 times in 60 appearances in 2007 to averaging 4.8 mpg for the Lakers this year.

The Lakers opened this season by compiling a 14-1 record while playing 10 of their first 15 games at home (they also won a "road" game at the Staples Center versus the Clippers). Their only real road test during that run was when they played back to back games in Dallas and New Orleans; Bryant had a game-high 27 points on 10-20 field goal shooting in a 106-99 win versus the Mavericks--including nine fourth quarter points as the Lakers rallied from an 81-76 deficit early in the final stanza--and Bryant tied for team-high honors with 20 points and had a team-high six assists in a 93-86 victory against the Hornets. Bryant shot just 5-15 from the field in that game but he made all nine of his free throws and he scored seven points in the final 1:08, including a huge three pointer to put the Lakers up by six as the shot clock was about to expire at the 1:08 mark; Bryant scored 11 of the Lakers' 22 fourth quarter points.

During that fast start, Bryant’s minutes and scoring were down as the Lakers cruised to easy victories, though there were still several times that he had to take over games in stretches after the bench players faltered and the team hit a lull. However, any veteran NBA observer understands that the great teams and the great players get the job done on the road and it was easy to predict that the Lakers would need a more significant contribution from Bryant in order to consistently win away from home. The Lakers are now 16-2 after just concluding a mini-road trip to the Eastern Conference, losing to Indiana 118-117 on a last second tip-in by Troy Murphy, beating Philadelphia 114-102 and outlasting Washington 106-104. Bryant scored 27.7 ppg on .466 field goal shooting and .903 free throw shooting during those three games. He also averaged 6.7 rpg and 4.3 apg.

After the Lakers squandered a 20 point second half lead against Washington on Friday night and had to hold on for dear life to win, Coach Jackson said, "I think it was poor coaching, that's what it was tonight. Putting too much trust and faith in a younger group, the second unit, that perhaps can't hold it on the road. They can't withstand the fury or the intensity of a fourth-quarter game, so I'm going to have to change it up a little bit, I think." Jackson indicated that he plans to curtail the minutes he gives to the bench players by bringing his starters back into games earlier in the fourth quarter than he had been doing so far this season.

The Lakers led the Wizards 87-71 when Bryant went to the bench late in the third quarter but were only up 99-90 when Bryant returned to action at the 5:41 mark of the fourth quarter. Much like what happened in the Indiana game, once the trailing team gained momentum it was difficult for Bryant and the starting unit to stem the tide. Washington pulled to within 103-102 after a Caron Butler jumper with :43 left and it was up to Bryant to save the day. In the Indiana game, Bryant hit a late jumper to give the Lakers a lead but there was no time left on the clock for him to answer Murphy's tip-in; this time, Bryant hit a tough, twisting jumper off of the glass to put the Lakers up 105-102 with :24 remaining. Andray Blatche's tip-in brought the Wizards to within one and after Bryant could only split a pair of free throws the door was open for Washington but Butler missed a three pointer as time expired. Bryant shot just 5-17 from the field but he made 13 of 14 free throws and finished with a team-high 23 points plus seven rebounds and a game-high seven assists. He scored the Lakers' final five points. As Bynum told NBA TV's Rick Kamla after the game, "Kobe really bailed us out of this one again, made another miracle play to save us. We got a little bit too relaxed in the fourth quarter and they were able to draw off of the energy in the arena and come back."

The Lakers are clearly a deep team in terms of having 10 players who can competently play at least 10 mpg if necessary. That kind of depth is important for withstanding the rigors of a long regular season and in the event that a starter goes down with a minor injury one of the bench players can be a capable short term solution. However, in the playoffs it is less important to have 10 competent players than it is to have at least two stars who are leading an excellent seven to eight man rotation; last year, eight Lakers averaged at least 20 mpg in the regular season (nine if you count the traded Kwame Brown) but only six Lakers averaged at least 20 mpg in the playoffs. In the playoffs, teams rarely have the opportunity to blow out inferior opponents and cannot afford the luxury of putting the ninth and tenth players on the court. Thus, whether or not the Lakers can win the 2009 championship will depend less on their much vaunted 10 player depth and more on the talent/production of their top seven or eight players; since the Lakers do not have a second Hall of Fame caliber player, at crunch time—be it on the road, trailing late or in a tough playoff game--the heaviest burden will once again fall on Bryant to make sure that the Lakers are successful.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:39 AM

4 comments

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4 Comments:

At Monday, December 08, 2008 3:10:00 PM, Blogger Joel said...

I think the reason so much is made the Lakers' talent is that you generally don't find so much depth on an NBA roster these days. Kobe and Gasol are the only established stars, but there are about 8 starter-quality players, which is somewhat unusual in the salary cap era.

Despite this, I find that the Lakers are still more dependent on Kobe than people seem to realise. He is the only player who can consistently break down the defense with dribble penetration, the best playmaker, and the best wing defender. The frontcourt trio of Bynum, Gasol, and Odom is impressive, but Kobe is the only above-average perimeter player.

 
At Monday, December 08, 2008 3:29:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Joel:

That is exactly the crux of the issue: despite the Lakers' depth and despite their alleged overall talent advantage they are still very dependent on Kobe and this has been evident in several games this year, most notably the three game Eastern road trip and the two road wins over Dallas and New Orleans.

There have been several times when Kobe was icing his knees and/or apparently out of the game for good before Jackson had to put him back in the game to save the day.

Not only is Kobe the only above-average perimeter player on the roster, he is the only truly great player on the roster. The Celtics have three future Hall of Famers and most championship teams have at least two great players.

 
At Monday, December 15, 2008 7:16:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

reggie

good point i think pau could come up big but celts had 3 hall of famers remeber game 1 vs cleveland pierce and allen played bad combined 4 pts garnett stepped up with 28 16 in game 7 garnett and allen played bad pierce had 41 if kobe doesnt play well could pau or bynum come up with a huge game? hopefully for the lakers they wont have too but they might jordan had pip if he played bad magic worthy kareem bird had parish and mchale tim duncan parker ginibilo shaq had kobe and wade you make a good point.

 
At Tuesday, December 16, 2008 7:14:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Reggie:

That is exactly my point. The Celtics have a margin for error if one or even two HoFers have off games. Now that Rondo is playing at an All-Star level they have a fourth go-to option. It is inconceivable that the Lakers would win a playoff series against a good team without Kobe playing at a very high level.

In order for the Lakers to win the championship, Pau will have to be an excellent second option throughout the playoffs (i.e., not disappear in the Finals, if the Lakers make it that far again). The Lakers will also have to display a lot more toughness than they showed in the Finals. It was really interesting in last year's playoffs to see that as tough and physical as the Jazz and Spurs are, the Celtics are even tougher and more physical.

 

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