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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Midterm Report Card for the Lakers' Bigs

In the wake of the L.A. Lakers' loss to the Boston Celtics in last year's NBA Finals, many people speculated that the Lakers would employ a huge starting frontcourt this season, inserting Andrew Bynum at center, shifting Pau Gasol to power forward and moving Lamar Odom to small forward. I immediately dismissed such speculation, writing, "If Andrew Bynum returns to health and is productive then he can start at center and Pau Gasol can shift to power forward. In that scenario, the ideal move for the Lakers would be to trade Lamar Odom for a quality small forward. Odom is not an ideal small forward, so a frontline of Bynum-Gasol-Odom is not feasible, despite what some people may try to convince you; the only way that those three players can effectively coexist is if one of them comes off of the bench. Gasol is the second best player on the team, so he is not going to be a reserve. Bynum is the best postup player, so it does not make sense to sit him either." As far as I know, in the midst of much feverish talk about the big frontline that the Lakers would supposedly use, I am the only NBA commentator who correctly predicted how Coach Phil Jackson would handle this situation. The Lakers lead the West with a 31-8 record with this lineup, so apparently neither Jackson nor I "bumped (our) head(s)" with the assessment that the Lakers would be best served by bringing career starter Odom off of the bench.

I suggested that the Lakers might be best served to trade Odom because I thought that he might chafe at coming off of the bench during his contract year and because the Lakers' weakest position is small forward. However, Odom has accepted his new role and Coach Jackson has effectively distributed the small forward minutes between the sharpshooting Vladimir Radmanovic and defensive specialist Trevor "Inspector Gadget" (my nickname for the long-armed ball thief) Ariza, with keen-eyed passer Luke Walton making cameo appearances and Kobe Bryant occasionally shifting to this position when the Lakers deploy a three guard attack.

With the regular season nearly half over, now is a good time to provide a preliminary assessment of how well Bynum, Gasol and Odom have performed.

In a 109-103 loss versus the Orlando Magic on Friday, Bryant had more rebounds (13) than Gasol (nine) and Bynum (three) combined. As I noted in my previous post, "In the past three games--a win at Houston, followed by a loss at San Antonio and a home loss versus Orlando--Bryant grabbed 27 rebounds, nearly matching the 28 combined rebounds that starting power forward Pau Gasol (21) and starting center Andrew Bynum (seven) tallied." Although the Lakers won the Finals rematch versus the Celtics on Christmas Day, Bryant (nine rebounds) led the Lakers on the glass in that game and nearly matched the combined rebounding numbers posted by Gasol (seven) and Bynum (three). That does not speak well for the toughness and/or mental focus of the Lakers' starting bigs, who still have something to prove down the stretch of the season and during the playoffs.

Some people pretend/imagine that Bynum is already an elite NBA center, but the truth is that he is a raw, young player who is still learning the NBA game. He still has a lot of work to do to reach elite status at his position, as was painfully evident during the Orlando game; Dwight Howard scored 25 points and grabbed 20 rebounds, while Bynum had 14 points and just three rebounds. After the game, Coach Jackson said, "It doesn't make sense. If Howard gets eight offensive rebounds and he's going to the basket all the time, and he's going to be around the basket, then Andrew should somewhere compete at least at that level, to contest rebounding-wise. What did he get, three tonight? And Howard gets 20? Somewhere along that line, that's not right."

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is teaching Bynum how to read various situations on the court, including how to best take advantage when the NBA's most complete player, Kobe Bryant, is double-teamed: "That leaves three guys guarding the four remaining guys. If (Bynum) starts moving at that point and knows the right place to go to, he's going to probably be four or five feet from the closest defender. Therein lies opportunity." Abdul-Jabbar also is urging Bynum to look up the court after getting a defensive rebound instead of simply handing the ball off to a guard who is standing right next to him; crisp outlet passes could create easy transition scoring opportunities for the Lakers.

Bynum's minutes are up slightly compared to last season but his scoring, rebounding, field goal percentage, free throw percentage and blocked shots all have declined. I give Bynum a C+: the Lakers really expected more from him, particularly defensively and on the glass.

While Bynum is still learning the fundamentals of the NBA game, Gasol is a seasoned professional. He clearly understands how to draw the maximum benefit from the extra defensive attention attracted by Bryant, as shown by Gasol's .589 field goal percentage as a Laker last season and his .548 field goal percentage this season, numbers that surpass his best totals while playing in Memphis when he was the focal point of his team's offense; Gasol has missed more easy, wide open shots this season than he did last season or his field goal percentage would be pushing the .600 mark. Gasol is an excellent passer and, although he is not a very physical player, he rebounds (9.2 rpg) and he is a better defensive player than his reputation suggests. Gasol does not post huge shotblocking numbers but he uses his length to alter a lot of shots. He only made the All-Star team once in his first seven seasons and even though he is the second best player on the team with the best record in the West he will not necessarily make the All-Star team this year: Tim Duncan and Carmelo Anthony lead the fan voting at forward, while Amare Stoudemire and Dirk Nowitzki are locks as coaches' choices. Gasol will likely be battling David West and LaMarcus Aldridge for the spot left open by Carlos Boozer's injury woes. I give Gasol an A-: Gasol is playing very well but to earn a full A he needs to convert more of his wide open shots and push his rebounding average closer to 10 rpg.

Last year, Odom averaged career highs in rebounding (10.6 rpg) and field goal percentage (.525); as the starting power forward alongside first Bynum and then Gasol, Odom thrived by cutting to the hoop from the weakside and he was terrifically active on the offensive and defensive glass. This season, Odom is averaging a career-low 26.4 mpg, so the rest of his per game averages have also understandably declined in a corresponding fashion. Although the plus/minus data suggest that Odom has been very effective, I think that those numbers are a bit "noisy," influenced by who he has been on the court with and who who he has been playing against. Odom's rebounds per minute have dropped by nearly 20% compared to last season and he is shooting .473 from the field, higher than his career average but a significant decrease from last year. Odom has been solid defensively for the most part and he is shooting a career-high .385 from three point range, albeit with a small number of attempts (39 in 36 games). Overall, Odom has been effective as a bench player and, even more importantly, he has accepted this new role without making any waves. The Lakers could still use a legitimate all-around starting small forward--Coach Jackson rightfully prefers to use Ariza as a bench player--but I would be hesitant to trade Odom at this point because Bynum has hardly been a world beater so far and the only other bigs on the roster are Josh Powell, Chris Mihm and the seldom used D.J. Mbenga. I give Odom a B: he has played solidly so far and could earn an A by season's end if he can move his per minute production closer to the numbers he posted last season.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:42 AM

8 comments

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8 Comments:

At Sunday, January 18, 2009 7:54:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Bryant had more rebounds (13) than Gasol (nine) and Bynum (three) combined."

I think this is a very unfair statement considering that Gasol only played 21 minutes. I didn't see the game, so I don't know what Bynum did, but him grabbing only 3 rebounds is not the problem, but allowing 8 offensive rebounds to Howard is. They're related, yes, but it's much more than that.

In a game, when faced with a bigger, stronger, more athletic, dominant rebounder, I do not try to rebound anymore. Instead, I usually try to keep both of us out of the equation by facing him up and sticking with him so he can't jump. This dramatically reduces the number of rebounds I usually get, but it also does the same for the other guy. Bynum obviously failed at this, but the number of boards he grabs is not the number you should be looking at.

I do not follow the Lakers as closely as you do, but from a rebounding perspective, I'm sure you'd rather have a Bynum than a Marion. Furthermore, Gasol's 9rpg doesn't show his ability to tap out the ball, to a teammate, which he does extremely well.

Rebounding is not the Lakers' problem, guard penetration is. When a big has to help, it frees up his man for a putback.

Finally, 10 is not a magic number. The double-double has got to be one of the most overrated stats in the game.

Z

 
At Monday, January 19, 2009 4:16:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Z:

Gasol played 33 minutes versus Orlando, not 21. Bynum also played 33 minutes and was completely dominated on the glass by Howard, as Coach Jackson indicated.

Although poorly informed fans pumped up Bynum to be some kind of offensive superstar in waiting prior to this season, Coach Jackson has repeatedly made it clear that he is much more interested in seeing Bynum become a consistently effective rebounder and defender. When someone asked Coach Jackson early in the season about Bynum potentially being a 20-10 player, Jackson said that the "10" part (i.e., double figure rebounding) would be nice but he downplayed any expectations for Bynum to be a 20 ppg scorer any time soon.

Coach Jackson was obviously concerned about the rebounding disparity between Howard and Bynum. When you are 7 feet tall and athletic you should have more ambitious goals than just keeping the other guy away from the boards; the strategy you described would be how a smaller but more mobile power forward should try to guard Howard, not the technique that a fellow 7 footer should be using. Bynum should be going after the ball aggressively and not have to content himself to just face guard Howard, because if that is really all he can do against an elite center than why did the Lakers give him such a big contract extension? The assumption is that Bynum can become a top flight center at some point. If the Lakers just want a warm body out there to face guard Howard then they could use Mihm.

Bynum is averaging 7.7 rpg in 29.4 mpg this season. That is not terrible but the Lakers are expecting a bit more and they also want him to have fewer three rebound games in which he is essentially invisible--in his last five games, Bynum has grabbed five, six, one (!), three and three rebounds while playing at least 26 minutes in each game. That is simply unacceptable.

I agree that overall rebounding is not a huge problem for the Lakers but the recent trend of Kobe Bryant nearly equaling the rebounding totals of his top two bigs is not good. I am not questioning Gasol or Bynum's ability to rebound; I am questioning why they don't apply that ability on a more consistent basis. I don't understand why you brought up Marion; I never proposed trading Bynum for Marion.

It is interesting that you bring up dribble penetration, because a lot of the Lakers' problems in that regard stem from poor screen/roll defense by their bigs, with Bynum being the biggest offender; that is one of the reasons that he is often on the bench in the fourth quarters of close games.

Whether or not 10 rpg or double-doubles are overrated, the Lakers need for their bigs to more consistently be a forceful presence in the paint as rebounders and defenders.

 
At Monday, January 19, 2009 5:26:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

According to yahoo, Gasol played 21 minutes. I didn't check other sources so I could be wrong.
http://sports.yahoo.com/nba/boxscore?gid=2009011613

Anyway, the point is, yes Bynum had a bad rebounding game against Howard, but the first number I'd point to is Howard's (and Battie's) offensive boards, which tells a much bigger story than Bynum's 3 rebounds.

Actually, could you tell us how Bynum failed? I mean, was he always at the wrong place, did he not box out, was he away from the hoop, trying to show on the PnR, did he fly through the air to try and block shots, how many boards were snatched away from him, did he just wait for them to fall on his lap, etc etc..

It's much more informative when you give game sequences and comments rather than box scores.

I brought up Marion just to illustrate that a player's rpg does not totally reflect how well that team rebounds with that player on the floor.

How badly does Bynum play the PnR anyway? I don't think he's any worse than Shaq/Yao.

Z

 
At Monday, January 19, 2009 6:38:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Z:

Why is the Yahoo! site so popular when their stats are wrong and their analysis is often wack? Go to ESPN.com, NBA.com, BasketballReference.com or any credible site and you will see that Gasol played 33 minutes (or 32:59 if you include the seconds). I'm not mad at you but I just don't understand why anyone would waste any time at that site when there are better sources for either stats or analysis.

Howard grabbed 20 rebounds, so if I discussed Bynum's specific failings in every instance I think that would make for a more detailed post than even my most hardcore readers could stomach; however, you make a good point that general statements and/or recitations of stats should be supplemented by specific examples, if possible. In general, I would say that Bynum's primary weaknesses as a rebounder are twofold--one, his conditioning is not top notch and two, he does not pursue the ball aggressively as much as he should. Obviously, those two factors are connected.

I have detailed some of Bynum's deficiencies in pick and roll defense in previous game recaps. He too often gets himself caught in no man's land, neither stopping the guard from penetrating nor recovering back to stop his man from rolling to the hoop.

It is true that many big men and many teams struggle to defend the pick and roll, as Coach D'Antoni said to me once. My point here was simply to note that a problem that you blamed on the Laker guards (guard penetration by the other team's guards) is at least partially the fault of the Lakers' bigs. Also, prior to the season many fans believed that simply inserting Bynum in the lineup would instantly solve the Lakers' problems with defense, rebounding and toughness; the reality is that matters are not quite so simple. Bynum has made a positive contribution overall but still has to improve in order to fully provide what the coaching staff expects from him--and that is clear not only from Coach Jackson's pointed comments throughout the season so far but also from the simple fact that Bynum is often not in the game during crunch time.

 
At Monday, January 19, 2009 9:29:00 AM, Blogger Joel said...

Z,

Bynum spent most of the game not boxing out and not aggressively pursuing any rebound that wasn't right in front of him. He is relying a lot on his height and length to grab rebounds, especially compared to last season when he was more active on the glass. Whether that is down to poor conditioning, lack of effort, or unwillingness to focus on his primary role with the Lakers (rebounding and paint defense) is open to debate.

 
At Monday, January 19, 2009 6:49:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In this part of the globe, games are played during office hours (and i only get to see games during weekends). Yahoo happens to have a very office friendly box-score web site. If you happen to know of a better one (as plain as possible with very little to no non-text content) that would be very helpful!

Z

 
At Tuesday, January 20, 2009 6:36:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good discussion of Bynum. David, you're on point about him being a still-developing player. I'm hoping he turns into that 20-10 guy at some point but he's still fairly raw and has missed a lot of time with injuries and what-not in his young career.

In addition to the conditioning deficiencies and lack of aggressiveness sometimes, which you aptly mentioned, his inexperience reading defenses and developing plays may factor in his occasional ineffectiveness. I think it causes him to get in foul trouble early, which limits his minutes and style of play. In essence, he's just got to get smarter and acquire more basketball wisdom. In any case, I'm very glad he's a Laker.

Luis

 
At Tuesday, January 20, 2009 2:36:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Z:

I usually go to NBA.com or ESPN.com for boxscore data. Now that ESPN.com includes the plus/minus numbers in their boxscores, though, there is almost no reason to go to NBA.com (I certainly have never visited there for the "quality" writing). I trust those boxscores to be accurate 99% of the time because they come straight from the league. The Yahoo! site is not as reliable, in my opinion.

Basketball Reference.com is also a good site, though it is not updated as quickly as the others.

 

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