Paul and West Lead Hornets to 116-105 Win Over LakersDavid West scored a career-high tying 40 points--including 15 in the fourth quarter--and grabbed 11 rebounds as the New Orleans Hornets defeated the L.A. Lakers in L.A., 116-105. West shot 14-23 from the field and 12-13 from the free throw line. This victory snapped the Lakers' 15 game home winning streak and is the Hornets' first win this season versus the Lakers after suffering two home losses to the defending Western Conference champions. Chris Paul scored 32 points and was credited with 15 assists; he also had three steals, three rebounds and no turnovers while playing a game-high 44 minutes. Paul shot 11-24 from the field and 9-9 from the free throw line. Kobe Bryant almost singlehandedly willed the Lakers to victory, scoring 39 points--including 20 in the third quarter as the Lakers came from behind to take the lead--on 14-22 field goal shooting. Bryant shot 6-7 from three point range and 5-6 from the free throw line. He also had a team-high seven assists. However, the Lakers were outrebounded 44-39 and outshot from the field .506 to .419; the Lakers other than Bryant combined to shoot just 22-64 (.344). Derek Fisher scored 19 points but shot just 6-18 from the field, while big men Pau Gasol (10 points on 3-8 shooting) and Andrew Bynum (seven points on 2-7 shooting) were invisible for most of the game. The Lakers entered the game without the services of injured reserves Jordan Farmar and Luke Walton and their depth was further eroded when Lamar Odom hyperextended his knee after scoring 12 points in just 12:39 of action. He is scheduled to receive an MRI on the knee and will miss the Lakers' game tonight versus Golden State.
This game really highlighted the skill sets of West, Paul and Bryant. One of the reasons that West is still underrated is that many people incorrectly believe that he is very dependent on Paul's passing. Obviously, every Hornet benefits from playing alongside the best point guard in the NBA but West would be a 20 ppg scorer for any team in the NBA and could in fact post an even higher scoring average if he played for a team that provided him more field goal attempts (he averages just 15.6 FGA/game). He can score with his back to the basket, he is a good driver and his jump shot is deadly. He is also an .831 free throw shooter for his career, including .891 this season.
Paul is a wondrous ballhandler and passer. It is very difficult to keep him out of the lane and almost impossible to contain him once he gets there; when Paul gets into the paint, he usually scores, draws a foul or feeds a teammate for a wide open shot. He has improved his field goal percentage each season of his career, has become a reliable three point shooter and is an outstanding free throw shooter. His passes are creative, accurate and easy to handle. Unlike Steve Nash, he is not a defensive liability. In fact, Paul is very disruptive defensively because of his quick hands and toughness. Early in his career, some of the more muscular point guards could overpower him but that is not really the case anymore. He plays with an edge, often looks like he is ticked off about something and is absolutely fearless. Detroit Coach Chuck Daly once said of his Hall of Fame point guard Isiah Thomas that if Thomas were 6-6 he'd be the best player in the NBA. Of course, Thomas was listed at 6-1 and may barely have been 6-0, much like Paul is listed at 6-0 but may be shorter than that. Paul is the best point guard in the game today and one of the top players in the league but, just like Thomas was never quite as dominant as Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan, Paul's size prevents him from being quite as dominant as Kobe Bryant or LeBron James.
Bryant was the best player in the NBA in 2006 and 2007 but the media members who vote for MVP were reluctant to acknowledge this fact. Last year, Bryant led the Lakers to the best record in the toughest Western Conference regular season race ever and the media finally awarded him his first MVP. This season, LeBron James has certainly been an MVP caliber player (as he was last season, even though he was not quite as good as Bryant) but it just seems like a lot of people are looking for excuses to not vote for Bryant. The reality is that in many ways Bryant is actually performing even better this season than he did last season and his Lakers are currently tied with James' Cavs for the best record in the NBA (27-6). Bryant is shooting a career-high .484 from the field, is shooting just .002 below his career-high free throw percentage and, after a slow start behind the arc, his three point shooting percentage (.366) is his best since 2002-03 (.383). James' field goal percentage will likely always be a bit higher than Bryant's because James is an inside player but James still cannot match Bryant's midrange, free throw or long range accuracy; James' career-high .779 free throw percentage this season would be a career low for Bryant and James' three point shooting percentage has declined for the fourth straight year. James' midrange jumper is still erratic, deadly on occasion but frequently off the mark. Bryant's scoring average is down slightly from last season but he is actually scoring more points per minute. Early in the season, Bryant gave his teammates plenty of opportunities to shoulder more of the scoring load but it has become increasingly clear that the Lakers still need a lot of scoring punch from Bryant to close out games; he leads the league with 30 games of at least 20 points and he has scored at least 25 points in 12 straight games.
Recently, it has become an annual tradition to suggest that Bryant's athleticism is beginning to decline; considering his age and the number of games that he has played that is probably true but this has yet to affect his productivity, nor has it prevented him from still making spectacular plays at both ends of the court. Near the end of this game, Rasual Butler seemed to have an uncontested fast break layup but Bryant ran him down, cleanly pinned his shot to the backboard with two hands, swept down the rebound and then dribbled down court before feeding Fisher for a three pointer. Bryant's block looked just like Michael Jordan's two handed rejection of Ron Mercer in the waning days of Jordan's career; a glimpse of that play can be seen near the end of what I have called the greatest NBA commercial of all-time.
Is Bryant as freakishly athletic, explosive and strong as James? No, but Bryant is still very, very athletic and the combination of that kind of athleticism with a basketball skill set devoid of weaknesses still makes him the game's best player.
While this game showcased the skill sets of three outstanding players, it also provided an opportunity for me to continue my research into how assists are counted by NBA scorekeepers. Last season, I noticed that Chris Paul often receives credit for assists on plays that according to the rule book should not be scored as assists (see the postscript to this post if you are not sure how assists are formally defined). I had charted Paul's assists in four games prior to this game. Charting Assists for Chris Paul and Tony Parker in New Orleans' 90-83 Victory Over San Antonio is my most recent post on this subject and it contains links to each of my previous efforts to monitor Paul's actual assists compared to the number listed in the official box scores. In those four games, there were a total of 46 plays that I charted in which Paul was credited with assists but by the correct interpretation of scorekeeping guidelines he should only have been credited with 34 assists. That is obviously a very small sample size but it is disconcerting that the league leader in this category may be getting credit for 25% more assists than he actually delivered. All four of those games were played in New Orleans, so it is reasonable to wonder if Paul benefits from a generous home town scorekeeper. To be honest, though, I don't really think that this will prove to be the case; my theory is that the general application of the correct standard for assists has been loosened and that this particularly favors players who do virtually all of the ballhandling for their teams, guys like Paul, Steve Nash and Deron Williams.
There is some statistical evidence to support the assertion that assists are awarded more generously now: as I noted in one of my earlier posts, assists were awarded on 52.2% of made field goals in the 1961-62 season but in the 2007-08 season assists were awarded on 58.4% of field goals. Why does this matter? One, it distorts the record book and results in faulty comparisons between today's playmakers and the playmakers of yesteryear. Two, these errors--combined with the subjectivity and/or inaccuracies involved in tracking other statistical categories such as rebounds, steals, blocked shots and turnovers--skew the basic data used by basketball statistical analysts and thus introduces an even higher margin of error into their player and team rankings than would otherwise exist.
I charted assists for both Paul and Bryant in this game; Paul leads the NBA in assists with an 11.6 apg average, while Bryant tops the Lakers with a 4.2 apg average. My methodology was simple and straightforward; every time Paul or Bryant made a pass that should be credited as an assist, I noted the time/situation. After the game was over, I compared my notes to the official play by play sheet. Here are the results:
Chris Paul's 15 Assists
1: Peja Stojakovic three pointer, 9:11 1st q: Correct; this was a straightforward catch and shoot play.
2: Tyson Chandler dunk, 6:20 1st q: Correct; alley-oop play.
3: David West jumper, 5:38 1st q: Incorrect; West caught the ball, dribbled twice and then made a contested jumper. He did the bulk of the work in creating the shot and thus no assist should have been awarded. It is important to remember that the last pass prior to a shot being made is not automatically worthy of being classified as an assist. Essentially, Paul gave the ball to West and West used his one on one skills to create his own shot.
4: David West turnaround fadeaway jumper, 5:12 1st q: Incorrect; just the play by play description of the shot is a good indicator that an assist should not have been awarded. West caught the ball, dribbled twice and then made a tough turnaround, fadeaway jumper. If an assist is going to be awarded on this kind of play then the statistic loses any meaning or relevance because that would mean that an assist could be awarded on virtually every made field goal.
5: Rasual Butler three pointer, 6:15 2nd q: Correct; catch and shoot.
6: David West jump shot, 5:42 2nd q: Correct; catch and shoot.
7: Devin Brown layup, :58.8 2nd q: Incorrect; Chris Paul threw a full court inbounds pass to Devin Brown, who caught the ball, took two dribbles and then scored a layup while being contested by Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher. Paul's pass was so gorgeous that I can understand the temptation to want to reward him in some way but the fact that Brown had to defeat two defenders with his individual skill set makes this assist dubious at best. There would be no question that Paul deserved an assist--regardless of the number of dribbles Brown took--if no defenders had obstructed Brown's path but once a scorer has to evade obstacles on his own then an assist really should not be awarded.
8: David West jump shot; 9:29 3rd q: Correct; catch and shoot (oddly, the play by play sheet records this shot as a layup but it actually was an elbow jumper; in any case, Paul did deserve an assist in this case).
9: Tyson Chandler layup, 9:08 3rd q: Correct; Paul's pass created the shot so well that there was minimal defensive resistance.
10: Rasual Butler fast break dunk, 8:18 3rd q: Correct; Paul's slick feed created the scoring opportunity.
11: David West jump shot, 7:45 3rd q: Correct; catch and shoot.
12: Peja Stojakovic three pointer, 4:42 3rd q: Correct; catch and shoot.
13: David West dunk, :48 3rd q: Correct; Paul's feed created the shot opportunity.
14: Rasual Butler three pointer, 7:41 4th q: Correct; catch and shoot.
15: James Posey three pointer, 5:34 4th q: Correct; catch and shoot.
Kobe Bryant's Seven Assists
1: Trevor Ariza three pointer, :23 2nd q: Correct; catch and shoot.
2: Derek Fisher three pointer, 10:16 3rd q: Correct; catch and shoot.
3: Derek Fisher three pointer, 3:18 3rd q: Correct; catch and shoot. Bryant made his first seven field goal attempts of the third quarter, so the Hornets began running a second defender at him no matter where he was on the court. In this case, Bryant was behind the three point line, but Paul just left Fisher wide open in order to trap Bryant and try to prevent him from shooting.
4: Pau Gasol slam dunk, 1:33 3rd q: Correct; Bryant elevated as if he was going to shoot a three pointer and then fired a pass to Gasol for an easy, uncontested dunk.
5: Trevor Ariza three pointer, 8:31 4th q: Correct; catch and shoot.
6: Derek Fisher three pointer, 4:36 4th q: Correct; catch and shoot.
7: Derek Fisher three pointer, :36 4th q: Correct; catch and shoot.
Paul was credited with 15 assists but he really had 12, while Bryant earned each of the seven assists for which he received credit. That means that I have now charted 61 official Paul assists, only 46 of which (75.4%) fit the rulebook definition. What difference does this make? Paul has averaged 18.5 ppg and 9.7 apg in 253 career games, so he is one of just four players (Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas are the others) to average at least 18 ppg and 9 apg in their careers--but if Paul's assist totals have really been inflated by 25% then he has actually produced 7.3 apg, not 9.7 apg. In all of the games for which I have tracked assists, I have yet to find a single instance in which Paul should have received credit for an assist but did not; the errors always fall on the side of giving too much credit.
One thing that I have found very interesting while charting Paul's assists is that Paul gets credit for assists on certain kinds of plays for which other players who make similar passes do not get credit for assists. For example, at the 11:30 mark of the third quarter, Rasual Butler passed to David West, who took three dribbles before making a jumper; when Paul has made the pass on that kind of play in the games that I have charted he almost always gets an assist but in this instance Butler did not. During the telecast, a graphic showed that Paul gets more assists on passes to West than any other playmaker in the league gets passing to any one player; second on the list is the Rajon Rondo to Kevin Garnett combination and I'm pretty sure that most of those connections are alley-oop dunks that are correctly scored as assists. I think that it would be very interesting to do a video review of each of the Paul-West plays on which assists were tallied to see how many of those assists fit the rulebook definition.
After Bryant's third assist, Lakers color commentator Stu Lantz said, "Kobe is really making it easy for other players now because they (the Hornets) are sending everybody at him." Bryant is regularly double-teamed anyway but after his 20 point third quarter explosion the Hornets changed their defensive strategy and went with a plan that was very reminiscent of what the Celtics did in last year's Finals: send waves of players at Bryant from all angles and dare any other Laker to make an open shot. The fact that this strategy can work against the Lakers even on a night when Bryant had 39 points and seven assists while shooting .636 from the field belies the description of how talented this team is supposed to be; at times--particularly in the fourth quarter--the Lakers looked like a primary school team that has one really, really good player and four other guys who are unwilling or unable to make a play. There were at least a half dozen times that Bryant drew two defenders and kicked the ball to a wide open shooter who missed; no one makes every shot that he takes but an NBA player should make a very high percentage on wide open, uncontested shots. Lantz said point blank that other than Bryant the Lakers do not have anyone who can create a shot for himself or his teammates. Granted, the injured Odom may have been able to help somewhat in that regard but, frankly, I don't trust him in clutch situations and you only have to look at last year's Finals to understand why.
Bryant usually rests at the end of the third quarter and/or the early portion of the fourth quarter but after Bryant's third quarter effort rallied the Lakers from a 77-69 deficit to a 92-85 lead Coach Phil Jackson was not about to take Bryant out of the game. The Hornets closed the margin to 92-89 by the end of the third quarter. Bryant played the first 3:29 of the fourth quarter before heading to the bench with the Lakers leading 99-94; he was only out of the game for 1:21 before Jackson had to put him back in after the Hornets went on a 7-0 run. This is where plus/minus numbers can be deceptive. Bryant had a -8 plus/minus number for the game, which is less than the margin of defeat but still obviously a negative number; what that number does not convey is the nature of momentum in an NBA game. Bryant is not a robot, nor are the other nine players on the court; once momentum shifts, it is not so easy to regain it. In his great book "Those Who Love the Game," Doc Rivers wrote about how frustrated he would get as a player when he played good defense and shut an opponent down only to see that player get hot when someone subbed in for Rivers; Rivers lamented about how difficult it was to cool that player down again. What happened to the Lakers in the fourth quarter versus the Hornets is analogous to the situation that Rivers described; the Hornets got rolling as soon as Bryant left the game and then once Bryant returned he was unable to stem the tide. One other consideration that must be mentioned--and that surely factored into Coach Jackson's thinking--is that if he played Bryant straight through with no rest at all then Bryant may have become fatigued and lost some effectiveness. Still, after the game, NBA TV commentator Gary Payton immediately singled out the brief time that Bryant sat out as the turning point in the contest.
I have quoted this material before, but in case you do not know how the NBA officially defines an assist, this paragraph was posted at NBA.com in 2002:
An assist is a pass that directly leads to a basket. This can be a pass to the low post that leads to a direct score, a long pass for a layup, a fast break pass to a teammate for a layup, and/or a pass that results in an open perimeter shot for a teammate. In basketball, an assist is awarded only if, in the judgement of the statistician, the last player's pass contributed directly to a made basket. An assist can be awarded for a basket scored after the ball has been dribbled if the player's pass led to the field goal being made.
posted by David Friedman @ 7:46 AM