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Saturday, May 01, 2010

Los Angeles Versus Utah Preview

Western Conference Second Round

#1 L.A. Lakers (57-25) vs. #5 Utah (53-29)

Season series: L.A. Lakers, 3-1

Utah can win if…Deron Williams performs at an MVP level, Carlos Boozer and the other Utah bigs are able to be effective inside despite the length of L.A.'s bigs and the Jazz find a way to hold Kobe Bryant below 26-28 ppg on .450 field goal shooting without compromising their overall team defense to the extent that other Lakers get easy looks.

L.A. will win because…the Jazz have no one who can effectively match up with Bryant, so they will constantly have to double team him; that will open things up for Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum inside and/or the Lakers' perimeter shooters. The Jazz' undersized and injury-depleted frontcourt will also have trouble dealing with the Lakers' length--provided that Gasol and Bynum play with poise and appropriate aggressiveness.

Other things to consider: Utah's only win versus the Lakers this season came in the game after Bryant suffered his infamous broken right index finger; Bryant shot just 7-24 from the field in the second game of a back to back and the Jazz won 102-94 at home. The last time these teams faced each other in the postseason was in the first round of the 2009 playoffs; Bryant averaged 27.4 ppg on .466 field goal shooting plus 5.6 apg and 5.0 rpg as the Lakers cruised to a five game series victory. When the Lakers and Jazz faced each other in the second round of the 2008 playoffs, Bryant averaged 33.2 ppg on .491 field goal shooting plus 7.2 apg and 7.0 rpg as the Lakers won in six games. Bryant set the tone right from the start in that series with 38 points in a 109-98 game one victory and the Lakers were never seriously threatened as the Jazz had no answer for Bryant--and they still have no one on their roster who can effectively check him.

Bryant struggled at times with his shot during the Lakers' six game win over the Oklahoma City Thunder--averaging 23.5 ppg on .408 field goal shooting--but he came up big in the decisive game with 32 points on 12-25 field goal shooting. That is the sixth straight time that Bryant has scored at least 30 points in a potential closeout game on the road, tying Elgin Baylor's NBA record and topping Michael Jordan's streak of five straight such games from 1988-90. Before the series I said that the Lakers would be in serious danger of losing unless Bryant scored 26-28 ppg while shooting at least .450 from the field but the Lakers managed to advance even though Bryant fell short of both of those benchmarks. How did they do it? Bryant was off target in game one (team-high 21 points but only 6-19 shooting) but Kevin Durant shot even worse (24 points on 7-24 shooting) thanks to Ron Artest's suffocating defense, so the Lakers got an important win (despite what you may hear or believe, game one is very significant and the team that wins that game usually wins a series). Bryant had a series-high 39 points in game two and although his overall field goal percentage was less than optimal (12-28, .429), he controlled the game in the fourth quarter and carried the Lakers to victory. The Thunder bounced back in games three and four as Bryant first shot poorly (24 points on 12-29 shooting in game three) and then did not shoot enough (12 points on 5-10 shooting in game four). Game five proved to be the pivotal contest and Bryant did something that I did not expect considering how much his right knee has been limiting his bounce: Bryant took the challenge of guarding lightning quick point guard Russell Westbrook and completely disrupted the one player no other Laker could guard. This is actually a pretty standard move for Coach Phil Jackson--dating back to when Jackson put Scottie Pippen on point guards like Magic Johnson and Mark Jackson to cut off the head of the snake during the Bulls' championship runs in the 1990s--but I did not even mention this potential adjustment in my series preview simply because I did not think that in his current condition Bryant would be up to the task. Bryant's Pippen-like performance in game five--dominating a game with defense and playmaking despite not scoring much (13 points on 4-9 shooting)--shifted the series in the Lakers' favor and then Bryant closed out the deal in game six with his best all-around performance of the series.

All season long media critics have been carping that the Lakers made a mistake when they essentially swapped Trevor Ariza for Ron Artest but in the first round we saw just how valuable Artest is as a one on one, lock down defender versus elite scorers; Ariza used his strength and savvy to force 2010 scoring champion Durant into a miserable series (25.0 ppg on .350 field goal shooting, including 26 points on 5-23 field goal shooting in the clincher). Ariza is great at playing the passing lanes but he lacks the strength and overall defensive ability to do what Artest did to Durant; Ariza is a very solid role player who performed well for the Lakers in a limited, specified role last season (spot up three point shooter, rangy defender in the passing lanes) but Artest is a former Defensive Player of the Year/All-Star who can have a bigger impact on a game than Ariza can.

It sure is nice to be Pau Gasol; although he did good work on the glass in game six (18 rebounds) versus the Thunder, Gasol had shot just 3-10 from the field--looking tentative and off balance--before converting the game-winning putback of Kobe Bryant's missed baseline jumper: Gasol had a wide open path to the front of the rim because Nick Collison slid over to contest Bryant's shot. That kind of play is exactly what I mean when I say that Gasol is so fortunate to play with Bryant; during the first 47:59.5 of that game we got a pretty good sense of how much trouble the Lakers would be in if they needed Gasol to be the first option offensively in a closeout game--but Bryant's ability to draw double teams provides easy scoring opportunities for Gasol. When he is at his best, Gasol exploits those opportunities but--as Artest put it after the game--during game six Gasol "fell asleep" at times but fortunately for the Lakers he woke up literally at the last second to save the day. If the Lakers are going to return to the NBA Finals for the third straight year it is imperative that Gasol take more advantage of similar easy opportunities throughout the upcoming games, particularly since Bryant's injuries appear to be preventing him from dominating offensively to the extent that he usually does.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:44 AM

22 comments

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22 Comments:

At Saturday, May 01, 2010 12:28:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

Actually, the last time the Lakers and Jazz faced each other in the postseason was 2009 (not 2008).

As I said in a previous post, if Kobe fails to score 26+ on .450 shooting, I think the Lakers can be vulnerable to a peaking team, but they still have a decent chance to make it back to the Finals. (In fact, I'd still favor the Lakers to do so as long as Bryant can manage to shoot in .400+.) You were a lot more absolute in asserting that the Lakers WILL be eliminated if Kobe fails to produce at the levels you outlined. Of course, in this post, you accurately point out all the other things Kobe did to help the Lakers win the series despite subpar offensive numbers. But Kobe is a great player, and he finds ways to impact the game, even when his numbers are down. My prediction of what would happen if Kobe struggled with his shot was made with this understanding.

Of course, the Lakers still have two more rounds to go, so we'll see what happens. But the Jazz don't match up well with the Lakers. The Spurs are the only team left in the West who have a real shot at beating the Lakers. I'm surprised by how good Tony Parker looks after all his injuries. I thought it would take him longer to get back in rhythm, but it looks like the time off helped. I wonder if Ginobili's nose will not heal until after the season, and if that will become an issue. He's struggled with his shot since breaking it, but it might not matter if he keeps driving to the basket.

 
At Saturday, May 01, 2010 1:23:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

MARCEL

the lakers had too much for thunder even when kobe didnt play well the thunder only clearly won game 4 they were down after 3 quarters in game 3 by 5 late in fourth and came back because lakers were bored and complacent. got blown out in 5 1 and 2 were close games because the lakers dont bring it all the time you never thought the thunder could win this series artest played good d on durant and westbrook killed them but they overcame mainly because of kobe and pau mainly kobe greatness in closeout game.

vs utah kobe shouldnt have as much trouble as he did with durant a little bit utah has no size and not as athletic as thunder are really the game will be one in the trenches pau averaged 18 12 vs thunder if he does that vs utah and bynum get 12 and 9 that is 27 21 combined theyll be in good shape kobe should get around 25ppg.

denver had its best season in franchise last year they had finals aspiration get to the playoffs and win 2 games? dissapointing for them and dallas also won 2 games i didnt see that happening. thought denver second round dallas conference finals i think the road is easier for lakers now denver beat them 3 out of 4 in reg season and gave them alot of trouble in conference finals last year. dallas had size and team to match up with l;akers i dont think utah they too small and spurs can they hold up long enough too push lakers dont think so pau polays well vs duncan as well.

david youre not watching the mosley mayweather fight tonight who you got.

 
At Saturday, May 01, 2010 3:14:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

In my haste to complete this post, I left out a sentence about the Lakers-Jazz series in 2009; that sentence has now been added.

I said that the Lakers would lose if Bryant did not shoot significantly better than the .300 that he shot in April and that I thought that the Thunder would have good chances if he did not shoot at least .450. Bryant did improve significantly over .300 but he did not reach .450 and the Thunder did have their opportunities. As I mentioned, Bryant took over offensively in two of the wins and took over with his playmaking and defense in the other win; I think that the Lakers were very fortunate to win game one considering Kobe's shooting percentage in that game.

 
At Saturday, May 01, 2010 3:18:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Marcel:

The Lakers did not have "too much" for the Thunder when Kobe shot poorly; the Lakers lost those games (except for game one) and they would have lost the series except for Kobe taking over offensively in game two, defensively in game five and with his all-around game in the series clincher. I don't trust Pau Gasol in the clutch as a first offensive option, so it is imperative for the Lakers that Kobe not only scores reasonably efficiently but that he also creates easier shots for Gasol and others.

Regarding your off topic question, I do not plan to watch the fight and have no prediction about who will win.

 
At Sunday, May 02, 2010 5:51:00 AM, Anonymous Smaddy said...

David,

While you do mention Utah's bigs needing to find a way to be effective as one of the keys to a possible Utah victory, can you elaborate?

To me, one of the interesting factors with Utah, in a strange way especially without Okur, is that they have some bigs that appear capable of giving the bigger, longer but less physical bigs of LA trouble. Millsap particularly comes to mind as a player that might be able to use some strength and a lower center of gravity to push Pau or Odom a bit further out and limit offensive boards. While Boozer does not primarily make his living in the post, he's also a sturdy, strong guy who if he chose to, could also be more physical than any of the LA bigs. Limiting offensive rebounds, dominating the defensive boards and getting Deron out on the run to torment Fisher sounds like a good recipe for a Utah victory imo.

 
At Sunday, May 02, 2010 5:47:00 PM, Blogger Bhel Atlantic said...

David,
You didn't mention Shannon Brown in this post but I just want to make a comment. More than once, you have derided Shannon Brown as "no better than the 15th man on Cleveland's 2007 team" (or something along those lines), thus suggesting that the Lakers' bench in 2010 is quite poor. However, whenever I watch Lakers games, I see Brown scrapping for loose balls and hitting clutch shots. Obviously it is possible for a player to thrive in a different environment. Also, Brown was a rookie in 2007 and has improved with time.

Note, I am not particularly a Lakers fan.

 
At Sunday, May 02, 2010 10:20:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Smaddy:

Boozer and Millsap have to be very active and use their quickness to counteract the size advantage of the Lakers' bigs. The problem, as TNT's Kenny Smith pointed out, is that the Lakers' bigs are not only long but they are mobile; usually, Boozer and Millsap would have a mobility advantage against taller opponents but in this instance that is not necessarily the case. This is just not a very good matchup for the Jazz and that reality is reflected in the Lakers' dominant record versus Utah in recent seasons. That said, if Kobe does not perform at a high level then the Jazz have a chance because Utah is a potent and disciplined offensive team. The Jazz play hard and they will likely keep most of the games close. On ESPN Radio, Will Perdue made the interesting point that this could turn out to be a 4-1 series for the Lakers in which every game goes down to the wire.

 
At Sunday, May 02, 2010 10:43:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Bhel Atlantic:

I am not deriding Shannon Brown; I am simply stating the facts: he was the 15th man on Cleveland's 2007 team that advanced to the NBA Finals and if he were on their roster now he likely would have a similar role. Brown would not receive playing time over Mo Williams, Anthony Parker and Delonte West and it is debatable whether he would play ahead of Gibson (that would be a choice based on offensive/defensive matchups, since Gibson is a much better shooter while Brown is more athletic and a better defensive player).

On a per minute basis, Brown is essentially the same player now that he was in 2007--his per game stats have increased because he gets a lot more playing time with the Lakers.

My larger point is that the Cavs are so deep that they have quality players who are buried deeply on their bench--and this has been true for a while even though some people act like the Cavs only recently became a deep team. The Cavs have been deep and then this year they became ridiculously deep. During last year's playoffs (i.e., before the Cavs acquired Shaq, Jamison, Parker and Moon), Mike Fratello noted that the Cavs had 10 players who had started playoff games for Cleveland and/or another franchise.

In contrast, the Lakers had decent depth back in 2007-08--though not as much depth as some people suggested--but trades, injuries and declining skills have made their bench very suspect. Early this season, Coach Jackson said that watching his bench players perform made him want to vomit. Brown is getting playing time not because he has improved so much or because he is a great bench player (he is solid) but because Jackson simply has no other viable options.

 
At Monday, May 03, 2010 12:30:00 PM, Blogger Bhel Atlantic said...

You make a good point. The Cavs have continued to pick up promising rookies (Jawad Williams, Hickson, Danny Green) to add depth even as the team has developed into a dominant world-beater. The Lakers made good draft picks in the first few years after trading Shaq (Vujacic, Bynum, Farmar). But their 2007 and 2008 first-round picks went to Memphis in the Gasol trade, and then they traded their 2009 pick to the Knicks for future considerations. Seems like Dr. Buss has become a bit of a cheapskate.

Oh, and I think the Cavs would not have needed to sign Anthony Parker last summer if, in a counterfactual thought experiment, they had 2009-vintage Shannon Brown.

 
At Monday, May 03, 2010 1:58:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Bhel Atlantic:

The Cavs have definitely drafted well, especially considering the low position they have had in the drafts because of their good won/loss records in recent years.

Bynum has turned out to be a good draft pick but Vujacic is a first round selection who fell out of the regular rotation this season even before he got hurt. In that same draft (2004), Anderson Varejao and Beno Udrih were picked after Vujacic. Farmar was also a first round pick (ironically, just one selection after Shannon Brown). The Lakers could have drafted Daniel Gibson, Paul Millsap or Leon Powe.

It is not fair to call Buss cheap. He does not have the financial resources that many other NBA owners have but he went over the luxury tax threshold to re-sign Odom. The Lakers, like most contending teams who own late first round picks, do not want to have to pay guaranteed first round money to players who likely cannot crack their rotations at this time; it is just good business sense (and basketball sense) to trade those assets.

There is no way that the Cavs would prefer to have Brown over Parker. Parker is bigger, he is a better and more consistent defender, he has been a starter for playoff teams in the NBA and in a pinch he can even play point guard. My "counterfactual thought experiment" is that other than Lamar Odom the Lakers do not have a single bench player who would be in the top 10 of the Cavs' rotation, let alone among the eight players who actually are getting playing time in the playoffs.

 
At Monday, May 03, 2010 4:33:00 PM, Anonymous Luis said...

Again the Gasol-bashing... David neglects the fact that Kobe benefits from Gasol's presence as well as Gasol benefitting from Kobe's. Double teams on Gasol, concern with Gasol's offensive rebounding (second best in the playoffs so far, 4th best in the regular season) etc etc. Case in point: Kobe makes two very slightly contested layups yesterday against the Jazz while Gasol's defender stays on him to prevent the alley oop.

Gasol's passing (one of the top 2 or 3 big men in assists per game) also contributes to opening the defense and creates space for others, including Bryant. Plus Gasol gives them good (not great) defense and blocking ability which facilitates fast breaks. This may well be why the Kobe-led Lakers were a lowly team before Gasol got there and have been a top 2-3 team ever since. Or why there is a marked difference between the Lakers' record with and without Gasol since he is with the team (don't have the numbers here, but I'm sure that David does).

Kobe is certainly a better player than Gasol and also a better closer. But the idea that one of the best 2/3 big men in the game, a perennial 20/10 player with abundant intangibles and high basketball IQ can be disregarded as a mere sideshow to the almighty Kobe isn't grounded on reality. Grouping him with Bynum at this stage is ridiculous -there is much greater distance in performance between these two than between Kobe and Gasol

 
At Tuesday, May 04, 2010 6:16:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Luis:

I am not "bashing" Gasol; that refrain has become very tiresome and this is the last time that I will respond to any comment in that vein that does not offer specific refutations of logical points that I have made.

I gave Gasol the nod as an All-NBA Second Teamer last year (he made the Third Team in the official balloting) and I would have considered him for Third Team honors this season if he had not missed so many games due to injury; I think that a player should participate in at least 65 games or so to make the All-NBA Team and Gasol was right on that cut line this year but his lack of durability served as a tiebreaker for me when comparing his 2010 impact to Tim Duncan's.

I have great respect for Gasol's talents but I also objectively point out his limitations. He clearly has benefited--in the ways that I have meticulously described on several occasions--from playing with Kobe, while it is just as clear that Kobe could score productively and efficiently without Gasol's presence; Kobe won two scoring titles and carried two undermanned teams to the playoffs before Gasol arrived in L.A.

The stat about L.A.'s record since Gasol joined the team is deceptive when taken out of context; naturally, the Lakers became better when they replaced Kwame Brown with Gasol. What do you think Memphis' record would have been if the Grizzlies had somehow kept Gasol and then added Kobe? In my article about the Lakers' "three seasons" I point out that the team had emerged as a contender even before the Gasol trade and that Bryant even kept them afloat during the timeframe when neither Bynum nor Gasol was on the roster.

Also, please don't exaggerate: Gasol has never actually been a 20-10 player and in nine seasons he only came reasonably close to that mark once (20.8 ppg, 9.8 rpg in 2006-07), so he hardly qualifies as a "perennial 20-10" performer. Gasol's field goal percentage and offensive rebounding rates have both soared since joining the Lakers. If you know basketball then you realize that players rarely improve in those statistical categories when they are at Gasol's age/experience level (rebounding and shooting percentages tend to decline because players become less athletic as they get older). Gasol's numbers have gone up not because he intrinsically improved but rather because he has benefited from the extra defensive attention that Kobe draws. Does this mean that Gasol cannot have a high percentage shooting game or a 20 rebound game without Bryant? Of course not--but over the course of an 82 game season or a 20-plus game playoff run Gasol benefits enormously from Bryant's presence. It is a lot easier to make an uncontested layup as a game-winning shot than to be the player who starts out with the ball on the play and faces an entire defense geared to stop him.

 
At Wednesday, May 05, 2010 6:00:00 PM, Anonymous Luis said...

David

Gasol is admittedly not a 20/10 man, he is more accurately a 19/9 career guy. And, contrary to your assertion, he has definitely improved significantly many aspects of his game in the last couple of years, including several that cannot be attributed to Kobe, such as post moves, defense, free throws and defensive rebounding. Anybody who has seriously followed the guy knows this. It´s definitely not only shooting % and offensive rebounding, where could be a "Kobe effect". Incidentally, Gasol´s FG% has steadily decreased from that peak in 07-08 after joining the Lakers and is now close to his career average, which may indicate that the effect lasted until defenses started concentrating more on Gasol -and making life easier for his teammates.

This is the point that you seem to be missing when you imply that Gasol has had no effect on Kobe´s performance. Many Laker plays start with getting the ball to Gasol and letting the defense react. Gasol is rarely left one on one, and the frequent double teams allow other Lakers to benefit, including -yes- Kobe Bryant himself; not in the sense of being able to shoot comfortably or alone(that´s the privilege of Artest and Fisher) but certainly in the sense of creating defensive imbalances, and seams for Kobe to exploit. Introducing a major low post threat in the system helps everybody in the team, almost by definition.

In the same vein, pick and rolls with Gasol (when the Lakers do them, apparently less frequently this season) are not the same as pick and rolls with Bynum or indeed with Kwame Brown. Having a skilled big man picking and rolling allows many more options for the guard in this play, which means easier scoring opportunities and more trips to the foul line. All this should be uncontroversial for anyone watching Laker games.

Individual statistics tell part of the story, but only part. Gasol is clearly a much better player than in 07-08 and is now in his prime, so part of his statistical improvement would have happened even in the absence of Kobe. Conversely, Kobe is a couple of years past his prime, though holding up pretty nicely. It could well be that receiving a qualified teammate in 07-08 has allowed him to maintain his statistics when they would otherwise have deteriorated, due to age and his substantial mileage.

As regards the Lakers record, you are referring to the comparison between pre- and post-Gasol, I was referring to the post-Gasol era (record in games in which he has played vs games in which he hasn´t). The difference is stunning and I´m pretty sure it has something to do with Gasol´s huge value to the team.

Again, I´m not comparing Kobe and Gasol (Kobe is a couple of steps above him, as a player and as a closer). Nor am I saying that Gasol doesn´t have weaknesses as a player (occasional softness and defensive lapses among others). What I am saying is that there is a symbiotic relationship here that has benefitted both Gasol and Kobe (and, more importantly, the team) in a major way, and not just an asymmetric one that has helped Gasol while leaving everything else equal. Again, this should be uncontroversial and has been acknowledged by Kobe several times. Your defense of this idea is a case of being "more popist than the pope".

 
At Thursday, May 06, 2010 5:06:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Luis:

You said that Gasol is a "perennial" 20-10 player, which would mean that he averages 20 ppg and 10 rpg every season (or at least nearly every season); the truth is that he has never accomplished this feat even once.

The only statistical areas in which Gasol has demonstrated significant improvement as a Laker are FG% and offensive rebounding. He posted his career high in free throw shooting in his last full season in Memphis and he developed his repertoire of post moves some time ago. Gasol's defense has improved somewhat, a factor that can be attributed to Phil Jackson's coaching and the example that Bryant sets as a defensive-minded player who is a perennial member of the All-Defensive Team. Bryant's defense played a key role for Team USA in the 2008 Olympics, Andrew Bynum told me that Bryant helped him immensely defensively and there is no doubt that he has similarly helped Gasol in that regard.

Gasol's FG% has not "steadily decreased." It increased to a career-high level as soon as he teamed up with Kobe and has remained well above his Memphis standard since that time. It is very unusual for a player's FG% to improve that dramatically at this stage of his career. Gasol shot .589 down the stretch as a Laker in 2007-08 (after shooting .501 in the first portion of that season while playing for Memphis) and then shot .567 in 2008-09, his first full season as a Laker. Gasol was a bit banged up this year and that, more than anything else, explains his .536 FG%--which still exceeds his FG% in all but one of his seasons in Memphis. A healthy Gasol in this year's playoffs is shooting .553 from the field so far and anyone who has watched those playoff games with understanding knows that Bryant has spoonfed Gasol numerous easy shots. Gasol is also the playoff leader in offensive rebounds, a direct result of the extra defensive attention that Bryant attracts.

 
At Thursday, May 06, 2010 5:08:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Luis:

I never said that Gasol "has had no effect on Kobe's performance," so I will not waste my time addressing your straw man argument. In my Lakers' game recaps since Gasol joined the team I have painstakingly and accurately described exactly how both players help each other and I have said that the Lakers' best offensive set is the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll action.

There is not a statistically significant sample of games that Gasol missed to accurately ascertain his value purely by looking at the Lakers' record in those games; for that methodology to be valid you have to take into account which other players sat out those games, the home/road split, the records of the opposing teams, back to back scenarios (as opposed to one team being well rested) and many other factors. In my aforementioned article about the Lakers' three seasons I did not merely cite won/loss records but I actually looked at such factors.

Of course Kobe has praised Gasol and well he should. Who would not prefer to run screen/roll actions with Gasol as opposed to Kwame Brown? What sense would it make for Kobe to come out and say that he is the best player on the team and that the way he plays makes things easier for Gasol? For one thing, that should be obvious to anyone who is unbiased and who understands the games. For another thing, it would hardly build team chemistry for Kobe to make such a statement. The significant and meaningful quotes to consider are the ones that Phil Jackson has said about the need for Gasol to be more aggressive and to show more toughness; also note what Bryant said about Gasol earlier this season: "Pau's too nice. He's too nice of a guy. And he's so intelligent I think he thinks too much...I told him that, 'You're very intelligent, highly intelligent, and I think that's working against you right now because you're thinking about things too much. Just go out there and just let it hang out.'" Gasol's temperament and skill set make him well suited to be the second option behind Bryant but I cannot see Gasol being the best player on an NBA championship team; Gasol does not want to play in a crowd on a regular basis and does not have the mentality to shoulder the load that Bryant has carried for years. Sure, Gasol can be the first option for stretches of time during a game or even for an entire game here or there, but he is more comfortable as the second option, much as Odom is much more suited to being the third (or fourth) option than he is to being the second option.

 
At Friday, May 07, 2010 3:28:00 PM, Anonymous Luis said...

OK David. Thanks for your comments, we obviously disagree.

I will just observe that you have the wrong numbers for Gasol's FT%. His last full season with the Grizzlies (06-07) he hit .748, and that is not his peak. In 07-08 and thereafter, he has been in the very high .70s or even at .80 since 07-08. This improvement in the last three seasons makes him a pretty good FT shooter for a big man.


"It's easy being Pau Gasol" because he plays with Kobe, you say. "It's easy being Kobe" because we now plays with Gasol, one could also say if one were in putdown mode. Let's see how it would go.

"It's easy being Kobe Bryant: after three uninspiring seasons with you as leader of the Lakers, your team receives one of the league's best 10 big men in a lopsided trade. The potential of this player becomes obvious once he is out of the mediocre Memphis team. Your team is automatically turned from a middling team with a good third of a season in 07-08, into a championship contender.

This very good addition to the team becomes even better as the new player improves in several aspects of his game (post moves, free throws, defense, defensive rebounding); notably defense, where in the most important games (NBA finals) he does a good job on Kevin Garnett and Dwight Howard, something no one else in the Lakers roster could have done. All this, to the point of being widely considered one of the best 3 big men in the league. This assessment does not come from uninformed fans taking a superficial look at stats; instead, it is shared by most coaches, who are obviously trained in separating the (undoubted) exogenous improvement in the numbers that comes from playing with Kobe from the intrinsic improvement in a player's performance.

This player also gives some balance to a team that has long been too Kobe-centric and gives numerous additional options to the team on offense, helping both Kobe and the role players, especially spot-up 3-pt shooters. The result is a very significant and permanent jump in the Lakers record, who thereupon become the best team of the last three seasons.

Therefore, while other major superstars (Wade, James) have to carry their teams on their shoulders for long stretches, you can share the burden and remain fresh for the closing moments of the games, when you are most needed. While they have somewhat-good-to-mediocre teammates, you enjoy the company of one of the best 3 post players in the game, making the Lakers the only team (with the possible exception of Phoenix) with two top 3 players in two positions.

Thus, despite having passed your prime physically, you are able to maintain the efficiency of your game and win X championships (at least one) in the latter part of your career.

It's easy being Kobe Bryant."

 
At Saturday, May 08, 2010 1:40:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Luis:

You are correct that Gasol shot .748 (his second best FT% at that point) in his last full season in Memphis; he then shot .819 in 37 games with Memphis in 2007-08 before being traded to L.A. and shooting .789 the rest of the way. He has stayed around the latter figure in the two seasons since that time. So my general point is correct: he improved his FT% before he joined the Lakers (i.e., in his last half season with Memphis) and there has not been significant progress in that category since that time, which contradicts your assertion.

Your fairy tale about Bryant is very misleading--in fact, it is tendentious, deliberately obscuring the truth. You completely leave out the part of Kobe's career when he established himself as an All-NBA First Teamer and All-Defensive Team member while winning three championships--feats that Gasol has yet to match even now. Then, after the Lakers traded Shaq and rebuilt around Kobe he kept the team relevant in the highly competitive West by winning two scoring titles and leading the team to the playoffs twice despite having no bench and despite playing alongside three starters who would not have started for any other playoff team in the league at that time (Kwame Brown, Smush Parker, Luke Walton). Despite the fact that the Lakers were woefully undermanned they pushed the Suns to seven games in 2006 and won a total of four playoff games in 2006 and 2007.

In contrast, Gasol had yet to win a single playoff game prior to joining forces with Kobe. Gasol had made the All-Star team once in six full seasons; since teaming up with Kobe, Gasol has made the All-Star team twice and earned his first two All-NBA selections. Gasol's defense in the 2008 Finals was awful; Gasol was soft and he was obviously intimidated by Garnett and Perkins. Phil Jackson called him out publicly about this. Your description of that part of Gasol's career is 100% pure fiction. The major reason that the Lakers lost the 2008 Finals is that Gasol was so soft as a second option that the Celtics could get away with their strategy of throwing five guys at Kobe and daring anyone else to beat them. To Gasol's credit, he heeded the criticisms of Jackson and Bryant and did a much better job in the 2009 Finals--but don't forget that Kobe was the dominant player in that series, winning the Finals MVP award.

 
At Saturday, May 08, 2010 1:40:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Luis:

The Lakers were not a "middling" team before Gasol arrived; their record was 30-16, which projects to 54 wins over a full season. Kobe was in the process of proving that he could lead a team to contending status with young Bynum at center and the inconsistent Odom at power forward.

I have already refuted your contention that Gasol improved his skill set across the board. He is, in fact, essentially the same player that he was in Memphis, but the game is easier for him because Kobe draws double teams, ensuring that the opposing team cannot focus on Gasol. The only categories in which Gasol has improved are FG% and offensive rebounding, areas in which Kobe's direct impact are quite clear.

When Wade won a championship he had the best center in the league at that time (All-NBA First Teamer Shaquille O'Neal) plus a deep supporting cast including Haslem, Mourning, Posey, Walker, etc. Wade did not singlehandedly carry the Heat, though he did of course have an epic performance in the Finals (much like Kobe did in 2009).

LeBron has the deepest team in the NBA this year and had one of the deepest--if not the deepest--teams in the NBA last year. Do we really need to compare Kobe's supporting cast from 2005-2007 with those two teams?

While it is reasonable to suspect that Kobe is "past his prime physically," the truth is that this year despite numerous injuries he was still a nearly unanimous All-NBA First Team selection and a member of the All-Defensive First Team, accolades that Gasol has yet to earn. Contrary to what you state, the media and the coaches clearly recognize that Kobe is a superior player to Gasol.

Being traded to the Lakers lifted Gasol from the obscurity of being a one-time All-Star whose teams annually got swept in the playoffs (and who were headed for a disastrous season in 2008 even before trading Gasol) to being a player who likely will receive serious Hall of Fame consideration when his career is over. It is no exaggeration to say that joining forces with Kobe saved Gasol's career and significantly changed his life, while Kobe was already established as a first ballot HoFer.

 
At Monday, May 10, 2010 7:51:00 PM, Anonymous Luis said...

David, a couple of quick points and I'll leave it.

FT%: your assertion that Gasol was already at his peak in FT% prior to joining the Lakers, based on 27 games with the Grizzlies in 07-08, is frankly unworthy of you. 20-something games does not a season make, regardless of whether you change teams thereafter. That much we should agree on.

My point, which clearly stands, is that Gasol has improved his FT shooting in the second half of his career, mostly with the Lakers. He´s gone from a FT% in the low70s (average for a post player) to one in the very high70s (pretty good for a post player). Proving -there are other examples, such as defense and defensive rebounding- that he is getting better on his own, regardless of any on-the-court "Kobe effects".

You seem to be confused between reality and fiction re the 07-08 Finals. I will try to help: Gasol´s defense on Garnett during the 07-08 finals was, on the whole, more than adequate. Garnett was held to a low FG% (.42 vs .54 in the regular season) and had three very shabby shooting games (shooting 9-22, 7-19 and 6-21 respectively) while being hounded by Gasol. Gasol did have two bad defensive games, including the terrible last game of the series, which led to the admonition by Jackson. Indeed, the duel Garnett-Gasol was played close to a tie, something few people would have expected before the Finals, given that Gasol was new to the finals and Garnett was an established star near his prime. It´s true that Gasol was somewhat short in intensity and stamina, but his performance on the whole (.53 FG%, 14.6 ppg, 9.9 rpg) was fully up to par for a first-timer.

Gasol´s defense on Howard in the 2009 finals was very good and a key element in the Lakers victory. Very few post players in the league have defended Howard that aptly, much less in several consecutive games. Bynum certainly could not have provided that level of defense in his dreams. And it is more than questionable whether the Lakers would have won that championship (and Kobe his only no-Shaq championship) without having effectively taken out this extremely important piece in the Magic offense.

You insist that, when reading the statistics, we should put in context Gasol´s improvement in FG% and offensive rebounding, since the game is complex and who you play with is very important. I agree, but you seem to disagree with yourself when you disregard the very obvious ways in which that principle applies to Kobe, who has received an extremely skilled low post man and is enjoying the benefits, individually and collectively. The collective part is easy to prove, you only have to compare the Lakers with Gasol and pre-Gasol; or their record with and without Gasol after his arrival. As regards Gasol´s influence on Kobe individually, I gave you some specific examples in previous messages of how Kobe profits directly from Gasol´s presence; I could give you many more.

Statistics tell only part of the story. Which is why the great majority of coaches and informed observers consider Gasol 2010 to be a much better version of Gasol 2007, despite several of his statistics being roughly similar (and some of the small improvements attributable to playing in a much better team). Not because they are unaware of the limitations of statistics as a measurement of player performance, but precisely BECAUSE they are aware of them.

This is my point, and not to compare Kobe and Gasol, since as I have explained I consider Kobe to be a couple of steps above Gasol as a player.

Thanks for the responses

 
At Tuesday, May 11, 2010 6:27:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Luis:

I don't understand your fascination with Gasol's FT% or what this has to do with the larger overall issues concerning Gasol but Gasol shot .819 in 39 (not 27) games with Memphis in 2007-08 before shooting .789 in 27 games with the Lakers that season. He shot .781 in 2009 and .790 in 2010. Clearly, the major increase (from low to mid .700s to high .700s/low .800s) took place during his final season in Memphis and he has maintained that percentage since that time. By the way, FT% is one of the few statistical categories in which players tend to improve as their careers progress, in contrast to categories like rebounding, steals and blocked shots, three areas in which players tend to peak early and then decline as they lose some of their athleticism. That is why it is so anomalous that Gasol's FG% and offensive rebounding went up so dramatically as soon as he joined the Lakers; this is not a "normal" progression but the prime reason that Gasol's numbers went up in those categories is that he gets easier scoring opportunities and more free runs at the rim because of all of the defensive attention that Bryant receives.

Gasol's shot blocking rates and steals rates have not improved as a Laker. His defensive rebounds per minute average actually declined in the portion of 2007-08 that he spent with the Lakers and then bounced back to around his career norm in 2008-09. He did establish a career high in that category this season, though only slightly above the mark that he posted in 2006-07 with Memphis. I explained in a previous comment that Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant have clearly affected Gasol's thinking and performance at that end of the court.

Regardless of how you try to spin things, there is no denying the reality that on a per minute basis Gasol is essentially the same player now that he was in Memphis with the exception of his offensive rebounding rate and his field goal percentage.

I see no point in continuing to respond to your historical revisionism, particularly when you refuse to acknowledge that I have refuted every point that you have made about Bryant's career and Gasol's career but I must emphasize again that Gasol's overall play in the 2008 NBA Finals was ineffective. He was soft and tentative at both ends of the court. The Celtics outrebounded the Lakers by five rpg and Gasol's numbers declined markedly from his regular season production. It was obvious that he was intimidated by KG and Perkins.

Your "cause/effect" reasoning is not convincing at all. The truth is that the Lakers would have "collectively" improved by replacing Kwame Brown with virtually any center in the NBA. As I noted, the Lakers were on pace to win over 50 games with a young, inexperienced Bynum at center even before the Gasol acquisition; the Lakers only brought in Gasol because Bynum got hurt and they realized that Kobe could make the Lakers a contender if he had any kind of post player as a running mate. Do you not think that Memphis would have improved "collectively" if the Grizzlies had somehow acquired Kobe and paired him with Gasol? Gasol was the final piece added to the Lakers' starting lineup but that does not mean that he is the most important piece.

I don't know which "coaches" or "informed observers" you are talking about because you have not cited one name. Gasol 2010 is not an improved version of Gasol 2007 but Gasol 2010 gets more recognition and credit now because he is playing on a championship caliber team.

As I have said many times, playing alongside Kobe has transformed Gasol from a one-time All-Star to someone who likely will receive serious HoF consideration--and this is not because of some intrinsic change in Gasol's skill set but rather because of the "individual" and "collective" opportunities he receives as a benefit of playing alongside Kobe, who had long ago established himself as a three-time NBA champion and first ballot HoFer.

 
At Wednesday, May 12, 2010 6:36:00 PM, Anonymous Luis said...

David,

who are the people who think that Gasol is a vastly improved player from 2007?
- the people who vote for him as all-NBA, sportswriters with a presumed knowledge of the game. Gasol is all-NBA now and he wasn't before 2007. Surely they are voting for him based on what they see and not just on his stats? (By the way, you are, I believe, among these presumably informed sportswriters who vote on the all-NBA team? If as I assume you didn't vote for Gasol prior to 07-08... why would you have him as 2nd or 3rd-team NBA, if his quality is the same and he is just benefitting from playing with better teammates? That would be a really silly thing to do.

- Coaches who select him for the all-star (if my memory doesn't fail me, twice in two complete seasons with Lakers vs once in seven season prior to that, that selection coming as I recall from fans rather than coaches). Surely these coaches can appreciate the intrinsic value of a player?

- Coaches who broadcast Lakers playoff games, who are offering praise for Gasol and who can also -incredible as it may seem- roughly differentiate genuine improvements from those based on higher teammate quality.

- Anyone who has seen last year's finals

David, I believe it is you who is in the minority in thinking that "Gasol 2010 is not an improved version of Gasol 2007 but Gasol 2010 gets more recognition and credit now because he is playing on a championship caliber team". Serious basketball experts would laugh at this bold statement.

Best regards

 
At Wednesday, May 12, 2010 11:15:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Luis:

The All-NBA voting is conducted by beat writers for each team plus selected national media members. I have never been an official voter. The fact that media members select Gasol as an All-NBA player now but did not do so previously does not prove that he has become a better player; it just reflects that they perceive Gasol differently--i.e., playing alongside Bryant on a championship team has given Gasol a lot more visibility even though his numbers are in fact essentially the same (except for his improvements in FG% and offensive rebounding, two areas that reflect the benefits of playing with Bryant).

Regarding the All-Star selections, players are more likely to be chosen if they play for winning teams. Playing alongside Bryant on the Lakers has made Gasol a high profile player but his actual skill set has not changed.

Essentially, what I am saying is that Gasol has been a very good player all along but his talents are more widely recognized now. You are apparently contending that he has become a much improved player, yet you cannot quantify any way that he has actually improved. What low post move does Gasol have now that he did not have before? He was always a skilled low post player. The difference is that when he played for Memphis he was the team's best player, so opposing defenses double teamed him and roughed him up; try that now with the Lakers and Bryant will score 40-50 points.

In last year's Finals, Gasol played with a tougher mindset than he had previously displayed. That is not a skill set change per se--he did not become a better shooter, post up player, rebounder, passer, etc.--but a shift in mentality as a result of playing with an elite championship player like Bryant and playing for an elite championship coach like Jackson.

I don't know or care if my opinion is the minority viewpoint; I am pretty sure that many of the opinions I express here may be minority viewpoints but I am even more certain that I am correct about a great many things that many self-proclaimed experts are wrong about. If you looked at film clips of Gasol three-four years ago and film clips of Gasol now he is essentially the same player from a skill set standpoint. He has gotten a bit stronger physically and a bit mentally tougher but the biggest change that happened is that Gasol went from being an overmatched first option to being a perfect fit as the second option.

 

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