Amare Stoudemire, Lamar Odom's "Lucky Game" and What it Means to be a SuperstarAfter Lamar Odom had 19 points and 19 rebounds as his L.A. Lakers defeated the Phoenix Suns 128-107 in game one of the 2010 Western Conference Finals, the Suns' Amare Stoudemire dismissed Odom's effort as a "lucky game." The Lakers went on to win that series and eventually capture the 2010 NBA Championship but during a red carpet interview at the ESPYs Stoudemire stuck to his guns when an L.A. reporter asked him about that remark:
Starting around the 1:36 mark in the above video, Stoudemire said, "I was just being honest. That's all. But they played great; they did a great job during the season. Congratulations to those guys and Lamar personally for winning another championship. It is a great accomplishment."
"Lucky" literally means "occurring by chance." How unusual was it for Odom to tally 19 and 19 during a 2010 game? He averaged a career-low 10.8 ppg and 9.8 rpg while playing in all 82 regular season games, scoring 19 or more points just eight times; the most rebounds that he had in any of those games was 13 (his season high for rebounds was 22 and he had just one other game with at least 19 rebounds). In 23 playoff games, Odom averaged a career-low 9.7 ppg and 8.6 rpg; the 19-19 game was easily his most productive contest (during the postseason he had two 17 point games--both against Phoenix--plus a 15 rebound game versus Utah).
Stoudemire's comment may have been ungracious and it may have been an unwise thing to say in the midst of a playoff series but--from a literal standpoint--it was quite true: a 19-19 game by Odom is truly something that happened "by chance."
However, in a game of skill nothing really happens purely "by chance." The skill set based reason that Odom had a wide open path to the hoop for layups and rebounds is that the Suns had to double team Kobe Bryant--who still scored 40 points on 13-23 field goal shooting--and then rotate a defender to Pau Gasol, who took advantage of the Suns' scrambling defense to notch 21 points on 10-13 field goal shooting. The Suns managed to create the worst of all possible worlds from their perspective: they neither slowed down Bryant nor corralled Gasol and in the process of focusing on those players they let Odom run amok.
Although the numbers mentioned in the previous paragraphs provide a rough draft version of what happened, this game--meaning both game one of the Lakers-Suns series in particular and the game of basketball in general--can only be completely and deeply understood by actually observing the action with an educated eye. Bryant played with great force, aggression and energy and his actions manipulated the Phoenix defenders like chess pieces being moved around by a grandmaster: Bryant created open shots for himself and his teammates and the disruption left in his wake helped Odom to snare a game-high seven offensive rebounds. Bryant's value is expressed not merely by his statistics but also by the impact that his actions had on both his teammates and on his opponents.
Contrast Bryant's approach with the by now notoriously indifferent way that LeBron James played during Cleveland's series versus Boston, particularly in game two and game five. Many people who watched those games--from Cavaliers' owner Dan Gilbert to sportswriters to casual fans--say that James quit. That is a very incendiary charge to make--it is the worst accusation that one can make about an athlete other than saying that he intentionally threw a game (throwing a game means purposely trying to lose, while quitting is simply not trying while being indifferent to the outcome). A player's shooting percentage, good or bad, does not really tell us whether or not he quit: a player can try very hard but have an off night (think Ray Allen during the NBA Finals after he set the single-game record for three pointers made and suddenly could not hit the broad side of a barn with a medicine ball) and a player can drift through most of a contest but score some buckets in a flurry to pad his statistics.
The striking thing about James' performance versus Boston in games two and five is how lethargically he played; he rarely attacked the hoop, which means he put no pressure on Boston's defense. If James had been injured and out of the lineup entirely or if the team had had some idea that he would just quit in the middle off the series then the Cavs could have run some offensive sets involving other players--but how do you just take the ball out of the hands of the reigning two-time MVP? The other Cavs' players looked confused and hesitant, waiting for James to be aggressive.
Most of the published comparisons of James' supporting cast with Bryant's supporting cast have been nonsense. Yes, Bryant had the benefit of playing alongside one of the NBA's 15 best players, All-NBA Third Teamer Pau Gasol--but during the 2010 playoffs Bryant also played alongside a one-legged center, a small forward who never quite learned the team's offensive system, a point guard who was older and slower than the starting point guards on the other elite teams, a sixth man who was terribly inconsistent and a bench that was so unreliable that earlier in the season Coach Phil Jackson said that their performances made him feel like vomiting. James' supporting cast was not perfect but it included three players who have made the All-Star team as recently as 2008 plus a fourth player who is a two-time All-Star; the Cavs' remarkable depth and balance enabled them to play "big" or "small" and to overcome injuries, trades and other disruptions en route to posting the league's best regular season record for the second year in a row.
People can crunch "advanced basketball statistics" as much as they want but the major difference between the Lakers and the Cavs during the 2010 playoffs is that Kobe Bryant played aggressively and thus maximized potential opportunities for himself and his teammates, while LeBron James literally acted as if he could not wait for the season to be over so he could rip off his Cavaliers' jersey and head for (what he presumes to be) greener pastures. The phrase "making one's teammates better" is a cliched, imprecise way of saying "Great players create openings and opportunities for their lesser talented teammates to do what they do well"--and Odom's "lucky game" is a perfect example of this dynamic. If James had played with more aggressiveness then it is much more likely that one or more of his teammates would have had a "lucky game" versus Boston; that does not mean that James should be held entirely responsible if some of his teammates perform below their expected levels but it does mean that when the best player on the team stops trying hard it is logical to expect that the efforts and productivity of his teammates will be adversely affected.
posted by David Friedman @ 2:34 AM