What is Wrong With the Lakers, Part IIIf you believe the headlines and the soundbites, the two-time defending NBA champions L.A. Lakers have been in perpetual decline for several seasons; it seems like every year around this time we hear all the reasons that the Lakers cannot win the championship--and then by the time June rolls around the Lakers are back in the NBA Finals. Obviously, the Lakers will not make it to the Finals indefinitely, so one of these years the naysayers will be able to smirk and say, "I told you so." Kobe Bryant responded curtly to the newest spate of critiques: "People that criticize, they can all kiss my ass. I don't give a s---. I really don't. I keep the train moving. We're gonna keep on moving and in June, they'll say nothing."
Most of the people who are doubting the Lakers are not even worth listening to, let alone answering, but Jerry West's recent remarks should not be cavalierly dismissed; the Hall of Fame guard/member of the Lakers' 1972 championship team said that the Lakers are old and slow, that they do not consistently play good defense because they are no longer capable of doing so and that the Lakers' run as an elite team is nearing the end. I am not sure why those comments, delivered at a luncheon of car dealers, created such an uproar; unlike the Mike Wilbon/Bill Simmons/Henry Abbott form of basketball "analysis" that consists of little more than mindlessly saying that Kobe Bryant shooting too much/not being a great clutch player is the Lakers' primary problem, West's blunt assessment rings true in many ways. Here is my take on each of West's assertions:
1) The Lakers are old: By the time the 2011 NBA Finals end, the Lakers' primary starters this season will be 36 years old (Derek Fisher), 32 years old (Kobe Bryant), 31 years old (Lamar Odom), 31 years old (Ron Artest) and 30 years old (Pau Gasol); Andrew Bynum, the only other Laker who has started any games this season, will be 23 but apparently his knees are aging in dog years. Bynum and Shannon Brown (25 years old) are the only players younger than 30 who are currently part of the Lakers' nine man rotation.
2) The Lakers are slow: Without testing the team individually and/or collectively in a sprint, this is a subjective statement but watching the Lakers lumber/labor down the court in transition defense hardly conjures up thoughts of Usain Bolt. As Jeff Van Gundy often says, horses trot, players run; in his taxonomy, the Lakers often look like donkeys that are suffering from arthritis in their legs.
3) The Lakers do not consistently play good defense because they are no longer capable of doing so: By the numbers, the Lakers are a very good defensive team; they rank a solid 11th (out of 30 teams) in points allowed and they are among the elite teams in rebounding differential (third) and defensive field goal percentage (fourth). However, West is quite correct that the Lakers are very inconsistent defensively, both from game to game and also from quarter to quarter within games. West clearly believes that this is a result of the aging process impacting the Lakers' ability to play intense defense on a consistent basis and he may be right; we will not know the answer for sure until after the playoffs but one factor that will be in the Lakers' favor during the postseason is the extra days off between games: even if the Lakers are a bit old and fatigued they will have more recuperation time during the postseason.
4) The Lakers' run as an elite team is nearing the end: This is almost certainly true. The Lakers have already made it to the NBA Finals for three straight years, winning back to back titles. The last team to make it to four straight Finals was the 1984-87 Boston Celtics, who alternated victories with defeats in those seasons; the 1982-85 Lakers overlapped that Celtics run by sandwiching two championships around back to back defeats. The only other NBA teams to make it to the Finals for at least four straight seasons are the 1957-66 Celtics, who won nine championships during those years (including eight straight from 1959-66). Yes, that's right--while some fools are crunching meaningless numbers regarding how many times Kobe Bryant shoots the ball they have missed the larger story: Bryant's Lakers are attempting to make their fourth straight Finals appearance, something that has only previously been accomplished by Larry Bird's Celtics, Magic Johnson's Lakers and Bill Russell's Celtics. It will be remarkable if Bryant and the Lakers pull this off but it certainly will not be easy to do so--and even if the Lakers win a third consecutive title while making their fourth straight championship round appearance the road to the 2012 Finals will be exponentially more difficult: Coach Phil Jackson has committed to retiring after this season, 13 years after his "Last Dance" in Chicago and seven years after his first retirement from the Lakers; although Jackson came back twice before, his age (and, just as significantly, Kobe Bryant's age) makes it very unlikely that Jackson will grace an NBA sideline after this season concludes. Based on both historical factors and on an objective evaluation of the Lakers' current roster, this season will probably be the last season as an elite team for the Lakers as currently constructed: to stay at the top they will have to bring in an excellent coach to replace Jackson and they will also have to retool the roster, adding more speed and more players who can create shots for themselves and others.
What does all of this mean? Simple: it is foolish to write off the Lakers as championship contenders this season--they still are, at worst, one of the top four or five teams in the league and unless Bryant's body completely falls apart in the next six months they will be very difficult to beat four times in seven games this spring. However, if the Lakers win the 2011 championship that will likely represent the crowning, final achievement for this unit before major changes are made.
Indiana Jones once famously lamented, "It's not the years, honey, it's the mileage." Kobe Bryant is 31 years old and he keeps himself in great condition but he has already logged over 39,000 regular season minutes in 1070 games, plus an additional 7811 minutes in 198 playoff games; West retired at 35 after playing 36,571 regular season minutes in 932 games, while by the time Michael Jordan had played 39,000 regular season minutes he was a 39 year old Washington Wizard. Bryant has admitted that his right knee--which was surgically repaired last summer, the third time he has undergone such a procedure on that joint--is already essentially bone on bone; as a concession to that condition and to try to prevent injury, Coach Jackson minimized Bryant's practice time and he has slashed Bryant's minutes this season to just 33.5 mpg, Bryant's lowest average since his second season in the league and more than five mpg fewer than he averaged last season. It is evident that without Bryant logging full practice time the team has lost some of its sharpness and intensity but I assume that during the stretch run Bryant's activity level will be ramped up to some degree in the practice sessions. Remarkably, despite that extra half a quarter of rest per game, Bryant has nearly maintained his other per game averages, which means that his per minute productivity has increased; he is playing some of the most efficient basketball of his career: his overall field goal percentage (.465) is the fourth best of his career, his assists per minute average is his second best ever and his rebounds per minute average is his fifth best ever. On the downside, his steals rate is down and his turnover rate is up. Overall, though, Bryant is playing at a very high level--MVP caliber in fact, though his name seemingly is no longer mentioned when that award is discussed (LeBron James is still the best, most productive regular season player in the league, but Bryant is a more legitimate MVP candidate than just about anyone else right now). Part of the reason that the Lakers have slipped a bit in the standings compared to previous seasons (besides the fact that the Spurs have been incredibly good) is that the drawback of keeping Bryant fresh and rested is that this comes at the cost of losing some games that the Lakers likely would have won if Bryant had played 38-40 minutes like he did in the past; presumably, Bryant's minutes will go up during the playoffs and that will most likely cure (or at least mask) many of the team's other problems.
Sift through the hype and the reality is that not much has changed since a month ago when I wrote an article titled What is Wrong With the Lakers?:
Bryant is performing at a comparable level to the way he played the three previous seasons but his supporting cast is playing worse--so much worse, in fact, that Bryant has been unable to carry the Lakers to the finish line with the score close enough for him to attempt many game-winning shots, let alone nail half a dozen of them. Pau Gasol's productivity and efficiency have plunged after he initially started off the season playing as well as he ever had during his career. Gasol is a talented player but he seems to need to be incessantly pushed and prodded by Jackson and Bryant in order to play up to his full capabilities. Jackson wants Gasol to be a presence in the paint at both ends of the court but Gasol has a tendency to drift and play very passively. If Gasol wants more shot attempts then all he needs to do is to either post up aggressively or else set aggressive screens and then roll strongly to the hoop: in the first case he will often get one on one coverage because the defense is tilted to Bryant and in the second case he will often get a free run to the hoop because both defenders trap Bryant to make him give up the ball. It seems like Gasol goes through stretches when he wants to play without having to deal with a lot of physical contact but when Gasol does what he is supposed to do Bryant delivers him the ball on time and on target; I have seen many instances when Bryant encouraged Gasol to cut harder or take an open shot but I have never seen Bryant criticize Gasol for shooting too much. There is no reason to suggest that Bryant is intentionally hogging the ball or trying to diminish Gasol's role.
Bryant referenced the film "Black Swan" recently when describing the transformation he would like to see Gasol make: "It's against his nature. He's very white swan. I need him to be more black swan." As NBA TV analyst (and Hall of Fame post player) Kevin McHale recently explained, Gasol and the other Laker bigs must demand the ball by being active and aggressively posting up in the paint. McHale's fellow NBA TV analyst Chris Webber offered a more blunt take: "Very honestly, 90% of the people that play with Kobe are frontrunners. When you are a frontrunner that means you will be lackadaisical in the game." Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak has publicly said that if the team does not play better he may make a trade; Webber translated what that message means: Bryant is the only untradeable Laker, so the other Lakers who were "mere mortals" (Webber's words) prior to joining the team need to get their acts together. That may sound harsh but it is true: even Gasol, who is clearly the team's second best player, was just a one-time All-Star who had never won a single playoff game before he hooked his caboose to the Kobe Bryant gravy train. No one--not general managers, not coaches, not TV analysts, not beat writers, not fan bloggers--called Gasol an "elite" player until he settled into a comfortable role as the Lakers' second option. I seriously doubt that the Lakers would trade Gasol but Webber's point is valid: instead of standing around watching Bryant play hard and then complaining afterward about not getting enough shots, Bryant's teammates need to play with a lot more intensity and toughness at both ends of the court.
Epilogue: Snapshots from the Lakers' last two games
The Lakers lost 109-96 to the Boston Celtics on Sunday and then bounced back to beat the Houston Rockets 114-106 in overtime on Tuesday. Several plays from those games provide meaningful glimpses into what is going on with the Lakers right now but before we examine those plays here is a quote from an article that I wrote after game one of the 2008 NBA Finals (Kobe Bryant's Missed Shots and the Torrent of "Psycho-Basketball Analysis" That They Unleashed): "Kobe Bryant's shot selection is subject to a play by play microscopic evaluation that I have never seen applied to any other player of his status; literally every time he shoots--or doesn't shoot--someone questions his judgment and motivations, alternately suggesting that he is either forcing the issue or else playing too passively in order to allegedly make some kind of point. All great scorers are expected to shoot the ball 20-plus times a game and shots that would rightly be termed 'forced' if someone else took them are not forces if they are shots that the great player has a reasonable chance of making or if the shot clock is winding down and there are no other good options left."
The relevance of that quote now is that Bryant scored 41 points on 16-29 field goal shooting versus the Celtics yet if you only watched the highlight shows and/or read the articles by certain misinformed writers you would assume that the Lakers' primary problem was that Bryant selfishly shot the Lakers out of the game. I am a student of basketball history and I am straining to think of an example of another player who had such an efficient game and yet received such disproportionate blame for a loss. It is interesting that game analysts Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy had a much different (and more honest) take; I often wonder if Jackson and Van Gundy ever talk about basketball with Mike Wilbon and, if so, how those conversations go.
Much has been made of the fact that Bryant did not log a single assist versus Boston; apparently, there are a lot of people who do not understand that (1) in order to get an assist the recipient of the pass must make a shot and (2) assists are, at best, a semi-bogus stat. Here is a sampling of some of the Lakers' offensive possessions versus Boston:
1) Bryant feeds Lamar Odom the ball in the paint but Odom hesitates to shoot despite being at point blank range.
2) Ron Artest conducts a dribbling exhibition before passing to Andrew Bynum in the post. Bynum then passes to Bryant well outside the three point line for what I call a "hand grenade" shot--i.e., the shot clock is about to expire so the recipient of the pass has to get rid of the ball before it "explodes" in his hand. Thanks to tentative post players like Gasol, Odom and Bynum, Bryant may very well lead the league in "hand grenades" (I distinguish "hand grenade" shots from the kind of low percentage shots that players like Gilbert Arenas and J.R. Smith fire by choice after wasting time dribbling aimlessly)--and those "hand grenades" increase Bryant's field goal attempt total while decreasing his assist total.
3) Bryant feeds a wide open Shannon Brown for a three pointer that was such a brick I thought it might shatter the backboard.
4) Gasol catches the ball at the elbow versus Kendrick Perkins and settles for a jump shot that barely grazes the rim instead of using his length and mobility to create a better shot.
5) Gasol catches the ball on the left block and shoots a fadeaway jumper over the much shorter Glen Davis, again barely grazing the rim. After Gasol misses, Mark Jackson declares, "If I'm Kobe Bryant I'd shoot more. After watching that last post move by Pau Gasol against Glen 'Big Baby' Davis--that's a soft move. If I'm Kobe Bryant, I'm thinking, 'Get me the basketball and we're running offense through me.'" Bryant scored 11 points on 5-10 field goal shooting in the final 6:58 of the game but the Celtics pulled away thanks to horrible defense by the Laker bigs, who Jackson and Van Gundy lambasted for playing softly on offense and for trotting back on defense while the Celtic bigs sprinted past them for layups. As Bryant went on his scoring binge, Van Gundy noted that it is difficult to beat great teams with isolation plays; Mark Jackson agreed but said that through three-plus quarters the Lakers had already proven that they could not win the other way by feeding their "soft" big men so Bryant trying to take over was the team's last, best hope. Van Gundy conceded that Jackson was right about that and added, "I always feel like they can go to Bryant pick and rolls and get great shots every time because you have to double team the ball." I have said for years that the Lakers' deadliest offensive option is the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll action but it is most effective when Gasol sets solid screens and rolls to the hoop with authority; versus Boston, Gasol often acts like there is an electric fence sealing him off from the paint, particularly if Perkins is involved in the play. Mark Jackson concluded that the Celtics are very confident that they can beat the Lakers in a seven game series because the Laker bigs look like they don't want to play against the Celtic bigs.
The Lakers also had some inexplicable breakdowns in their perimeter defense; everyone knows that Rajon Rondo is a pass first player with a suspect jumper, yet Shannon Brown went over a screen while guarding Rondo (instead of going under the screen, protecting the paint and daring Rondo to shoot a jumper), starting a chain reaction that led to a Celtics score. During the ensuing timeout, both Bryant and Coach Jackson went up to Brown and repeatedly said, with great emphasis, "Under, under."
No discussion of this game is complete without mentioning Odom's play at the end of the first half, an action that defies rational explanation: Odom fouled Davis at halfcourt just before the buzzer, giving away three free throw attempts. Odom would not even look Bryant in the eye after this gaffe and Bryant, sensing that Odom was probably suffering enough, tried to make light of the situation (at least publicly), joking that Odom's foul should make ESPN's next list of "Not Top 10 Plays."
The Lakers jumped out to an early lead versus the Rockets as Bryant spoonfed several of his teammates for layups or wide open jumpers--he had seven of his game-high 11 assists in the first quarter--but the Rockets eventually recovered from a 12 point deficit (including a six point margin with just 2:05 left in the fourth quarter) to force overtime thanks to some mindboggling defensive lapses by the Lakers that resulted in layups on inbounds plays. The Lakers ultimately needed a game-high 32 points from Bryant on 13-25 shooting in 45 minutes of play in order to barely squeak past a sub-.500 Houston team. Gasol and Odom were much more effective than they had been versus the Celtics but no one is going to confuse Houston's hardworking but undersized frontcourt with Boston's talented and deep rotation of bigs.
During the pregame, halftime and postgame shows, McHale and Webber kept emphasizing that the Laker bigs must energetically run the floor and aggressively fight for post position. McHale said that the only way to prove whether Bryant shoots a lot because he has to or simply because his teammates are not carrying their weight is for the big guys to camp out in the paint until they get the ball--if Bryant does not pass to them then there will be a three second call. Bryant has been the Lakers' leading playmaker for the better part of the past decade and he is all but begging Gasol to get into the post so it is exceedingly unlikely that Bryant will not pass Gasol the ball if Gasol aggressively posts up.
Bynum is the Lakers' most aggressive big--at least offensively--but he hurt his knee versus Boston and thus sat out the Houston game. We have been hearing for years how valuable Bynum is and/or could be but in his first five full seasons he played all 82 games just once, in 2006-07, and since that time he has missed between 17 and 47 games a year. He did not play at all in the 2008 playoffs, was largely a bystander in the 2009 playoffs and was dragging his injured leg around for most of the 2010 playoffs. Bynum's size is certainly useful but the reality is that he has spent most of his career either out of the lineup or trying to get in good enough shape to be effective for more than short bursts. The Lakers should not be planning on him being anything more than a role player once again during the 2011 postseason.
Odom has never made the All-Star team in his 12 year career but some people have been touting him as a potential reserve this season (the reserves will be announced later today). Odom had a great game versus Houston (20 points, 20 rebounds) and he is shooting a career-high .566 from the field this season but his overall numbers (15.4 ppg, 9.6 rpg) are in line with his career averages (14.7 ppg, 9.0 rpg) and he is his team's third option; since Odom never made the All-Star team before with those numbers--even when the Lakers had the best record in the West--it is hard to understand, from a general standpoint, why he should make the All-Star team this season. More specifically, how could one justify selecting Odom over the league's leading rebounder (Kevin Love), a rookie who is putting up scoring/rebounding numbers that have not been posted by a first year player since Shaquille O'Neal (Blake Griffin) and a legit MVP candidate from one of the West's top teams (Dirk Nowitzki)? Pau Gasol is clearly more productive and valuable than Odom, so if the Lakers are going to have a second All-Star then Gasol should get the nod. For that matter, even though his individual numbers are down (in large part because his minutes have been reduced), Tim Duncan is the defensive anchor for the team that has the best record in the league by far and a very good case could be made that Duncan is more worthy of All-Star honors this season than Odom. The coaches select just two forwards, two guards, one center and two wild cards, so I will be surprised if they choose Odom over the players listed above, particularly since at least one of the wild card slots will probably be used to deal with the glut of top notch point guards. Odom's only chance is probably if the coaches bend the rules and put Gasol and Duncan at center but even if that happens I still suspect that Odom will be left out.
posted by David Friedman @ 8:21 AM