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Tuesday, January 04, 2011

What is Wrong with the Lakers?

The two-time defending NBA champion L.A. Lakers have lost four of their last six games--including an embarrassing 104-85 setback at home on Sunday night versus the Memphis Grizzlies--and they are currently tied for fourth-fifth place in the very strong Western Conference, six and a half games behind the league-leading 29-4 San Antonio Spurs. "What is wrong with the Lakers?" is a question being asked by commentators and fans alike but in order to correctly answer that we must first objectively look at what was "right" with the Lakers when they made it to three straight NBA Finals and won two titles.

The two most important ingredients in the Lakers' dominance this past decade (five championships, plus two Finals losses) have been Kobe Bryant and Coach Phil Jackson; point guard Derek Fisher is the only other person who has been on the court for all of those championships/Finals appearances but he is the ultimate role player--a clutch shooter who was also a scrappy defender during his prime--while Bryant and Jackson are each the best at their respective jobs. Much was said a few years ago about Bryant not being able to "do without" Shaquille O'Neal but the Lakers completely rebuilt their team around Bryant while O'Neal has won just one championship after leaving L.A. despite latching on with MVP-level stars in Miami, Phoenix and Cleveland.

Jackson's coaching philosophy involves the Triangle Offense, stingy defense and control of the backboards but even though he is a better strategist than his critics admit the true measure of his brilliance is the way that he relates to the various personalities on his roster; Jackson tolerates a certain degree of individuality/eccentricity as long as a player is ultimately making an overall contribution to the team's success: Jackson is not a control freak yet he is most assuredly in control of how his team functions. He is wise enough to understand that games are won during practice by properly preparing; screaming and ranting on the sideline is just a smokescreen used by some coaches to act like they are doing something productive. You rarely see truly great coaches (Jackson, Wooden, Belichick) get involved in that kind of nonsense, but you do hear a lot of idiots mocking Jackson for sitting placidly on the sideline on those rare occasions when his team is not performing well. Jackson knows that putting on a sideshow for the TV cameras will not help his team.

Jackson's teams have won 11 of the last 20 NBA championships. Let that number sink in for a minute: Jackson has been monopolizing NBA titles since the end of the Bird/Magic era! Yes, Jackson has been blessed to coach all-time greats Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant but while talent is an essential ingredient to winning it is far from the only necessary ingredient; many great players never won a title and many coaches have had numerous Hall of Famers yet failed to deliver a championship.

Bryant's most obvious contribution to the Lakers' success is his prolific scoring but Bryant has also been the team's top playmaker during all of their Finals runs (and, indeed, throughout the vast majority of his career); Bryant annually leads the Lakers in assists but his playmaking is not merely measured by that flawed, subjective statistic: his value is signified by the way that he consistently draws double teams that break down opposing defenses and create shot opportunities for his teammates. Bryant is also an annual fixture on the All-Defensive team, an honor selected by NBA head coaches who realize that Bryant is just as disruptive defensively as he is offensively. Bryant sets the tone for the Lakers in terms of preparation, focus and intensity, though unfortunately he is a lot more self motivated about those things than his teammates are. Bryant's leadership style can be abrasive at times, though not as much as Michael Jordan's, yet Jordan is largely praised as a leader while Bryant is wrongly criticized for supposedly being aloof yet critical and selfish yet passive (when he allegedly "pouts" by not shooting the ball); the fact that the criticisms are contradictory is itself an indication that the charges are largely groundless: Bryant is not perfect but he is without question fanatically devoted to trying to win championships above all else; as he has pointed out, other players often protect their statistics by sitting out when they have minor injuries but Bryant tries to play no matter what because he knows that even in a diminished capacity he can still impact the outcome of a game.

The Lakers are often touted as the most talented and deepest team in the NBA, a notion that I first refuted in 2009 and then refuted again after the 2010 Finals when I noted, "A major theme throughout this series--and any series that involves Bryant--was how much Bryant's presence distorted the opposing team's defense and thus created both open shots and offensive rebounding opportunities for Bryant's teammates." Few players have greater individual and/or team success before or after playing with Bryant than they do while playing with Bryant--and that holds true from the sublime (O'Neal) to the ridiculous (Kwame Brown, Smush Parker). Ron Artest was more productive individually earlier in his career but he was also a wild card who sabotaged his teams and who has admitted that he did not pay attention to team leaders because he did not respect them the way that he respects Bryant. This is not to suggest that Bryant has won championships on his own without any help--no one wins championships on his own in a team sport--but the key point is that Bryant has proven that he can win championships with a variety of different teammates and that he plays in a way that brings out the best in those teammates; if you regularly watch NBA games then you know that former coaches Hubie Brown and Jeff Van Gundy constantly praise Bryant's passing ability and decision making even though many ill informed writers, bloggers and fans insist that Bryant is a selfish gunner.

The one thing that even most of Bryant's critics begrudgingly give Bryant credit for--hitting game-winning shots--is a somewhat overrated aspect of the sport, because being a clutch player is more significant than just making clutch shots: Bryant averaged 28.7 ppg on .492 field goal shooting in the six games last season that culminated in his game-winning shots; he dominated those games before delivering the coup de grace and if the Lakers had not won those games then they would have finished with a 51-31 record that would have placed them sixth in the West instead of first, making it very difficult for them to return to the NBA Finals.

That provides a nice segue to what is wrong with the Lakers this season; 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.

Lamar Odom started the season putting up the kind of numbers that he should post all the time, but the calls to put him on the Western Conference All-Star team were not only premature but also a bit delusional: as I always say when people suggest that Player X should be an All-Star, who would you leave off of the team? This year's Western Conference All-Star forwards should be Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Love; I am counting Gasol as a center because he spent most of the first half of the season there but Gasol should also clearly be on the All-Star team ahead of Odom, whether Gasol is categorized as a center, forward or one of the two Wild Cards. The "premature" aspect of the crowning of Odom is becoming increasingly clear, too: Odom has posted double figure rebounds in just one of the Lakers' last eight games--and rebounding, not his much vaunted versatility, is Odom's most important contribution to the team.

Ron Artest was reasonably well focused last season but this season his mind has wandered a bit. He likely will never completely learn the Triangle Offense but even his defense this season has not been quite as good as expected.

Andrew Bynum missed the early portion of the season due to a knee injury and is now trying to round into shape (and avoid yet another injury). Based on his career thus far, there is every reason to believe that at some point during this season he will string together some double doubles--and then get hurt again. I don't wish any ill on him but he just does not seem to be capable of being highly productive and injury free at the same time. The Lakers will likely once again have to make a title run while Bynum is essentially an afterthought in the rotation.

Derek Fisher is a gallant basketball warrior but his shooting percentage continues to decline and he struggles mightily to stay in front of quick point guards. I thought that Steve Blake, Matt Barnes and Theo Ratliff would boost the Lakers' bench but Ratliff got hurt and Blake has been inconsistent (Barnes has been solid but no more than that).

Shannon Brown started off the season on fire but two disturbing trends have converged: he has cooled off yet he insists on taking quick shots anyway.

Naturally, in this day and age of superficial media coverage, when the Lakers struggle the discussion turns not to the failures and shortcomings of the aforementioned players but rather how many shots Kobe Bryant attempts. Some people make a lot of noise about the Lakers' record when Bryant attempts more than a certain number of shots but that statistic is meaningless for many reasons: the sample sizes are not significant (they are too small and/or do not involve a representative sample of good and bad opposing teams), the number of shots that Bryant takes can be affected by last second half court heaves/other extraneous factors that have nothing to do with supposedly hogging the ball and these critics make no attempt to prove that Bryant's number of shot attempts has a cause/effect relationship with winning and losing--Bryant may start shooting more only when the Lakers are already in desperate straits and/or because his teammates are unwilling/unable to get off shots in these particular games. Coach Jackson has repeatedly spoken of Bryant's tendency to "fill the vacuum" created by his teammates' uncertainty and/or ineffectiveness. When Coach Jackson said after the Memphis loss that Bryant had to "screw up the game" in the third quarter to try to rescue the Lakers you could almost hear the gears in Mike Wilbon's and Bill Simmons' brains working overtime to produce more screeds about Bryant shooting too much but Coach Jackson soon clarified what he meant: "When the game starts getting out of hand, rightfully so, Kobe will crank it up, not screw it up. I use that term screw it up but not in terms of being an error or mistake, but crank it up and he'll go to another notch to try to get us back in a ball game. That's something we do in the fourth quarter. That's our fourth quarter action. That's how we win ball games. We have to crank it up and do it in the fourth quarter. We didn't have much in the gas tank after that." If you have followed Coach Jackson's career then you know that he sometimes makes eccentric word choices and you have to read between the lines or know his history to understand exactly what he means. He did not mean that Bryant "screwed up" the Memphis game; he meant that the Lakers were already out of whack and that when the Lakers get out of whack Bryant attempts to save the day. The way that many people just ran with the "screw it up" comment reminds me of something that happened early in my journalism career; then Cavs Coach Paul Silas told me that Bob Dandridge had been a "talker" during his playing days, which I interpreted to mean "trash talker"--but that does not fit in at all with what I know about Dandridge, so I immediately asked Coach Silas to clarify and Coach Silas explained that he meant that Dandridge communicated very well with his teammates on the court. A less principled and/or less informed writer would have produced a story saying that Dandridge was a big trash talker. It is so important for journalists to be very informed about their subject matter and very aware of what people are really saying so that their stories are accurate but I have seen and heard far too many examples of journalists deliberately taking quotes out of proper context in order to tell the story that they want to tell: in their minds, the "higher truth" (whether it be that Bryant is selfish or any other mission statement that they deem to be very important) outweighs the "minor truth" of what someone actually said or meant.

Bryant's response to Jackson's comments is very interesting and revealing:

When you've been around Phil for as many years as I have, we all understand that he likes coaching publicly. I think it's important for the new guys to understand that--Ron, Pau, guys have issues with that. You see myself, you see Fish, we understand that's how he coaches. It's fine. Let him do his job and you go about your business. But he was right. I totally broke the offense. But I did it intentionally because we needed to get something started. We were doing it and it wasn't working. I tried to kick-start it. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. But that's my responsibility. When it works out, great. When it doesn't, take the criticism for it but I have thick enough skin to be able to do that.

I was trying to win the game. We were playing like [crap]...We all were. I was trying to get something going and pump a little energy to us and get something going. It just didn't work out. Phil doesn't care how many shots I take. He just wants me to take it inside the offense. Yesterday was one of those things where it was [get away from] the triangle, I need to get something going and try to save this damn game.

Somehow, though, I doubt that Jackson's clarifications and Bryant's statement will put an end to those ESPN and TNT graphics charting Bryant's field goal attempts in Lakers' wins and losses. It is certainly clear to anyone who looks at Bryant's body of work that the Lakers are not negatively affected when Bryant exceeds his scoring average, which is a much more relevant statistic than field goal attempts: the Lakers are 72-33 (.686) during his career when he scores at least 40 points, which projects to a little more than 56 wins in an 82 game season. This did not just hold true when the Lakers were a talent-depleted team after Shaquille O'Neal's departure; the Lakers went 7-1 in 2009-10 when Bryant scored at least 40 points. As I previously documented, during last season's playoffs the Lakers went 10-4 when Bryant scored at least 30 points (including 1-0 when he scored at least 40) but just 6-3 when he scored fewer than 30 points.

Though you will never hear Bryant complain about it--or even mention it unless someone asks him a direct question--he is currently playing with wraps on both his right index finger (the one that suffered an avulsion fracture last season) and his left middle finger. Bryant is far from being a severely declining player--contrary to what Charles Barkley says--but he does not have quite the lower body explosiveness that he did a few years ago. So don't look for Bryant to run off a string of 40 point or 50 point games as he did earlier in his career; he is going to carry his portion of the load by continuing to average 25-27 ppg on circa .450 field goal shooting while drawing constant double teams and the onus is on his teammates to be productive enough to keep the score close enough so that Bryant can, in Coach Jackson's words, "crank it up in the fourth quarter."

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:26 AM