Thoughts on the Lakers-Thunder Series and the Difference Between Kobe Bryant and Dwyane WadeIt may seem like ancient history to some people but little more than a week ago Magic Johnson, among others, stated that Mike Brown was being outcoached by George Karl in the first round prior to the L.A. Lakers' game seven win over Karl's Denver Nuggets. I assume that Johnson (and others) must now be willing to state that Brown outcoached Karl in that game seven and that Brown has also done an excellent job so far in the second round as the Lakers face a younger, faster, more talented and deeper Oklahoma City team. The Thunder blitzed the Lakers in game one--hardly a surprising development to anyone who has watched both teams play this season--but in the next two games Brown's excellent defensive game plan and underrated offensive game plan have slowed the pace of the game and turned a series that on paper looks very one-sided into one that could be surprisingly competitive if the Lakers win game four at home tonight.
The critics cannot have it both ways: if it is primarily Brown's fault when the Lakers lose then Brown must also deserve at least some credit when the Lakers win, particularly when the Lakers eliminate an underrated Nuggets team and then battle toe to toe with a clearly superior Thunder team. Brown is one of the best coaches in the NBA but he never played in the league, he does not crack many jokes and he does not have Phil Jackson's championship ring collection so media members find it easier to take shots at Brown than to actually analyze his coaching and his team's performance.
While Brown is saddled with two talented but inconsistent big men, a mess at the point guard position and a non-existent bench, he does have one big trump card: Kobe Bryant, who is no longer the best player in the league on a nightly basis but who is still quite capable of doing some remarkable things on the basketball court. After the Lakers made it to the NBA Finals three years in a row and won back to back titles, I placed Bryant's career in historical context. Here is an important passage from that article:
Here are Jordan's playoff averages from 1996-98 when the Bulls won three championships:
1996: 30.7 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 4.1 apg, .459 FG%, .403 3FG%, .818 FT%
1997: 31.1 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 4.8 apg, .456 FG%, .194 3FG%, .831 FT%
1998: 32.4 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 3.5 apg, .462 FG%, .302 3FG%, .812 FT%
Here are Bryant's playoff averages from 2008-10 when the Lakers made three straight trips to the Finals and won two championships:
2008: 30.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 5.6 apg, .479 FG%, .302 3FG%, .809 FT%
2009: 30.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 5.5 apg, .457 FG%, .349 3FG%, .883 FT%
2010: 29.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 5.5 apg, .458 FG%, .374 3FG%, .842 FT%
The Lakers' championship level play during those years depended on Bryant consistently scoring around 30 ppg while shooting better than .450 from the field. Kobe Bryant's overall career statistics and overall accomplishments (particularly in terms of MVPs and scoring titles) do not match Michael Jordan's but Bryant does not get enough credit for the fact that his 2008-10 postseason numbers match or even exceed Jordan's 1996-98 playoff productivity and efficiency. Bryant has aged remarkably well, evolving from young Slam Dunk Contest champion into a master of the midrange game much like Jordan did.
Everyone knows that the Lakers' bench is terrible now but the Lakers did not have much of a bench to support Bryant even during the 2008-10 period, particularly in comparison to championship teams of the previous two decades. Keep in mind that Lamar Odom was a de facto starter in terms of his minutes because Andrew Bynum was injured so frequently; other Laker reserves subsequently ended up out of the league (Sasha Vujacic) or had minimal impact upon joining other teams (Jordan Farmar became a reserve for a non-playoff team in New Jersey, Trevor Ariza's field goal percentage and per minute numbers declined after he left L.A. and Vladimir Radmanovic went from part-time starter in L.A. to a journeyman who has bounced around the league without accomplishing much). I have consistently maintained that when Bryant is no longer able to score 25-30 ppg while shooting better than .450 from the field in the playoffs the Lakers will have difficulty beating elite teams because neither Andrew Bynum nor Pau Gasol can replace Bryant as a legit first option scorer on a championship caliber squad.
On Friday night, the Lakers handed the Thunder their first loss of the 2012 playoffs. Bryant scored a game-high 36 points, balancing out his subpar 9-25 field goal shooting by making all 18 of his free throws. I don't know what the NBA record is for free throws attempted in a playoff game by a 33 year old shooting guard--let alone by a shooting guard who already has logged more than 50,000 combined regular season and playoff minutes--but Bryant's ability to draw fouls and then convert the pressure free throws enables him to still be a productive and efficient scorer even though he has clearly lost some of his athleticism; Bryant is getting his shot blocked or having the ball stripped more often during this series than I can ever recall happening before but it is important to understand that he is being guarded at various times by four different young, quick, long-armed defenders (Thabo Sefolosha, James Harden, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook). Bryant is trying to evade those defenders with guile, footwork and his deft midrange shooting touch because it is obvious that Bryant cannot simply rise up and shoot over any of those players on a consistent basis.
The Lakers needed every point that Bryant provided because their bench mustered just 14 points--seven fewer than Sixth Man of the Year Harden scored--while Bynum stumbled and fumbled his way to 15 points on 2-13 field goal shooting, a stunningly bad percentage for a player who attempts most of his shots in the paint. ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy astutely noted that a major problem for Bynum is that he almost always takes one or two dribbles to "balance up," giving defenders time to crowd him. If Bynum's low post footwork were as good as some people say that it is then Bynum would be able to catch the ball (either off of a pass or a rebound) and immediately go up strong. Bynum is not an explosive leaper like Dwight Howard or Blake Griffin so it is vitally important that Bynum's footwork is efficient and that he take as few dribbles as possible. Pau Gasol matched Bynum's strong board work with 11 rebounds and added six assists (tying Bryant for team-high honors) but Gasol is content to drift around the perimeter on offense and thus he finished with just 12 points on 4-8 field goal shooting. At no time against the Thunder have either Bynum or Gasol played like first option scoring threats.
Certain people place a lot of undue emphasis on Bryant's shooting percentage during an arbitrarily defined "clutch" time frame but the reality is that the ability to control a game down the stretch is more significant than simply making buzzer beating shots. Think about the oft-discussed number of shots that Bryant has attempted in "clutch" time during his playoff career; Bryant has played in 218 playoff games and he has controlled enough of those games down the stretch to win five championships and two Finals MVPs but we are supposed to believe that his effectiveness and efficiency are best defined by his shooting percentage on a category of shots that occurred roughly once every eight games (i.e., less than one time in a full seven game series)--and that small sample size is further compromised by the fact that it does not distinguish between shots attempted in an organized play run out of a timeout, desperation heaves with the clock about to expire and shots attempted out of broken plays. That small sample size also does not distinguish between open shots and well-defended shots that still had to be attempted because there was not enough time to pass the ball to someone else. NBA defenses are very good, particularly in the playoffs, so when one team is trailing and has to attempt a game-tying or game-winning shot with the clock winding down that shot is an inherently low percentage play. That is why it is more important to be able to control a game down the stretch--and hopefully not need a last second shot--than it is to be able to make a low percentage shot against a set defense. Instead of focusing on Bryant's supposed "clutch" time field goal percentage it would be more interesting to know how many times he dominated the fourth quarter of a playoff game and thus rendered "clutch" time an irrelevant consideration.
"Stat gurus" often say that Dwayne Wade is better than Kobe Bryant; that has never been the case but now there is a stark contrast between Bryant's game and Wade's game. I don't know if Wade has suddenly gotten older--something that often happens to players who rely primarily on explosiveness, such as NFL cornerbacks--or if he is letting himself be mentally affected by the kind of nagging injuries that did not slow Bryant down at a similar age when Bryant led the Lakers to championships but it is stunning how ineffective Wade is at both ends of the court when he cannot simply jump over everyone and/or explode around people. Wade has an inconsistent midrange game, no three point game and a limited arsenal of footwork/fakes to get open or at least draw fouls; during Miami's series against Indiana, Wade has been reduced to delivering cheap shots, fussing at his coach and bricking shots from all angles. Wade may be turning into the George McGinnis of shooting guards right before our eyes: as a 28 year old, McGinnis was a 22.6 ppg All-Star but the next season his scoring average plummeted by more than 7 ppg and two years later his career was over. As soon as McGinnis' athleticism declined, he rapidly descended from All-Star status to bench warmer. I am not predicting quite as steep or fast of a slide for Wade but Wade looks like the kind of player whose effectiveness will dramatically decrease with even a marginal loss of athleticism simply because Wade relies so much on explosiveness. If LeBron James does not add some more tools to his game then within the next three-four years his effectiveness will also decrease as his athleticism wanes, though James will always have the advantage of his height and strength. It will be very interesting in a few years to compare Wade at 33 and then James at 33 with the 2012 season that Bryant had as a 33 year old.
Bryant is leading all playoff performers this season in MPG and PPG. He is averaging just over seven free throw attempts per game, nearly matching his career playoff average and refuting the notion that Bryant does nothing at this stage of his career except fire shots from the perimeter. If Bryant can continue to be this productive and durable--and either increase his field goal percentage or else make up for it by sinking nearly all of his free throws--then the Lakers indeed have a puncher's chance to upset the Thunder. However, I picked the Thunder to win this series not just because the Thunder are clearly the better team but also because I don't think that at this stage of his career Bryant is capable of coming back on no rest to drop 35-40 points on the Thunder and then following that up with yet another performance of that caliber on the road. It took a lot for Bryant to push, pull and drag the Lakers past the Nuggets in the first round and then the unforgiving compressed playoff schedule required the Lakers and Thunder to play four games in a six day span. It is unrealistic to expect 2006 Kobe Bryant (or even 2008-10 Kobe Bryant) to show up and save the day for the Lakers. If Andrew Bynum is truly a franchise center, game four tonight would be a good time for him to prove it.
posted by David Friedman @ 8:22 AM