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Saturday, May 19, 2012

Thoughts on the Lakers-Thunder Series and the Difference Between Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade

It 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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:22 AM

17 comments

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17 Comments:

At Saturday, May 19, 2012 11:36:00 AM, Blogger Ben said...

You refer to "clutch" but no comments on the end of game 2 at all?

 
At Saturday, May 19, 2012 12:13:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It truly is astonishing how D-Wade has apparently gotten old all at once. A year ago I still considered him to be one of the top 5 players in the league and I definitely can't say that right now. Which makes it all the more remarkable that Kobe (Duncan and KG deserve some credit here too) is still pushing after all this time. He's not the best player in the league or the elite athlete he once was, but his combination of skill and will gives the Lakers a fighting chance.

-Karl

 
At Saturday, May 19, 2012 3:23:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Ben:

I am not a beat writer and I do not "comment" about every single game. I generally write column length pieces about general topics of wide interest. It always amuses me when I write trenchant analysis about a particular subject but instead of acknowledging that I am correct someone replies, "Why didn't you write about X, Y and Z?"

My "comment" is that, as I noted in this article and several previous articles, the ability to control a game down the stretch is more important than the ability to hit a low percentage shot while trailing at the end of a game. It is obvious that the Lakers collectively failed to control game two down the stretch; they turned the ball over, had defensive breakdowns and did not make a shot.

Prior to the Lakers' game three win, the Lakers had played the Thunder five times (three in the regular season and two in the playoffs) and the Lakers' only victory came in double overtime after Metta World Peace knocked out Harden. The Thunder are clearly the superior team, so the fact that the Lakers won a game in this series is actually an accomplishment.

 
At Saturday, May 19, 2012 6:50:00 PM, Blogger Matt said...

"...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."

Recently I saw some people proposing a Gasol-Bosh claiming it would benefit both teams. Their logic is that though Gasol is the superior player, he doesn't fit well with Bynum and that his superior inside play would boost the heat. I disagreed with the move, arguing that Gasol isn't that much better than Bosh for him to make a significant difference (never mind that's he's also four years older) and that the Heat's bigger problem is their lack of a structured offense.

Am I crazy?

 
At Saturday, May 19, 2012 7:27:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Matt:

Purely from a skill set standpoint, Gasol and Bosh are very comparable: they are both finesse oriented big men who can play inside and rebound but who prefer to face up and shoot jumpers.

I don't see how a Gasol-Bosh trade would help either team and the move would be less desirable for the Heat because, as you noted, Gasol is older. It does not make much sense to trade for a player with similar skills who is four years older than the player you are giving up.

The Lakers need to pair Bryant with a dominant big man--i.e., Dwight Howard--and then acquire a solid point guard starter (so that Sessions can come off of the bench) plus one or two legit three point shooting wings.

The Heat need to convince LeBron James not to quit when he is faced with tough-minded opponents who don't back down. They also need to do something about the fact that their two best players--James and Wade--do not have complementary skill sets. The Heat generally look better when either James or Wade is out of the game than they look when they are both in the game (the only exception is when the Heat play weak teams that turn the ball over and permit James and Wade to get in the open court and pretend that they are auditioning for the And 1 Mixtape Tour).

 
At Saturday, May 19, 2012 9:34:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

marcel

jordan at peak was clearly better than kobe at any point in his career. u pointed out the last three years when mike was 33-35 and the number are similar no doubt to kobe at same time. i still take mike over kobe at that time as well. kobe had a better reg season career than post season career. most of mike best game came in post season, most of kobe came in the reg season. thats why i would take mike i know ur more of a kobe guy but i just wanted to point that out.

wade is declining clearly some or he very hurt clearly kobe better than wade at any point of his career wade got no mid range game or jumpshot that is consistent. nor can wade make free throws consistenly i notice. he my be a little more athletic in prime but that about it when compared to kobe.

for lebron i think kobe better cleary historiclly but not right now. comparing prime kobe got better mid range post and free throw but lebron not nearly as far behind on those as much as wade is in paticular free throw and post he gotten alot better. but he still miss a few free throw he should make. kobe stil got him by nice margin mid range. lebron more versatile can play all 5 positions clearly better passer. just as good defensively probably a lil better he play the free safety like a beast. kobe probably 8th best player all time lebron not in top 30 so if lebron can get a ring or two he can knock on kobe door idk if he will ever be on kobe jordan level though both were really great players even though lebron is as well. lebron will decline better than wade i think but not as good as kobe it is remarkable kobe td and kg aged well.

 
At Saturday, May 19, 2012 9:40:00 PM, Blogger Matt said...

Thank you. When I mentioned that Bosh's resume pre-Heat was superior to Gasol pre-Lakers (just using All-Star selections, for whatever it's worth), the guy I was talking to, apparently some prominent sportswriter, responded: "OK, this conversation has eclipsed reality." Indeed.

"They also need to do something about the fact that their two best players--James and Wade--do not have complementary skill sets."

Given the way the Pippen's name was used pejoratively in analyses of this duo, it's ironic that the Heat struggle due to their inability to execute in the half court offense. They could have actually used a "LePippen" instead of two ersatz Jordans.

 
At Sunday, May 20, 2012 1:19:00 AM, Blogger Awet M said...

How do you explain what happened tonight, where Lakers were in complete control, up 10 points with players (particularly Bynum, Gasol, Sessions, & World Peace) engaged in a nice flow.

Then 8 minutes left in the fourth quarter, Kobe tries to take over, despite the fact the team was already rolling, playing solid.

1-8 later, Oklahoma City flies home up 3-1.

 
At Sunday, May 20, 2012 1:48:00 AM, Blogger Ben said...

David,

Just curious about your thoughts on the end of game 2, that's all. No need to be so defensive. You generally make good points so I'm interested in your analysis when Kobe fails.

And game 4 for that matter.

 
At Sunday, May 20, 2012 4:47:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Marcel:

How am I a "Kobe guy"? I have repeatedly stated quite clearly that I consider Jordan to be a greater player than Bryant and I again stated that explicitly in this article.

 
At Sunday, May 20, 2012 5:02:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Matt:

Just because someone is a "prominent sportswriter" does not mean that the guy knows what he is talking about; often it means just the opposite.

 
At Sunday, May 20, 2012 5:10:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Awet:

The Thunder are a better team than the Lakers. That is really the only answer that is necessary and it pretty much explains everything that has happened in this series but I will expand on the point a bit.

The Thunder's superiority over the Lakers has been clearly evident all season long in numerous ways: overall record, head to head record, record against winning teams, etc. The Lakers had no realistic chance to win this series and it actually is an accomplishment that they won a game. Thanks to Mike Brown's coaching and Kobe Bryant's work ethic they have competed hard in three of the four games and I expect that they will compete hard in game five.

Gasol is a soft player who is not suited to being a first option on an elite team. That is why his Memphis teams went 0-12 in the playoffs when he was the first option and that is why Memphis traded him, rebuilt the roster and eventually put together a team that can actually win a playoff series. Gasol will occasionally whine about not getting the ball enough but when Bryant draws two defenders and passes the ball to a wide open Gasol the end result is often either a turnover or a missed shot. Gasol has been absolutely terrible in the playoffs for the past two seasons and that could have something to do with Bryant being tired down the stretch of games.

Bynum put up Luc Longley numbers during the Lakers' recent championship runs. Now he is the team's second option offensively but he possesses neither the physical stamina nor the mental discipline to play hard for 40 minutes. In the first half he ran the court, played hard and received the ball in the post; in the second half he did not run the court, played less hard and did not fight for good post position. How is Bryant (or anyone else) supposed to pass the ball to Bynum when Bynum is standing on the baseline with his hands down?

Did Bryant force some shots in the fourth quarter? Yes and he was the first to admit that. Did Bryant have to force shots because no one else got open or even attempted to get open? Yes. As Bryant said, his teammates either have to play more aggressively or the team has to figure out a way to manufacture easier shots for him. By the way, Bryant made the same correct observation earlier in the season after OKC drubbed the Lakers; he contrasted the way that the Thunder manufacture good looks for Durant with the way that the Lakers simply rely on him to bail the team out with the shot clock about to expire.

Bryant carried the Lakers for three quarters, shooting 10-18 from the field and fighting his way to the free throw line numerous times; if LeBron James consistently played with that kind of aggression he already would have won an NBA title. Bryant did not attempt a three point shot until the Lakers fell behind at the end.

I said that the only way that the Lakers had a chance to win this series was if Bryant scored at least 25-30 ppg while shooting better than .450 from the field and if the Lakers' bigs played aggressively. The bigs have not been aggressive on a consistent basis and Bryant cannot put up 30 ppg while shooting better than .450 over the course of an entire series against a team like the Thunder that can throw four young, quick defenders at him.

During the Lakers' championship runs, when Gasol disappeared and Bynum sat on the bench during fourth quarters Bryant would often score 10 or more points in the final stanza or perform some other kind of basketball miracle to either preserve a lead or help the Lakers to come back. Bryant is older now and he cannot produce such basketball miracles on a consistent basis, particularly in this situation when the Lakers not only played on back to back nights but played four playoff games in six days after just finishing a seven game series.

It will be interesting to compare James and Wade at 33 in the playoffs to Bryant's performance this season--assuming that James and Wade are still in the league when they reach that age and assuming that they qualify for the playoffs.

 
At Sunday, May 20, 2012 5:14:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Ben:

The wording of your original comment implies that I had some biased reason for not writing about game two but the reality is that it has been quite some time since I provided specific recaps of particular games. I have shifted my coverage of the NBA to writing general interest columns and analytical articles about larger trends as opposed to doing in depth recaps of specific games.

Regarding game four, my response to Awet includes my take on game four. I will not be writing a recap of that game but after this series is over I will say more about it either in my preview for the next round or in a separate article.

 
At Sunday, May 20, 2012 11:09:00 AM, Anonymous LakerFan in Jamaica said...

This Lakers-Thunder series reminds me so much of the Lakers-Spurs series in the 2008 Western Finals. The Spurs were defending champs, coming off 2 championships in the previous 3 years (05,07) and they were still a really good team. But the Lakers were better: younger, bigger, hungrier (especially Kobe Bryant who hadn't been past the 1st round since 2004).

The Lakers came back from a 20-point deficit in Game 1 to win the game, crushed the Spurs in a 101-71 win (Game 2) and overcame a 17-point Spurs lead to win the deciding Game 5. Much like the Thunder are doing, the Lakers were able to win, despite the Spurs best efforts. Though they ultimately lost the 08 championship, LA made three straight Finals and won 2 titles. In many ways, they were a mini-dynasty.

And what we're seeing now is the Thunder mini-dynasty repeating that formula and having their own moment in the sun.

I'm not a great believer in "moral victories", but after the blowout in Game 1, the Lakers have put up a good fight. That they've collapsed down the stretch in Games 2 and 4 is disappointing, but hardly surprising. Younger, deeper, hungrier teams find ways to win, even against wily, veteran squads.

It's time for the Lakers to rebuild/reboot. How they do that is anyone's guess, but hoping this squad, led by an aging Kobe Bryant, can will them to victory is not the answer. It didn't work for the Spurs in 08, and it's won't work for the Lakers now.

 
At Sunday, May 20, 2012 2:19:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Laker Fan in Jamaica:

The best and fastest way for the Lakers to rebuild is to trade Bynum (and Gasol if necessary) for Dwight Howard, to add a legit starting point guard (so that Sessions can come off of the bench) and to acquire one or two wing players who can consistently knock down three pointers. A Bryant-Howard duo would make the Lakers legit contenders during Bryant's last few years and then the Lakers could build around Howard after Bryant retires.

 
At Sunday, May 20, 2012 2:49:00 PM, Anonymous LakerFan in Jamaica said...

David...

I agree that that is the ideal plan, but all reports suggest that Dwight Howard is not interested in joining the Lakers, so that kills any Bynum-Howard trade talks right there. As for the starting PG and wings, I definitely agree, but again, with no cap space and no real tradeable assets (outside of Bynum, and maybe Gasol) how do they accomplish that?

I'm inclined to think the Lakers waited too long to start the rebuilding process, and now they're paying heavily for it.

 
At Sunday, May 20, 2012 2:54:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Laker Fan in Jamaica:

No one knows for sure what Howard wants, including perhaps even Howard himself. If Howard really does not want to play with Bryant simply because Howard feels that Bryant would get too much credit if the team won a title (as at least one source suggested) then Howard is being foolish; it would be better for Howard to win a ring with Bryant and then have a Lakers' team built around him after Bryant retires than to go elsewhere (a la LeBron, Melo, D Will, CP3, etc.) and perhaps never win a ring at all. A Bryant-Howard duo would be more formidable than any other duo Howard has a realistic chance of forming.

 

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