Thunder Domination Conclusively Proves that Lakers are not Championship ContendersAnyone who still believed that the L.A. Lakers are a legitimate championship contender received a sobering dose of reality during the Oklahoma City Thunder's 4-1 victory over the Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals. Do not be deceived by the fact that three of the five games were decided by three points or less; the Thunder won two of those three close games and they also blew the Lakers out twice, once by 29 in the first game of the series to set a tone of domination (game one winners advance more than 80% of the time in the NBA playoffs) and then by 16 in the fifth game to remove any doubt about the huge gap that exists between these two teams. The Thunder are younger, faster, hungrier, deeper and more talented than the Lakers and those qualities became apparent both in the blowout games that bookended the series and also in the close games when the Thunder wore the Lakers down in crunch time; the Lakers had to play perfectly just to be competitive and that inevitably leads to mental and physical fatigue that results in the errors that the Lakers made at the end of games two and four.
The Lakers have experienced a serious decline in the past two years and this is reflected in their 1-8 record in the second round of the playoffs during that period, a stark contrast to the Lakers' success when Kobe Bryant carried the team to the 2009 and 2010 NBA titles--capping off a run during which the Lakers made three straight trips to the NBA Finals while Bryant performed at approximately the same level that Michael Jordan did in 1996-98 during the Chicago Bulls' second three-peat.
Bryant is still playing at a high level--albeit not quite the same level that he attained during the 2008-2010 postseasons--but his supporting cast has declined due to roster turnover, aging and decreasing motivation (reflected by a lack of hustle and inattention to detail at both ends of the court). Bryant is currently the 2012 postseason leader in minutes played (476, an average of nearly 40 per game) and scoring average (30.0 ppg, 1 ppg ahead of LeBron James). Bryant's .439 field goal percentage is his worst since the 2004 playoffs, as is his .283 three point shooting percentage, but most of his other 2012 playoff numbers (4.8 rpg, 4.3 apg, 2.8 turnovers per game) are right around his career playoff averages. Bryant scored more than 30 points in seven of the Lakers' 12 playoff games but the Lakers squandered those performances by winning just three of those games; Mike Wilbon--who has convinced himself that the Lakers are better off when Bryant shoots less frequently--should note that the Lakers went 2-3 when Bryant scored less than 30 points. The Lakers are not guaranteed to win now even if Bryant plays sensationally and they do not have enough talent or depth to prevail if Bryant "merely" plays at an All-Star level; Bryant scored between 17 and 22 points in his five sub-30 performances, while Andrew Bynum--a first time All-Star in 2012 and the likely All-NBA Second Team center this season--scored 20 points or more just three times in 12 playoff games: Bynum's three best playoff scoring totals (27, 20, 20) would have ranked among Bryant's worst playoff scoring totals.
During the Lakers' two most recent championship runs in 2009 and 2010, the Lakers went 10-5 and 10-4 respectively when Bryant scored at least 30 points in a playoff game. During that time span, Bryant set an NBA record for most consecutive 30 point games during potential series-clinching situations. The Lakers relied heavily on Bryant and he consistently came through; Bryant routinely provided spectacular performances and the Lakers won the vast majority of those games. Bryant can still score prolifically and he can still get to the hoop at times but he has lost some lift, some stamina and some explosiveness and this is reflected in his declining field goal percentage. Bryant draws so many fouls and shoots free throws at such an excellent rate that he is still an efficient scorer overall but he is not quite as efficient as he used to be and he is less able to score at will down the stretch after battling multiple defenders and multiple defensive looks for an entire game. The Thunder used an excellent defensive strategy against Bryant: each game they defended him first with Thabo Sefolosha, then they used James Harden and they closed each game by throwing the long-limbed Kevin Durant at Bryant. The Thunder tried to keep Bryant out of the paint by "loading up" the strong side with a big man and this was the source of Bryant's frustration with Pau Gasol: Bryant was frequently drawing Gasol's man but Gasol rarely took advantage of that situation by cutting aggressively to the open area and then shooting with confidence; Gasol's reluctance to shoot an uncontested shot in precisely that situation late in game four was the decisive play in that contest. In previous seasons, the Lakers would have defeated such a defensive scheme either because Bryant would have had the energy and lift to go off for 40-50 points or because Gasol would have played with more aggression and either knocked down the available shots or forced the Thunder to cover him, leaving Lamar Odom or a three point shooter open on the weak side. Instead, Bryant's teammates abandoned him and Bryant did not have quite enough in the tank to make up the difference.
In the Lakers' 99-96 game three victory, Bryant scored 36 points, grabbed seven rebounds and had six assists. He shot just 9-25 from the field but his scoring performance was still efficient because he made all 18 of his free throws. Bryant scored 14 fourth quarter points, including eight of the Lakers' final 10 points as they rallied from a 92-89 deficit in the final two minutes; Laker optimists can say that the Lakers could have won two of the games that they lost during this series but the Lakers also came within this one great Bryant performance of quite possibly being swept. Considering that the Thunder beat the Lakers six out of eight times in the regular season and playoffs--with one of the two losses coming in double overtime after Metta World Peace knocked James Harden out of the game with a concussion--it is obvious that the aberration in this series was the Lakers' one close win, not the Lakers' two close losses. In general, the Thunder have consistently rallied to win games this season while the Lakers have consistently blown leads and those trends continued in the playoffs.
The bottom line is simple: Bryant can no longer carry the Lakers to the extent that he did as recently as 2010 and the Lakers are less equipped to help him than they have been at any time since the nightmare years when Bryant went into gun battles with butter knives named Kwame Brown and Smush Parker.
Supposedly, the Lakers' great advantage is provided by the size and length of their seven footers, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, but this advantage rarely materialized during the playoffs from either a visual or statistical perspective: the Lakers' big men generally did not look dominant and the statistics show that they were not dominant. In the tough first round series versus Denver, the Nuggets' unheralded frontcourt of JaVale McGee, Kenneth Faried and Timofey Mozgov often played Gasol and Bynum to a standstill. Similarly, the Thunder essentially played the Lakers to a draw in both rebounding (206-204 edge for the Lakers) and points in the paint (214-206 edge for the Lakers); the Lakers' big men did not make their presence felt by aggressively posting up offensively nor did they prevent the Thunder from attacking the paint at the other end of the court. All of this came to a head in game five, when the Thunder outrebounded the Lakers 51-35 and outscored them 50-46 in the paint. Five Thunder players had more rebounds than Bynum, including each member of the Thunder's starting frontcourt, the first Thunder big man off of the bench and the first guard off of the Thunder bench.
Game five provided a microcosm of the Lakers' season in many ways. In the first quarter, Bryant scored 15 points on 6-9 field goal shooting but the rest of the Lakers shot 2-12 from the field (including 1-6 shooting by Gasol) and the Thunder led 26-21. The Lakers later rallied to take a lead but they expended so much energy that they could not withstand the Thunder's closing run. Lakers' Coach Mike Brown tried to rest Bryant at the start of the fourth quarter but the Thunder immediately seized control of the game and by the time Brown reinserted Bryant the game was already over. After the game, Brown lamented, "I've got to be able to rest Kobe for a few minutes here and there." Gasol scored four points on 1-5 shooting in the second half, while Bynum scored three points on 1-6 shooting. Bryant finished with 42 points on 18-33 field goal shooting, his best scoring output and best shooting percentage of the series.
The harsh reality is that without Bryant performing at an All-NBA First Team level the Lakers would struggle to even make the playoffs in the competitive Western Conference. No one perceives things this way, but it actually is an accomplishment for Bryant to lead this particular roster to a first round series win against a young, improving Denver team--a Denver team that actually had a better point differential than the Lakers during the 2012 regular season--and to one playoff victory versus a legitimate championship contender.
There are two ways to look at Andrew Bynum: you can either say that he is a young, upcoming big man who will continue to improve now that he is healthy or you can say that he is a historically injury prone player who displayed inconsistent effort in his first relatively healthy season and who may very well have peaked both in terms of health and in terms of productivity. No one can say for sure what the future holds for Bynum but based on his career it is reasonable to assume that he will be injury prone in the future and that he will never develop the drive and resolve that true franchise players have. If the Lakers can trade him--and Gasol if necessary--for Dwight Howard then they should leap at the opportunity to pair Bryant with a young center who is active defensively and who can be the franchise's cornerstone player after Bryant retires.
Gasol has benefited tremendously from playing alongside Bryant and has transformed himself from a one-time All-Star with an 0-12 playoff record to a possible candidate for Hall of Fame induction thanks to how much he padded his resume (three All-Star selections, three All-NBA selections and two championships) while serving as the Lakers' second option--but Gasol has clearly seen his best days and the Lakers must trade him and his oversized contract in order to add some energy, youth and athleticism to their roster. Gasol followed up his desultory 2011 playoff performance (13.1 ppg, 7.8 rpg, .420 FG%) with an equally subpar 2012 playoff performance (12.5 ppg, 9.5 rpg, .434 FG%). There is a perception that Gasol's role has been reduced but he attempted between 12 and 13 shots a game during the 2008-10 playoffs, only slightly more than he attempted in the 2011 and 2012 playoffs; the difference is that even though Bryant had to constantly prod Gasol to be aggressive from 2008-10 Gasol eventually heeded the call while in 2011 and 2012 Gasol literally shrugged his shoulders when Bryant challenged him. The "stat gurus" have always loved Gasol's game and the Lakers would be well advised to call up a team run by a "stat guru" and rob that team blind by trading Gasol for less acclaimed but younger and tougher players (assuming that the Lakers are unable to package Bynum and Gasol for Howard and perhaps a point guard and/or a wing who can make three pointers).
The Thunder have two of the top five players in the NBA; everyone knows about three-time reigning scoring champion Kevin Durant, while Russell Westbrook should (but likely will not) make the All-NBA First Team. It is not realistic to think that Kobe Bryant by himself can take on two stars who are a generation younger than he is and who are surrounded by a great supporting cast that includes Sixth Man of the Year James Harden and a group of defensive-minded, energetic big men. Former Laker point guard Derek Fisher could only be thinking one thing as he watched from the Thunder bench while Westbrook torched the Lakers: "There but for the grace of God go I." The huge talent and depth gap between the Lakers and the Thunder is graphically illustrated by the Fisher saga. Fisher started each of the 43 games that he played for the Lakers this season, averaging 5.9 ppg and shooting .383 from the field (including .324 from three point range) while regularly watching opposing point guards drive by him like he was a broken down car stalled at the side of the road (which is actually an apt analogy for his relative lateral quickness at this stage of his career). Fisher was a key member of the Lakers' rotation because none of the other point guards on the team could beat him out even though he clearly was the worst starting point guard on any playoff team in the league. After the Lakers acquired Ramon Sessions, they traded Fisher to Houston and Fisher agreed to a contract buyout that enabled him to sign with the Thunder. Fisher played in 20 regular season games as a Thunder reserve, averaging 4.9 ppg while shooting .343 from the field (including .314 from three point range). Through nine playoff games, Fisher is averaging 6.0 ppg on .449 field goal shooting, including 8-15 from three point range (a league-best .533 percentage). Fisher's timely three point shooting in the playoffs helped the Thunder win a couple games in the Dallas series--games that the Thunder likely would have won without Fisher anyway--but the larger point is that Fisher went from being the regular starter for the Lakers to being a reserve spot up shooter for the Thunder. All of the flowery talk about Fisher's leadership is nice--and there may even be some truth to it, though the Thunder already had a veteran, championship-winning leader in Kendrick Perkins and the Thunder receive excellent leadership from MVP-caliber performer Durant--but the appropriate role for Fisher at this stage of his career is reserve specialist, not starting point guard; he started for the Lakers simply because the Lakers had no other options. The spike in Fisher's playoff three point shooting is a number that likely will regress to the mean by the end of the Western Conference Finals and can in any case be explained by the difference between playing against starting players and playing against second unit players.
Sessions is a quality back up player who should not be starting full time for a championship contender; in other words, the Lakers essentially replaced an old, slow, savvy reserve player with a young, quick, untested (in terms of playoff competition) reserve player. If the Lakers can acquire a legitimate starting point guard (not even an All-Star but just a true starter) so that Sessions can come off of the bench and if they can exchange Bynum and Gasol for Dwight Howard and a three point shooting wing then this new nucleus of Bryant-Howard-true starting point guard-Metta World Peace-three point shooting wing plus Ramon Sessions could potentially contend for a championship; otherwise, the Lakers will squander the remaining productive years of Bryant's career and then miss the playoffs the first year after he retires.
posted by David Friedman @ 6:36 PM