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Friday, December 14, 2012

A Tale of Two Cities: The Rise of the Knicks and the Fall of the Lakers

I have been very critical of the construction of the New York Knicks' roster and I picked the L.A. Lakers to represent the Western Conference in the 2013 NBA Finals; the Knicks are doing better than I expected while the Lakers are doing worse than I expected and 20-plus games is a large enough sample size to draw some reasonable conclusions about both teams. The Knicks defeated the Lakers 116-107 on Thursday night but the following analysis is based on what has happened this season overall and what seems likely to happen during the rest of the season as opposed to making a knee jerk reaction to the particulars of that one head to head matchup.

On Wednesday night, ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy made a very important observation about the Lakers: they are missing three of their top seven players (Pau Gasol, Steve Nash, Steve Blake), which means that reserve players are starting for the Lakers and players who should not be in a contending team's rotation are receiving regular minutes. The team that I expected to seriously contend for the NBA championship featured a healthy Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash, with Metta World Peace completing the starting lineup and Antawn Jamison, Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks making solid contributions off of the bench. We still have no idea how good or bad that team could/would be because we have yet to see that team take the court in either the preseason or the regular season. I stand by my assertion that a healthy version of that roster would be a legitimate championship contender but it is possible that we will never find out whether or not that assertion is correct--and the longer the season drags on without that roster taking the court the less relevant that assertion becomes, because it is possible that the Lakers will not even make the playoffs; the Lakers have some deep rooted issues that will not be easily or quickly fixed.

The Lakers' main problems are at the defensive end of the court; that was true under Mike Brown--an excellent defensive-minded coach who the Lakers hastily fired after starting the season 1-4--and that is even more true under Mike D'Antoni. The Lakers' half court defense is not particularly good but their transition defense is horrible for several reasons: (1) they lack team speed, (2) they often do not hustle back on defense (even players who lack speed could compete harder than the Lakers do) and (3) they commit a ghastly number of turnovers that create easy scoring opportunities for their opponents. The Lakers' offense is not bad in terms of productivity (101.5 ppg prior to Thursday's game, ranking seventh in the league) and efficiency (.455 field goal percentage prior to Thursday's game, ranking seventh in the league) but they have too many empty possessions because they rank 28th in turnovers--and that is where the absence of Nash is most keenly felt. Bryant has been very productive and efficient, Howard has been solid offensively (except for his terrible free throw shooting) and most of the other players are struggling but despite the team's high turnover rate and the lack of production from the role players the Lakers are still scoring enough points to be a winning team if only they could be more effective on defense.

Prior to Thursday's game, the Lakers ranked 19th in points allowed (98.8 ppg) and their defense is getting worse (they are giving up 102.6 ppg under D'Antoni). Simply cutting down on turnovers to limit opponents' fast break opportunities will not solve the Lakers' defensive woes; the Lakers do not seem to have a coherent defensive scheme or plan, which is why nearly every time there is a defensive breakdown several players are barking at each other. The coaching staff is not demanding accountability from the players and the players are not demanding accountability from each other; instead, excuses are being made, which means that the status quo is accepted and thus will not change soon. Some media members are accusing Bryant of cutting corners defensively to conserve energy for offense but it is not Bryant's fault that the Lakers are giving up so many uncontested layups and dunks; when Howard plays help defense after the point guard gets beaten off of the dribble (and the Lakers' point guards regularly get beaten off of the dribble, something that will not change if/when Nash returns) in most cases it is the responsibility of the other big man--not Bryant--to help out by picking up Howard's man. Bryant is not perfect and it probably is true that he cannot play with the same energy for 35-40 minutes that he did when he was younger but he is still playing with more energy than anyone else on the roster. A fully healthy Howard could make up for some--but not all--of the Lakers' defensive problems but it is very clear that Howard has not completely recovered from his back surgery. He deserves credit for coming back early and for putting up numbers that would be considered very good for anyone else but he is not playing at an elite level on a nightly basis.

The Lakers will continue to struggle until their key players get healthy and until the coaching staff implements a solid defensive game plan; implementing that game plan must include limiting the playing time of players who do not hustle and/or who do not adhere to the game plan. If the Lakers do not get healthy and form a defensive identity within the next 20 games then they will be fighting for, at best, a low playoff seed. TNT's Steve Kerr made a great point: even though the Lakers fired Coach Brown, they retained his coaching staff, which creates a very awkward situation--particularly since assistant coach Eddie Jordan's Princeton offense has been heavily criticized. How much input do Coach Brown's former assistants have with Coach D'Antoni? How well can the members of that staff work together with D'Antoni after D'Antoni replaced the man who hired them? It is not hard to figure out why the players, the coach and the coaching staff do not seem to be on the same page; they may not even be reading the same book!

Contrary to Mike Wilbon's assertion, the Lakers are not just a team of stars thrown together without proper consideration of their respective skill sets. Bryant is a great scorer and playmaker and still one of the top five all-around players in the league, Howard--when fully healthy--is a dominant rebounder and defender who can also score in the paint, Gasol is a talented and versatile (though declining) power forward and Nash is still one of the league's best playmakers. Those four skill sets mesh much better than, say, the skill sets of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade (Chris Bosh, the third member of Miami's Big Three, plays well with either James or Wade). James and Wade do the same things but James does them much better because he is bigger, stronger, faster, younger and healthier. The idea that the Heat won the 2012 championship mainly because Wade ceded team leadership to James is absurd. James was the Heat's best player and leader the instant that he signed with the team; in 2011 he still lacked the maturity to lead a team to a championship and he quit in the NBA Finals much like he quit versus Boston in the 2010 playoffs. James deserves tremendous credit for objectively analyzing and systematically eliminating the psychological weaknesses and the skill set issues (specifically, shot selection and the lack of a post up game) that had previously caused him to come up short against elite opponents in playoff competition. Wade did not cede anything to James; James took control of his team and, for at least one season, the entire league.

The Heat struggled early in the Big Three's first season together but they rallied to make it to the 2011 NBA Finals and then they won the 2012 championship. The Lakers' potential championship window is obviously smaller than the Heat's because three of the Lakers' top four players are at least 30 years old but if the Lakers ever get fully healthy their four stars should mesh together better and more quickly than Miami's three stars did. However, it is reasonable to wonder if the Lakers' four stars will ever be fully healthy at the same time; Nash's broken leg seems to be healing very slowly, Howard has yet to regain full mobility in the wake of his back surgery, Gasol seems to be breaking down both physically and mentally (he has been declining for two years now, so the issue runs deeper than his recent knee problems) and if Bryant has to continue to run the Archangel offense then an injury and/or general fatigue will likely slow him down in the latter portion of the season; despite battling back spasms, Bryant led the Lakers in scoring (31 points), rebounds (10) and assists (six) versus the Knicks on Thursday night, an impossibly difficult workload for him to maintain at 34 years old with more than 50,000 regular season and playoff minutes on his career odometer. I am skeptical that the Lakers will straighten themselves out this season but not for the reasons that Wilbon mentioned.
 
ESPN's Tim Legler noted that the statistic about the Lakers being 1-10 (after Thursday's loss they are now 1-11) when Bryant scores at least 30 points is "misleading" because on many nights the Lakers need for Bryant to score a lot just to stay in the game; Bryant's high scoring totals in those losses are not the cause of the losses but rather symptomatic of one of the Lakers' biggest problems: Bryant is the only player on the roster who consistently accepts the challenge to play hard every night. Legler's analysis refutes the ridiculous assertions repeatedly made by Wilbon and others regarding Bryant's shot selection.

A major concern for the Lakers is that Coach D'Antoni has adopted a very defeatist attitude; instead of imploring the healthy players to give maximum effort, he keeps insisting that all will be well once Nash returns to action. This is a bad coaching strategy for two reasons: (1) It is not clear when Nash will come back or what kind of shape he will be in by that time; (2) if the Lakers develop poor work habits and it becomes acceptable to miss assignments and not play hard then those poor work habits and lack of hustle will not be easy to correct. A team with Bryant, a limited Howard and a bunch of role players is not a championship contender but it should not be several games below .500, either. Lakers' fans should understand that this is not 2007, though; five years ago Bryant could push, pull and drag Kwame Brown, Smush Parker and other NBA flotsam to the playoffs but Bryant--as good as he still is--cannot pull off similar heroics now. He needs more help.

While the Lakers are basketball royalty whose crown now sits askew, the Knicks have gone from the outhouse to the penthouse: they have not won a playoff series since 2000 but they currently own the best record in the Eastern Conference. One obvious difference is that Carmelo Anthony has been very productive and efficient, posting the third highest scoring average of his career, the best three point shooting percentage of his career and the fourth best overall field goal percentage of his career. He is still not a great rebounder, passer or defender but it looks like he is in the best shape of his career and that he has committed himself to playing hard on a consistent basis instead of in fits and spurts. What caused Anthony to change? Coach Mike Woodson is holding Anthony accountable at both ends of the court and it appears that we are once again witnessing the Jason Kidd Effect, which may not be provable statistically but nevertheless exists: every team that Kidd joins becomes better and every team that he leaves becomes worse. Kidd is mentally and physically tough, he is unselfish and he is a defensive-minded player, four qualities that the Knicks have lacked for many years. Kidd is only fifth on the Knicks in minutes played and in his old age he has evolved from a dynamic point guard into a spot up three point shooter but the impact of his professionalism is being felt on and off the court. Simply put, the Knicks no longer play or act like knuckleheads.

Starting point guard Raymond Felton has been a solid NBA player for many years and his numbers this season are more or less in line with his career numbers (though he is shooting a career-high .392 from three point range) but he is doing an excellent job of running the team even if there are not specific statistics that completely quantify his impact.

The Knicks are not a great defensive team (they rank 23th in defensive field goal percentage and 25th in rebounding) but they have improved enough so that their defense is no longer a liability; meanwhile, the Kidd-Felton backcourt is spearheading an offensive attack that features the deadly Anthony (who can score in the post, on the drive and from behind the three point arc) and tremendous three point shooting while ranking first in the league in fewest turnovers. The Knicks are so efficient on offense that they are creating enough "extra" possessions to make up for their poor rebounding and solid but not spectacular defense.

Kidd will continue to be the consummate professional, as will fellow championship ring owners Tyson Chandler and Rasheed Wallace, but it remains to be seen if Anthony and J.R. Smith will be focused and efficient for the whole season; it also remains to be seen if the Knicks can maintain their extraordinary three point shooting and their virtually error-free ballhandling. The Knicks are better than I expected but I still am not convinced that Carmelo Anthony can be the best player on a championship team. It will be very interesting to see how far the Knicks advance in the 2013 playoffs.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:50 AM

13 comments

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13 Comments:

At Friday, December 14, 2012 11:44:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How do you think the knicks will soon after Stoudemire and Shumpert return? There had been talk of having Stoudemire come off the bench. I think on paper the knicks will be much better but I'm not sure how that will translate to on the court performance.

 
At Friday, December 14, 2012 1:39:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Shumpert is an energetic, defensive-minded player who will easily fit into the rotation. Stoudemire is a talented player but it is still not clear how to utilize him in a way that maximizes his skills without taking away from what Anthony does best. Some players have the right mentality to be a sixth man and others do not have that mentality so it will be interesting to see what Coach Woodson does once Stoudemire returns to action. I am not sure that Stoudemire will be happy and/or effective coming off of the bench and I also am not sure if the Knicks can really get away with playing small (with Anthony at power forward) for a whole season so Stoudemire will probably start if he can stay healthy and regain his former productivity.

 
At Friday, December 14, 2012 1:54:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

Do you think Howard came back a couple of months too early?

He is no longer a six space rebounder, that is, he does not jump diagonally like he used to, either for rebounds or defense.

That caused a chain reaction (unable to cover for slow-footed perimeter defenders, fewer scoring opportunities from offensive rebounds, etc) that exposed the rest of the roster's frailties.

If Howard regains some of his old form (he's young enough at 26 or 27) the Lakers may return to the playoffs as a lower seeded, dark horse favorite, & scare the bejeezebus out of the other favorites in the Western conference like the Grizzlies, Spurs, Thunder, and Clippers.

 
At Friday, December 14, 2012 2:03:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Awet M:

I am not sure if Howard came back too early. Presumably he has been cleared medically and is not risking his health. From a performance standpoint, he is not yet the player that he used to be but he is still arguably the best center in the league even in his current limited state. I agree that the Lakers could potentially pull themselves together and be a scary low seed (a la the 1995 Rockets) but the Lakers will either have to quickly return to health or else make a trade in order for that to happen.

 
At Saturday, December 15, 2012 5:33:00 PM, Blogger jackson888 said...

david,

great article as usual. great analysis from my favorite basketball columnist.
my two cents...
talking heads, including charles barkley, have been saying the knicks can't win shooting the long ball all the time. but a quarter of the season has passed and the knicks are still shooting the long ball well and are still winning. the key is that the knicks are buying into their coach's system and philosophies, so they are winning. even when melo was out, they still won over miami. kidd obviously has a profound influence on them. but i believe the other vets(camby, thomas and rasheed) do too. accountability. they hold everyone accountable, that's why they are winning.
"you can't make chicken salad out of chicken ***". lakers have 28M worth of players(gasol and nash) injured. plus blake and hill(versus wizards). very obvious reasons why they are struggling. second and third string players playing starter minutes.
kobe's having back spasms. psychologists have been saying that bearing a big burden psychologically can often lead to physical manifestations. talking heads have been criticizning kobe for lakers' losing record when he hits 30 or more points this season, implying that he should shoot less for the lakers to win. nonsense. kobe had to play aggressively because his teammates were not hitting their open shots. and kobe had to carry the scoring burden for them to have a good chance of winning the game. kobe has been shooting at a high percentage, so definitely he is not a part of the problem.

 
At Saturday, December 15, 2012 5:33:00 PM, Blogger jackson888 said...

lakers are not buying into coach mda's system. hire a coach with a running/quick hit system and now the players want to slow the game down? buy into the coach's system and live with it. note how after the lakers' loss to the knicks, mda and howard were asked what they want to change offensively. mda said he wants more pick and rolls. howard said he wanted more low post touches. mda wants pau at the elbow/free throw area after the roll and pau wants low post touches. buy into the coach's system and commit to it(kobe's done that and assumed more ball handling duties doing the pick and roll as he explained to pau). players have to adjust and commit to the coach's system.
can't understand why dwight always has to bat the ball out of bounds when blocking an opponent's shot. can't he take a book out of bill's playbook and block the shot toward a teammate and start the fastbreak?
kobe has been setting up teammates for open shots and they have to knock them down. there were 3 consecutive sequences versus the wizards where kobe created open shots for teammates and they just kept missing those bunnies. first the fastbreak bounce pass to meeks where meeks flubbed the open layup. then kobe drew the double team on a drive and dished to sacre(rim shot opportunity) and sacre mishandled the ball(kobe probably got credited for a turnover). next kobe again drew the double team from the 3 point area and passed to metta. metta missed the open shot. still, talking heads kept insisting kobe scoring 30 points is messing up lakers' offense.
play darius morris more and build up his confidence. if the lakers wish to contend for the championship down the road, morris's defense on fast/quick opposing point guards will be needed. morris obviously has his shortcomings but he is fast, long limbed and has good defensive instincts.
let kobe handle the pick and roll sets, not duhon. duhon is always open during the pick and roll actions where the opposing team always doubles the screen man. duhon turns the corner but doesn't have the lift to even get a shot off in the paint(opponents always funnel him to the paint) nor does he pull up for the open midrange jumper. this messes up the system. let kobe handle the pick and roll and let duhon hit the open jumper as the release valve from the quarter court.
kobe has been active defensively. there are still 1 or 2 instances every game where he doesn't rush back durning opposing team's fast break but these are few and far between(as opposed to the lakers' first 15 games). but give kobe some slack. the guy is 34 and has to carry the team's offense for long stretches every game. nobody can have the stamina to do so all the time. but kobe is being accountable and leading. and the lakers will turn the corner if kobe keeps this up(you correctly pointed out that the lakers' problems stem from their defensive woes).

 
At Monday, December 17, 2012 1:11:00 AM, Blogger Adam said...

Great analysis as usual. My only objection is putting Rasheed Wallace and consummate professional in the same sentence. This is the same man who holds the record for technical fouls in a season and signed with the Celtics completely out of shape. He has one of the prettiest, most unblockable jumpers in basketball history, but nobody will ever mistake him for a consummate professional.

 
At Monday, December 17, 2012 2:08:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Adam:

TNT analyst Steve Kerr, who used to be Wallace's teammate in Portland, has talked about what a great teammate Wallace is and noted that it is hard to find anyone who played with Wallace who will say a bad word about him; Wallace has some anger management issues but he is an unselfish player who works hard at both ends of the court. I think that Wallace in his prime had the talent to be a number one option but by nature he was willing to accept being a second or third option; that would be my main criticism of him (other than the obvious fact that his anger management issues hurt him and his teams at times).

 
At Monday, December 17, 2012 12:52:00 PM, Anonymous boyer said...

I don't think he was ever a great #1. He's more like Pau, much more comfortable as a #2/#3 option. And also everyone used to overrate Wallace in a similar way people do with Pau. We always heard that Wallace is so gifted, can shoot long range and is great in the post. But, he could never put it altogether and become an elite player. He much more preferred to be on the perimeter than on the inside, despite being a bruiser-type player. He definitely played harder than Pau does, but his anger management issues are ridiculous. I think of David West being similar to Wallace, a poor man's Wallace, though. Similar types of players, but each very volatile.

 
At Monday, December 17, 2012 3:05:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Boyer:

I did not say that Wallace was a "great number one." I said that he had the talent to be a number one option but that he did not have the mindset to do so.

 
At Wednesday, December 19, 2012 3:50:00 PM, Blogger Adam said...

I have no objection to the idea that Rasheed Wallace is a great teammate, unselfish as a player, and pretty damn funny. His bit with the championship belts with the Pistons was hilarious. The fact that he's an awesome guy still doesn't forgive him taking his team out of games because of his anger issues nor showing up fat and out of shape after signing million dollar contracts. He certainly doesn't seem like the type of guy who can separate emotion from work as every ref who's handled him in a game would probably attest.

 
At Thursday, December 20, 2012 12:02:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Adam:

Wallace certainly did not show up in shape as an older journeyman for the Celtics but in general I do not recall conditioning or work ethic being a problem during his career. Your criticism of his emotional self-control is valid but does not change the fact that his teammates have viewed him positively overall; frankly, his teammates probably have a higher opinion of Wallace than I do but I try to not let any bias seep into my analysis and the fact is that within the league Wallace is viewed as an unselfish teammate who can be a solid contributor to a winning program both as a star in his prime and as a role player in the twilight of his career.

 
At Thursday, December 20, 2012 2:53:00 PM, Anonymous Derrick said...

I may be late to the discussion, but this was a good article highlighting what you have been saying for some time now. Kobe's record when shooting over some point total or shot attempts is a correlation, not a cause to the team's record.

http://www.wineandcheesecrowd.com/its-not-kobe/

The article does a good job shooting huge holes into that arguments against Kobe shooting more.

 

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