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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

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