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Monday, February 25, 2013

Lakers Discover Correct Formula

The L.A. Lakers have stumbled and bumbled through most of this season but they have gone 11-4 in their past 15 games and they seem to have discovered the correct formula for success. When I praised the series of moves that essentially swapped Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom for Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, I envisioned a team whose defense would be anchored by Howard's mobile, agile presence in the paint and whose offense would attack in multiple ways: screen/roll actions with Howard/Nash, high-low play with Howard and Pau Gasol, isolation sets featuring Kobe Bryant and open corner three pointers for Metta World Peace, Jodie Meeks, Steve Blake and other shooters as a result of defenses scrambling to contain Bryant, Howard, Gasol and Nash. On paper, a healthy Lakers' squad matches up well with any team in the league. Of course, we all know that the season has not turned out that way at all: Howard is still not 100% physically, Nash broke his leg in the second game, Gasol has missed 21 games due to injury (and is out of action indefinitely due to a torn platar fascia) and Bryant has been asked to do everything from scoring 30 points on .500-plus shooting to posting double digit assists to guarding faster, younger guards to trying to convince Howard to take a more serious approach. The Lakers fired Coach Mike Brown after just five games, went 4-1 under interim Coach Bernie Bickerstaff and then struggled to adjust to Coach Mike D'Antoni's system, which does not quite mesh with the skill set strengths and weaknesses of the Lakers' key players.

The injuries that have limited Howard, Gasol and Nash are by far the biggest reason that the Lakers have failed to meet expectations but it is also undeniable that the Lakers did not play correctly until very recently: they lacked energy, effort and organization defensively, while their high turnover rate offensively negated their solid field goal shooting and wasted arguably the most efficient season of Bryant's career (despite a January slump, Bryant is still shooting a career-high .469 from the field). What has changed in the past 15 games? Howard has regained a lot--but not all--of his former bounce physically and as his athletic prowess has returned his attitude and energy level have improved: Howard is shutting down the paint on defense and his active screen-setting on offense has made the Lakers difficult to guard even without Gasol. Bryant won the Western Conference Player of the Week award for February 19-24 after averaging 31.3 ppg, 7.7 rpg and 6.0 apg as the Lakers went 3-0, beating Boston, Portland and Dallas. Earl Clark has performed solidly as a "stretch four" in place of Gasol; the Lakers are not better without Gasol than they are with him (their improvement has more to do with Howard's rise than Gasol's absence) but Gasol is a declining player and the Lakers would have been well served if they could have traded Gasol for a young, athletic small forward, enabling D'Antoni to surround Howard with four active, small players. Nash returned to his .500/.400/.900 shooting ways in January and he is again shooting better than .500 from the field and better than .400 from the three point line in February (his February free throw percentage is .846).

If the Lakers avoid any more injuries and if Bryant, Howard and Nash continue to play the way that they have in the past 15 games or so then the Lakers are capable of winning at least 18 of their final 25 games, which should be enough to squeeze into the playoffs as the eighth seed. It is still difficult to picture the Lakers winning a seven game series against an elite team but if the Lakers make the playoffs then they will be a team that actually fits the overused cliche about being a squad that no one wants to face: dealing with the Bryant-Howard-Nash trio in a playoff series could be a formidable task even for San Antonio or Oklahoma City and if Gasol is able to contribute anything then the Lakers will present some serious matchup problems. Role players Metta World Peace, Earl Clark and Antawn Jamison will have to be productive for the Lakers to salvage their season and possibly make some noise in the playoffs. The 1995 Rockets won the championship as a sixth seed with Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler leading the way while role players made key contributions; it will be interesting to see if Bryant and Howard can rally the Lakers in similar fashion. I would not bet on it at this point--but that scenario looks more plausible today than it did even two weeks ago.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:14 PM

18 comments

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18 Comments:

At Tuesday, February 26, 2013 11:27:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe Lakers can still make playoffs also. And seeding doesn't always matter come playoff time.

As for gasol I agree la should trade him eventually. I believe he is overpaid and is no longer a great second option anymore.


I sometimes think what if houston got him in that Paul deal if it went down. Gasol would be exposed and Houston's gm wouldn't look so good.

 
At Tuesday, February 26, 2013 12:22:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

How good does Houston GM Daryl Morey look even now with three Lottery appearances in five seasons and a 9-10 playoff record? He gave Harden a max deal and the Rockets still may end up with their fourth Lottery appearance in the past six seasons. If "advanced basketball statistics" provide a tangible advantage in building a championship team then Houston should have had a lot more success over the past several seasons.

Anyway, back to the Lakers: the injuries and coaching changes put them behind the eight ball but they are now providing glimpses of their potential. Playing at Denver in the second game of a back to back was tough but if the Lakers close the gap with Houston then the final game of the season versus the Rockets could be a de facto one game playoff.

 
At Tuesday, February 26, 2013 2:45:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree it can come down to a one game playoff between rockets and Lakers. I do believe la could get the eighth or maybe seventh.

Also... lakers better hope Dwight resigns. when Kobe decides to hang it up, then they can still have howard, whos proven when 100 percent hes a franchise calibur player.

 
At Tuesday, February 26, 2013 3:38:00 PM, Anonymous boyer said...

I don't think the lakers are really playing that much better. Their pt. differential in this recent stretch is pretty much on par with their entire season. They're playing with a little more energy, but their defense is still garbage. They're just winning a few more close games that they didn't early on in the season, and they're still getting run out of the building fairly routinely. Most of their recent losses are double-digit defeats.

The only real difference I see, as you pointed out, is that Howard is now more active. They're still not that good, and I doubt they could even win against the 5th or 6th seeds in the west in a 7-game series, let alone one of the top teams.

While I don't think Morey is anything special, we need to be fair to him, and it's not like the lakers are setting the world on fire the past 3 years either. These so-called lottery picks you mention, the best pick they had was #12. You're probably not going to get a difference maker there, and you usually have to wait a few years to see something. Almost every year, at least one top 5 pick won't pan out. The past few drafts haven't been all that great either. Time will tell, though. What he does in the next 2 years will tell us a lot. He hasn't had much opportunity to make a huge splash. Now, they have a big-time player, with other quality role players. They need a legit #2 to give along with Harden. Harden's stats are on right par, if not better, than Kobe's 09 and 10 season stats. He's a top 10 player this year so far, very surprising, but he's doing awesome. And we almost never see a team even remotely become even a near contender without a top player. Even the teams with several very good, at least near AS caliber players and with a deep team overall, rarely make the conf. finals. If a GM can't get one of these players, his team has virtually no chance of making much noise at all.

 
At Tuesday, February 26, 2013 6:02:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Boyer:

The Lakers are 11-5 in their past 16 games. That is much better than their record prior to that point. The Lakers have had a positive point differential for most, if not all, of this season, so one could argue that their overall record is actually worse than it should be.

I have been very fair to Morey. "Stat gurus" have long proclaimed that "advanced basketball statistics" are a much better evaluation tool than any of the tools used by conventional GMs and scouts; if that theory is true then it is reasonable to expect that a GM who uses "advanced basketball statistics" as his primary evaluation tool should have an advantage over the Luddite GMs who don't use "advanced basketball statistics." Morey has been running the Rockets for over five years and they have missed the playoffs more often than they have made the playoffs. There is no real world evidence that the "advanced basketball statistics" he is using are providing any advantage over conventional evaluation tools. How much longer do you propose that Morey be given a free pass? The "stat gurus" never hesitate to criticize GMs who don't use "advanced basketball statistics."

If you really think that Harden is having the same impact that Bryant had during the Lakers' championship seasons in '09 and '10 then you are delusional. Harden is having roughly the same impact that Kevin Martin had in Houston when Martin scored a lot of points and the Rockets fought for the eighth seed just like the Rockets are fighting for the eighth seed this year.

 
At Tuesday, February 26, 2013 7:32:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As I stated before, I believ Lakers can get the eighth seed.
Going forward I think gasol should be on the trading block.

As for Harden, you can't compare him to Martin.Hardly is clearly on another level. whether or not Harden is a franchise player as of now is debateable. if hes considered one then theres no point in comparing martin to him.

 
At Tuesday, February 26, 2013 11:44:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I agree with you about the Lakers and about Gasol.

Why is Harden "clearly on another level" compared to Martin? Don't give me the hype that the media spews; provide an actual, skill-set based analysis and/or provide some in context numbers to prove your point. Here is my take on that comparison (written a few weeks ago, so the winning percentages have changed but the larger point remains true):

"Strip away all of the hype about Harden's individual numbers and look at Houston's bottom line: a .515 winning percentage in 2011-12 without Harden and a .531 winning percentage in 2012-13 with Harden, which over 82 games roughly translates into the difference between being a 42 win team and being a 44 win team. Meanwhile, the Thunder not only improved their financial situation by dealing Harden but they actually increased their winning percentage from .712 in 2011-12 to .745 in 2012-13."

In the comments section after that post, I provided additional evidence:

"When Martin was the number one option in Houston in 2010-11 (he only played in 40 of 66 games last season), he averaged 23.5 ppg in 80 games (all starts). His shooting percentages (FG, 3FG, FT respectively) were .436, .383, .888. He also averaged 3.2 rpg, 2.5 apg and 2.3 tpg. Houston went 43-39 and missed the playoffs by three games. This season as OKC's sixth man, Martin is averaging 15.1 ppg with shooting percentages of .453, .438 (fifth in the NBA) and .904 (first in the NBA). He is averaging 2.3 rpg, 1.3 apg and 1.4 tpg. Harden averaged 16.8 ppg while shooting .491, .390 and .846 as OKC's sixth man last season. He averaged 4.1 rpg, 3.7 apg and 2.2 tpg. This season in Houston, Harden is averaging 25.6 ppg while shooting .440, .337 and .853. He is averaging 4.5 rpg, 5.6 apg and 3.8 tpg. As mentioned before, Houston's winning percentage is worse and OKC's winning percentage is better. Martin's numbers as the top option in Houston are comparable to Harden's and Martin's numbers as the sixth man in OKC are comparable to Harden's. In both cases, Martin's teams have been slightly more successful (in terms of winning percentage) than Harden's. There is no statistical and/or 'eye test' evidence that Harden is 'clearly better' than Martin."

I'm not saying that Martin is better than Harden or even that Martin is as good as Harden--but I strongly dispute the popular idea that Harden is "clearly better" than Martin. Neither the individual statistics nor the team winning percentages bear this out. Both Harden and Martin have proven that they can score well over 20 ppg for a .500 team and that they can score 15-16 ppg for a winning team.

 
At Wednesday, February 27, 2013 4:03:00 PM, Anonymous DanielSong39 said...

Not sure how the Lakers' play the rest of the season should play a factor in Morey's ability as a GM.

With that said, based on what I've seen from Morey, his methodology has less to do with number crunching and more to do with gambling on young players who've shown flashes.

No amount of number crunching will tell you if the player who's had success over a short stretch or as a bench player will be able to translate that in a full-time role. That has everything to do with fundamentals and scouting.

Considering Houston was expected to win 33 games this season Morey has clearly done good work. Not sure whether they'll level out as Washington 2.0 (with Harden as the next Gilbert Arenas) or will become a bona fide contender, but I do think will Houston will emerge as a perennial playoff team. Considering what he had to work with, that's not too bad.

With that said, I hope Houston shows their youth and Golden St. and Utah show their true ability so the Lakers will have an easier time getting in.

 
At Wednesday, February 27, 2013 4:41:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Daniel Song 39:

I did not say that the Lakers' play down the stretch affects my evaluation of Morey; I merely responded to a comment about Morey.

Morey considers himself to be a "stat guru"/advocate of "advanced basketball statistics" and is cited as an example of a "stat guru" who has become a GM, so we know what his "methodology" is--at least from a general standpoint, even if the specific numbers he uses and how he weights those numbers may be proprietary.

I'm not sure how you came up with the 33 number. I picked the Rockets to just miss the playoffs, so we'll see what happens. Even if they grab the eighth seed I would not consider that to be a huge accomplishment.

Morey inherited a 50-plus win team with a strong owner who has won championships before and Morey has transformed that team into one that is just as likely to be a Lottery team as to be a playoff team; I fail to see what is so impressive about this.

 
At Wednesday, February 27, 2013 8:38:00 PM, Anonymous DanielSong39 said...

I judge a person's "methodology" by what he actually does instead of what he claims to do. Clearly Morey's strategy is to gamble on a lot of young players.

You clearly had high hopes for the Rockets at the start of the season but the season over-under for wins for the Rockets was 33.

As for the Rockets, they obviously had to rebuild after their previous core got old. Not sure what you can do in that situation other than tank and strike jackpot in the draft, or gamble on a lot of unknown young players and hope a few pan out. Morey opted for the latter.

 
At Wednesday, February 27, 2013 11:09:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At Wednesday, February 27, 2013 11:12:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Daniel Song 39:

Morey and his advocates have repeatedly asserted that using "advanced basketball statistics" provides Houston with an edge not only in terms of building a roster but also in terms of deciding upon in game strategies. Supposedly, the Rockets used "advanced basketball statistics" to figure out how to slow down Kobe Bryant, though we heard much less about that after Bryant averaged 28.3 ppg while shooting .530 from the field and .533 from three point range as the Lakers beat the Rockets 4-0 in the 2009 regular season.

Bill Walsh once said that it should not take longer than three years to take a team from the bottom of the NFL standings to being a legit contender. While we are talking about a different era and a different sport, Morey has been on the job in Houston twice as long as Walsh's timetable and the Rockets are not even close to being a legit contender. How much leeway should Morey be given? Should the Rockets give him a five year deal now to make sure that he has a total of 10 years to prove just how much of an advantage that "advanced basketball statistics" supply? Where are all of the media critics who mocked so many other GMs and proclaimed that Morey and other "stat gurus" would put the old school GMs to shame? ESPN's basketball blogger has written about 2 million posts purporting to prove that Kobe Bryant is not clutch but--as far as I know (and I don't read his stuff, so I could be wrong)--he has yet to write one critical word about Morey's lack of success in Houston. Bill Simmons idiotically asserted that Doc Rivers is not a good coach but I have yet to hear him say one bad thing about "stat guru" Morey.

I did not and do not have any "hopes" for Houston. I don't care how the Rockets do. I made a prediction that they would fall just short of the eighth seed, so right now they are performing about how I expected. Over/under lines are set so that half of the bettors will bet one way and half of the bettors will bet the other way and thus the lines are as much an interpretation of what fans think as they are a prediction about what will happen. Whoever set the line was not predicting that Houston would win 33 games but rather he was predicting that half of the bettors would pick the over and half of the bettors would pick the under. The Lakers tend to be overestimated by fans/bettors, which is why the Vegas line "predicted" that they would be strong title contenders in 2011-12, while I correctly predicted that they would lose in the second round.

 
At Thursday, February 28, 2013 10:56:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

About rockets being a lottery team, look at how T-mac and Yao faded. They were teammates from 2004 to the midway through the 2009-2010 season I believe. yao missed the entire 2009-2010 season. And tmac was traded during season. His value declined a lot. yao played jusr a few games in 2010-2011 and retired afterwards.

I think you should consider those things when you say Houston was a lottery team for three straight years prior to this season. Tmac and yao never stayed healthy. As for la sweeping houston in playoffs in 2009, houston took la to seven games in the playoffs that year withoit tmac and yao.


So you cant really put all the blame on housons gm. i just wonder why he didnt keep Adleman. As for Harden i say hes clearly better than martin because Harden is all nba second team capable at least in my opinion. wether. Hes a franchise calibir player is highly debateable. Martin can only dream of being All nba second team.

La can definitely be a dangerous first round matchup if howard , nash and the bench can provide a spark to help kobe out.

 
At Thursday, February 28, 2013 3:27:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I considered all of the factors you mentioned and I have the same question: How many years should Morey be granted to turn the Rockets into a legit contender? Media members relentlessly critique the coaches and GMs who they don't like but they give a free pass to the coaches and GMs who they like. Morey is very popular with the media even though the Rockets have been a mediocre team with him at the helm.

Another question is, "What proof is there that Morey is using a player evaluation system that gives him a tangible advantage over traditional scouting methods?"

"Stat guru" advocates insisted that the hiring of Morey was some kind of breakthrough for "advanced basketball statistics." The won-loss column hardly suggests that some kind of breakthrough or revolution is taking place in Houston.

Perhaps Harden will be voted to the All-NBA Second Team but the reality is that what he has done in Houston so far is essentially the same thing that Martin did: score 20-plus ppg for a team that is hanging around .500. Martin has also done the same thing that Harden did: average 15-16 ppg as the sixth man for a legit contender.

 
At Thursday, February 28, 2013 5:30:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I cant say how many more years he needs. but for those supposed three straight lottery picks, its not like houston was getting a top five pick in those drafts. they were getting like the fourteenth picks. i do agree with you that its not like okc was robbed in that deal, because martin is proving himself as a good enough sixth man. I think a lof gms would have traded martin for harden also.it just remains to be seen if he will live up to being a franchise player, a term thats overused so much. harden got 80 mill for five years i think. thats less than what some inferior players to harden get. Heck tyson chandler is gettin over 14 mill a yr from knicks and he has no offensive game other than catching alleyhoop dunks. compare that too 16 mill a yr for harden.


I think houston is in the right derection with trade. maybe the gm aint that good, but he couldnt get nothing in draft so he made a trade.

 
At Friday, March 01, 2013 6:22:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

The point about Houston being in the Lottery so frequently on Morey's watch has nothing to do with the draft picks, though it is worth noting that the Spurs have made very good use of non-Lottery picks over the years; the point is that "stat guru" advocates in the media asserted that Morey's use of "advanced basketball statistics" would provide him a big edge over other GMs but despite this supposed edge the Rockets are still a mediocre team well into his sixth year running the club.

Since the subject of this article was the Lakers, not the Rockets, this concludes the Houston portion of the discussion in this comments section.

 
At Friday, March 01, 2013 2:41:00 PM, Anonymous DanielSong39 said...

Lakers will have a shot to go deep if Dwight Howard plays at an other-worldly level come playoff time and earns the alpha-dog role. I have faith that Kobe will figure things out on the fly if that happens.

With that said, the Lakers have basically a 2-year window - this season and next season. I think the Lakers can get Howard to commit to at least a 1-year contract. After that, Kobe will either retire or take a reduced role, and the Lakers will have to hit a home run in free agency (Lebron? Anthony? Whoever emerges as a star among Irving/Rubio/Wall/Davis?).

Hopefully the Lakers can get at least a 6 seed and give themselves a better shot of making a run.

In any case it's apparent that advanced stats will make very little impact in the Laker's hopes to build a contender. And same goes for the Rockets; if they succeed it will be due to Morey's, scouts', and coaches' abilities to choose and develop young players.

 
At Wednesday, March 13, 2013 12:46:00 PM, Anonymous DanielSong39 said...

Wow, what a game from Howard against his old team! The Lakers will need him to play at that level if they are to compete for a title. If Howard continues to flourish and Gasol gives them something off the bench, I think the Lakers might to some damage in the postseason.

 

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