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Friday, March 09, 2012

Why Do the Lakers Squander so Many Leads and Why do They Play Poorly on the Road?

The reflexive, mainstream media answer to the title question of this article is that Kobe Bryant "is not clutch" or at least that he has "not been clutch" this season. There are two problems with that kind of thinking:

1) "Clutch" statistics inherently involve a small sample size of data that contains a variety of kinds of plays and shots that cannot just be mixed together to produce any kind of rational, coherent analysis.

2) While it is true that Kobe Bryant's overall performance on the road--which comprises a much larger sample size than just his "clutch" statistics--this season has been much worse than his overall performance at home, the Lakers' problems go deeper than Bryant's road field goal percentage.

Kevin Ding, a rare NBA beat writer who actually provides excellent analysis instead of just filing by the numbers postgame reports, recently offered his take on the Lakers' road problems:

The Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder flat-out have the speed and bounce to win without refined execution--and to win for sure when they indeed do execute. We now know even better than three months ago how badly the Lakers needed at least an infusion of offensive creativity from Paul at point guard.

Lakers coach Mike Brown did craft this plan to play through big men Andrew Bynum and Gasol in the post, but Brown will admit the limitations of that approach.

"The post is the easiest place in basketball to double," Brown said.

That's why Brown is so often looking like a one-man bowling team with those constant underhand waves at Derek Fisher and Steve Blake to hurry the ball across halfcourt. The Lakers need every precious shot-clock second to set up the proper spacing, get Bryant a touch, throw the ball into the post, draw the double team, pass it back out, set up and fight for the re-post, swing the ball to the weak side to look for something there and ideally reach a fourth option on offense before the 24-second clock expires.

Doing all that is not a particularly fun way to play the game, which is a basic reason the Lakers do not do it when they're messing around instead of approaching the game in the most businesslike manner. (And if you've got a lead, is it human nature to stay businesslike or try to have some fun? Yeah, now you know why the Lakers blow so many leads.)

That cavalier attitude is what bit the Lakers in Washington, with Bynum piling up seven turnovers and Bryant jacking tough shots up before double teams arrived instead of everyone making patient passes, cutting toward space and doing the work.

Bryant has played a major role on five championship teams and he has been the Lakers' primary playmaker for the vast majority of his career. Is it logical to leap to the conclusion that his subpar road performance this season "proves" that he is a selfish gunner who is simply trying to move up the all-time scoring list or does it make more sense--based on Bryant's track record and the Lakers' anemic offense overall, as documented by Ding above--to give Bryant the benefit of the doubt and assume that Bryant is trying to do whatever he can to help the Lakers win?

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:26 PM


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At Friday, March 09, 2012 6:28:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

He shot very poorly these last two game and he did take some tough shots that he perhaps shouldn't have. But a lot of the missed shots were actually good shots that he usually makes easily - there were a number of situations in which he set very good looks for himself using his footwork and just couldn't convert, he blew some layups, etc. And the weirdest thing is that if you exclude the late game desperation heaves, he shot fairly well from the three point line.

So he was either very tired (most of the missed easy shots came short), which would be perfectly normal given his age and the workload he's shouldering, or it was just two of those nights in a row.

At Saturday, March 10, 2012 1:00:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Bryant admitted to being tired and that is usually something he will not do even when it is obvious that he is tired, so it is pretty clear that fatigue had something to do with his poor shooting in recent games--and let's not forget that he still has a torn ligament in his right (shooting) wrist plus some lingering aftereffects from his concussion/broken nose; while Bryant has displayed an admirable willingness and capacity to play through injuries it is very difficult to do so efficiently when you become fatigued. That is why it would be so beneficial for the Lakers if they had enough talent/depth to cut his minutes back to 33 mpg or so but if the Lakers did that then they would drop out of playoff contention completely.

At Saturday, March 10, 2012 4:49:00 PM, Anonymous Chris said...

I don't understand why people are having such trouble understanding why the Lakers are just a mediocre team. It's clear to anyone who watches their games with a functional brain (heck, even advanced stats will say that the Lakers' role players stink). the talent level on the roster is not capable of being consistently good (or even consistently average). Yet this is somehow Kobe's fault.

So all of a sudden, after 16 seasons, Kobe has decided to "not trust his teammates" again according to media? That's funny, the last time Kobe supposedly didn't "trust his teammates" was 2006-2007, which coincidentally happens to be the last time the Lakers' roster was comprised of a mediocre/terrible supporting cast.

The problem with our 24/7 media cycle is that members of the media now feel forced to make up a "compelling" narrative where one does not exist. And they are forced to try to fit the actual facts into the confines of their false narrative.

At Saturday, March 10, 2012 9:20:00 PM, Anonymous JackF said...

I saw the Bynum comments live on video after the Detroit game. He was being sarcastic as he had a smirk on his face. He said "The lakers problem are fixable if we are willing to be real with each other". Brown had jsut laid into the team before that. My guess is Brown didn't address the issue. Which is why Andrew said these comments.
I have always defended Kobe but he seems to have other goals this year. To me it seems like Kobe would rather be the reason why the Lakers are winning rather than see be supporting "actor". We saw that happened last season when Pau Gasol was getting MVP considerations by the media, kobe started jack 30 shots a game. Pau went into the tank after that. he was never the same player. Phil Jackson even made the unusual comment about Kobe "messing the game up". I understand you want to defend Kobe but it is for everybody to see. It is sad to see because Kobe go out this way. Against Detroit, Kobe missed more shots than Bynum and Gasol had attempts.
I partly Blame Jim Buss for this because he let his hate for the triangle and Phil Jackson dictate his choice for Mike Brown as the next Lakers coach.
In my own opinion, Pau Gasol is not the problem. The Lakers should trade Kobe but that is impossible given KObe's gigantic contract and his no trade clause. They could use amnesty clause on Kobe but i doubt they want want to do so for business reasons.

At Sunday, March 11, 2012 12:49:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You are right on target.

At Sunday, March 11, 2012 12:54:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jack F:

You need to read Chris' comment.

You don't evaluate players based solely on how many shots they attempt. If Gasol and Bynum stopped trotting up and down the court (as Jeff Van Gundy described it last year) and instead sprinted to the block to fight for post position then I am sure that they would get more shot attempts--but it is a lot easier to whine than it is to actually play hard.

Kobe does not have "other goals" this year. He is a 33 year old shooting guard with almost 50,000 regular season and playoff minutes on his odometer; he has a torn ligament in his shooting wrist and he is fighting off the aftereffects of a concussion and a broken nose--and yet he has not only played in every game but he is among the minutes leaders! Without Kobe the Lakers would be a lottery team this year but if the Lakers don't get Kobe some help they run the risk of completely wearing him down before the playoffs.

Borrowing from what Chris said, do you really think that for 16 years Kobe has been trying to win championships and then all of sudden this year he decided on a new agenda? Give me a break.

At Wednesday, March 14, 2012 11:07:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Would you still say that a Howard for Bynum/Gasol trade still be necessary for the Lakers to contend for a title? In my opinion, the Lakers are flawed at the PG spot and in bench production, not the front line. I feel as if adding Howard would make the Lakers slightly better but would not address the major issues.

At Thursday, March 15, 2012 12:15:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


The Lakers are certainly flawed in many areas: starting pg, starting sf and the bench. My point--the point that I have been making since last year when the Mavs swept the Lakers--is that the Lakers do not currently have a championship quality team, Kobe Bryant can no longer carry the load that he carried in the past (in terms of minutes played combined with high level of productivity) without getting fatigued and/or injured and neither Bynum nor Gasol are legit franchise players (i.e., I cannot picture either one being the best player on a championship team). Therefore, the Lakers should think of both this season and the future and do whatever necessary (short of trading Kobe) to acquire Dwight Howard. Howard is a legit franchise player and a Bryant-Howard duo would be most formidable. The Lakers could surround that duo with role players a la the 1995 Rockets (Olajuwon-Drexler) and have a shot not only at this year's championship but also at rebuilding around Howard once Bryant declines and eventually retires. Howard is a much better player than Bynum--Howard is more athletic, he rebounds better, he defends much better and he is much more durable. If the Lakers could get Howard and keep Gasol then the Lakers would be in great shape but even if the Lakers had to give up both bigs I still think that would be the right choice.

At Wednesday, March 21, 2012 10:12:00 PM, Anonymous DanielSong39 said...

I am an admitted Lakers fan and Kobe's accomplishments speak for themselves, but I must admit the guy drives me crazy at times.

It boggles my mind to see a 16-year veteran with 5 championship rings continue to put up 5-10 bad shots every single game.

Then again, I suppose I have to take the bad with the good and there has been much more of the latter over the course of his career.

At Thursday, March 22, 2012 6:26:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Daniel Song 39:

Kobe is not taking 5-10 bad shots a game. Jeff Van Gundy has the perfect retort to your comment; during the Lakers' win over the Mavs on Wednesday night, Van Gundy said that you cannot call a shot good or bad based on the result but you have to evaluate it in the air. Prior to the acquisition of Sessions, Kobe was the only Laker who could consistently create a shot both for himself and for a teammate; for years the Lakers have essentially asked Kobe to be both MJ (finisher) and Pippen (distributor) and that dual role is a lot to ask of an injured player who has logged as many minutes as Kobe has. Now that the Lakers have a legit point guard--not an All-Star pg, mind you, like the Thunder and Spurs have--I expect that Kobe's shooting percentage will go up not because his shot selection will change but rather because he will be less fatigued.

By the way, one of the major fallacies that "stat gurus" relentlessly cling to is that shot creation is not important; they almost have to believe this because shot creation is not something that they understand or can quantify (assists are a largely bogus stat and, in any case, they do not give any indication of which player actually drew the double team that created the open shot).

At Thursday, March 22, 2012 9:20:00 AM, Anonymous DanielSong39 said...

FYI, I do call shots while in the air and about 35-40% of the time, I'm left shaking my head and wondering how he made that shot.

The bigger concern, though, is that Gasol isn't nearly as effective at slashing to the hoop as he was in the past and Bynum isn't consistently working hard to get good low post position. Blake should be more eager to shoot wide-open jumpers and Artest should be doing a better job of creating shot opportunities by moving better off the ball.

As for defense, they have to get better consistency from the second unit and create more turnovers in order to get into transition and get easier shots on offense.

As for Kobe (and Lebron/Wade, Durant, Rose, etc.) - one thing that boggles my mind is why four guys stand around and do nothing while the star player dribbles the ball up and down for 10-15 seconds. These guys are paid to play basketball, not to watch.

At Thursday, March 22, 2012 6:53:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Daniel Song 39:

As I have stated many times, I doubt that any superstar in NBA history has been subjected to such relentless shot by shot analysis as Kobe Bryant; the issue is not "how did he make that shot" but rather whether or not the shot was the right shot given the player's skill set and the game situations (time, score, etc.). In previous seasons I documented many specific instances when Bryant's allegedly "bad" shots were in fact what I call "hand grenades"--the offense fell apart and one of his teammates gave him the ball with the shot clock about to "explode." Many of Bryant's allegedly "bad" shots this season fall into that category; Bryant even recently joked with reporters that if they don't stop asking him about his shot selection he will stop shooting the ball when the shot clock gets low. The other factor to consider is that because of the Lakers' tendency to give the ball to Bryant at the end of the shot clock with few good options he sometimes decides to take the first open shot he can get early in the shot clock (i.e., dribble the ball up the court and take a rhythm jumper). Those quick shots may look forced to the uninitiated but I'd rather see Bryant take a regular shot in rhythm than watch him try to create something 30 feet from the hoop with two seconds left on the shot clock.

Bryant is second in the league in minutes played and it is evident that playing all of those minutes in such a compacted season is wearing him down a bit (along with the wrist injury and the aftereffects of the broken nose/concussion).

It is obvious that the Lakers will not be very successful when Bryant shoot less than .450 from the field--but it should also be obvious that the Lakers will not be successful if Bryant reduces his shot attempts and the Lakers end up with shot clock violations, turnovers and forced shots by non-creators. Just because Pau Gasol shoots 5-7 from the field in a game that does not mean that if he had shot 14 more times he would have made 10 of those shots; Gasol does not aggressively seek out 21 good shot opportunities a game, so if he shoots those "extra" shots they will be lower percentage shots than the ones he actually attempts normally. Many of Gasol's shots come off of action created by Bryant drawing double teams--Gasol gets wide open layups, dunks, tip-ins and jumpers because the opposing team has to trap Bryant. However, there are many possessions when Bryant passes to Gasol and Gasol does nothing more than give the ball back to Bryant with the shot clock dying--and then Bryant has to shoot one of your so-called "bad shots."

At Saturday, March 24, 2012 11:31:00 AM, Anonymous DanielSong39 said...

Unfortunately I don't have a time machine so I admit I don't know what would've happened if Kobe didn't take the jab-step 20-footer, spinning 15-footer, or the contested 3-pointer with plenty of time on the shot clock. All I know is that they are low-percentage shots and it kills me to see so many of them go up.

Then again, perhaps I should defer to his ability to see the game and try to understand why those shots help the team win games.

I did notice that he did not take nearly as many of those shots in last year's playoffs and made a concerted effort to run the offense and set up the big men. Gasol and Bynum did nothing as the Lakers struggled in the first round and got swept in the quarterfinals.

An imperfect analogy, but I do identify with Kobe's style to an extent - I used to be on the Science Bowl team in high school and my strategy was to buzz in early and often, and guess like crazy. I probably drove my teammates nuts but team performed very well.

At Sunday, March 25, 2012 12:15:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Daniel Song 39:

I understand your larger point but I still disagree with your initial statement that Kobe takes "5-10 bad shots" a game.


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