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Thursday, January 20, 2022

L.A. Lakers Drama

Before we delve into the most recent chapter in the "Days of Our Lives--L.A. Lakers Edition," consider how you would answer this question: If you were an NBA coach, would you bench a former NBA MVP who is shooting .370 from the field over his last eight games while dishing for 53 assists and committing 24 turnovers? This player has been a starter all season for a team that has championship aspirations but is 5-3 over their last eight games. This player's poor shooting and shaky ball handling are not just a small sample size slump; he shot .404 from the field in 12 games during December 2021 while passing for 56 assists and committing 45 turnovers.

Many media members could barely contain their ecstasy after L.A. Lakers' Coach Frank Vogel sat Russell Westbrook for the final 3:52 of last night's Lakers-Pacers game. These media members breathlessly stated that this decision was way overdue, that Westbrook's play this season casts doubt on his Hall of Fame candidacy, and that the Lakers' front office fully supports benching Westbrook. "Insiders" claimed that Westbrook was benched because of his defense against Caris LeVert. These same "insiders" also have been reporting for a while that Vogel's job status is being reviewed game to game, and that he is one bad game away from being fired. 

Notably absent from this torrent of verbiage is any fact-based account of what happened during the game, particularly in the final 3:52. The Pacers led 101-94 when Vogel took Westbrook out of the game. The Lakers gained no ground with Westbrook on the bench, losing 111-104. LeVert scored seven of the Pacers' final 10 points, and he assisted on the other three points (a Domantas Sabonis three pointer). We cannot say for sure whether or not Westbrook was the Lakers' main problem during the first 44 minutes, but we know for a fact that taking him out of the game did not help during the final four minutes. Westbrook has been criticized for his turnovers, but he had just one turnover in 27 minutes versus the Pacers. His -18 plus/minus number is not great--but LeBron James' plus/minus number was a team-worst -20. 

It is fascinating to watch James avoid even a figurative scratch as the Lakers' season collapses into a million pieces. Here are some facts that we know:

1) James handpicked this roster. If the pieces don't fit, that is on him as the de facto GM, the best player, and the (presumptive) leader: he either picked the wrong players, or he is doing a lousy job leading the players he picked.

2) James is padding his offensive statistics like there is no tomorrow as he chases Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's all-time career scoring record. James can be seen sitting on the bench looking at the box score during the game, and I somehow doubt that he is looking at team defensive efficiency numbers.

3) Speaking of defense, James has been a conscientious objector at that end of the court for most of this season. His effort level makes James Harden look like the second coming of Michael Cooper. We understand that James' athletic ability and scoring prowess at this age and this stage of his career are remarkable, but James has become one of Kenny Smith's "looters in a riot"--a player putting up numbers that have nothing to do with winning.

4) When the team's best player is disinterested in defense, the other players will generally follow suit (Harden's career provides many examples of this).

5) Vogel is coaching with his neck in a proverbial guillotine, and James acts like this is none of his business. If James spoke up privately or publicly on Vogel's behalf, Vogel's job would be secure. James either does not care whether or not Vogel is fired, or James does not want to be blamed for a firing that James has figured out to be inevitable (though it would not be inevitable if James spoke up).

None of this will materially affect James' legacy. He is in bonus time now; he led three different franchises to at least one championship each, he has four titles overall, and by the time he retires he may have more individual records than anyone other than Wilt Chamberlain. James can add to his legacy by winning another ring, but no one--least of all his adoring media fans--will fault him if he does not win another title.

Back to Westbrook. Did he play well versus the Pacers? No. Is he the first future Hall of Famer to have a subpar game? No. Why do media members treat one regular season game versus the Pacers as if it were game seven of the NBA Finals? Will they keep that same energy when James Harden does his annual playoff flameout? In Harden's last playoff game last season, he shot 5-17 from the field while amassing four turnovers; in his last 20 playoff games (not counting his 43 second cameo versus Milwaukee in game one last season), he has had six games in which he shot .400 or worse from the field, including 4-15 and 5-17 in the two seventh games that he participated in during that span. He shot .300 or worse from three point range in nine of those games. 

Pay close attention the next time Harden plays in a nationally televised game. Hold your breath until any of the above numbers are mentioned. No, don't do that--I don't want any of my readers to suffocate to death.

The media coverage of the NBA is driven by an agenda that canonizes some players and demonizes other players; some players are permanently protected, while other players are permanent targets.

I give TNT's Charles Barkley credit for blasting this nonsense during the pregame show tonight, though it would have been even better if he had called out at least some of the offenders by name. Stephen A. Smith is the loudest and most foolish voice on just about every NBA topic, including the Lakers. With the notable exception of the outstanding Kevin Ding, for quite some time many of the media members covering the Lakers (and the NBA in general) seem much more interested in currying favor with LeBron James and/or the front office than actually doing any real reporting, let alone providing accurate analysis (this dates back to the Kobe Bryant era, when many media members curried favor with Shaquille O'Neal while often unfairly criticizing Bryant). I can't find any Ding articles online that are more recent than December 2020, so perhaps he either has paid the price for being honest or he simply decided to pursue better opportunities than being one of the few serious journalists on tour in a clown car stuffed with self-important buffoons.

So, would you bench the player mentioned in the first paragraph of this article? If you said yes, then you just benched Stephen Curry, who we have been told for months is one of the leading MVP candidates this season. It is worth asking why the media members who are so happy that Westbrook was benched would never dream of suggesting that Curry should be benched.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:34 PM



At Thursday, January 20, 2022 11:55:00 PM, Blogger Kyle Falls said...


I thought you might find this interesting... https://www.ocregister.com/2022/01/20/how-russell-westbrook-and-his-lakers-coaches-arrived-at-an-impasse/

At Friday, January 21, 2022 12:21:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Thank you for sharing.

The Lakers won their most recent title (and all of their titles, for that matter) by playing big. I understand that the coaching staff may not trust the current big men with Davis unavailable, but the notion that playing small with LeBron at center is the answer--particularly when doing so marginalizes Westbrook, who carried the Wizards to the playoffs just a few months ago--makes little sense.

The idea that James is playing great defense because he has averaged 1.4 spg and 1.4 bpg during a recent stretch is, to put it mildly, not persuasive. I have no doubt that James has made some individually spectacular defensive plays at times, but I would not say that he is consistently playing great defense this season.

At Friday, January 21, 2022 10:44:00 AM, Blogger Kyle Falls said...

Honestly, I don't think it's about the coaching staff trusting the big men nor Westbrook for that matter. Dwight is not remotely close to his MVP form, and to a lesser extent, neither is Westbrook. However, Dwight is still a serviceable center in this league and Westbrook is still a top 5 point guard. It is not a coincidence to me at all that both future Hall of Famers are being marginalized for LeBron.

Do I think LeBron gets to make every decision? Absolutely not, but the Lakers are clearly all in on LeBron. He is stat padding like no other. Did you see his layup at the end of the Pacers game? Did you see how he was on the floor with the Lakers' C team down by 30 against the Nuggets? Look at the Lakers' minutes over these past few games. LeBron is around 37mpg while everyone else is 30ish or below. Look at the Lakers' rotations. They are very LeBron-centric.

I've watched every single Laker game this year. There is a very clear difference between opposing teams attacking the paint with Howard on and off the floor. I refuse to believe that a championship coaching staff cannot see this and is not making the necessary adjustments. In an effort to scapegoat Westbrook, they made a huge deal about his turnovers. They have taken the ball out of his hands and the Lakers' winning percentage hasn't changed a bit. Most of these media clowns can not understand that the offense is contributing to Westbrook's shooting percentages, albeit he was never a high percentage scorer in the first place.

To be fair to Vogel, all of LeBron's coaches are on the hot seat (other than Spoelstra after Riley set LeBron's camp straight). I understand that he is in a lose-lose situation. However, I can not help, but think that he is on the scapegoat Westbrook train to get some heat off of himself. It's just a huge mess.

The funniest part to me was this comment LeBron made during his postgame interview, "Listen, I'm in the business of pointing fingers or pointing blame or trying to put a quote at the end or at the start of someone's commentary of what they feel our coaching staff or where Frank is, or Russ is, or where I'm at or AD. If it's not positive for me, I'm cool. It's not my lame. I'm not a negative person." Laughable.

At Friday, January 21, 2022 11:09:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


LeBron has often padded his individual statistics. The 2009 series versus Orlando sticks out to me, as well as several of his NBA Finals appearances, but those are not isolated instances.

LeBron went to L.A. for the off-court business he can do, and to break Kareem's career scoring record while wearing a Lakers jersey. The Lakers enjoyed some good fortune to win the "bubble" title, and the afterglow of that "bubble" title will be used to retroactively justify the rest of his Lakers' career.

At Friday, January 21, 2022 12:24:00 PM, Blogger Kyle Falls said...


Yes, LeBron has been a clear stat-padder his entire career. I was calling him a reincarnation of Wilt years before people caught on to their similarities. I've always been a fan of his, but these shenanigans makes it really hard to like him.

At Friday, January 21, 2022 4:29:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How exactly did LeBron pad his individual statistics in the 2009 ECF?

G1: 49/6/8 on 20-30 shooting, CLE loses by 1
G2: 35/4/5 on 12-23 shooting, CLE wins by 1 on LeBron buzzer-beater
G3: 41/7/9 on 11-28 shooting, CLE loses by 10 (I guess this is the stat-padding game)?
G4: 44/12/7 on 13-29 shooting, CLE loses by 2 in OT
G5: 37/14/12 on 11-24 shooting, CLE wins by 10 (after going into Q4 down 11)
G6: 25/7/7 on 8-20 shooting, CLE loses by 13

I'll never defend LeBron for 2 things: his abysmal 2011 Finals performance and his free throw shooting. I've added a third this season, because he pushed for the Russ trade and he's reaping what he sowed.

LeBron clearly believed he needed a "big three" member who could play on the perimeter and take the load off of him and get him off the ball as he hits year 19, and the list of players who can do that while playing plus defense and stretching the floor (the two general must-dos for sharing the floor with LeBron) is incredibly small, and getting one of those players with the assets the Lakers had would have been impossible. Buddy Hield's three-point marksmanship or Alex Caruso's combination of rabid defense and a solid three-point shot would have been nice luxuries, but they wouldn't be able to get LeBron off the ball as much as Russ theoretically can.

The sparks are there when Russ is on -- he can clearly do things no other player the Lakers were in a position to get could do -- but the Lakers haven't been able to overcome his tendency to hemorrhage possessions on the offensive end and hurt them on the defensive end, both through his own less-than-stellar defense and how he forces the Lakers to go "ultra-small," since surrounding Russ with anything less than four shooters is a recipe for disaster.

Again, Russ still has the talent to take over games by himself, and things could turn around when Anthony Davis comes back and the Lakers default to a James/Davis frontline, and the chance we could all be eating our words come the summer months is very much there. Russ has the ability to win games more or less on his own, which Buddy Hield and Alex Caruso (to name two players) clearly do not. It will only take a few of those games in a big series for Russ to justify his contract and make the Lakers' decision look inspired. However, to pretend the awkward fit between Russ and the Lakers right now isn't hurting the team is an exercise in denial.

At Friday, January 21, 2022 9:40:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I have used the Wilt comparison sometimes, too, but it is not entirely fair. There is no evidence that Wilt went against his coaches or was not primarily focused on winning. Yes, he was determined to win the assist title to prove that he was not just a scorer, but it is hard to prove that his focus on passing hurt his team, particularly since he was still a dominant rebounder and defensive player.

On the other hand, LeBron chases individual numbers in a way that, at times, has both undermined his coaches and not optimized his team's chance to win.

At Friday, January 21, 2022 9:55:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I cannot prove that LeBron chases individual statistics at the expense of team success. That is my informed opinion based on following his entire career very closely, including covering in person most of his home playoff games during his first stint in Cleveland. If you disagree, that's OK; I have explored the topic here before, and I am disinclined to revisit that conversation again.

I disagree that having Westbrook forces the Lakers to go ultra-small. Westbrook reached the WCF four times as an All-NBA caliber player playing alongside various big men, including Perkins, Ibaka, Steven Adams, and Enes Kantor (now known as Enes Freedom).

Westbrook has proven in his two previous stops--Houston and Washington--that it may take him a little time to adjust to new teammates/new coaching staff expectations, but he is coachable and when he figures out how to do what is expected of him in a given situation he responds with MVP-level play. He is not playing at an MVP level right now, but he actually is playing at an All-Star level overall (not in the past 10 days or so, but Curry has not looked like an MVP for two months and we are all supposed to pretend to not notice).

The notion that Hield and/or Caruso instead of Westbrook would improve this Lakers team is absurd, as you rightly note, and you also rightly note that if Davis comes back healthy and motivated there is enough time for the Lakers to make all of this "What is wrong with the Lakers?" talk look very foolish, which would not be a new look for Stephen A. Smith; he has modeled that look for his entire career.

At Monday, January 24, 2022 12:53:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just a semi-random inquiry -- do you have any disdain for True Shooting? Your feelings about "advanced statistics" have been made abundantly clear over the years, but True Shooting feels like a genuine step in the right direction -- a player who goes 3-5 from the floor (but shoots all 3s) and 6-6 from the line is fairly clearly more efficient than a player who goes 4-8 from the floor (with all his shots coming from inside the arc) and 2-7 from the line, unless I'm missing something here.

At Monday, January 24, 2022 1:41:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I don't have "disdain" for True Shooting Percentage. The correct question is, "How much emphasis should be place on any one statistic?"

A player who shoots 3-5 on three pointers and 6-6 from the free throw line shot very efficiently in that particular game. A player who can maintain those percentages over a large sample size of games is an excellent shooter. However, those numbers--isolated from other numbers, and without the opportunity to watch this player play--tell me very little about how good that player is. If that player shot 3-5 on three pointers because Kobe Bryant drew double teams that enabled that player to shoot wide open shots, and he shot 6-6 from the free throw line because he is the team's designated technical foul free throw shooter who otherwise is not able to draw fouls, then that player may be just a shooting specialist who does not contribute to winning in any other way.

On the other hand, if the player who shot 4-8 from the floor and 2-7 from the free throw line drew four fouls on the opposing team--putting that team in foul trouble and helping to put his team in the bonus--and attracted double teams that created open shots for his teammates then he is much more valuable than the great three point shooter, even if the great three point shooter is, strictly speaking, more efficient.

The "stat gurus" who I criticize--as opposed to guys like Dean Oliver and Dan Rosenbaum (to mention just two guys who have a mathematical background and understand the strengths and limitations of basketball statistical analysis)--either do not understand what I just wrote, or they choose to ignore such basic concepts because if those concepts are acknowledged then their proprietary "advanced basketball statistics" lose value (and they lose status and money).

I don't need True Shooting Percentage to compare Michael Jordan with James Harden. Daryl Morey publicly stated that Harden is the greatest offensive player ever, based on the numbers (though he declined to specify which numbers he used to reach that conclusion). Morey's position is ridiculous both from a numbers standpoint and an eye test standpoint (see Daryl Morey Ranks James Harden Ahead of Michael Jordan as a Scorer for my analysis of this topic).

At the time that I wrote that article, Harden ranked 14th in career ABA/NBA TSP, and Jordan ranked 94th. One of many funny things about Morey's bold declaration is that, based on TSP, Harden is not even in the top 10 all-time. Of course, the funnier thing is the notion that one statistic can give a definitive picture of who is the better offensive player, never mind that it should be obvious that TSP is of very limited value for determining who is the better overall player--and Harden is so much worse than Jordan defensively there is no way that Harden could even come close to matching Jordan's overall impact, so why should anyone care even if Harden were theoretically the best offensive player of all-time? It is remarkable that Morey is so insistent on saying things that (1) are demonstrably false and (2) are demonstrably irrelevant even if they are true.

At Monday, January 24, 2022 1:53:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


If I were an NBA General Manager, TSP would not be a major consideration for me when evaluating players. I would do a skill set evaluation, and then I would determine how the skill sets, mental/physical toughness, size, and other attributes of various players might mesh (or not mesh) to help my team to win a championship.

One other thing to consider: if a player has a great TSP, but the kinds of shots that he misses (such as long three pointers) are easily turned into fast break points for the other team then his theoretical individual shooting efficiency is hurting my team, not helping my team.

So, I don't have "disdain" for Harden ranking 14th (or whatever he ranks now) in career TSP; I just fail to see the relevance of that fact in terms of properly evaluating and ranking players based on their impact on winning.

A less tangible but not less important thing to consider: if a player has a great TSP but because of his weak mindset he consistently fails to perform well in big games (James Harden) then his theoretical individual shooting efficiency will not help my team to win a championship.

If I were an NBA GM, I would not pay max dollars to a player who cannot be the best player on a championship team. That is one reason why I have singled out guys like Carmelo Anthony, Gilbert Arenas, and James Harden for criticism: those guys, even in their absolute primes, could not be the best player on a championship team. If I have Anthony, Arenas, or Harden, I need Shaq, Kobe, Duncan, LeBron, Durant, or Giannis to have a realistic shot at winning a title--and I need for Anthony, Arenas, or Harden to accept a secondary (or even tertiary) role. Thus, the reality is that I cannot have Anthony, Arenas, or Harden at all, because those guys all think of themselves as number one options (Anthony, after an extended period out of the league, eventually adjusted his thinking, but he was incapable of doing that during his prime years).

Look at Harden now with Durant out of action. The Nets are 2-2, and Harden has had one good game plus three subpar games. He should be the number two option behind Irving (and number three behind Durant after Durant comes back) but does Harden understand that, and can he accept it if he understands it?

Of course, under the "flop and flail" rules interpretation--and with Mike D'Antoni running the show--Harden proved that he could put up superficially dazzling regular season numbers, but those numbers had nothing to do with winning a championship. You could set your watch for Harden's playoff implosions and never be wrong.

At Monday, January 24, 2022 9:37:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Perfect description of James' focus now, 'stat-padding like there is no tomorrow'. It is clear that he focus isn't on winning now given their recent streak and he probably realises that he doesn't have the team to do it. It baffles me how his fans and media label him as 'pass-first' when he averages more FGA per game than some of the most prolific scorers in NBA history including Kobe Bryant who is often labeled as a 'ball-hog'. It's funny because James himself proclaims he is that way too whether it's to the media or on social media, but clearly he has set his focus on passing Kareem.

He tries so hard for attention from the media and want people to recognise he is the GOAT...did you see his Instagram post where he said 'mention me with MJ and Brady like you posed to'? How can you be the GOAT when you self proclaim it yourself? I have never seen MJ or Brady publicly call themselves the GOAT!

At Tuesday, January 25, 2022 10:41:00 AM, Blogger beep said...

I disagree with the notion that LBJ doesn't have the team to go all the way.... Lakers problem is they don't play much if any defense, when they do they can win no problem... and LBJ as self proclaimed leader should set the tone on D, but he doesn't seem to care about anything, but chasing Kareem record, which at this point would be profanation, if he rached it, for any basketball fan the way he does it... I don't recall Kareem chasing all time scoring record hurting the team in the process, but I was teen back then, so I might have missed it


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