Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Knicks @ Lakers December 25, 2012: Merry Christmas from the Staples Center!

Happy Holidays from Hack-a-Shaq!

What a wild ride Saturday was, right? In what was the game of the season so far for the Lakers (and maybe the league), Los Angeles just happened to pull off a gutsy comeback over a red-hot Warriors team, willing their way back into the contest and getting out of Golden State with a 118-115 OT victory (the team’s first OT of the year).  The game was relatively lopsided for the first 3 quarters, however, the entire 4th quarter and OT was an incredible slugfest, including some amazing shots, smartly drawn up plays and some surprising misses from both teams, The 4th included 7 lead changes in the last 4 minutes of the game with both teams going back and forth after the 2 minute mark.

This looked like a game where the Lakers could have broken down, like they have in so many close contests to start the year.  With Dwight Howard committing quick and dumb fouls in the beginning of every single quarter (save for OT) and Kobe Bryant tossing up shot after shot after shot and never once reaching the free throw line (technical foul FT doesn’t exactly count); facing a young, relatively healthy (let’s not forget: big man Andrew Bogut is still riding the pine with injury) and loaded Warriors team on the road seemed like a recipe for disaster. Of course, in typical Laker fashion, the team went down big for the second game in a row, looking like the frustrating side of this team by going down 14 in the 3rd quarter and taking a 13 point deficit into the 4th.  The defense looked slow and nobody was rotating on backdoor cuts, while the offense wasn’t working like we anticipated with Steve Nash in his first game back.  Somehow, off of the brilliance of Metta World Peace, Jodie Meeks and the incredible energy Jordan Hill brings, the Lakers’ backups brought the team back within striking distance, before Mike D’Antoni brought the starters back in the game to close out the game in OT.

The biggest headline of the game – one we didn’t know would happen until gametime – was the return of All-Star Steve Nash.  How would the Lakers use him and how many minutes could he play, not having played a game in about two months? D’Antoni used him for 41 minutes in his first game back, something nobody expected, especially with him coming off of a 2 month injury layoff and never having played heavy minutes throughout his career. A very good sign though: he didn’t look like he was laboring or fatigued, so his conditioning seems to be in a decent place.  Much like I though, Nash controlled most of the game for the first three quarters, using D’Antoni patented Pick and Rolls with both Howard and Pau Gasol. Time after time, he would weave his way into the lane; looking to set up his teammates rather than himself (he only had 8 shot attempts). It seems my only two gripes with this game was the lack of defense played by Los Angeles and Bryant still forcing up shots despite Nash being back to create offense for others, though I will commend Kobe for sinking some key jumpers despite having missed so many of them earlier. Not a lot of players would have come through being as cold as he was, but time and time again, Bryant came through in the clutch.

The most surprising part about Saturday’s game came in the 4th quarter with Bryant, Howard, Nash, Gasol and World Peace on the court. Reaching the 5 minute mark, the team went away from the standard pick and roll offense and instead used the Horns offense, where the point guard has the ball at the top of the three point line, shooting guard and small forward roll to the corners and the two post players come up to the elbows and set double screens for the point guard. The Lakers ran the Mike Brown variation they had used last season and gave the ball to Gasol at the high post, but this time, Nash rolled around him and set a backdoor screen on Howard’s man to let him roll to the bucket, in which Gasol would give him the entry pass via alley-oop. It was uncharacteristic of D’Antoni, but it completely caught Golden State by surprised and worked to perfection. They used the same play later in OT, but Howard lost grip of the ball and couldn’t finish the jam. It was still not my favorite coaching move by D’Antoni, however, as he drew up an incredibly smart play toward the end of the 4th quarter. A more standard pick and roll play, Bryant was on the strong side, and Nash and D’Antoni knew they would roll to his side once Nash cleared Howard’s pick. Nash gave the ball to a rolling Howard at the high post after passing the pick, and sure enough, Golden State made sure Bryant wouldn’t receive and open shot by keeping a man on him, but at the same time, collapsing the defense so Howard wouldn’t reach the paint. This opened up a wide open shot for my player of the game Metta World Peace, who calmly sank the three pointer to give the Lakers the lead.

Nash finished with an impressive 12 points and nine assists, including a huge three in the 4th and his signature, one-legged, mid-range jump shot in the lane to seal the game in OT. The offense looked incredibly smooth and seamless in his return as he helped set up his teammates to get them going and made a lot of smart plays down the stretch. His impact was immediate, and the validity of all the “wait for Nash” arguments seem supported now that he is back and has the Lakers offense looking like the best in the league.

Check out the subtle screen by Nash at the 1:10 mark and the aformentioned play at the 1:57 mark.

And hey, it’s Christmas, and what better gift could the Lakers give it’s loyal fans than a win against the Eastern Conference’s number one team, the New York Knicks, a team that already beat the Lakers on December 13th 116-107; that team was vastly different from the one Los Angeles is trotting out today as Gasol and Nash were still out at this time. There’s nothing like a little revenge, right? It will be interesting to see if Mike D’Antoni will be starting World Peace today, as he has stated that Metta will start during games against star players at his position, and clearly, Gasol would be overmatched going up against Carmelo Anthony at the 4 slot. Devin Ebanks or Darius Morris could start, pushing Kobe to the 3 to cover Ronnie Brewer and World Peace to the 4 to cover Anthony, with Gasol coming off the bench for today’s matchup. For all intents and purposes, I will list the starting lineup that I would field against New York as the lineup will not be known until a later time, including Morris, who I would put in to help counter Jason Kidd at the 2.

Starting Lineups:
Point Guard
Raymond Felton
Steve Nash (!!!)
Shooting Guard
Jason Kidd
Darius Morris
Small Forward
Ronnie Brewer
Kobe Bryant
Power Forward
Carmelo Anthony
Metta World Peace
Tyson Chandler
Dwight Howard

Merry Christmas everybody and Happy Holidays! Enjoy Laker basketball today with your loved ones.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Plan B For The Lakers? Keep The Ship Afloat

Remember how tedious and boring the Dwight Howard drama was in Orlando? It could happen again and very soon. The reality is: the Lakers’ star center is on his final year of a contract he signed in Orlando; he came to Los Angeles to team with the large amount of star players it has in Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash. Obviously, it’s early in the season so an 11-14 start means little to a team that is extremely banged up (remember: the 2003 Lakers started out 11-19 before getting a healthy Shaquille O’Neal back and ended up winning 50 games), but if the Lakers don’t find their groove come playoff time, Howard will likely be packing his bags to go elsewhere.

What would the potential plan B be for this team? The Lakers have been known to care little about the luxury tax, no matter how harsh it is with the new CBA, but the 2013 free agent class isn’t exactly star studded, so, should Howard leave, the Lakers will likely fill in the cracks by taking their choice in some quality but not exactly star players, and be ready for the 2014 free agency where Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki and potentially the whole Miami Big 3 will be free agents. (Note: This is assuming Pau Gasol isn’t traded during the season):
·         With D’Antoni getting a 4 year deal, I’m sure the Lakers would like to get a backup point guard to be able to run the show when Nash isn’t on the court (Nash has never played more than 34 minutes a game in his career), and this free agency class has some nice options to choose from, the best (and most realistic, so no Chris Paul or Brandon Jennings on this list) being:
o   Mo Williams: The former Clipper and current Jazz point guard isn’t the fastest player on the court, doesn’t have the best court vision out there and he isn’t exactly the best passer on the list, but he is a lights out shooter. For his career, Williams is shooting an excellent 38.6% from long range, as well as 87% from the free throw line. His assists per game for his career is a low-for-a-point-guard 4.9 (although he’s doing a good job this year as he is averaging 7 per game so far). He may not be the prototypical run-n-gun point guard Mike D’Antoni requires, but he can get the job done better than Chris Duhon, Steve Blake or Darius Morris ever will. Realistically, he could be had from the Mid Level Exception (5 million a year) to his current 8.5 million a year salary.
o   Jose Calderón: The Spanish point guard is already being linked to the Lakers in a potential swap for Gasol and we know what he brings to the table: good passing (6.8 assists per game with only 1.9 turnovers), good spot up shooting (45.6% from deep, 91.4% from the line) and generally an above average point guard to keep things moving. I’m sure Gasol would like to play with another fellow Spaniard and vice versa, which could lower the price down a bit. I think he could be had for the mini mid-level exception (3.6 million a year).
o   Jarrett Jack: Another good scorer and shooter, though he isn’t a top guard in the passing department. He does have one thing going for him that neither Williams or Calderon does: defense. I know D’Antoni doesn’t require good defenders, but if Howard indeed bolts, it would be time to get better perimeter defenders, and Jack fills that need while providing a quality back up on the offensive end. He is making about 5 million a year with Golden State, but he could lower his price range for the sake of a championship opportunity.
·         The Lakers look set at the shooting guard spot with Bryant having one more year on his contract and Jodie Meeks having a team option that will likely be picked up for a measly 1.5 million a year. I would be seriously surprised if the Lakers thought about picking another player for this slot (the best of the bunch being Andre Iguodala).
·         The starter role for the small forward slot is also filled with Metta World Peace still having another year on his contract with an early termination option (though the odds of him using it are near 0% as he is making a lot of money at over 7 million a year). However, the team is missing a decent back up who can either play defense or is a dead-eye shooter (no, Antawn Jamison doesn’t really count as a SF).
o   Kyle Korver: one of the best three point shooters in the game, Korver has bounced around in recent years, going from the Jazz, to the Bulls and now is on the Hawks, but he is a very affordable player, as I doubt he gets the contract he got from Chicago a couple of years ago for 5 million a year. Korver is notorious, however, for playing little, to no defense. Still, the Lakers will likely take a look at him, as he is what D’Antoni prefers to have for his system.
o   Luke Walton: No, not really.
·         With Howard leaving, it’s likely Gasol moves over to the center position to make room for a player with perimeter skills at the power forward position. Though I doubt the Lakers will actively pursue a stretch 4 with Howard gone, they would more than likely take a more versatile player who has some speed and some defensive capabilities with Howard’s shot blocking gone. Here we have:
o   Josh Smith: I don’t really need to say much about him. He’s a second tier star in the league, with enormous amounts of athleticism and a knack for blocking shots. He is nearly as good as Gasol is at passing the ball and has the excellent ability to put the ball on the floor. His only true weakness is his willingness to take the jumpshot when he should be trying to get to the rim.
o   Paul Millsap: Millsap is a do it all type of forward. He has a nice mid-range game, can put the ball on the floor and his sheer energy makes up for him being undersized in the big heavy Western Conference. It’s doubtful the Lakers get him because it looks like he will be trying to cash in after being a quality player in the league for the past 7 seasons.
o   Lamar Odom: Out of shape coming into the season for the Clippers, Odom has worked hard to get into game playing shape. Odom is the most versatile player in the NBA. He is still a fan favorite for his services during the repeat from 2009 to 2010. The Lakers will definitely be asking his agent what his price would be about returning to the purple and gold.
·         It’s possible that Mitch Kupchak could be looking to fill in the void left by Dwight by getting another center who dominates the low-block. With Howard being the biggest free agent prize, there are other quality big men on the market such as:
o   Al Jefferson: The Jazz big man likely has the most complete post game in the NBA. His array of lefty and righty hook shots often leave opposing centers wondering what they can do just to slow him down. He has a very nice turn around jumpshot from anywhere within 15 feet and a decent enough spot up jumper to keep defenses honest. He has had his issues with injuries, however, which is why he is never mentioned among the top players in the league, but Jefferson is definitely a sleeper.
o   Chris Kaman: Not exactly dominant in the low-block, but he has a nice enough skill set at 7 feet for the Lakers to take a look. A good enough jump shot to help create space for his fellow teammates, Kaman is a guy who isn’t shy about doing the dirty work to help his team win. He isn’t a player with the biggest name, but he’s a guy who can get the job done.
The reality is the Lakers, aside from Howard, are looking more and more like an old folk’s home: going into 2013, Gasol will be 33, Metta World Peace will be 34, Bryant will hit the 35 mark and Nash will likely be the oldest player in the NBA at age 39. The Lakers will need to help keep the ship running while they wait for 2014 where the Lakers will only have Nash on the books to make a run at some of the big names on the market, like Bryant himself, or potentially LeBron James

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Pau Gasol Could Get Traded Soon And That Might be a Bad Thing

Oh boy, to say Pau Gasol’s season so far has been disappointing is a huge understatement. It started off on the wrong foot, as Gasol reportedly had knee tendinitis during Pre-Season, in which former head coach Mike Brown decided to play the Spaniard through it anyways, thinking Gasol would get better if he simply played through it. That hasn’t been the case, as his knee tendinitis continued to worsen to the point where Gasol’s mid-range shot looked entirely flat because he can’t jump as high and thus strains on his mid range shot and his help defense was very slow. Mike D’Antoni, recognized the fact that he can kill two birds with one stone by starting Antawn Jamison, benched Gasol indefinitely, until his knee tendinitis has cleared up. So, right now Gasol’s value is at an all time low because, realistically, how many teams would be interested in an aging Power Forward with balky knees and an enormous contract?

Nonetheless, a few teams have reportedly offered deals for Gasol, as well as interest in other players from the Lakers themselves. Here are the most talked about ones:

·         Pau Gasol to Atlanta for Josh Smith. This rumor was hot during the offseason, after the Lakers acquired Dwight Howard and why wouldn’t it be? The Hawks were in the middle of cleaning house by getting rid of Joe Johnson’s ridiculous contract as well as trading draft bust Marvin Williams to Utah, not to mention Smith being a childhood friend of Howard and the Lakers trying everything to keep Howard past this season. Obviously, the Lakers win in this deal since Smith is getting paid about 7 million dollars less per year than what Gasol makes and he’s 27. His skill set is something the Lakers would love to have at the 4 spot, as he’s the best kind of “tweener” because of his incredible athleticism and his natural outside game make him hard to stop on fastbreaks, not to mention his tenacious defense (in case you were curious, Smith averages the same amount of blocks per game as Dwight Howard with 2.2) and the fact that he may very well be the best passing big man in the league. This deal is my favorite of the bunch, no matter how unlikely it is. 

·         Pau Gasol to New Orleans for Ryan Anderson: This is purely the Lakers reported interest in the Hornet’s stretch 4 and it seems it would be a pretty fair deal for both sides if not for Anderson getting paid about 10 million dollars less per year. His contract is very accessible for a player of his caliber. Anderson is an extremely underrated player as he is seen purely as a 3 point shooter when, in fact, he’s a much more accomplished big man that can put up points from anywhere on the court, and rebound well enough to not be seen as a one dimensional player. His WS/48 has been an incredibly high .179 for his career (for reference, Kobe Bryant’s career WS/48 is .185). Many thought Anderson benefited heavily from having Howard on his team in Orlando, but as he has proven this season, he can be a team’s best player and still be efficient in his scoring. This deal would need to include another player(s) from New Orleans to help balance out salaries, but since the Hornets have virtually no bad contracts, this deal looks highly unlikely as well, especially since nobody really knows how much interest the Hornets have to begin with.

·         Pau Gasol to Toronto for Andrea Bargnani, Jose Calderon, and Linas Kleiza. And now we get to the most likely of all the deals as Toronto has reportedly offered the Lakers this deal already, though the Lakers have shot it down and not because they don’t like the deal (it is a very good one for Los Angeles) but because Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak want to assess the team with Steve Nash and Gasol healthy before moving him or not. Let’s being with Kleiza who is…a guy. Kleiza is a jack of all trades kind of guy, but he’s not really all that good at any of those things. He can play defense, shoot an inconsistent 3 ball and generally not lose you the game, but he’d pretty much be there to warm the bench over in L.A. The meat of the deal is with Calderon and Bargnani; the 31 year old Spaniard is currently an above average point guard who can shoot with the best of them and is careful with the ball. This season, he’s shooting 47% from deep and averaging 7.1 assists per game despite losing the starting role to Kyle Lowry. Calderon, along with Jamison or Bargnani, would have the 6th man role, giving Steve Nash much needed rest (remember: Nash has never played more than 35 minutes a game for his career) and keeping the offense smooth. Bargnani was the 1st overall pick in 2006; he has largely failed to live up to the standards of it. He’s another stretch 4, perfectly apt to run D’Antoni’s system, but I worry about his rebounding and his defense; this season, he is only averaging 4.4 rebounds despite being listed as 7 feet tall. His DWS is 0.2 and his OWS is -0.1. He has struggled to start the season, but his skill set is great to have alongside Howard in the middle. I think the Lakers will seriously consider this deal, as it seems it’s the best they can get right now for Gasol.  

The Lakers are smart to hold on to Gasol because we don’t know how well he can perform in this system when he is healthy and playing with Steve Nash. I think the front office would prefer to wait until Nash comes back before seriously shopping Gasol; teams need to know Gasol isn’t as declined as he looks and can be a valuable asset to most teams moving forward. Despite looking pretty bad to start the season, Gasol still has his incredibly high Basketball I.Q. and good passing to help jump start most offenses. Right now, the Lakers don’t look like they’ll trade Gasol yet and I agree with the decision from a basketball viewpoint.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Antawn Jamison Starting Over Pau Gasol is a Matter of When Rather than If

The NBA season is under full swing and the Lakers have been the most bipolar team in the league 16 games into the season. The Lakers have yet to play with everyone healthy as point guards Steve Nash and Steve Blake have been out with a leg fracture and an abdominal strain respectively. So far, Nash only played in two games (both with Mike Brown and his Princeton Offense) and Blake has only played in 7 games (running the Princeton in which he looked extremely comfortable and a couple of games of Bernie Bickerstaff’s free flowing offense).

But having Nash and Blake has had no effect on Pau Gasol’s game so far; he has been, at times, atrocious and at other times, merely adequate. This team wasn’t a fit for Gasol before Mike D’Antoni jumped on board, but now it seems inevitable that either Gasol gets traded (Atlanta forward Josh Smith being the player on my wish list if this were the case) or goes into the 6th man role with Antawn Jamison starting alongside Dwight Howard to help stretch the defense and give Howard more room to operate. Jamison started the season extremely bad; at one point, Jamison was shooting 16% from beyond the arc, he has since improved it to 30% with this 4 game stretch of good games (minus the Indiana one, but everybody not named Kobe Bryant were missing shots left and right). Before these 4 games, Jamison was 22.2% from deep and a measly 35.5% total shooting, however he has been scorching hot in the past 4 games as he has made 28 out of 48 for a percentage of 58.3% from the floor. He has averaged 17.8 points per game and 9.5 rebounds per game as it seems Jamison needed a little bit of time to find his groove with this team.

Straight up, the numbers heavily favor Gasol for one big reason: Gasol is averaging 35.2 minutes a game to Jamison’s 18.4:
Pau Gasol
Antawn Jamison
Points Per Game
Rebounds Per Game
Assists Per Game
Shooting Percentage
3 point shooting percentage
Free Throw Percentage

At first glance, Gasol is looking better than Jamison however, the Per 36 minutes a game numbers favor Jamison in some key aspects:
Points per 36 minutes
Rebounds per 36 minutes
Assists per 36 minutes
Shooting Percentage
3 point shooting percentage
Free throw percentage

The advanced numbers don’t favor Gasol either as Jamison has been outplaying for at least these past 4 games and has been steadily getting better all season long:

Advanced Stat
Pau Gasol
Antawn Jamison
True Shooting Percentage
Effective Field Goal Percentage
Total Rebound Percentage
Turnover Percentage
Win Shares per 48

So, for those who don’t know: PER is a measurement of how efficient a player is when he is on the floor; 15 is league average. True shooting percentage is field goal percentage from 2 point range, 3 point range and the free throw line. Effective field goal percentage adjusts for the fact that a 3 point shot is worth more than a 2 point shot. Total rebound percentage and Turnover percentage are pretty self explanatory and I decided to use Win Shares per 48 because Win Shares wouldn’t be fair to Jamison having played 269 less minutes than Gasol (it’s similar to Baseball’s WAR statistic) while WS/48 tells us how many games the player won in 48 minutes; .100 is league average. Gasol being worse than Jamison in every stat except for rebound percentage, where they are neck and neck, is troubling.

This isn’t Gasol having a bad stretch either; he was beginning to struggle last season, but wasn’t as ineffective playing with the emerging Andrew Bynum because Bynum doesn’t dominate the post like Howard does. Clearly, Gasol isn’t a power forward who can share the low block and find his offense elsewhere; he needs his back to the basket, something the team will not be giving him because Howard is far superior in the post and commands double teams, something Gasol hasn’t done since 2010. Gasol is a very smart player, however, and his high post passing is among the best in the league (Josh Smith a close second), but his jumper just doesn’t have the range D’Antoni requires to stretch the floor. Here are the shooting percentages per ranges for each player:
Pau Gasol
Antawn Jamison
At Rim
3-9 Feet
10-15 Feet
16-3 point line
3 point

As expected for a 7 footer, Gasol is finishing at the rim right around his career rate and his 16-3 point jump shot has been spot on to start the year, but from any other range, Gasol’s numbers are alarmingly bad. He isn’t a 3 point shooter, so 28% isn’t all that bad, but what is up with his TURRIBLE 27% from 3-9 feet? That is absolutely unacceptable for a big. My theory is Gasol is forcing up more shots as his offensive role with the team is becoming smaller and smaller. Meanwhile, Jamison is burning the nets from all ranges (to be fair, his 100% from the 10-15 range is on one spectacular shot against the Grizzlies). Jamison is not a player who requires touches in the post to create his offense; in fact, Jamison is more comfortable playing off of the ball and having his teammates help create a shot for him (something Howard has been doing well so far). I’m very comfortable with Gasol coming off of the bench to bolster the 2nd unit ala Manu Ginobili and getting his post touches, however it’s clear that Gasol would not be playing at the end of games because he can’t coexist with Howard and his clogging up the lane. For now, Gasol will be starting alongside Howard, Bryant, Metta World Peace and Darius Morris (soon to be Steve Nash hopefully) but his role will continue to diminish as Jamison continues to find his groove within D’Antoni’s offense.

On to tonight’s game: the Lakers will face off against Howard’s former team, the Orlando Magic (5-10). The Magic have been horrid on offense averaging a measly 91.1 points per game on the year while allowing 96.4 per game. Meanwhile, Los Angeles’ offense has been running on all cylinders averaging 100.6 per game. A lot of defense has been played during the D’Antoni era as LA is only giving up 95.9 points per game.

 Starting Lineups:
Point Guard
Jameer Nelson
Darius Morris
Shooting Guard
Aaron Afflalo
Kobe Bryant
Small Forward
Moe Harkless
Metta World Peace
Power Forward
Glen Davis
Pau Gasol
Nikola Vucevic
Dwight Howard