Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Defense is an Absolute Nightmare.

One night after the dominating win over the Clippers, the Lakers go play the Warriors in Oakland and... let's just say we're all back down to Earth after that game. Steve Nash didn't play the back end of the back-to-back because he just might be checking into a nursing home at the end of the year. That left the starting lineup with Steve Blake as the primary ball handler and distributer and Pau Gasol as the team's only real scoring threat, with Nash's passing being sorely missed. 

Before the season, we all figured that offense wouldn't be a big deal, and the defense would be ugly. So far, we aren't wrong, as the Warriors completely had their way with the Lakers' defense, scoring 125 points (Klay Thompson had a career high 38 points last night in only 31 minutes). The whole team played an awful game, full of too many isolations and not enough touches down low for Gasol. 

Then again, it's hard to consistently go to the low block when the other team is making it rain triples. The Warriors shot an absurd 55.7% from downtown (15-27); they ran the fast break to perfection and they made the Lakers respect their three point shooting early and often, opening up driving lanes for Andre Iguodala and Stephen Curry, not to mention help space the floor for David Lee (24 points, 8 rebounds). Some of these were lazy defense on the part of the Lakers, standing pat near the three point line and not putting their hands up, but others were just ridiculously far and/or contested three point shot attempts. I'll give credit where credit is due: Mark Jackson and Jerry West have created an offensive juggernaut, predicated on excellent shooting, crisp and quick passing and dribble penetration, however it is also an offense that can go to the low block to Lee or Andrew Bogut, should the shots not fall. 

Not everything about last night's game was negative. Gasol and Nick Young, once again, only played 23 and 20 minutes, so they should be fully rested and ready to play the San Antonio Spurs on Friday, as will Nash, not having played yesterday's contest. Xavier Henry found his way to the basket on multiple occasions, scoring 14 points and grabbing 4 rebounds, though it was on 4-11 shooting. Wesley Johnson continues to play solid defense all around and at the PF position, which just sounds ridiculous because he's 6'7'' and was a SG for most of his career, recording 2 blocks and 2 steals, and found his long range stroke last night, going 3-6 from deep. Chris Kaman had a solid offensive night, scoring 11 points on 5-9 shooting in only 18 minutes. Rebound Machine Jordan Hill had 7 rebounds in 13 minutes (!)*. All in all, there was something salvageable from that game, and that is Xavier Henry should definitely be the team's top reserve right now and Hill, as well as Kaman, absolutely need more minutes. 

Also: Why is Shawne Williams starting, let alone playing? He only played 12 minutes and recorded 0 points with 2 rebounds. I know it wouldn't have made a difference in this game, but those 12 minutes distributed between Hill and Kaman could be a huge difference maker in other games. On a related note, I would like to see Kaman start along side Gasol against the Spurs and their bigger front line. 

In short: Lazy defense, solid (at times) offense, and a long road to bringing it all together. Let's hope for more of the opener and less of this game for the rest of the year. 

*Side note: Jordan Hill's per 36 minutes numbers: 16.3 points per game and 17.4 rebounds per game. Incredible.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Lakers Bench Completely Dominated The Clippers Last Night

That game was fun, right!? The Lakers looked like a completely different team last night, beginning with the starting unit that no longer featured Metta World Peace, Dwight Howard or, for the moment, Kobe Bryant. Pau Gasol looked like the Pau we all know and love, finishing the game with 15 points and 13 rebounds in only 24 minutes (projected per 36 minutes numbers: 22.5 points and 19.5 rebounds. Awesome.) Steve Nash did Steve Nash things, finishing with 5 assists in 21 minutes. Steve Blake played good defense, and hit both of his 3 pointers. Nick Young and Shawne Williams looked bad offensively, but chipped in with solid enough defense. 

The Lakers and Clippers were neck and neck going into the fourth quarter with the score 79-75, with the Clippers up...and then the bench checked in. It was so astounding to see Gasol and Nash not check in for the whole 4th quarter; it was even more incredible to see Blake Griffin get dominated defensively by the 6'7'' Wesley Johnson (Griffin finished the quarter with 0 points, as did J.J. Reddick). Chris Paul didn't record a single assist in the quarter. 

The Lakers' reserves outscored the Clippers' starting unit 41-24. It's not what should have happened. The Lakers' bench is largely made up of cast-offs, and players who never really have had their chance. Jodie Meeks scored 9 of his 13 points in the 4th quarter, Jordan Farmar added 16, Xavier Henry was the star of the show, scoring a career high 22 points and adding 6 rebounds, for good measure. Jordan Hill added 12 points and 8 rebounds and absolutely dominated the glass in his 18 minutes of game time. Despite Chris Kaman not playing in the 4th quarter, he still came off the bench last night and chipped in 10 points and 8 rebounds. The bench scored the 3rd highest total for a bench unit in Lakers' history (78 points, the highest in the past 25 years). The Lakers bench mob was projected to put up 154.6 points per 100 possessions, which is absolutely insane. For reference, the best offensive teams will put up something like 115-120 points per 100 possessions. 

Thanks to Hill being a monster on the glass, the Lakers bench grabbed 75% of offensive rebounds while they were on the court. The bench didn't shoot the lights out either, or play spectacular defense (the Clippers ended with 103 points); but they cleaned the glass, limited the Clippers second chance opportunities, and converted a ton of their own second chances. Obviously, this kind of run isn't at all sustainable; you can't rely on Xavier Henry, Jordan Farmar and Wesley Johnson and hope to be successful over the course of an 82 game season, but for today at least, they are the unlikely heroes. 

It will definitely be interesting to see how the team adjusts once Kobe Bryant comes back. For the moment, the Lakers look like one of the most versatile teams in the league without Howard clogging up the lane, as they can go with a small ball lineup, like they did last night with Farmar, Meeks, Henry, Johnson and Hill; or they can go with an extremely big lineup, with Nash or Blake, Henry, Johnson, Gasol and Kaman. There are a lot of options for this team; at the very least, they look like they will be an exciting, athletic squad this year. For now, the main focus is tonight's game in Oakland vs. the Golden State Warriors, which will be a test; thankfully, nobody played over 27 minutes last night. 

Friday, October 11, 2013

Don't Look Now, But The Lakers Might Actually Have a Pretty Good Bench

The Lakers haven't had a good bench since
this guy was on the team
As we know, the starting unit for the Lakers is coming along pretty well so far during preseason. The team has tremendous outside scoring potential between  Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, and Nick Young. But really, it's having two very skilled big men in Pau Gasol and Chris Kaman that helps open up the floor for everybody else not named Kobe or Steve Nash.

With that said, the starting unit can't play all 48 minutes every game. Or, better stated, they can, but shouldn't try to (remember when Kobe tried to down the stretch last year? Disaster). That means the bench needs to step up and help maintain leads and cut deficits. The good news here is without Dwight Howard clogging the lane, Jordan Hill is free to man the center position, regardless of whether Kaman or Gasol or whoever is in with him, as they are both effective from as far as 18 feet. Hill's high energy, excellent rebounding ability and somewhat limited offensive skill set will be a lot better suited closer to the basket, and that's precisely where the center position will have him.

Coming off the bench along side Hill will be Mike D'Antoni's choice of Shawne Williams and Ryan Kelly. Williams is a bit rough around the edges, but his career 33.5% shooting percentage from beyond the arch will help stretch the floor and avoid any potential double teams. Williams has spent most of his time in the NBA as a Small Forward (and a Shooting Guard in his rookie season), but coming in at 6'9'', 225 pounds, he's ideal for D'Antoni's small ball lineups. Williams could bring what Earl Clark brought last season, namely versatility, with his ability to play both the 3 and the 4. Kelly has yet to suit up for the Lakers, but was an excellent three point shooter for Duke in his 4 year college career, having a career 37.9% field goal percentage from long range (41.4% for his final two seasons). In other words, stretching the floor with the power forward position shouldn't be a problem for the Lakers this year. Hill should be a solid bench piece, with good rebounding numbers and limited offense consisting mostly of lay-ups, put backs, dunks and free throws. Williams is a bit of a wild card, as he has had some inconsistent seasons so far, with a Win Share as high as 2.5 in 64 games for the New York Knicks in '10-'11, to a Win Share as low as -0.4 with the then New Jersey Nets in '11-'12.

Backing up Nash, is our old friend Steve Blake, who has greatly improved his play in the past season playing under Mike D'Antoni's offensive system, going from "Why did we sign him?" to "He could start on a bunch of different teams" in just one short season. His Win Share last season was 2.4 in 45 games played, whereas his Win Share during his other two seasons in Los Angeles was 2.8 in 153 games. This is thanks to his improved decision making, increased defensive awareness, as well as improved three point shot. And having Jordan Farmar as a third string point guard is great to have, when you factor in Nash's age and Blake's injury riddled '12-'13 season, as well as last year's reserve point guards being Darius Morris and Chris Duhon.

This leaves Xavier Henry, Wesley Johnson and Jodie Meeks to man the back up shooting guard and small forward slots. Henry has looked good during the preseason, getting to the basket almost at will. This has greatly contributed to his 45.5% shooting percentage in the preseason and his 13.3 point per game average. Johnson sustained a foot injury against the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night, but it isn't expect to be serious and he should return to action shortly. Johnson continues to struggle offensively, shooting just 20% to start the preseason. He could be valuable should he find his stroke. I'm sure we all remember Meeks' frustratingly inconsistent game. Expect more of the same from him this year, with occasional brilliance and sometimes extremely boneheaded decisions. At the very least, he provides depth and three point shooting. If all else fails, D'Antoni may consider starting either Henry or Johnson at Small Forward and leaving Young as the primary scorer off the bench alá Manu Ginobili.

With Kobe and Gasol coming off of major surgery and Nash being the oldest player in the NBA, now more than ever, the Lakers need some good, quality bench play to help take some minutes off of their aging legs. This group may finally have what it takes. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Lakers Are a Significantly Different Team Without Kobe Bryant

This is an image Lakers fans aren't used to
Kobe Bryant's torn Achilles has been well documented among Laker fans and the Los Angeles media. We
know that Kobe is supposed to be ahead of schedule for his rehabilitation and the team, as well as Kobe himself, is looking for him to return for opening night, roughly three weeks away. No other Elite, non-point guard player changes the identity of a whole team as much as Kobe does, with a few exceptions like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony or Dwight Howard.

While it seems Kobe will in fact be ready for opening night, nobody can be certain of that and the Lakers must adjust accordingly. Mitch Kupchak certainly took precautions, having signed a plethora of young, athletic swingmen in Nick Young, Xavier Henry, Wesley Johnson and Jordan Farmar, while retaining the services of Jodie Meeks, Steve Blake and Steve Nash. Should Kobe not be ready for opening night in three weeks, the Lakers seem well stocked and well prepared in the depth department.

That just leaves the performance department, which just so happens to be the most important one. I'm sure we all remember what Jordan Farmar brings to the table. Solid defensive ability, combined with speed in the open court, as well as an above average stroke from beyond the arch (career 36.7%), although he is still a below average player in general, due to his inefficiency from the floor (career 42.7% field goal percentage, as well as a 72.8% free throw percentage; relatively low for a guard). Still, you could do a whole lot worse from what should be a third string player behind Nash and Blake.

Xavier Henry is surprisingly young, entering this season at the ripe old age of 22 years of age. Henry seems to be far from a finished project, however, having gone to three different teams in 4 seasons (Memphis, New Orleans and Los Angeles). Henry provides a potentially more dynamic option than Meeks at the shooting guard slot, being more athletic, bigger (both in height and weight), stronger and a much better finisher around the rim, particularly on the fast break.

Despite his physical advantages, Henry has shown a relatively low basketball I.Q, as well as a bad habit of forcing shots and disrupting the general flow and rhythm of an offensive possession once the ball touches his hands. He also does not have the value of stretching the floor with his three point shooting (career 28.9%), and despite those percentages being substantially higher the past two seasons (41.2% and 36.4%), he does not put up enough three pointers to be able to say with any certainty that he can consistently make the outside jump shot. Henry certainly has potential; his average defensive ability, combined with his athleticism could eventually make him into a serviceable player. As he is, a backup role on this team seems likely, with or without Kobe.

Wesley Johnson has taken a different path than that of a normal Top-5 draft pick. Thoroughly underwhelming in his two seasons for the Minnesota Timberwolves, Johnson was traded to the Phoenix Suns, where he was an entirely replaceable player, being worth a whopping 0 Win Share for the Suns. That's not to say he doesn't provide any value; he was worth 0.5 DWS, to go along with his -0.5 OWS. Being used as a defensive specialist, with only 3 point shooting offensive responsibilities, he may very well improve those numbers. Like Henry, Johnson is supremely athletic and should improve the Lakers' fast break game. Unlike Henry, Johnson is known to hoist up a fair amount of three pointers, averaging 3.2 three point field goals per game for his career, while shooting 33.6% from beyond the arch. The Lakers seem to be hoping for another Shannon Brown/Earl Clark situation on their hands with Johnson, hoping to find that diamond in the rough to take over the Small Forward position.

And finally, Nick Young. All offense, all the time, coming into this season with a career 37.4% shooting percentage from beyond the arch, as well as a career average of 11.3 points per game that gets raised to 17.7 points per game per 36 minutes of playing time. He owns a career 9.9 WS, 7 of which are OWS. And while the 9.9 WS isn't all that impressive, it's still his long range stroke, along with Nash's three point shooting ability, that will give Chris Kaman, Pau Gasol and Kobe all the space needed to operate in the low block. Young isn't the most athletic player on the planet, but he will have to do, as the Lakers will ask him to man the Small Forward position, despite only being 6'6'' and weighing in at 200 lb. It's clear D'Antoni values his offense a whole lot more than his defense.

Without Kobe, the Lakers will be a lot more inclined to play through Pau Gasol in the low post and, without Dwight Howard clogging the lane, Gasol should improve his efficiency by a wide margin. Last season, playing a lot further away from the basket, Gasol shot a career low 46.6% from the floor, hoisting up a career high number of shots from 16 feet or further (197), while only making a dismal 36.5% of those shot attempts (28.6% from beyond the arch). Without Kobe, Gasol becomes the team's premier offensive threat; his combination of low post moves, hook shots, turnaround jump shots and his ability to put the ball on the floor, as well as his excellent vision and passing ability make him one of the most dangerous offensive big men in the league down in the low post. When he has the ball around the free throw line, or at the elbow, Gasol's decent shooting range keeps his defender honest, while his passing ability lets him use the High-Low play between him and the Lakers' other big man, which we saw translate into multiple alley-oops last season between him and Howard.

If healthy, Steve Nash takes the bulk of the perimeter offensive duties. When Nash has the ball, the Lakers will be looking to run the pick and roll along with the pick and pop with both Gasol and Kaman, while sticking more to the pick and roll with Jordan Hill off the bench. Nash's excellent passing ability should help those of his teammates that struggle to create their shots. His shooting ability aids his dribble penetration immensely, which, in turn, gets perimeter players open for long range shot attempts.

When Nash hits the bench, the Lakers will likely run more set plays with Steve Blake taking the reins of the offense, and the bulk of the plays being back door screens and cuts with Johnson, Young, Henry and Meeks, as well as a fair amount of three point shot attempts from just about everybody that isn't playing center (in this case, Kaman/Hill/Gasol).

Between Kobe, Gasol, Nash, Kaman, Young and Meeks, and no more Hack-a-Dwight strategy being used against the Lakers, the offense looks to be in very good shape, with turnovers still being a question mark (they were ranked 23rd last season with 1232 total turnovers, or 15 per game). It's the defense that might give Lakers fans nightmares all season long. Even with Howard patrolling the paint last season, the Lakers were ranked 22nd in points allowed per game (101 PPG) and 25th in steals (7 steals per game). While they did rank 13th in blocked shots, that was mostly due to Howard swatting 2.4 shots per game (5th among qualifying players), or 186 (ranked 4th among qualifying players) of the Lakers' 429 total blocks. And while Kaman, Hill and Gasol can each patrol the paint, none of them are the defensive game changer that Dwight Howard is on the court. For the Lakers to be competitive, expect shoot outs, and lots of them.