Friday, January 18, 2008

Life Without Andrew Bynum

The Lakers-Suns game tonight was just another regular season game in one sense, but was an extremely important game in another. It was the Lakers’ first real test since they lost Andrew Bynum (given that they played Seattle right after they found out, and seemed understandably shell-shocked and lethargic) and I was curious to see how they would respond. Would the team come together and rally together after losing a huge part of their success, and the key to their future? Sadly, no.

This game was a test against a division rival. The Lakers match up well with Phoenix, as they’ve shown over the years. Lamar Odom plays better against the Suns than against any other team. He can dominate inside, getting rebounds and post position that he can’t against bigger, stronger, more defensively minded teams, and wears Marion down on the block so that Marion is affected on offense too. With Bynum scoring inside as well, I fully believe the Lakers (as they were playing this season, before the Bynum injury) would beat the Suns in a seven-game playoff series. I don’t even think it would take seven games – more like 5, maybe 6.

Finally, a Lakers win today would be more than just one more regular season game – it would mean the Lakers have gone 3-0 against the Suns this year, and that they could beat Phoenix even without Bynum. From a psychological perspective, that would be a huge step for a young team.

Going into tonight’s game, I thought these were the key factors for LA to win:

  • Both Kwame and Odom had to come up big inside
  • LA had to be committed to rotating the ball.
  • LA’s bigs had to stay out of foul trouble
  • Marion had to be contained
  • Fisher and Farmar had to provide some offense, to keep Nash honest and working on defense
  • Leandro Barbosa needed to be contained – that guy KILLS the Lakers

Odom and Kwame

Odom came up big – I thought he was the best player on the court at times. After a quiet stretch in the first half, when he pulled his disappearing act again, he started attacking the rim relentlessly, fighting for rebounds, and rising to the level of play that he showed in last year’s playoffs. Sometimes he seemed like the only Laker player who gave a crap.

Unfortunately, Kwame came up…small. Tiny. So small, that in the second half, the Lakers fans booed him every time he touched the ball. His final line (8 points on 3-8 FG and 2-4 FT, 6 boards, 0 assists, and 7 TO) looks average, but to say he was average would be kind. Kwame missed an open dunk off a gorgeous Lamar feed. He often looked lost on the court. Simply put, Kwame is a perfectly good backup center but is far overmatched in the starting role. The downgrade from Bynum to Kwame is a titanic one, not just a large one.

I think the difference can be summed up in one play tonight when Lamar (I think) lobbed a ball into Kwame on the pick and roll. That lob has become a staple of the Laker offense, and there’s no doubt that Bynum would have dunked it. Kwame caught the lob – a good start – but then couldn’t finish the layup. The Lakers never tried the lob again, even though we run it 4-5 times a night with Bynum on the floor.

To be honest, Kwame makes me sad. At the end of last season and the beginning of this season, he was a legitimately average NBA player. He was (and still is) a great position defender and an average rebounder. His physical presence could deter other teams and he seemed to know his place in the triangle. Kwame also has strangely fast arms. Yes, arms – his hands stink. He excels at poking the ball away even from guards, so his arms must be very fast. (Maybe his hands are fast, but are just bad at gripping things?) Tonight, he even guarded Steve Nash one-on-on and poked the ball away.

Before his injury this season, I had high hopes for a center tandem of Bynum and Kwame. And, to be fair to Kwame, he is recovering from a tough injury, and the only reason fans were booing him is because we’ve gotten so spoiled from Bynum’s dominance this year.

Now, he’s clearly regressed, and I worry that the booing of the home fans will be the last straw. Kwame has never been the most confident of players. After having his self-confidence decimated by Michael Jordan, he came to LA in the ill-fated Caron Butler trade and his main value now is as a $9M expiring contract. If all that weren’t enough, he has to put up with every announcer ever telling a national TV audience that he has “small hands”…and we all know what that implies. No wonder Phil Jackson meows at him.

(Quick aside – Phil Jackson meows at his players to call them a…er, to poke fun at their manhood. He makes jokes about Brokeback Mountain. He openly mocks Craig Sager in TNT’s interviews. I love Phil.)

Rotating the Ball

The Lakers had 18 assists on 36 shots. That’s not a good ratio at all. Usually when the ball stagnates, it’s because Kobe has reverted to his form of a few years ago and decided to be a gunner. Tonight, he was almost too passive. He was usually content to pass the ball to teammates and float out of the play. The problem wasn’t that Kobe was hogging the ball – the problem was that his teammates could not create their own shot, and were trying and failing miserably to do so. LA failed to move the ball and to reverse it to the weak side, making a porous Phoenix defense look much better than it actually was.

All game, the Laker offense looked out of sync. This is not to say that Phoenix looked in sync – the suns actually had 23 turnovers to the Laker 21 – but the Lakers often ended up with possessions where Kwame shot a 10 foot jumper, or Luke Walton tried to post Marion. Needless to say, these possessions failed. (More on Luke Walton later.)

Foul Trouble

Hey, a category the Lakers won! Amare actually was the only big in real foul trouble. Kwame picked up 5, but this was mainly because Phil left him in with 4 when he was getting booed on every touch. Why? Phil probably wanted him to play through it, but it’s also very possible that Phil was asleep.

Containing Marion

The very first Phoenix score of the game was Marion getting a wide-open three, which he drained. This was particularly bad because Marion is a confidence player. By that, I mean that he often disappears for long stretches of games when he is not involved, and Odom posting him up often has that effect. He is also a streaky shooter who shoots better when he’s made a few. Given all that, it seems like a bad idea to give him an uncontested three to start the game, no?

Fisher and Farmar

First, let’s talk about Fisher. Derek Fisher is a hard-working veteran whom I really like. Even though I really like him, his career FG% (including this year) is 40.2%. With Utah last year, he shot 38.2%. This year, he is shooting 47.9% (before today’s game, in which he was 1-6). From three-point range, Fisher is a career 37.1% shooter and shot 30.8% last year. He is shooting 42.9% this year. Finally, Fisher is a career 80.7% FT shooter and shot 85.3% last year. He is shooting 86.2% this year.

Basically, those numbers say that Fisher is either (1) a much better shooter now than he has been over his career, or (2) he is enjoying an abnormally good shooting year. Given that his shots this year have not been more open than in the past – I have to think he got more open looks playing with Shaq and Kobe – what gives? I don’t think he spent all summer practicing jumpers, since he had to take care of his daughter. Bottom line is, I’m worried. I don’t think Fish’s hot shooting is sustainable and I’m quite worried about a line of bricks.

As for tonight, he didn’t do much. This team really needed him to step up and lead it, and he couldn’t do it. On the positive side, he’s not Smush Parker. He actually tries on defense and appears to have defended a screen and roll before at some point in his life. If I had to estimate, I’d say Fish is approximately 156 times better than Smush. I also don’t think Fish has ever had a Facebook group called “Derek Fisher Sucks,” while Smush has had several dedicated to his suckage.

Now, what about Farmar? Simply put, his improvement from last year has been striking. Farmar had a decent game today, mostly against Barbosa. He didn’t succeed in wearing down Nash – and I really think he could, given his speed – but that’s not his fault. I was most impressed with his speed today when matched up opposite Barbosa. On one play, he blew by Barbosa and made a gorgeous lefty layup. He seemed to stay with Barbosa fairly well, speed-wise, and Leandro is one of the fastest players in the league. This bodes well for Farmar’s speed (and athleticism).

The other part of his game that’s improved is his three-point shooting. If anything, he might have fallen in love with it too much this year, but unlike ex-Laker Brian Cook, he still penetrates to mix things up. I’d like to see Jordan take some more two-point jumpers, but overall I can’t complain. He was solid tonight and it was another good game for him. I think the Lakers will be fine at PG in the future (and maybe can package Crittenton with Kwame…but that’s another post).

Overall, though? The Lakers put almost no pressure on Nash to guard anyone. Bad.

Containing Barbosa

LA pretty much failed on this point. On the positive side, Barbosa didn’t get many layups. On the negative side, he got as many open threes as he wanted. In fact, the Lakers gave just about any Sun that cared to shoot an open 20 foot jumper.

Other Keys to the Game – Marion on Kobe (Or, Why Luke Walton Sucks)

The Suns showed an interesting defensive alignment, putting Marion on Kobe for long stretches of the game. I thought this was a good move because it prevents Kobe from posting, and Marion is quick enough to stay with Kobe when he drives. The Suns have done this before, and Kobe can still score on Marion, but seems to have to work very hard to do so.

When Marion is on Kobe, though, that means our small forward is being guarded by Raja Bell. The Lakers HAVE to punish that matchup if D’Antoni is going to put Marion on Kobe, and the Lakers completely failed to do that. At the beginning of the game, it was Luke Walton. Later, it was Trevor Ariza (who did have one nice post move).

Luke Walton was simply horrible tonight. Worse than Kwame. Walton did not score. He was 0-4 and had two turnovers in 20 minutes. On the very first Laker possession of the game, Marion backed off Walton at least 10 feet and Walton didn’t even look at the basket. Instead, he decided to try to throw a backdoor pass that sailed out of bounds. His reluctance to shoot and his lack of confidence in his shot cripples the rest of his game, because he isn’t quick enough to get by anyone without the help of a believable shot fake. How can an NBA wing player be so afraid to shoot?

Later in the game, Walton failed to recognize mismatches. The few times he did try to post up Raja Bell, he couldn’t get anything going. Then, he failed to recognize when Marion was back on him, and tried to post Marion up at least three times. Luke, there are a few problems here. First, Marion is more athletic than you are and can block your shot. Second, he’s quicker than you so you can’t go around him. Third, you suck. These possessions resulted in ugly misses or turnovers. Very, very poor recognition by a supposedly heady player.

To be fair to Luke, he is a limited player and everyone knows that. He’s a streaky shooter with below-average athleticism, above-average court vision, and the ability to post up smaller players (sometimes). That’s fine – he’s a role player. But why did the Lakers offer him a 6- year deal? I’m guessing no one else was offering anything close, and it becomes a horrible contract. He is the wrong sort of player for the faster, more athletic Lakers of today – Trevor Ariza (love that guy) is the right sort of player.

Final (random) thoughts

  • The “10 items or less” grocery store sitcom really runs a lot of commercials. I bet it’s not that good.
  • Sasha is at his best when his shots are fairly meaningless. Today, he drained 8 points in a row to bring LA within 10, then missed a lot when the Lakers were trying to cut further into the deficit. Typical Sasha. I won’t miss him when he goes. Maybe he can form a team with Slava Medvedenko or something.
  • Phil made a curious decision in continuing to sit Kobe with 9 min left in the game, with the Lakers down 8 and with some momentum. Kobe did not come in until the six minute mark, and there wasn’t enough time to mount a serious comeback. Still, I guess Phil was sticking with what worked on the floor.
  • The Laker defense was also horrible, and needs to be examined. We continued to give up open shots over and over. After Diaw hits 4 or 5 jumpers in a row, isn’t it obvious that he can shoot?!
  • Rony Turiaf had a good game, I thought. Good hustle and showed some range on his jumper. We even started posting him, and he drew an and-1 on Skinner. He won’t be able to score against starting big men, but has a chance of being very productive against the second-string.
  • Kobe didn't have a good game, despite a pretty box score. He was extremely passive for most of the game, leading to crappy role players struggling to create their own shots. He appeared to be coasting at times - on one play, Nash had a breakaway layup, and Kobe ALWAYS sizes those up and tries to come in for the block. In this case, he just jogged back and didn't contest at all. I thought that play showed that he didn't believe the Lakers could win, and was mailing in large stretches of the game, including the entire second quarter.

In the end, Phoenix was clearly the better team tonight and the Lakers never seriously threatened. That said, Phoenix didn’t play particularly well. They were extremely sloppy with the ball and don’t seem to be playing with the same joy that they used to play with. I doubt they come out of the West, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they end up making an early exit. Watching them play, you get the idea that they don’t really love playing with each other anymore and that they are a step slower than they used to be. And, they still don’t play much defense.

A depressing night for Lakers fans. It will be a long two months until Bynum comes back, and he won’t be in game shape. Let’s hope the team puts forth better showings and can sneak into the playoffs, then do some damage as it rounds back into form.

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