Friday, February 29, 2008

Should the Heat be in the NBDL?

The Lakers-Heat game last night was like the Lakers-Suns game right after the all-star break, only the exact opposite. That game in Phoenix, with Shaq in town playing for the first time, felt like a playoff game, and an important one at that. Extremely competitive, high-level basketball, a crowd trying to push their team to the next level. Especially with the SA-Dallas game as a warm-up, the Lakers-Heat game felt like a Summer League game where no one really cared.

Even so, there were still flashes of greatness, as the Lakers toyed with a terrible team. It's nice to have a team that is worth watching even when they are blowing out a 10-win team.

Dwyane Wade had better be hurt. Jordan thinks, and I agree, that he's just mailing it in. On defense, Wade got destroyed. Kobe blew by him multiple times with ease, but more telling was the fact that Sasha "The Machine" Vujacic crossed over on Wade and blew by him easily. On offense, Wade isn't the same player when the refs aren't coddling him. He clearly isn't as good a shooter as most of the elite players in this league, and an array of circus shots don't cut it when the whistles aren't blowing.

Mostly, Wade reminded me of Vince Carter last night. Still talented, not trying that hard, and somewhat painful to watch. For his sake, I hope he's playing hurt, because otherwise it's a shame to see what he's become.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Best Season Ever - 11 Games AP (After Pau)

Is this NBA season The Best Season Ever? I tend to think so. With seeds 1-9 in the West separated by 5 games, the entire second half of the season feels like the playoffs. Every game actually matters. Add to that old powers trying to hang on like the Spurs, Mavs, and Suns, new rising powers like the Lakers, Jazz, and Hornets, and even one intriguing question in the East (just how good is LeBron?), and almost every game holds intrigue. Of course, even in a season that's almost impossible to screw up, TNT and ABC show us a Miami Heat game every other night.

The other thing that makes this the Best Season Ever is the midseason addition of Pau Gasol to the Lakers and how that's changed the way the Lakers play. Besides for the fantastic ball movement in the triangle, for the first time in his career Kobe is showing that he understands the concept of a pick-and-roll. With Bynum this season, Kobe reverted back to the Kobe-Shaq model of pick and roll: get a pick, dribble into a corner to invite the double team, then lob it for a dunk. Nothing had ever shown me that Kobe could execute a real pick-and-roll, a la Stockton and Malone (or, today, Nash and Amare).

But add Gasol, and voila - Kobe apparently is quite proficient at a screen-roll when the big knows when to slip the screen! Beautiful to watch, and gives the triangle an extra dimension that has been missing as long as I can remember.

But one thing about adding Pau that I don't think has been discussed enough is the championship swagger. It's back, baby. It's back. It shows in a reporter asking Sasha "The Machine" Vujacic after the Portland game whether it's good to play from behind once in a while, to remember what it's like to trail in a game. It shows in the casual arrogance of Phil Jackson smirking on the bench as he reinserts Kobe at the 6-minute mark of the fourth quarter with a 20 point lead. (Or, maybe that's just stupidity.) It shows in the energy of Kobe night in, night out, destroying this league with 4 fingers on his shooting hand.

Kobe's energy has not been this high since he was a young gun jumping on Shaq's back for piggyback rides. The other night, he felt he was hit on a play in Seattle and began riding the poor young official, Joe Forte's son. Kobe jawed at him all the way downcourt. Then, he got the ball back, stood at the 10-second line with the ball on his hip, and yelled some more. Noticing the 24 second clock, Kobe drove, pulled up, and hit a tough jumper, then stared down the referee as if he had just scored on the ref. At the first stoppage in play, Kobe made a beeline for Forte and eventually got thrown out of the game. Of course, this intensity was with a 25 point lead late in the third quarter! Two years ago, I don't think Kobe cares as much about that game. Now, his competitive fire is burning. He wants to win, and he wants it now.

But more than anything else, this team is having fun. It doesn't matter if they are at home or on the road. They are playing loose - even Luke Walton, worst player in the league, tries between the legs bounce passes and shoots airballs that only miss by 2 feet - and the bench brings a ton of energy. Sasha believes in himself. Rony takes 15 foot fadeaways with no hesitation. Lamar looks rejuvenated, without the pressure of being the second option, and has smiled more in the past two weeks than I've seen in the past year.

Not even the fact that I'll be watching Luke Walton in a Laker uniform when I am 30 years old can dampen the thrill of the Lakers forcing another timeout from the opposing coach, and the team grinning and slapping each other on the backs as they stroll back towards the bench. Maybe it's Kobe, doing his airplane move after shredding a defense. Maybe it's Pau, still a little wide-eyed that he's in LA and winning games for the first time in years. Maybe it's Sasha tucking his ridiculous hair behind his ears, proud of edging out Brian Cook for the title of "most shots per minute in a Laker uniform" and dreaming of toppling Slava Medvedenko's dominance in the category someday. Whatever it is, life is good.

Then again, Luke Walton...when I'm 30...I guess that does dampen it a little bit. But just a little.

Larry "Smush" Hughes

Like Rakesh, I've been waiting some time to comment on the effect of the recent trades, both the Pau Gasol trade and the Ben Wallace era in Cleveland. At least for the Lakers, I wasn't waiting to see how the team would play for its first game. I've watched almost every game in the new Pau Gasol era, and it's been enthralling - more on that in a later post.

A few quick thoughts on the Cavs trade - I don't love it, but I don't hate it. I think it makes the Cavs marginally better, but it also costs them quite a bit of money. It's essentially a swap of untradeable contracts, but I like the pickup of Delonte West. I imagine Danny Ferry and John Paxon were both ecstatic that anyone would take Larry Hughes/Ben Wallace, and failed to realize they had to take the other crappy overpaid player. But I still bet they had huge grins on their faces after the call was made.

Chicago is a mess. They are the poster child for a franchise overvaluing its own players. Last year, when KG was on the market, one of my friends who's an avid Warriors fan told me that there was no way he would trade Monta Ellis and Andris Biedrins for KG - that would be too much. Sports Guy ran an email from a Blazers fan that they wouldn't move LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Fernandez for anyone less than LeBron. Someone needs to tell Paxon that Luol Deng, Ty Thomas, or Chris Duhon aren't that good. Ben Gordon is more valuable to the Bulls than to any other team. Maybe he can get something for Thabo Sefalosha...

What the Cavs trade really highlighted is how much Cavs fans hated Larry Hughes. I never realized this before, but he was to Cavs fans what Smush Parker was to Lakers fans. In fact, the fan site, provided pretty much the best sports comedy since watching Smush trying to guard any screen-roll. The irrationally euphoric response - "HOLY SHIT someone took LARRY???" - was pretty similar to what I would have felt last year if we had traded Smush Parker for a ham sandwich. At least the sandwich would have a chance of slowing down an opposing point guard.

I also didn't realize how Cavs fans felt about Drew Gooden. To an outsider like me, he seemed like a reasonably-paid, above average power forward - nothing special, but a relative bargain and a solid supporting player. To Cavs fans, who got to see his brain farts and low basketball IQ on a nightly basis, he is apparently more like Kwame Brown with better hands.

In any case, it's too early to judge the new-look Cavs. They've gotten bigger and stronger, but haven't really transformed the identity of their team. Seems to me that they are still one or two moves away from true contention, though in the East, anything goes.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Trade

So, I've been holding off on posting about the Cavs trade. I know it was a blockbuster, and I had a very strong and visceral reaction to it. But I wanted to wait before writing something, because I needed to see something very important: how the Cavs reacted in their first game with their new team.

This isn't because I wanted to engage in post-hoc reasoning or panic if the team looked terrible. What I was looking for was what the Cavs had last year -- swagger.

Last year (as with this year), everyone bagged on the Cavs. A one man team, some said. Too one-dimensional, others said. Too many mismatched pieces. Too many bad contracts. All of these things were true, but what made the Cavs so tough to play -- and what contributed to their rise more than a favorable schedule or underacheiving opponents was that they had swagger. They knew they could beat you, and they weren't afraid of anyone. And they genuinely loved playing with each other. That's why LeBron got right in Mikki Moore's face when he took down Sasha. That's why LeBron passed up that shot at the end of G1 against the Pistons even though everyone knew what was going to happen. They played like a lunch pail team on defense, and had just enough offense to keep it going.

This year, that swagger had been missing. LeBron was dominating, angry over the criticism he received from the Spurs series and furious that the Spurs got to celebrate on his home floor. But Larry looked as mismatched as ever; never quite sure what to do on a team with the most singularly talented player since Jordan. His shot selection was off, and he didn't quite look like he was sure what he was doing out there. Varejao and Pavlovic, who definitely aren't worth the money they wanted, were nonetheless important and their absence cost the team dearly (note how good the Cavs were in the few games they actually did play before getting injured). Drew Gooden looked as confused and frustrated as ever; confused because he has a pretty damn low basketball IQ; frustrated because Andy Varejao came back from a long holdout and immediately got more PT. The team lost is swagger, and they started losing games.

So that's why I wanted to wait until I saw the Cavs post-trade, to see if the trade and the new blood gave them back the swagger. And it did. Even in the first game, with an NBDL player chucking up 11 threes, and Damon Jones AND Eric Snow starting, the Cavs looked like they were having fun. Damon and LeBron were smiling and laughing throughout the game because they knew they could win. And they did win a game that they had no business winning (unless you have the best player in the game).

And then came Sunday. Sure, the Grizzlies suck. They've made some bad trades and have no direction. But the Cavs looked phenomenal. Tons of raw talent out there. Delonte West missed some shots, but but had six assists and looked to push the ball out every time it was in his hands (what a crazy idea with the best transition player in the game!) Keep in mind that our previous point was Larry Hughes, that his season high was six assists, that 2-12 shooting nights from Larry were commonplace, but that even he never looked to lead the break all the time. West is going to be a good fit with LeBron.

Joe Smith looked like he knew what he was doing -- his spacing was on point, he hit some good midrange jumpers, and he played decent defense. So basically, he was a smarter Drew Gooden. Wally looked inconsistent -- a bit unsure of where to go. My friend pointed out that KG can tell you what Wally as a second option looks like, and it's not pretty. But Wally looks excited to be in Cleveland, and he's a consistent shooter, which is all the Cavs will need him to do He's certainly a better shooter than the Donyell Marshall/Ira Newble tandem, though not as good of a defender.

And Wallace looked like a kid in the candy store. He was able to focus on defense and throw down some nice power dunks, which is all he will have to do. He made hustle plays, and he will make teams think twice about raking over LeBron every time he goes to the hole. If you don't think he's an improvement over Cedric Simmons, Drew Gooden (who missed a ton of easy dunks throughout his time), and the other big men we gave up, I don't know what to tell you.

At every position the Cavs traded a player from, they got a better player in return. That's why this was a good trade on paper. But it goes deeper -- throughout the game, the Cavs made swagger plays. Wallace's power dunk off an nice entry pass by Delonte. LeBron finishing strong on a perfect alley-oop pass by Delonte. Wally making things happen from the inside and the outside. Joe Smith looking like a midrange assassin. The Cavs won't always play consistently, and they will have growing pains together. But they now have swagger, to go along with one of the deepest front lines in the league. And LeBron looks content -- knowing that even if this doesn't work out, the cavs have a bunch of fat contracts and draft picks to trade this offseason for a Michael Redd, perhaps.

And the Cavs' biggest sixth man -- the fans -- were fired up. So intense and excited during the Washington win, and on the edge of their seats during the Memphis game. It was just like last year against the Pistons. People could not have been more excited. It was good to be a basketball fan in Cleveland.

We may not beat Detroit -- they look like a machine right now. We may struggle against the Celtics. And even if we win, the West is a beast. I'd love to play the Lakers for the Armageddon finals against Jordan and Justin, but we'd probably lose.

But at least it's good to be a Cavs fan. The waiting and hedging by Ferry is over. Which is why I'll now tell you what my reaction to the trade was. After spending the previous two hours madly refreshing, I raised my hands in the air and yelled. They may not be pretty, and they may not be good. But the swagger is back.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

From the LA Times:

"Center Andrew Bynum is at least three weeks from returning from a left knee injury and forward Trevor Ariza is still about eight weeks from returning from a broken bone in his right foot. Ariza's original timetable called for a return to health four weeks from now, but his foot was "healing more slowly than we hoped," a team official said Monday."

How is this not bigger news? It's not surprising to anyone that the Lakers' medical staff originally said Ariza would be out 8 weeks, and now it's 12? They missed their prognosis by 50%! That is not a small margin of error, and means that the Lakers' most athletic perimeter defender may not be in playing shape by the playoffs.

Put another way, it means Luke Walton keeps getting minutes. Devastating.

Good to see that the Lakers' vaunted medical personnel are on the job again, doing their usual incompetent job. Hopefully they don't operate on the wrong finger when Kobe eventually goes in.

EDIT: Please visit Particularly, note that Vitti's last award for trainer of the year was in 1991; that he has a "Fun Stuff" section for Gary Vitti look-alikes; and that it is now 2008. Also, he has a Gary Vitti Action Figure. Let's put it this way - I don't really feel better about Ariza's foot, Bynum's knee, or Kobe's finger.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Another One Bites the Dust (Part II)

Let's say your max-contract, perennial-MVP contender, mega-star player dislocates his finger in a game and comes out, grimacing in obvious pain. You've invested over $100M in this guy, and you hope to make a championship run not only this year but for the next 3-5 years to come. You're the medical trainer. You're on a long road trip and won't be home for another week. What do you do? Do you:

(A) Play it safe, and fly him home to get an MRI and see a hand specialist.
(B) Keep him with the team, but hold him out of games until he gets an MRI and an X-Ray that clear him to play.
(C) Tape up his finger and send him back in right away, then let him play four more NBA games before you run an MRI.

If you're Gary Vitti and the Lakers, you choose (C). How is that possible? At the least, shouldn't you go with (B), and get an MRI as soon as possible? This is Kobe Bryant!

While the Lakers have had a rash of injuries this season, they were also derailed by injuries last season. Each injury alone seems like a case of bad luck, but taken together I start to wonder about the medical people helping the players train. Maybe there is something wrong with the preventative medicine being practiced. In the past two years alone, counting ONLY injuries that caused missed games, the Lakers' injury roster looks like this:
  • Kwame Brown (knee, ankle)
  • Lamar Odom (shoulder)
  • Kobe Bryant (finger, ankle, shoulder, knee)
  • Trevor Ariza (foot)
  • Chris Mihm (ankle, ankle, ankle, ankle, heel, ankle...)
  • Andrew Bynum (knee)
  • Luke Walton (ankle)
  • Vladimir Radmanovich (ankle, shoulder while being an idiot and snowboarding)
  • Rony Turiaf (heart, ankle)
EVERY LAKERS STARTER,* AND MOST ROTATION PLAYERS, HAVE MISSED GAMES. Most rotation players have as well. Granted, Vlad's snowboarding and Rony's heart aren't the trainer's fault. But is this really to be expected? Do other teams have the same number of injuries to core players?

*Smush Parker never had a major injury. However, that's easily explained by the fact that he never expended any effort on the court. He's not really an NBA starter either. Just ask the Heat.

After the Suns traded for Shaq, a crop of stories were written about how the Suns had the best medical staff in the league. Apparently, their medical prowess is widely known and acknowledged. If the Suns medical guys could nurse Nash's bad back and Amare's reconstructed knee, the thinking went, then why couldn't they get Shaq in shape? The interesting thing isn't that some teams have better medical staffs than others. The question is why teams aren't assessing their own trainers, and trying to poach the best people from other teams.

After all, couldn't the Lakers just offer to double the salary of the Suns training staff and poach them to LA? A few million dollars invested to protect hundreds of millions of dollars in your players surely seems smart. And are teams conducting studies to benchmark their trainers against the league? With plenty of data on player injuries, rehab time, etc. corrected for personal injury history, position, and age, some econometrician should be able to come up with a pretty good model to compare medical staffs. If you owned a team, wouldn't you want to know this data, and start mimicking best practices of other teams if you couldn't steal their trainers? Or does this make too much sense?

Now, Kobe has a torn ligament that requires surgery to heal. He plans to try to play through it, and put off surgery until the offseason. Kobe's decision shows what sets him apart from other superstars in the NBA. His willingness and ability to play through pain - he scored 29 points last game with a finger that is falling off his shooting hand! - is nothing short of amazing. It's also a form of leadership that I don't think is discussed enough. Leading by example is underrated in the NBA. When LeBron sits out multiple games with a sprained finger, what is that telling the Cavs about toughness? Certainly not the same thing Kobe is telling his teammates. The rest of the Lakers better be getting the message - this is our time now. Nothing short of a championship is acceptable, even if you have to play on one leg to get there.

Even so, I'm not convinced that Kobe should wait on the surgery. With their new team, the Lakers are in this for the long haul. Maybe it's better to operate on Kobe now, let Bynum take his time to rehab his knee, and reload for a title run in 2008-09. It pains me to say that, but risking long-term damage to Kobe's hand is simply not worth it. He's already aggravated the injury by playing 4 more games, and hands are certainly an area that get hit a lot in basketball.

The saddest part about the injury is that the Lakers actually had a chance to make a legitimate title run this season. Maybe it's time to stop scrutinizing GMs and start taking a closer look at team trainers. Gary Vitti, you're on the hot seat now...

EDIT: to keep Rakesh from murdering me in my sleep, it should be pointed out that LeBron takes a beating and is one of the toughest players in the league. In no way does sitting out with a sprained finger imply that he is on the Vince Carter level of manliness.

EDIT 2: Hollinger wrote a nice piece calling for Kobe to get surgery now and return for a title run in the playoffs, with Andrew Bynum. Personally I think it is tough to get a team to readjust to two big pieces like Kobe and Bynum, but I think Hollinger makes an interesting point.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

A Tale of Two Larrys

Last night's loss to the Spurs was a rough one; and it shows how much this team depends on Anderson Varejao for defensive tenacity. He actually has the ability to bother Tim Duncan (which Drew Gooden does not) and helps free up other guys to rotate on the perimeter. But, when Manu gets hot, Manu gets hot.

What I really want to talk about is the resurgence of Larry Hughes in the last two games. I'm still skeptical, given that I was one of the fools who picked up Larry on my fantasy team after his 36 point game against Indiana earlier this year, only to have him go a dominant 4-15 in the next game. Larry is just in a zone right now where he's making some outside shots, and that's nice to see. It's always good to have someone besides LeBron shooting well. What I like about Larry's current resurgence, though, is that he's finally seemed to recognize what his game is: an inside-out game. Larry, to put it bluntly, is 100 times the player when he is using his inside game (namely his ability to get to the hoop and draw contact) to set up his outside game (mostly rhythm jumpers). He's not good when he plays outside-in because he's not normally a great shooter.

The thing that has always made Larry and the Cavs an odd fit is that Larry has of late (by which I mean post-injury in 2005) tried to model his game after Ray Allen and Michael Redd, the two players the Cavs were also looking at in the 2005 offseason. Which is not something I think the Cavs, or LeBron, really want him to do. One of the things that's quite striking about Larry is that he's actually better when LeBron is playing the point. If you look at his first 28 games as a Cav back in 2005, before the injury, LeBron was doing most of the ballhandling (occasionally Eric Snow did) and Larry was free to roam around and play off the ball. That's what happened the last few nights -- LeBron started taking over the point once Larry got hot and ultimately ended up distributing the ball to Larry.

What's the point? Well, for now, it may be that the Cavs are really best off with LeBron running the point and Larry playing off the ball (at least until Larry's current hot streak subsides). It's been fun to watch the last games and see what it's like when the Cavs have a legit second option. I'd still like to see us trade expirings for, say, Redd, a big man, or a PG this offseason (and figure that LeBron will start planning his exit strategy if Ferry messes this up) but for the time being, I think the Cavs need to do whatever they can to keep Larry in the zone (who ever thought I would say that?)

The other thing to note is probably my favorite thing about the Cavs: as Dan Labbe of the Cleveland Plain Dealer pointed out today, nobody gives them a chance except Cavs fans. When we get Andy and Boobie back, and if we can make one of these rumored Jarrett Jack or Kyle Lowry trades, that'll be, I think, enough for this postseason. Then, I think it's go time -- with 35 M in expirings, Ferry really will be under the gun to re-sign Andy and Boobie and then make a splash. I'll have my fingers crossed.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

I Am Devean George, Hear Me Roar!

UPDATE: The Jason Kidd deal is not done, because Devean George refuses to consent to being traded!


"The Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant is the only player in the league with a specific no-trade clause in his contract, but league rules dictate that it's a right George also possesses because he's on a one-year contract (worth $2.4 million) and because Dallas would have Early Bird rights to re-sign him this summer.

If such a player is traded, Bird rights are not traded with him. So league rules compensate for this by requiring George's consent in any trade."

Or, as one of my law professors put it, "I just read about J. Kidd - the deal is so complicated it probably required several law firms."

Heckled by fans angry at his perceived selfishness, George responded admirably by shooting 0-11 from the field and 0-2 from the charity stripe in 33 minutes in a 96-76 Dallas win. This looks like a winner all around!

Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?

Or, in this case, are you smarter than your average Western Conference GM?

About two weeks ago, the Lakers traded Kwame Brown's $9M expiring contract, Javaris Crittenton, and 2 first-round picks for Pau Gasol and a second-round pick. Last week, the Suns traded Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks for Shaquille O'Neal. Now, the Mavs are reportedly trading Devin Harris, DeSagana Diop, Jerry Stackhouse, Devean George, Maurice Ager, 2 first-round picks and $3M cash for Jason Kidd.

Somewhere, the Lakers must be giggling. Or, as Hollinger puts it, falling over with laughter. Not only did they land an All-Star 7-footer who averages 19 and 9, they also sent their Western Conference rivals into a self-destructive panic that culminated in the dismantling of two Western Conference contenders! I'm not sure I've ever been more excited about two trades that did not involve the Lakers. R.I.P., Suns and Mavs.

Why are the Suns and Mavs, two Western Conference powers with smart management, suddenly panicking? Personally, I like to think it's because they've looked at the Lakers roster, realized that the future belongs to LA, and decided "Screw it. If we're going to win, we have to win NOW." And thus they are mortgaging the future for aging stars in a last-gasp attempt to make a run.

In fact, it isn't even fair to call Shaq and Kidd "aging stars" - they are aged stars! Both have maybe two serviceable years left in the tank. I am glad to see Shaq on a good team again though. Watching him lug his fat ass around Miami on a 9-40 team was getting a tad depressing for the most dominant center ever to play the game. Yes, including Wilt - Shaq dominated in an era with stronger, bigger, faster players, and Kareem was a skill player more than a power player.

Let's put it this way - when the Lakers traded for Gasol, my first reaction was...well, my first reaction was, "PAU GASOL? WE GOT PAU GASOL?!?" After seeing the trade, I thought, "wow, two first-rounders...a hefty price, but we had to do it." Now, Dallas is giving up two first-rounders...AND the best player in the deal...AND the third and fourth best players in the deal...AND $3M in cash? Are you kidding me? Did Rod Thorn just keep asking for more, getting more and more excited as Cuban didn't shoot him down?

Let's put it another way - this trade fails the "who scares you more?" test. Basically, ask yourself this question: in an important playoff game, you're facing one of the players in this deal. Who scares you the most? For me, the answer is easy. Devin Harris. Harris scares me 100 times more than Jason Kidd. Harris is quick, crafty, and explosive. He'd eat the Lakers point guard alive. Kidd is bigger, and a better passer, but he can be left open on the perimeter and is not looking to score. In fact, Kidd might not even be the second scariest player in this deal - Stackhouse terrifies me, because he has that killer instinct.

Eric made the point that the Mavs are essentially facing the same decision that the Spurs made about three years ago - do we go with our young, talented, quick point guard, or trade him for an aging Jason Kidd? The Spurs chose to keep Tony Parker. The Mavs choose to go with an (even older) Kidd, while also sending over their prize Sixth Man and their backup center, 2 picks, and cash. Let's just say there's a reason the Spurs are the smartest team in basketball.

Even if the Mavs resign Stackhouse in 30 days, they're now stuck with Dampier at center with no big men to back him up (Brandon Bass?). Given that Kidd can't guard anyone, it'll be a close call whether Damp or Shaq picks up more fouls per minute this year. My money is still on Shaq, because his size causes refs to blow whistles even when he goes straight up, but it's close...

Anyway, let's hope these trades keep on coming. Hey San Antonio, isn't it about time you made a major move? Everyone else is upgrading! I hear you might be able to get Jermaine O'Neal and Mike Dunleavy for Manu, Parker, and a pick.

Friday, February 8, 2008


Big win in Orlando tonight, and an entertaining game - lots of scoring, lead swings, and a solid final result. Pau is a perfect fit in the triangle, with his passing and ability to hit the elbow jumper, and it seems that Lamar can fit in with this team also. He's playing a Marion type of role now, floating, hitting the occasional shot, driving when there are lanes, rebounding the ball - and honestly, I think he likes it that way. The big test will be seeing how the Lakers adjust to Bynum's return.

The most entertaining thing about watching this team lately, though, is Kobe Bryant's rejuvenation. In the games since the trade was announced, he's gone to another planet. Kobe hasn't tried to just dunk on people since around 2004, in his streak of 40-point games, and at points the season just after Shaq was traded. Practically speaking, it's just too tiring to try to pull off those kind of moves all the time. (If it weren't so tiring, we'd see LeBron dunking 30 times a night - I honestly think he can get to the rim anytime he wants to.)

In the past few games, though, Kobe's suddenly become 25 again. He's dunking on people. He's zooming back downcourt in his airplane pose. He's spinning around (needlessly) when he hits an open man in the corner, just to add a little pizazz. Kobe Bryant is having fun again. He believes this team can win a championship, and he is just enjoying being on the floor.

When all of Kobe's toys get back on the floor, the serious work can start. For now, it's just playtime - and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Shaq, Kobe, and Tyronne it 2002?

Much has been made about the Shaq-to-Phoenix trade, and I'm not sure there's a lot more to say that hasn't already been said. Like most other sports observers out there, I was stunned by the deal - I thought it was a joke at first - and have serious doubts about the wisdom of the trade for Phoenix. As a Lakers fan, I'm not sorry to see Phoenix break up its run and gun core. At the end of the day, I don't think either old Phoenix or new Phoenix can beat the Lakers in a 7-game series - so might as well bring in the Diesel and have some amusement, no?

The strangest thing is Phoenix's reasoning. So far, I've heard that they want to move Amare to the 4, want to improve their defense, and want to match up better with big teams out west. First, Amare is not better as a 4. He doesn't bang inside with centers anyway, so this doesn't save him any wear and tear. As a 4, he'll lose quickness advantages over slower centers, and Shaq will clog the lane so he won't be able to get all the way to the basket on pick and rolls anymore with a help defender only a few feet away.

As for improving defense, Phoenix might want to look for a long, quick, athletic forward who can guard multiple positions and disrupt opposing offenses. Someone like Scottie Pippen...or Shawn Marion! How does trading your best defender solve any defensive issues? And as for matching up - the best Phoenix can be now is a crappier version of the Nash-Dirk Mavs that never went anywhere. Diaw, Hill, Bell, and to a lesser extent Amare are all better transition players than half-court players too.

I expect Shaq to have a nice 10 games to make some people think things will be okay, and then go down with some injury. The Suns now are starting Nash (bad back), Hill (bad ankles and apparently a suspect appendix), Shaq (bad...everything), and Amare (surgically reconstructed knee). Good luck with that.

Tonight's loss to Atlanta was disappointing. The Lakers never seemed to have much energy and played like it was...well, like it was the second night of a back-to-back in the middle of a 9 game road trip against a below-average Eastern conference team. Not that that's a good excuse. There were definitely positives though - Lamar looked great and can obviously fit into this offense, Kobe continued to look extremely excited to play with his new toy (Bynum and then Gasol in the course of one season? This is the best Christmas ever for little Bean Bryant!), and Fisher remembered how to shoot. Then again, to balance it out, Sasha apparently can't keep track of the score, after a timeout, in the last 10 seconds of the game. Yay Sasha.

Watching the Lakers control a game with a one-handed Kobe kept bringing a smile to my face though. I would just sit there grinning when Pau caught a pass, then laid it in. Two things Kwame couldn't do! Amazing! He needs to be more aggressive in the post, but that will come.

Actually, the dynamic on the Lakers reminded me of what happens when a new guy comes to play with a bunch of friends - he doesn't want to shoot too much because he doesn't want to seem like a ballhog, but everyone else keeps trying to pass him the ball because they want to be nice. That led to more triangle offense than I've seen in months, a lot of nice ball movement, and tons of open shots. It also led to Pau looking like a white Lamar Odom at times - reluctant to shoot, and overpassing. At the end of the day, the Lakers just didn't have the energy to push a consistent 8-point lead to double digits, and it came back to bite them.

That, and the fact that Tyronne Lue is apparently allowed to set a moving chop-block to take out Kobe on the game-deciding play, and Joe Johnson is allowed to shove Fisher in the chest and get a foul called on the defender. Not that I think the officiating was bad on that play or anything.

Friday, February 1, 2008

My culture glides and attacks just like a vulture

PAU. If two months without Drew and Trevor were looking like forty years in the Sinai, this is waking up to find that God’s dropped wafers at your feet. Two weeks ago, Pau put up 21-18-8 with four blocks against the Lakers, held Bynum in check, and watched Kwame sink a game-winning free throw. Now he’s packing his bags for LA and thinking, “I wonder what kind of housewarming pie Kob’s gonna bake me ...” (Or, more accurately, “Bynum y yo: Altos. Fuertes. Campeones.”) Even Mark Kelman is nodding happily—Pau is now a fee simple, and there is NO possibility of reverter.

More thoughts:


Look, Gasol may not be Ajax, but “softest big man in the league?” Somewhere, Dirk, Eddy Curry, and Brian Cook are all tapping their feet indignantly. Nobody is going to mistake Gasol for Ben Wallace, but he’s shown steady improvement on the defensive end since he came into the league. Presumably the reduced pressure to score and drop in the amount of time he spends wildly chasing errant Mike Conley 18-footers will help him focus on hunting down boards and staying tough on defense.

People forget just how many defensive assets the Lakers had this year. Bynum finally realized that he could wave that 90-inch wingspan around and scatter foes like the Hydra (subluxation of the kneecap isn’t as glamorous as being chopped to bits by Hercules ... but at least Bynum will get better). Ariza brought such a substantial defensive toolset that he could plausibly guard both Iverson and Melo. Kobe has stepped up his defense after spending the summer basking in sportswriter praise for playing defensive stopper for Team USA. Turiaf is undersized, but turning into a huge asset on defense, even against legitimate centers, though the wild tomahawk swings he takes at everything make him a foul magnet, albeit a stylish one. (I always imagine Kobe going over and pleading with him: “Ronny, just challenge the shot, you don’t always have to go for the block. We need you on the floor.” Ronny: “Fuck that! Without style, man is nothing. –Nietzsche (paraphrase).”) And I’ll cover Sasha later.

The Lakers don’t need Gasol to do anything except help out when quick guards beat Fish or Farmar off the dribble. And the length we have now is absurd: if I went to class one day and Bynum, Odom, and Gasol had sawed off their limbs and left them in a pile on one Aeron, it would take me a second before I realized it wasn’t a complete person. They’re that long. All men quake in the shadow of giants.

Also, a final thought: Spain has never been about defense, and you know what? It’s worked out ok. The pre-Spaniards folded like a cheap deck of cards against the Berber Muslims that swept the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century, but that didn’t stop them from spending several centuries fighting a series of bloody Reconquest wars. The Inquisition wasn’t about defending the One True Church from corrupting external influence ... it was about ROOTING OUT THAT INFLUENCE AND FORCIBLY CONVERTING IT! Spain in the imperial age meant the reckless, relentless offensive conquest of vast swaths of the new world, the rape and pillage of its people and resources, all driven by the galleon, the age’s most dramatic manifestation of offensive might. So when Pau gives up an easy two on defense and then drops in a sweet jump-hook on the other end, he’s not screwing up—he’s reenacting the history of his people. Hegel tells us that a first glance at History convinces us that the actions of men proceed from their needs, their passions, their characters and talents—but in Pau’s case, can we not say that his needs, passions, character, and talents proceed from History?

The Triangle:

Yeah, Pau doesn’t know the triangle. But he has a half-season to learn it before the playoffs, and with the Lakers as thin as they are, he’ll have plenty of practice. He certainly seems like an ideal triangle big man, though, with excellent court-vision and passing, a diverse set of low- and high-post moves, and quick decisionmaking. Can you honestly say that an untutored Pau is going to be worse off than Kwame after years of practice in Phil’s system? At least Pau can hang onto the damn ball.


Farmar is the point of the future for the Lakers, and if you could only keep one, Javaris was obviously the right one to give up. Critt has been great in spurts this year, and if he can rein in his more irresponsible instincts without neutering his talent, the Lakers will eventually regret giving him up. The silver lining is that, with their season shot even before the trade, nothing is stopping Iavaroni from saying “Fuck it, I’m one-upping Nellie,” and trotting out a lineup of Warrick, Conley, Lowry, Juan Carlos, and Crittenton, which would make Bill Walton’s head explode. Of course, this would preclude ...

Darko and Kwame, Together at Last

One was born in South Carolina, the other in Novi Sad, but if kindred spirits exist in the NBA, Darko and Kwame have to be it. Darko will give Kwame the outlet for his frustration he’s been looking for since the Jordan days: namely, the Serbian language, with its rich lexicon of profanity and extended system of accentuation. Kwame will help Darko get a better perspective on regional variations in American barbecue, helping Darko more fairly evaluate Memphis’s mild, sweet sauces against the vinegar and hickory flavors that predominate in South Carolina. Will this translate to success on the court? I’d like to think so.


J.A. Adande went on record today in his chat that the Lakers “have” to move Odom now that they’ve pulled the trigger on Gasol. His somewhat counterintuitive solution was Anderson Varejao, who I don’t think gives the Lakers much that they don’t already have in Turiaf. J.A.’s argument was that with the offense running through the new Big 3, Lamar will “float,” lost without the rock in his hands. Isn’t it equally plausible that without any pressure to make his own offense, Lamar will be free to slink back to his natural small forward slot, create nightmarish mismatches for most of the 3’s in the league, snag the garbage boards he’s so good at getting, and occasionally taking it to the rack. With as much firepower as the Lakers will have, the frequent nights when Lamar doesn’t get it going offensively won’t hurt nearly as much, and what he does bring to the table almost every game—solid rebounding, meddlesome defense, and that weird star on the back of his head—will matter that much more.


A few days ago, Justin wrote that he won’t be disappointed when Sasha leaves. Well ... SOME OF US WILL BE. His rise from the depths of the Laker bench—where he so inept that he couldn’t even beat out Smush Parker for playing time at the point—to the Sasha we’re seeing today—a valuable contributor with a lightning-quick stroke who can give you quick points off the bench and actually play a bit of defense against quick guards—has been dramatic and inspirational. To make the analogue of my Gasol argument: how could anyone from a country this beautiful fail to play beautifully?

What I like best about Sasha is that his shots feel like gifts. At Staples, when he gets a look at an open three the entire arena seizes up, caught somewhere between the expectation of convention failure and, as Obama might put it, the audacity of hope. He’s a bit player in the Lakers narrative, but lately, with some frequency, he’s been defying his own role. I expect Kobe to be transcendent, and he regularly delivers. And make no mistake: it’s watching players like Kobe that makes the time I invest in the game worth it. But Sasha’s successes seem no less pedestrian. Some people call it “managing your expectations”; I call it “letting the mundane seep into the ecstatic.”

Gasol to the Lakers!


I haven't been this excited since...well, since the Gary Payton/Karl Malone signings. And yes, I remember exactly where I was when I found out.

The Lakers paid a hefty price for Gasol - I would have loved it if we could have only given away one first-round pick, instead of two, but still, there's no way to look down on this trade. If only Jerry West had still been the GM so we could speculate that he was getting back at McHale for his indefensible trade of KG to the Celtics for Al Jefferson and a pile of crap.

Fisher-Kobe-Odom-Gasol-Bynum is a scary starting five, and the best thing is, the Lakers now become one of the deepest teams in the league too with Farmar-Sasha-Walton-Vlad-Ariza-Turiaf off the bench. We can run with anybody, score with anybody, and hopefully bring a lot of energy to the floor. In fact, a month or so ago, I actually tabbed Gasol as the best possible trade for the Lakers because of his ability to play outside (necessary because Bynum will be our presence in the middle) and his fit into the triangle offense. At the time, I proposed Crittenton, Kwame, Mihm, and a pick for Gasol - so we paid a bit more - but this should make the Lakers contenders for the next 3-4 years to come. Real contenders. Gasol is 27, so hopefully entering his prime. Let's just hope he's healthy...

The other great thing? We swapped the rights to Pau's brother, Marc, in the deal. Marc for Pau - now that's a deal I like.

Pau, here's your new practice buddy, Andrew. Don't worry, we ditched the bum wearing the headband who couldn't play defense or shoot.