Monday, January 30, 2012

Showtime they are not

After yet another road loss, a reporter asked Kobe if the offense was under construction.  He quipped that,

"We're still working on the blueprints, actually."

Although he was smiling, I'm not convinced that the man was joking.

The Los Angeles Lakers' offense is seriously struggling.  In other news, Greece's economy isn't doing so well.

Is this all that surprising?  Let's not forget that the team has undergone major changes since last season.  Lakers fans need to come to grips with the fact that Adam Morrison has left for Turkey and he ain't coming back.  Also, the Phil Jackson regime is gone and they took the triangle offense (and Phil's orthopedic throne) with them.  They had a 10 point quarter versus the Magic last week and have scored under 100 points in 17 of their last 19 games.  In Portland, the Lakers somehow managed to miss every 3 pointer they attempted, including a woeful 0-5 performance by Steve Blake.  Chris Paul is not walking through that door, folks (at least not in a purple and gold uniform) and right now the Lakers seem lost out there.

In the 3 consecutive years where the Lakers made it to the NBA Finals, they had good balance offensively.  It was a simple time.  They ran the triangle offense using Kobe and Pau as their primary scorers and playmakers.  They were the Jordan and Pippen of that team and were used in a very similar manner.  Phil rarely took both of them out of the game at the same time.  Roles for everybody else on the team were clearly defined and role players did their part.  D Fish was there to handle the ball, pass to Kobe or Gasol, and knock down the open shot.  His role was simple but not easy.  Ron Artest was there to defend the other team's best perimeter scorer.  On offense, Phil kept him on a sort leash.  He was asked to knock down the open shot and occasionally attack the basket in a clear mismatch situation.  Defining Andrew Bynum's role is a bit more difficult.  He anchored the defense, clogged the paint, and collected lots of rebounds.  It seems as though he was being groomed to be a primary scorer but chronic knee injuries put the kibosh on that.

The Lakers also relied heavily on their bench for scoring.  Reigning 6th Man of the Year Lamar Odom was the King of the "Killer B's".  Perhaps "Queen B" would be more of an apt analogy but that just sounds weird.  Odom was the second unit's primary scorer, playmaker, and ball handler.  Shannon Brown was there for alley-oops, put back dunks, and 3-pointers.  Sasha Vujacic spaced the floor with his outside shooting.  Those 3 players have since left town and while Goldie Loc (Andrew Goudelock) had a nice game the other night, I hardly think that this second unit as it's currently constructed is scaring anybody.  Goudelock, Troy Murphy, Devin Ebanks, Jason Kapono, and Darius Morris are all averaging about 3 points or less per game.  Al Harrington single handedly gives Denver as much scoring as all of them put together.

What is the "blueprint" for the Lakers' offense?  Among the fraternity of NBA coaches, Mike Brown is a well respected figure.  As a head coach, he does certain things quite well.  Being creative with his offense is not one of them.  The way he utilized (or did not utilize) Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison, JJ Hickson, Delonte West, and Shaquille O'Neal in Cleveland seemed strange at times.  Some of his decisions regarding substitutions and playing time were downright puzzling.  He inherited a Lakers team that has been pretty efficient since Pau Gasol came to town.  They currently rank 18th in offensive efficiency.

Let's start with the obvious.  This Lakers' offense is still built around 2 players.  Are they holding up their end of the bargain?  Kobe is still the primary scorer and playmaker on this team.  Nowadays the league's leading scorer is doing way more scoring than making plays for others.  One could argue that this is in part due to the poor outside shooting from his teammates.  Matt Barnes, Derek Fisher, Steve Blake, and Troy Murphy haven't found their shooting touch and no one is ever going to mistake Metta World Peace for Steve Kerr.  One could just as easily argue that Kobe has been taking too many bad shots and not looking to pass the ball enough.  This season Kobe is shooting more jump shots than ever and generating less assists per game.  Pau Gasol has not looked like himself either.  He is not establishing himself in the low post as much and, as a result, he is not scoring very efficiently.  Lately he has been settling for outside jump shots.  The biggest downside to this is that we have seen much less of that great passing from the low post that he was known for.  Without Kobe and Gasol consistently setting up their teammates, this offense looks very mediocre.

One bright spot has been that with limited touches Andrew Bynum has shown flashes of dominance.  Limited being the operative word.  Is it finally time to give Bynum the oppportunity to be a primary scorer?  The Lakers took Bynum in the first round and (until recently) resisted every offer to trade him.  He is the only Laker aside from Kobe and Bynum that is able to create offense without having to be left open.  Could his low post scoring be the answer to the Lakers' offensive woes?  Could getting him the ball more help guys like Fisher, Barnes, World Peace, and McRoberts find their mojo?  The only way to find out would be to give him the ball a lot more than they have been.  Phil Jackson seemed to want Bynum to eventually become the focal point of the offense but it never actually happened.  The offense has always run through Kobe and Gasol.  Trying to change that now would be perceived as either foolish or incredibly bold.

What should Mike Brown do?  He is their head coach and the buck stops with him.  Brown knew when he took this job that anything less than a Finals appearance would be viewed as a failure.  At 12-9, the Lakers are the 8th seed in the Western Conference and would be out of Playoff contention with another loss or a Spurs win.  Mike Brown is a defensive minded coach and fixing this offense will be a difficult task for anybody.  Will he have the chutzpah to tell Kobe to stop shooting so much?  Can he tell Pau that he will be benched if he keeps settling for jump shots?  Will he be willing to take a player out of the game that's not hitting open shots, even if that means replacing them with a worse defender?  Much has been made of the lack of practice time due to the lockout.  This is especially challenging for teams attempting to learn new systems with new coaches.  I imagine that this is a factor but I have doubts that this offense is going to fix itself without being shaken up either through personnel changes or scheme adjustments.  Make no mistake.  There is plenty of basketball left to be played, plenty of time to make trades, and plenty of opportunities for Mike Brown to prove his doubters wrong.  Let us see what "blueprint" Mike Brown is constructing.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

It's not easy being green

We are witnessing the "era of the point guard" in today's NBA.  This is quite a departure from the 2000's "era of the big man" where (almost) every team to hoist the Larry O'Brien trophy was built around Tim Duncan or Shaquille O'Neal.  After Jordan retired, the conventional thinking was to build your team around a dominant 7 footer.  These days, more and more teams are building their franchises around a dominant 6 footer.  The reigning MVP is a point guard.  Chris Paul created more of a trade frenzy than the best (according to most) center in the league.  The former pride of Istanbul's Besiktas Milanga will either lure another franchise player to Brooklyn or force another team into a fire sale to trade for him.  One would be hard pressed to think of a time when there were so many max contract worthy point guards in the NBA.  Mike Krzyzewski and Jerry Colangelo's job of choosing only 3 for the Olympic team is no easy task.  Is this a good thing?  People hated the slow, low-scoring, feed-the-post-on-every-possession style of the Spurs and Lakers.  Nowadays, everybody would rather see fast breaks, slick crossovers and alley-oop dunks.  The many talented point guards in the league are giving the people what they want.  What's not to like?

Believe it or not, there have been some negative repercussions to this trend.  The market is a funny thing in professional sports and every team has reacted differently to this explosion of  talent.  Some GM's have opted to start an arms race to get a better point guard than the competition.  The last two number one overall picks in the Draft have been spent on point guards.  The Clippers and Nets gave up quite a bit to simply lease a top flight point guard for a season or two.  Other GMs feel as though great point guards grow on trees so trading/releasing theirs is not the end of the world.  This unprecedented surplus of talented point guards has left the Celtics' play caller Rajon Rondo lost in the shuffle.  Danny Ainge used up all of his anytime minutes in the offseason trying to trade Rondo for Chris Paul or Deron Williams.  One could argue that either would be an upgrade from Rondo.  I'm not convinced that it's a significant one.  Rondo is one  hell of an athlete and a very underrated floor general.  In a league saturated with very good point guards, Rondo is a truly great one.

What separates the great point guards from the good?  In my humble opinion, John Stockton is the greatest point guard to ever play in the NBA.  He defined how to play the position and when I think of great point guards, I use him as the model.  Stockton made the Utah Jazz offense click for 20 years and dished out almost 16,000 assists.  He played the passing lanes better than anyone and amassed more than 3,000 steals in his career.  After stealing the ball, few ran the fast break as well as he did.  In the half court he was able to pick apart defenses with his dribble penetration and incredibly accurate passing.  John Stockton had the unique ability to completely dominate a game without ever taking a shot.  He understood the game and knew how to make everybody on his team better.

Rondo has many of these same qualities.   He is also an incredibly accurate passer.  Whether it's throwing lobs to Garnett, bounce passes to a cutting Ray Allen, no-look passes to a streaking Paul Pierce, he is always right on the money.  Rondo is like a Pro Bowl quarterback on the court and watching him throw a bounce pass is a thing of beauty.  The fundamental bounce pass has become a lost art in this SportsCenter age but Rajon Rondo's game is old school like Kangol hats and Reebok Pumps.  He runs the fast break as well as any guard in the league and can make any assist imaginable.  I would argue that he is a better pure passer in the open floor than Paul or Williams.  Rondo at his best is like a turbo charged Bob Cousy.

In the half court, Rondo runs the Celtics' offense to perfection, which is no easy task.  This is in part because he is incredibly explosive and can get into the paint at will.  Once he blows by his defender, he is adept at finding shooters on the perimeter or big men cutting to the basket while still moving at full speed.  Rondo knows where every teammate likes to shoot the ball and is able to find them consistently.  While scoring may be his biggest deficiency, Rondo is very athletic and finishes strong around the basket.  He has added the tear drop floater and running jumper to his offensive repertoire.  There are certainly better scoring point guards than Rondo, but I doubt you will find a replacement that will actually improve the Celtics' offense.  He makes that Boston Celtics' offense "do what it do".

Like Stockton, Rondo is not only a leader but a competitor.  Seeing him dive after loose balls, take charges, snatch rebounds away from centers, or block shots has become commonplace.  The man is as tough as they come and does whatever it takes to get the win.  Rondo is also a superb defender.  Unlike most point guards, he not only plays passing lanes but excels at playing one-on-one defense.  He is exceptionally quick and quite good at keeping defenders in front of him.  Rondo also has long arms and very quick hands which he routinely uses to block shots, deflect passes, and get steals.  Rondo rebounds exceptionally well for a point guard.  Like Jason Kidd, he is good at crashing the defensive boards and starting fast breaks with long outlet passes.  The Celtics all know this and (like the old Utah Jazz) they run the floor at every opportunity.  The breakneck pace set by Rondo and the Celtics was especially disruptive versus the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2010 Playoffs.

It is impossible to tell what the future will hold for Rondo or these Boston Celtics.  One of the reasons Rondo did not get his proper respect used to be because he played with 3 future Hall of Famers.  As this corps gets older and more injury prone, this is not such a convincing argument.  He is a star in his own right and one could argue that him being the primary piece in trade talks is a testament to that fact.  Right now he may be one of the only Celtics with any trade value left but I somehow doubt that that is any consolation to him.  Lamar Odom wasn't exactly thrilled to be traded to Dallas a year after being named 6th Man of the Year.  Hopefully Danny Ainge appreciates what he has in Rajon Rondo.  This is a point guard's league and he is still one of the best in the business.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Open Letter to Steph Curry's right ankle

I am not above admitting that I have been dead wrong in my assessment of some players coming into the league.  Stephen Curry was one of those players.

From the handful of times that I watched him play at Davidson, (handful being the operative word.  Those who know me know that I find college basketball about as entertaining as watching Grey's Anatomy) it seemed as though he was a natural combo guard.  Given his lack of size, strength, and quickness, (when compared to NBA 2 guards) it was obvious that he would have to transition to playing point guard exclusively.  Learning a new position is never easy, especially as an NBA rookie.  My gut feeling was that Stephen Curry would be no more than a solid role player at the professional level.  I thought that he would not start in many games and certainly would not be the All-Star some were projecting him to become.  I confidently predicted that he would go the way of Adam Morrison or JJ Redick and most of his rookie year would be spent on the bench.

Our former president could just as confidently say that I misunderestimated him.

Curry's rookie season could not have gone any more differently than I had predicted.  Role player he is not.  The kid started 80 games and averaged almost 18 and 6.  He had five 30-point, 10-assist games.  Only Lebron and D Wade had more that year.  He dropped 42 points against Portland in the last game of the season.  As a rookie, Curry posted one triple double and flirted with a quadruple double.  He also made a record breaking one hundred and sixty six 3-pointers.

The kid can flat out play.  Steph Curry may not be a freakishly athletic, but he has a freakishly high basketball IQ.  He reads defenses and always knows where everybody is on the floor.  He may not be lightning quick but he has a good crossover and very deceptive change of pace dribble which allow him to get to the basket.  Fouling him is a bad idea as he shoots almost 93% from the line.  While Dell Curry's son doesn't exactly jump out of the gym, he is able to get his shot off using his exceptional handles and great footwork.  And what a jump shot he has.  Beautiful form.  Quick release.  Great range.  I can't remember a guy not named Ray Allen or Reggie Miller that had a jumper this nasty this early in their career.

Alas, Stephen Curry's right ankle is threatening to hold his career back more than any of his other physical shortcomings.  7 ankle sprains in less than a year and a half.  He missed 8 games last year and the ankle clearly bothered him at times.  He opted to have surgery in the offseason to strengthen the ankle, which makes it doubly frustrating when he sprained it again on Friday.  We are two weeks into the regular season and Curry has already sprained his ankle three times.  Apparently, there is no structural damage and he is listed as day-to-day.  One would imagine that the Warriors training staff are going to let him fully recuperate before getting him back on the floor.

This latest setback is undoubtedly frustrating for all parties involved.  The fans, the organization, and new head coach Mark Jackson have some difficult questions that need to be answered.  Right now, Curry is still under his rookie contract and is earning about $3 million per year.  He will be an unrestricted free agent after next season.  Can Curry ever stay healthy enough to justify re-signing him for the amount of money that he and his agent will want?  The men writing the checks have to wonder whether a substantial investment in him is a wise one.

Another question is whether Golden State can build a competitive team around the backcourt of Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry.  So far, it has been a work in progress.  Scoring points has not been a problem for the tandem.  Winning games has been.  Both can put up big numbers but neither of them are great at setting up their teammates.  Can you win in today's NBA starting two shoot-first guards?  I have my doubts.

In my opinion, Curry must adjust and improve his game for the two to win together.  He is already a good passer and could be ready to take that next step.  Lots of point guards can give you good numbers but the really good ones make everyone around them better.  Perhaps former point guard Mark Jackson can help Curry's development in that area.  That will require him staying healthy.  Both Curry and Ellis also have to tighten up defensively.  Nobody is expecting either of the diminutive guards (both are generously listed as 6'3") to be on the NBA All-Defensive team, but they have to improve on the defensive end to make the Warriors relevant in the Western Conference.  Again, improving defensively will require him staying healthy.

Being wrong about Stephen Curry does not bother me one bit.  He is a phenomenal talent and very entertaining.  I have become a big fan of his but the ankle injuries are starting to get old.  Haven't you had enough attention, Steph Curry's right ankle?  The man spent his offseason surgically making you stronger.  How cool is that?  He's like the Six Million Dollar Man and you are now the most tricked out joint in the league.  How about letting the spotlight go back to the talented young baller with a bright future ahead of him?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Keeping Pace in the East

The Pacers won their first three games.  While victories over the Pistons, Raptors, and Cavaliers aren't exactly worthy of front page news, the manner in which they won these games has me taking notice.  In their first game versus the Pistons, the Pacers were completely dominant in the paint.  Roy Hibbert and Tyler Hansborough combined for 27 rebounds and 31 points.  The team had 9 blocked shots and 9 steals.  Against the Cavaliers, Hibbert had another big night (13 boards, 19 points, 3 blocked shots) and wanted the ball on every possession.  The Pacers' newest acquisition David West laid out Anderson Varejao rather than giving him an easy layup.  The two later got into a scuffle and had to be separated.  West ended up hitting a last second shot to send the game into overtime, where the Pacers cruised to a win.  While I don't endorse flagrant fouls or pushing and shoving after the whistle blows, it's nice to see that these Indiana Pacers already have a Playoff-like intensity about them.  This year you can see a noticeable increase in swagger when this team comes out of the tunnel.  They don't back down to anybody, as we saw in last year's  first round matchup with No. 1 seeded Chicago.  Indiana put up more of a fight than anybody expected and that series was much closer than the 4-1 record would suggest.

Could there finally be hope for this franchise floating around the greater Indianapolis area?  If there are any NBA fans that deserve hope, it has to be these Pacers faithful.  Aside from the emergence of Danny Granger, there hasn't been much to get excited about.  Throughout the lockout, the Indiana Pacers were often used as an example of a helpless small market team that will never be able to compete with the Miamis, Bostons, and New Yorks of the world.  After years of salary cap hell and mediocrity following the Rumble at the Palace, it seems like a competitive squad is beginning to take shape.  Give David Morway and Larry Bird some much deserved credit for this development.

This transition began last year when the Pacers acquired Darren Collison from the Hornets.  Collison added some much needed stability at the point guard position.  So far the former backup to Chris Paul has fit in nicely and played well for them.  The Draft day trade that sent Spurs sharpshooter George Hill to Indiana for Kawhi Leonard helps the Pacers in numerous ways.  Hill stretches the floor, is a solid defender and should give the team some valuable minutes when Collison is on the bench.  Landing Fresno State's Paul George in the first round of last year's draft has already paid dividends.  After going 5-5 from behind the arc versus New Jersey last night, we now know that the freakishly athletic swingman has an improved 3-point shot.  While Luis Amundson isn't going to compete with Roy Hibbert for the starting center position, the team needed another big man and got one for a reasonable price.  Speaking of reasonable, how about signing a 2 time All-Star like David West for 2 years/$20 million?  Boston was very interested but in the end, the smaller market team under the salary cap could afford to pay him more.  That, my friends, is capitalism at work.  While we are on the subject of capitalism, this is a contract year for talented big man Roy Hibbert.  So far he looks like a big man playing for that big contract every night.  Perhaps the NBA system isn't as broken as one majority owner of a professional basketball team from Ohio might suggest.

It remains to be seen what first-time head coach Frank Vogel can accomplish with this team.  So far, you have to like what he is doing.  Former head coach Jim O'Brien was not developing the young nucleus of this team.  He was stubborn with his rotations and his play calling and consequently lost the respect of the locker room.  After making Vogel the interim head coach, the team responded by playing hard and making the Playoffs for the first time in 5 years.  Vogel has no problem giving the young guys minutes and letting them learn from their mistakes.  For this team to move forward, guys like Roy Hibbert, Tyler Hansborough, Paul George, and Lance Stephenson have to develop sooner rather than later.  By all accounts, Vogel gets it and this team seems to play well together.

Let's not kid ourselves.  Outside of a couple of teams, the Eastern Conference is still weak.  Squads with sub .500 records are going to make the Playoffs this year.  The Pacers could conceivably make the post season for the second straight year while still getting a pretty good draft pick in what some are calling the best draft class since 2003.  Let that marinate for a moment.  They could gain valuable experience this year AND gain a franchise changing talent next year.  With one lucky bounce of the lottery ball and a few more shrewd moves from this underrated front office, we could be seeing those blue and gold unis in a championship game sooner than later.