Amazon Contextual Product Ads

Translate

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Mike D'Antoni Resigns, Rejoice LA (4.30.14)

Los Angeles has yet another reason to celebrate.

On Wednesday, April 30, 2014, Mike D'Antoni tendered his resignation as the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. Pop bottles everyone!

Fresh off the heels of the historic Donald Sterling ban for life, and just prior to the Los Angeles Kings epic comeback from a 3-0 series deficit to win Game 7 against the San Jose Sharks, the announcement that D'Antoni decided to step down from his putrid reign rang loud, to considerable cheers — check Magic Johnson's take on Twitter.

While this proceeding isn't anywhere near as historically significant as championing civil rights, or becoming just the fourth team in NHL history to come back and win following a 3-0 series deficit, it sure does feel good.

How could it not?

The D'Antoni era was absolutely atrocious. Everything about it was just terrible. Seriously, it was awful — do I need to add more synonyms here? It was unprecedented, an abomination to the standard of excellence historically promoted by Lakers basketball.

First and foremost, D'Antoni was chosen over the greatest head coach in all of professional sports — it was all downhill from here. 

This decision came after the hasty, panicked decision to fire coach Mike Brown just five games into the 2012-13 season. To make matters worse, it was clear that Phil Jackson desired to return as head coach of the Lakers, thus making Jim Buss's skeevy decision to hire D'Antoni on a late Sunday night just hours before Jackson's final decision all the more distressing.

Even worse, it was speculated that D'Antoni was chosen due to his relationship with Steve Nash, a 38-year-old point guard that fractured his leg in the second game of the season. Nash would not play for two months following the injury, and he would never fully recover to his former level of play, as nerve damage would wreck his body, and game.

Then, fresh off of knee surgery, D'Antoni could not even coach the team for just under two weeks. In this time, the interim head coach, Bernie Bickerstaff, led the team to a 4-1 record. Once D'Antoni finally arrived to the sideline, the team got off to a slow start with a 4-9 record in his first 13 games as head coach.

In fact, in just his third game of the season, D'Antoni benched Pau Gasol the entire fourth quarter of a close game against the Memphis Grizzles. After the game, D'Antoni bluntly stated, "I was thinking 'Oh, I'd like to win this game.'" Within a couple of weeks, D'Antoni would remove Gasol from the starting lineup in favor of Earl Clark. Who? Exactly. 

From there, the team kept sliding with a 12-20 record under D'Antoni by the midway point of the season, and an overall team record of 17-25, good for 12th place in the Western Conference. Rumors were rampant of team discord, especially among the newly acquired superstar, Dwight Howard, and the old guard, Kobe Bryant.

With Bryant delivering an all-time season for a 34-year-old shooting guard, and Howard clearly laboring from offseason back surgery, things were not cordial — on numerous occasions Bryant challenged Howard to essentially man up and play better, this was not taken well.

Stuck smack dab in the middle of it was D'Antoni, a man trying to suck up to Howard in an effort to make sure he re-signed with the Lakers, while truly knowing that he needed Bryant to carry the team to victories.

Then, things began to turn around. The Lakers actually began to play smart, cohesive basketball. The squad began to play hard, unwilling to become the first team featuring four future Hall of Famers to miss the playoffs, and they finished 28-12 in the second half of the season — sneaking into the playoffs in the ultra-competitive Western Conference with the seventh seed.

However, such stellar play would not last. In the 80th game of the season, Bryant tore his achilles. Some attributed this injury to the heavy minutes D'Antoni was allotting Bryant — in the game prior to tearing his achilles, Bryant played all 48 minutes against the Portland Trail Blazers on the second night of a back to back, delivering an epic, all-time performance in the process. I refuse to blame D'Antoni for Bryant's injury, however, such sentiment is held by a large faction.

Following that came a 4-0 sweep in the opening round of the playoffs against the San Antonio Spurs, and Howard's departure in free agency. Clearly miffed that the team did not sign Jackson, Howard chose a new running mate in James Harden, and in an unprecedented move, he opted for $30 million less to join the Houston Rockets, leaving the Lakers in the dust despite some desperate ad campaigns.

This past season, 2013-14, just about everything went wrong. Injury after injury absolutely decimated the team at one point, there seemed to be a point guard curse as Nash, Steve Blake, Jordan Farmar, and then wing-turned-point-guard Xavier Henry, all suffered consecutive injuries that kept them out for extended stretches, one after another.

Even worse, Bryant returned from his achilles injury in the 20th game of the season, with the Lakers sporting a respectable 10-9 record, only to fracture his kneecap just six games later, effectively ending his season. Nash would play in just 15 games. Gasol would soldier on, flanked by players on one year contracts and D-League call-ups, for 60 dispiriting games before finally calling it a season due to "vertigo."

With a 27-55 record, the Lakers finished with the worst record in the history of the franchise since moving to Los Angeles — and just behind the 19-53 record of the 1957-58 Minneapolis Lakers.

If that two year run isn't one of the worst ever, tell me what is, especially for this franchise — from championship expectations to bottom of the West in dramatic fashion. Clearly D'Antoni did not get the fairest of shakes — Nick Young may have said it best nearly two weeks ago, stating in a drunken haze, "Damn man, that's a shame what happened to D'Antoni."

Obviously, everything was not D'Antoni's fault. His 67-87 coaching record in his near two full seasons were not completely his doing. He clearly did not have a team suited to his style of play.

He had to deal with a petulant superstar that refused to run the pick and roll  a staple of D'Antoni's system — and was far more interested in his long term future. He also had to deal with a win at all costs, stubborn, "I have five rings, let's do it my way," super-duper-star. He battled with a big man that did not fit his style of play at all, hindering his coveted stretch-four type of system. Lastly, he had a broken down point guard that likely could have provided the necessary rock for the team, but instead proved to be the first breakdown, and symbolic demise, of the entire operation.

No, it's not all D'Antoni's fault, that's safe to say. But that certainly does not mean that he should have coached next season either.

He struggled to adapt his coaching style to the type of team he had to work with. He clearly did not emphasize strong, sound defensive principles. He failed to make Howard and Bryant a devastating combo. He alienated Gasol in his third game as head coach. He hitched his wagon to a broken down point guard, and failed to have a reliable backup plan that could take the team in a different direction.

Furthermore, disinterest in the Lakers reached an all-time high under D'Antoni's reign. The Lakers suffered nine non-sellouts at Staples Center this past season, with the first non-sellout snapping a 320 home sellout streak. Even more damning, Time Warner Cable SportsNet's ratings dropped 55% compared to the prior season. To make matters worse, the Los Angeles Clippers, once the laughingstock of the NBA, became the darling of Los Angeles, posting their greatest season ever in what could be construed as a modern day Shakespearean comedy.

Overall, D'Antoni was clearly despised by the fan base, and with every loss, the calls for his firing grew hell, listen to these chants just days before D'Antoni's hiring, the man had no chance. With a comparison to Jackson hanging over his head throughout his entire reign, D'Antoni could not come out on top.

Historically, the D'Antoni period served as the worst of the franchise. D'Antoni finished with the worst win percentage (minimum 100 games) in franchise history, amassing a deplorable .435 record. Furthermore, D'Antoni became the first Lakers coach to not tally at least one playoff victory in his first two seasons with the team.

With management making it clear that they would not be picking up his fourth year team option, a decision that would have relegated D'Antoni to lame duck status for next season before his assumed dismissal, D'Antoni, not wanting to be a pawn, and essentially, a scapegoat in the Lakers rebuilding process, chose the high road and resigned.

Thank goodness.

Honestly, that's the best move D'Antoni has made in two seasons — and hey, he settled for a compensation of more than half of his upcoming salary due next season.

Now the question is, who's next?

Thankfully there are plenty of great candidates: Byron Scott, Lionel Hollins, Kevin Ollie, John Calipari, George Karl, the Van Gundy brothers, Kurt Rambis, and recent Lakers such as Tyronn Lue, Mark Madsen, and possibly, even Derek Fisher, as well as an out of the box candidate, Ettore Messina. Any of these guys will be welcomed as a breath of fresh air.

After the disastrous run of the past two years, fresh air is about all Lakers fans can ask for and, fortunately for the next guy, with Jackson clearly out of the running, the fan base can move forward. Whoever is hired, he will likely be the antithesis of D'Antoni in just about every aspect, from demeanor to style of play, expect major changes.

Just know, the Lakers probably won't be very good next season — can't blame D'Antoni for that one. However, the following season, expect the Lakers to be right back in the thick of things — with Jimmy Buss's self-appointed contention mandate, the pressure is on to make up for the D'Antoni disaster.

Next season, the new coach can develop the top lottery pick, and Bryant can prove that he is back as the "Mamba." The following season, Bryant, possibly in his final as a pro, will likely be teamed with one superstar free agent, possibly two, that lottery pick, and hopefully, some solid role playing talent.

It shouldn't be long before the Lakers are contending once again, and this head coaching change is the first step in that direction.



Wednesday, March 12, 2014

It's Not Ego Preventing Jim Buss from Hiring Phil Jackson (3.12.14)

With Phil Jackson's eventual signing as the president of basketball operations for the New York Knicks, a wave of criticism is being cast toward Jim Buss, the current executive vice president of player personnel for the Los Angeles Lakers  otherwise known as the bumbling son of the late, great, Dr. Jerry Buss.

Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson, two cornerstones of the franchise, are just the latest to make a call for action "at the top," meanwhile, reporters and analysts have been hounding Jim's decisions since his promotion to a more prominent role in the franchise back in 2005.

According to multiple reports, it was the dying wish of Dr. Buss for his son, Jim, to run the basketball side of the Lakers, while his adored daughter, Jeanie, would run the business side of the franchise. While not necessarily an oppressive form of patriarchy, this ruling has surely had its faults, and it has led to the demise of the Lakers organization, including what is amounting to be the worst season in the history of the franchise.

Things have not gone quite so smoothly throughout the Jim Buss era, notably his failed head coaching hires of Rudy Tomjanovich, Mike Brown, and Mike D'Antoni, to the recent spurning from Dwight Howard — the first big name player to ever leave the Lakers with big money on the table. Jim's most egregious failure certainly has to be the dangling of a head coaching gig over Jackson's head in 2012 before abruptly hiring D'Antoni — this failure led to numerous, thundering, "We want Phil," chants, including, memorably, the night Shaquille O' Neal's jersey was retired.

Clearly, things have not gone quite as planned under Jim's reign. While the Lakers have enjoyed considerable success throughout his time, including two championships, and three consecutive NBA Finals appearances, many attribute such success to the efforts of Jackson in tandem with an all-time great in Bryant, and veteran talents such as Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and Derek Fisher — and undoubtedly, Dr. Buss's willingness to spend money and pay the luxury tax.

Now, with the Lakers at their lowest, Los Angeles is clamoring for Jackson's return, a beacon of hope, with the desire that he turn around the franchise. The claim that the Lakers are to be a "family run business," doesn't necessarily hold credence considering the fact that Jackson is engaged to Jeanie, and the two are soon to be married. His last name may not be Buss, but it is clear that Jackson carries the best interests of the Lakers with him. So what gives?

Well, obviously, ego. Hiring Jackson at this point in time to be the president of basketball operations would ultimately mean that Jim would, essentially, be firing himself. Lakers fans surely want Jim to sacrifice such ego for the better of the franchise, and Jeanie has certainly endorsed Jackson, but this just isn't going to happen. Jim is not going to step aside for his condescending brother-in-law. He clearly has problems with Jackson that run deeper than a workplace relationship, and despite Jackson's wealth of basketball knowledge, he simply has no interest in hiring him to take his place at the top of the mountain.

And I can understand why. It really isn't all that difficult to comprehend. It's not just ego, or spite, that is holding Jim back, it is the almost certain promise of redemption. It is the, "I can do this, I can be great," mentality. It is the need to prove himself. It is the desire to live up to his father's dying wish, the hunger for credibility.

Jim believes that in two to three years, the Lakers are once again going to be the marquee franchise of the NBA. Simply put, Jim does not want Jackson claiming credit for "turning the franchise around," he believes he can do it himself.

And honestly, he's probably right. While the Lakers could definitely use Jackson as a head coach, that is not the position Jackson desires, thus making Jackson rather superfluous in the ability for the franchise to once again be a contender. The Lakers are set up rather nicely for a relatively quick reload, and Jim knows it.

So how exactly are the Lakers going to turn this thing around?

Well, this coming summer, the Lakers will land a lottery draft pick in what is considered one of the most talented draft classes in a long time  a first for the franchise since Andrew Bynum went 10th overall in the 2005 NBA Draft. This pick is going to be the future of the franchise, whether it is Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, Julius Randle, Dante Exum, or Marcus Smart. Each of these guys is considered to be supremely talented, and while none of them may be on the level of a transformational player such as LeBron James or Kevin Durant, each of them possess considerable upside.

Then there's the summer of 2015 when it is all but assumed that Kevin Love is going to become a Laker in free agency — and if the Timberwolves are competent in any form, they should trade him before he straight up leaves them. If Love isn't nabbed, there are numerous talented options: Rajon Rondo, Kyrie Irving, LaMarcus Aldridge, Roy Hibbert, Marc Gasol, Nikola Vucevic, Klay Thompson, and Kawhi Leonard, among others. There's plenty of big names here, and certainly one of these guys won't mind a huge pay day while leading the turnaround of the franchise. With plenty of cap room, the Lakers can sign any of these free agents to a max deal.

And that is just the beginning. That 2015-16 season will likely be Bryant's last, as his current two year extension will expire. With a top-flite free agent, a budding young draft pick, and an all-time great leading the squad, the Lakers will likely make some noise in the playoffs — not necessarily championship noise, but surely advancement in the postseason, a great building block for sure.

Following that, comes the summer of 2016, with the likes of Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Andre Drummond, Joakim Noah, Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal, and Harrison Barnes all available as free agents.

Depending upon Bryant, the Lakers may or may not have room for these 2016 free agents. Bryant's current extension will be expired, but he may not be ready to retire  especially if he feels that the first year of his extension was wasted. If he does retire, the Lakers, if wise in their signings, will certainly have the cap room to offer one of them a max contract to team with Love and the budding young draftee of 2014 who will still be on a cheap rookie deal. If Bryant decides to instead come back, he certainly won't cost himself a shot at championship number six by demanding top dollar, and instead, he'll much more likely be willing to accommodate the franchise in the hopes of bringing another max level free agent to the franchise.

So let's run this down. Top level draft pick in 2014. Top level free agent in 2015. Possible top level free agent in 2016. Unfortunately, the Lakers will not accumulate a top draft pick in 2015, that pick belongs to the Phoenix Suns due to the ill-fated Steve Nash trade. Despite this blunder, and the unknown future of Bryant, the Lakers are set up to reload relatively quickly.

Yes, a two to three year wait for greatness seems like a long time for Lakers' fans accustomed to championships, however, it's really not that long in the grand scheme of things, and as Jim sees it, it's not like Jackson is going to make this process move along any faster.

If Jim truly felt that he wouldn't be able to turn the franchise around, I believe that he would bite the bullet, even with all of the past transgressions, but at this point in time, that just isn't the case. Jackson is sure to bring an aura of greatness to New York, but that is a franchise that hasn't done anything of importance since 1972-73. Jackson's impact will be far greater in New York than it would be in Los Angeles. The Knicks need Jackson to counteract the failure of Jim Dolan's ownership. Meanwhile, the Lakers are just four seasons removed from their last championship.

No matter what, the Lakers are going to have to wait a couple of seasons to once again be great. Next season will likely be rough once again, but as soon as the 2014-15 season ends, things will be looking up. If you think free agents are going to avoid Los Angeles, a marquee franchise with championship pedigree, Hollywood endorsements, the night life, the weather, the beach, and everything else that comes with the franchise, you, simply, are wrong.

Howard may have put a scare in the franchise, but he undoubtedly is an aberration, not the norm. Howard isn't necessarily a young star, and he saw the writing on the wall for the Lakers' problems, as well as the opportunity for immediate success in Houston. His decision had more to do with basketball reasons relative to his age than anything else.

Simply put, Jim Buss will lead the Lakers back to prominence, and when everyone is kissing his ass, he'll beam with an "I told you so," arrogance, an air of intellectual superiority. In actuality, he may have more in common with his father than we know.


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Mixed Reactions to Kobe Bryant's $48.5 Million Extension (11.25.13)

I wrote about 90% of it.

It was a difficult piece to write. It was lengthy. It had to explain too much.

It simply, was too much work, required far too much nuance.

And I nearly got to the point of hitting "publish." But as I wound down to the end, I began to reconsider some things. I began to wonder, "Maybe this isn't so bad."

As I recounted my years of perspective regarding Kobe Bryant, I realized, "This is the reality of the situation."

I tried to write a piece that would explain my support of all things Bryant despite his complex character. It started in the beginning and wound up to the present. It dealt with his early showboating, his labels of "selfish," and "uncoachable," his alpha-feud with Shaquille O'Neal, his struggle to play "Robin" although he had the talent to play "Batman," his devalued championships as a "1B," his struggles as "The Man," his renaissance as a champion and a "mature" leader, his recent early postseason exits, and finally, his devastating achilles injury.

I'll get to all of those topics one day with an exhaustive piece, but this wasn't the forum to examine Bryant's career in the context of questioning his worth.

I was going to defend many of Bryant's polarizing topics, and then flip the switch and question Bryant's decision to sign a two-year, $48.5 million extension, something that seems to cripple the Lakers chances of winning a championship anytime soon. But as I wound down the piece, I just knew that questioning Bryant wasn't the answer. My cynicism regarding Bryant's championship aspirations quickly dissipated.

Instead, I wondered, "What's the plan? What is management's plan?"

I am interested to know the pitch management gave to Bryant regarding the two year forecast that must have been presented to him. Bryant is an intelligent, savvy individual, one that sees through bs.

Regardless of what the pitch was, Bryant signed off on it. Could he be a money hungry former great looking for one last paycheck? Sure, I guess that is within the realm of possibility.

However, this is Kobe Bryant we are talking about.

This is a five time champion.

This is someone who has stated, "It's win a championship or everything is a complete failure."

This is a man after number six, after Michael Jordan, after the ability to flash rings on each hand.

So what's the issue?

Well, it appears that Bryant's large hold on the Lakers salary cap hinders the organization's ability to win another championship before Bryant's contract expires in 2016.

Unable to sign two max-player free agents in the coming summers of 2014 and 2015, the Lakers will be unable to give Bryant a "super-team." Say goodbye to the pipe dream of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony signing with the Lakers this summer. And depending upon what the Lakers do this coming summer, forget about landing Kevin Love in free agency in the summer of 2015.

Even worse, Bryant's extension likely spells the end of Pau Gasol as a Laker. Gasol could take a massive discount to stay with the team while keeping the cap open, but I doubt that is a realistic option given Gasol's talent and his generally unappreciated tenure with the organization. It also signals the end of Steve Nash. Nash will likely be waived this summer with a stretch provision that will clear $10 million in cap room, giving the Lakers $28.5 million in cap space this coming summer.

Essentially, it will be Bryant, and some other big name, and a collection of fringe talents. Or it will be Bryant, Gasol, some other big name, and a collection of fringe talents. Or it could disastrously just be Bryant, but I have serious doubts about that happening. Either way, it seems like Bryant isn't all that interested in piecing together a super-team.

All of this leads to the question of "Why didn't Bryant take a huge pay cut in order to free cap space for future free agents?"

Well, first let's get the math out of the way. Eligible to receive up to a 5% increase in salary under the current collective bargaining agreement, Bryant could have negotiated for up to $32 million for his 2015 salary and gone with an even bigger extension. So, technically, he did take a substantial pay cut with his $23.5 million and $25 million earnings for 2015 and 2016. In fact, he took $7 million less than what he is earning this season, and $8.5 million less than what he could have demanded for the 2015 season. Furthermore, the late Dr. Jerry Buss once revealed that he believed Bryant was worth $60 to $70 million a year to the Lakers, so let's not get caught up in the "worth" argument.

We cannot argue if Bryant took a pay cut or not, or if he is worth the contract, however, many question, "Was it enough of a pay cut?"

That is the true question, and it points to the new framework of the NBA. LeBron James upended the system of team building as he teamed up with Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade in Miami as a member of the Heat. Each agreed to take less than their market value, and in turn, they won championships due to their elite talent. Many legends slammed James for his inability to get the job done on his own account, but after two straight championships, it is clear that the super-team build is a successful model.

While the Brooklyn Nets may refute that idea with their atrocious play this season, as could the Lakers from last season, it makes sense that having three, and even four, exceptional talents would increase the chances of winning a championship.

However, such a model does not seem to attract Bryant's attention. Instead, he understands that the Lakers can pair him with one elite talent, and then the rest will have to be figured out. He saw the plan before signing the extension. He understands that there are more moves to be made.

And that's what is really interesting. Bryant is a very intelligent being. He understands his basketball mortality, and he knows that 2016 will likely be the last year he ever plays professional basketball. He knows he has this season, the next, and the one after that, and then his playing days are all but over. By the time it's all done, it will have been 20 regular seasons, countless postseason minutes, and he'll be 37. The window for a championship, for matching Mike, is coming to a close.

So now it is time for Bryant get back on the court and give his all in that pursuit. He undoubtedly will give his all, but the question remains to be seen if that will be enough.

What makes Bryant so special is what makes a countless majority question his extension. He believes in himself, and he believes that he will get a ring with whoever his next running mate is, especially if they buy in to his championship wisdom. He believes that the organization may have found some deep gems this season with young, cheap talents such as Wesley Johnson and Jordan Hill. He believes that the organization can field a superstar such as Carmelo Anthony this summer. He believes that he can lead any group to the promise land.

Despite such deterrents as age and injury, Bryant has always pushed past limitations, and I fully expect him to do so in the coming years. Hell, it wouldn't surprise me if Bryant plays stellar ball and signs another two year extension following this one. The amount of criticism aimed at Bryant following this deal points to a disbelief in his ability to lead a squad to a championship. I will not question Bryant's ability, and it is clear that the Lakers, and Bryant himself, are not questioning that ability. If Bryant had countered the Lakers offer and asked for less money, I'd be far more worried about the Lakers future than I am at this point.

Simply enough, Bryant is the only superstar currently signed to the Lakers next season, and he has a deal paying him superstar money. He was offered the generous extension, and he signed it. There was no power play. There was no low-balling. There was no public split pitting the star versus the organization. The organization was not held hostage in a public relations nightmare. Things could have turned sour, real sour. Imagine the public standoff, with much of Los Angeles already turned against Jimmy Buss, imagine what it would be like if Jimmy proposed a take it or leave it deal. Imagine Bryant playing in another uniform due to spite, or principle, or whatever, just imagine it.

The Lakers could have asked Bryant to take a Duncanesque deal, somewhere around $12 million a year, but Bryant is not Duncan and the Lakers are not the Spurs. The Lakers have a $3 billion deal with Time Warner Cable, they understand big tickets. Hell, Bryant may have even accepted such a proposal, but the Lakers took a more generous route, and I'm not going to blame Bryant for signing the offer sheet. This was not hard-bargained stuff, this was a show of affection, a reward of loyalty. By the time it's all done, Bryant will surpass John Stockton as the longest tenured NBA player with just one franchise. Such longevity means a lot, and if a championship doesn't come, there will always be the 20 years of greatness to appreciate.

Honestly, Bryant hardly fails to deliver greatness. The man will be worth every penny he is paid. Was this decision arrived upon haphazardly? No. Was every possible option discussed? Likely, yes. The organization treaded lightly, and while some may feel they gave too much, they also showed a great amount of respect, a refreshing turn in today's "on to the next one" utilitarian model.

So here's to believing in Kobe Bryant, and in believing in Jimmy Buss and Mitch Kupchak. Kupchak has a stellar record, and despite all of the negative press he's received, Buss has had some highlights and made some pretty big power plays  Andrew Bynum was a hidden gem drafted out of high school, the Chris Paul trade came out of nowhere, as did last summer's signings of Nash and Dwight Howard.

In my opinion, the Lakers are signing Carmelo Anthony this summer. Anthony may not be the answer, but he's certainly worthy of teaming up with Bryant in an attempt to find the solution. If not Anthony, trust the organization to give Bryant at least one last chance at a ring. Honestly, they would not have signed him to this extension, and he would not have signed this extension, if they all didn't believe that winning a championship is possible.

Do you really think that being recognized as the "highest paid NBA player" is the distinction Bryant is looking to pad his resume with these last few seasons?

I think six rings is the more accurate answer.

And those of you clamoring he just wants the all-time points record, well then, he would have signed a three year extension, because he certainly isn't going to average over 32 points a game for the next couple seasons.

Kobe Bryant is a man obsessed with winning. The Los Angeles Lakers are an organization that wins. Nothing else matters. You may chuckle at the irony of Bryant's extension in relation to winning, but I certainly won't, and neither did the parties involved.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Los Angeles Lakers 2013-14 Season Preview (10.29.13)

Almost a year to the day, I preached patience with the 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers. They were coming off of an 0-8 preseason, and an 0-2 record to start the regular season. The arrival of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, along with the move toward the Princeton offense, had me believing that, over time, this team would work out the kinks and start tearing up the league. Many were fixated upon the problems of the Lakers, but I staunchly maintained an optimistic viewpoint.

Just over a week following that post, the Lakers' season took the most blindsided turn I can recall, as the Lakers fired coach Mike Brown. The decision reeked of panic, an uncharacteristic haste that the organization had never shown before. I felt that Brown was shortchanged, especially with Nash going down with a broken fibula in the second game of the season, and Howard unable to play up to his maximum level due to offseason back surgery. For me, and countless Lakers fans, the move to fire Brown only made sense if it meant that Phil Jackson would be hired.

Well, that obviously didn't happen. Instead, the Lakers hired Mike D'Antoni, claiming he was the best man for the current makeup of the team. They spurned the greatest coach of all-time, regardless of sport, for Mike D'Antoni. My thoughts upon the matter basically came to fruition as I wrote, "Essentially, D'Antoni will have to coach in a manner that he's never coached before. Honestly, that doesn't sound all that promising. I hope D'Antoni can get the job done, but his style certainly doesn't fit the makeup of this squad."

Clearly, I wasn't enamored with D'Antoni, and it turned out that he couldn't get the job done with the makeup of that 2012 team. The team went on a furious rally just to make the playoffs, finishing 28-12 over the second half of the season in order to nab the seventh seed  it took an overtime victory over the Houston Rockets in the final game of the season for the Lakers to get that seventh spot.

However, the promise of that second half charge evaporated the moment Kobe Bryant tore his achilles against the Golden State Warriors in the 80th game of the season. With Bryant out, and Nash receiving epidural treatments, the Lakers were easily swept in the first round of the playoffs against the San Antonio Spurs oh, and let's not forget that Howard seemed to play as if he wished he had missed the playoffs and already been on vacation, which he cemented by getting ejected in the final game of the series just after halftime.

Now, Howard is a member of the Houston Rockets, Nash and Gasol are another year older, and Bryant is coming off of the most devastating injury of his career. Those facts would seem to point to a dreadful 2013-14 Lakers season, especially in the deep Western Conference.

Oddly enough, I believe that the 2013 Lakers won't suffer the disastrous decline that those facts indicate. In fact, I believe that the Lakers will finish in the seven or eight seed with somewhere around 44 to 48 wins  Vegas has the Lakers at 33.5 wins, and ESPN has the Lakers as the 12th seed, so I'm taking the over, and then some.

Why? How? Am I insane?

Well, in a comedic turn of events, this 2013 Lakers team actually resembles a D'Antoni led squad, and, at this point, that is a good thing.

The plodding twin tower setup of Howard and Gasol will no longer be an issue. Howard refusing to run the pick and roll with the greatest pick and roll point guard of all-time — a staple of the D'Antoni offense no less — will no longer be an issue. Gasol being benched will no longer be an issue. Metta World Peace being left wide open to jack up three pointers will no longer be an issue. A lack of athleticism and three point shooters will no longer be an issue. A lack of reliable point guards will no longer be an issue. And finally, a general malaise in the locker room will no longer be an issue.

With so many issues turned around, this team should gel together as many of the players post career highs across the board.

Overall, the Lakers have taken an addition by subtraction approach, and while that approach won't lead to a championship this season, it will lead to enjoyable basketball, and possibly a fun little playoff run.

Why such optimism? Especially with Bryant's return unknown?

Well, let me break it down.

My take is that Bryant returns sometime between late-November and mid-December. Once he does return, I expect Bryant to play at a high level, averaging around 24 points per game with his usual 4.5 assists and 5 rebounds. Although Bryant showed some astounding athletic flashbacks last season  just ask Josh Smith or Gerald Wallace — it is clear that his game is as refined as they come, and it just doesn't take that much athleticism to shoot a baseline fadeaway jumper. Bryant is the most fundamental basketball player in the world, and he's still going to have his multitude of jab steps and pump fakes in order to get off clean looks. Trust in the Mamba.

The key will be for the rest of the squad to maintain a high level of play as Bryant works his way back from injury. If the Lakers start off slowly with a losing record, you can toss my prediction out the window. But if the Lakers can float around .500 ball for the first month or two, the return of Bryant should work wonders toward a playoff push.

As for the rest of the squad, I believe that D'Antoni's system is perfect for the likes of Nick Young, Wesley Johnson, Jodie Meeks, Xavier Henry, Steve Blake, Jordan Farmar, Shawne Williams, Pau Gasol, and obviously, Steve Nash.

The starting five will likely consist of Nash, Blake, Young, Williams, and Gasol, giving the unit a blend of youth and experience with shooters spread all over the court.

Young and Gasol will be the primary beneficiaries of this up-tempo, spread offense.

Expect Young to do his best Bryant impersonation — his favorite player when he was growing up. Known as a gunslinger, Young has shown an ability to pick his spots throughout the preseason. Young has done an excellent job of playing within the offense, and only turning to one-on-one ball in the waning seconds of the shot clock. A career .374% shooter from downtown, Young will be the beneficiary of numerous drive and kicks from Nash, and handoffs or swings from Gasol. Young's speed, athleticism, and long range shooting will bolster the wing position until Bryant's return, and following that, he may stick in the starting lineup if Bryant slides down to the three-spot.

The most integral player on the squad will be Gasol. I consider Gasol to be the most talented big man in the NBA — or at least second, after Tim Duncan. Stuck in a no-win situation last season, Gasol gutted through injuries, demotions, and trade rumors all the while displaying class and professionalism that numerous modern athletes seem unable to grasp. This season, Gasol will be featured, and I expect him to put up some early season MVP level stats.

In the preseason, Gasol was featured in numerous isolations on the block —  something Lakers fans and pundits have been clamoring for — often leading to a successful play. Gasol also ran the offense in a triple threat position from the high elbow, giving the offense multifaceted options: such as dishes or handoffs to open cutters for layups following weak-side screens, delayed swings for flare-screen three pointers, or a face up and attack for aggressive drives to the hoop. Overall, Gasol has looked pretty darn good, and I expect him to flourish this season.

Then there is old man Nash to steer the ship, and if his body cooperates with him, I have no doubt in his capability to do so. Unfortunately, Nash is 39 years old, making such a task quite difficult. In fact, Nash will start the season already banged up with an ankle and neck injury — fortunately the Lakers have some solid backup point guards instead of Chris Duhon and Darius Morris. If Nash can play about 75% of the season at a high level, the Lakers should be just fine.

With Howard gone and Bryant out, expect Nash to be the primary ball handler and run the pick and roll on a consistent basis. Nash can still nail the three ball — he shot .438% last season, his highest percentage in four seasons — and he still has great vision and a supreme understanding of the offense. This season, Nash will have greater playmaking opportunities, and he may look like the guy we fondly remember rather than the beaten down guy who played off the ball last season. It will be up to Nash to keep the offense rolling, and with so many shooters all over the court, doing so should be no problem.

The X-factor of the starting unit will be Williams. He is someone I have never heard of, but his three ball sure is sweet. An athletic four man in the mold of Earl Clark, Williams is 6'9" and 225 pounds. He is a versatile big man that can stretch the defense by hitting the three ball. Essentially, he is the "stretch four" that D'Antoni craves. In fact, he played under D'Antoni in New York in 2010-11 and he had the best season of his career, averaging 7.1 points while shooting .401% from deep.

A career .335% shooter from downtown, expect Williams to hit plenty of threes from the corner and wing. Furthermore, his presence on the court will allow Gasol to have greater freedom in the paint, and in turn will give the guards more space for driving angles to the rim.

Next up are the bench guys, a unit that may be top five in the league. Usually D'Antoni only relies upon a seven or eight man rotation, but this season, expect the Lakers to go ten deep. Such depth allows for an up speed tempo, multiple lineup variations, and overall team cohesion.

Considered a bust since being taken 4th overall in the 2010 draft, Johnson has a lot to prove this season, and the opportunity for him to breakout is promising. Legitimate size and length will allow Johnson to play anywhere from the two to the four for any number of lineup changes in D'Antoni's system. A career .336% shooter from downtown, expect Johnson to knock down threes from the wing with ease. Johnson seems to play a bit passive, but given an expanded role, and understanding that this is his best shot to truly make his mark in the NBA, I believe that Johnson will step up his aggression and deliver a solid season.

My take is that Johnson will thrive off the bench in a free flowing uptempo system. He may start the season at the three-spot, but ultimately, his role will be that of a knock down shooter off the bench. Given his athletic ability, Johnson may carve out even more minutes if he focuses upon wreaking havoc on the defensive end.

Moving on, Meeks and Blake showed how capable they are last season under D'Antoni. Each plays hard and can knock down three pointers. These two are consummate professionals, and their performances last season were some of the highlights of a rather disastrous season.

Blake shot a career high .421% from deep last season, pushing his career average up to .389%. Meeks continued his consistent shooting from deep, posting a .357% average, and maintaining his solid .367% career average. Each gives maximum effort, and plays tenacious defense despite being overwhelmed physically on a consistent basis.

You can never have enough hustle guys, and these two have that, and then some. Expect Blake to lockdown the backup point guard position  and probably start at shooting guard until Bryant returns  and Meeks to lockdown the backup shooting guard position.

Then there's the new additions of Farmar and Henry.

At first glance, it seems like the reunited Laker, Farmar, won't have much of a role on this squad, but with Nash likely under a strong minutes restriction, Farmar will get a decent amount of run despite being the third point guard. Even further, Blake may play some minutes at the two-spot, giving Farmar an even greater opportunity at the point. Just 26 years old, Farmar still has plenty of speed and athleticism, and his career .367% from deep is a perfect fit for D'Antoni. Farmar has always been a guy that plays tremendous ball when he is confident, and I expect D'Antoni to pump his confidence through the roof this season. Farmar is about as reliable a third-string point guard as they come.

Then there's Xavier Henry. Just 22 years old, Henry has a lot of potential on this squad. Henry will be the Lakers premier wing defender. Standing 6'6" and weighing 220 pounds, Henry is big and strong, yet surprisingly quick. So far in the preseason, Henry has shown an unexpected amount of offensive capability as well.

The 12th pick in the 2010 draft, Henry is left handed, and he has a knack for getting into the lane and finishing. Henry has the euro-step in his arsenal, and since he is left handed, he often gets to his dominant hand without the defender realizing it. Although he is a career .289% shooter from deep, from what I've seen, he has a nice stroke. Expect Henry to post career highs in about every category this season. Given his defensive capability, Henry is likely to play big fourth quarter minutes, and if he takes advantage of his opportunity with Bryant out, he may carve out a starting role at the three-spot, pushing Young to the two, and Blake to the bench.

As for the guys that I haven't mentioned, well, there is Chris Kaman, Jordan Hill, Ryan Kelly, Robert Sacre, and Elias Harris.

Kaman, Hill, and Sacre aren't exactly fits within the D'Antoni system, but they are serviceable big men.

Kaman is essentially a lesser version of Gasol. He has great vision, allowing him to pass out of the post for easy layups and open threes. He also has a pretty decent post up game, and he can shoot the midrange jumper. Although he is as slow as molasses, Kaman is a decent option as the backup big man.

Hill is one of my favorite players on the team. He plays hard, hustles, and rotates on point, something this team will need on the defensive end. Hill is limited offensively, but his main contributions should come from second chance opportunities and cuts to the rim. Hill has shown some improved footwork this preseason, and if he keeps working on his 12-foot jumper, his offensive game will jump through the roof.

Sacre likely won't have much of a role on this squad other than being a team guy that works hard in practice and pushes guys to give their all. He did show some talent last season, but hopefully the injury bug won't force regular minutes out of Sacre. If it does come to that, he is a pretty good defender and rebounder, and he can hit some baseline jumpers.

Lastly, there are two new rookies on the Lakers, Elias Harris and Ryan Kelly.

I know absolutely nothing about Harris other than the fact that Anthony Randolph dunked on him in the preseason. He is a a 6'8" 239 pound forward, that is all I know. Expect him to ride the pine.

Kelly may have some promise under D'Antoni. Kelly is a 6'11" 230 pound stretch four who can shoot the lights out. Kelly may get some run in the second unit, but I'm assuming his minutes will be quite limited this season. If Kelly gleans some of Gasol's post game, he could be a lethal offensive threat in due time.

Overall, the Lakers have some very promising offensive weapons and a deep bench. With multiple shooters and ball handlers, D'Antoni should be able to crank up the offense into overdrive, and this team should average somewhere in the 104-108 point range.

You have likely noticed that I haven't mentioned much of anything regarding defense. Well, there's a reason for that, simply put, the Lakers are going to be terrible on defense. This team is not built to stop people, and with D'Antoni at the helm, they are obviously built to outscore teams rather than play sound defense. Nash will give up penetration on just about every possession, and Gasol isn't exactly a formidable defender in the paint that is going to clean up mistakes.

Fortunately, the Lakers have shown in the preseason that they are at least committed to rotating, closing out, and playing hard on defense, something that the team lacked last season. With athletic wings, this team will likely gamble in the passing lanes in an effort to accumulate turnovers and easy fast break points. Opposing teams will destroy the Lakers with easy looks at the basket, but that is a given considering the makeup of the squad.

The bench unit may thrive defensively with Blake, Henry, and Hill, but other than those three players, defense will not be a strong suit. There is some promise due to the athleticism of Young, Johnson, Meeks, Farmar, and Williams, but I wouldn't exactly count upon a D'Antoni led squad to develop those guys into strong defenders.

Given the defensive makeup of the squad, expect the Lakers to push the tempo in an attempt to increase the number of possessions, and in turn, increase the amount of three pointers taken in order to compensate for the amount of easy field goals they are likely to give up.

Overall, the 2013 season is likely to be much more enjoyable than the previous one. The Lakers will be fast paced for the first time since the days of Magic and company. Three pointers will splash through the net regularly, and some fast break dunks might even be in the mix. There will be some cooky moments from the likes of Young and Farmar, and Nash and Gasol are sure to show their age at times, but overall, the season should be entertaining. If these 2013 Lakers can resemble those mid-2000's Suns teams, what's not to like?

Although the Lakers are unlikely to contend for a championship, the opportunity to play without championship expectations — a pressure that absolutely demolished last season's squad  may give the squad an enduring appeal. Remember how fun it was rooting for Bryant to lead the underdog 2005-06 Lakers against Nash and the Suns? While that series didn't turn out the way Lakers fans wanted, it sure was exhilarating to watch that series go to seven games.

Imagine if the Lakers pull off a first round upset this season, with this squad, and possibly against the Howard led Rockets. Tell me that wouldn't be a successful season. Just try.

So here's to the 2013 Los Angeles Lakers. Overwhelming championship expectations are out the window, and in its place is a freewheeling, gunslinging, entertaining squad. Isn't that what the organization wanted when they hired D'Antoni? Such a plan has come to fruition, and now it is time to see how it all plays out.

And hey, if the season goes down in flames, there's always the loaded 2014 NBA draft.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Luck of the Draw: Fantasy Football Snake Drafts (8.24.13)

With the NFL season kicking off on Thursday, September 5th, much of the country will be participating in a fantasy football draft within the next two weeks. Hopefully, you are not some poor sap stuck in a league that drafts before the preseason even begins, and if you are, it is time for you to find a new league—and possibly, new friends. According to a 2012 Forbes publishing, an estimated 32 million people in the US and Canada aged 12 and above partook in fantasy sports in 2010, with 90% of those users playing fantasy football. Add in three more years of fantasy fever, and an expanding global audience, and it can be surmised that the number of participants is even greater nowadays—and many play in multiple leagues. With that in mind, let's examine the most common fantasy draft, a snake draft.

While auction drafts are slowly increasing their numbers, it is the snake draft that dominates fantasy football. If you are unfamiliar with the term, a snake draft goes in ascending order, and then descending order (i.e. 1-12, and then 12-1). With the snake draft as the norm, I will put to rest the often expressed, "I hate my draft spot," notion. Every year, there is one owner—more likely two to three—who complains about his draft spot—often the final pick of the first round. With most leagues utilizing a computerized random draw to compile the draft order, there simply isn't anything that can be done about this. Someone has to draw the final pick of the first round, it is inevitable. Hell, some people even hate getting the first pick. With the draft order often compiled by a random generation, those that are satisfied with their spot will feel lucky, while those who are dissatisfied obviously feel unlucky. The sliding scale of dissatisfaction cannot be ignored; however, does the actual draft spot even matter? I believe that the best owners make do with their spot and draft accordingly—as George Lopez would say, "Why you crying?"

Due to such complaints, I decided to participate in five twelve-team mock drafts, with each draft following a specific template. With five mocks to hopefully create my case, I entered with the first pick, the third pick, the sixth pick, the ninth pick, and the twelfth pick. I figured that these picks would give the strongest indication of the importance of a draft order, or lack thereof. Utilizing my own draft template, I drafted accordingly by round for each mock draft: RB (1st), RB (2nd), Best Available for Roster (3rd), WR (4th), WR/RB/Top 3 TE (5th), QB/Flex (6th), QB/Flex (7th), Flex (8th), Flex (9th), TE/Flex (10th), TE/Flex (11th), TE/Flex (12th), Flex (13th), Flex (14th), Def/K (15th), Def/K (16th). 

So let's take a look at the results.



1st Pick Tm
3rd Pick Tm
6th Pick Tm
9th Pick Tm
12th Pick Tm
RB
Adrian
Peterson
(MIN, RB, 
1)
Marshawn
Lynch
(SEA, RB, 3)
Jamaal
Charles
(KC, RB, 
6)
Alfred
Morris
(WAS, RB, 
9)
Steven
Jackson
(ATL, RB, 
12)
RB
Chris
Johnson
(TEN, RB, 24)
Chris
Johnson
(TEN, RB, 22)
Frank
Gore
(SF, RB, 
19)
Steven
Jackson
(ATL, RB 
16)
Matt
Forte
(CHI, RB, 
13)
Best Available
for Roster
Julio
Jones
(ATL, WR, 25)
Jimmy
Graham
(NO, TE, 27)
Vincent
Jackson
(TB, WR, 30)
David
Wilson
(NYG, RB, 33)
Wes
Welker
(DEN, WR, 37)
WR
Danny
Amendola
(NE, WR, 
48)
Reggie
Bush
(DET, RB, 46)
Victor
Cruz
(NYG, WR, 43)
Wes
Welker
(DEN, WR, 40)
Victor
Cruz
(NYG, WR, 38)
WR/RB/
Top TE
Rob
Gronkowski
(NE, TE, 
49)
Steve
Smith
(CAR, WR, 51)
Tony
Gonzalez
(ATL, TE, 54)
Eric
Decker
(DEN, WR, 57)
Tony
Gonzalez
(ATL, TE, 
60)
QB/Flex
Cecil
Shorts
(JAC, WR, 72)
Torrey
Smith
(BAL, WR, 70)
Jordy
Nelson
(GB, WR, 62)
James
Jones
(GB, WR, 64)
Matthew
Stafford
(DET, TE, 61)
QB/Flex
Russell
Wilson
(SEA, QB, 73)
Russell
Wilson
(SEA, QB, 75)
Andrew
Luck
(IND, QB, 76)
Tony
Romo
(DAL, QB, 81)
Tavon
Austin
(STL, WR, 84)
Flex
Mark
Ingram
(NO, RB, 
96)
Mike
Williams
(TB, WR, 94)
Vick
Ballard
(IND, RB, 91)
Shane
Vereen
(NE, RB, 
88)
Andre
Brown
(NYG, RB, 85)
Flex
Ronnie
Hillman
(DEN, RB, 97)
Ronnie
Hillman
(DEN, RB, 99)
Kenny
Britt
(TEN, WR, 102)
Kenny
Britt
(TEN, WR, 105)
Le’Veon
Bell
(PIT, RB, 108)
TE/Flex
Golden
Tate
(SEA, WR, 120)
Golden
Tate
(SEA, WR, 118)
Bernard
Pierce
(BAL, RB, 115)
Le’Veon
Bell
(PIT, RB, 112)
Chris
Givens
(STL, WR, 109)
TE/Flex
Rueben
Randle
(NYG, WR, 121)
Malcom
Floyd
(SD, WR, 123)
Ben
Tate
(HOU, RB, 126)
Jermichael Finley
(GB, TE, 129)
Ryan
Broyles
(DET, WR, 132)
TE/Flex
Alshon
Jeffery
(CHI, WR, 144)
Shonn
Greene
(TEN, RB, 142)
Alshon
Jeffery
(CHI, WR, 139)
Shonn
Greene
(TEN, RB, 136)
Reuben
Randle
(NYG, WR, 133)
Flex
Jordan
Cameron
(CLE, TE, 145)
Andre
Roberts
(ARI, WR, 147)
Kenbrell Thompkins
(NE, WR, 150)
Brian
Hartline
(MIA, WR, 153)
Andre
Roberts
(ARI, WR, 156)
Flex
Daniel
Thomas
(MIA, RB, 168)
Jordan
Cameron
(CLE, TE, 166)
Robert
Turbin
(SEA, RB, 163)
Brandon Pettigrew
(DET, TE, 160)
Michael
Bush
(CHI, RB, 157)
Def/K
Ravens
(BAL, 
D/ST, 169)
Dan
Bailey
(DAL, K, 171)
Cowboys
(DAL, 
D/ST, 174)
Greg
Zuerlein
(STL, K, 
177)
Greg
Zuerlein
(STL, K, 
180)
Def/K
Greg
Zuerlein
(STL, K, 
192)
Cowboys
(DAL, 
D/ST, 190)
Greg
Zuerlein
(STL, K, 187)
Buccaneers
(TB, 
D/ST, 184)
Buccaneers
(TB, 
D/ST, 181)

So, which team came out the strongest? Well, that is entirely subjective. As is the case with almost every fantasy team, each squad has its strengths and weaknesses. Personally, I think that the "3rd Pick Tm" came out with the best roster. However, let's put "strongest team" argument aside, and instead focus on the larger point, namely, each squad looks pretty legit on paper as of the time drafted. Would you say that any of these squads are monumentally inferior? I wouldn't. I see five strong squads, all ready to take care of business once the season starts.

So, the next time someone in your fantasy league complains about how unfair it is that they ended up with their assigned draft slot, just tell them to make do, and if that doesn't work, send 'em on over here.

Hopefully, they will realize that the true key to fantasy drafting success is a sound strategy, not which slot they landed in the draft order.