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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Dwight Howard Criticizes D'Antoni and Defense (12.27.12)

Riding a wave of momentum, the Lakers came out flat and spoiled a five game winning streak by losing on the road to the Denver Nuggets, 114-126, and in turn dropping to 14-15 overall.

If it didn't pop out at you, take another gander at that final score. Those season high 126 points allowed came in just 48 minutes of play. There was no overtime, nor something like a 50 point explosion from the likes of Andre Iguodala or Danilo Gallinari. Instead, six Nuggets hit double digits, with Corey Brewer leading the way off the bench with a career high 27 points, and the Nuggets shot 45-94 (48%) from the field, and 12-22 (55%) from downtown. 

126 points allowed is just unacceptable.

After eeking out unconvincing wins against some weak competition, the Lakers pulled their act together in games four and five of their win streak against the Golden State Warriors and the New York Knicks. It seemed as if the Lakers turned a corner in those games as Steve Nash returned to the lineup and brought a moxie to the squad. With Nash providing stability, and a "Never say die" attitude, the Lakers overcame deficits and played with heart and determination. In each game, the Lakers held their opponent to its lowest single quarter point total of the game in the fourth quarter. 

Against the Warriors, the Lakers overcame a 14 point deficit early in the fourth quarter by surrendering just 21 points in the decisive quarter, while pouring in 34 of their own, in order to force overtime and pull off a stirring 118-115 come-from-behind victory. With Nash and Kobe Bryant leading the charge offensively, the Lakers chipped away at the deficit while playing outstanding collective defense. The Lakers forced the Warriors to commit four turnovers in the final quarter, while forcing them to shoot just 8-19 (42%) from the field. After posting 27, 34, and 26 points in each of the first three quarters on a combined 35-75 (47%) shooting, the Warriors were unable to continue producing at a high rate in the fourth quarter and overtime. In overtime, the Lakers held the Warriors to 3-9 (33%) shooting while forcing two turnovers. Overall, the Lakers faced some adversity and responded well by overcoming the tough deficit — something they have failed to do repeatedly this season. 

Against the Knicks on Christmas day, the Lakers turned in possibly their greatest defensive effort of the season by absolutely shutting down the high powered Knicks in the fourth quarter. Trailing by one to enter the fourth quarter, the Lakers upped their defensive intensity and allowed the Knicks to score just 16 fourth quarter points. Forcing five turnovers, and allowing the Knicks to make just 5-15 (33%) shot attempts, the Lakers clamped down in order to pull off the 94-100 victory at home — marking the first Lakers win on Christmas day since an 83-92 victory at home over the Boston Celtics in 2008. After allowing 23, 26, and 29 points in the each of the first three quarters, the Lakers pulled off an impressive fourth quarter and forced the best team in the Eastern Conference (according to the standings) to put up a measly 16 point quarter. 

With two impressive wins against quality opponents, the Lakers finally showed some flashes of greatness that many expected with the foursome of Nash, Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Dwight Howard anchoring the squad. However, it seems as if the Lakers felt a little too good about themselves and their five game winning streak when they faced the Denver Nuggets this past game. 

Against the Nuggets, the Lakers came out lethargic, and it showed right off the bat. In the opening quarter, the Nuggets gathered 11 offensive rebounds. Kenneth "The Manimal" Faried led the way as he grabbed five of those 11 offensive rebounds. Seemingly beating the Lakers to every loose ball, the Nuggets played in fourth gear while the Lakers were stuck in second. The Lakers surrendered 29 points in the opening quarter, with 11 of those points coming due to the extra possessions afforded by the offensive rebounds.

Although the Lakers hung around in the first half, it was a matter of time before things fell apart. Trailing 54-57 to start the third quarter, the Lakers were dismantled in the third quarter as the Nuggets blew the game open with 39 third quarter points. The Nuggets repeatedly attacked the rim for dunks, layups, and trips to the free throw line. If a foray into the lane didn't produce, the Nuggets kicked the ball out to the open man for three point shots. The pick and roll, drive and kick game, absolutely torched the Lakers in this quarter. Often times, Howard would look at his teammates with his palms up, exasperated, and wondering who should have rotated when and where.

Eventually, Howard boiled over, and at the 5:01 mark in the third quarter, he let his frustrations spill out as he committed a flagrant-2 foul on Faried. As Faried attacked the basket straight down the lane, Howard smacked him in the face, knocking him down, and clearly not making a play on the ball. The flagrant-2 earned Howard an immediate ejection. The flagrant foul seemed to serve as a message to his teammates, essentially stating, "I'm sick of this, we can't tolerate this anymore." While I would have preferred Howard to remain in the game and make a smarter play on the ball, I won't blame him. Following a pick and roll, Howard rotated from the weak side and dropped the hammer on Faried. I'd like to see more Lakers do this — while making plays on the ball. Howard may have acted a bit selfishly, but I think his message will go a long way.

You may wonder, well with Howard out, is that when the Nuggets began lighting up the Lakers? 

Nope. 

Prior to Howard's ejection, the Nuggets scored 21 points in the third quarter. Following his ejection, the Nuggets closed the quarter with another 18 points. For the quarter, the Nuggets shot 11-19 (58%) from the field, including 5-8 (63%) from deep. Brewer closed the quarter with a buzzer beating three pointer to put the Nuggets ahead 87-96. 

In the fourth quarter, things didn't get much better. The Lakers lost the quarter 27-30. The Lakers trailed by as many as 15 points, and they rarely were able to get the deficit within single digits. Unable to slow down the Nuggets in a similar fashion to the Warriors and Knicks games, the Lakers lost 114-126.

Following the game, defense was a main theme from the post-game reporters. 

Coach D'Antoni was the first to respond. When given a followup question regarding the offensive rebounds and defensive woes, D'Antoni was asked, "Was that a hustle thing or positioning thing, or a little bit of both?"

D'Antoni bluntly stated, "You'd have to ask them, I don't know. Whatever it was, we didn't come off the ball, and they did. Somebody did something, and we didn't do it."

D'Antoni's statement definitely seems to come off as a shot at his players. He deflects any personal blame by stating, "You'd have to ask them," and he doesn't offer any sort of schematic explanation as for why the woes occurred. Obviously, D'Antoni was not pleased with the effort of his squad.

Next up was the most interesting post-game response. Howard was asked, "We've been talking about this all season, the area of defense, what was plaguing you guys tonight on that end?"

Howard responded, "The pick and roll defense wasn't great tonight. The help wasn't there, the help the helper wasn't there. It just has to be better overall."

Another reporter followed up, "Those are things you have talked about a lot of times this season, what's the learning curve going on in regards to that?"

Howard replied, "Those guys gotta be in the right spots, and they have to be taught it. It has to be something that you practice on, so guys can understand [what] they have to go through. You can't just talk about defense, and talk about where to go, you actually gotta show guys where to go."

Hello! Howard definitely takes a shot at D'Antoni with this statement. I guess Howard isn't too fond of D'Antoni being proud of practicing defense for half an hour. Howard shifts to the second person, referencing D'Antoni when he states, "You can't just talk about defense, and talk about where to go, you actually gotta show guys where to go." Clearly, Howard wants more focus on the defensive end, and he must feel that his coach isn't living up to the task of preparing the team with defensive schemes and rotations.

While Howard may come off as deflecting the blame, or throwing his coach and teammates under the bus, he must feel this way for a reason. He is not happy with the Lakers defense, and as the anchor of the defense, he understands that it is his responsibility to get the guys on the same page. However, he also understands that if the guys aren't playing together and hashing out the details, they aren't going to improve, and the same flaws will continue to be exposed over and over.

For example, the Lakers routinely give up layups following the pick and roll, and often times, it's because the five guys on the floor fail to play on a string. As Howard comes over to hedge the guard, more often than not, a weak side teammate fails to rotate and pick up Howard's man in the lane. This leads to numerous easy opportunities in the lane. 

Although it looks as if Howard is at fault to the naked eye, it's obvious that he is reacting within the assigned scheme, namely, softly hedging any opposing guard to buy time for his picked teammate to recover, and then hoping to recover into the lane to pick up his own man. While Howard hedges, the weak side guys should collapse into the lane and cover Howard's man until Howard can recover. Often times, this doesn't happen, and with this failure, the Lakers bleed points at the rim due to open layups and dunks. 

In fact, the Nuggets outscored the Lakers 58-38 on points in the paint despite running very few traditional post ups. A majority of those points came from pick and rolls, whether the guard got in the lane and finished, or the guard dumped it off to the roll man for a finish. Even worse, when teams destroy the Lakers with the pick and roll, the Lakers will overcompensate with help, and then the opposing team will kick the ball out for uncontested three pointers. 

This squad needs to strike a balance in its defensive rotations, and Howard is not shy about calling for that to happen. With 14 of 19 opponents topping at least 30 points in a single quarter during the D'Antoni era, Howard clearly feels that it's time for some change.

To round out the post-game interviews, Gasol, Nash, and Bryant each touched upon a common theme of energy, aka, a keyword for defense.

Gasol stated, "Overall, [we] didn't bring enough energy and effort to be able to win this one here." 

Nash stated, "We didn't match their energy." 

Bryant stated, "Tonight it seemed like we were just a step slow, seemed like we were a little stuck in the mud. We played old. They played with a lot of energy, a lot of youth, got up and down. It just seemed we were in a lower gear."

Energy, energy, energy, it's been a common statement in post-game interviews following losses this season. The Lakers are the fourth oldest team in the NBA this season, and it shows when they take plays off on the defensive end. Whether that's a byproduct of a D'Antoni coached unit, or simply fatigue, it's most likely a combination of both. Something needs to be done about this "Energy" issue, otherwise, the Lakers will have plenty of energy when they are sitting at home in June — or even worse, April.

After seeing the defensive success the Lakers had against the Warriors and Knicks, it's clear that this squad has the capability to play up to some lofty standards. Unfortunately, consistency has haunted this team all season long. If Howard's physical and verbal messages can spur some consistency, I'm all for it.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Lakers Win Streak, Problems Solved? (12.19.12)

The last time I checked in with the Los Angeles Lakers, I pondered if they had reached rock bottom following a humiliating loss on the road to the struggling Cleveland Cavaliers.

Well, that post came a game early, because the Lakers were blitzkrieged in their following game against the New York Knicks as Carmelo Anthony went into Team USA mode and dropped 30 points in just 23 minutes before spraining his ankle midway through the third quarter. With Anthony spearheading the charge, the Knicks poured in a ridiculous 41 points in the opening quarter. The Knicks entered halftime ahead 49-68, and after Anthony went down, they held on to close the game out and win 107-116.

Now, the Lakers are riding a three game winning streak, bumping them up to 12-14 overall, so does this mean all is well in Lakerland?

Nope.

Not even close.

A convincing winning streak could have inspired some faith, but squeaking out wins against the Washington Wizards, Philadelphia 76ers, and Charlotte Bobcats is nothing to hang your hat on. Well, let me revise that, the Lakers actually played well against the 76ers, winning on the road. However, the 76ers were without their star point guard, Jrue Holiday, due to a sprained foot, and were forced to start Kwame Brown due to the perpetually injured Andrew Bynum.

For each of these games, the old cliche, "A win is a win," is applicable, but sometimes some wins can feel like losses — especially the most recent game against the Bobcats.

Let me break down the games to point out why these wins highlight just how mediocre this Lakers team is currently playing.

First up, the Wizards game, on the road. After getting absolutely scorched by Carmelo Anthony in New York, the Lakers were handed a gimme game with the worst team in the NBA — the Wizards entered the game with a 3-16 record.

The Lakers came out with some energy and showed some promise. After one quarter of play, they led 27-25. The Lakers didn't commit a single turnover the entire quarter, yet they were unable to sustain an early eight point lead, and the Wizards closed strong on a 7-2 run.

In the second quarter, the Lakers decided to just outscore the opposition rather than try to shut down an offensively challenged squad. In about an eight minute stretch, Cartier Martin lit up the Lakers as if he is a super-duper-star. Who? Exactly. From the final two minutes of the first quarter, to the first six minutes of the second quarter, Martin scored 15 points by shooting 3-3 from deep, and finishing two and-ones. Behind Martin's efforts, the Wizards scored 30 points in the quarter and entered halftime trailing by just three points.

In the third quarter, the Lakers played how they should have been playing all along by upping the defensive intensity and winning the quarter 25-14. The Lakers forced three turnovers in a 50 second span early in the quarter, and they ran away with the lead, finishing the quarter ahead 83-69. The Lakers held the Wizards to 5-24 (21%) from the field, and after Martell Webster hit a three pointer on the opening possession to tie the game at 58-58, the Wizards didn't score another point until the 7:54 mark.

On the heels of a dominant third quarter, the Lakers looked as if they would blow out the Wizards. Unfortunately, the big lead didn't last very long. By the 5:31 mark, the Wizards utilized a huge run to get within three points, 92-89. Five different Wizards scored in that stretch, carving up the Lakers with drive and kicks and strong attacks to the basket. The gap remained in single digits the rest of the way, and the Lakers were forced to claw their way to a 102-96 victory.

If not for a stunning Kobe Bryant tip in following a missed Dwight Howard free throw with just over a minute left in the game, the Lakers may have lost — the momentum began to pull in the Wizards' favor up until that point. Only three Lakers scored the entire fourth quarter, and only Bryant and Howard scored for the Lakers in the final 8:48 of the game (eight points for Bryant, six for Howard).

Instead of putting away a horrible team, the Lakers allowed the Wizards to outscore them 27-19 in the final quarter of play. This first win of the streak could have been a "good win," but the Lakers tainted it by not closing the door on a squad that is absolutely horrible. The Lakers allowed four Wizards to top at least 16 points, with three of those Wizards coming off the bench. If not for 30 points from Bryant, and 24 points from Jodie Meeks off the bench, the Lakers would have lost — no other Laker reached at least 14, and Howard finished with just 12.

The next game against the 76ers, the Lakers actually played well, winning 111-98. They took care of business against a team they should have had no problem with. With Jrue Holiday and Andrew Bynum out, the Lakers won every quarter except for the fourth — getting outscored 25-24 when the game had already been decided. The Lakers played consistent ball, and they played much stiffer defense. For the first time in 10 games (a span of 19 days), the Lakers held their opponent without a 30 point quarter. These poison pill quarters have been a staple of the D'Antoni era, but the Lakers handled their business and kept the 76ers out of arm's reach the entire game. The scoring distribution was also much more even, as six guys hit double digits. Bryant led the way with 34, and four other players scored at least 14, with Meeks rounding out the double digit scorers with 12.

The only black mark on the 76ers game was Nick Young dropping 30 points on 52% shooting from the field, including 6-12 from deep. Young tends to play well against the Lakers, so his performance wasn't surprising, but a couple of defensive lapses allowed him to drain some open threes that are his trademark. In fact, as a team, the 76ers shot 49.4% from the field, and 40% from deep. Those numbers speak ill of the Lakers defense, however, the Lakers were able to force 18 turnovers, and they capitalized with 16 points off of those turnovers. Overall, the good outweighed the bad, and the Lakers turned in a solid performance.

On the heels of an impressive victory on the road, the Lakers headed home to face the lowly, 7-16 Bobcats. The Bobcats entered the game on an 11-game losing streak, failing to win since a double-overtime 108-106 victory over the Wizards on November 24th.

With that in mind, eeking out a 100-101 victory doesn't boast any sort of confidence for the Lakers. In fact, the Bobcats had three shots on the final possession of the game, with Gerald Henderson missing a layup that circled around the front side of the rim before rolling off the right side of the iron in the final seconds.

With Pau Gasol returning to the starting lineup following an eight game absence due to tendinitis in his knees, the Lakers fielded a lineup that should have dominated the weak frontcourt of the Bobcats. Instead, the Lakers were outscored 40-36 on points in the paint. Furthermore, Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, and Ramon Sessions lit up the Lakers by draining deep shots, continuously attacking the basket, and combining for 67 points on 25-54 shooting (46%) from the field, including 7-13 (54%) from deep.

Early in the game, the Lakers came out lethargic. The Lakers quickly fell behind 12-5 in the opening four minutes. By the 1:43 mark, the Lakers were able to tie the game at 23-23. A shot from Gasol gave the Lakers the lead to close the quarter ahead 25-27. Although the Lakers finished ahead, their opening performance was disheartening. Byron Mullens especially capitalized on the lackadaisical effort, scoring 10 of his 13 points in the opening quarter. Mullens stretched the floor as a 7'0" big man with range, hitting two threes in the quarter.

Although Gasol looked a bit rusty with two turnovers and some missed free throws, he finished with a well rounded quarter, shooting 2-4 from the field, scoring five points, grabbing five rebounds, dishing out three assists, and blocking three shots. Gasol's performance was a welcome sight early in the game — he would noticeably tire later in the game.

In the second quarter, things got ugly. Six straight points from Metta World Peace pushed the Lakers ahead 29-40 by the 7:52 mark. It looked as though the Lakers would turn the game into a rout. Then Walker, Henderson, and Sessions spearheaded a furious Bobcats charge.

Those three combined to score 28 of the Bobcats final 29 points in the second quarter. With those three leading the way, the Bobcats ripped off a 29-13 run to take a 58-53 lead into halftime. The Lakers went ice cold, shooting 5-15 (33%) from the field, highlighted by a missed alley-oop slam from Howard that surely would have made SportsCenter following a gorgeous feed from Bryant.

Although the Lakers froze up offensively, their defensive performance was slacking, especially in transition. The Bobcats shot 9-14 (64%) in that eight minute stretch, with their small ball trio shooting 9-11 (81%) from the field, and a red hot 4-5 (80%) from deep. As the Lakers missed shot after shot, the Bobcats pushed the ball and routinely found the open man in semi-transition. Practically shell shocking the Lakers, the Bobcats turned an 11 point deficit into a five point lead. The Bobcats finished the quarter with 33 points, marking another team to hand the Lakers a poison pill quarter.

To start the third quarter, things went from bad to worse. The Bobcats ripped off a 20-7 run, pushing the lead to 78-60 by the 6:07 mark. As the Lakers shot 2-10 (20%) from the field, including 2-6 (33%) from deep, the Bobcats once again pushed the tempo in semi-transition, and they capitalized by shooting 8-10 (80%) from the field, including a perfect 4-4 from deep. The Lakers poor play in this stretch was highlighted by a double dribble violation from Howard, and a sequence where Mullens swatted World Peace in the lane, and then recovered to swat Howard as well.

Riding a 49-20 run from the 7:52 mark of the second quarter to midway through the third quarter, the Bobcats embarrassed the Lakers and showed just how poorly this Lakers team often plays defensively. The Bobcats played without fear. They attacked the Lakers without any hesitation, and their confidence swelled with every made shot.

From the midway point on, the Lakers began to creep back in the game. Reaching into the depths of their thirty minute defensive practices, the Lakers allowed the Bobcats to score just six more points in the final six minutes of the third quarter. The Bobcats shot just 3-9 (33%) during this stretch, including 0-2 from deep. The Lakers didn't shoot much better, shooting just 3-10 (30%) from the field, and 0-4 from deep, however, the Lakers were able to slow the game down by attacking the basket and earning trips to the line.

The Lakers made 11-12 (92%) from the charity stripe during the remaining six minutes of the third quarter, thus slowing down the semi-transition attack of the Bobcats, and forcing the Bobcats to run their half court offense. When the Lakers actually had a chance to set up their half court defense, they were great. The Lakers forced four turnovers, two of which were shot clock violations. Riding a strong defensive effort, and numerous trips to the line, the Lakers entered the fourth quarter down 84-77 following a 16-6 run in the final six minutes.

In the fourth quarter, the Lakers initially sustained their defensive effort while surging ahead with an 11-0 run to take the lead. A Bryant and-one layup put the Lakers ahead 84-87 at the 9:52 mark, and a three pointer by Darius Morris capped the run. Following Morris' three pointer, Walker got the Bobcats on the board with a runner at the 8:33 mark, making the score 86-90. By the six minute mark, the Bobcats trailed 91-92. A Bryant three pointer buoyed the Lakers, but the team went dry, and three minutes later the score was tied 95-95 at the 2:35 mark.

After trading buckets, Bryant closed the game with four straight points. Bryant attacked the basket with authority to convert a tough layup that probably should have been an and-one. Then Bryant hit a 19-foot jumper from the near high elbow following a high pick from Howard. Sessions followed with an and-one after driving to the rim and finishing, making the score 100-101 with 47 seconds remaining. Following this, Bryant once again tried to close the game, but this time, his 21-foot jumper from the near wing was hotly contested, and he hit back iron, setting up the Bobcats for the final shot of the game.

With 21 seconds remaining in the game, the Bobcats called timeout and set up a play for the win. Following a double pick at the top, Bryant switched onto Walker at the near wing. Bryant shaded Walker well, forcing him baseline and staying on top of his right hip in order to prevent Walker's trademark step-back jumper. Walker attacked the rim and was swatted by a rotating Howard. As the ball flew off the glass, Henderson crashed the lane and grabbed the offensive rebound while running full speed towards the rim. Henderson's layup just missed, Mullens was stripped in the lane, and the ball flew out to the top where Ben Gordon jacked up an ugly three pointer that came nowhere close. Game over.

The Lakers escaped with the win, 100-101, but it was nowhere near convincing. Yes, the Lakers overcame an 18 point deficit, but the Lakers should have never been there in the first place. Simply put, the Bobcats are awful. What does that say about the Lakers?

This win may indicate progress since the Lakers have routinely faced steep deficits this season, rallied, and then finished just short. But I can't believe in this victory. The Lakers escaped with a win, they clamped down, they finished strong, but they still failed to play hard for a full 48 minutes. They still allowed inferior players to turn in all-star performances. They still had to rely on 30 points from Bryant, with World Peace and Meeks hitting 17 apiece and outscoring Howard's 16. Overall, this game left a bad taste in my mouth, and I have to admit, against any other team in the league (excluding the Wizards), the Lakers would have lost. Entering the game with a 7-6 record at home, I expected them to play better than this.

Any sort of winning streak is appreciated, but three straight wins still has this team below .500, and the team is still sitting in 12th place in the Western Conference (exactly where it sat a week ago following the Cavaliers game). Sometimes building wins leads to confidence and ultimately better play, but these wins simply didn't seem to build anything. These wins came against bottom feeders. These wins relied on Bryant to drop 30-plus, marking his seventh straight game hitting that mark, and making him the only 34-year-old player to ever do such a thing.

Furthermore, the final win also marked a significant lineup change that raises more questions than it provides answers. Coach D'Antoni seems intent on playing World Peace at the power forward position, thus opting for a small ball lineup with one center. The lineup will feature Howard/Gasol at the five, World Peace at the four, Bryant at the three, Meeks at the two, and Duhon/Morris at the one. In doing this, D'Antoni will look to stagger the minutes of Howard and Gasol so that they play more often apart rather than together. We all know how much D'Antoni loves small ball, but I believe in the twin tower setup. Maybe I'm spoiled, but I saw Phil Jackson utilize Bynum/Odom and Gasol to the tune of three straight trips to the NBA Finals, and two straight championships.

Also, a casualty of this lineup setup will be Jordan Hill. Hill and D'Antoni clashed in New York, and despite his excellent play off the bench this season, Hill will be the odd man out in the rotation. Hill deserves minutes, and other than Meeks, he's the most consistent bench player the Lakers have. I love Hill's game, and I respect his energy and consistency off the bench. He's the ultimate hustle player, and he seems to be the best weak side rotating defender the Lakers have.

With three days of rest, the Lakers have some real competition coming up against the Golden State Warriors on December 22nd. Surprisingly, this game will be a litmus test, as the Warriors boast a 17-8 record, fifth in the West, and eighth in the entire league.

Like much of Los Angeles, I want to see if the Lakers can play consistent ball and build on this win streak. Unfortunately, I have no reason to believe that the Lakers can beat the Warriors at this point in time. The Lakers have allowed 12 of their 16 opponents to produce at least one 30 point quarter during the D'Antoni era. In fact, four teams have hit at least 40! These poison pills are far too alarming, and if squads like the Wizards and Bobcats can produce poison pill quarters, I have a feeling Stephen Curry, David Lee, and Klay Thompson are chomping at the bit to light up the Lakers.

Maybe a couple more thirty minute defensive drills can help the Lakers in the days leading up to this game...

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Lakers, Rock Bottom...? (12.12.12)

When Mike D'Antoni was officially chosen over Phil Jackson to be the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, my immediate take on the situation was this, "Essentially, D'Antoni will have to coach in a manner that he's never coached before."

That statement alluded to D'Antoni's offensive and defensive philosophies and their ability — my perceived inability —  to coexist with the current makeup of this Lakers squad. As it turns out, D'Antoni's system isn't working all that well, and under his reign, the Lakers are 4-8, and 9-13 overall (four games under .500 for the first time since 2004-05).

D'Antoni is not solely to blame. He was thrust in this situation due to the front office. The biggest culprit for this early season failure is Jim Buss, Dr. Jerry Buss, and Mitch Kupchak. My take is that it is mostly Jim Buss to blame, but if Dr. Buss and Kupchak signed off on his hiring, then it's all three of them. Let's not forget the rhetoric spewed from the brass following the hire of D'Antoni. Here's a quote from Kupchak following the hire, "After speaking with several excellent and well-respected coaching candidates, Dr. Buss, Jim and I all agreed that Mike was the right person at this time to lead the Lakers forward. Knowing his style of play and given the current make-up of the roster, we feel Mike is a great fit, are excited to have him as our next head coach, and hope he will help our team reach its full potential."

So, the front office panicked and fired Mike Brown without a definite backup plan. In my opinion, Brown did not deserve to be fired, and after watching the team's play under D'Antoni, it further validates my belief. Then, the organization flirted with Phil Jackson before ultimately spurning him with one of the most disrespectful courtships that I can recall. The organization clearly informed Jackson that it was his job if he wanted it, and then they decided to go in another direction at the last second. Rebuffing 13 championship rings, 11 as a coach of some of the greatest teams ever, and five of which came in Los Angeles, the organization decided D'Antoni would be a better "fit."

Never mind the fact that D'Antoni had never been to the Finals, or that his system has never incorporated back to the basket post players, let alone two of them, or that his system relies on shooters for offensive spacing that the Lakers roster doesn't have, or that his defenses have always been atrocious, or that he simply doesn't mend his philosophies to fit the makeup of his team (i.e. Carmelo Anthony's excellent post skills that were not utilized during his tenure as coach of the New York Knicks, and now Pau Gasol's post skills). How that equals "a great fit" is beyond me. But even if the front office truly believed that D'Antoni was the best fit, passing on Jackson may be the biggest mistake this organization has ever made.

With that said, if D'Antoni is going to lead this team, the onus is on him to find ways for this squad to win. In his 12 games as head coach, the Lakers have averaged 102.25 points per game. That's about eight to twelve points below what D'Antoni wants the team to average. Defensively, the Lakers have allowed 101.5 points per game. Although the Lakers are ahead on the point differential, that mostly stems from three wins that totaled a positive point differential of 61 points against the lowly Hornets, the disappointing Nuggets, and the mediocre without Dirk, Mavericks. Struggling to light up the scoreboard, or simply contain teams with solid defense, the Lakers have lost 8 of 12, and 5 of the last 6 games under D'Antoni.

The way the Lakers have been losing is actually quite perplexing. In the 12 games under D'Antoni, the Lakers have been outscored in the first quarter just four times, yet they have entered half time trailing in eight games (including all four games in which they trailed after one). Even more perplexing, the Lakers have been outscored just four times in the fourth quarter (losing all four games when that happened). Opening hot, and usually finishing strong, the Lakers have found ways to lose by giving up huge quarters that they struggle to recover from. In 9 of the 12 games, the Lakers have given up at least 30 points in one quarter. 30 point quarters are inexcusable, yet they are occurring regularly under D'Antoni. In three games, teams (Thunder, Magic, Kings) actually dropped 40 point quarters! In the three games the Lakers actually held their opponent under 30 points in any given quarter, the Lakers won 2 out of 3 (wins against the Hornets and Mavericks, a loss against the Pacers).

Overall, this team has a lot of holes that need to be shored up. Although D'Antoni is an offensive specialist, defense needs to be placed front and center. With Steve Nash out for at least another two weeks, the offense is not going to run as smoothly as D'Antoni wants, and the Lakers are not going to win games by simply outscoring the opponent. Until then, getting stops needs to be a premium.

Following a 94-100 loss that bumped the Cavaliers up to 5-17 overall, and dropped the Lakers to 2-7 away from home, coach D'Antoni got testy when questioned about his defensive coaching.

Following the game, which featured a 32 point fourth quarter for the Cavs, a reporter irked D'Antoni with this, "If you're criticized for not having any defense so far, it seems like you guys haven't played inspired defense or just haven't played defense, you come here, you have shoot-around this morning, and basically it's a film session, and a little shooting under everybody's own."

D'Antoni quickly jabbed back, "I didn't see you in the film, I didn't see you there."

The reporter responded, "So, that's not true then?"

To which D'Antoni replied, "No, it's not true."

The reporter then retorted, "Did you work on defense?"

Then D'Antoni really got upset, stating, "Hell yeah, we worked for half an hour on it. You're starting to piss me off. You're starting to piss me off, because you're saying something that is not factually correct."

D'Antoni noticeably got heated during this last stage of the probing, and his gesticulations began to rise with his temper. Unfortunately, Time Warner Cable quickly cut away from the heated exchange and went to a commercial break following a couple more remarks from D'Antoni and the reporter. But one thing is clear, D'Antoni understands that he's considered the biggest problem with the defense. His defensive response and rising temper point to the fact that he's feeling the heat for the Lakers' woes. D'Antoni does not want this heat. He may have thought his time in New York was tough, but it will be nothing compared to the expectations for this team in Los Angeles.

The most telling tidbit of the exchange is D'Antoni's belief that half an hour of working on defense is considered putting in work. The conviction he used when stating, "Hell yeah, we worked for half an hour on it," is all you need to know about D'Antoni. The way this team is getting lit up, half an hour isn't going to cut it. This team needs basic high school level drills for at least an hour, every practice. Drills like closing out, shell drills, rotations, what to do on pick and rolls/pops/slips, transition defense, boxing out, one on one defense, help side, denying the ball, defensive slides, actually getting in a defensive stance, help and recover, taking charges, hustling for loose balls, and reaction drills can easily take up an hour and ingrain defensive principles that are necessary for a successful defensive unit.

This squad has the talent to shut people down. Unfortunately, the Lakers routinely play lazy defense because they simply don't have that grind mentality. Defense should never waver, it's one aspect of basketball that can be a rock if given the due effort. D'Antoni needs to inspire this team and put forth the proper schemes for this squad to succeed. Transition and pick and roll defense have been especially atrocious this season. The Lakers give up far too many layups on fast breaks by not hustling back in transition, and they also get burned by not having a help man rotate on pick and rolls to cover for the man who hedges the pick. If you watch the highlights of the Cavs game, you will see Kyrie Irving destroy the Lakers by continually feeding Anderson Varejao easy buckets following the pick and roll.

Irving is a stud, but the ease with which he picked apart the Lakers is troubling, especially because the Lakers will have to get through the likes of Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, and Tony Parker if they plan on making a serious postseason run. Toss in guys like Jeremy Lin, Mike Conley, Stephen Curry, Ty Lawson, Ricky Rubio, Tyreke Evans, Goran Dragic, and Damian Lillard, and it's clear that the Western Conference is loaded with talented point guards that need to somehow be contained.

Overall, this team has a ways to go. Offensively, the team is struggling for continuity. Injuries have decimated the starting five, and the load is often thrown on Bryant. The Lakers are now 1-10 this season when Bryant scores more than 30 points. Although that stat seems to condemn Bryant as a ballhog, let me straighten that point out.

In a majority of those games, Bryant begins to take over offensively once he believes that the team is slipping. In almost every first quarter, Bryant assumes the role of playmaker. If the guys continue rolling, Bryant plays within the flow of the offense. If the guys taper off, Bryant begins taking shots. Bryant has had a disappointing habit of failing to get back in transition following what he believes are non-calls, but other than that, his effort is always in the right place.

Although the record isn't great, if it weren't for Bryant, those 10 losses would have been blowouts. Bryant executes what he believes the team needs, and in many of his scoring outbursts, he has kept the Lakers within striking distance. Without his 42 points against the Cavs, the Lakers would have lost by 20 instead of just six. Until Nash comes back, Bryant will be the only guy on the Lakers who can create a shot.

With Bryant struggling to play the role of superhero to the tune of wins, he seems willing to seek the necessary changes. Following the game, in response to the mounting losses, Bryant stated, "They're really f****** with my s***, really trying my patience with that zen thing." Bryant later used statements such as "Baffling," "I don't know," and "I'll give it a lot of thought," in regards to the slow start this season and the problems with the team. Rarely has Bryant ever sounded as perplexed as he was in this postgame soundbite, and it's obvious that he will do whatever it takes to turn this thing around. Bryant closed his interview with an eye towards improvement, stating, "One thing about this organization is that there are a lot of great players who came before you that are always one phone call away. I have no problem picking up the phone and talking to them and getting some advice." I have a feeling the other end of that call will be Magic Johnson, and Magic will surely have some great insight as to how to lead this squad.

With Bryant unable to carry the team to victories, Dwight Howard needs to start dominating. Although Howard seems to regularly lack touches when just looking at the box score, that simply isn't the case. Anytime Howard touches the ball, he is doubled, thus forcing a kick out. Howard also attempts double digit free throws almost every game. Howard's 18.4 points per game are decent, but I'd like to see that number jump up to around 22. Howard also seems to let his offensive performance dictate his defensive effort. As noted by Tim Legler, Howard doesn't seem to be handling the role of second banana all that well. Until he turns into a reliable fourth quarter scorer who can knock down free throws, he doesn't deserve to be "the man." Howard can play harder, and if he begins to dominate like he's shown in the past, the Lakers will reach another level.

Simply put, the entire squad needs to get on the same page and start putting in the necessary effort that befits a championship team. D'Antoni isn't on the court wearing number 8. His philosophies may be a detriment, but it's up to the players to play to the best of their capabilities. Inspiration should come from within, and if the players give maximum effort, this team will start reeling off victories. Until then, the losses will mount. With a quarter of the season gone, the Lakers can no longer coast. Significant ground has been lost, and the Lakers are currently in 12th place in the Western Conference with a 9-13 record. Hopefully this point marks rock bottom, leaving up as the only direction to move.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Costas and Whitlock, Misguided Gun Control (12.3.12)

After a full 24 hours, I still feel the need to give my commentary on Bob Costas' gun control lecture following Jovan Belcher's murder-suicide.

Great minds such as Sophocles and William Shakespeare promoted the metaphoric phrase, "Don't shoot the messenger," but on December 2, 2012, it became clear that the messenger overstepped his duty.

In case you haven't heard, Costas used the platform of NBC's Sunday Night Football to deliver a 90 second segment during halftime of the Eagles-Cowboys game to essentially give his personal belief about gun control while hiding behind quotes from a Kansas City writer named Jason Whitlock (more on him later).

Whether you personally believe in supporting gun control or the right to bear arms, I'm not here to debate. However, I do believe that Costas overstepped a boundary in delivering this statement to over 18 million viewers, "But here, wrote Jason Whitlock, is what I believe. 'If Jovan Belcher didn't possess a gun, he and Kasandra Perkins would both be alive today.'"

I believe it's safe to say, that of the 18 million viewers tuned in on Sunday night, less than 10% expected to hear Costas' take on gun control. Viewers tuned in to watch football and were instead given a lecture. Information and debate are great for society, but force-fed political commentary in an unexpected atmosphere is not the status quo. If a viewer wanted to hear a debate about the second amendment, that viewer would have been tuned in to a different network. Simply put, it was inappropriate for Costas to deliver his personal, political message in that setting. Costas is a sportscaster first and foremost, and if he wanted to give his take, he should delivered it in a more appropriate setting, such as on NBC's sister network, MSNBC. 

In an effort to provide a dose of reality within an entertainment realm, Costas made his mark by essentially bringing the gun control debate to a national consciousness. If you recall, during the presidential debates, neither President Obama or Governor Romney would even touch the subject of gun control. If presidential hopefuls aren't willing to give their take, obviously the issue is divisive, personal, and carries strong opinions. By giving Whitlock's column an amplified, national voice, Costas ensured the debate would rage on. 

With all of that in mind, I believe that the most damaging sentiment is the fact that Costas and Whitlock believe that a 6'4", 230 pound inside linebacker wouldn't have taken the life of the mother of his child without the use of a firearm. None of us know what was going on in Belcher's mind at that time, but if he was willing to pull the trigger on Perkins multiple times (completely ensuring her death), who's to say he wasn't willing to use any means necessary to take her life? 

A gun may have presented the easiest option, but does that mean that if Belcher didn't have a gun, Perkins would still be alive? Are we to presume that Belcher would have been unwilling to use his dominating strength? Would a knife have been too intimate? Simply put, would beating the life out of his girlfriend, the mother of his three month old child, have been too much for him to bear? I don't buy it. Jovan Belcher committed murder with the deadliest of intentions. Belcher murdered Perkins with his own mother and child in the house. If he can commit an act like that in the presence of the woman who gave him life, then the man is capable of the most heinous actions. 

Belcher perpetrated another case of domestic violence, and gun or no gun, it was going to end badly. By posing as righteous leaders of life with anti-gun sentiments, Costas and Whitlock missed the larger point. Belcher needed help. That relationship needed help. Now, that child will need help. Glossing over the mental health of Belcher, Costas and Whitlock zeroed in on a political matter rather than identifying the true culprit of the situation. Why is personal responsibility so often overlooked?

As for Belcher's suicide, the man was ready to die. After killing Perkins, Belcher raced to the Chiefs' practice facility, thanked his coach and general manager, and then shot himself in the head as police arrived. He was not willing to pay the price of murder. He was not planning to live the rest of his life behind bars. All that would have changed in that situation without a gun, is that Belcher wouldn't have had the time to give his last words to his football authorities. Belcher would have found another way to end his life. My guess is that he would have killed himself in a car accident, but it could have been any number of options. 

In giving Whitlock a national audience, Costas backed a man that was fired from ESPN for delivering disparaging remarks about two of his colleagues, a man that promotes stereotypes, such as this statement about Jeremy Lin, "Some lucky lady in NYC is gonna feel a couple inches of pain tonight," and a man that just stated, "I believe the NRA is the new KKK." Whitlock's reputation and political agenda should have served as an editorial caution, but Costas misguidedly decided to promote such an agenda to a mostly 18-49 male demographic. Some believe Costas is a courageous champion of civil and social affairs, I believe Costas abused his power and simplified a tragic event.

Whitlock's article makes some solid points, points that are great for reflection and debate. But those points should have been read by those who follow his column. Among those points, Whitlock touches upon self-control, race relations, and the government, before concluding, "Handguns do not enhance our safety. They exacerbate our flaws, tempt us to escalate arguments, and bait us into embracing confrontation rather than avoiding it." While that sentiment may hold some credence, it has nothing to do with Jovan Belcher. Belcher's use of a handgun as his weapon of choice is undeniable, but when looking at his murder-suicide in context, it becomes clear that Belcher entered a murderous state of mind, and he was ready to use any weapon available. Either Whitlock truly believes that Jovan Belcher and Kasandra Perkins would be alive today if guns were not a part of the equation, or he sees a prime opportunity to use a devastating tragedy as a symbolic promotion of a political agenda. 

Overall, the real issue is that Costas and Whitlock turned this sensitive matter into a debate about gun control. Mental health deserves more than that. Domestic abuse deserves more than that. Kasandra Perkins deserves more than that. Zoey Belcher deserves more than that. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Lakers Awful Performance Against the Pacers (11.27.12)

Dear Chick,

As the "Voice of the Lakers," boy were you lucky to miss this one. On a night that should have celebrated your birthday with a victory to go along with the bobblehead dolls in your likeness handed out to each fan in attendance at Staples Center, the Lakers put together a miserable performance that may have been the worst ever for the franchise. 

Although the Lakers topped the all-time franchise lows of 70 points and 29.4% from the field, there's nothing to be proud of when scoring just 77 points and shooting a pathetic 31.6% from the field. With such a woeful offensive performance, the Lakers topped off the night with a defensive blunder that allowed George Hill to drop in a layup high off the glass with just .1 left on the clock for a Pacers 79-77 victory.

Coach D'Antoni seems proud of the fact that his team actually had a chance to win despite shooting 24-76 (31.6%) from the field, 6-28 (21.4%) from deep, and 23-43 (54.5%) from the line, while also committing 21 turnovers (that led to 16 Pacers points), but I sure don't, and Los Angeles doesn't either. The fact that the Lakers were able to play tough defense and hang around against the defensive minded Pacers doesn't excuse this deplorable performance. The Lakers need to put in work, and coddling them with sentiments such as, "I'm a little bit proud of the guys, the way they fought and had a chance to win, which defies statistical logic," does the team no good.

Coach D'Antoni seems far too amused with the situation. At least Mike Brown took losses to the heart. You could always tell that Brown invested every bit of himself into the game. D'Antoni seems to have a grin on his face during his post game statements, and he is far too willing to rely on the crutch of, "When Steve comes back." Hey coach, does anyone know when Nash is going to be available? Nope! The man has a fractured fibula, it's time to develop something that is going to work in the meantime. Obviously, Darius Morris and Chris Duhon are the 10th man on any NBA roster, but this is the Lakers reality with Nash and Blake injured. With this reality, it's about time D'Antoni takes some responsibility, or begins dropping the hammer. 

D'Antoni has already shown his willingness to call out a star player. Against the Grizzlies on November 23rd, D'Antoni sat Pau Gasol the entire fourth quarter. Following the game, when asked about the benching, D'Antoni bluntly stated, "I was thinking, 'Boy I'd like to win this game.' That was the reason." With a small ball lineup, the Lakers outscored the Grizzlies 28-24 in the final quarter, but they still lost 98-106. 

Following that statement, Gasol fired back that he wants more touches in the paint, and he also released a perfectly timed excuse that he's battling tendinitis in both of his knees. With Gasol's passive play as of late (and actually for the past couple seasons) — 2-9 against Pacers, 4-7 against Mavericks, 3-8 against Grizzlies, 3-10 against Kings — don't be surprised if Gasol is traded this season. Gasol was so bad against the Pacers, five of his nine attempted shots were blocked! 

Even further, Gasol is to blame for the final defensive lapse. Gasol was supposed to switch onto Hill following the pick at the top. Instead, Gasol was late on the hedge, allowing Hill to pick up speed, attack the open space, and take a straight line to the basket. With Gasol's hips facing the sideline instead of half court, Hill turned the corner and easily blew by Gasol before finishing the layup high off the glass just over the outstretched hands of the rotating Dwight Howard. Game over.

Following this game, D'Antoni has plenty of ammo to take shots at his team (behind closed doors) in the coming days. If you take away Kobe Bryant's 5-11 (45.5%) from downtown, the team shot 1-17 (.06%) from distance. Take away Bryant and Howard's combined 19-38 (50%) from the field, and the rest of the team shot just 5-38 (13.2%). Take away Bryant's 11-13 (84.6%) from the line, and the team shot just 12-30 (40%). With the team failing to knock down shots (many of them wide open), an extra hour of shootaround is a must. In fact, I wouldn't let a single player leave the gym without hitting 10 free throws in a row following a series of sprints, or better yet, shooting a minimum of 100 free throws and hitting at least 75% with sprints after every ten shots. If this team is going to run D'Antoni's system, accurate shooting is a must (one of the main reasons why I felt that D'Antoni was a poor choice as head coach).

Capping off the poor play was Bryant's 10 turnovers. Although he was forced to carry the load while battling the flu, Bryant needs to take better care of the ball. Thrust in the playmaker role with Nash out, Bryant needs to find more operating room. More than half of his 10 turnovers occurred because he drove into the teeth of the defense in the lane and ended up losing his handle or getting stripped. Forcing the action, and dribbling into help defense, Bryant was able to drop 40 points, outscoring his teammates by three, but he also got caught trying to make plays when no one else on the team could do anything positive. For an offense that relies on the maxim, "the ball finds energy," this game was as stagnant as they come. Following the game, Bryant put the onus on himself and lamented the fact that on 10 possessions he cost his team an opportunity. At least Bryant took responsibility, I didn't hear that come from any other Laker during the post game interviews.

Overall, this was one of the worst Lakers games I have ever seen. Putting the late dramatics aside, this game was awful. Other than Bryant's clutch, deep three to tie the game at 77, nothing about this game was exciting. Rather, the game was a boring, sloppy, repugnant mess. This team is too talented to put together a performance like this. Get it together, Lakers. If this team has many more games like this, Howard may walk in free agency this summer, and this team will surely get blown up. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

D'Antoni Era Finally Underway (11.21.12)

The Mike D'Antoni era officially commenced on Tuesday, November 20, 2012.

Mark it down. It's an important date in basketball annals, particularly in Los Angeles, and it will ultimately be judged sometime in June 2013. Depending upon who wins the NBA Finals, this date will either mark a staggering blow to a franchise that took a sharp left turn, or it will mark a stamp of approval for Jim Buss and his desire to avoid Phil Jackson at all costs. Simply put, it's championship or bust, and D'Antoni and his coaching style will either be glorified or condemned.

After endless speculation regarding his unexpected hire over the revered Jackson, and a full nine days after he was chosen to be the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, D'Antoni was able to summon the necessary vigor — with the help of Vicodon — to sit on the sideline and act as head coach as the Lakers faced the Brooklyn Nets in Staples Center.

Although the Lakers have been partially running D'Antoni's system under interim head coach — and the Lakers all-time winningest coach, percentage wise — Bernie Bickerstaff, that really doesn't count. Six days after leading his first practice with the Lakers, D'Antoni was able to get near the action as he sat in Jackson's seat, both figuratively and literally — D'Antoni will be sitting on Jackson's infamous "special chair" while he recovers from knee surgery. The sting of D'Antoni's hire over Jackson isn't going away any time soon, but at least Lakers fans can finally see their new coach in action.

So, how did the Lakers do in D'Antoni's first game?

Well, the game was a tale of two halves.

The first 24 minutes resembled a D'Antoni tempo as the Lakers shot 23-41 (56%) from the field, 4-13 (31%) from deep, and 6-11 (55%) from the free throw line.

This up and down pace resembles a typical D'Antoni led team. The Lakers zipped the ball around with excellent passing and took numerous open shots en route to pouring in 56 points. The Lakers struggled with the three ball, which is to be expected with this roster, but their attempts were in line with D'Antoni's philosophy. The Lakers also struggled to knock down free throws, as Dwight Howard shot 3-5, Pau Gasol shot 2-4, and Metta World Peace shot 1-2. Surprisingly, Kobe Bryant didn't attempt any free throws — he did his damage with jumpers, hitting five straight to close the first quarter. D'Antoni's teams usually lead the league in free throw percentage, but not attempts. This team may reverse those statistics due to Howard, however, in the first half, the Lakers were not as aggressive attacking the rim as they should be.

Also typical of a D'Antoni led team, the Lakers acted as sieves defensively and allowed the Nets to pour in 57 points. The Nets torched the Lakers in the second quarter with 34 points. In particular, the Lakers allowed Brook Lopez to play like a super duper star as he poured in 17 points on 8-12 shooting. Deron Williams also torched the Lakers as he scored 18 points on 4-7 shooting, 3-4 from deep, while dishing out five assists.

All in all, the first half was exciting. Both teams got out and ran, and both teams had no qualms about shooting.

The final 24 minutes were much different.

The second half turned into an ugly defensive slugfest full of missed shots and missed free throws. In the second half the Lakers shot an abysmal 12-32 (38%), including 2-8 (25%) from deep, and an awful 13-26 (50%) from the free throw line.

The fourth quarter was especially ugly for both squads. The Lakers shot 3-12 (25%) from the field, 1-3 (33%) from deep, and 12-22 (55%) from the free throw line. The Nets weren't much better, as they shot 7-20 (35%) from the field, 0-5 from deep, and 3-3 from the line. The Lakers finished with 19 points in the quarter compared to 17 from the Nets.

Halting any momentum to the game was Nets coach Avery Johnson and his decision to adopt a "Hack-a-Howard" philosophy early in the final quarter. Howard struggled mightily as he shot 3-10 from the line. At first, fans at Staples Center began to boo as Howard missed five straight at the line. But, eventually Howard garnered loud cheers as he sank one out of two during his final two trips to the line. Howard's final trip to the charity stripe occurred just before the four minute mark. All it took was Howard to hit two out of four for Johnson to halt the intentional foul strategy.

Surprisingly, the Lakers were able to dig in and weather Howard's free throw woes with exceptional defense. As Howard struggled, the Nets were only able to build a five point lead. Once World Peace knocked down the Lakers first field goal of the quarter, a three pointer at the 4:39 mark that cut the score to 82-84, the Lakers were able to take control. World Peace was so pumped about his shot from the far side that he enthusiastically rubbed his hands all over Johnson's hair in a playful manner before running back down the court.

Following World Peace's shot, Bryant closed the game. At first, it seemed like he contracted Howard's woes as he shot an uncharacteristic 2-4 from the line to start the quarter. However, then Bryant turned it on.

First, he set up a beautiful play that led to a Howard dunk. Bryant drove the lane and kicked out to Gasol at the top of the key. Then he received a return pass at the near top. As Bryant rose up from deep, two Nets rushed him, including Gasol's man, so he passed to Gasol midshot. Gasol caught the pass in the lane and sent a lob up to Howard for an alley oop dunk. This beautiful sequence from the stars on the court tied the score up at 86-86.

Then, Bryant summoned his inner Magic Johnson as he hit a running hook shot. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is obviously the godfather of the hook shot, but I don't think Kareem ever beat his man off the dribble from the three point line and then went into his patented shot. From the near wing, Bryant used a hesitation dribble to freeze up his defender, Joe Johnson. Then Bryant drove right, and once he neared the box in the lane, he elevated and hit a beautiful running skyhook to give the Lakers an 89-86 advantage.

From there, Bryant iced the game with six straight free throws to give the Lakers a 95-90 victory.

Bryant's second set of free throws were particularly interesting. After Gasol nearly threw the game away with a ridiculous jump ball after being trapped just past half court, Bryant gave his greatest Calvin Johnson impersonation as he outleaped two defenders just past midcourt to come down with the ball. With a one point lead, and four seconds remaining in the game, Bryant stepped up to the line. After watching Bryant sink the first shot, Gerald Wallace engaged in a war of words with Bryant in an effort to faze him. With the biggest free throw of the game on the line, Bryant cooly responded to Wallace as the two traded barbs for nearly 20 seconds. After giving Wallace on last incredulous look, Bryant focused on the rim and sank the shot. As he backpedaled away from the line, Bryant sent Wallace one last smirk.

Following that, Williams missed a potential game tying three, and Bryant stepped up to the line one last time. With just .2 left on the clock, the game was decided. As Bryant stood at the line, Wallace engaged in more talk. Bryant sank both to end the game.

Following the game, Wallace was asked about the war of words. Regarding the crucial second set of free throws, Wallace stated, "I was trying to get him to close his eyes to shoot." A la Michael Jordan, Bryant almost took the bait. Wallace continued, "I had to make a big bet, so I just told him to shoot the free throws." We'll never know if Bryant would have actually risked a game on such a challenge, but it is interesting to know that parameters were discussed. Even more interesting, it was Wallace who was unwilling to take such a risk. Imagine the scrutiny if Bryant had done such a thing and missed! If Bryant was willing to risk a loss, I wonder what he demanded from Wallace? It must have been quite substantial.

Whatever the case, there are some noteworthy items to take away from this game.

Firstly, D'Antoni won his opening game behind a solid defensive effort. Surprising to say the least considering D'Antoni's reputation. After a hot start, Lopez went 3-6 and scored just seven points in the second half. Williams fared even worse in the final 24 minutes, going 2-10, 0-5 from deep, for four points and five assists. Although the offense stalled, the Lakers showed that they can get it done defensively if necessary. This is a good sign, and it may be relied upon more than most would have expected.

Secondly, D'Antoni is going to love having Bryant as a closer. The man has been through it all, he doesn't freeze up, and he loves the pressure. For the first time in his coaching career, D'Antoni has a bonafide two guard to work with. Joe Johnson was pretty good in his Phoenix days, but Bryant is at an entirely different level.

Thirdly, the Lakers need to work on the three ball, 6-21 (29%) won't get it done. However, World Peace, the man who will always be left open on the weak side, actually turned in a great performance by shooting 4-9 (44%) from deep. If World Peace can hover around 37-42% from deep this season, the Lakers starting five will thrive in D'Antoni's system. Simply put, World Peace is the x-factor. His ability to space the floor will be crucial for the Lakers.

Fourthly, will Howard's struggles at the line truly hinder the offense? D'Antoni has never had a key contributor shoot so poorly from the charity stripe. In fact, D'Antoni's worst regular free throw shooter was Amare Stoudemire, and he shot a respectable 73%. Howard is shooting 48% from the line this season, yet D'Antoni doesn't seem to mind. After delivering an "Umm" that turned into a weird groan/ponder when asked about Howard's struggles at the line during the post game press conference, D'Antoni stated "He's making one of two, so that's one point per possession, that's pretty good basketball, especially down the stretch. That's fine, if they want to do that, that's great, I got no problem."

Although I disagree with D'Antoni's claim, there's nothing that he can really say here. Taking Howard off the floor is not the solution, even late in games, so living with his inconsistency is necessary because he is too valuable a commodity defensively and on the boards to be sitting on the bench. However, for a team that wants to increase possessions with uptempo play, this can become a problem. If the Lakers have more opportunities, that means that the opposing team will also gain more opportunities. So if the Lakers are consistently coming up with just one point at the line, opposing teams that maximize their possessions can potentially score two or three points per possession.

For example, Howard finished this game 7-19 at the line, marking 10 separate trips to the charity stripe. By coming up with just seven points, an opposing team can potentially score anywhere from 20-30 points within that same frame. Obviously, these numbers represent stark contrasts of failure versus excellence, but the potential is there, and great teams have a knack for reaching that full potential. This is going to be a recurring problem all season long, and it will be interesting to see how the Lakers overcome such a disadvantage.

Overall, it's great to see the Lakers pull out the win. This team will look to improve with every game, and with Steve Nash still injured, this team won't near it's full potential until sometime after the All-Star break. Until then, D'Antoni will look to pile up the wins in any way that he can. In the end, it's all about the team's play from May to June. Those months will represent the playoffs, and if D'Antoni can deliver another championship to Los Angeles, no one will question his hiring.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Lakers Hire Mike D'Antoni, Wrong Choice (11.12.12)

Just past midnight on November 12, 2012, the news broke that Mike D'Antoni agreed upon a four year contract to be the new head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers.

I'm up writing this, and as of now, the specific details of the contract are unknown. However, rumor has it that the contract is worth $12 million over three years, with a team option for the fourth year.

What I do know is that this signing marks a significant shift in the direction of the franchise. Specifically, it means that Phil Jackson won't be coming back to Los Angeles, and that my friends, is not what anyone in Los Angeles wants to hear.

If you are an unfortunate DirectTV subscriber, then you have been missing out on the crowd at Staples Center thunderously chanting "We want Phil!" these past two games since the firing of Mike Brown. It's unlike anything I've ever heard before. Seriously, can you recall a time when a head coach received yearning chants of any sort, especially during a free throw — a time when most fans chant "MVP" like drones — ? We've all heard the boos and the fire so and so chants, but I've never heard such boisterous chants for a coach.

The fans at Staples are not the only ones who feel this way. Jackson is so well respected, he essentially holds unanimous respect all throughout Los Angeles. Despite a bitter divorce from the organization the first time around, and a humiliating sweep that ended his days the second time, Jackson is beloved, the coolest of cool, the "Zen Master." The man is a winner, arguably the greatest coach of all-time, regardless of sport. In modern basketball, he is the most successful head coach, with 11 championship rings since 1991 to prove it, and another two from his playing days to put him at 13 rings. In basketball coaching history, he's on a short list along with Red Auerbach and John Wooden as the only possible candidates for the title of greatest ever. Simply put, there is no better candidate than Phil Jackson.

With that in mind, the announcement of D'Antoni as the new head coach essentially comes off as a settlement, a second best candidate, a cheaper, easier choice that will have far less power within the organization. I think we can all agree, D'Antoni is nowhere near the level of Jackson. Just typing them in the same sentence seems blasphemous. That's not as much of a slap to the face to D'Antoni as it is a kudos to the brilliance of Jackson. One man has never been to the Finals, the other has 13 championship rings, and 15 trips to the grandest stage.

But as the Rolling Stones famously wrote, "You can't always get what you want." For fans of the Lakers, this means no Jackson. Specifically, it laments that the organization was unwilling to accept four key conditions.

First, salary. The Lakers did not want to eat Mike Brown's contract, pay over $100 million of player salary, pay luxury tax fines, and tack on Jackson's rumored contract talk of numbers near his previous run as the head coach — anywhere from $10-15 million per year. That's a lot of benjamins, folks. If you don't happen to remember, after winning back to back titles in '09 and '10, the organization asked Jackson to take a 60% pay cut.  If they didn't want to pay him then, they definitely don't want to now. This reality is disappointing, but it is understandable. However, the official contract negotiations are officially unknown, and if Jackson was willing to sign for less, then the Lakers royally screwed up.

Assuming Jackson wants top dollar, if the organization believes that D'Antoni can deliver a ring, why would they pay an extra $6-11 million per year? Organizationally, it doesn't make sense, right? Well, wrong, but, I believe in this team regardless of the coach. In fact, I believed that Brown would lead the Lakers to a championship this season, but Jackson is a proven commodity, and he's as close to a sure thing as there is. If the organization wants to cut costs, whatever, it's their money and their decision, but I'm sure that there's some money floating around following the deal with Time Warner that is reportedly $3 billion over 20 years. Yes, billion. 

Secondly, it also means that the Lakers weren't thrilled about Jackson demanding the right to not travel to select road games. Jackson has a long history of health problems, and at 67 years of age, with hip problems a constant toll on his body, he let the organization know that he would possibly have to skip a couple of road games. 

Not a big deal. I happen to remember Brian Shaw doing just fine when he ran the team a couple times in 2010 while Jackson missed games due to his health conditions. In any case, a couple missed games is no big deal in the grand scheme of things. Home court advantage is great, but this team has enough talent to overcome those types of obstacles. 

The third condition is most likely the biggest demand that the organization was unwilling to give in to, and I'm assuming it was Jim Buss who specifically cringed upon hearing it  — Jackson wanted to gain greater control over player personnel decisions. Jim, the executive vice president of player personnel, and son of owner, Jerry, has had his stamp all over player personnel since 2007. Jim and Phil have had their dustups over the years, and the claim that Jackson wanted to poach on Jim's responsibilities is surely an indication that he wanted more power within the front office.

This situation is a bit stickier. Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak have made some excellent choices over the years, and I'm sure they weren't too thrilled about Jackson wanting to have more say about front office type decisions. Instead, they probably would prefer Jackson to stick to his forte, coaching. Considering, Jackson's history with Jim — Jim was the biggest proponent of distancing the organization from Jackson's principles following Jackson's retirement, specifically, the Lakers never really gave popular candidate, and Jackson groomed, Brian Shaw a chance to win the job, and instead Mike Brown was hired, signaling a complete 180° from the Jackson era — this condition clearly was an attack upon Jim and hinted at a power struggle. 

Finally, Jackson hinted that he would groom his eventual replacement. Once again, this points to front office decision making, and it hints at Jackson leaving a lasting imprint upon the Lakers. Sounds great, right? Apparently, for the organization, not so much.

In an ode to Tex Winter, the originator of the Triangle offense, Jackson wants to pass the torch along to a successor. With candidates such as Brian Shaw and Scottie Pippen likely to join his staff, Jackson would have some very bright candidates. If anything, the organization should love the opportunity to employ a Jackson disciple in about three years for pretty much next to nothing salary wise. I can understand the trepidation of committing to an unknown successor, but if it that's what it takes to get Jackson, then it should be done.

With those conditions likely serving as deterrents on all counts, it makes the hire of D'Antoni that much easier (for the organization). It seems like Jackson was ready to accept the job, but the organization decided to go another way and instead announced this hire before Jackson could give his final response Monday morning.

Whatever news comes out, don't believe the hype surrounding the organizational statement that D'Antoni is the best guy for the job. He's not, and only a fool would think otherwise. You just can't touch 11 head coaching rings. With Bryant, Nash, and Gasol having about a three year max window, this team needs to win now. And if anybody is qualified to lead a team with championship expectations, it's Jackson. In case you have forgotten what I wrote earlier, D'Antoni has never been to the Finals. Better hire? Come on. 

With the hiring process out of the way, let me run down a couple of on court points. Namely, what is this team's identity going to be?

D'Antoni is famous for his "7 seconds or less" philosophy. If you are unaware, D'Antoni's most successful Suns' teams would race up the court and fire up any open shot, regardless of the time remaining on the shot clock. If the team didn't have an open shot early in the shot clock, then Nash would run a pick and roll from either the top of the key or the side wings. Following that, Nash had a multitude of options, and if the pick and roll/pop/slip didn't produce, the Suns would drive and kick out to open shooters. With great shooters spotting up in the corners and wings, the Suns thrived with excellent floor spacing that produced open runs to the rim or open shots from deep. The Suns played exciting ball, and they often led the league in scoring. Valuing increased possessions, the Suns didn't worry about missed shots because they upped the tempo and relied on the three ball to make up the difference. 

None of this coincides with the setup of the Lakers. The Lakers are old, plodding, and don't shoot very well from deep. As great as Nash is, his pick and roll relies on spacing and deep threats. Without shooting threats, teams can hedge the pick hard and make Nash swing the ball to a non threat on the weak side. Furthermore, if Nash turns the corner on the hedge, teams can cave into the paint and converge on the roll man, either Howard or Gasol. Howard is one of the best pick and roll finishers in the NBA, but his Orlando teams were stacked with shooters spacing the floor. On the Lakers, the lane will be packed, thus forcing kick outs to perimeter players for threes. The Lakers have just four viable three point shooters, Nash, Bryant, Jodie Meeks, and Steve Blake. Often times, the open man is going to be Metta World Peace or Antawn Jamison (each has been horrible from deep this season). Peace is nowhere near reliable from deep, and honestly, other than Nash, none of the Lakers are true threats. Bryant, Meeks, Blake, and possibly Darius Morris will hit shots, but it won't be consistent enough to truly do damage and produce successful results. 

So with the pick and roll game nowhere near a threat as those Suns' teams, how will D'Antoni utilize the Lakers biggest advantage, namely, size? In Phoenix, Amare Stoudemire racked up his points on rolls to the basket that produced dunks. He didn't necessarily rely on back to the basket moves, or even much of a face up game. With Howard and Gasol at his disposal, it will be interesting to see how D'Antoni decides to get them the ball. I'm not really sure what type of offense this team will run, but I do know that it won't be "7 seconds or less," and I do know that it will require D'Antoni to shift his tendencies. 

In my opinion, the Triangle offense would serve this team well. Although the Lakers have struggled with the Princeton (a similar type of offense), I believe that Jackson would be wise enough to ease Howard and Nash, along with the rest of the team, into the intricacies of the Triangle. While Brown forced the Princeton down the team's throat, causing the team to over think and constantly turn the ball over, Jackson would certainly introduce key concepts and ask the players to read and react upon basic reads. Howard would certainly benefit on the box, and Nash would be the greatest spot up shooter the Triangle has ever known. Even further, within the Triangle, Nash would be able to play two man games on the weak side (aka the pick and roll), something not difficult to pick up on, and something he's quite comfortable with. Meanwhile, Howard would have the ability to blossom in a Shaquille O'Neal manner with great spacing giving him numerous entry angles along with enough space to operate on the box. Essentially, the Triangle would play to the strengths of the Lakers.

On the other side of the ball, I hope the Lakers don't fall into the offense happy trap and abandon their defensive capabilities. With a twin tower setup, the Lakers should be a top five defense. However, D'Antoni has never coached a team like this, and his teams have often been bottom dwellers regarding defensive performance. While this can be attributed to the tempo of his offenses, it also indicates a lack of premium paid to the defensive end. This Lakers team is capable of some amazing things defensively, and D'Antoni will have to come up with defensive principles that he's seemed to avoid his entire coaching career. I won't doubt his capabilities, but it's definitely something that I've never really seen him do.

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. I'm sure that D'Antoni is wise enough to play to the strengths of this team, but his track record certainly doesn't provide any examples, simply because he's never had a team like this.

Compared to Jackson, D'Antoni has his hands full. Although the organization may think he is the best man for the job, much of Los Angeles disagrees. There's only one way to silence that noise, and D'Antoni understands this, otherwise he wouldn't have taken the job. Win a ring, and Jackson will be but a distant memory. Come up short, well, I don't even want to ponder that possibility.

Good luck coach D'Antoni. I wish you the best. I don't believe that you are the best man for the job, but you certainly have a prime opportunity to prove me, along with any other detractor, wrong. With Nash, Bryant, Gasol, and Howard on this squad, you have been chosen as the head man over Phil Jackson. If you can't win a ring with these guys, you never will. For your sake, get the job done.






Friday, November 9, 2012

Rapid Reaction, Mike Brown Fired (11.9.12)

Wow.

Honestly, that came out of nowhere.

Around 11 am this morning, Mike Brown was fired from his position as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers.

I'm writing this within the first half hour of hearing the news and with SportsCenter blaring in the background.

I know the Lakers are 1-4, sitting in last place in the entire Western Conference, and have looked out of sync this entire season, but I didn't expect this.

I don't think anyone expected this.

I mean, come on, it's been just five games with this new group. Give the man some time. What happened to those statements regarding patience?

Unless Phil Jackson comes walking through that door, this just isn't right. Even if Jackson comes walking through that door, this isn't right.

Look, I'm not confusing Mike Brown for some great head coach who is above getting fired when his team underperforms, but I do believe that this team is headed to the NBA Finals regardless of this slow start.

Just answer this, how many games has Mike Brown coached the Big Four on the court all at once? Well, one and a half regular season games (Nash injured just before the half of game two versus the Blazers) and one preseason game (October 21, versus the Kings). That's two and a half games for this group to figure things out. That simply is not enough time to make such a huge decision. I mean, did Brown really blow his evaluations in that two and a half game slate? Sadly, no.

The only explanation for this firing that I can remotely think of is the installation of the Princeton offense. Although I believe that this offense can truly succeed with such high level IQ basketball players, it did one thing that no one believed was right, it took Nash out of the pick and roll game. However, Brown has repeatedly stated that Nash has the freedom to run the pick and roll anytime he wants. Even so, this can't be the reason for the firing, simply because Nash has barely played!

Overall, it looks like the defensive slip of the Lakers is what truly cost Brown his job. The Lakers have been downright awful defensively. Rotations have been late, mental lapses have been abundant, and effort getting back in transition has been noticeably absent. With Dwight Howard manning the middle, this defense should be elite, especially with Pau Gasol providing a twin tower setup, and big wings like Bryant and World Peace wreaking havoc on the wing. But so far, this defense has been weak.

I always thought Brian Shaw was the right hire for the job prior to last season. He would have continued the Triangle principles and he was loved in Los Angeles. However, last season's efforts by Brown earned my respect, and they should have earned Los Angeles' respect. Yes, the Lakers flamed out in the playoffs, but save for a couple key possessions, that team nearly took down the Oklahoma City Thunder in the seminfinal round (it was a lot closer than you may remember).

So, what's next?

First, who's going to be the new coach?

Jackson? Jerry Sloan? Mike D'Antoni? Stan or Jeff Van Gundy?

Whoever it is, they are going to be stepping in front of a moving freight train.

Only Jackson makes sense. His Triangle philosophies would feature Howard in the post with high/low aspects from Gasol and weakside isolations with Bryant. Some think Nash would be relegated to a minor role in the triangle, but he would be a perfect open shooter (a role Fisher perfected) and he would still have the opportunity to run two man games on the weakside. Jackson is clearly the favorite.

Sloan may work out due to his pick and roll mastery and overall old-school respect. Bryant would absolutely love his fire, and Gasol would definitely benefit from someone who would get in his face and light that fire. And don't forget about Nash, he would absolutely thrive with Sloan's pick and roll offense. However, the biggest detraction would be Howard. I just don't believe that Howard would be able to take Sloan's grind, Sloan's fire, Sloan's criticisms. If Howard couldn't handle Stan Van Gundy, there's no way he will get along with a no nonsense coach like Jerry Sloan.

Then there's D'Antoni. D'Antoni clearly doesn't believe in defensive philosophies. He pretty much gears his teams toward outscoring the opponent rather than coming up with stops. A team of this caliber can thrive with that mindset, but I'm a firm believer in "Defense wins championships." Whatever the case, he was one of Bryant's favorite players while Bryant grew up in Italy, and in turn Bryant has always respected those "7 Seconds or Less" Suns teams. And obviously, Nash loves D'Antoni. However, the way this team is constituted, I don't believe that an up and down game is the way to go with the fourth oldest roster in the entire NBA.

Either Van Gundy would be great, but that's not going to happen with Howard on the roster, plain and simple.

Next question, what's going to happen to the offense?

It seems like the Princeton is definitely going to be scrapped. Assistant coach Eddie Jordan is responsible for it, and he is still on the staff, but I doubt it will be kept. Until a new coach is signed, there will be no indication of an offense.

As for the defense, any coach can look good if they get this team to play hard and smart. Funnel to the baseline and let Howard and Gasol take care of business, simple as that. Honestly, it's not complicated. Howard is great defensive player, and he can pretty much erase any mistake made on the perimeter.

Even more pressing, who's responsible for this decision?

Many will claim that Bryant had his hand in this, but I doubt it. Bryant has been a staunch supporter of Brown since his hire. We all saw the "death stare," but believe me, that look has been glared at Jackson, Frank Hamblen, Rudy Tomjanovich, Kurt Rambis, and Del Harris. That heat of the moment look has been directed toward every coach Bryant has been around. I don't think that Bryant truly had a hand in this. I believe that management made this decision. Jerry and Jim Buss didn't like what they saw, so they pulled the trigger. It's rash. It's cold. It's calculated. It also serves as a message, that this team needs to win now. This team is built for now, and after five games of failure, management is sending a message screaming "WIN NOW!" Credit them for having the guts to make such a decision, but also know, it sure was early.

Coach Brown, it was short lived, it was full of ups and downs, and it was memorable. So long. I'm not really sad to see you go, but I do believe that you deserved this season. After a lockout, truncated, training camp-less season last year, you deserved a full season to implement your philosophies. You deserved to battle on in the same manner that Erik Spoelstra did when the Heat got LeBron James and started 9-8. If you remember, Spoelstra was on the hot seat, and everyone expected Pat Riley to take over. Well, Spoelstra stuck with it, got his team to the Finals, and eventually coached his team to a championship victory the following year. That could have been Brown's narrative, but now we'll never know.

In my lifetime, I've never seen the Lakers panic. This is surely as surprising a thing as I've ever seen from this organization. It's unsettling, it's too soon. Patience could have gone a long way this season, but I guess management felt differently.

In the end, a championship is all that matters. If this team goes on to dethrone the Heat, this move will be regarded as genius. If the Lakers come up short, this move will be the cop out. It's win big or go home.

Good luck Kobe, Dwight, Pau, and Steve, it's all on you now.





Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Potential, Fantasy Football's Conundrum (11.6.12)

Potential, what a double edged sword you are.

You tantalize with your capabilities, but more often than not, you are unable to be fulfilled.

The definition of potential in its noun form is this, "Latent qualities or abilities that may be developed and lead to future success or usefulness."

Keyword, "may."

As we all know, sometimes, things just don't work out. While that success or usefulness is a definite possibility, it's not guaranteed.

With this past weekend serving as Week 9 of the NFL season, many fantasy football owners all over the nation were forced to make some difficult lineup decisions that would drastically impact their playoff chances.

With many fantasy football playoffs commencing in Week 14 — or Week 13 if you are in a larger league wise enough to avoid playing the championship game in the final week of the season — Week 9 serves as a make or break week for bubble teams hoping to make the fantasy playoffs. Any owner sitting around .500 with a 4-4 record, or just below, can truly boost his odds of making the playoffs with a win in Week 9.

A win in Week 9 can lead to a strong run that closes out the season and gives him a ticket to the big dance. A loss can shut the season down as mathematics come into play and he realizes that he needs to win every remaining game while those ahead of him in the standings must suffer epic collapses. Essentially, a win keeps him comfortably alive in the standings, whereas, a loss can make him feel like Walking Dead zombies are closing in all around and all he has is a six shooter with four remaining bullets.

With that in mind, the fantasy football conundrum comes to the forefront. Needing a win, these bubble owners must decide, "Should I play the guy with more potential, or should I play the conservative option?"

In many cases, this decision will decide the matchup. The bubble owner's upside guy, although inconsistent, may be facing a weak defense that bleeds points to his position, whereas, the conservative option may be facing a tough defense, but the owner knows that he can trust him to at least put up modest numbers.

As a bubble owner, I faced this conundrum this past weekend, and if my bitterness hasn't spilled onto the page yet, it will now. Sitting at 3-5 in my 12 team league, with two teams comfortably sitting in first place at 6-2, two teams at 5-3, and four teams at 4-4, a win would thrust me right back into the playoff mix.

Needing a win, and facing a massive 25 point deficit due to the performance of the Chargers D/ST on Thursday Night Football, I was forced to place a premium upon high upside players who had the potential to make up for that ridiculous performance that the Chargers defense laid upon the woeful Chiefs. With byes and injuries taking out some key contributors, I had to decide upon two separate plays that would definitely impact my chances of winning this matchup.

Those decisions came down to Aaron Rodgers of the Packers versus Cam Newton of the Panthers, and Malcom Floyd of the Chargers versus Jeremy Maclin of the Eagles. In each case, I chose the upside guy by starting Newton and Maclin.

Before you start shaking your head and calling me stupid, let me explain my decisions.

First, my decision to sit Rodgers. He was coming off of a subpar 12 fantasy point performance against the lowly Jaguars the prior week, and the Cardinals defense (his Week 9 opponent) hadn't allowed any quarterback all season to top 20 fantasy points — Alex Smith posted the highest total with 19 fantasy points in Week 8. In fact, the Cardinals defense had allowed just two quarterbacks to toss more two or more touchdowns all season. Allowing just 9.4 fantasy points to opposing quarterbacks all season (2nd best), I feared Rodgers would put up a modest 14-18 point game. Obviously, Rodgers is great, but I needed to play someone who could absolutely blow up with something like a 30 point performance.

So, looking for a potential monster game, I chose to play Cam Newton. I had actually just claimed Newton off of waivers following Week 8 because a disillusioned owner in our league got so sick of his poor play that he just dropped him altogether — with just 29 combined fantasy points in his prior three games, it's hard to blame the decision. Newton has been quite underwhelming this season, but facing the atrocious Redskins defense, I figured he would have the better chance to deliver an astounding performance. Newton has averaged just 14.4 fantasy points per game this season, far less than Rodger's 19.3, but the Redskins defense had allowed opposing quarterbacks to average 18.4 points (ranked 29th) per game. Four quarterbacks had topped 20 points on the Redskins heading into Week 9, and I expected Newton to be the fifth — while hoping that he would actually hit 30.

With my quarterback decision clarified, let me explain my receiver choice. My flex play came down to just two options, Floyd or Maclin — I seriously had no one else due to byes and injuries.

Floyd would face the lowly Chiefs on Thursday Night Football. Other than Doug Martin's performance against the Vikings, Thursday night has yielded few outstanding fantasy performances this season. I just don't trust the shortened week as a viable option to increase the odds of a big performance. That, coupled with the fact that Floyd hadn't scored a touchdown since Week 1, heavily weighed upon my decision. Even further, the Chargers were coming off of a dismal performance against the Browns in Week 8 when they didn't even score a touchdown. Although the Chiefs have allowed an average of 22.1 points to opposing wide receivers (ranked 21st), I expected Floyd to give me something like 50 yards or so for five points. Floyd maxed out in his Week 1 performance with 12 points, so his upside was severely limited. I figured Floyd was a safe bet for five, but looking at my projections heading into the matchup, I needed something more than that.

So, I chose to play Maclin. Maclin has done a whole lot of nothing this season for a variety of reasons. He's playing on the dismal Eagles, his quarterback, Michael Vick, is a turnover machine, and he's been battling a hip injury. However, Maclin has had his impressive moments, notably his Week 6 performance against the Lions that produced 21 fantasy points as he hauled in six receptions for 130 yards and a touchdown — my league has a two point bonus for touchdowns of 50+ yards. Facing the Saints, a defense that has allowed an average of 31.8 fantasy points to opposing receivers (ranked 32nd, worst in the NFL), I envisioned Maclin giving me something in the 12-18 point range. Maclin's 21 point Week 6 and 15 point Week 1 gave me hope for a big game, and it offered a much higher upside play than Floyd's 12 point max in Week 1.

So, how did my potential versus conservative strategy play out?

Well, I lost by three and a half points in my matchup, 100-103.5. Even worse, it was my girlfriend and her 1-7 team that pretty much sealed my playoff-less fate — she relished the spoiler role. To put a cherry on top, either conservative decision would have given me the win. Rodgers finished with 26.5 fantasy points compared to Newton's 21, and Floyd finished with 10 compared to Maclin's pathetic two.

My decision to sit Rodgers was definitely my downfall. I mean, you just don't sit your studs. I got cute and sat my first round pick, and it cost me. He actually didn't have that great of a game, but he was able to put up a great line due to a blown coverage that led to a 72-yard touchdown pass to the backup tight end, Tom Crabtree. This play served as the final play of the third quarter, Rodger's final touchdown pass, and a play that gave him 9 fantasy points. Rodgers would accumulate just three more passing yards in the fourth quarter en route to his line of 218 passing yards and 33 rushing yards, but his four touchdown tosses piled up the points.

Even with that, I entered Monday night with the hope that Maclin would nurse my 15 point lead against Drew Brees and Pierre Thomas on Monday Night Football. Unfortunately, that didn't happen. Maclin finished with just two receptions for 28 yards, producing two measly fantasy points. Maclin did have one opportunity for a touchdown, but Vick overthrew him on a double post and sailed the ball out of the end zone. On the other hand, Floyd hauled in four receptions for 48 yards and a touchdown — of course he would haul in his second touchdown of the season.

In the end, I really can't blame myself, but it sure does hurt. I believe that my decisions gave me the best chance to win, but the "potential" plays just didn't pan out. Maclin delivered his fourth game of single digit points, and Newton came up just short on a couple of plays that would have won it for me — namely a bomb to Steve Smith (my starting receiver) in the end zone late in the fourth quarter. Coming into the weekend, I knew that both plays were high risk/high reward, and I hoped for the best.

What would you have done facing a 25 point deficit from a defense?

Anyways, for those of you who made those gutsy decisions based on potential, I salute you. If it was a success, great job, and if it was a failure, I feel your pain. Nothing is a sure thing, and if you can't place some hope in potential, then what can you place it in? Either way, you did what you thought was best for your team, and win or lose, you have to live with it.

At least we aren't actual general managers, they get fired for signing those guys with potential that never pan out. Imagine how it must feel to be the guy who believed in JaMarcus Russell, Ryan Leaf, Kwame Brown — well MJ probably doesn't care — or Michael Olawakandi. If we feel lousy, they must feel like complete morons — well, other than MJ, because, you know, he doesn't care.

Whatever the case, best of luck, and if you are in a position like myself, here's to running the table and hoping for a playoff berth, and if not, at least spoiling someone else's chance.

And for those facing the potential conundrum in actual life, you know, things more important than fantasy football, always ask yourself, "Am I content with a safe outcome, something average that probably won't be spectacular, or do I want to reach for the stars and either shine bright or burn out?" However you decide, be confident and live with it.