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)


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.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

What's Wrong With the Lakers? (11.1.12)

"What's wrong with the Lakers?"

It's a question you are likely to come across just about everywhere you go. Whether you are at the water cooler, watching ESPN, browsing the internet, or talking to your friends and family, you are likely to come across this question ad nauseam.

After losing all eight preseason games, and then losing the first two games of the regular season, the Los Angeles Lakers have yet to taste success. So, what gives?

Well, as odd as it may seem to some, what's truly plaguing the Lakers is inexperience. I don't mean NBA experience — the Lakers average age of 28.3 trails just the Knicks, Heat, and Clippers as the oldest team in the NBA. I mean team experience.

With seven new players on the squad, a new offensive philosophy, and a noticeable lack of familiarity, the Lakers are struggling to get on track and find a nice rhythm offensively and defensively. Many squads are able to work out these types of kinks in the preseason, but the core of this Lakers team rarely had time to gel on the court — Bryant missed a couple games, Howard missed multiple games, Nash and Gasol mostly played limited minutes. In fact, the Big Four played together in just one preseason game (Oct 21 vs the Kings). The random, shifting lineups of the preseason did nothing to help prepare for the season, and after the first two games of the regular season, it's evident.

Now that we know that the core lineup of Nash, Bryant, Gasol, and Howard have just three games under their belt as a unit, let's give this Lakers team a break. Patience everybody, patience. Over time, this team will be just fine.

Once this team has more games under its belt, the offense will run much more smoothly, and the defense will begin to rotate with anticipation rather than constantly being a step late (Pau!). Time played together will allow the guys to understand their teammates' tendencies while instilling a more fluid grasp on team concepts and responsibilities.

More playing time and familiarity should also lead to a significant decrease in the amount of mental errors that have so far plagued the Lakers.

While playing against the Dallas Mavericks in the season opener, the Lakers shot a pathetic 12-31 from the free throw line. Free throws are purely mental, there's no defense, it's just about staying focused and sticking with your routine. The Lakers also committed 14 turnovers that led to 17 Mavericks points. That's a 36 point swing in an eight point loss (99-91).

Howard led the free throw woes by shooting 3-14, and Jordan Hill followed his lead with a 1-6 performance. Even worse, the two best free throw shooters on the team didn't get to the line once — Nash and Bryant were unable to draw a single shooting foul. Then factor in the amount of turnovers that stemmed from running a new offense and failing to understand its intricacies, and it's not a surprise that the Mavericks got the win. 14 turnovers isn't a lot, but many of the turnovers came from late reads and forced passes.

Following the Mavericks game, the "Fire Mike Brown!" chatter started, but seriously, just give it some time. Many want to see a more uptempo offense, with Nash on the ball more often rather than setting up the offense and sitting in the corner — Nash gave a pedestrian stat line of 7 points, 4 assists, 2 rebounds, 1 block, and 1 turnover on 3-9 shooting and 1-4 from deep in 34 minutes of play. This performance marked Nash's least productive game while playing over 30 minutes in his entire NBA career.

Nash obviously struggled, but I am fully confident that he will run the show just fine. Those claiming that Nash needs to be on the ball and running the pick and roll more often are correct, and Mike Brown is actually one of them — Brown has stated that Nash has the authority to run the pick and roll whenever he wants. Following the game, Nash stated, "Maybe I need to assert myself more in pick and roll situations. I'm caught trying to get the ball moving in the Princeton, and get us into different sets and opportunities. [...] It's growing pains and it's a struggle, and we're out of sync, and we're going to probably have more." So there it is, Nash understands what he has to do, and he knows that it will take a bit of time to become great at it. This isn't going to be the Suns' Steve Nash, this is an entire new process, this is the Lakers' Steve Nash. With that in mind, understand that he is going to be a different player. His excellent shooting and distributing will transfer to this squad, but anyone expecting the Lakers to consistently shoot with 14 seconds left on the shot clock are going to be disappointed.

Despite the offensive struggles, at times it looked solid. Bryant and Howard combined for 41 points on 19-26 shooting, so there's plenty of potential. Gasol actually led the team with 19 shot attempts. Although he only hit eight of them for 23 points, it's a great sign to see Gasol this involved.

Fast forward to the second game in as many nights against the fifth youngest team in the NBA, the Portland Trail Blazers. Once again, mental errors cost the Lakers as they lost 116-106.

Although the offense put up a lot of points, it still struggled mightily. The Lakers committed 24 turnovers, which led to 28 points for the Blazers. Many of those 28 points came off of the fast break, where the Blazers scored 19 points. The Lakers were able to focus at the line, as they nailed 26-32 and Howard hit 15-19, but their ball security took a hit. Bryant led the way with seven turnovers, and World Peace flanked him with six. Howard had three, and Nash, Gasol, Ebanks, and Hill each had two. Many of Bryant's turnovers came when he would drive the lane. With spacing still getting worked out, Bryant often drove into a wall and lost the ball whether on the dribble or attempting to kick out. Bryant's worst sequence involved an uncharacteristic mental lapse as he dropped a swing pass and fumbled it out of bounds at the far wing.

Despite the ball security woes, the offense actually looked a lot better. Bryant and Howard dominated with 63 combined points on 19-35 shooting and Gasol chipped in with 16 points on 7-14 shooting. The Lakers scored a bunch of easy buckets off of back cuts, and good spacing allowed Howard to dominate on the block. Howard routinely faced up and attacked the basket with aggression, and when the double came, he did a decent job of kicking out and finding the open man.

What truly hurt the team ball security wise was an injury to Nash late in the second quarter. Attempting to pick up his man in the backcourt as the Blazers grabbed a rebound and initiated their run up the floor, Nash bumped knees with Damian Lillard and suffered a contusion on his lower left leg. Nash immediately went to the locker room and when he returned to open the second half, he hobbled his way down the court for one possession before calling it a night. These are the types of moments that truly scare me. This Lakers team is old, and it lacks depth. An injury to any of the Big Four will severely hurt this team. Luckily, Nash didn't suffer any structural damage, but on live time, I sure was worried when his left knee seemed to cave in at an awkward angle.

On the other side of the ball, the Lakers were just awful. The defensive rotations were seemingly a step late just about every time, and the Blazers capitalized by scoring 30, 32, and 30 points in the first three quarters. With the amount of size the Lakers have in the lane, they shouldn't allow any team to hit the 30 point mark in a quarter, let alone three times.

In the third quarter, things truly fell apart as the Blazers went on a 13-0 run in the final three minutes to push the score to 92-76. Rookie point guard Damian Lillard burned the Lakers by becoming just the third player in NBA history to top 20 points and 10 assists in his NBA debut (joining Isiah Thomas and Oscar Robertson). Lillard finished the game with 23 points and 11 assists, and he torched the Lakers in the pick and roll all game long. The Blazers routinely exposed Gasol on the pick and roll, and he failed to contain with a strong hedge almost on command — the guard would easily get around Gasol and then have a multitude of options with just Howard in the lane attempting to defend anywhere up to three players (guard, big man in lane, rolling big man).

To round out the Lakers problems, there seems to be a trend of failure at end of quarter situations. Against the Mavericks, the Lakers were outscored 8-0 with 50 seconds or less remaining in the first three quarters. And against the Blazers, the Lakers were outscored 10-0 with 40 seconds or less remaining in the first three quarters. These end of quarter situations are key momentum builders, and it's critical that the Lakers begin capitalizing on them rather than coming up empty handed while giving up buckets.

Overall, the Mavericks and Blazers highlighted many facets of the game that the Lakers still need to work on as a unit. The Lakers need to work on their schemes and execution until it becomes almost second nature. If the Lakers can shoot 49.6% from the field after such little amount of time played together, imagine what they will do once they truly start clicking. Spacing, decisiveness, and ball movement are critical for the offense, and moving together as a string is critical for the defense. Until then, the Lakers will struggle. Remember, the Miami Heat started off their first season as a Big Three with a 9-8 record. While I hope the Lakers won't take that same path, I wouldn't necessarily be surprised if they stood at around .500 in opening games of the season. That Heat squad finished the season 58-24 and reached the Finals.

Clearly, early success is desirable, but struggles are to be expected with this unit, and eventually, talent wins out. By January, this team will be rolling. Until then, expect a bumpy ride.

*Update* — I incorrectly stated that LeBron James had also topped the 20 and 10 mark in his debut. My source on this was wrong, it turns out James finished with 25 points and 9 assists.