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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.