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Inside the numbers: more interesting tidbits from multi-camera tracking stats

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Andre Miller, Ty Lawson were among top PGs in potential assists by shot metric. (Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images)

On Thursday, I wrote about what the Knicks might learn from a fancy multi-camera tracking system installed last season at Madison Square Garden and nine other NBA arenas. The system, called SportVU and run by STATS, LLC, tracks every movement during an NBA game. It can generate an almost infinite amount of data, on everything from how fast a player runs to that player’s shooting percentage from 19 feet away on the left wing after three dribbles to his shooting percentage with a defender less than two feet away.

The subscribing teams — New York, Toronto, Washington, Golden State, Houston, San Antonio, Boston, Milwaukee, Oklahoma City and Minnesota — can look through the raw data themselves and/or have STATS generate specific reports. The folks at STATS gave an exclusive first look at three such reports last week, and two of them supplied much of the data for that Knicks post. A few readers requested more statistical nuggets, so I thought I’d dump a bunch of interesting findings in bullet point style below. Enjoy:

• Something really interesting happened in Denver last season. One report tracked every time a player drove the ball from an area 20 feet or more from the basket into an area 10 feet or fewer from the hoop — an event generally considered a healthy thing for an offense. The data excluded fast-break drives, which is important to note, since Denver ended up leading the league in qualifying drives by a wide margin. The Nuggets averaged 24.5 drives per game, miles above the league average of 14.6 and pretty significantly above the No. 2 mark (Cleveland, 18.5). Ty Lawson averaged 9.1 drives per game on his own, the highest mark in the league, and more than the Lakers averaged as a team (7.2, a league-low).

It is here we must note the sample size issues involved. Denver is not one of the 10 teams that subscribe to the system, so STATS only had data for road games in which Denver faced a subscribing team — 10 in total.

Still: It’s interesting, especially since the data excludes transition chances; Denver played at the league’s fastest pace last season, and when I first saw the data, I assumed those fast breaks fueled Denver’s huge lead here. Some delayed transition stuff probably trickles into these numbers, but they are still worth noting, especially in conjunction with a second set of numbers from a different report.

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  • Published On 10:03am, Aug 31, 2012
  • Court Vision

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    • Steve Blake and his wife, Kristen, pay $130 per month to sponor a young girl in Rwanda. The Blakes recently traveled to Rwanda to meet the girl and observe life there, and they told Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Times about their experience.

    A very strange player-versus-coach saga is playing out in the WNBA, and I can’t imagine how much attention this would be getting in the NBA.

    • A look at the locations from which Sacramento’s offense, a bottom-ten outfit last season, gets its shots.

    • Matt Moore, writing at ProBasketballTalk, on the strange brew that is the Kings’ roster.

    • Martell Webster is excited to join the Wizards, and told reporters this week not to pigeonhole him as a spot-up shooter — something the shooting-challenged Wizards desperately need (via Michael Lee of the Washington Post):

    “I wouldn’t call myself a three-point specialist,” Webster said during a conference call. “I’m more of an all-around player, as far as that’s concerned.”

    That kind of hunger is nice to see, provided it doesn’t lead to Webster overstepping his bounds within Washington’s offense. That’s always a tricky balance to strike.

    • Tom Ziller at SB Nation is continuing his countdown of the top 50 free agents who might be available next summer, and with Nos. 11-20, he’s into some heavy hitters — including two high-profile guards coming off rookie contracts and two star Utah big man. Who’s ranked higher: Paul Millsap or Al Jefferson? Tom and I appear to disagree on this one.

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  • Published On 1:32pm, Aug 30, 2012
  • How will Kobe Bryant mesh with the Lakers’ revamped roster?

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    Kobe Bryant will be asked to make key decisions in L.A.’s hybrid Princeton offense. (Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images)

    The Lakers have been the most popular topic of discussion during these NBA dog days, with countless writers (including this one) wondering how all these new and exciting parts will fit together in the Princeton offense. The biggest sub-questions have focused, as always, on Kobe Bryant. Will he share the ball? Will he be content to work away from the ball? Will he sabotage the Lakers by hogging the ball, rendering Steve Nash as a glorified James Jones?

    Those are all fair questions. And even if Kobe “fails” at each of them, the Lakers should still have a top-five offense simply by virtue of their talent on the floor. L.A. ranked 10th in the league in points per possession last season, and its upgrades at center and point guard — the latter being one of the two positions that opposing defenses barely guarded last year — should be enough to kick the Lakers up a few spots without any stylistic changes. If the worst-case scenario happens, and Bryant relegates Nash to spot-up duty, having arguably the greatest shooter in league history in Ramon Sessions’ place should be worth a few points per game.

    But that alone won’t make the Lakers title favorites — not with the Thunder going through the same self-discovery process that the Heat went through last season, and not with questions about Dwight Howard’s back and the general age of the core players. A Lakers team that doesn’t meet something close to its full potential will have a difficult time winning the title. The difference between truly approaching that potential and missing it by a larger margin comes down to thousands of little decisions that take place across 100 or so games, all of which add up to form a team’s ultimate identity and balance. Those decisions might crystallize in one particularly memorable stretch — say, Bryant shooting the Lakers out of Game 4 against the Thunder — but their outcome will be visible even if no such flashbulb moment happens.

    Bryant will be at the center of a lot of those choices, as plenty of scribes — including Sebastian Pruiti, Anthony Macri, Henry Abbott, Beckley Mason and I, among others — have already noted. All of us have been fretting, to some degree, about Bryant’s willingness to play nice within a new ecosystem that will feature the Princeton offense, an elite point guard and a pick-and-roll beast of a center. The concern is justified. But in all of this collective anxiety, we’ve sort of buried a very basic fact about Kobe Bryant: He is a fantastic off-ball cutter.

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  • Published On 1:46pm, Aug 28, 2012
  • The short list of potential one-team stars

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    Dirk Nowitzki says he will play two more seasons before re-evaluating his career. (Danny Bollinger/NBAE via Getty Images)

    Dirk Nowitzki broke a bit of news over the weekend by tweeting during a Q-and-A with followers that he will play two more seasons and decide after that whether he wants to continue his NBA career. This isn’t all that surprising because his contract runs for two more seasons, after which Nowitzki will be at an age where even stars generally leave the game.

    Nowitzki turned 34 in July, so he’ll be that age next season and 35 for the 2013-14 season. Since the institution of the three-point line, only 11 players 34 or older (as defined by their age on Feb. 1) and 6-foot-10 or taller have logged at least 1,500 minutes and posted a Player Efficiency Rating of 20.0 — a general approximation for an All-Star — in any season, according to Basketball-Reference. Those 11 players pulled the trick a combined 23 times, with three players — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon — combining for 12. Players 36 or older under that Feb. 1 definition accounted for just eight of those 23 seasons, with the above-mentioned trio hitting the minutes/PER double six times in 36-plus seasons.

    Nowitzki, of course, can remain a very productive sub-20.0 PER player, as most of the players on this list — and many others — have done before. And as by far the best perimeter shooter in this group, Nowitzki has a chance to age in a different way, especially if the Mavericks can continue supplying him with skillful pick-and-roll partners and legitimate centers to ease his burden on defense. Nowitzki has already increased his three-point attempts in each of the last two seasons as part of a team-wide evolution in Dallas that could also help prolong his career.

    But the painful thought of Nowitzki’s career ever ending naturally leads to another thought: Will he finish it in Dallas? And how many legendary players still have a shot at playing with only one team?

    By my count, there are seven Hall of Fame locks or players approaching that category who have a chance at wearing only one NBA uniform. They are:

    Nowitzki: Given Nowitzki’s love of Dallas and that the Mavericks have $0 in guaranteed money on the books beyond the 2013-14 season, it seems likely that he would return on a cheap deal if he decides to play past that 2013-14 season. There certainly aren’t any cap obstacles in the way, even if the Mavs manage to sign a max-level free agent next summer. If they don’t, Nowitzki will have to look around the league and see who can offer him a chance at another title, how much they can offer and whether he’d like to change teams.

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  • Published On 1:53pm, Aug 27, 2012
  • Court Vision

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    • The team-centric blogs at SB Nation are unveiling their choices for the greatest trade in the history of each NBA franchise today. Some links to the winners, with nice reflections on the motivations behind each: Houston, Atlanta, Cleveland, Sacramento, Dallas, Boston (with a bit of Red Auerbach spin), Portland (the ABA is involved), L.A. Clippers (an especially hilarious one), Utah and San Antonio — a surprising (but also fitting) nomination. Otis Thorpe, by the way, is directly involved in two of these trades.

    Brian Kamenetzky at ESPN Los Angeles has an extensive Q&A with Lakers’ coach Mike Brown, who touches on the pressures of his job, the differences between Los Angeles and Cleveland, the way he nearly injured himself upon hearing about the Dwight Howard trade and lots of other stuff. Those interested in the X’s-and-O’s of the Lakers’ new-look offense will hone in on this exchange:

    [Kamenetzky]: How does the Princeton work with having someone like Nash? As my understanding, it’s not as much a heavy pick and roll offense, but more motion and ball movement.

    MB: ‘The way that we’ll put it together, Steve’s going to have an opportunity — he’s going to quarterback the team — and so he’s going to have an opportunity to come down the floor every possession and in early offense play pick-and-roll if he wants to. It’s up to him, based on where he decides to take the ball or a call that he makes or an action that he does, it’s up to him to get us into some of the looks of the Princeton offense.

    So again, with him quarterbacking, or making that decision, he’ll still have a chance to get the ball back after he moves or after bodies move. I don’t want to completely give away what we’re trying to do, but in a nutshell, he will have an opportunity to play pick-and-roll at the beginning of almost every play set coming down the floor in early offense. And if not, he can also choose to get to some of the looks out of the Princeton by making a pass or doing an action or doing a call or whatever.”

    • Aaron McGuire reflects on Dirk Nowitzki’s 2011 playoff run and wonders if all the coverage of LeBron James’ 2012 postseason dominance has obscured what Nowitzki accomplished in 2011 (and what Tim Duncan did in 2003). Lots of interesting stuff in here.

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  • Published On 3:31pm, Aug 22, 2012
  • Court Vision

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    • Mark Cuban is upset that Jason Kidd pulled an about-face and bolted for the Knicks after — per Cuban — verbally agreeing to return to Dallas. Now he’s coming out against retiring Kidd’s number in Dallas:

    “Putting somebody up in the rafters, that’s something sacred in my mind,” Cuban said. “You don’t just do it just to do it, to have a big ceremony, to sell tickets. You haven’t seen me decide yet. I go back and forth on Derek Harper all the time, but Harp will be up there before J. Kidd will.

    “I’ve always said my prerequisite was that you played on a championship team for the Mavs. I’d say Jet’s got a shot, Dirk’s an obvious, but as of right now I wouldn’t put J. Kidd up there.”

    Kidd played six full seasons and two partial ones in Dallas, and he was a key player for the Mavs’ only title team. Still, at best, he was the fourth-most important player on that squad. His peak years obviously came elsewhere. There is no set standard for retiring numbers, and different franchises have handled the decisions differently. Some, including the Blazers, have retired numbers for guys who played roles roughly equivalent to Kidd’s on beloved title teams. But it’s not as if Kidd would be a lock for Dallas jersey retirement by any common standard.

    • Amar’e Stoudemire is (again) promising to play better defense, per the New York Post:

    “Defense is the key to win championships, that’s something I’m dedicated on also, to become a much, much better defensive player,” he said. “It’s going to happen. It’s a matter of preparation and practice and getting that chemistry down on that end of the court.”

    Stoudemire is one of the worst defensive players in the league among those receiving heavy minutes. His issues have always struck me as having less to do with effort, and more to do with things that are much tougher to correct: a poor understanding of angles, bad timing, difficulty fitting within schemes, shaky instincts, etc. But on top of those things, Stoudemire has a painfully upright stance that makes it difficult to move side-to-side; he looks very creaky on the floor. Is that due to a lack of effort — of failing to work diligently on a crouched defensive stance? Or is it a result of his aging knees?

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  • Published On 3:26pm, Aug 21, 2012
  • Dwight Howard trade leaves array of questions for Lakers, Magic and more

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    Pau Gasol; Dwight Howard

    Now playing as teammates rather than opponents, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard need to learn to play off of each other rather than fighting for the same post position. (Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images)

    The Dwight Howard deal had such massive league-wide implications that it requires a follow-up to last Friday’s analysis. Some lingering questions:

    Do the Lakers start next season as title favorites?

    On paper, the foursome of Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Howard alone would seem to make a Lakers-Heat Finals inevitable. The first three with Andrew Bynum looked pretty damn good, and in swapping Bynum for Howard, the Lakers have added a more natural pick-and-roll partner for Nash and the league’s best defender — a major detail for an aging team whose defense failed it down the stretch of last season. Heck, even Metta World Peace, the fifth wheel, has settled in as a league-average three-point shooter, and if he can provide only that single offensive skill along with above-average defense, he’ll fit well in this new context. The big-man bench of Antawn Jamison, Jordan Hill and Earl Clark should be an upgrade over last season’s trio of Hill, Troy Murphy and Josh McRoberts, especially on defense via the Hill/Clark pairing.

    Wing depth stands as the potentially fatal issue against Oklahoma City and Miami, the returning Finals teams that thrive playing small-ball. But the Lakers’ “normal” lineup is now considerably faster than it was last season, when Denver nearly ran the plodding Lake Show out of the playoffs, and that means coach Mike Brown’s team might be better able to impose its own identity on the Thunder and/or Heat. And even with reserve point guard Eric Maynor back healthy next season, the Thunder’s best small-ball lineups might still play too small (with Maynor, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant) or be more guardable (with Thabo Sefolosha replacing Maynor). The Thunder still haven’t found a bigger wing (other than Durant) who plays both ends credibly, and Durant, for all his greatness, isn’t on James’ level yet as a defender. I’m not convinced that the Thunder are ready to have Durant guard Gasol for entire quarters or halves, even if they have tried it in stretches. Rookie Perry Jones might change this equation, but it’s too early to say.

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  • Published On 3:58pm, Aug 13, 2012
  • Dwight Howard trade analysis

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    Dwight Howard is set to join the Lakers after eight seasons in Orlando. (Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

    It’s usually hyperbole to suggest that a single transaction has a ripple effect throughout the league, but Friday’s four-team, 12-player deal sending Dwight Howard to the Lakers touches just about every franchise in some way. Just a few examples from outside the four directly involved here:

    • The Nets, Mavericks, Rockets, Hawks and any other team gearing up to either deal for Howard after Jan. 15 (Brooklyn), trade for him now (Houston) or chase him in free agency next summer (Houston, Dallas, Atlanta) has suffered a major loss. Houston and Dallas are both free to pursue Howard in any way they’d like, but the Lakers aren’t dealing him ahead of free agency, and Los Angeles will have the same home-court advantage in free agency — the ability to offer the 26-year-old center an extra year and larger raises on his contract — that helped the Nets lock up Deron Williams.

    • Chris Paul, a free agent in 2013, now has to think really hard about whether the Clippers have the goods as a franchise to justify his continuing presence after next season — even if the Lakers might have this insane four-man core of Howard, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash only through 2013-14. (Deals for the soon-to-be 34-year-old Bryant and 32-year-old Gasol expire after that season.)

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  • Published On 12:01pm, Aug 10, 2012
  • Teams left smiling from NBA offseason

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    Steve Nash

    The addition of Steve Nash may be enough to get the Lakers out of the playoffs’ second round, where Kobe Bryant and Co. have gone 1-8 over the last two seasons. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

    It’s offseason evaluation time! We’ll be splitting up the team-by-team assessments into several posts over the next week or so, starting here with teams that, at least from this vantage point, have little hindsight-based hand-wringing to do. Other posts will include teams that have us worried, teams that generally stood pat (and whether that was a good thing) and the teams that have us most intrigued based on the moves they made and the directions open to them now. Keep that last part in mind if you think your team had a successful offseason and it is not mentioned below.

    For today: teams that made some fairly dramatic moves and should be very happy with them.

    Los Angeles Lakers

    Offseason grade exercises are always tricky. Analysts aren’t in the room with general managers and are thus often in the dark about what directives ownership is giving and which alternative trades or signings are being discussed internally, discussed externally, nearly consummated or merely dreamed about. The ownership motivation isn’t a mystery in Los Angeles, though, even if the Lakers’ attitude toward spending has shifted from December until now: The Buss family wants to win championships, and while some franchises are happy with second-round playoff exits and capacity crowds, that won’t do for a team paying Kobe Bryant nearly $30 million per season and sitting one ring shy of Boston’s record.

    The Lakers  were 1-8 in second-round playoff games during the last two seasons. Though there were some close heart-breakers among those eight losses to Dallas and Oklahoma City, there were plenty of blowouts, and this team in the big picture graded out as nothing more than a solid playoff team. The Lakers needed a jolt, and with zero financial flexibility, GM Mitch Kupchak turned the only asset he had — the Lamar Odom trade exception — into point guard Steve Nash, one of the greatest offensive players in league history.

    Forward Antawn Jamison also was added. He is a sieve on defense, but so was Troy Murphy, and Jamison can at least add some free throws and driving attacks to the Lakers’ second-unit offense. Re-signing Jordan Hill to an affordable deal without having his full Bird Rights was a nice get. Hill emerged at the end of last season as the team’s third-best big man, and given his potential as a defender, the Lakers will probably be better off if he wins the battle for that spot over Jamison next season.

    There are still huge questions here, obviously. Getting even the sum of these superstar parts on offense is going to be difficult, Princeton offense or no, and this team as it stands is going to have work very hard to crack the top 10 in points allowed per possession.

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  • Published On 11:59am, Aug 02, 2012
  • Can Antawn Jamison help the Lakers?

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    Antwan Jamison is tested veteran, but the results have been shaky of late (Noah Graham/Getty Images).

    Antwan Jamison is tested veteran, but the results have been shaky of late. (Noah Graham/Getty Images)

    Antawn Jamison is a big name with a big scoring average (17.2 ppg in 2011-12), and those factors will combine to provide the false impression that Jamison will be more helpful to the Lakers on a veteran’s minimum contract than he likely will be. His value comes mostly in not being Troy Murphy, and though Jamison remains a useful offensive player as a fourth or fifth option to spell L.A.’s starting bigs, the Lakers are adding a minus defender (to put it gently) to a team in which the defense failed when it mattered most. In essence, Jamison adds depth at the expense of defense.

    But depth is useful here. Last season, the Lakers were a team of three stars and little else, at least once the postseason version of Ramon Sessions replaced the regular-season Ramon Sessions. And adding Steve Nash as a fourth star will improve things even if the Lakers limit their innovation and have Nash follow Sessions’ simplistic steps in running the team’s offense. (If that happens, though, we all lose as fans.)

    Jamison is a league-average three-point shooter, which is an asset for a power forward. But the Lakers still look very thin on the wing and on the front line beyond Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. Jordan Hill had emerged as the team’s best backup big man by the end of last season, flashing some nice touch on offense and improved pick-and-roll defense to go with his usual solid rebounding. Jamison provides no such rebounding or defense. His production on the glass had dipped and he’s served as one of the league’s worst defenders over the last few seasons.

    That can’t be overstated. Remember: It was the Lakers’ defense that failed them over the last 20 games of the regular season and through both the team’s playoff series. Bench players don’t matter as much in the postseason, when stars can sop up most of the minutes, but the Lakers need a reliable third big man to hold the fort as coach Mike Brown staggers rest for Gasol and Bynum. The version of Hill that finished last season — a version we haven’t seen all that much of, to be honest — probably offers more two-way reliability than Jamison does right now. The Rockets declined their fourth-year option on Hill before trading him to the Lakers at the deadline, and the Lakers thus do not have full Larry Bird Rights on Hill. They can pay him only $3.6 million next season, the value of the option that Houston declined, and Hill is currently shopping around for something better.

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  • Published On 10:02pm, Jul 18, 2012