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Lakers will be fascinating to watch after breaking the bank for Steve Nash

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Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant will join forces for the Lakers next season.

Steve Nash will bring elite passing, shooting and ballhandling to the Lakers next season. (Harry How/Getty Images)

Here are some things we know about the Lakers after their blockbuster heist of Steve Nash:

• They will be fascinating to watch on offense. The Lakers have four mammoth stars, and regardless of who the fifth starter is and how awkwardly some parts might mesh, this should be a top-five offense from the minute it takes the floor. The Lakers were an inconsistent offensive team last season, but they took off after the Ramon Sessions deal (how’s that look now, by the way?) and finished a strong 10th overall in points per possession. A finish outside the top five next season would mean that either one of those four stars suffered a long-term injury or that the players and coaching staff suffered a near-complete failure in integrating the roster.

It will be a challenge, though, especially as the Lakers compete against the league’s very best teams. The Lakers now have two stars, Nash and Pau Gasol, whose default mode on offense is to move quickly — fast dribbling (Nash), smart cuts, passes a step ahead of the defense and shots that come on the move (Nash) or immediately upon receiving a pass (Gasol). Those are generalizations, of course; Gasol is a gifted post-up player who can play the back-it-down game if needed. But these guys play with pace and movement, even if one of them (Nash) has the ball most of the time.

Kobe Bryant and especially Andrew Bynum have tendencies to hold the ball, survey the defense and look for their own. That is not to say they are selfish. Bryant is a gifted passer, but many of his best passes come after holding on the wing for a full four or five seconds, drawing extra defensive attention and skipping the ball to an open man. But not all of those hold-hold-hold possessions result in smart passes. Many end in terrible shots: Bryant has inexplicably and inexcusably led the league in usage rate for two consecutive seasons, even as his shooting percentage reached its lowest point since he was a teenager last season.

Bynum, too, has worked on his passing and has paired with Gasol to run a mean big/big pick-and-roll. But at heart, he is a back-to-the-basket-type player. He is not a pick-and-roll machine in the model of Dwight Howard or Tyson Chandler.

But that’s precisely why this Lakers team will be so fun to watch: It would be hard for Nash to go to any system more different than the one he played in Phoenix for the last eight years. The Lakers finished 20 percent of their possessions via post-up plays last season, by far the highest percentage in the league, per Synergy Sports. Only Utah had a smaller percentage of its possessions end with the pick-and-roll ballhandler finishing the play by shooting, drawing a foul or turning the ball over. No team had a lower percentage of its possessions end with pick-and-rolls in which the roll man finished the play. No team devoted a smaller percentage of its possessions to transition chances, per Synergy.

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  • Published On 11:31am, Jul 05, 2012
  • Potential Lamar Odom trade could benefit Mavericks, Clippers, Lakers

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    Lamar Odom had the worst year of his career last season in Dallas. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

    Last year was a difficult one in Lamar Odom’s personal life, and he was awful on the court for a Dallas team creative enough to use him in a variety of ways in lineups of all shapes and sizes. His shot fell apart from everywhere on the floor, including at the rim, where Odom lacked that extra bit of explosion required to finish over and through NBA-level defenders. He shot just 52.9 percent at the basket, a tick below Jared Jeffries and one of the half-dozen worst marks among all NBA power forwards. His rebounding fell off, he looked out of shape and the Mavericks played worse with Odom on the floor — once unthinkable for one of the league’s annual plus/minus leaders — until they finally told him to go away.

    But the season is over, and the Clippers are reportedly showing interest in dealing for Odom, who will turn 33 in the first week of the 2012-13 regular season. The talks are centering on guard Mo Williams and may involve the Lakers as a third-team facilitator via the trade exception from the deal that sent an unhappy Odom to Dallas in December, according to ESPN.com’s Marc Stein.

    The basic structure of the deal would involve the Mavericks trading Odom to the Clippers, who would send Williams (who will make $8.5 million next season in the final year of his contract) to the Lakers for salary-matching purposes. That makes some degree of sense for all three teams, though the Clippers may demand a sweetener for helping the Mavs shed all of Odom’s 2012-13 salary of $8.2 million, and it’s unclear how hungry the Lakers are to add a fairly sizable contract that will count double because of luxury-tax penalties. The Mavs are already out a future first-round pick via the original Odom deal, so it will be difficult for Dallas to supply a sweetener because the league prohibits teams from trading first-round picks in consecutive years.

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  • Published On 11:26am, Jun 27, 2012
  • Court Vision

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    • Couper Moorhead of the Heat’s official web site examines the development of LeBron James’ post game, complete with video analysis and insight from David Fizdale, the Miami assistant who works most closely with James (and Dwayne Wade) on post play. Great read.

    Beckley Mason analyzes the film from last year’s Finals and says that the difference between LeBron James’ post game then and now is not where he’s catching the ball, but what he’s able to do with it afterwards.

    • John Hollinger notes that while the Heat have tightened up their three-point defense considerably in the postseason (a reversal that may or may not be linked to Miami’s extended use of smaller lineups), the Thunder have shot far more ineffectively from deep than we would’ve expected in this series. James Harden has missed some great looks, and Hollinger notes that Thabo Sefolosha is just 2-of-10 in the Finals. Sefolosha is so important to the Thunder — provided that teams actually have to guard him. He can defend both Wade and James, and in the regular season, Sefolosha nailed 31 of his 71 three-point attempts. That’s a small number of attempts, and that hit rate — 43.7 percent — represents a huge outlier in Sefolosha’s career as an otherwise below-average three-point threat. Before this season, Sefolosha hadn’t shot better than 33 percent from deep in any season since 2006-07 (his rookie year). In these playoffs, he’s shooting 33 percent exactly. We could simply be seeing some regression to the mean.

    Really enjoyed this line from Ken Berger’s piece about LeBron, on the threshold:

    At 27, Michael Jordan had one league MVP award, no championships and no Finals MVPs — not even a trip to the Finals. If James and the Heat avoid something that has never happened in Finals history, blowing a 3-1 lead, LeBron at 27 would have three league MVP awards, three trips to the Finals, one championship and, unless LSD infiltrates the voting, one Finals MVP.

    That’s not really the point, but it is a fact. Jordan won his first title and Finals MVP in his first trip to the Finals, at age 28 in 1991. It was in his seventh season; James is in his ninth. If James finishes the job — Thursday night, or back in Oklahoma City — this won’t be revisionist history. But perhaps it will be the strongest proof yet that the perception of James’ first eight seasons was a case of previsionist history, if I may.

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  • Published On 3:36pm, Jun 21, 2012
  • Ramon Sessions to test free agency

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    Ramon Sessions averaged 12.7 points and 6.2 assists with the Lakers. (Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

    Lakers point guard Ramon Sessions will become a free agent after declining his $4.55 million player option for next season. That $4.55 million salary is slightly lower than the mid-level exception for most capped-out teams, and Sessions’ representatives no doubt also see a few teams with cap room and a potential vacancy at point guard (Portland, Phoenix, Dallas and Brooklyn all come to mind, depending on Deron Williams’ and Steve Nash’s situations and other variables).

    Sessions’ market value will be interesting to watch. He became a decent three-point shooter out of nowhere during the regular season — the five-year veteran made 43 of his 56 career threes in 2011-12 and hit 44.3 percent from long range — and jump-started the Lakers’ offense after being acquired from Cleveland in March. But he shot just 4-of-25 from three-point range in the playoffs, played his usual shaky defense and looked out of sorts in trying to find his niche as an off-ball player whom defenses happily ignored.

    Was that regular-season three-point shooting real? Or was it a mirage? If it was real, Sessions is a worthy starter deserving of a salary at the mid-level and even a little more. If it wasn’t, Sessions is a 26-year-old journeyman who has never started more than half his team’s games in a full season and can’t defend at an average level for his position.

    Sessions’ decision does not preclude him from re-signing with the Lakers via Larry Bird Rights, and his departure would leave Steve Blake as the only point guard under contract. (Seldom-used rookie Darius Morris, who played some point guard, is a restricted free agent.) Los Angeles would surely like someone even better than Sessions, but the free agents who meet that qualification — Andre Miller and Nash, for starters — will be out of its price range unless those players are willing to take a steep discount to watch Kobe Bryant shoot.

    Sarcasm aside, that is the major issue for the Lakers in making this decision: If they are going to spend on a pick-and-roll point guard, they have to let that point guard run pick-and-roll — and that involves the point guard actually having the ball. Bryant is a creative off-ball worker, and in theory he should embrace tilting his game even more in that direction as he ages. Will he do that? That is only one key question for a team whose roster just seems a bit off, despite the star talent on board.


  • Published On 4:51pm, Jun 19, 2012
  • For Lakers, becoming championship contenders again will be a tall order

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    The Lakers likely will need to break up their frontcourt of Pau Gasol (left) and Andrew Bynum in order to upgrade around Kobe Bryant. (Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

    An optimist might look at the Lakers-Thunder series and come away thinking about how close Los Angeles is to championship contention. The middle three games of Oklahoma City’s five-game win in the Western Conference semifinals were all close, and with better crunch-time execution, the Lakers could have won all three and be headed home for a chance to close the deal in Game 6.

    But that’s the wrong way to look at things, and the Lakers know it internally. The other two games were Oklahoma City runaways, and mixing blowout losses with down-to-the-wire contests is no way to win a playoff series. Luck, fatigue and randomness will inevitably swing a crunch-time game or two against you, and given the taxing load that the Lakers’ three best players carried all season, fatigue surely played a role in late collapses during Game 2 and Game 4 — the latter forever known as the game in which Kobe Bryant went completely off the rails, and then threw a long-tenured champion teammate under the bus.

    This team was never a real championship contender. The Lakers had the sixth-best point differential among Western Conference teams, and they just couldn’t function as an elite club on both ends of the floor. They struggled to score in the first half of the season, checking in as a league-average offense. The March trade for point guard Ramon Sessions goosed the offense, but the defense collapsed over the final 20 games, surrendering points at a rate that would have made it the NBA’s worst for the full season. Sessions, among the worst defenders in the league for his position, didn’t help, but he alone cannot explain a team playing top-10 level defense for half a season and then hemorrhaging points like the Bobcats for 20 games, plus the playoffs.

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  • Published On 1:08pm, May 22, 2012
  • Thunder rise in clutch while Lakers wilt

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    It will be tempting to reduce the Lakers’ crushing Game 2 loss in Oklahoma City on Wednesday to one superstar failing in the clutch while another succeeded. And while that is what happened in a very basic sense, that is also not what happened at all. It is true that Kobe Bryant, a practitioner of hero ball and crunch-time ball hog extraordinaire, went 0-of-4 in the last five minutes of the game, missed two shots in the last 60 seconds, coughed up a horrendous game-changing turnover to Kevin Durant and inexplicably waited more than six seconds for Thabo Sefolosha to intentionally foul as the game ticked away. And it’s true that Durant snagged that steal-and-dunk and nailed a high degree-of-difficulty floater to win the game — his second such game-winner of the playoffs already.

    But as is always the case in basketball, the story is more complicated in ways that matter for our interpretation of the game and hint at the development of this Thunder team into a more dangerous animal. Let’s start with Kobe, since everything “clutch” must start with Kobe or LeBron James.

    On the surface, Bryant’s last two misses were classic Kobe ill-advised shots — low-percentage prayers taken in isolation against defenses geared up to stop them. But look again at Bryant’s miss with one minute to go:

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  • Published On 11:59am, May 17, 2012
  • OKC exploits Andrew Bynum’s weakness

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    A few key differences separate Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum, who is fancied during happy times as the Magic center’s potential equal. But one general disparity is this: No opponent game-plans around exploiting a Howard weakness on defense like it does with Bynum.

    For the second straight postseason, a Lakers opponent armed with an elite mid-range shooter — the Thunder this season, the Hornets last season — designed much of its offense around the idea that it could produce relatively easy mid-range shots by attacking Bynum on various pick plays. The Thunder were confident that Bynum would hang back rather than step out to challenge Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, and that both players — especially Durant — could get clean looks from 15 feet.

    The mid-range shot is the worst shot in basketball, a low-percentage attempt that produces few free throws or offensive rebounds. Most teams that shoot a lot of them are bad offensive teams. But it’s a shot every team must have in its arsenal, especially against an opponent like the Lakers, who have two elite wing defenders and two 7-footers capable of blocking everything at the rim.

    The Thunder are one of the few teams with the personnel to exploit this mid-range weakness in an efficient way. They have one deadly shooter (Durant), another star fast becoming deadly from that range (Westbrook) and a center — Bynum’s opposite number — who can serve as the final screener on lots of different play types. This stuff destroyed the Lakers their 119-90 loss in Game 1 on Monday. It resulted in some communication breakdowns and a few mid-stream strategy changes in the second half — the kind of defensive chaos that hurt the Lakers against Chris Paul and the Hornets last season and ultimately undid them amid a hail of wide-open shots against Dallas in the second round.

    The attack began right away, and, notably, it did not begin with a pick-and-roll:

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  • Published On 11:36am, May 15, 2012
  • Lakers star big men deserve criticism, but plenty of blame to go around

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    Pau Gasol (left) and Andrew Bynum struggled in the Lakers’ Game 6 loss. (Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

    Kobe Bryant played an efficient, effective game Thursday while battling the aftereffects of a stomach ailment. But his teammates imploded around him, and the Nuggets played with a fury and polish that the Lakers could not match in Denver’s 113-96 victory. Bryant was understandably upset afterward. First, there was this on small forward Metta World Peace, who is set to return from his seven-game suspension for Game 7 on Saturday in Los Angeles:

    “He’s the one guy that I can rely on night in and night out to compete and play hard and play with that sense of urgency and no fear,” Bryant said of World Peace. “I’m looking forward to having that by my side again.”

    The Lakers obviously are missing World Peace, for reasons I outlined toward the end of this piece Wednesday. Small forwards Devin Ebanks and Matt Barnes have been mostly awful, and the Nuggets are ignoring them on offense to bottle up the Lakers’ post game. World Peace is an average NBA player at this point even at his best, but he’s a better three-point shooter, by a healthy margin, than Ebanks or Barnes, and he has a tough post game only one Denver wing player, Danilo Gallinari, is really equipped to defend. With Barnes and Ebanks failing, the Lakers have played a ton of minutes with point guards Ramon Sessions and Steve Blake sharing the floor. Both are subpar defenders whom the Nuggets have torched. The Lakers have allowed 104.4 points per 100 possessions when Blake and Sessions play together, a mark that would have ranked 25th in the regular season.

    [Chris Ballard: Kobe got competitive fire from unexpected source]

    But in the most obvious sense, Bryant’s lionizing of World Peace is ridiculous. He is the one Laker whom Bryant has literally not been able to count on in these playoffs, having removed himself with an irresponsible elbow to James Harden’s head in the team’s second-to-last regular-season game. The NBA suspended World Peace for the first six games of the playoffs, and given the trickle-down effect of his absence, it’s fair to wonder if L.A. would have wrapped up this series by now had he been available. Some reliable teammate.

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  • Published On 11:38am, May 11, 2012
  • Why Denver is challenging the Lakers

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    Rookie Kenneth Faried (right) outworked Pau Gasol and the Lakers in Game 5. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

    Before the playoffs, I predicted that the Lakers would beat the Nuggets in seven games. And so while I’m not entirely surprised that the younger, deeper Nuggets have a chance to tie the first-round series at three games apiece with a victory in Denver on Thursday, the manner in which we’ve arrived here has been unexpected. Five reasons this series is still going on:

    • The Nuggets, in the most basic sense, are winning or at least “tying” the major trade-offs they have to make because of the Lakers’ massive size advantage. One such trade-off: scoring enough fast-break points by outrunning the Lakers’ big men to compensate for all of Los Angeles’ post-up scores, offensive rebounds and easy buckets that come with pounding the ball inside. Denver has pulled the trick so far, in part because it is simply outhustling the Lakers.

    The Nuggets averaged a league-high 19.8 fast-break points during the regular season, according to NBA.com. They’ve increased that number to 21 per game in this series, an even better accomplishment than it appears when you consider two things:

    1. The Lakers are winning the tempo battle in general. The teams have averaged about 90 possessions per game in the series, almost exactly what L.A. averaged in the regular season and down substantially from the league-leading 94 possessions per game for the roadrunner Nuggets.

    2. The Lakers are not turning the ball over. Only two teams, Denver and San Antonio, have coughed it up less often per possession in the postseason, meaning the Nuggets are not feasting on an unusual number of steals and run-outs.

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  • Published On 1:13pm, May 09, 2012
  • Four second-round tickets on the line

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    After another epic between the Grizzlies and Clippers on Monday, every remaining first-round series stands at 3-1. And in a weird scheduling quirk, four teams have a chance to close out 4-1 victories tonight, a scenario that would leave us with one fait accompli in Miami and one remaining hope for real on-court drama in Memphis. Here’s one key factor to watch in each of the four games:

    PACERS VS. MAGIC

    Indiana has outscored the Magic by 55 points in the 158 minutes that David West has logged in this series. (Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images)

    The power forward matchup: We knew going in that Orlando lacked the size to match up with the behemoth Roy Hibbert, but David West’s old-man game has been just as big a problem — and perhaps a bigger one — for Ryan Anderson, Earl Clark and (in fewer chances) Glen Davis. Indiana has outscored the Magic by 55 points in the 158 minutes that West has logged in this series, while the Magic have won the remaining 39 minutes — with West sitting — by a mammoth 19-point margin.

    This all peaked in the third quarter of Game 4, when the Pacers built a huge behind West doing a little bit of everything — slipping screens to create penetration, drawing double-teams in the post, ducking in for post-up chances behind Hibbert pick-and-rolls and firing solid passes to open shooters. He overpowered Anderson and Clark, and his play, coupled with Anderson’s disappearance, has been perhaps the largest swing factor in this series. It got so bad that Stan Van Gundy went small in the second half of the fourth quarter, with Hedo Turkoglu at power forward, a move that seemed to unnerve the Pacers for a short stretch.

    But in the long run, or what’s left of it, the Magic need Anderson to make this matchup something close to a wash. He’s just 10-of-31 from the floor so far, and the secondary skills he brings — offensive rebounds, two-point shots, the occasional free throws — have vanished in this series. Orlando has a huge speed advantage at the big-man positions, and it can (and has) hurt Indiana by running West in multiple pick-and-rolls and targeting Hibbert as the last man in quick-hitting, staggered screen plays, knowing Hibbert will sag back and concede a jump shot. Anderson needs to make some of those jump shots, and the Magic need to find a way to limit West on the other end without compromising themselves fatally elsewhere. That’s a huge challenge given the roster limitations here, but Van Gundy, working what might be his last game in Orlando on Tuesday, has coached his tail off in this series. Does he have some tricks left? Read More…


  • Published On 12:29pm, May 08, 2012


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