Special guest Brian Kamenetzky from Land O’Lakers Blog and I talk ball about tonight’s teams and matchup.
Know thy opponent:
Breene Murphy: The Lakers front line is thin right now, Pau’s playing lots of minutes, so how have they defended opposing bigs? What has been their weakness? How has it affected the defense as a whole?
Brian Kamenetzky: It hasn’t necessarily been bigs hurting them thus far (though in Minnesota, Darko Milicic completely went off vs. Pau, which was a little disconcerting). Generally speaking, the Lakers have been able to match up well with whatever size on the post they’ve seen with Gasol and Odom, and a few double teams here and there (though not an overwhelming amount). Where the minutes really seem to hurt, in regards to Pau, is in how he protects the rim against penetration, and his recovery in the halfcourt against the pick and roll. As a team, their rotations have been poor, as well, leaving gaps for the opposition to exploit… and too often they are. The lines of attack have come from outside-in, rather than throwing big bodies at an under-manned front court.
There’s a fatigue factor at work for Pau, particularly after the Lakers play a few games in a few days. That makes a difference.
But honestly, when it comes to Gasol’s defense, the biggest problem coming with Andrew Bynum’s absence this season and the early injury for Theo Ratliff isn’t simply minutes, but the fact he has no real backup, and can’t afford to pick up fouls. Not that Pau is exactly Rick Mahorn underneath delivering “message” fouls, but it’s very difficult to aggressively challenge players around the rim when you know putting yourself in foul trouble would do serious damage to the team. Either way, the Lakers would be forced to go smaller, with Odom and Derrick Caracter, or by sliding Odom to the five and Ron Artest to the four.
The matchup issues when that happens are significant. Tonight, I’m very interested to see how the Lakers respond to Griffin’s activity. I doubt they’ve seen anyone with his size, spring, and motor (mostly because I’m pretty sure such a player doesn’t exist outside of Griffin himself). I assume L.O. will draw him a lot, but Artest might get him here and there, and I’m sure Pau will as well as possessions evolve and the defense is forced to switch.
BM: Like Eric Gordon, Lamar has played impressively since the FIBA Championships. What has been the biggest difference? Is it just starters minutes or is it something else (diet, mentality, etc.)?
BK: We spent most of the summer talking about how playing a leadership role could change how he functions on the Lakers. Important stuff, I’m sure, but in trying to focus on the intangibles, I think many (myself included) missed the bigger picture. Odom showed up in great shape, his skills honed thanks to a summer of high level play. Plus, and this might be the most important thing, he spent his FIBA days playing the five, which forced him back down into the paint where he is at his best.
Too often last season, Odom found himself floating around the perimeter, taking too many jumpers. If you look at his shot breakdown from two years ago, when he was a plus-minus monster and almost always was a positive force on the floor and compare it to last season when his influence wasn’t so steady, the difference is stark. Last season, his percentage of shots from deep in the paint plummeted, while the jumpers rose. Not that Odom can’t hit a three here and there, but it’s not his game. He’s unstoppable moving in space near the basket, or operating in the open floor and attacking the rim.
This year, he’s doing much more of that sort of thing. Three’s are down, and his attempts inside 10 feet are up. A lot. The results show.
BM: The Lakers have been in a bit of a funk (for them) recently, has there been anything the opposing teams have done well defensively? Offensively?
Tuesday’s game against Washington was a great example of how the Lakers often get away from their strengths as a team. In the first half, the player and ball movement was spectacular. Kobe Bryant was finishing plays after running off screens and three, four, or five passes were made to get him the ball. Pau Gasol was an effective fulcrum for the offense. Overall, they generated assists on 22 of 28 first half field goals, which is more or less absurd, and ran up 69 points. Yes, the Wizards are a wretched defensive team, but those are pretty staggering figures.
In the second half, against the same defense (lots of zone), the Lakers had four assists, and managed to score only 18 points in the third. What changed? Ball movement. As Derek Fisher pointed out, they were just a beat slower making each pass, guys weren’t as sharp in their cuts, shots came one or two passes earlier in possessions. They were looking at times for that knockout punch, instead of continuing to do what worked in the first place.
When they’re bad on that side of the ball, it hurts them in transition, because the John Walls of the world get easy run out opportunities. Not to say their halfcourt D has been spotless- teams have been effective on the pick and roll, taking advantage of the aforementioned rotation issues, but more than anything the Lakers suffer when they can’t get themselves set in the halfcourt, have to scramble and cross-match.
If I’m the Clippers tonight, I push, push, push. The Lakers are actually very good playing up tempo- even when they don’t score on the break, they get into their offense so fast it’s hard to defend them- but it’ll be a serious test for the Clips to contain the Lakers in the halfcourt if the Lakers are sticking to their offensive principles.
BM: Last question. How often does Lamar reminisce about his time with the Clips?
BK: Not a ton, but he does look back at those points of his career as formative, and still feels like he cost Alvin Gentry his job. He just wasn’t as mature a player and person as he is now. I don’t think he wishes he was still in red, white, and blue by any stretch (would you?) but I do believe he wishes quite strongly he’d handled things differently in his time there.
BK: What’s the difference on the floor between a Baron-led Clippers offense, and the Bledsoe version?
BM: The Clips are still operating within a pretty simple Vinny Del Negro pick and roll offense but there are acute differences between the offense when Baron or Bledsoe are on the floor.
Truthfully, it’s more of a difference between a Bledsoe-Gordon led offense and a Baron led offense. When Bledsoe is in the game, VDN lets Gordon handle the ball a lot, which is one of the reasons for Gordon’s spike in assists this year. I think this has had an adverse effect on Gordon’s three point shot but has also been an impetus for him to go to the rim more (9.3 FTA).
That said, Bledsoe does a nice job running the offense, especially for a 19 year old rookie that didn’t play point guard in his lone season in college (due to John Wall). He is at his best on the fast break, he’ll give any player a run for their money on speed with the ball and he’s an above average finisher. Even in the half-court, he uses his speed to blow by opponents and get open looks for his teammates, although he has to learn to use his speed so he doesn’t just probe and dribble out. He’s cutting down on unforced turnovers from over-penetration (still has significant problems) but the probing often forces the Clippers into re-initiating the offense with 12-14 seconds. This is not enough time to run the offense and the Clips will look for a bail out play from Blake, Gordon or Bledsoe instead of really passing the ball.
This is where Baron excels. While he’s slower, he still has one of the best eyes for passing in the league and the offense does a better job of rotating the ball from weak to strong side early in the clock. He uses the Blake pick much better and he his kick-outs to Butler, Gomes and Gordon get them the ball in a better position than Bledsoe’s passing and allows them to shoot better from behind the arc. Also, Baron throws much better lobs to Blake and DeAndre.
Still, Baron is a terrible shooter and since coming back from injury, the Clippers have seen him become more and more comfortable taking his own shot. Not a trend that the Clippers want to see as Baron is one of the worst shooters in the NBA. There are only five players in the league with a worse true shooting percentage (Troy Murphy, Damon Jones, Jeremy Lin, Jawad Williams and Kyrylo Fesenko). So there are large problems with either point guard and big positives. Good news is that both Bledsoe’s problems and Baron’s are correctable. Although Baron hasn’t ever shown the desire to improve his shot/take better shots, so no one expects him to change. Bledsoe could, though.
BK: The only real tangible excitement around this team is with Blake Griffin. Offensively, we’ve seen the explosiveness and the dunks. What has surprised you about that half of his game? Defensively, how do you expect a matchup between him and Lamar Odom to play out?
BM: First, I want to clear something up. The only real tangible national excitement around this team is Blake Griffin. For those following the Clippers, Eric Gordon’s emergence as a potential All Star has been inspiring. Since the FIBA Championships, he’s been on a tear, averaging 24 points, 4.5 assists and, most impressive, 9.3 free throw attempts. He’s finally using his speed, strength and herky-jerky dribble to attack the basket. The result? He’s evolved into the Clippers undisputed closer. He scored 13 fourth quarter points against the Kings and 9 in the last 3 minutes to lead the Clippers to victory. And in Utah, on a last second possession, needing 2 to tie, he sliced through the packed paint for a slam dunk to even the score. And he hasn’t even found his 3 point shot yet. Good reason for excitement.
As for Blake, he’s been transcendently exciting, I mean, he’s changed Mozgov from a proper noun into a verb. It’s definitely more than dunks, though. He can pass and while it’s not refined, he has an effective set of post moves (right hook, fadeaway over his right shoulder, a spin move and an adequate jumper). The most surprising though, is his ability to handle the ball on the break. My favorite highlight of Blake this year was in the Knicks game when he was on the break, with Gallinari guarding him closely. Instead of doing what most power forwards would do and pass it off to a wing and re-establish the play, Blake pushes to the basket harder, forcing Gallo to commit and then he does a spin move and tomahawks the ball through the hoop. Incredible. And none of that would be possible if it weren’t for his handles.
However, this ability among power forwards is rare, not singular. Lamar Odom is more than adept at leading his own break, too. This is worrisome for the Clippers because not only is Blake is a below average defender in general, but he’s even worse on the fast break (former Laker Brian Cook is usually his defensive replacement, although Cook is suspended for the Clips/Laker game). Blake can lapse into running back on defense without paying attention and with Lamar’s handles and propensity for the driving lefty swoop, Blake could get burned. The only saving grace on defense so far has been Blake’s rebounding ability, granted it’s a pretty big saving grace.
While the majority of the league has struggled to contain Blake on offense, he has struggled against longer, taller defenders. Tyson Chandler, Brook Lopez and Tim Duncan have had varying degrees of success against Blake. Lamar isn’t built like those guys, but Pau is. I suspect that Blake will still have some impressive moments, because he’s so much more athletic than Lamar, but it could get interesting if Pau switches over or doubles off of DeAndre.
BK: The record doesn’t seem much different. What has changed for the Clippers from the Dunleavy to the Del Negro eras?
BM: Energy. Hope. An organizational philosophy. Blake Griffin.
The Clippers record is terrible but they are more fun to watch than most of the teams in the league because of the effort of the young guys. The reason they are losing games has more to do with efficiency and chemistry, in a “the teammates are all new, where are they going to be” way and not the “the players don’t like each other” way. They turn the ball over, shoot poorly from the free-throw line (ahem, Blake, ahem, DeAndre) and they have no idea what they are doing collectively on defense. But those are all characteristic of young players, and that should be expected with a team that has no starters older than 22. They do play hard though, and that effort often pays off in spectacular dunks not just for Blake but for Eric Gordon, DeAndre and Aminu.
That young starting five, after a horrendous opening to the season, is starting to gel. They are 4-1 in their last five at home and are starting to find a semblance of cohesion while planting the seed of hope for the future. The road is still a nightmare, but that is normal for a young team (the Wizards have struggled on the road, too). But the wins at home have been strong, they’ve beat the Spurs and the Hornets recently, as well as the Thunder earlier in the year. Those wins have displayed the promise of the team.
An underrated surprise has been the heady decisions of the front office this summer. Maybe it’s because the management isn’t as fractured between Sterling’s crew and Dunleavy’s, because I suspect that the Clippers would not have drafted and signed free agents as well even a year ago. The unifying factor: bringing in character guys as well as good players. I feared, as I’m sure many others did, that the Clips would blow their cap space on an overpaid free agent a lá Rudy Gay or Joe Johnson or they would overflow their cap space like Bucks this summer or the Piston the year before, but such was not the case. Sure, they needed more than Ryan Gomes, Randy Foye and Rasual Butler to help the team, but they didn’t need another large contract, like Baron’s, that would prevent them from keeping their young core together in the future. And none of the signees have bad contracts like Josh Childress or Wesley Matthews. The biggest one was 3 years, $12 million to Ryan Gomes. Even if they don’t work out (and they haven’t so far), it’s not crippling.
Again, all of this comes back to Blake. I think the beauty of a player like him is that he’s simple and unifying. There is no worry about him clashing with coaches or players. He works his butt off and he’s so talented. It is so easy to want to build around him with players that fit (similar to Kevin Durant), because he, along with Gordon, is the future.
Injury notes: Kaman is out with a sprained ankle/bone bruise in his foot, Foye still has a strained hamstring, and Cook is suspended. Looks like Baron will play.
Note: If anyone feels like chatting, I’ll be on ESPN’s Daily Dime Live tonight, pretty much the whole time from 4-10 pm PT.