Los Angeles Lakers: Jason Kapono
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When Chris Paul ended up in the wrong Staples Center locker room, the Lakers' plans for the 2011-12 season hit a major snag.
At this point one year ago, the Lakers were well into their offseason, having been swept out of the second round by the (eventual champion) Dallas Mavericks. At that point, we outlined five major areas of need heading into the 2011-12 season.
12 months later, after again bowing out (or being bowed, more accurately) in the second round, again in lopsided fashion this time by Oklahoma City, it's worth looking back at those five problem areas to see how well they were addressed. The answers aren't instructive simply in terms of giving the front office crew of Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss a grade (though that's been the theme over the last 10 days or so), but also showing the challenges they face going forward.
How many items were effectively crossed off last offseason's to-do list?
1. Outside shooting.
Among the many ugly, indelible memories of the 4-0 pasting against the Mavs in 2011 was watching the Lakers clang shot after shot from beyond the arc. 15-of-76 overall, for a go-ahead-and-try-this-at-home-because-you-wouldn't-be-any-worse 19.7 percent. The spectacularly poor marksmanship left fans pining for the salad days of the regular season, when the Lakers' 35.2 3-point percentage merely made them below average (tied for 17th).
This season, the Lakers again fell short from the perimeter in the playoffs, hitting only 28.2 percent of their 3-pointers against the Thunder.Disappointing, but unfortunately not far off their 32.6 regular season mark, meaning nothing about the way L.A. shot against OKC was fluky. Throughout the year the Lakers had little floor stretching capability, limiting space inside for their high end post game or lanes for dribble penetration. Help defenders could collapse on the ball whenever it entered the paint, comfortable nobody on the perimeter would make them pay.
Yeah, so this didn't work out.
One bright light, at least until the playoffs, was Sessions, who hit 48.6 percent of his 3's in 23 games post trade. Overall, though, the guys taking the most triples game to game (Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, and Blake particularly) were wildly inefficient. The Lakers clearly didn't fix the problem, meaning perimeter shooting -- genuine leave open at your own risk perimeter shooting -- remains a screaming neon need this summer.
2. Point guard productivity.
In 2010-11, Lakers point guards (Blake and Derek Fisher) scored less than any other combo in the league, at 10.9 points a game, and only generated 4.9 assists.
That had to change, particularly after shifting away from the triangle towards a more traditional point guard driven, pick-and-roll offense under Mike Brown. This season there was some improvement, as the Lakers PG's boosted their output to 14.9 points and 6.5 assists. Still their efficiency differential was again just off the bottom of the barrel.
But while the final numbers weren't ideal, the front office hardly ignored the issue.
Here are three items to be mindful of once the ball is jumped.
Kobe's availability is the $1,000,000 question.
1) Kobe Bryant's potential absence
As reported Tuesday, Dwyane Wade's hard foul during the All-Star Game left Bryant with a concussion in addition to a nasal fracture. While he's officially listed as day-to-day, the NBA's new concussion policy makes participation feel like a stretch to me. The final decision isn't Kobe's, so a willingness to play through pain isn't the issue. Doctors are typically cautious, particularly with brain injuries, and the procedure is rigorous. Plus, in a modern sports world hyper-conscious of the long-term effects from concussions, I'd be very surprised if the league risked clearing a player just 24 hours after being diagnosed.
Perhaps Bryant's concussion will be mild enough to prove me wrong, but if he's unable to go, the impact is obviously huge. To begin, who starts at shooting guard? Andrew Goudelock is behind Kobe on the depth chart, and actually matches up a lot better against 6'2" starter Luke Ridnour than 6'7" reserve Martell Webster. However, if Brown wanted to keep the rotation as relatively normal as possible, he could insert a player outside the rotation for Kobe rather than shuffle both units. That being the approach, Jason Kapono or Devin Ebanks (recently recalled from the D-League) would get the nod.
- Who were the Lakers' most and least valuable players at the mid-point? Who has been the most pleasant surprise? Among the supporting players, who is it most crucial to see step up for this team to become legitimate title contenders?
- How would you evaluate Mike Brown's performance in his first campaign? The conditions under which he has been forced to operate haven't been ideal, but if he's looking to make lemonade from lemons, you could argue he has mishandled opportunities.
- Save an unexpected -- and unrealistic -- collective leap in performance from players 4-12, it's obvious the Lakers need to tweak the roster to make a championship run. Would the Lakers be better off adding pieces to complement the existing Big Three, which almost certainly means sacrificing the draft picks and other assets likely needed to land a superstar? Or do you hoard every asset possible until the 11th hour in an effort to land Dwight Howard and/or Deron Williams, which risks being left high and dry once the deadline passes?
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Nothing has come easily for Mike Brown, Kobe Bryant, and the Lakers.
Thursday's loss in Oklahoma City means the Lakers enter the All-Star break at 20-14 (congratulations to anyone winning the office pool), 1.5 games back of the Clippers in the Pacific, and good enough for the fifth seed in the Western Conference. And a hectic 34 games it has been. There has been growth in some areas -- defensively, the Lakers have regained much of the form making them so effective during their title seasons -- and regression in others (see 'offense'), and by now the shortcomings in the team's roster are apparent.
That's big picture group stuff. Individually, how has everyone performed? For that, send everyone back to school. It's report card time.
There are totally legitimate questions about how well he's matched his offensive system to his personnel, how he's managed his rotations, and whether he's struck the right balance with a group led by veterans with championship experience used to a culture affording greater freedom and flexibility, just to name a few.
I'm not sold, and neither are most fans.
But criticisms of Brown are mitigated by the almost absurd difficulty of the task he inherited. Replacing the most successful coach in the history of modern American team sports in hiring process alienating his star player and coming amid sweeping change poorly handled by management, suffering through a lockout allowing no contact with his new players, starting camp with a trade for a superstar point guard only to have it quickly revoked, watching last season's Sixth Man of the Year traded away without anything coming in return, working through a comically short training camp and preseason during which his roster was totally in flux, then absorbing what was the NBA's most difficult early season schedule, affording him almost no time on the practice court to implement his system and improve the team's rhythm.
That, and a roster poorly constructed for his style sporting holes large enough to fit an SUV. It's not fair to expect Brown to overcome all that in 34 games.
Watching how Brown evolves -- or doesn't -- over the final 32 will be interesting, noting adjustments he makes with better understanding of his personnel, and if he can get the Lakers playing at their best heading into the playoffs. It still likely won't mean a championship, but would go a long way towards establishing him as the right guy for the gig long term.
Maybe I'm grading the circumstances more than the man, but for a guy so firmly put behind the 8-ball, he's doing pretty well.
February hasn't treated him well, and Bryant goes into the break on a low note following tough outings in Dallas and Oklahoma City. The eternal arguments about shot selection and ball dominance remain (otherwise they wouldn't be eternal). But big picture, who can complain about the quality of Bryant's play this season? 28.5 points, along with a hair under five boards and six assists per night, a PER over 23.5 and a shooting percentage (43.9) not substantively below his career average (45.4), despite this month's slump.
He's playing very, very well.
"I've just been patient with it, trying to let it heal," Blake said during Wednesday's practice. "I really had no preconception of when I was coming back. I didn't know if it was going to be sooner or later. I really had no idea. To me, it's on time...[Practice] felt good. My rhythm is a little off, but that will come with time. Hopefully whenever I do play, I'll be ready to play and able to contribute."
Obviously, Blake's potential availability is a big deal. Not that the bench ran like a Swiss watch with him in the lineup, but he was nonetheless the best second unit play-maker, and by a long shot. That the reserves have struggled to do much in Blake's absence beyond feed the ball to Andrew Bynum or watch Andrew Goudelock generate his own looks is no coincidence, nor terribly surprising. With Blake back, the second unit offense will hopefully run a little smoother, and he'll hopefully add a few buckets to the mix.
In the meantime, I assume Goudelock will assume two-guard duties, allowing him to operate more of a pure scorer, rather than outside his comfort zone as a quasi-point guard. I also imagine Mike Brown will give more minutes to Goudelock than Jason Kapono as a reserve shooting guard, which will hopefully help limit Kobe Bryant minutes. For that matter, Blake on hand should also mean equal Derek Fisher's minutes reduced, which wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. Blake and Fisher can also finish games together with Kobe at small forward in games where Metta World Peace and Matt Barnes aren't offering much, which has been too often these days.
Considering the glaring limitations of the Lakers roster, any options gained are a welcome development.
Meanwhile, Bryant played just under 28 minutes, Pau Gasol under 30, and Bynum a hair under 32, an important consideration for three guys who have piled up minutes lately. Bryant and Gasol, particularly.
We tackle these issues and more on tonight's Lakers Late Night. Here's the full agenda:
- The Lakers finished 12-of-26 (46.2 percent) from 3-point range Tuesday, continuing to show signs of improved perimeter shooting.
- The benefits of increased practice time. The Lakers are 3-1 since getting the chance to actually get on the floor and go full speed in anything other than a real game.
- The bench rotation. Interesting stuff from Mike Brown about why Troy Murphy has replaced Josh McRoberts in the last two games, and the how/why on mixing and matching.
In-show videos from Brown and Matt Barnes.
Click below for more postgame video, from Brown, Barnes, and Bynum.
Wednesday night, the Lakers knocked off the Clippers in what was their 19th game of a lockout-shortened 66-game campaign. For those not doing the math at home, one month in the Lakers have already completed 29 percent of their schedule.
A lot of time? No, but by this season's standard not a bad sample size, either.
Kobe Bryant and Mike Brown have been like peas and carrots.
Why 34? Because 20 isn't enough when the league lets you sit around all summer thinking about stuff. Below is that list, each with some answers.
Strap in, people. We've got a lot of ground to cover.
1. Who wins the battle between the well-rested knee of Kobe Bryant (and his ankle, back, finger and general skeletal structure) and a compressed schedule?
Knee? What knee? I thought we were worried about his wrist. (Which, by the way, we’re increasingly less worried about.) Meaning 19 games in, the answer is Bryant in a walk. He leads the league in scoring (30.2), a nearly five-point improvement over last season, while maintaining a solid shooting percentage (45 percent). Asked to carry an almost comical burden in the Lakers offense, at least as measured by his league-leading usage rate (35.9), Bryant has been outstanding. And spry. Very, very spry.
Basically, the man is a running, leaping billboard for German medical engineering.
2. Who wins the battle between the well-rested will of Bryant and the authority of Mike Brown?
The relationship between Kobe and Brown has been a success. Bryant has expressed nothing but admiration for his new coach, praising on multiple occasions Brown’s work ethic and emphasis on defense, noting the team wants to win for him because they see how much Brown wants to win, too. They know he puts in the work.
Doesn't mean the questions about Bryant's shot selection, balance, or how he's used offensively have stopped, but those would be asked whether the coach was Brown, Phil Jackson, Brian Shaw or Rick Adelman. They are, in sports terms at least, eternal.
To this point, though, one major concern -- Brown's ability to "manage" Kobe, has been a non-issue.
3. What will Brown's system look like, and how quickly will the Lakers be able to pick it up?
Not totally sure, and not very.
It will be strange to see Lamar Odom take the floor Monday night in a Dallas Mavericks uniform, something not at all lost on his former teammates Sunday afternoon at practice. Not that the transition to Texas has been smooth. Odom's first 13 games wearing blue and green have been a disaster-- 6.8 points on 31 percent shooting, 5.0 rebounds, 1.4 assists and a career-low 20 minutes a night -- as Odom struggles not just with fitness or the hurt of being shipped out by the Lakers, but also a summer filled with tragedy.
This for a guy who at 32 already has absorbed more than a lifetime's worth of death and sadness.
Still, his slow start combined with L.A.'s relative success has, at least for some portion of the fan base, created a line of argument that the Lakers are better off without him. They're not. While Odom was definitely set for a step back from last year's Sixth Man of the Year performance regardless of the lockout or anything he endured in the offseason -- history suggests last season's high-end outside shooting was the exception, not the rule -- I suspect he'd be playing better with the Lakers than he is in Dallas. It might take a while, but eventually he'd round into useful form.
Regardless, Odom's return highlights the ways in which his absence has punched holes in the L.A. roster. Mitch Kupchak did a decent job this offseason with limited resources, signing Josh McRoberts and Troy Murphy to bolster the frontcourt, and adding Jason Kapono as a sniper. Still, Odom's production from last year (and, to a lesser degree, Shannon Brown's) hasn't been replicated, whether by any combination of the new players or by sliding Metta World Peace to the second unit.
Bench scoring for the Lakers is down from 27.7 points a game last year to 21.3 this season, while the group's efficiency differential has plummeted, as well. In a nutshell, the Lakers are getting very, very little production off the pine. Perhaps more importantly, Odom's departure also robbed the Lakers of their second-best shot creator and secondary ball handler, helping explain the corresponding rise in Kobe Bryant's workload not just as a scorer, but a facilitator as well.
The change in skill sets is one of a litany of other factors providing real obstacles to the group's improvement. Mike Brown hit on many in the clip above, following Sunday's practice. Two big ones:
Backup big men Josh McRoberts (sprained big toe on his left foot) and Troy Murphy (gastroenteritis) are out of commission and backup shooting guard Jason Kapono was given permission by head coach Mike Brown to stay with his wife, Ashley, back in L.A. and be with his newborn twin daughters, Isla and Campbell.
"I was the guy that made the decision to tell him to stay back with his family and I think it’s important when those things [come up]," said Brown, who has two sons of his own. "Those are like once, twice, 3-4 times maybe, depending on how many you want (laughing) in a lifetime experience. I think it’s very important to show support, especially to your wife because we’re gone a lot. I know my wife plays mother and father a lot of times when I’m on the road. So, to me, it’s only human to allow that to happen. I’m OK with it."
Brown said he abandoned scouting trips to be with his wife, Carolyn, when she gave birth to his sons, Elijah and Cameron.
With his substitutes out, Brown was left to focus on getting the most out of his Lakers' family.
Luke Walton went from playing 10 total minutes in three appearances this season to playing 26 minutes at backup power forward against Phoenix, racking up six points, eight rebounds and three assists.
When asked if Brown would go with Walton again, he said, "We'll see."
He could also give more time to Metta World Peace at power forward, who he complimented for grabbing seven rebounds in just 20 minutes against the Suns. Or Brown could experiment with Devin Ebanks at the 4 position. Ebanks has fallen out of the rotation since Matt Barnes won the starting small forward role from him.
Rookie Andrew Goudelock will assume Kapono's minutes as Kobe Bryant's backup at 2-guard. Goudelock had zero points and two turnovers in nine minutes against Phoenix.
The Lakers have another back-to-back on the horizon this week when they host Cleveland on Friday then play a "road" game against the Clippers on Saturday.
Brown expects to have Kapono back by then, but is not sure about Murphy's and McRoberts' statuses for those games.
"We could [have them in the lineup]," Brown said. "I don’t want to say yes because nothing is guaranteed with the other two guys."
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.
That's a good thing for Mike Brown because the new Lakers coach admittedly still has a long way to go in determining his playing rotation.
"I’d love to have a set rotation so the guys know exactly -- for the most part -- when they’re coming in and when they’re coming out, but I’m not there yet," Brown said after the Lakers beat the Warriors on Friday.
There are three positions in particular that Brown is toying with: starting small forward, backup small forward and backup shooting guard.
The problem is Brown has three small forwards when he only wants to play two (four if you count Luke Walton, but it appears Walton is being relegated to the bench for the time being) and two backup shooting guards when he only wants to play one.
The players still stuck in auditioning mode long after training camp has ended are Matt Barnes, Devin Ebanks and Metta World Peace at small forward and Jason Kapono and Andrew Goudelock at backup shooting guard.
The in-flux nature of the roster was on full display Friday when Brown's rotation looked completely different against the Warriors than it did in the first eight games of the season.
Barnes had his best game of the year with 16 points, six rebounds, five assists and two steals in 30 minutes as the starting small forward, but it came just a day after he played only 17 minutes against Portland and was benched in the second half in favor of Ebanks.
"It's tough, but you have to stay professional about it, you have to stay ready," Barnes said. "We have a very unique situation where we have three small forwards that can play in the league and not too many teams have that. You just have to stay ready. Some nights it's going to be your night, some nights it may not. Some nights it may be the first half [only] that's going to be your night, so, you just have to stay ready and do whatever coach asks."
1) Kobe Bryant shot the ball a lot again, but with considerably improved selection
Predictably, Kobe's 6-for-28 disaster in Denver generated the talk typical of games where The Mamba hoists a fair amount of shots to ill-effect. Specifically, people obsessed over the shot count, and whether, in this particular case, "28" represents too many. Among the questions asked... what's the "right" amount for Kobe, especially in a game where Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol (among others are hitting shots)... Will Mike Brown call him out... Will Kobe come out the next game "aggressive" (code for "hucking like there's no tomorrow") or facilitating (code for "allowing others to touch the ball")?
Kobe took more shots against Houston than Denver, but controversy won't likely follow.
But against Houston, Kobe was sensible and methodical about where he chose to let fly. More often than not, Bryant went to work down low, posting up the smaller likes of Kyle Lowry, Kevin Martin and other Rockets absolutely mismatched against his superior size. Whether taking it to the rim or turning around to pop a J before the double arrived, this was a controlled, relaxed scoring display. Yes, it took some time to get cooking, and Bryant finished the first half 5-14 with 15 points, but the shot chart was considerably more pleasing to the eye.
(As an added bonus, Kobe operating like this also meant fewer opportunities to get stripped in space or on an attempt to split a double. Thus, the ball was turned over only twice (against six assists), a decided improvement over Sunday's six gaffes.)
During the second half, Bryant caught heat. And down the stretch, we saw Kobe what's made him a legend: Make difficult shots to close out a game. But again, these monster buckets were generally set up and executed better, with Kobe backing down defenders and making quick, decisive moves, rather than jab-stepping himself to death in isolation. He ended the evening with a reasonably efficient 14-29 clip, but had he missed a few more, I wouldn't have had too many complaints (save one below), because it was generally difficult to find fault with the shots themselves.
All in all, Bryant's 37 points provided a great reminder about how the story isn't found in raw numbers. Context means everything.
1. Back-to-back, high-altitude style
Rocky's lungs may even be burning this early in the season.
A trip to Denver's thin air can trip up a team collectively in game shape and sporting fresh legs, and there's no denying conditioning remains an issue for the Lakers. In particular, for the bigs. Andrew Bynum made no bones about being exhausted after his debut on Saturday, and he'll be playing his first back-to-back of the season. Pau Gasol looked dead-legged defensively on several second-half possessions against the Nuggets, especially when closing out on Al Harrington at the 3-point line. The Lakers will have about 24 hours to acclimate themselves to the lack of local oxygen against a squad that lives to run guests out of its building. There won't be much time to make the physical and mental adjustments.
Having said this, I do wonder if this particular advantage will be quite as strong for the Nuggets as in years past. After all, they were saddled with the same compressed training camp as everyone else, are on a back-to-back, and have played only one home game so far. It actually wouldn't shock me if several Nuggets also appeared to be sucking wind.
But that's George Karl's problem, not the Lakers', and it doesn't alleviate entirely whatever problems they still may experience.
Two days later, they meet again. As we continue to gauge the readiness of the Lakers and Clippers as Christmas looms, here are five items to watch for in their final preseason action.
1) How much progress is evident for the Lakers in Game 2?
As Brian noted after Monday's Lakers loss, the blogosphere and Twitter reaction ranged from "Trade EVERYONE for Dwight Howard!" to "Jim Buss is destroying the Lakers!" to "Finally, an organic excuse to follow my secret dream of being a Raptors fan!" (Okay, the third reaction might be made up.) No question, the Lakers didn't look so hot, particularly during a brutal third quarter lowlighted by nine turnovers and just 17 points. For a Laker Nation already sweating last season's playoff exit, the Phil Jackson-Mike Brown transition and the clock ticking on Kobe Bryant's prime, this flat start did nothing to calm nerves.
It'll take some time before Mike Brown's schemes become second nature.
At the same time, disappointing as Monday's showing was, it was to be expected. The Lakers opened training camp 12 days ago, in which time the Lakers have lost Lamar Odom, signed Jason Kapono, Josh McRoberts, and Troy Murphy, and have begun the process of learning a brand new offense and defense. And by "new," I don't mean tweaked versions of what's been in place. The shift is radical.
Between his innate basketball intelligence, 15 NBA seasons and unquenchable "student of the game" tendencies, Kobe is an old dog difficult to teach genuinely new tricks. So if he's learning under Brown, you know everyone else is.
Those looking for a quick fix, whether fans or players, will likely be disappointed. I realize in a 66-game season, each contest matters more and time is not on the Lakers' side. And you can't sidestep the learning curve. The Lakers have no choice but to embrace the kinks and work through them.
What can be reasonably expected, even two games into the preseason, is some kind of tangible progress. Increased comfort, however small, on both sides of the ball. Possessions more fluid. Players more sure of where to go, especially defensively.
If the Lakers can move forward, even with baby steps, in the ways described above, it's absolutely reasonable to keep demanding more. But it's equally reasonable to feel perhaps things aren't as hopeless as the vibe 48 hours ago suggested.
(For those noting how the Clippers are dealing with the same issues -- new personnel, limited practices -- that's technically correct, but the situations aren't quite identical. Highly skilled additions like Chauncey Billups, Caron Butler, and Chris Paul make this transition much easier through their talent than the Lakers' addition of new role players. Plus, when your orientation is led by CP3, the best player in the league at keeping games on a string, the "getting to know you" period becomes even easier. That's not to say the Clippers don't deserve credit for a sharp performance, but that situational difference is hard to ignore.)
Honestly, they won't. Because it's essentially impossible to replace Odom.
Kobe Bryant has stated this. Ditto Pau Gasol. And Derek Fisher. And Matt Barnes. Even Mike Brown, who never coached LO so much as a day in practice, seems to agree. Beyond the personality, presence and heart Odom provided, his impact on games is virtually limitless.
Among forwards, the quest to offset Lamar Odom's absence begins with Pau Gasol.
Odom can play either guard spot, either forward spot or even as a center in a small lineup. Whether leisurely bringing up the ball to initiate half-court sets or running the team's best break, his ballhandling skills and court vision are exceptional. He cleans the glass. He can finish at the rim and, if last season's career-high 38 percent 3-point clip is maintained, his outside shots are now dangerous. On the other side of the ball, he plays some of the NBA's most varied (and underrated) defense. Plus, he allowed the Lakers to endure Andrew Bynum's inevitable injuries without becoming a discernibly worse team.
One player offering half of what LO's worth is rare. Everything? That list is exceptionally small and includes no current Laker. That being said, what's most important is that LO's ex-teammates chip in to pick up his slack. And in theory, the forwards trotted out by the Lakers this season could combine to form a sum equal to Odom's parts. Let's look at the list, shall we?
El Spaniard has been an afterthought of sorts this preseason. A terrible playoffs removed him from Lakers fans' good graces, and with his name persisting in trade rumors, there's a feeling he'll be removed from the roster. But for now, he remains in purple and gold. And assuming he bounces back (as I believe he will), Gasol is a cornerstone for the Lakers' title hopes as a player similarly versatile as Lamar. He'll provide more consistent scoring than LO, and if the outside shot he has been developing grows reliable, perhaps from as many spots on the court. His forays leading the break are rare, but operating from the high or low post, he's every bit the facilitator Lamar is. Defensively, he's neither as consistent nor as versatile as Lamar, but he's also hardly a slouch when dialed in.
It also doesn't hurt he's actually a better overall player than Lamar.
Obviously, the blame for any doubts surrounding Pau are his to bear, along with the burden of regaining the Laker Nation's trust. But playing like "Pau Gasol," he lays a championship foundation with Kobe and Drew, allowing the other forwards to fill cracks.