LA Lakers Season

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Preparing for the Draft

As the month of May nears an end, the Los Angeles Lakers continue to prepare for the off-season. With last week's draft lottery establishing the official order, teams have begun in earnest to map out their draft strategy. The Lakers have traded away their pick to the Boston Celtic deal to acquire Chris Mihm. They also acquired the Miami Heat pick in the Shaquille O'Neal trade. The net result is that Los Angeles will pick at 26 instead of at their "actual" position of 21. The Phoenix Suns have since acquired the Lakers' 21st pick. LA also has the 51st pick in the second round.

With the order finally set, NBA franchises have begun the early stages of trade negotiation. They've started working out players who are expected to be available in their pick range. This particular draft doesn't necessarily contain a ton of star power, but there are a number of solid players to be had even as late as 26. Still, it's every team's obligation to explore trading up from low position, down from high and even out of the draft entirely for teams already stacked with young talent.

The Lakers are one of the many teams trying to move forward in the draft. In fact, LA has been exploring attaining a pick as high as top five. To that end, they've scheduled workouts with a number of players who are expected to go much sooner than 26. That list includes both Brandon Roy and Shelden Williams who are easily considered to be prospects in the top ten. It's not clear if the Lakers have yet scheduled a meeting with Marcus Williams, but he is another player they are said to have their eye on.

Another player whose draft position is unclear at this time is Shawne Williams. He apparently wowed the Lakers in his workout, after which his agent stated that he Williams would be working out with teams primarily in the five to fifteen range. Considering LA is well below that, LA must be letting agents and/or players know that trading up is at least a legitimate possibility to even schedule with lottery level talent.

As far as bait to move up, Chris Mihm's name has been floated as an asset the Lakers would be willing to move. The goal would be to land a veteran player, perhaps with a longer contract, while climbing significantly higher in the lottery. Keeping in mind that it's at a very early stage, names like Derek Fisher, Darius Miles and Chris Duhon have been mentioned as possible targets. Of course, if the Golden State Warriors were contemplating sending Fisher and the ninth pick to LA, they're also talking to teams like the Toronto Raptors about moving up to the number one spot.

In other words, it's simply too early to think that any specific rumor at this point will come to fruition.

Still it's interesting to hear who LA is talking to and what they have in mind. Roy is considered an NBA ready guard who could conceivably play both guard positions in the triangle. Shelden Williams is a very solid, defensive-minded power forward. Marcus Williams is more of a true point guard. Shawne Williams is an athletic small forward, though it's unclear exactly how his skills will translate to the NBA.

Another thing to consider is that Laker GM Mitch Kupchak is known to smokescreen a bit around draft time. Last year, most believed the Lakers would take Gerald Green with their pick at ten. Instead, Green dropped to 18 and the Lakers took center Andrew Bynum. Shawne Williams could be a legitimate Laker target, or this year's misdirection.

Speaking of Bynum, had he waited a year to come out, he'd easily be a top five pick. There are some rumors that the Lakers are willing to move him for a piece that would help they compete right now, but they definitely won't let go of him easily. The player coming back would need to bring back major impact immediately.

The Lakers are watching the Western Conference Finals, still frustrated by the Tim Thomas three-pointer in games six. They are confident that had they advanced they would have beaten the Clippers with an excellent chance to beat the Dallas Mavericks. LA may not be the perfectly assembled team, but they realize they missed an opportunity to possibly sneak as far as the NBA Finals. The thinking is that the Lakers operate accordingly this summer to ensure they have the pieces in place to make a run next season.

Of course, should LeBron James decide not to sign his extension this summer, the Lakers may hold onto their 2008 cap space plan. Just as they gave up 2007 once Yao Ming and Amare Stoudemire were tied up long term, James is and has always been a major Laker target. If he's off the market, the Lakers are much more likely to make the financial commitments needed to win now.

Workout List
The following players have either worked out with the Lakers or are scheduled to do so:

Kenny Adeleke
Arron Afflalo
Maurice Ager
Morris Almond
Louis Amundson
Jose Juan Barea
Will Blalock
Cedric Bozeman
Dee Brown
Paul Davis
Guillermo Diaz
Mike Efevberha
Jordan Farmar
Nick Fazekas
Thomas Gardener
Taj Gray
Matt Haryasz
Shawn Hawkins
Chris Hernandez
Ryan Hollins
Daniel Horton
Alexander Johnson
Bobby Jones
Daniel Kickert
Tarence Kinsey
Christian Maraker
Gerry McNamara
Paul Milsap
Yemi Nicholson
Steve Novak
Kevin Pittsnogle
Leon Powe
Chris Quinn
Brandon Roy
Julian Sensley
Marcus Vinicius Viera De Souza
James White
Eric Williams
Shawne Williams
Shelden Williams
Tang Zhengdong

Clearly the Lakers are all over the map, as they should be considering that moving up is always a challenge. Were they to pick today, the hope would "seem" to be that Shawne Williams is available at 26 (unclear at this point) and that Syracuse point guard Gerry McNamara is available at 51. With a month to go until the draft, this is expected to change as more players work out and teams become more sincere in trade negotiation.

The Bottom Line
The draft is the first step for the Lakers. Whether they move up or pick at their current positions, what they do in free agency will be dictated by what they get done by the end of June. At 26 and 51, it's not likely the Lakers find pieces that will be able to make an immediate impact. Should they move up, acquiring a veteran in the process, that too will establish the need in free agency. Who the Lakers send out to make a deal would also create new holes in the roster to fill.

The Lakers want to add athleticism, speed, shooting ability to a roster that proved further along than many expected. More importantly, the Lakers want to add players who they believe will fit naturally within the triangle offense. The team clearly needs another guard, preferably one who can defend effectively. They could also use another forward to replace Devean George who isn't expected back at this early stage (certainly that could change).

It's not yet clear if the Lakers prefer Lamar Odom at small forward, especially after his impressive run at the four against the Suns. The guess is that the Lakers will try to acquire the best forward that can, regardless of position, and let Coach Phil Jackson figure out how to piece it together on the floor.

The draft is always an exciting process. A lot can and will happen over the next month . . . and it will set the course for the remainder of the off-season.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Lakers Suns Preview

The Phoenix Suns expect to see a more aggressive Kobe Bryant after a strong defensive effort against the Los Angeles Lakers superstar in Game 1 of their Western Conference first-round series. The NBA's scoring champion, though, says he won't change his style of play.

Bryant will again try to get his teammates involved more as Los Angeles looks to avoid falling into an 0-2 hole.

Bryant averaged 42.5 points in four games against the Suns in the regular season, but the Lakers lost three of those contests. The Lakers decided to change their game plan for the opener of this series, and Bryant took only 21 shots, but Los Angeles still lost 107-102 on Sunday.

Bryant made seven of those attempts and finished with 22 points, well below his league-best average of 35.4 per game during the regular season.

``I wasn't really looking to attack. I think there are a lot of things we can take advantage of and tonight we did that,'' Bryant said. ``It kept us in the ballgame and we had them right where we wanted them, but a couple of bounces didn't go our way.

``It's just a matter of finding that groove, really. We know this is the way we want to play.''

All five starters scored in double figures for the Lakers for just the fourth time this season and first since Dec. 23.

``We can play a little bit. Today was a good all-around game,'' Bryant said. ``So, it's just a matter of us keeping it going and being ready to fight on Wednesday.''

Bryant said he will do whatever it takes to win.

``I listen to the big guy,'' he said, gesturing toward coach Phil Jackson. ``That's who I play for. If he says go out there and shoot the ball 50 times, that's what I'm going to do. I just follow his orders, follow his lead, and try to play the way he wants me to play, to the best of my ability.''

Phoenix's plan was to trap Bryant in Game 1, and Suns coach Mike D'Antoni said his team probably won't change its philosophy Wednesday.

``He's kind of special and he needs special attention,'' D'Antoni said. ``Worked (Sunday), we will see if it works next game. You have to try something, you can't just let him play because he is just too good. You've got to get lucky some time and we got lucky with him.''

Tim Thomas led the way for Phoenix in Game 1, scoring 22 points and grabbing 15 rebounds. Thomas also admitted to whacking Bryant on the head to force a turnover with the Suns holding a late four-point lead.

``I definitely fouled him,'' Thomas said. ``I got away with one, but I didn't do it intentionally. It wasn't like I threw a jab at him.''

Jackson, who lost a Game 1 for the first time in his career, was surprised at the no call.

``Kobe going baseline in a four-point game. It's difficult,'' Jackson said. ``I don't feel like we missed an opportunity. We'll have better opportunities as we go along. We're figuring out how to play against them.''

Game 3 is Friday in Los Angeles.

Strange Time To Diversify

Will the real Kobe Bryant please stand up?

Laker fans were left bewildered after Bryant's puzzling performance in Sunday's 107-102 Game 1 loss to the Suns. The normally gun-blazing Bryant took only 21 shots, a far cry from the 27.2 attempts per game he averaged during the regular season. And the deeper you delve into the numbers, the worse it looks.

Including free-throw attempts, Bryant averaged 31.7 "shot tries" in 41.0 minutes per game during the regular season (we arrive at this figure by multiplying free-throw attempts by 0.44 and adding field-goal attempts). So on Sunday, when Bryant played 46 minutes against the league's fastest paced team, we should have expected close to 40 shot tries from him. But between the 21 field-goal attempts and eight free-throw attempts, he ended up with a meager 24.5.

Granted, 24.5 is still a ton of shots for most players, but for Bryant it was abnormally low. It had been nearly a month since he'd taken fewer than 25 field goal attempts in a game. And it was shocking because it was his first playoff game of the post-Shaq era - a perfect time to show the world that the Kobecentric Lakers could still get things done in the West.

Moreover, Bryant's play was so passive that he had trouble converting even when the opportunities arose. Bryant made just seven of his 21 attempts, including 1-of-6 on 3-pointers,and couldn't rally L.A. in the final minute when he tried to take over (although that whack to the head from Tim Thomas didn't help).It wasn't like Bryant was setting up teammates, either: His five assists barely topped his season average of 4.5, and again this was despite playing more minutes at an extremely fast pace.

So what gives? Why was Kobe hanging out on the perimeter all game like he was Fred Hoiberg? Believe it or not, the Lakers claim it was their plan all along. Coach Phil Jackson apparently felt it was in L.A.'s best interests to establish the other players in Game 1 of the series, the logic being that they'd be less likely to sit around with their hands in their pockets during the final six games.

In particular, Jackson wanted to target Phoenix's interior defense by calling Kwame Brown's number early and often. The fifth-year (dare we call him "veteran" yet?) center played extremely well during the season's final month and a half, so it wasn't a ridiculous idea. Since moving into the starting lineup on March 14, Brown scored in double figures 13 times in 18 games and shot a sizzling 60.7% from the floor.

Additionally, Phoenix's interior is a weak link. The Suns have defended the paint atrociously ever since they lost Kurt Thomas just after the All-Star break. With 6-foot-8-inch Boris Diaw lining up as the Suns' "center," Jackson no doubt saw an opportunity to get one of Phoenix's key players in early foul trouble.

So I can understand Jackson's logic - but it still wasn't a good idea. For starters, Bryant had such a passive mindset for the first three quarters that when the Lakers really needed him to take things over in the fourth, he couldn't do it. On top of that, Brown didn't remind anybody of Wilt Chamberlain in the paint. He made just five of 12 shots, so going to him in the post seemed to hurt the Lakers more than it hurt the Suns.

L.A. shot only 42.2% from the floor overall,and in fact, its only saving grace at the offensive end was its 15 offensive rebounds. Essentially, Jackson's strategy ended up sacrificing Game 1 - something he acknowledged was a possibility - in the hopes that the Lakers will be better positioned for Games 2 through 7.

But here's my question - what did the Lakers really gain from this? This team played a certain style for 82 straight games, and it was all focused on Kobe. Now we're supposed to believe that because Kwame Brown and Luke Walton got a few more touches in Game 1, that the Lakers are suddenly a balanced offensive team? Are we really supposed to believe that they won't go back to their regular-season offense in Game 2, or that they'll ever revisit the game plan from Sunday again in these playoffs?

And if it was so important for Jackson to get his other guys more involved, why on Earth did he wait until April 22 to do it? Shouldn't he have done this in, oh, say, November? At the very least, he could have turned to this strategy a week earlier, when the Lakers played the Suns and had a 21-point lead by halftime.

Chalk it up as a huge missed opportunity, because Game 1 was there for the taking. Phoenix's normally torrid offense sputtered in the second and third quarters, producing just 36 points and allowing the Lakers to tie the game heading into the fourth quarter. Considering the Lakers have to win at least once in Phoenix - and probably twice - in order to take the series, letting this one get away stings.

That's why tonight's Game 2 should play out very differently. Expect Bryant to be the focal point of the offense early and often, and look for the rest of the Lakers to fall right back into their regular season roles.

That may not be such a bad thing. Jackson was focused on attacking Phoenix's interior defense with postups, but a more effective tactic may be to force them to help against Bryant's penetration and tagging them with fouls that way. Brown's high-percentage shooting may return if he's taking in feeds from Bryant for dunks and layups rather than having to create his own shot from the blocks.

Unfortunately, the Lakers can't undo their misguided strategy from Sunday. Getting the other guys involved was a nice sentiment, but the rule of thumb in the playoffs is that you dance with what brought you there unless you're presented with a real good reason not to. Jackson is one of the game's greatest coaches, but his violation of that cardinal rule on Sunday resulted in a self-inflicted defeat - one that could ultimately cost the Lakers the season.

Lakers Put Baskets Into Game Plan

Right down to the minutiae of the detailed game plan, the Lakers worked like a smooth-running engine.

All five starters scored in double figures. They got the ball inside, just as they planned. They finished with more rebounds than the Phoenix Suns, held them to 36 points over a 24-minute stretch and limited their turnovers to 10.

Expect more of the same tonight in Game 2 of the Western Conference quarterfinals, where the Lakers will trot out many of the same formulas in an effort to tie the best-of-7 series.

And how about making some shots? Well, yeah, there's that, too.

"Easy shots,'' center Kwame Brown said as he recalled the number of layups that stayed out of the hoop. "It was frustrating, but we've got another game and we have to come out and make those easy layups.''

While the immediate consensus following the game was that Kobe Bryant, who once took 46 shots in a game this season and averaged 27.2, played a passive game offensively, he said it was more of a matter of making the shots when he had them.

"We had some good opportunities to take advantage of them down low,'' Bryant said. "We just missed a lot of easy ones. I wish we could get 'em back, but hopefully they'll fall for us next time.''

Now, did Bryant paint himself into a corner by taking only three shots in the first quarter, failing to get himself into a rhythm that could have generated more offense in crunch time?

"It's just making sure everybody else is in rhythm,'' Bryant said. "When the guys are into that rhythm, I can get into one of those modes and if at the end of the ballgame they feel like they're in a good rhythm, they can step up and knock shots down.''

Forward Luke Walton, who scored a career playoff-high 19 points on 9-for-16 shooting, seemed to benefit most from Bryant's play.

"He did a great job of getting us all involved,'' Walton said. "They were double-teaming him all over the court. He did a great job trusting us.''

Yet don't be surprised to see the Bryant shot-meter spike tonight. He said that he could rely on forward Lamar Odom to take a larger role in facilitating the offense, but he didn't want to change too much.