2011-12 Season Preview: Forwards
Seven months ago, a Lakers’ team chasing a three-peat saw its title hopes end prematurely and abruptly, swept away in Round 2 at the hands of the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks.
Away from the hardwood, so much has happened since: Phil Jackson retired, soon replaced by former Cleveland coach Mike Brown; Kobe Bryant went to Germany for an innovative procedure; Pau Gasol led Spain to EuroBasket 2011 gold; union president Derek Fisher donned a suit as a key figure in the lockout that kept the team’s management and players from communicating up until the new CBA was ratified in December; the team thought they’d made a major trade, and days later moved Lamar Odom to Dallas.
But did all of that remove the sting of Dirk Nowitzki’s lofted jumpers? Did it take away the pain of failure for the first time in over two years for a prideful group of players? For the first time since early in 2008, the Lakers are not the title favorites. They aren’t even the favorites of many pundits in the West. Could that end up being a good thing for L.A. if the players prove as motivated and hungry as they say they are?
Bryant, of course, hasn’t forgotten last season. His right knee feels better than it has in years, and he feels more capable of getting to the basket, though he did tear a wrist ligament in the team’s first preseason game that he vowed to play through (as always). Gasol has not misplaced the memory of a poor postseason performance that made some forget his rightful place on the All-NBA Second Team. He’s already shown his Catalan resolve in bouncing back so strong from the 2008 Finals defeat to the Celtics by keying back-to-back title runs, but having to do it again isn’t a bad thing.
Andrew Bynum wants to prove that he’s truly an elite NBA pivot man, an All-Star, and after a five-game suspension to open the season, he’ll have his chance particularly in Odom’s absence.
There are so many interesting NBA storylines heading into this season that writers of the best TV shows (like “Breaking Bad,” “Sons of Anarchy” and “Parks and Recreation,” if you ask us) could take notes. This season preview is designed to offer as many of those angles surrounding the Lakers as possible.
To inform ourselves, we spent time with Mike Brown and his new assistants (lone Phil Jackson holdover Chuck Person took the former Lakers, Darvin Ham the new guys), looked inside the numbers for each player, debated how to abbreviate Metta World Peace and more.
Let’s take a look at the forwards.
STAT STUFFER: Gasol made his third straight All-Star team and was named to the All-NBA Second Team behind terrific regular season averages of 18.8 points,10.2 boards, 3.3 assists and 1.6 blocks with 52.9% FG’s. It’s hard to find a hole on his statistical page, as he also hits FT’s (82.3%), and he plays solid defense on the perimeter for his size and protects the rim … especially late in games.
- 7 – Gasol’s rank in WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player), a stat adapted to basketball by Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus. He also finished 2010-11 at No. 11 in John Hollinger’s PER..
- 37 – Minutes per game averaged by Gasol to easily lead the Lakers in 2010-11. The Spaniard missed not a single game, this after three consecutive trips to the Finals and offseason duty with his Spanish National Team. Particularly with Andrew Bynum consistently missing time, noLaker was asked for more physically than Gasol. It’s no surprise that he didn’t have his best game in the 2010-11 postseason for that reason alone.
- 48 – Gasol’s shooting percentage between 16-23 feet, according to Hoopdata.com. For the league’s most skilled low post player to also be highly accurate on the perimeter makes him essentially unguardable. He finishes with each hand around the rim, boasts a motley crew of moves, and even makes three-pointers … of which he hit 7-of-11 in EuroBasket11. Though he’s a terrific passer, his coaches actually want him to shoot more.
“His skill set is unrivaled for a big man. He has the footwork of a guard, like Kobe. He’s a perfectionist when it comes to his body of work, and last year, Pau had a great regular season. He started to play better towards the end of New Orleans, but struggled a bit against Dallas and wasn’t the Pau we all know. But at the same time, we expect he’ll come back in great shape and be very motivated. Everyone goes through a stretch where their game is not up to par with their talent and skill, and unfortunately for him that stretch for him came where he wasn’t his dominant self. He’s so good at so many things; we fully expect Pau to be an all-league player this year.”
Perhaps no player on the Lakers roster had more to deal with in the preseason, “Pau” the most prominent name in trade talks and a center of criticism for the team’s postseason flame out. Such is Gasol’s general intelligence and perspective, however, that he essentially turned it all into a non-issue by dealing with everything so professionally, according to his coaches. He told us he feels that his track record for L.A. since his arrival speaks louder than his words could about why he shouldn’t be doubted in 2011-12, and through camp has looked like the Spaniard that keyed three straight Finals runs in L.A. immediately after his arrival, not the one that didn’t play his best in four postseason games. Gasol is 31 and counting, but his game has never been based upon athleticism or explosion.
STAT STUFFER: The 21-year-old Ebanks saw limited PT in his rookie season to average 3.1 points and 1.4 rebounds before suffering a stress fracture in his left foot in February. He played so well in training camp that he earned the opening day starting small forward slot.
- 3 – Times Ebanks played more than 10 minutes for Phil Jackson in 2010-11, leaving much to be seen.
- 3 – Positions the Lakers think Ebanks can play: SG, SF and PF. He’s most suited to the 3, but if he puts on some weight, could become a solid stretch 4 thanks to his length.
- 77 – Percent of preseason shots hit (disclaimer: limited sample size). Hitting 7-of-9 FG’s, many from the perimeter, was a strong statement from a guy whose jumper was a question mark.
“Ebanks has a great, great motor. His energy levels are endless. We feel that he has an opportunity to be a good pro. He can play and guard two positions, the 2 and the 3, and later on in his career when he adds some weight and strength that he can play some stretch 4. We’re happy that he can help us in certain situations this year, and we like his work ethic. Like most good, young, athletic young men should, we feel he should be able to contribute.”
Easily the surprise of training camp, Ebanks looked so good at times that Mike Brown started him in the first half of Game 2 against the Clippers. He played so well, finishing with eight points on 4-of-6 shooting, making a few nice defensive plays keyed by his length and not turning the ball over, that Brown decided he couldn’t keep him out of the starting line up. The skills he does possess aren’t prominent on L.A.’s veteran team, so he figures to find a way onto the court at any one of three positions, as the year wears on. Bryant praised Ebanks early in training camp, saying that he had more offensive skills than Trevor Ariza with similar length, but it took that first quarter in particular against the Clippers to make our ears perk up a bit … apparently Kobe wasn’t lying.
STAT STUFFER: Metta averaged 8.5 points on 39.7% FG’s with 3.2 boards, 2.1 assists and a team-best 1.5 steals while starting all 82 games, his primary responsibilities coming on defense.
- 13.9 – The average PER of players World Peace guarded last season, according to 82games.com, showing that he’s still very much an elite perimeter defender. In fact, a PER of 13.9 would rank just 25th among NBA small forwards, just behind Chase Budinger (24th, 14.29) and ahead of Vladimir Radmanovic (30th, 12.59).
- 35.6 – Metta’s shooting percentage from three, consistent with his 35.5% in his first Lakers season. But he struggled from the rest of the floor, particularly at the rim and on long twos.
- 1,474 – Career steals accumulated by MWP, good for 40th on the all-time NBA chart, behind only five active players.
“He’s a great, great defensive player. The best pair of hands I’ve ever seen. He can guard 2’s, 3’s and 4’s … he affects that end tremendously. One good thing about Ron guarding other team’s superstars is he’s so strong, guys won’t post him up – they go outside of their best option. Obviously Ron sacrificed many things offensively for us, and we got one championship from it, but at the same time Ron needs to work on his shooting and become more efficient with his shots. I think in Mike’s system Ron will have more opportunities. There are times when he works inconsistently with the way he should within the offense. But again, you have to understand what you’re getting when you coach Ron, and you have to give him room and space to adjust to the moment. He’s the type of player that sometimes will go off on his own, as all players will, but because of Ron’s history, he’s misjudged and misconstrued … the bottom line is he brings a championship caliber presence to our team.”
With his move to a new role on the bench, it’s time for World Peace to showcase the scoring form that saw him average 20.5 points per game as recently as 2007-08, and 17.1 in 2008-09, before he focused almost exclusively on D upon arrival in L.A. due to the presence of guys named Kobe, Pau, Andrew and Lamar. With the latter’s move to Dallas, World Peace has been asked by Mike Brown to use his skill set – including an ability to post up nearly all NBA small forwards – to provide scoring punch. His shot selection and inconsistency becomes less an issue off the bench, though L.A.’s coaches clearly hope for progress there as the season rolls on. Brown has repeatedly informed those listening that he believes in World Peace’s offensive game, but did hedge his bet a bit by telling Metta that if he’s going to shoot as much as he did in the preseason, he’d best make some shots.
STAT STUFFER: Barnes posted averages of 6.7 points on 47% FG’s with 4.3 rebounds and 1.3 assists in 19.2 mpg, playing 53 regular season contests. He was very solid for L.A. before being slowed by a tear in the meniscus of his right knee in January.
- 5.3 – Shots per game taken by Barnes, of which 77% (4.1) come either at the rim (2.1) or from downtown (2.0), according to Hoopdata.com. He doesn’t need the ball to contribute, something Mike Brown likes very much considering the talent around him.
- 8 – Teams for whom Barnes has played in his 10-year career (Clippers, Kings, 76ers, Knicks, Warriors, Suns, Magic and Lakers).
- 8.9 – Rebounds per 40 minutes last season for Barnes, long excellent on the glass at both ends of the floor. Used to going up and getting the ball in traffic, Barnes was an All-American receiver in high school that could have played football anywhere he wanted in college.
“When Matt came in last year, he had great energy, a good presence on defense. He was making shots … but he wasn’t the same after the knee injury. His lateral quickness and ability to offensive rebound, get up and down the floor was severely affected. As I understand it, he’s healthy now, so we look to have that Matt that started the season. That’s his main shtick … he’s sustained a long career by being the stone cutter, who’s going to chop wood for you the old fashioned way. We look for that type of temperament and hopefully he can provide it.”
Barnes provides an elite rebounding rate from the forward slot, speed in transition going both ways and less need for the ball on offense than, for example, Metta World Peace. His on-ball defense remains effective, though he is prone to fouling/doesn’t often get the benefit of the doubt on calls. Barnes has always had more value than his numbers suggest, with his willingness to do any little thing that might help a team win. He realizes that his reputation precedes him and occasionally costs his team, but his teammates, like Kobe Bryant, don’t want him to change how he plays. The net, they feel, is definitely positive. As such, even though Devin Ebanks will get the opening day start at the 3, expect to see Barnes on the floor in some capacity.
STAT STUFFER: Free agent acquisition McRoberts averaged career highs in points (7.4), rebounds (5.3) and assists (2.1) while appearing in 72 games (51 starts) with the Indiana Pacers in 2010-11.
- 2.8 – Number of McRoberts’ 5.4 field goal attempts that came at the rim, according to Hoopdata.com. An excellent finisher/dunker, this has helped McRoberts qualify himself one of the league’s more efficient players.
- 19 – League-wide rank for McRoberts in TS% (true shooting percentage), measuring a player’s FG% while accounting for FT’s (74%) and 3-pointers, at .608. Andrew Bynum was 20th in the NBA at .606.
- 38.3 – Three-point percentage for “Mac”, though he attempted only 60 triples on the season.
“I love the way Josh plays. He comes to practice with great energy each day, running the floor, rebounding, setting screens, diving on the court, trapping on defense. And he’s a guy that can move his feet, which helps to keep guards out of the paint. We’re very excited about him, and he can still build on his game because he’s a very talented player. You can never have too many guys that know how to make plays without the ball in their hands. His ability on the offensive glass is big for us too, and that’s about heart, will and smarts – anticipating the ball, knowing how to avoid box outs, and knowing what to do once you get the ball.”
McRoberts will be thrown directly into the fire in the 4-game absence of suspended Andrew Bynum, starting at the four next to Pau Gasol. While he’s shown good shot blocking ability from the weak side as a power forward, his on-ball defense isn’t elite, and is certainly a step down from Gasol particularly with Bynum on the other side of the floor to protect the rim. He’s better suited off the bench, where he can contribute in any number of ways. Overall, L.A.’s coaches are excited about Mac thanks to a combination of all-around hoops skills and what is by all accounts a terrific attitude.
STAT STUFFER: Jason Kapono has a career average of 6.9 points on 44.3% FG's and 43.7% 3-pointers, appearing in 482 career games. He played in just 24 games last season for the Sixers.
- 2 – All-Star Weekend three-point titles for Kapono (2007 and 2008).
- 6 – Kapono’s all-time rank, in league history, from the 3-point line (.437).
- 51.4 – Kapono’s 3-point percentage for NBA champ Miami in 2006-07, the sixth highest in league history.
“Obviously he’s a great shooter, and that’s been impressive, but I’ve also been impressed with the rest of his game in camp. He’s had to guard Kobe, and he hasn’t backed down from that challenge. He wants to get better, to learn more defensively. He also has great escape moves, one- and two-dribble pull ups, and an array of ways to score aside from standing behind the arc. He brings scrappy play to the office every day, great energy and a great mindset to us, and he doesn’t get discouraged if every shot doesn’t go down. He’s another guy who doesn’t need the ball to be effective, because with him just standing out there at the 3-point line, opponents have to account for him. That leaves more space for our guys inside, which is huge for us.”
The type of respect that Kapono gets from opposing defenders means that even if he misses five straight shots, he will still get covered every single time. Many players around the league won’t demand that close attention even if they make five shots in a row, which inL.A.’s case is very significant. Three-point shooting, and stretching the floor in general, has been a weakness for the past two seasons, frustrating for a team with such great post up players. But between new additions Kapono, Troy Murphy, Josh McRoberts and improved Steve Blake and Devin Ebanks, the Lakers now seem to have plenty of long-range gunners, which is important to Mike Brown’s “strong corner offense.” If the rest of Kapono’s game matches even half of Ham’s description, the pick up by GM Mitch Kupchak will look that much more impressive than if all he did was hit threes.
STAT STUFFER: Murphy owns career averages of 11.6 points and 8.4 rebounds in 656 games (481 starts) with Golden State, Indiana, New Jersey and Boston. Injured much of last season, he averaged only 10 minutes in 17 games for the Celtics.
- 5 – Years in which Murphy averaged a double-double in his career.
- 16 – Murphy’s rank among active players in rebounds per game with his 8.4 average. He also ranks 29th in 3-point FG% at .389.
- 90 – Percent of his three-point shots he made for the Lakers during his workout for team brass, missing only five times in 50 attempts.
“He’s healthy, and while he’s not the loudest guy in the gym, he’s really receptive to coaching. Troy is a hard worker who wants to understand the defensive strategy’s we have in place, and is picking up on the terminology. He’s a stretch 4 that you have to respect from the three-point line, and a great defensive rebounder as well. I think he’s going to fit in really well.”
Hearing that “he’s healthy” from Ham is critical, because the Lakers think the Notre Dame product still has a lot to offer. His work on the defensive glass and, in particular, stretching the floor with his 3-point shooting for either Bynum, Gasol or Kobe – whoever is on the block – could really help L.A. On the other hand, Murphy will have trouble guarding many NBA 4’s due to a lack of lateral quickness. He can actually handle some centers better on D; if he’s on the floor with Gasol, the Spaniard could guard fours, while both Gasol and Bynum do provide weakside shot blocking.
STAT STUFFER: Walton appeared in 54 games for the Lakers, averaging 9.0 minutes in such contests towards 1.7 points, 1.3 boards and 1.1 assists as he battled a sore lower back
- 0 – Reports of back pain from Walton in the preseason, perhaps the most important thing for him as he’s been plagued for years.
- 3 – Number of father-son combinations to win the NBA title (Bill and Luke Walton, Rick and Brent Barry, Matt and Matt Jr. Guokas).
- 8 – Wins thus far for the Memphis Tigers men’s college squad, for whom Walton served as an assistant to his old Arizona buddy and current Tigers Coach Josh Pastner before the lockout ended.
“I’ve watched Luke over the last two years and it’s very painful when a guy has a skill set that fits the team on a championship level to see him agonize over the fact that he can’t contribute. But at the same time, he’s a great teammate who will do whatever the staff asks of him; if he can be healthy and team free, there are some qualities he has that can really help us.”
More than anything, L.A.’s coaches want to see that Walton’s healthy, and he’s been just that throughout the preseason. His elite ability at understanding offenses and moving the ball can always help at certain times during basketball games, but Walton has three SF’s in front of him on the depth chart, which will likely limit his potential playing time in 2011-12.