2011-12 Season Preview: Guards
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 eachplayer, debated how to abbreviate Metta World Peace and more.
Let’s take a look at the backcourt.
STAT STUFFER: Despite seeing his minutes fall by nearly five per game (33.9) as Phil Jackson hoped to keep Bryant more fresh, the two-time Finals MVP averaged 25.3 points (leading the NBA in points per 40 minutes, acc. to ESPN.com), 5.1 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.2 steals in 33.9 minutes. He had the league’s highest usage rate (.352), finished hit 83% of his FT’s and missed not a single game despite a plethora of nagging injuries to his fingers and knees in particular. He was back on the All-NBA First Team and Defensive First Team for the 9th time, respectively, and made his 13th All-Star start.
- 29.9 – Bryant’s NBA rank in points per minute (29.9), bolstered by solid overall shooting numbers (45.1 percent) and 7.1 free throw attempts per game.
- 4.9 – Fewer minutes played by Bryant last season than in 2010-11. Mike Brown said he’d like to keep Bryant around the 34 minute-per-game mark.
- 30 – Number of games it will take Bryant (27,868) to surpass Shaquille O’Neal (28,596) for fifth on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, if he averages 25 ppg.
“I wasn’t here during the days when he was at his most athletic, but I can say that he has arguably the greatest skill set I’ve ever seen in my life. Bar none, though Michael Jordan is in there. That’s what separates Kobe from the other great players. He doesn’t have to dominate above the rim any more, because his skill set dictates that he can get where he needs to go to be efficient with the shots he takes. The system that we have now, he’ll have to run more high pick and rolls, as well as be able to take shots off pin downs and baseline screens. He’s such a lethal worker that anything you throw at him he absorbs immediately. He’s truly a sponge. I knew right after Mike got hired, that Kobe understands what type of system we’re going to run. He’s the smartest, most intellectual player I’ve been around. He literally gets it the first time. It’s a true blessing to work with a guy of his stature. Once in a generation.”
In the past few seasons, the difference maker for Bryant has been almost solely his health. As Person explained, you never worry about his ability to figure things out on the floor, but you do have to think about the fact that only 26 players have played more than his 40,163 minutes. And only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has played more than Kobe’s 8,163 postseason minutes! Repeat: he’s played more playoff minutes than all but ONE hoops legend. The biggest concern of late has been Kobe’s ailing right knee, but that was alleviated by an innovative procedure he underwent in Germany over the summer that had him telling head athletic trainer Gary Vitti he felt better than he had in years, and the media that he felt quicker, more explosive and more able to get to the basket. However … in the first preseason game, Bryant fell hard on his shooting wrist, tearing a ligament. Three days later, he was back at practice, looking as if he never hurt it in the first place, according to Mike Brown. How much it actually affects Bryant remains to be seen, but nobody’s betting against him simply figuring it out as he always does.
STAT STUFFER: In starting all 82 for the sixth straight season, Fisher averaged 28 minutes to score 6.8 points with 2.7 assists, 1.9 boards and 1.2 steals while shooting 38.9 percent and39.6 percent from three to lead the team.
- 6.5 – Field goal attempts per game. While Fisher aims to improve on a subpar shooting season, his limited number of FGA’s show that the difference between him making only .5 more shots per game takes his average from 38% (2.5 shots) to 46% (3.0 shots). For the season, that’s a difference of 41 total shots.
- 25.6 – Fisher’s score in 82games.com’s “Hands Rating,” measuring turnovers and ball handling, by far the best on the Lakers (Bryant was second with a 17.3 mark).
- 495 – Straight games played for the league’s current iron man, who hasn’t missed a regular season contest since April 13, 2005.
“I think his presence is invaluable. He brings professionalism, he brings big shot nature to our team, and his leadership capabilities are unprecedented from the mere fact that he’s not a super star. Most of the time it takes superstar talent to get a group of players to follow your league, and Fisher has done that without the stature. He works harder than almost anybody I’ve ever played with or coached, and I feel he has the qualities to adjust to any system, including Mike Brown’s new one.”
It’s never been Fisher’s job to play the role of a Derrick Rose, Chris Paul or Russell Westbrook, where the ball is in his hands and he’s supposed to create all the offense. There are too many talented scorers that need the ball, starting with Bryant and the two 7-footers, for L.A. to have a point guard that puts up 20 and 10 with a significant usage rate. What L.A. wants from its PG position is a steady hand who knows where to get the ball, when, and can knock down open shots. They believe Fisher remains best suited for that role, even if his numbers don’t look good. L.A.’s coaches also worry less about the fact that Fisher will get beat off the dribble by NBA points guards, because with the rules as they are, Derrick Rose couldn’t guard Derrick Rose. It’s about being smart enough to utilize help defense inside, and make up for any 1-on-1 struggles with off-ball intelligence, were Fisher excels.
STAT STUFFER: Blake’s first season with the Lakers saw him average 4.0 points and 2.2 assists on 35.9% FG’s and 37.8% 3’s in 20 minutes per game. Though his three-point shooting was adequate if below his career standard, only Rasual Butler made a lower percentage of his two-point shots in players with at least 100 FGA’s, according to Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus.
- 2.3 – Blake’s assist-to-turnover ratio, down from his previous mark of 2.97 that ranked 13th in the NBA in 2009-10, but still second on the Lakers to Fisher’s 3.2. He expects this (and his shooting) to improve with another year of acquaintance with his teammates, and a single-guard front on offense under Mike Brown.
- 5.9 – Drop off in Blake’s 3-point shooting from his 43.7% with the Clippers in 2009-10 to 37.8% last season, as he struggled to look for (and make) his own shot in deference to his new teammates.
- 7,441 (and counting) – Tweets sent out by Blake’s wife Kristen, the most active/entertaining of significant others in the Lakers’ extended family.
“Steve works every day, comes to practice early and stays late. He learned the system very quickly last year, and he knew he didn’t shoot the ball like he normally has in his career. I think that was an aberration. He’ll do a better job of taking and making shots, be more aggressive, which we need. The one-guard front (from the two-guard front triangle) is better suited to Steve’s talents and we like what we’ve seen from him in camp.”
So concerned was Blake about stepping out of what he felt his role was as the backup in the triangle offense in 2010-11, on a back-to-back champ no less, Blake failed to score 20 points even once, though Person said he was better-than-advertised on defense. A feisty player by nature (the 6-3 Blake has never met a 7-footer whose face he didn’t want to get into – just check YouTube), no one was more disappointed with his previous season, and his only recourse was the gym. The (very) early results have been noticed by his coaches, as Blake’s jumper has looked terrific in camp, and he’s been much more assertive. In the second preseason game, Blake hit 6-of-9 FG’s, including 5-of-6 from long distance, to score 20 points with three assists in 28 minutes. They won’t expect five triples per game, but that’s the mindset Mike Brown and Co. want to see from Blake all season.
STAT STUFFER: The 41st overall pick in the 2011 Draft played in 67 games at Michigan, starting 53, and made the All-Big Ten Third Team as a sophomore. The L.A. native is a big, pass-first point guard who was among the national leaders in assists per game (6.7) while also posting 15.0 ppg.
- 11 – Points scored by Morris in his first preseason action, including three shot-clock-buzzer beaters, plus three assists and three boards in 23 minutes against the Clippers, though he looked predictably out of sorts while trying to learn Mike Brown’s offense.
- 25 – Three-point percentage for Morris as a sophomore. The line obviously moves back in the NBA, so his range was a top priority in the offseason.
- 235 – School record for assists at Michigan, accumulated while leading the Wolverines to an 8 seed at the NCAA tourney.
“Darius is more of an athletic point guard, who in my opinion is going to end up being one of the fastest guys in the league from baseline to baseline. He’s really a good defender, using athleticism and quickness to get you extra possessions off steals and beating people to spots for charges. He and Andrew Goudelock have to be ready to play at all times if we need them. We’re excited about their upside.”
As long as Fisher and Blake are healthy, Morris isn’t likely to see too many minutes in the backcourt, but he has shown enough flashes of creativity to warrant consideration for minutes at some point. In training camp, L.A.’s coaches liked how Morris was able to create shots for teammates with his dribble penetration, not exactly a strong suit for the Lakers.
STAT STUFFER: L.A.’s No. 46 overall pick started 124 of his 140 games at the College of Charleston, averaging 18.4 points, 3.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists while becoming the school’s all-time leading scorer. He posted 23.7 ppg as a senior, good for 4th in the nation.
- 24 – Points in his lone D-League appearance for the L.A. D-Fenders. Depending upon Mike Brown’s rotation, Goudelock (and Darius Morris) could be sent for further stints in the D-League to get more playing time.
- 39 – Goudelock’s rank in NCAA Division 1 history in scoring with his 2,571 points.
- 41.3 – Goudelock’s career 3-point shooting percentage in college. He drained three triples in his first preseason action against the Clippers (12/21/11).
“He’s just a polished scorer. There’s little he can’t do with the ball in his hands. He’s tough-minded and doesn’t back down from challenges. He possesses very deep range, and is willing to learn. We’re fortunate to have him and Darius Morris on our perimeter.”
A lack of shooting on the perimeter has been a problem for the Lakers in the past two seasons, and the drafting of Goudelock seemed to be a shot at addressing it. He’s yet to disappoint towards that end in training camp, but whether or not he actually sees burn will depend upon the health of Kobe Bryant, Jason Kapono’s effectiveness and whether Mike Brown wants to use Devin Ebanks or Matt Barnes at the 2 at times. L.A. does lose quite a bit defensively if the 6-2 guard has to defend 2’s, as opposed to Ebanks (6-9), Kapono (6-8) or Barnes (6-7).