How the Los Angeles Lakers Beat the Houston Rockets

From a stylistic and tactical standpoint, this was the matchup everyone wanted to watch. The Lakers and Clippers would have been the storylines, the star power, the in-town rivalries, and the online media receipts so relished by fans, all of which are great. But the Lakers-Rockets series was a battle of ideas as much as it was one of teams and individuals.

In a league that increasingly emphasizes wings and three point shooting, the Rockets play only wings and guards while regularly breaking their own league records for the number of their shots that come from behind the arc. By contrast, the Lakers regularly play two bigs and attack the paint with size and physicality, as their hooping forefathers did. Because of such dramatic stylistic differences, this series was billed a significant test for the analytically-driven small-ball revolution of the past decade.

Weirdly, it both passed and failed that test. The Rockets lost the series in convincing fashion, overwhelmed physically and outworked on defense. The extreme difficulty of overcoming a size disadvantage that severe was on full display. P.J. Tucker‘s impressive strength did not save him from Anthony Davis. By the end of the series, the physicality deficit (and the thinning of their rotation by the suspension of Danuel House, Jr.) had left Houston’s players frustrated and visibly exhausted.

Yet for all that, it was a concession to the logic of small-ball from Frank Vogel that unlocked the Lakers’ dominance.

Image from Getty Images

After the series, Frank Vogel pointed out the luxury of having two full practice days to prepare for the Conference Finals, as opposed to only one full day for the Rockets. That lack of preparation was apparent in Game 1, when the Lakers showed up with an astonishingly normal game-plan. As they have all year, the lineups featuring Rajon Rondo and two bigs suffered from an absence of spacing offensively and an inability to run people off the three point line defensively. Houston exploited those flaws, particularly during the decisive fourth-quarter stretch when they took a double-digit lead.

Houston’s ability to pack the paint when the Lakers played two non-shooters discouraged both LeBron James and Rondo from either attacking off the dribble or attempting lob passes. The presence of so many nearby defenders provided Houston with the ability to quickly double any entry pass to the low post, and the Rockets created several turnovers by anticipating the entry pass and bringing the second defender early to steal it.

If they aren’t able to either bully in the post or be on the receiving end of a lob, JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard have little to contribute offensively. Defensively, when the Lakers played two bigs, the Rockets were able to frequently get them both out of the paint. With one occupied guarding Tucker in the corner, James Harden would simply call whoever the second big was guarding to set a screen for him. Once again, Houston manipulated the floor to negate the advantages of size, which as a small team they have a lot of experience doing.

Vogel’s key adjustments unfolded throughout Game 2. McGee again started, but played only 8 minutes, none of them in the second half. Howard did not see the floor, and would not again until 5 minutes of garbage time at the end of Game 5. The primary recipient of their minutes was Markieff Morris, who saw his minutes jump from 9 in Game 1 to the mid-20s for the remainder of the series, and performed magnificently.

Image from Getty Images

While smaller than McGee and Howard, Morris remains large at 6’8″ and is both strong and relatively quick on his feet. He is also a competent three-point shooter (career 34.5%). By playing with Rondo initiating the offense and spacing at the other 4 positions, the Lakers created the necessary room for their veteran point guard to do what he does best, which is attack and distribute. The lobs began to flow.

Vogel also innovated in Game 2 by playing more zone defenses, particularly 3-2 and Box-and-One. Doing so permitted him to deter Harden from attacking the rim too frequently by keeping multiple defenders near it. At the same time, it prevented Rondo from being hunted on screens. Zones are famous for being vulnerable to shooters, but with a non-shooter in Russell Westbrook off the ball, the Rockets weren’t able to stretch the zone enough to create space at the rim.

The combination of the Lakers going smaller with Morris and playing significant minutes of zone defense was a body blow from which the Rockets would not recover. In the first two games, when the Lakers played the highest proportion of man-to-man defense, they allowed Houston to take 39 and 53 three-point shots. As they shifted to zone, they were able to run shooters off the line so effectively that the Rockets would only attempt 30 in each of the next two games.

The Harden drive-and-kick, the engine of Houston’s offense, was sharply limited by his reluctance to attack a clogged lane and Westbrook’s inability to knock down open threes. When players other than Harden needed to make plays late in the clock, the Rockets lack of creating depth and the absence of House showed.

By Game 5, the Rockets were down 3-1, tired, and out of solutions. That game never felt competitive. It is tantalizing to imagine this series with Chris Paul in place of Westbrook, as Paul’s reliable three point shot and late-clock creation ability are precisely the things the Rockets needed most from his position.

As it is, the series has hardly settled the big vs small debate in the NBA. Partisans of the Houston approach will point out that what did them in was taking too few threes, not too many. After all, how many teams have a 6’10” big to play against them who, like Anthony Davis, are capable of defending 5 positions and scoring at 3 levels?

Ultimately it is Davis who is the key ingredient in the Lakers’ versatility. They can get most of the spacing of small-ball without entirely sacrificing rim protection, and they are able to do that because of Davis’ generational talents. Davis, vast production from James, and excellent defensive effort from the entire team ultimately overwhelmed the Rockets. The Lakers now know their next opponent will be the Denver Nuggets. The next chess match is about to begin.

Cover image credit: The Athletic


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Lakers Adjust, Claim Game 2

Early in the fourth quarter of Game 1, as a tenacious Houston defense gave the Laker offense fits, LeBron James turned to his coach and succinctly summarized the issue.

After the Rockets went on to win that game in convincing fashion, it was obvious that big changes would have to be made on both ends for the Lakers to take the series. Frank Vogel responded and, while there remains plenty of room for improvement, his response and excellent play from his stars proved enough to take Game 2.

Aside from short stretches at the beginning of each half, Vogel chose not to play with his larger lineups. JaVale McGee got only 8 minutes, and Dwight Howard did not see the floor. Their normal minutes were spread generally across the remainder of the Laker bench unit.

It is not coincidental that the choice to go smaller facilitated Rajon Rondo playing much better than he had in Game 1. With two-big lineups, having a guard like Rondo who doesn’t have to be feared as a shooter negates the spacing created by having a lob threat.

Notice that in the above photo all 5 Rockets can camp in the paint without concern. Russell Westbrook can recover to guard Kyle Kuzma (not pictured, in the near corner) if James should try to kick it out. Rondo need not be respected as a shooter, so there are two Rockets guarding James on the drive and three in position near the rim. This possession ended in a James turnover.

By playing Rondo with hyper-small lineups, Vogel both stretches the Houston defense and gives Rondo more shooting options to hit out of the screen and roll or in transition, which is where he is at his best. It would still be preferable to play Rondo less and play big more, but this particular adjustment puts Rondo in a position to better succeed, if Vogel is determined to play him.

The Lakers were much better in Game 2 about attacking the Rocket defense from the high post or off the dribble, rather than trying to take advantage of size mismatches with deep post-ups. That defense is designed to chase the ball around the perimeter and double quickly in the post, which suits their smaller personnel. If Houston can’t pack the paint, they struggle defending the drive.

Defensively, the Lakers’ smallness hurt them, especially in the third quarter when Houston buried them under a barrage of three pointers. When the Lakers have only one viable rim protector on the floor, it allows the Rockets to hide that big by putting their “center” in the weak side corner. Doing so creates more space for James Harden to get to the rim, while the big sprinting to contest his shot leaves a corner shooter wide open for him to find.

Vogel compensated for that weakness somewhat by weaving a 3-2 zone into the defensive game plan, to keep two people near the basket at all times. That can be only a partial and occasional solution, however, because the corner remains a weakness in that scheme as well.

When the Lakers play with two bigs, however, Harden is far less likely to make the decision to go to the basket in isolation, and far more likely to take a difficult jumper or step-back three. The Rocket offense is at its worst when he takes these shots at a high volume, rather than driving to the rim and creating open shots for their terrifying array of shooters.

Going into Game 3, it would be nice to see Rondo’s minutes reduced closer to 20, with his minutes coming exclusively in small lineups, ideally without Harden on the floor. When Harden is playing, they would do better to mirror his minutes with bigger lineups to deter him from attacking the basket.

Overall, Vogel did a good job smoothing the roughest edges from the Lakers’ Game 1 plan, but there is more to be done. The Rockets are a dangerous team and Mike D’Antoni is a crafty coach who finally has free rein to do as he pleases with the players he wants. Vogel will need to stay a step ahead of him throughout the remainder of the series.

Cover image credit: Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press.


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The LA Long Game, Part 1

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 1161295806-850x560.jpeg
(Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

As the Lakers enter their first championship window in a decade, we examine how they can optimize it.

Rob Pelinka has good reason to be pleased with himself. In the three years since he took over from Mitch Kupchak as General Manager of the Lakers the team has turned over the roster, shed two albatross contracts, added two transcendent talents, hired a new coach, and moved from the cellar of the league to the title conversation.

In spite of that meteoric rise, it has seemed all year as though the front office still has something to prove. The failure to get Kawhi Leonard in free agency after they had seemed certain to do so was a serious blow to Pelinka’s image in the press. Ivica Zubac was traded for what amounted to a bottle of snake oil. Even the coverage of the Anthony Davis trade – a major coup – was tainted by the suggestion that Pelinka had overpaid.

The real test of Rob Pelinka as a General Manager will come in the next two years. The task is a formidable one: re-sign Davis, maximize the current team around him and LeBron James, then find a younger star to pair with him as James continues to age (or perhaps goes elsewhere to play with his son). The next two off-seasons are crucial. After the summer of 2021, the Lakers’ title window will either close for several years or continue to open wider.

Los Angeles Lakers
(Photo by Chris Elise/NBAE via Getty Images)

Off-Season 2020

The first important decision to be made after the 2020 season will be made by Anthony Davis. It was conventional wisdom coming into the season that he would decline his player option for next year, sign a two-year contract for a better salary, and then get the largest possible bag after completing his 10th year in the league.

The salary cap implications of the season shutdown have changed that calculation, both for Davis and the team. The team may not be able to afford giving Davis a substantial raise. For the purpose of building the best possible team, he may not necessarily demand one. Simply opting-in to the last year of his contract would postpone a financial decision until the position of the cap is more clear, while aligning Davis’ free-agency with that of Giannis Antetokounmpo and James’ own player option.

Both Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Rajon Rondo also have player options after this year. Rondo is almost certain to take his, as he would otherwise have difficulty finding paid work in the NBA outside of coaching. Caldwell-Pope has significantly increased his value this year and has a chance to do so even farther with a solid playoff performance.

Los Angeles Lakers
(Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images).

Unfortunately for him, the market for his services will deflate with
the lower salary cap, and he is unlikely to get a better deal on a contending
team than the one he currently has.

The big rotation for next year is set to be similar to this year, with
JaVale McGee still on contract and Dwight Howard and/or DeMarcus Cousins expected to return in unrestricted free agency. Kyle Kuzma will be in the last year of his rookie contract and the Lakers will be able to bring Markieff Morris back with a fairly modest raise, pending his performance in the playoffs.

As for the guard rotation, there is fairly little room to add to it should
Dion Waiters re-sign with the team. They could – and should – take long looks at both Fred VanVleet and Goran Dragic as additional distributors who can also score. Despite their surplus of guards, the Lakers suffer from a chronic lack of ball-handling.

Adding a ball-handling guard has another auxiliary benefit. It creates
several skill-set redundancies at the guard position that are most easily
resolved via trade. Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green , Avery Bradley, and Alex Caruso could be important pieces in a negotiation for a third star, which is a
reflection on their strong play this season.

Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Regardless of how each of these variables ends up playing out, the broad
goals are clear. Regardless of the outcome of this post-season, the goal will
be to build around the core of James and Davis with shooting, ball-handling,
and versatile defenders. Marginal improvements of this sort helped James win championships in Miami and Cleveland, in both cases immediately after falling short in the Finals.

For both the remainder of this season and next year, the Lakers will be
championship favorites provided their stars are healthy. After that, there is a possibility that both James and Davis will be unrestricted free agents, along with several more of the biggest names in the league. It is then, in the 2021 free agency period, that the Lakers will have to make their move for the long term.


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Frank Vogel, Coach of the Year?

(Image/Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

In spite of widespread skepticism, Frank Vogel has smoothly guided the Los Angeles Lakers through his first regular season as coach.

Frank Vogel never had a honeymoon. Most coaches, upon being hired, are greeted with a sort of hopeful enthusiasm. Fans are fans for a reason, and have a well-documented tendency to hope for the best. Instead, Vogel was hired under a cloud of controversy after the exhaustively documented breakdown in talks between the Lakers and erstwhile LeBron James coach, Tyronn Lue.

Many in the media and online dismissed Vogel as a third choice coach and placeholder for assistants Jason Kidd and Lionel Hollins. It was widely assumed that he would be the fall guy, should the team run into any real trouble.

In spite of the noise, the team rallied around Vogel from the first. LeBron James – the most important voice in the locker room – already respected Vogel from his days in Miami. When he played in consecutive Eastern Conference Finals series’ against the Vogel-coached Indiana Pacers. The rest of the locker room got the message.

Vogel’s open, direct, and collaborative style has proven successful while managing a team with two experienced superstars and a staff with two former head coaches. Who are also former star players. He has navigated potentially difficult dynamics by sustaining team success. He has been even and measured in his public comments, always realistic but never too high or too low.

(Image/Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Offensively, his sets have gotten some criticism for not being particularly imaginative. His reputation coming into this season was predominantly as a defensive coach, and no one currently on the coaching staff fits the “offensive coordinator” role. Especially in the way that Tex Winter did for another defensive-minded Laker head coach, Phil Jackson.

During the season, he took significant heat for under-utilizing the LeBron James/Anthony Davis screen-and-roll in favor of post-ups or isolation plays. In part, that was a reaction to the way the Lakers have been defended this season. When Davis is being guarded by a position 4 player or the opposing team plays a smaller 5, teams are switching the screen-and-roll. That leads naturally to mismatches and isolation play.

In the playoffs, when teams are heavily scouted and offensive sets are known to all. Offensive play in recent years has frequently degenerated into the cat-and-mouse game of manipulating switches to create advantageous match-ups. Purposefully creating perimeter isolation or post up situations for James and Davis throughout the season is, in all probability, designed to get the team accustomed to the style of offense they are likely to be playing in the post-season.

(Image/Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

Defensively, Vogel has been superb. The Lakers are third in the NBA in defensive rating (up from 13th last year), and the team-wide buy-in has been noticeable. The late-season addition of a strong, versatile defender in Markieff Morris only stands to improve an already stingy Laker defense.

Overall, Vogel has built an impressive case for himself in the Coach of the Year balloting. He has stiff competition in Toronto’s Nick Nurse, who has kept the Raptors in the top tier in the East in spite of losing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green from last year’s championship squad. Mike Budenholzer of the Bucks would be a top contender, but he was last year’s victor and the voters dislike consecutive wins – only once has any coach won back-to-back CotY awards.

Other coaches from teams who are not top-tier, such as Indiana’s Nate McMillan and Memphis’ Taylor Jenkins, have made waves by maximizing limited rosters. But are disadvantaged by the fact that both Vogel and Nurse are coaching contending teams.

Whether he ultimately receives the award or not, Frank Vogel has been a reasonable, steady hand for a team that needed a down-to-earth coach who could nonetheless earn the respect of the star-studded team and coaching staff. The real test of his ability will come in the playoffs. But thus far he has provided everything that Laker fans could have wanted from him.


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Re-Signing Superstar Power Forward Anthony Davis

(Image/Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)

The Los Angeles Lakers and their young star, Anthony Davis, look to take their relationship to the next level.

When they acquired Anthony Davis from the New Orleans Pelicans after a lengthy public courtship, the Lakers justly celebrated a mission accomplished. Having acquired LeBron James, they paired him with another superstar just entering his athletic prime. At a stroke, they had made the team a Finals contender again.

Yet, given the probability that Davis uses his player option and becomes a free agent after this season. The Lakers, as well as Davis’ agent (and burgeoning global mastermind) Rich Paul, have had one eye on the contract negotiation to follow. While Davis had forced his way to the Lakers specifically and was widely expected to re-sign with the team, seeing Kawhi Leonard leave Toronto in free agency after winning a title has been enough to stoke furious speculation about Davis’ upcoming off-season throughout the year.

The most likely course has always been that Davis would opt-out to become a free agent, then sign a two-year deal that made him more money than his current contract. In two years, his 10th year in the league makes him eligible for a veteran maximum deal. Davis would then secure a huge contract.

The probability of sudden salary cap reductions following the massive loss of revenue from the coronavirus shutdown complicates matters. Most of the Lakers’ current salary is on contract through next year, and the Lakers may not be able to afford the deal Davis and his agent was expected to sign this summer.

If the salary cap cuts are steep enough, it may end up being more profitable for Davis to decline his player option and extend his current contract one more year. Ideally negotiating when the virus shutdowns have been safely lifted and the league revenue situation is clearer.

One thing that seems clear is that, regardless of the salary situation, the Lakers remain the runaway favorites to secure Davis’ services for the long haul. They have a championship-caliber roster, future space to secure another max player as James ages. Not to mention the well known climatic and financial advantages provided by the city of Los Angeles.

Furthermore, the coming cap crunch will be felt across the league, crippling the ability of other teams to offer a contract sufficient to lure Davis away from his chosen destination.

Anyone living in our current timeline would be a fool to dismiss the unlikely, but it would take a significant unforeseen event to prevent Davis from returning. That makes the Lakers’ plan for the next five years to first secure a long-term star to pair with Davis through his prime, then fill out the roster with cheap but high-value contracts.


Check out Lakers UK’s podcast The Lake Lake Show on all podcast platforms. Including Apple PodcastsSpotify, and Google Podcasts.

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Lets Take a Look the Future of the NBA

(Image/NBC Los Angeles)

The League has been teasing major rule changes for years, and now it has a perfect opportunity.

The novel coronavirus has shut down the NBA (as well as all other major sports leagues and industrialized nations) for several weeks now. The NBA has been adamant about its intention to finish the season and crown a champion, with such restrictions on attendance as the public health situation makes necessary.

The suddenness of the disruption came as a shock to everyone. It’s exact duration and severity remain unclear. But this total, grinding halt to sports activity has also given the NBA a golden opportunity to have a dialogue about the rule book without the distractions of current play.

Already this year, the NBA proposed a change to the regular-season format with its mid-season tournament idea. Commissioner Adam Silver has also floated the notion of potentially pushing back the start date of the season permanently to accommodate the delays the virus has created. These conversations have naturally opened the door to additional potential changes.

(Image/Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

With that in mind, what will the NBA of 2025-2030 look like?

The Schedule:

For a number of years, the NBA has had a regular season problem. On one hand, players are unhappy with the high number of games and back-to-backs, arguing that more rest and fewer games would result in fewer injuries and more consistently exciting play. On the other hand, in spite of the high number of games, viewer interest in the regular season is handicapped by the ad nauseam repetition by both players and commentators that only the playoffs really matter.

Late last year, Silver floated a draft solution that would take four games off of the regular season and introduce a mid-season tournament. It is clear what he hoped to accomplish; reduce the workload for players and increase rest while trying to find a creative way to compensate owners for the revenue lost as a result.

(Image/Getty Images)

The mid-season tournament may help to promote viewer interest during the grind of the regular season, yet it has met with unenthusiastic reviews from media and owners alike. It runs the risk of becoming gimmicky, but a highlight of the NBA throughout its history has been a willingness to adapt based on feedback.

With significantly lower revenues being projected into the future as the economic reverberations of the coronavirus unfold, the odds of the players winning a more dramatic reduction in games (some have proposed a 65-70 game season) currently seem remote.

A potentially more interesting – and more profitable – opportunity may have been unintentionally afforded by the suspension of play due to coronavirus. The Association’s determination to finish the season when conditions allow will severely reduce if not eliminate the usual off-season schedule. The most obvious solution is simply to push back the scheduled beginning of next season to permit, at the very least, a condensed off-season.

Under the current schedule, the NBA begins every year in direct competition with the late-season NFL, which is far and away the most popular sporting competition in the United States. It then competes throughout its season with the NHL, and throughout its playoffs with the beginnings of baseball season.

If, on the other hand, NBA basketball began sometime in December – Christmas recommends itself as a high visibility date – it would both avoid much direct competition with the NFL and place its playoffs in the late summer. The late summer months are notoriously bland ones in American sports, when fan interest tends to wander. The potential for increasing viewership by putting the NBA playoffs in that time frame is vast.

Colin Cowherd, among several other commentators, has pointed out that this league suspension presents an ideal opportunity to craft such a change without disrupting the league any more than it already has been.

Given the exigencies of the moment, and the need for a proper off-season so players can recover, the league will almost be forced either to do something along these lines or to shorten next season as well. As shortening next season would produce another enormous loss of revenue for the NBA, it would be surprising if the league took the latter course. Don’t be surprised if a December-to-August NBA season becomes the new normal.

Development/Eligibility:

For most of its history the NBA, bizarrely, left youth development of its future stars to collegiate programs which played under a very different set of rules than the one it endorsed. That began to change with predecessors of the G-League being established in 2001, and again in 2005 when the late former Commissioner David Stern announced his intention to develop it into a full minor league system. That vision is only just beginning to come to fruition.

(Image/NBA.com/G-League)

This process, along with the myriad problems embedded in the structure of the NCAA, has called into question the future of collegiate sports in the NBA development pipeline. Innovations like the two-way contract and the slow but steady increase in G-League salaries for players are increasing the vibrancy and competitiveness of that league, which is an important development for a league with the expressed goal of producing NBA-caliber players.

For the first time, high level American prospects are choosing to play with professional organizations abroad until they turn 19, rather than play NCAA basketball. Recent big names like Emmanuel Mudiay (China) and LaMelo Ball (Australia) have taken this path without seeing their draft stock suffer.

As legal and public relations problems within NCAA sports continue to mount (not to mention the NCAAs absurd aversion to paying the people who make money for it), the NBA seems likely to find itself in a position where more and more of its elite prospects decide to take themselves abroad to prepare for the draft. In light of that development, it may choose one of two possible courses.

(Image/Getty Images)

The first is to do nothing and encourage certain international leagues to specialize in the development of young talent. This would effectively outsource the development process, permitting the league to focus on other matters. The G-League, in this scenario, would remain what it is today – the realm of second round/undrafted picks looking to prove themselves, reclamation projects, and elite amateur players trying to go pro.

The second, more ambitious route would see either a significant increase across the board in G-League salaries or (more likely) a limited number of exceptions per team permitting higher salaries to prospects. This would enable NBA teams to begin directly developing talent earlier in the kind of immersive environment only a professional organization can provide.

Teams would be able to work at the development level on skills they want their prospects to bring to the major league team, with the larger team picture in mind from the beginning. Indeed, there would be nothing at that point stopping the league from lowering the floor age into the teens and using the G-league as a true talent development league for the NBA, superseding both the NCAA and AAU.

The Game:

For all the controversy surrounding the significant changes in the NBA game in the last ten years, the game has never been prettier or more fluid. There are signs, though, that recent trends may be taking the league to a less pleasant place.

(Image/David J. Phillip/Associated Press)

The gradual spacing revolution in basketball has improved the aesthetic of the game, but as more and more teams adapt to the new reality of the league, the efficiency competition becomes more and more cutthroat. Increasingly elaborate ways of devising foul shots and spot-up threes have been devised.

The hyper-vigilant enforcement of contact rules against perimeter defenders compromises defenses across the league. When dribble penetration inevitably draws help, a spot-up 3 becomes likely.

Players like James Harden have tortured defenses by manipulating not only their coverages, but the referees. He manipulates the field of vision of each referee with surgical precision to manufacture scenes of apparent contact by the defender which he has himself initiated.

That is no knock to Harden: he is one of the most efficient volume scorers and distributors of all time. But the absurd efficiency of foul shots in combination with the ease of drawing fouls on the perimeter produces a perverse incentive for players. When the rule structure creates an incentive to manipulate the referees to the neglect of making a genuine field goal attempt, it requires attention.

The huge gap in physicality permitted in the post as opposed to the perimeter has simply made chasing shooting fouls and spot-ups a more effective strategy than is consistent with an aesthetically diverse game.

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(Image/Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports)

What makes basketball such a marvelous game is the constant interplay between big and small, strength and speed, skill and athleticism. If the NBA continues to privilege perimeter play at the expense of larger players, that aesthetic diversity in the league will eventually be lost under an avalanche of wings taking 60% of their shots per game from 3. It would be an enormous blow for the NBA to lose bigs entirely, and the league will have to act in the next ten years to prevent that from happening.

Overall:

In spite of its recent TV ratings issues, the NBA as a brand is one of the best positioned in all of global sports. It needs to continue to display the forward thinking strategy and willingness to adapt that have characterized it from the beginning. It has major choices to make on each of the above fronts that will affect both the quality and growth of the league.

Additional new sources of change will be opened as well, as the game continues to globalize. The time-honored success of the Euroleague as well as growing leagues in China and Australia – not to mention the upcoming Basketball Africa League – interplay with the NBA and amateur games to make basketball the only plausible rival to association football in terms of global culture.


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Rebirth of the Big Man: How the Lakers and Bucks Are Bringing Back the Big

(Image/Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

After years of ascending small-ball, the Association’s best are winning with size.

The last 20 years of NBA basketball can be seen broadly as a process of reorienting the focus of play from the low post to the perimeter – specifically to the three-point line. The NBA in the 1990s was a brutal place, where “freedom of movement” did not really exist and intimidating defensive bigs took sadistic glee in physically punishing anyone who dared attack their baskets.

The most common strategy NBA teams employed to deal with those bigs was isolation offense. The two general options featured either a countering big large and skilled enough to take the punishment and score anyway (Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson), or a smaller player who could operate in space while the bigs manipulated the illegal defense rules to clear the paint (Michael Jordan, Reggie Miller).

Beginning in the early 2000s the league decided to actively discourage isolation ball, particularly from the post. Anxious to prop up viewership after Jordan’s second retirement and faced with a seemingly unstoppable post player in O’Neal, the league reasoned that loosening up the ball and refocusing play toward the perimeter would make the game more exciting for fans.

(Image/Andrew Bernstein/Getty Images)

First to go was the illegal defense, changes to which permitted partial help positions that fell short of a double team, effectively legalizing zone defense for the first time in the NBA. The variety of additional defensive coverages this rule change allowed made scoring in isolation from the post significantly harder. Then came the outlawing of hand checks and the freedom of movement rules, both designed to give perimeter players the room to run freewheeling motion offenses.

The collection of new defensive rules made post-ups with bulky centers a less attractive and less efficient option on offense, even in the presence of a mismatch. The consequence was that when elite teams – eg the LeBron James-era Miami Heat and the Golden State Warriors – chose to go small and space the floor with a bevy of strong wings rather than play traditional bigs, teams who did play those bigs were exposed on defense and unable to compensate offensively.

The center position became smaller, quicker, and emphasized switchability over rim protection on the defensive end. On offense, former back-to-the-basket bigs found themselves required to stand in the corner or the “dunker spot” as floor spacers while their ball-handlers attacked the rim. Those who were unable to space effectively found they had little left to contribute.

Collectively, these changes paved the way for the brand of maximally spaced, three-point gunning, wing-dominant basketball we have seen in the association for most of the last decade. In the process, they banished the kind of slow, bruising defensive big so popular in the 90s and 00s. Guys like Roy Hibbert and Timofey Mozgov, once important pieces on contending teams, found the market for their services wither and die in the space of two years.

Offense

As mentioned above, the necessary thing for a modern big to provide on offense is spacing. Spacing in the new NBA generally comes with the connotation of three-point shooting, but that need not be the case. Non-shooting lob threats such as Javale McGee and Jarrett Allen have leveraged their length and athleticism to space the floor in the third, vertical dimension rather than laterally toward the three-point line.

There is a simple reason why a pure lob threat can be impactful in the NBA today in a way that a more skilled back-to-the-basket scorer who lacks athleticism cannot; offenses no longer begin in the post. Initiating the offense from the post position allows 20 years’ worth of rule changes to work against it.

It is much more efficient to penetrate from the perimeter, where the rules are friendlier to the offensive player, and then allow the big to read the defensive help and act as a finisher. Regardless, a plausible big on a successful NBA team must be able to either step out to the three-point line or be a lob threat and elite finisher from the screen and roll.

(Image/Getty Images)

The Lakers have gone all-in on the latter approach, sacrificing more shooting from the 5 positions in exchange for athletically gifted finishers. They are able to do so because both McGee and Dwight Howard are significant lob threats and skilled finishers around the basket from the bounce pass. The offense rarely runs through them, but they make themselves essential by expanding the variety as well as the location of passes a ball-handler can make.

Anthony Davis provides yet another degree of complexity as he is a finishing threat from the pocket pass, lob, or three-point line. LeBron James, with the potential to shoot or drive from all three levels, finds that he regularly has several shooters and a lob threat/finisher from which to select his preferred assist. Regardless of who provides the help, he is always one pass from a good shot.

The Bucks, alternatively, have focused on the shooting big approach with players like Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova. Uniquely in their case, Giannis Antetokounmpo is properly classified (for now) as a non-shooting big but is also their primary ball-handler. As a result, the Bucks have found it convenient to play a 5-out offense. They trust Antetokounmpo’s superior physical gifts to break down the defense and give him an array of three-point shooters to choose from based on the source of the help defense.

Defense

The defensive end of the floor is the most important for bigs. As analytics gurus since Dean Oliver have pointed out, even in the days of the illegal defense, it was never necessary for a successful offensive team to have a dominant big. Elite perimeter players can score just as well.

On the contrary, almost every great historical defense has been anchored by an intimidating big. The reason is obvious; the two most efficient shots in the game are layups/dunks and foul shots, and a skilled defensive big significantly reduces the number of such shots an offense can produce.

(Image/Gary A. Vasquez/USA Today Sports)

The problem, as illustrated, is that with the increased efficiency of the three-point shot in the last ten years such a player must be able to reasonably contest the three-point line as well as rim protect. If the big cannot do both, the defense has to find some way to compensate on the perimeter in order to keep him from being played off the floor.

The Bucks are able to play a slower-footed big like Lopez on defense in a way most teams would not be. They can do so because of the absurd length and athleticism across the remainder of their lineup. Their array of wings can cover the necessary space on the perimeter to allow Lopez to use his talents and timing as a rim protector without being taken advantage of by perimeter players with too much regularity. The fact that they can make their rotations more quickly means they either don’t have to switch quite so frequently or are able to recover faster.

The Lakers, by contrast, have been blessed with three proper bigs who have the combination of quickness and length needed to contain ball-handlers in Davis, Howard, and McGee. In important game situations throughout the season, the Lakers have trusted those three in 1v1 situations against smaller players and found that the switch is not systematically exploitable.

The Formula

The scarcity of the true big in recent years is largely due to the rapidly changing nature of the position. It is hard enough to last 5 or 10 years in the grueling climate of the NBA, but to be asked to do so from a position the demands of which are shifting in ways many players are unable to accommodate seem downright cruel. Teams have found it easier to play small and diversify skill-sets than to have to pick their poison with players who are more physically gifted but less versatile.

The Lakers and Bucks have taken two distinct but related approaches to solving these problems which deliver a solid collective blueprint for how to play with real size in the modern NBA.

(Image/Natheniel Butler/Getty Images)

The Bucks use their shooting bigs to provide maximum space for Antetokounmpo on offense while covering for their perimeter defensive deficiencies with the combination of elite size and athleticism at the other positions. The Lakers, meanwhile, have chosen to employ multiple switchable rim-protectors for maximum defensive versatility, while compensating for their lack of shooting bigs with several elite lob threats who provide vertical spacing.

Both choices have benefits and drawbacks. The Bucks are far and away from the best in the NBA at defending the rim, in part because they always have their primary rim protector somewhere in the vicinity. The Lakers conversely allow fewer three-pointers than the Bucks because their switchable bigs are able to deter otherwise-good shots.

For all their stylistic differences, the essential commonality is that these two teams have found a way to play big without being overextended by jump-shooting, wing-heavy lineups of the sort that have been the most successful in recent years. The fact that the two teams doing this most effectively are the two best teams in the league by every commonly used metric is suggestive.

There are a number of cogent arguments to be made that the NBA ought to consider rule changes to revive some of the skilled big play lost in the last 20 years. Even in the absence of those changes, though, it seems that perhaps – like many dinosaurs – the NBA center is not dying out so much as simply evolving. As more bigs are brought into the league to specifically fill the strategic niches exposed by teams like the Lakers and Bucks, playing larger may well find itself in vogue once again.


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Lakers-Celtics: Battle of the Ages

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(Image/Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)

“To be successful you need friends, to be very successful you need enemies.” – Sidney Sheldon

I hate Danny Ainge. I don’t know him. I have never met him. I have no recollection of having ever watched him play basketball in real time. The last time he took the floor against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Finals, it was still 2 years before I was even born. I still hate Danny Ainge. Why?

Because I watched Ainge, as Director of Basketball Operators for the Boston Celtics trade for Kevin Garnett and get the 2008 Finals along with him, when rumors then swirled (recently confirmed by Garnett) that Garnett had hoped to end up alongside Kobe Bryant as a Laker.

While the next 2 championship banners were hung at Staples Center, the 2008 loss sticks in the craw of the Laker fan-base to this day.

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(Image/Steve Babineau/Getty Images)

The ruthless competition between the Lakers and the Celtics for championship honors has been going on for over 60 years now. They first competed for the NBA’s highest prize in 1959, when a phenomenal rookie named Elgin Baylor vaulted the long-shot Lakers to the Finals.

Then in their last year in Minneapolis and in serious financial difficulties, Baylor’s play provided enough revenue for the team to make the move to a more lucrative market in Los Angeles. Nonetheless, the Lakers were swept in the championship series by the well-oiled machine run by Bill Russell, Red Auerbach, and Bob Cousy.

In the NBA’s infancy, the Minneapolis Lakers had been its dominant franchise under original Big Man and hook-shot innovator George Mikan. With Russell and Auerbach in the 60s, it was the Celtics who tore through the league in the most extended period of utter dominance by one team in the history of American professional sports.

They won 11 Finals trophies in a 13-year span from 1957-69, failing to make the finals only once. 7 of those victories were over the Lakers, 3 of which went to 7 games. Though Baylor and Jerry West always came close to beating the Celtics, they could never reach the summit.

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(Image/Dick Raphael/Getty Images)

Both teams would win titles in the 1970s, but never against one another. The rivalry would remain latent until it was awoken by Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in the 1980s. Then it was the Lakers who took the crown, winning 5 championships during the decade, and 2 out of 3 against Boston.

20 years later, the above mentioned trade pitted Paul Pierce and Garnett against Bryant and the Lakers in the Finals twice, with each team taking a trophy home. Both series’ were physical and ugly, with the 2010 series going to 7 games. It marked the 5th time that an NBA Finals between both teams had gone the distance.

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(Image/Getty Images)

It is a combination of factors that makes the Laker/Celtics rivalry unique. Unlike most other famous rivalries (e.g. Yankees/Red Sox, Liverpool/Manchester United, Barcelona/Real Madrid, Packers/Bears), the Lakers and the Celtics have no geographical proximity or animus to tap into.

They don’t even share a conference in the NBA. The rivalry was built from innocence to bitterness on one thing only – the brutal competition for supremacy in the association.

Laker fans in the 60s learned to hate the Celtics through year after year of nail-biting defeat, and passed their inferiority complex down the next generation of fans. In the 80s and 00s the Lakers went on a rampage, winning ten titles in sixteen finals appearances from 1980-2010. The Lakers and Celtics have tended to feed off of one another’s success to a remarkable degree.

Fueled by their mutual enmity, the Lakers and Celtics have won 33 of 73 total NBA championships, and accounted for 52 of 146 teams to appear in a Finals series. It has been a period of collective dominance without parallel in sports.

Yet, for a rivalry that has been burning for a full 60 years, the results have been excruciatingly close. The Celtics boast of 17 championship banners; the Lakers 16. Both teams have all time winning percentages of about 59%. Both teams have won championships at every stage in league history. Both have claimed some of the best players of all-time as their own.

Of all the teams in the league, only one has a winning all-time record against the Lakers, and that team is the Boston Celtics.

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(Image/AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

The best rivalries always take on cultural or political dimensions that transcend sport. The Lakers and Celtics have done so on an enormous number of dimensions at different times – East vs West, grit vs glamour, black vs white to name only a few.

What makes this rivalry the best of them all is the combination of longevity of the rivalry and razor-thin margins involved, which has made it able to take on a new cultural significance for each new generation of fans – all while treating us to top grade basketball along the way.

It is not a fraternal quarrel of the sort that local rivalries tend to be. It is a competition between genuine enemies who share the combination of disdain and grudging respect that only a worthy opponent can bring out.


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In Memoriam: Kobe Bryant

(Image/Getty Images)

The first time I watched Kobe Bryant play basketball I was eight years old. It was his second year in the league and I was a bright-eyed budding NBA fan in a family that still prefers the collegiate game.

Michael Jordan was still the man in his last year with the Chicago Bulls, but everyone who was watching knew Kobe had next, even a short, skinny mid-western kid barely old enough to play with a full ten-foot rim.

I don’t remember how many points he scored or how many shots he took. I don’t remember the date of the game or even the opponent. But I remember the feeling of watching him play. Even his mistakes were captivating. I wanted to be able to do what he could do, and to make it look as easy as he did.

There are, beyond a doubt, tens of millions of others with more or less identical accounts. The outpouring of grief following Bryant’s untimely passing from fans, players, and admirers across the world is reflective of the deep reverence which so many of us will always hold for him.

There will be plenty of time in the coming weeks to recount his achievements, and it would likely take at least that long to get to them all. He was among the greatest scorers, leaders, and winners the game has ever seen, and we cheered for him because of it. But it was how and why he achieved what he did that made us love him.

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(Image/The Washington Post)

He was brilliant, curious, creative, obsessively competitive, and above all absolutely relentless. Spoiled Laker fans always rallied to him because he so eagerly embraced our championship-or-bust, excellence-or-nothing mindset. An entire generation of NBA players came of age armed with their own cherished legends about his work ethic and focus. Professional athletes are famously competitive, but no one ever claimed to work as hard as Kobe Bryant.

None of which should be taken to imply he was a perfect man. He was brash and impatient, especially in his youth. His exacting standards alienated those teammates who failed or refused to live up to them, which in the end amounted to most of the people with whom he ever played.

Yet it was how he reinvented himself in the wake of those mistakes and challenges that inspired us the most. After the blow up of the 2004 superteam that finally ended his playing days with Shaquille O’Neal and the resolution of his court battles, Bryant found himself stuck on mediocre teams and vilified in the media.

Watching O’Neal win an NBA title with the young Dwayne Wade during this time added insult to injury. Bryant’s career could easily have come off the rails under the strain of it all.

Instead, he withdrew into himself and redoubled his focus. If he couldn’t control many of his external circumstances, he could control his own effort and learn from his missteps. He created the alter-ego of the Black Mamba to isolate his personal problems from his performance. He emerged from the experience a better player, teammate, and person.

His reinvention culminated in two additional championships and, more importantly, his emergence as the supreme elder statesman of the NBA. Wade, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and others cited his example from the 2008 Olympic team as essential in their own development into true superstars. Every subsequent cohort of young talent sought his knowledge and advice, and he relished the role.

(Image/Jeb Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

For all of us who grew up idolizing Kobe, seeing him respond to extreme stress by learning and growing was an important lesson. The Mamba Mentality became about more than one person overcoming his personal problems to succeed at basketball. It became a symbol of persistence, an archetype for how to face down adversity with poise and intelligence. It made Kobe Bryant a role model in the purest sense: not as a perfect person to emulate, but as a highly imperfect person who showed us how to make ourselves better.

After basketball, Bryant had taken his passion for mentorship and communication to its logical conclusion. He produced children’s videos and stories. He turned his goodbye letter to the game he loved into a short film that won an Oscar. Every indication was that he had only begun to scratch the surface of his post-athletic potential.

There is never a good time to lose a childhood idol. Even so, losing him now seems particularly cruel. We can only imagine and sympathize as much as possible with the awful grief of his family and close friends. For those of us who knew him only as an icon and exceptional public figure, there is nothing for us to do but remember, commiserate, and raise a glass to the memory of a man whose absence will make the world a little darker.

Is Trading Kyle Kuzma a Bad Idea?

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(Image/Chris Elise)

The last of the young core finds himself again at the center of trade rumours. The Lakers shouldn’t bite.

It happens every year in the NBA – between Christmas and the early February trade deadline each team in or near championship contention finds itself buried under an avalanche of trade rumors. Networks and reporters boost views by amplifying those rumors, feeding the social media flames. No team gets more attention than the Lakers, and no player more clicks than LeBron James.

It should be unsurprising, then, that for the last two years James and the Lakers have been relentlessly hounded by trade speculation surrounding some or all of the former young core. Many recognized that their long-term development timeline fit uncomfortably with the last few years of elite production James has left. Last year Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and Josh Hart all saw their names in the papers connected to trade rumors. Eventually, all but Kuzma were sent to New Orleans for Anthony Davis.

This year, as the team deals with a number of new faces and championship expectations, the stories have centered on Kuzma. In many ways this is a predictable outcome – he is the last of the old Young Core not to be traded and there has been a persistent media narrative that he is a poor basketball fit alongside James and Davis. Some tantalizing names – Bojan Bogdanovic, Derrick Rose, and Robert Covington in particular – have been connected to potential deals for Kuzma, and those players have obvious and necessary skill sets.

Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to trade Kuzma this year. His value to the team is only starting to become apparent on the court and he projects to contribute in important ways in the playoffs, particularly his ability to help break down the defense from off-ball positions. There is still a lot of progress to be made both in terms of his game sense and how the coaching staff utilizes him, but he has the ability to be an essential part of the team.

Kuzma’s ability as a scorer is well documented, but it is highly situational. As a creator off the dribble, he is turnover prone and inefficient. It is when asked to be the primary creator on bench units that he has struggled, and those struggles along with his mediocre counting stats this year have contributed to an online narrative that he is a liability.

Yet, Kuzma’s per-36 production has remained steady from last year while he is back to league average as a 3-point shooter. His wing defense, when not asked to lock down longer or stronger players in isolation, has been good. When he has looked bad, it has largely been because of the Lakers’ difficulties with finding a suitable backup point guard.

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(Image/Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)

As an illustration, consider that Kuzma’s net rating when playing alongside James and Davis is the highest of anyone on the team. Yet he spends a significant proportion of his minutes expected to make up for lost production while one of them rests. He is the most significant bench scorer for the Lakers, but he is at his best attacking an offense that has already been compromised.

With the bench units, he is reliant on Rajon Rondo or Alex Caruso to initiate the offense and find him, for instance, when he cuts to the basket to take advantage of a ball-watching defender. Rondo has been maddeningly inconsistent finding Kuzma on these off-script sorts of reads and Caruso is best played off the ball himself on offense.

The inconsistency in Kuzma’s offensive impact has, therefore, been less a function of his play than of what he has been asked to do in the offense. In particular, if the Lakers can find an upgrade at the backup point guard position he will find himself in much more familiar and comfortable spots. When such a simple upgrade can help unlock a player of Kuzma’s talent, making that move is always a preferable alternative to trading him, particularly while he is still contributing well above his pay rate.

Putting Kuzma’s internal situation to the side for the moment, the packages that have been floated for him have been underwhelming. Bogdanovic is a skilled offensive player and underrated defender, but he is also in the last year of his contract and certain to be expensive even if he were committed to staying with the Lakers.

Rose’s resurgence in Minnesota and Detroit have been inspiring but trading a promising young player for a point guard past his expiration date with a history of injury is a questionable long term decision. It isn’t immediately obvious that Covington is a better player than Kuzma right now, even if his wing defense does fill a need.

How frequently in the last 8 months have Laker fans mourned the loss of Ivica Zubac and Svi Mykhailiuk in trades for specialist vets of exactly the kind being discussed now with Kuzma? Neither of those trades panned out and neither of those vets remains with the team.


Lakers Fanclub UK are proud affiliate partners of Fanatics UK and the NBA Store Europe. We do possess unique promotional codes for both websites that can offer our readers and followers 10% off site-wide through the following weblinks.

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