Lakers still the favorites (as long as they hang onto Pau Gasol)
What should we make of the Lakers this year? On paper they're a solid, if unspectacular team. They're 25 - 16 for a .610 win percentage, currently good for third place in the West after recently leapfrogging the Clippers for first place in the Pacific. But they are seven full games behind the Thunder for first place out West, and they are only sixth overall in the NBA in a bunched up group of teams that includes the Magic, 76ers, Grizzles and Clippers all within a couple of games of each other. Even their scoring margin, winning by an average of +2.3, indicates a good team but nothing world shaking. In comparison to previous Laker teams they seem downright ordinary, as they've averaged a .72 win percentage (59-win pace) and a +6.5 scoring margin over the last four years.
So, why do I still think that the Lakers are the favorite to come out of the West?
To answer that, I first look at where this year's team has struggled compared to previous years. Over the last four seasons, the Lakers have an average offensive ranking of 5.8 (out of 30 teams), and an average defensive ranking of 5.3. This year, they're currently ranked 14th on offense and 9th on defense. There is a bit of slippage on both sides of the ball, but clearly more on offense. But why would that be?
The first obvious reason is the absence of Phil Jackson and his triangle offense, which has been replaced with Mike Brown's more traditional (and less imaginative) sets. The triangle offense is set up to have excellent spacing and precise passing responsibilities, and Kobe Bryant (when he wants to be), Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom are all excellent passers for their positions that were able to fill the points of the triangle beautifully. This allowed the Lakers to get by with aging shooter Derek Fisher at point guard while still fielding an offense that creates mismatches and leads to high efficiency shots. Brown's offense, on the other hand, depends a lot more on a perimeter facilitator setting the table while the big men play in the post. Fisher can't play that facilitator role, which has left the job to Kobe - and the second reason for the slippage in the Lakers' offensive efficiency this year:
Bryant is leading the league in scoring, with his highest average since 2007. But the problem is that Kobe is playing the "LeBron James role" in the Mike Brown offense. But whereas LeBron is natural at both scoring and setting up his teammates, Kobe is more of a pure scorer. He CAN be a good facilitator, but instead this year he has used his added ball-handling responsibilities to set up more shots for himself (23.9 FGA per game, 2nd highest of his career and most since 2006) instead of his teammates. But Kobe isn't making those shots very efficiently (52.6% true shooting is the worst of his career), which is doubly damaging because he has two teammates in Gasol and Andrew Bynum that are capable of volume scoring at much higher efficiencies but combined are barely shooting as much as Kobe is by himself. He also isn't handling the ball very efficiently, with his current 12.2% turnover percentage as the worst of his career since 2005. In fact, Bryant's turnover percentage tracks perfectly with his time in the triangle offense, as the five worst TO% seasons of his career are the only five seasons in which Phil Jackson was not his coach. So, while Bryant has been in in the midst of a not-quite-MVP season, he has not proven to be the facilitator that his offense needs thus far. Which leads to the third reason for the slippage in the Lakers' offensive efficiency:
Lamar Odom is gone.
As I mentioned above, Odom was an excellent passer for his position. But more than that, he was also an excellent ball-handler, fully capable of legitimately playing the point guard position for possessions at a time. This year, with the triangle gone, and no other true offense initiators on the team besides Bryant, Odom's abilities are sorely missed.
So, those are three legitimate reasons for why the Lakers' offense isn't as good as it's been in the past. But they'll still be true once the postseason begins, so why should I expect the Lakers to be any different then? Because in the postseason, the entire style of the NBA game changes in a fundamental way. The game slows way down (in 2011 the average pace in the regular season was 92.1 possessions/game, but in the playoffs was 87.8 possessions/game), the level of competition goes way up, teams are able to game-plan extensively for specific opponents, the referees tend to allow more physical contact, teams tend to pack the paint and make their opponents either shoot 3s or bang to the rim - in short, in the postseason the games revert from the beautiful non-contact game of the 2000s back into the more physical style of the 1990s.
And this style should fit these Lakers perfectly - as long as they don't give in to the foolish desire to trade Pau Gasol. Because as currently constituted, these Lakers have bar-none the biggest, most physically gifted front line in the West. While Bryant has been their best player overall, their secret weapon in the postseason is that their frontline was very, very difficult to match-up with. It's no coincidence that over the last four seasons, the only two teams to beat the Lakers in the playoffs (2008 Celtics, 2011 Mavericks) had the size and ability to win the battle up front. But the Mavs have broken up their Dirk Nowitzki/Tyson Chandler combo, and there aren't any other Western contenders with that kind of beef up front. So when things slow down in the postseason, the Lakers will be built to win.
Plus, the Lakers' offensive shortcomings will likely be less important in the postseason game. The Lakers played the Celtics on Sunday, and that game looked exactly the way I expect games to look in the playoffs. It was a grind it out game with low shooting percentages, that in the end was decided based on the Lakers' bigs being able to get more efficient looks than their opponents, and Kobe being able to hit difficult shots. You see, in the postseason, nobody is able to score as efficiently or get as many easy looks as they do in the regular season - in a sense, every offense will be brought down into the mud where the Lakers naturally operate. And while Kobe may not be able to volume score as well as LeBron, when it comes to making difficult shots Kobe is one of the best ever.
So in the playoffs, despite their shortcomings, the Lakers' offense should be built to succeed. Their already solid defense should only get better as their combination of size in the middle and aggressiveness on the perimeter (Ron Artest, Matt Barnes and Kobe) should start to tell. And the team is championship tested, more so than any of their opponents outside of San Antonio and much more so than the first place Thunder. Which means that despite how ordinary they look now, when the playoffs begin I'll be expecting the Lakers to be the last team standing out West (again, assuming they're smart enough not to trade Gasol).
Around the League
• Bogut/Ellis trade: The first big trade of the season happened on Tuesday, with the Warriors sending Monta Ellis, Epke Udoh and the rights to Kwame Brown to the Bucks in exchange for the injured Andrew Bogut and Stephen Jackson. With Brown out for the season and Bogut still potentially out for the year, the most interesting players in the deal for fantasy purposes are Ellis, Jackson and Udoh. I don't love this move for Ellis' value, as Scott Skiles seems to be a more conservative coach than Mark Jackson, and the Warriors' offense (7th in the NBA) is more efficient than the Bucks' (15th in the NBA). Udoh likely will play a similar role for the Bucks as he was for the Warriors, though with a young player that was finding his niche I almost hate to see him be uprooted and have to learn a new system just when he was starting to thrive. If Udoh does keep his minutes in Milwaukee, it could spell a negative for Drew Gooden moving forward as it brings another big man in that can take center minutes. But the player that I like the best from this deal is Stephen Jackson, as he has never seemed to find his level in Milwaukee. While it is a different coaching regime in Golden State than it was when Jackson thrived there two years ago, the change of scenery could be just what he needs to find his game again.
• D'Antoni D'one in NY: Mike D'Antoni resigned from his head coaching position with the Knicks on Wednesday, a move that potentially has big fantasy ramifications. D'Antoni's system is so point-guard friendly that I moved Jeremy Lin up into the top-40 of my rankings purely on him being the starter in that system, but if new interim coach Mike Woodson changes the system, all bets are off for Linsanity. This also affects Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire, because a more traditional system would likely feature them more than under D'Antoni. When Woodson coached the Hawks his offenses ranged from No. 2 overall down to No. 29 overall (twice), making it very difficult to estimate what to expect with him now at the helm. I'll be watching with interest to see how things look over the next week or two.
• Howard news: As expected, the hype and rumors swirling around Dwight Howard's home for next season have been crazy. In the last day I've read everything from Howard being given full authority over the future of Coach Stan Van Gundy and GM Otis Smith (which the team has since denied) to that Howard is determined to end up with the New Jersey Nets THIS season no matter what. This afternoon I thought the situation was close to resolution as Howard had reportedly decided not to opt out of his contract at the end of the season and stay in Orlando through 2013, but by this evening that had changed, and Howard had once again made it clear he wants to be a free agent this summer. As such, the latest rumors have Howard once again on his way out of Orlando and possibly headed to New Jersey. Stay tuned, but I have to feel that Howard's fantasy value is best served by him staying in Orlando.
Big Movers in the Rotowire Fantasy Basketball Cheat sheet
• Lowry down, Dragic up: Kyle Lowry could be out for 2 – 4 weeks with a bacterial infection, which could have big implications on his availability for your fantasy playoffs. Lowry has surprisingly been one of the best roto producers in the game this season, but if he misses the full month that would put his return in mid-April which could be too late for fantasy purposes. This is great news for Goran Dragic, however, as Dragic plays well whenever he's called upon to start.
• Rubio done, Ridnour up: With Ricky Rubio out for the season (torn ACL), he obviously falls out of the rankings. Rubio's downfall opens up the door for Luke Ridnour to shine, so he has blasted up the rankings.
• Turner way up: Evan Turner moved into the starting lineup for the 76ers last week, and has responded by averaging 22 points, 12 boards and 3.3 assists in the last three games. While I can't project that level for the rest of the season, it is worth noting that Turner does have that level of talent after being the second overall pick in the 2010 draft. He may be finding his level. Either way, though, he moves up the charts in the meantime.
• Jamison on fire: Antawn Jamison has scored 20 or more points in eight straight games and 11 out of his last 12. He has been on fire from downtown, and is still a legitimate threat to challenge for double-digit boards or five assists on a given night. Last week one of the owners in my league told me that it wasn't worth him trading Jamison as part of a deal for Josh Smith because Jamison is playing at such a high level, and it wasn't an absurd statement. If he isn't traded, he is worthy of a higher ranking.
• Bargnani and Gallinari: Andrea Bargnani and Danilo Gallinari both slid down the rankings with long-term injuries, but both have returned in the last week and are coming off of 19-point games that indicate that they are getting their legs back under them.
• Evan Turner (61% owned in Yahoo! leagues): I usually don't go this high with percentage owned, but Turner has been playing out of his mind since the move to the starting lineup so he just shouldn't be available in almost 40% of leagues.
• Stephen Jackson (52% owned): Jackson has struggled mightily this season with combination of nagging injuries and a seeming inability to find his fit in Milwaukee. Though his name was overshadowed by the bigger names being swapped in the Golden State trade, Jackson is returning to a team for which he has had success in the past.
• Goran Dragic (50% owned): Dragic is filling in for Kyle Lowry, who is expected to be out for the next 2 - 4 weeks with an illness. Dragic has played well whenever Lowry has been out (averaging 18.3 points and 7.7 assists), and if Lowry is out for closer to the four-week part of the prognosis, Dragic could end up carrying you through a good chunk of your fantasy playoffs.
• Mike Dunleavy Jr. (32% owned): Dunleavy has been playing well off the bench of late, and with the trade that sends Stephen Jackson out of town it's possible that he could end up getting a larger slice of the available small forward minutes moving forward.
• Alonzo Gee (24% owned): Gee has started the last six games at small forward, and is averaging a solid 14 points, 5.7 boards, 2.3 steals and 1.2 treys.
Best Players in NBA history: Larry Bird
In this section of the Lab I pick one of the top players in NBA history as voted on in this project and discuss some of his career accomplishments - in other words, what made him so great that he deserves a spot among the greatest? This week's player is Larry Bird, the most intimidating NBA player of my childhood.
My first favorite NBA player was Julius Erving - Dr. J. My second favorite player early on was Earvin Johnson - Magic. As such, my most hated player was Larry Joe Bird. I hated him because he ALWAYS hit the shot...got the call...made the play that made my favorite players' lives miserable. He was like a robot out there. If he took a key shot I just closed my eyes, because I knew it was going in. If Doc's 76ers were up by one point with five seconds left I was petrified, because I knew the Celtics were going to go to Bird. Hatred and fear of Larry Bird made the Boston Celtics my least favorite sports franchise.
But here's the thing...I only hated him because he was so darn GOOD!
To read more about Bird's career and weigh in with your opinions, be sure to check out this week's blog.
Keeping up with the Professor
If you're interested in my takes throughout the week, you can follow me on Twitter @ProfessorDrz. Also, don't forget that you can catch me on the radio on Rotowire Fantasy Sports Today with Chris Liss and Jeff Erickson on XM 87, Sirius 210.