Kobe's Achilles and Accountability
Every year at this time I do my annual "Accountability" article, where I give you the opportunity to grade my prognostication skills. I go back and look at my early season predictions, and let you take a look at the ones I got right AND the ones I got wrong. I'll do that again in this article, but I pushed it to the second half of the article because of the NBA history we just saw.
On Friday night, I was watching the Lakers play against the Warriors in one of the few "must watch" games remaining in the NBA regular season. The Lakers entered the night in a complicated virtual-tie with the Jazz for the eighth playoff seed out West. The Lakers were up a game and held the slot, but the Jazz have the tie-breaker and were only a Lakers' loss away from reclaiming the final playoff spot. The Jazz had already won earlier in the evening against the lottery-bound Timberwolves, and their next game would also be against the Wolves. Thus, Friday night was a MUST win game for a Lakers team whose three remaining games were all with Western Conference playoff teams fighting for seeding (Warriors, Spurs and Rockets).
I won't spend a lot of time here on the game, even though it was a classic game with a LOT of storylines going on. Stephen Curry had 22 points in the first quarter, 32 in the first half, and was a last-second-full-court-shot-that-drew-iron away from 50 for the game. The Lakers were losing the entire game, but came on down the stretch on the strength of their 50-to-16 advantage in free throws. Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol both looked dominant in the same game for one of the few times this season. There were storylines aplenty.
But all of those storylines were dwarfed by one play. With three minutes left in the fourth quarter, Kobe Bryant tried to drive past Harrison Barnes, and as he pushed off with his back leg it just gave way. I was watching it live from my bed, and despite the excitement of the game, I was starting to get drowsy. But when that play happened, I sat straight up, and like many others, my first thought was "Oh no. That's an Achilles." Kobe being Kobe, he made me doubt my first instinct by limping off the court under his own power. I've never seen ANYONE do that, and I've known a lot of people to blow out their Achilles (including both of the Best Men from my wedding). Torn Achilles tendons turn the back of your lower leg to mush, and your foot just doesn't work anymore…in addition to what I'm told is some of the worst pain you can experience. You're not SUPPOSED to be able to limp when your Achilles is torn, so when Kobe did so, I questioned if maybe it was something else. But no. After the game, it was made clear that the Achilles likely was torn. Kobe was just being "pain-intolerance-freak Kobe" with that last, defiant limp. His season, and most of the next year (at the very least) is over as far as basketball was concerned.
There are two overwhelming storylines coming from this injury: what does this mean for the future of one of the biggest icons in NBA history, and what does it mean for the immediate future of the Lakers? The first of these two questions has obscured the other as far as media coverage goes, and I'll start there, but I do think that the second question could end up being the potentially more interesting one.
Obviously, Kobe Bryant is one of the best players to ever play in the NBA. But not only is he excellent on the court, he also has an aura that makes him seem to be bigger than life. His reputation says that he is the closest thing to Jordan…since Jordan, an assassin, a super-clutch late game monster, and one of the most competitive people to ever step on the court. I don't tend to agree with all of Kobe's reputation - especially the parts that are countered by statistical evidence - but that last one has always been abundantly clear. Kobe has always been compulsively competitive, and ultimately, that is what will bring him back to the court.
Some reporters initially speculated that, with 17 NBA seasons already under his belt, this injury could be the end for Kobe. No chance. Despite all of the mileage, Kobe is still only 34 years old. He is still less than 700 points and only one championship behind Michael Jordan on the all-time lists. And he is NOT going to let his NBA career end with him limping off the court as his body gave way trying to get past a rookie defender. Check out his Facebook page where he has already started a running diary, which includes, this post on Saturday:
"One day, the beginning of a new career journey will commence. Today is NOT that day.
"If you see me in a fight with a bear, prey for the bear". I've always loved that quote. That's "mamba mentality" we don't quit, we don't cower, we don't run."
Even if no one else had ever believed that Kobe was the Black Mamba, HE believes it, and as such, he's going to do what he has to so he can go out on his own terms. Kobe will be back. But what will his team do in the meantime?
When Kobe got injured on Friday night, there was three minutes left in the must-win Warriors game that the Warriors had been in control of for most of the night. The remaining Lakers stepped up with Howard, Gasol, and Metta World Peace all scoring and making big plays down the stretch to get the team the needed victory. On Sunday they will play the co-No.-1-seeded Spurs, still clinging to their one-game-lead in the race with the Jazz. I believe the Lakers will go on to hold off the Jazz in the last couple of games to get into the playoffs as the eighth seed. That isn't exactly a bold prediction, so try this one:
If Steve Nash is healthy enough to play near capacity, and the Lakers play the Thunder in round one, I give them two chances in five to win the series. If Nash can go, and they play the Spurs, on the other hand, I'd go so far as to make the Lakers the favorites. Why?
Well, I'm obviously not shy about predicting teams to do well when their best player goes down (see my prediction about Rajon Rondo and the Celtics this season). And there are actually a lot of similarities between the Rondo and Bryant injuries, and their respective teams. In both instances, as the lead guards on their teams, Rondo and Bryant had the ball in their hands much more than any of their teammates, and they were both popularly considered to be the engine for their respective offenses. In both cases, the fact that the lead guard tended to accumulate the most box score stats is taken as evidence that they are the only ones CAPABLE of fulfilling those roles on the team.
However, just like Rondo, Kobe's regularized adjusted +/- numbers this season don't ascribe to him the impact that his reputation and box score stats suggest. In the 2013 RAPM study done by a member of the apbrmetrics board, Bryant came in with a +1.6 score, good for No. 84 in the NBA (similar to Rondo's score of +1.8, 61st overall) and fifth on the Lakers behind Howard, World Peace, Nash, and Gasol.
Rondo and Kobe both measured out as a net positive for their teams, but not the primary impact player or the one that would be the make-or-break player. And in both instances, there were strong and prideful teammates in place that could replace them and still give the team a successful postseason identity. For the Lakers, the Howard/Gasol frontline should (on paper) always have been by-far the strongest part of the team, particularly in the playoffs. Moving forward, as the top-two scoring options on the team, they could be a huge mismatch against either the Spurs or the Thunder.
But the key to this whole thing is Nash. He has been injured all season, and continues to battle injury now. When he has played, he has been relegated to a secondary role in the backcourt. But he has made a career out of being a huge impact lead guard. In a Mike D'Antoni system, with frontline players as heavy scorers, if he is able to go, he can step into Kobe's lead guard role and play it in a way that still allows Gasol and Howard to maximize their abilities. With the Spurs battling their own injury problems with Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, this Lakers team can beat them. The Thunder are the best team in the West, but this Lakers team has the potential to beat them as well.
Once again, as a fan of the +/- stats that aren't yet making their full mark in the mainstream, I am very interested to see how this plays out. The Lakers could lose on Sunday and not make the playoffs, and the experiment would be over before it begins. But I'd really like to see the Lakers get into the playoffs and get Nash healthy enough to see how they really compare with the big dawgs out West. And if they do survive and advance, despite the absence of one of the consensus top few players in the NBA, I once again look forward to hearing how the NBA player evaluation process might evolve. And if they come in healthy and get stomped in the first round, I'll make sure to mention it next year at this time in the next accountability article. And speaking of accountability…
2012-13 Accountability for the Professor
As I've said in the past, one thing that I hate about sports prognosticators is that there's no accountability. You can make whatever claim you want at the start of the season, safe in the knowledge that by the end no one will remember how wrong you were. So, in what has become a yearly tradition, I figured I'd put my money where my mouth is and go back through some of the predictions I made in the Lab earlier in the season to see how well I did.
First Lab, October 12, 2012
In this article I chose a lot of individual storylines that were up in the air entering the season and weighed in with what I thought would happen. I nailed it on Dwight Howard ("When you put the injury uncertainty with the role uncertainty of him fitting in with three other stars, I'm not as high on Howard this season."), being pessimistic about an Amar'e Stoudemire bounce-back, that Blake Griffin (knee) was fine and would have a big year, and that Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter would eat into the fantasy production of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap if no trade occurred. I also said that Jeff Teague was excellent value as a mid-late round pick, and for the second year in a row, I was right that he was undervalued.
I missed (big time) on this being the best year for Andrea Bargnani (he had arguably his worst). I was bullish early on Greg Monroe, DeMarcus Cousins, and Goran Dragic, but while all three were solid and serviceable, none made the leap I was expecting. I picked Manu Ginobili as a mid-round value with an injury risk, which he was, but the injuries and age ultimately made him a bad pick for the season.
I had an interesting relationship with the Warriors in this article. I pointed out that Stephen Curry "legitimately has the ability to finish a season as the No. 1-ranked player in roto rankings, and you just don't find that kind of upside everywhere," but that I was unlikely to end up with him on my team because the "health of his tricky ankles is so ridiculously questionable" that I was too nervous to draft him. But I ended up with this line, "But man, if I pass on him and he ends up putting it together this year I'll be pretty bummed." Curry did, in fact, put it together this year, like I knew that he could, and ended up as the 4th overall player on the Yahoo! player rater. So, consider me bummed that I missed out on him. On the flip side, I was high on Klay Thompson having a strong sophomore season, and his finish of #39 in Y! rank (vs. his O-rank of #78) supports that I was correct on him.
Hoops Lab 2
I was right about Derrick Rose being undraftable due to his injury. I also preached caution on taking Kevin Love (hand) early in roto leagues, but in retrospect, I wasn't concerned enough about how fragile he'd be this year.
I was a mixed bag about the new-look Lakers, in that I expected Kobe to still be a 25-point scorer on his best percentages in awhile and I thought Howard's numbers would suffer in the new regime. I really thought that Nash would take a larger role in the offense, though, and that this would really help Gasol to have a bounce-back year. Injuries and difficulties with the new dynamic led to this being a down year for both of them.
Hoops Lab 3, value
This is the one that you might really want to re-read to evaluate me. I listed 35 players that I thought would out-produce their average draft position. There are too many to go through all of them here, but I was right to advocate James Harden, Paul George, David Lee, Kenneth Faried, J.R. Smith, and O.J. Mayo (among others). I've already mentioned that I was a bit too high on Monroe, Cousins, and Bargnani. All told, I got more right than wrong, and I welcome you to go back through the whole list to see what you think.
Conclusion: I think this year was a success on the whole. I was right more often than not, and some that I missed on were due to injuries or unexpected trades. And as I pointed out in last week's article, my big test-predictions based on advanced stats (that James Harden would explode in Houston and that the Celtics team wouldn't miss a beat without Rondo, and would in fact would be better as long as Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce were in the game) both were big successes. If any of you listened to me, I hope it worked out well for you, and I look forward to doing it again next season.
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.