Thursday, October 30, 2014

Knicks and Lakers

While you don't want to take too much away from the first two nights of the NBA season - small sample size and what not - there are two take-aways I feel fairly comfortable making: the Knicks and the Lakers are really bad basketball teams. There weren't too many expectations surrounding either team, but there was a general presumption of competence that I'm not sure was warranted given the players they had on their rosters.

Here's what I mean by that - the Lakers were +12.5 underdogs to the Suns last night and they lost by 30. The Knicks were +4.5 underdogs to the Bulls and they lost by 24. The over/under for season wins was 31.5 for LA and 40.5 for NY. They wouldn't be all over national TV this season if they weren't in big markets, but I don't think the networks would have scheduled them that much if they thought they would be two of the worst teams in the league.

My guess is they were looking at it like the Lakers still have Kobe and the Knicks still have Melo, so even if they aren't elite teams, they should be able to scratch out enough wins to where they can put a presentable product on TV. The problem with that type of thinking is that it has the game exactly backwards - having one of the best scorers in the NBA doesn't mean anything if you don't have two-way big men to support him.

It goes back into what I was saying about Marc Gasol and Joakim Noah last week. The big men are like the offensive and defensive line and the scorers are the QB's - everybody wants to focus on the guy who with the ball in his hands when he's totally dependent on the guys in front of him to succeed. As great as Melo and Kobe are, and they are great, a good team doesn't necessarily need a guy who can hoist up a bunch of shots efficiently.

Let's start with the Knicks, since they should at least be somewhat competitive this season. They started Amare Stoudemire and Sam Dalembert upfront last night, which is pretty much a cry for help. The Bulls big men did whatever they wanted - Noah is still a little hobbled, but Pau went for 21 points on 7-11 shooting and Taj went for 22 points on 10-12 shooting. They bullied the Knicks, out-rebounding them 47-38.

If you can't stop other teams from scoring around the rim, it's essentially impossible to play defense. What makes it worse is they were starting three sieves - Melo, Amare and Suga Shane Larkin - who aren't known for keeping their man in front of them. It's the same story coming off the bench, where JR Smith, Tim Hardaway Jr and Pablo Prigioni get major minutes. And they still have to add Jose Calderon and Andrea Bargani to the mix!

If the Knicks are going to win games this season, it's going to come on the offensive side of the floor. The problem with that is they are trying to set up a very complicated offense that is not intuitive for most NBA players, so there will be a huge learning curve even in a best-case scenario. Even worse, the Triangle is designed to feature big men who can score, a problem when you have Sammy D and Cole Aldrich as your top two C's.

You know what New York could really use? A two-way C who could anchor their defense and not take anything away from them on offense because a guy like that would make them a much better team on both sides of the ball. In other words, they need Tyson Chandler. The Knicks focused too much on what he couldn't do and not enough on what he could and gave up one of the most valuable players in the NBA for peanuts.

Did we learn nothing from Linsanity? It's easy as fuck for an NBA team to find some asshole to dominate the ball - you can literally find guys like that under a couch cushion. Lin wasn't as good as Melo, but he could function as the hub of the offense if he could play with a P/R partner like Chandler who had his back on D. Without Chandler, Melo is jacking up a bunch of shots and wondering what just happened.

I can see the argument for why you don't want to commit $15 million a season for a declining 32-year old C with a long history of injuries, but make no mistake about it, when you give up an asset as valuable as a two-way C for nothing*, you are committing to a long and painful rebuilding process. The Knicks made the same mistake the Mavs made three years ago - the difference is they are digging out of a much deeper hole.

* Nothing is a little strong, but man the Mavs fleeced the hell out of the Knicks in that trade. I wrote up a scouting report on the pieces they gave away - all those guys are worse than their reps. Sammy D doesn't even have a rep anymore which tells you how bad he is, Larkin is a sub-6'0 guard (who isn't Isaiah Thomas) which is the definition of a fungible asset and Calderon doesn't play D and can't take his man off the dribble anymore. They just better hope Cleanthony Early can play.

When Dallas let Chandler walk in 2011, they did it under the idea that they would open up cap space to lure a premier free agent. The problem with that strategy is that premier FA's don't like signing with teams who aren't contenders and it's really hard to remain a contender when you give away a guy like Chandler. Dirk Nowitzki and Rick Carlisle had to conjure up miracles just keep them afloat and they aren't walking through that door in NY.

The Knicks were operating from a much lower base-line, so when they gave away Chandler they went from low playoff seed to the lottery. Here's the problem - once you start losing a bunch of games, the mood around the team gets really bad and it's hard to lure big-time FA's. Marc Gasol would fix a lot of their problems, but would he really want to sign with a 25-30 win team? Ask the Lakers how that pitch goes.

To be sure, the problems in LA go much deeper than in NY. They are playing in the Western Conference, their franchise player is 36 and coming off major surgery and they have given away a lot of their future draft picks. There is a common theme running through both teams though - they thought they had to build around a superstar wing rather than focusing on the players that actually win and lose basketball games.

The funniest thing about the Kobe/Dwight dynamic is Kobe acting like Dwight needed him when it was really the reverse. As soon as Dwight left the Lakers, they were done. A two-way C who can get 20/10 and anchor a D can go anywhere and be relevant. When you lose a guy like that for nothing, turn off the lights because the party is over. The stuff Kobe and Byron Scott were saying was essentially "I didn't want her anyway".

If they still had Dwight, they would still be a respectable outfit. Without him, they have no interior presence and no one who can protect the rim. When you start guys like Kobe and Lin, that's a big problem. The Suns must have had 3-4 dunks in the first few minutes of the game last night - there was nothing the Lakers could do to stop them beyond praying. It was hard to watch that not think these guys are going to win 15 games.

Kobe had a really good game - 31 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists on 11-25 shooting - and it didn't matter because there's nothing a one-way wing player can do to make his teammates better. It's the same with Melo, these guys can put up huge stats on a winning team or huge stats on a losing team, it doesn't matter. Whether or not their teams are going to be good depends on the type of players around them - they don't raise people's games.
Kobe is going to spend two years in purgatory before his time in the NBA is done. The basketball gods must humble him and show him the errors of his ways before they allow him to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame! It's like the old saying about how everyone gets the face they deserve at 40. There's some justice in a world where Tim Duncan eases into retirement while Kobe has to face the NBA all alone with no help from anyone. It's what he wanted.

It would help if they were both more willing passers, but it still wouldn't make a huge difference. At this stage in their careers, they just don't bring as much value to the court as guys like Dwight and Chander, who make their teammates better on both sides of the ball. It's not that they aren't superstars, it's that the media has been lying to you for a long time - superstars without big men are QB's without offensive linemen.

The Lakers start Carlos Boozer and Jordan Hill, which might be the only frontcourt in the NBA more depressing than the Knicks. I'm not sure how long it's going to take Byron Scott to figure out that he needs to be playing Ed Davis 35+ minutes a night, but that's a move that needed to happen yesterday. With Julius Randle gone, Davis is pretty much the only bright spot on the Lakers roster, though I do like Jordan Clarkson's potential.

I'm looking at this roster right now and thinking that every team in the NBA should feel pretty confident against them, even the 76ers! How exactly do the Lakers plan on guarding MCW and Tony Wroten? Philly can at least push the tempo and use their youth to their advantage to catch a team sleeping on the second night of a back-to-back. LA has a bunch of old guys who don't play D hoisting a bunch of inefficient shots.

 photo george-bush-miss-me-yet_zpsb642017c.jpg

Someone needs to photoshop Mike D'Antoni's face onto this picture.

MDA was at least smart enough to realize that last year's team was so sorry that the only way to win was a high variance strategy of spreading the floor and bombing away from 3. The way he got railroaded out of town by the Lakers was downright shameful - you could make the case that getting to 27 wins with last year's squad was one of the best coaching jobs of his career. He must be laughing his ass off right now.

Everyone was talking about how Byron Scott would "emphasize defense" more but what's the difference when you are starting Boozer, Kobe and Lin? Is there a good defensive player on the Lakers roster? Maybe Wesley Johnson and Xavier Henry, maybe. LA can get lit up from every position on the floor - whoever the best scorer on the other team is, he's going to have a big night against the Lakers.

Just go up and down the Western Conference. Forget the playoff teams b/c that's a given they are going to stomp out the Lakers. The Kings? DMC is going to drop 30/15 on them like it's nothing. The Wolves? Martin, Pek and Young can take turn getting buckets. The Jazz? Hayward, Burke, Burks, their young big men - they will be fighting to get FGA's against the Lakers. Let's pencil them in for an over/under of 5 conference wins.

For the time being, when I see LA and NY play the vast majority of teams in the NBA, they better have a spread in the double digits. Otherwise, as Jet Terry used to say in Dallas, it's winning time.* My guess is it won't last too long - the Lakers next three games are vs. Clippers, at Warriors (b2b) and vs. Suns. By the middle of next week, they should be looking at +15 to +20 point spreads on a nightly basis. They are BAD.

* I need to write something about the Jet because he is one of the funniest players in the recent history of the NBA. He has the game of Jeff Hornacek and the swag of Russell Westbrook. 

The question I have for both the Knicks and the Lakers is how they are going to attract free agents? There are going to be plenty of teams with cap space who can offer a better chance of winning. Maybe the market is enough, but doesn't that dynamic change a bit when you are in your 30's? If you got kids and a family, it don't matter where you sign because you aren't going to be hitting the clubs like when you were in your 20's.

Let's put it this way - do I think it's a coincidence the Heatles were all in their mid 20's when they signed in Miami? No. Four years later, things had changed for LeBron. Read the thing he wrote in SI - he wanted his kids to grow up where he grew up. That's the kind of thing you are thinking about when you are in your 30's and LA and NYC aren't great places to raise a family. Melo is different b/c his wife is in show business. We'll see.

To be sure, it's not the end of the world if they can't lure the best of the best - there are a lot of different ways to leverage cap space, as the Mavs have shown over the last 3 seasons. However, that requires very creative management and that isn't something either the Lakers or Knicks have shown they have. It could be a long slog for both these teams - they might need to start from ground zero and start building through the draft.

Here's the key - when they are in the top of the lottery, they better not be thinking oh I need to find the next Kobe or the next Melo. They better be trying to find some two-way big men to build around. They better be thinking Karl Towns and Jahlil Okafor. I got nothing but love for a Dallas kid like Emmanuel Mudiay (I see you out in China getting money, can't be mad at that), but you win games in the NBA by having a good frontcourt. The Knicks and Lakers are proof of that.


  1. When the over/unders came out for the season I wanted to put every spare cent I had on the Lakers going under. Alas, being an impoverished uni student I did not have a single spare cent haha

  2. And . . . the Knicks beat the Cavs the next day. On a back to back on the road.

    Great article and I agree. But a little Knicks revenge by getting what will probably be one of their better wins of the season the very next day.

  3. What's the Bill Simmons line? This, once again, proves why I'm an idiot.

    Seriously, though, you have to respect what Fisher is doing already. It took him four quarters to take Amare out of the starting line-up and six for Sammy D. He's got a quick hook and he's willing to give guys chances based on their game, not their rep. That's half the battle, right there. We'll see what happens with Jason Smith and Quincy Acy (Mesquite!), but they can't be any worse than the guys they replaced.