Sunday, November 8, 2015

Knicks vs. Lakers

You got to be a real NBA fan to be watching this mid-afternoon game on an NFL Sunday. The key for me was giving up fantasy football. I stopped playing this season and it's amazing how quickly my interest dropped in the NFL.

This game felt like something out of the mid-90's. You had a guy on each team isolating and taking a bunch of hero-ball shots, not a lot of spacing on the court, a lot of line-ups with two big men and a lot of post-ups. What's irritating is that both teams have a lot of interesting young guys who could fit really well into modern NBA offenses. I at least understand the direction that Phil Jackson is trying to take the Knicks - I'm not really sure what the Lakers are trying to do exactly.
  • The first thing that jumps out watching the Lakers is they are going to lose a ton of games this season because they play zero defense. They are starting two rookies and a second-year guy on one extreme and a 37-year old guy on the other and they are asking Roy Hibbert to bridge the gap pretty much single-handedly and he isn't exactly 2009 Dwight Howard. If you put him behind a bunch of athletes who understand the scheme and can funnel penetration to him, Hibbert can do something. There just isn't much to be done with this group personnel-wise and it's not like the Lakers are bringing a bunch of stoppers off the bench either. I wonder if the Suns regret giving up their pick for Brandon Knight.
  • The other problem is there's no role differentiation whatsoever. Whose job is it on this team to move the ball and play defense? Larry Nance? Everyone on the perimeter needs the ball in their hands the same way a man drowning in the ocean needs water. It kind of feels like they are all taking turns hunting for their own shot and there's no real flow to the offense. What makes it worse is there's no space. Everyone wants to point the finger at Byron Scott but it all goes back to the front office. 
  • You compare how the Blazers are building a team around Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum to what the Lakers are doing with D'Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson. I think that's the best-case scenario for their back-court of the future - a much taller version of the Blazers backcourt with two 6'5 guys who can play on and off the ball, take turns running the offense and hoisting 3's off the dribble. Both Russell and Clarkson have really high releases so it's going to be hard for a lot of smaller defenders to bother their shot. What could make things really interesting is what the two of them could potentially do on defense with their length but that's obviously way down the road.
  • I feel bad for Russell because he's kind of walked into a worst-case scenario in terms of utilizing his skill-set. He's a spread pick-and-roll guy all the way - he comes off ball screens with the threat to shoot, drive or pass and he makes a decision based on what the defense gives him. He's not a super athlete so he's not a guy whose going to isolate and create his own shot at will or finish over the top of a bunch of defenders packed in the paint. He's playing next to two ball-dominant guys on the perimeter with a front-court that doesn't have anyone who can stretch out the defense. He only gets so much time with the ball in his hands and he doesn't have a lot of room to operate and he doesn't have the versatility to impact the game as a role player in the same way as guys like Justice Winslow and Stanley Johnson. 
    • I kind of look at it like he's a spread QB in college who was drafted for his stats and now he's being placed in a pro-style offense in the NFL and being asked to make it work. This is not the way he was successful at the NCAA level and if you are going to draft a guy based on how well he played in NCAA (and not on physical tools) you should probably put him in a system that tries to utilize him in a similar way.
    • At the same time, it really isn't that big of a deal for a rookie to struggle in his transition to the NBA. This should be a good learning experience for Russell because he's going to play in tight spaces all season and he's going to have to try and figure out how to make it work. Byron is getting a lot of slack for benching him for bad D but he didn't play a lot of defense in college and he might as well start learning good habits now. They are going to have to make a lot of changes to the roster next season but for now the Lakers are throwing Russell into the fire and hoping his talent shines through.
  • This was a really tough game for Julius Randle and the match-up with Kristaps Porzingis was kind of what I was worried about when projecting him to the next level. Porzingis length just swallowed him up in the paint and he could play a step off Randle and neutralize some of his quickness when he was facing up on the perimeter. A couple of times he reached over the top of Randle's arms and took the rebound from him like he was a little kid. Randle's going to have to learn to minimize his length deficiencies at the NBA level - he has to put his body on a guy like Porzingis and really seal him off. 
    • Hibbert is also a terrible fit for Randle on offense because he's just sitting in the middle of the paint and clogging up the lane, making it impossible for Randle to drive the ball. There was nowhere for him to go in the half-court so he ended up taking a lot of step-back jumpers, which is not really the strength of his game. Randle needs to be paired with a big man who can open up the paint and allow him to attack in space and have the option to either finish or make the quick pass. For now, Julius should just be pushing the ball constantly off defensive rebounds because where he can really thrive is in transition. The big worry for him is can he finish in traffic with his length - Blake has T-Rex arms too but he's not a Blake-level athlete - which is less of an issue in the open court.
    • It's obviously going to be tough to find the rim protector + spacer combo at the 5 next to Randle. Adreian Payne seems to have fallen out of favor in Minnesota so they might be able to take a flyer on him. They could also throw a lot of money at a guy like Meyers Leonard in the off-season. Lakers fans probably don't want to hear that but that's the type of FA they should be looking at.
  • You can see the outlines of a young core with Russell, Clarkson and Randle if you can find 3-and-D guys at the 3 and the 5. The worry I would have is whether the FO is drafting with a grand plan in mind or whether they have just been taking the biggest name in the lottery who put up the most stats at the NCAA level and had the biggest reputation coming into the draft. Randle and Russell were both flashy offensive-first guys, which is fine, but I feel like I'd want to take one and not the other in consecutive drafts. Or maybe the Lakers were just trying to maximize assets and hope to flip them for a star? The problem with that is they end up canceling each other out and eating into each other's stats because there's only one basketball.
  • I haven't wanted to say much about Kobe because what is there to say about this? This is just completely out of control. 15.6 FGA's a game on 32.1% shooting isn't a stat-line. It's a cry for help. At least with Melo he's still pretty close to his prime so you expect he'll bust out of the slump. This is a super old guy in his 20th season hoisting up terrible shots constantly. I'm not sure why you'd expect anything to change results-wise unless he changes his approach. What he can still do at a high level is pass the ball and he made a couple of really good passes on Sunday - at some point you would hope he would move into more of a playmaker mode, if only to try something different. 
    • Are the Lakers running a fantasy camp for Kobe? What is going on here? Even if winning games isn't the top priority, they could at least try to develop talent or maybe run a functional NBA team where roles and responsibilities are divvied out in some relation to the relative ability levels of the guys on the roster. Sometimes the most loving thing you can do for someone is to say no and stop enabling them.
Clarkson, Russell and Randle is a really fun trio and Clarkson is one of my balikbayan brethren but I'm not sure how much of this team I'm going to watch this season. They are going to be freaking terrible and their young guys aren't going to be put in a position to succeed so it's probably best to reserve judgment and see what type of roster the Lakers come up with in 2017. As far as the Kobe stuff goes, yea it's kind of funny but it's also kind of sad. When it comes to basketball, I'm not much for sentiment. Old guys who can't really play anymore don't do much for me.
  • It's all Porzingis all the time in New York. He's just a super-compelling figure because you can see a lot of the evolution of the game in his skill-set and the way he ends up being utilized in New York is going to be an interesting window into the way the league is moving.
    • You have to love the length that he used to lock up Randle in this game. He's just absurdly long and it allows him to match-up with guys who are much faster and stronger than him. What it makes you wonder is whether he could stay as a 4 in a small-ball league or if he eventually moves to the 5. It's going to be hard for wing players to take advantage of Porzingis on defense because he's a smart player and he's fast enough to where he can move his feet and still contest shots on the perimeter with that 7'6 wingspan.
    • My guess is that Phil wants to keep Porzingis at the 4 because he's trying to build a team like the 2010 Lakers. He bullied the rest of the league with Pau and Odom upfront and that really wasn't all that long ago. If everyone is going small and he has a mobile 7'2-7'3 guy who can score over the top of people on the block and cover up the paint on defense as a 4 ... maybe Phil can really start the counter-revolution.
    • His ceiling as an offensive player is going to depend on how good of a shooter he becomes because he gets a clean look pretty much whenever he wants. That's the thing about Dirk comparisons. Saying a 7'0 who can shoot can be like Dirk is like saying a 6'3 who can shoot can be like Steph Curry. It's a make or miss league and Dirk was one of the best shooters of all-time so it made sense for him to base his game around the threat of the jumper. If Porzingis is only a good shooter, than he's going to want to go in a different direction.
    • I think like most stretch big men Porzingis is more comfortable using his speed to go around slower guys than trying to use size to score over the top of smaller ones. That's where you would think he would end up as more of a 5, where he could kill people on pick-and-pops and drive the ball at the rim. 
    • What you have to like about him as a rookie is that he's not afraid to stick his nose in the action and play rough-and-tumble even though he's frail as hell and built like a stick figure. He's going to pick up a lot of fouls this season but who cares really. He's a young 7'0 who plays very aggressively so foul trouble comes with the territory. You would rather he be committing crimes of commission as opposed to crimes of omission. That's where the problem of the Knicks trying to compete for a playoff spot while also developing a 19-year old at the starting PF position comes into play.
  • I hope Carmelo hasn't been playing like this all season but his stat line seems to suggest otherwise. It was like Kobe was rubbing off on on him or something. He was just taking absurd shots and not really trying on defense. He was dying on screens and at one point he doubled Roy Hibbert in the post and left a guy wide open from 3. It was also a lot like Kobe because he was making some really good passes last night but it was overshadowed by some of the egregious crimes against shot selection that he was throwing up. Either way he's going to start making shots pretty efficiently because that's what he does but he is going to need to play defense for a playoff push to be realistic.
  • Speaking of defense, it blows my mind that Jose Calderon is a starting PG in 2015. I was thinking two years ago the Mavs were going to have to buy his contract out. That Tyson for Calderon trade was kind of the original sin for Phil Jackson in New York and that's what has lead them on the road to where they are half-in, half-out when it comes to rebuilding vs. competing. I'm not trying to be mean because Jose is a nice guy but his final season in Dallas was the worst season of guard defense I think I've ever witnessed at the NBA level. His lack of athleticism has also sapped into his offense too because he can't get by anyone and it's hard to get assists when you can't get into the lane or draw an extra defender. And now he's not making shots either? 
  • I can see why they aren't starting Jerian Grant because that's a lot of pressure to put on a rookie guard. He has to worry about getting his own shot, getting shots to everyone else and playing defense at the toughest position in the league. It's enough to make your mind go a million miles an hour and on top of that you have to run the offense and control tempo and appease all the different vets who need the ball. Grant is their best playmaker, though, and he has a great feel for the game. The problem is that he doesn't have great burst so he really needs the jumper and it isn't there right now.
    • The tough part about evaluating Grant is that he's already 23. D'Angelo Russell won't be that age until 2019. 
  • Langston Galloway was +17 in 27 minutes and he brings them athleticism, activity level and defense that they desperately need on the perimeter while also being a good shooter. I can see where they want an energy guy like that off the bench to change the dynamic of the game but sometimes you can overthink these things as an coach. You want to play your best guys as much as possible if you are trying to win games. They need Galloway and Grant and they don't need Calderon and Vujacic - it doesn't take much viewing of this team to make that pretty clear.
My guess with the Knicks is they are still probably a guard away - possibly two - if they are going to grab a playoff spot out East, even with Arron Afflalo. I'm just not really seeing Calderon and Vujacic as contributors on an NBA playoff team in 2016. The middle of the East is actually fairly competent this season so the question becomes what happens with Carmelo if the Knicks aren't in the Top 8 at the deadline and then things get really interesting.


  1. This was a really great article and for the most part I agree. I'm just curious about this bit:

    "This game felt like something out of the mid-90's. You had a guy on each team isolating and taking a bunch of hero-ball shots, not a lot of spacing on the court, a lot of line-ups with two big men and a lot of post-ups. What's irritating is that both teams have a lot of interesting young guys who could fit really well into modern NBA offenses. I at least understand the direction that Phil Jackson is trying to take the Knicks - I'm not really sure what the Lakers are trying to do exactly."

    The notion of "modern NBA offense" is kind of vague to me. The Lakers offense isn't such an antiquated thing (when Kobe is off the floor). To my eye, the Lakers looked like any young/scrappy team in the league when Kobe was benched. They play a screen heavy style on offense and are somewhat disruptive on defense. In a way, the Lakers and Knicks are alike. Both teams play a more balanced style of basketball when the highest paid player is off the court.

    The Knicks offense has been pretty fun to watch for me. The pure spread PnR stuff you see teams like the Pistons run is effective, but you gotta have the personnel for it. The Knicks can't play that way. As such, it's pleasant to see them trying to make smart basketball plays. Cuts, off-ball screens, smart ball reversals, etc. The Knicks have really improved at making reads even though they've abandoned the triangle as the primary offense. To my eye, there is nothing wrong with the way they are playing (even though some might consider it antiquated) because they are getting man/ball movement that leads to good shots. They also seem to be running more and shooting more threes.

    For both teams the writing is on the wall. Out with the old (Kobe, Calderon, Vujacic, etc.) and in with the new (Russell, Clarkson, Randle, Porzingis, Grant).

    The Lakers' road to redemption is a bit more murky than the Knicks, but they still have tons of cap space and an appetizing market.

  2. Thanks for the comment.

    In terms of the Knicks, I'm thinking of stuff like running post-ups for Lance Thomas or playing line-ups with Robin Lopez and Kyle O'Quinn on the floor at the same time. Pure spread PNR is a pretty good catch-all for "modern NBA offense" but some other general principles are playing as many shooters in possible, getting the ball moving and forcing the defense to guard in space. You are right that it looks a lot worse when Melo is just boss-hogging the ball.

    1. I see what you are saying. It's a tough one for me. The notion of playing as many shooters as possible and forcing the defense to guard in space definitely seems to be the new paradigm.

      As a fan, I enjoy all styles, but I find it particularly amusing when teams finding ways to buck the trend, go big, and win. From an intellectual standpoint, it's clear that having more shooters and going 4/5-out creates problems for defenses because they can't load-up/cheat as well.

      However, it's interesting to see teams find creative ways to use traditional bigs successfully by exploiting their size, rebounding, screening, post-ups, etc. Memphis has been on the cusp of doing this for several years. The problem hasn't been Gasol/Randolph, so much as it's been Tony Allen (whose lack of shooting on the perimeter negates his stellar defense). I wonder whether the Grizz would've won a championship if TA was replaced by a player like Korver. The Warriors made a smart move realizing that you can completely ignore a non-shooter on the wing/perimeter. However, if that non-shooter is a big like Tristan Thompson (who can screen/dive for o-boards), it's a different story.

      I think two traditional bigs can work at a championship level, if surrounded by three shooters.

      Perhaps Phil Jackson's vision is something like the Grizz, but with more perimeter shooting and movement.

      Posting up Lance Thomas is a bit weird, but playing KOQ and RoLo makes some sense. Two bigs that can pass very well, shore up the boards, and hopefully provide you with enough defense and screening to make up for their lack of shooting (though both seem to have 17 foot range).

      Perhaps I'm just scared of the game becoming too monolithic. With a bunch of wanna-be Spurs/Warriors/Rockets.

    2. I agree with you that two big men together can still work in the NBA - you just have to have two very special big men and the perfect supporting cast around them.

      The thing with the Grizzlies is they have always needed a complete wing - someone who can guard at a high level, create his own shot and space the floor. Rudy Gay and Jeff Green were supposed to be those guys but neither was able to be an efficient player in the context of their offense and neither was all that consistent on defense either. Tony Allen (can't shoot) and Courtney Lee (can't create) we're always going to be role players and you can't win a title starting two wings with significant holes in their game. What they really needed was someone like Paul George, which is easier said than done obviously.

      If the Knicks are going to build a Grizzlies like team around Kristaps, they are basically missing 3 pieces - another foundational 7'0, a complete wing and a two-way PG who can control tempo and be the tip of the spear on defense. For a team without a lot of assets to get all those pieces will be difficult. That's why I think they will ultimately need to move Carmelo to find more guys who line up more with Kristaps timetable.

  3. I watched this game too (I watch as many Laker games as possible).

    So, you're not sure what the Lakers are trying to do. Well, neither does Byron Scott. That is unless you call appeasing Kobe's delusions at the potential detriment of young talent a plan of attack.

    What's been amazing/pathetic is Kobe's refusal to accept reality. His quotes have made a lot of headlines so far this year, but the one that has stood out to me was him complaining about receiving criticism that his peers don't--that he is held to a higher standard than his peers. What?!?! He's 38, he's played for 20 seasons, and his last three years have ended through injury. Kobe has as good of footwork as anyone who has ever played the game, and it made him historically good, but his game has been and always will be based on speed, and his wheels have completely fallen off. No fan, teammate, pundit, or coach in their right mind expects anything from Kobe. Only he holds himself to the standards he's talking about. Look at Dirk, Duncan, Pierce, and Garnett. Their wheels have all fallen off, but they have changed their games, accepted small roles, and are valuable pieces on their respective teams because they are savvy vets who do savvy vet type things. Kobe is playing the same way he always has. Same drives. Same spins. Same pounding the ball while boring his teammates to death. Same glaring and scowling to make sure his teammates know that he is Kobe Bryant and this is his team. He's just doing it all very slowly, very closely to the ground, and with way more threes because he just can't get by anyone.

    I had high(ish) hopes for the Lakers this year--Russell, Clarkson and Randle are a talented young threesome who have fun and diverse offensive skill sets, and Lou Williams and Brandon Bass are good pros to supplement them. Kobe should be playing 15-20 minutes a night, taking 10-12 shots, making a few crafty moves in the post/night, and using his unbelievable (if always unwilling) passing skills to get others involved. He should be doing this, but he isn't because he can't. He has zero self-awareness. Kobe is like a fifty-something rockstar who never evolved, still squeezing into the leather pants and trying to hit the high notes, despite the fact that not only can he no longer button the fly, and doesn't have the vocal chops, but he's also forgotten a bunch of the words. Sad.

    It would be nice if he was wired like Dirk, Pierce, Duncan or Garnett, and was a good teammate and responsible steward of the franchise, but he's not. I have been a Laker fan my entire life, and it has been so hard to watch 20 years of ego-driven Kobe-ball. I am so excited for him to be gone, but I'm not mad at him because it's ultimately not his job to look out for the best interests of the team. It's the job of Byron Scott, Mitch Kupchak, and JimmyBoy Buss to do that, and they are just sitting and watching. What a mess. I'm rambling...

    How about Porzingis?!?! Forget the Dirk and Pau comparisons--easy because he's white, euro, and thin. The dude looks like Ralph Sampson, and that dude was awesome!!! The Knicks should look at the mess the Lakers are in with Kobe, and be gift wrapping Melo to anyone (probably Miami). Melo is the bigger (and slightly less talented) Kobe. Get him away from Kristaps!!

    1. Kind of feels like Kobe has bought into the Black Mamba stuff so much that he doesn't really know who he is as a player without it. The result is that he has gone from playing a character to being a caricature as his talent has eroded instead of just naturally evolving and letting the game dictate who he has to be on the court. It reminds me of the old saying that everyone has the face they deserve when they were 50. Age has exposed some of the downsides in the way that Kobe approaches the game as opposed to a guy like Tim Duncan.

      Ralph Sampson is an interesting comp for Kristaps. He was a little before my time so I can't say I'm all that familiar with him but they were both super long and super skinny. Hopefully he doesn't have the same type of injury issues although that is always a possibility with that type of frame.

  4. I was waiting for you to get to the Knicks and Porzingis in particular. I've been really encouraged by what I've seen from him so far. His rebounding has been impressive— 13 total rebounds per 36 minutes, with 5 of those being offensive rebounds—and he definitely has the length, mobility, and motor to keep putting up number like that. His defense has been good too. I expected him to be decent just because of his length, but he's shown decent instincts, active hands, and the ability to switch onto smaller players too. He has all the tools of a great defensive player. On offense, I think the biggest question is how much his shooting develops. If he can consistently hit threes, he'll be the perfect stretch five in the modern NBA, with shooting, size, shot blocking, and the ability to switch on defense. What else could you want?

    About this team in particular, I would play Porzingis at the 5 as much as possible, and have either Lopez or Porzingis at the 5 at all times. It's tempting to play Porzingis at the 4—you can get two 7 footers/shot blockers on the floor and still have decent spacing—but I think the best way to maximize his skills is to really space it out and play 5-out basketball. That's not even considering that Melo should be playing the 4 almost exclusively, and he'll only get slower as time goes on. A Porzingis pick and roll or pick and pop near the three point line, surrounded by three shooters has great potential.

    There's also the question of whether Porzingis can guard post behemoths, but that's not such a big concern in the East, and the Knicks are far away from serious playoff basketball. I think he could handle it just with his length, and he should be more than fine down the road. He's huge!