Joe-Pinions: Sports

9 May 2011 – Lakers’ Phil Jackson Era Swept Away in Dallas

Posted in Basketball by txtmstrjoe on 09/05/2011

So here we are, a day after the Dallas Mavericks completed their four-game demolition of the erstwhile two-time defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers.  Humpty-Dumpty sat proudly on the wall for four years, right on top for the last two, then shattered into a billion pieces once the inevitable fall from grace happened.

Predictably, everybody and his uncle has got opinions on why the Lakers failed in this season’s quest to send outgoing coaching great Phil Jackson with his fourth completed championship three-peat.  His first two were with the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls in the mid-1990s, and his third was with the Shaq-Kobe Lakers of the early 2000s.  The final attempt to complete the title trifecta was led by Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher, and supported on-court with what, on paper, should have been the team’s greatest asset:  The gigantic and talented front line of 7-foot Pau Gasol, 7-foot Andrew Bynum, and 6’10” Lamar Odom.  No other team in the NBA could boast such a trio of talented big men.  But despite this apparent advantage, this final attempt at three consecutive championship wins for Phil Jackson ended as a sad failure.

Consequently, he leaves coaching with the bitter taste of humiliation in defeat in his mouth.  It’s quite possible to lose without humiliation; after all, in almost every contest, someone wins, and someone else loses.  (The only exception is in a stalemate or a draw, of course).  You can lose with grace, with dignity.  I’d say you see the true measure of a competitor not in how he behaves in victory, but how he deals with defeat, particularly when the opponent dominates you.  Sadly, the Lakers exhibited a disturbing loss of heart and composure in the face of adversity, and what you get afterwards is rancor and chaos and damage done to the image of not just the Lakers as a team and organization, but also to the chief figure being villified in this mess:  Andrew Bynum.

*****

I’ll say it right now:  I am an Andrew Bynum fan.  I always have been, and I suspect I always will be.  From the time I first saw him play and flash the tantalizing talent that he undoubtedly has, I have nurtured a very strong affinity for his game and for his potential.  Even through the times when he suffered injuries and almost everyone in Lakerland wanted to trade him away for this player or that player, I have been steadfast in my defense of Bynum.  I have been resolute in my insistence that Bynum is an asset to the team, that all he needs is some time to grow and mature, as well as maybe some support from the fan base.  I suppose a lot of my thought processes when it comes to Andrew Bynum comes from a very deep fear of losing a weapon to an enemy, then suffering the damage done to you by that weapon.  

I’ll put it to you this way:  I don’t fear Dwight Howard as much as I do Andrew Bynum.

I feel this even more strongly ever since Bynum transformed himself into a more complete, more dominant basketball player immediately after the 2011 All-Star break.  He stopped focusing so much on offense and instead became obsessed with doing the hard work in basketball:  He became a ferocious rebounder and a tireless defender.  According to the OC Register’s Kevin Ding, Bynum has even assumed the role of defensive captain, taking on the role of directing his teammates on defensive rotations and assignments.  What’s interesting is, as undoubtedly awesome as the post-All Star break Bynum has been, I believe he’s still got a lot more potential left untapped.  Unless he suffers a career-ending injury (God-willing, I hope he never does), I think he can still get better.

Having given a brief summation of why I think so highly of Bynum, I must say that I did not enjoy seeing his dirty play on J.J. Barea in yesterday’s Game 4 against the Mavericks.  I have never admired dirty players in any sport, and to be honest I would personally have a tough time withdrawing my support and admiration for Bynum if he turns out to be a dirty player.

It’s far too early to think of him that way.

I would rather cast Bynum’s dirty play as an exception, an act born out of a deep frustration and a complete loss of poise, instead of an indicator of Bynum’s true nature as a basketball player.  If he was truly a dirty player, I would think that J.J. Barea would not be just the second NBA guard to have been on the business end of Bynum’s elbow.  Kurt Rambis, currently the Minnesota Timberwolves’ head coach, defended Bynum’s foul somewhat, saying in an interview that he thought that Bynum’s hard foul was purely a “frustration foul,” not necessarily the action of a dirty player.  A dirty player would play dirty no matter the situation; it wouldn’t matter if his team was on the verge of losing in a humiliating fashion to an opponent, or if his team was beating another by thirty.  If Bynum was truly dirty, he would have hurt somebody by now.  The fact that yesterday’s play was so shocking is actually an indication of the general perception that Bynum is not a dirty player.  I will concede, however, that if Bynum makes such dirty plays a regular feature of his basketball repertoire, he will conform to that description.

Look at it this way:  How many times were you shocked when Bill Laimbeer executed similar maneuvers?  He did this quite a few times throughout his career.  How many times did Bruce Bowen shock you when he stuck his foot beneath the player he was guarding, in the hopes that his opponent would land on it and sprain/break an ankle?  You were only shocked at these players’ temerity to express their intentions to intimidate.  Sure, that kind of behavior shocks you, but only because these players did these kinds of things all the time, and you hated that they did that.

Bynum’s flagrant foul was shocking, but not in the same way.  People clearly (and correctly) condemned the play, but I think the shock was mostly due to the violence involved.  That, and the likelihood (I would hope, anyway) that this was aberrant behavior from someone whose true nature is actually very different from the unfortunate image of himself that has been created as a consequence of his one rash decision.

Let’s approach things from another angle.  I still very vividly remember the vicious clothesline that Boston Celtic forward Kevin McHale gave Kurt Rambis, back when Rambis was a Lakers power forward.  Rambis crashed into the Forum hardwood and sprang back up, eager for a fight.  Does anybody call McHale dirty?

Bynum doesn’t indulge in these kinds of actions with any real frequency.  When he uses his elbows on offense, it’s part of the proper technique to create some separation from his defender.  I used to help coach my old high school’s varsity girls basketball team, and the head coach assigned me her big girls to work with (I played center and power forward in my youth, and the head coach recognized I could teach her girls a few things).  I taught those girls that technique, amongst others.  On defense and in rebounding situations, Bynum doesn’t play dirty either; those are the “easiest” opportunities to do something really dirty if you really wanted to, since everyone’s attention is on the ball.  But other than flooring Barea (and an earlier flagrant foul against the Timberwolves’ Michael Beasley), you can’t correctly accuse Bynum of being dirty.

I see this as NBA basketball’s perfect equivalent to Alain Prost’s collision with the late Ayrton Senna at the Suzuka chicane during the 1989 Japanese Grand Prix.  Prost has never ever been seen as a dirty driver, before or after that incident with Senna.  (Senna, on the other hand, indulged in many more and worse behavior in his career.  Michael Schumacher, too, still continues to drive in a dangerous way, even to this very day.)  But the collision Prost caused in the Suzuka chicane was shocking since no one had ever seen him do that before.

Bynum’s flagrant foul on Barea was his second such hard play in his career, but I maintain his action was specifically motivated not by an intention to hurt Barea, but to prove a point.  (I’ll come to that later.)  It was his nasty side coming out, sure; but just as the Incredible Hulk only really appears when passionate, roiling emotions activate the gamma ray-mutated cells in Bruce Banner’s body, Bynum let the fire burn too long and too hot, lost control and composure, and decided to take out his frustrations on an unfortunate opponent.  The monster was born out of his frustration with the situation.

Andrew Bynum has never enjoyed the same kind of fanatical support as someone like, say, Kobe Bryant has amongst Lakers fans.  If he did, I guarantee that he wouldn’t be villified to the same degree as he is (people have forgotten that Magic Johnson once gave Isiah Thomas a very similar kind of foul in 1988).  After his mid-air elbow on Barea, I’m sad to admit (to myself, if to no one else) that there is now next to no chance for Bynum to endear himself to certain segments of Laker fandom.  While I don’t think such things don’t matter much to me – I care most for ability and performance, not popularity – there are fans who think that that’s the most important thing.  Unfortunately, these are also the fans with the capability and/or wherewithal to express their power through their wallets and credit cards.  Basketball smarts and knowledge don’t count for as much, if at all.

*****

I suggested earlier that Bynum’s mid-air elbow on Barea was to prove a point.  What point could that possibly have been?

Clearly, the Lakers’ opponents have a certain mode of attack in mind when they play against the Lakers:  The Lakers are long and tall and skilled at center and forward (they have Bynum, Gasol, and Odom), but one of the best ways to negate a size disadvantage is to dislodge the bigs from their positions in the paint.  How do you do this?  You force the bigs to move away from the paint, one way or another.

Unfortunately for the Lakers, one of the very best ways to move bigs from the lane is to use a high screen with one of your own bigs, which necessarily tends to draw one of the Laker bigs (frequently Pau Gasol) away from the basket.  The screen creates separation between one-on-one matchups, and so all the opponent then has to do is to pick whatever option suits him best.  He can shoot a long jumpshot if he’s got that in his arsenal; he can penetrate into the lane, which often creates more options (he can either attack the basket himself or, if he has another teammate open because of the defensive rotation to him, pass it to someone open); or he can reset and try another play (if the shot clock allows it).

The New Orleans Hornets, led by Chris Paul, used this very basic tactic as one of the foundations of their offensive strategy, and it earned them two wins in their six-game series with the Lakers.  Chris Paul either shot the lights out with his excellent mid-range jumper, or passed to an open teammate somewhere close to the basket.

The reason for the Lakers’ inability to contain this simple type of basketball play could be distilled down to four simple words:  Shockingly poor guard play.  ALL the Lakers guards – Derek Fisher, Steve Blake, Shannon Brown, even Kobe Bryant – are either too slow of foot to keep up with the best guards in the game, or are just not committed to playing sound defense.  Derek Fisher was never endowed with good foot speed, even when he was young; Steve Blake has enough foot speed and consistently gave a good effort but still got lost or turned around chasing his man through screens; Kobe simply has too many broken body parts and has a gigantic number of miles on his odometer; and the less said about Shannon Brown – the Lakers’ best athlete by far – and his approach to defensive basketball, the better for my blood pressure.  When the opponent sets a pick on any of these players’ guys, the Lakers’ defense gets scrambled, and it’s now simply a matter of choosing the best offensive option.

Dallas approached their offense no differently than the Hornets did, but the reason why the Mavericks beat the Lakers and New Orleans couldn’t had everything to do with having better shooters than New Orleans did.  Jason Terry and J.J. Barea, in particular, sliced and diced the Lakers guards with ridiculous impunity and a complete lack of fear since they knew that there wasn’t going to be anybody quick enough to stay with them and that the Laker bigs waiting in the middle simply could not commit to rolling to them because the Lakers also did not protect their bigs on adjustments (this is the crux of Bynum’s “trust issues” comments from earlier in the series).  Anybody with a modicum of basketball understanding knew that the Lakers were almost ridiculously exploitable because their guards simply could not stay with their men on defense; the guards were the first critical domino to fall that set the Lakers’ entire defensive structure to collapse.  All that’s left then is to make your open shots.

The Hornets would have beat the Lakers just as easily as the Mavericks did if they were just as talented and adept at shot-making.

But the Lakers’ guards’ defensive inadequacies were not the only sign of their weaknesses.  The other side of the coin is that as pathetic the guards were at defending, they were also completely undependable on offense as well.  Derek Fisher is no longer a reliable offensive weapon; Steve Blake had a small handful of good offensive showings, but on the whole was a walking misfire; Shannon Brown fell far too much in love with the 3-pointer despite not really being a good shooter; Kobe Bryant may have a champion’s hunger to win, but unfortunately no longer possesses a champion’s body.  Bryant’s broken body did what very few single defenders could barely manage when he was at his peak:  Kobe’s accumulation of injuries limited his offensive output.  But despite this, Kobe still took the lion’s share of the shots, probably because the sheer force of his will overpowered any other factors that should enter into the calculation.

I contend that the point Bynum was trying to underline was that the Lakers’ inadequacies were in their guards’ play.  A small guard entered the lane, and Bynum, the Lakers’ fiercest guard dog in the middle, had had enough.  The dog bit the interloper.

I’m not saying that what Bynum did was right, but I’m trying to get in his head.  (Yes, it’s quite presumptuous of me to try and do so, so I expect to get ripped for that.)  But I know what it’s like to be a center in basketball; I still remember my coaches telling me that that area close to the basket is yours.  You own it, and you guard it fiercely.  You foul somebody, if you have to.  No coach ever told me to hurt an opponent, but you have to have that kind of mindset if you’re a center.

*****

So what do the Lakers do as a result of the fiasco in Dallas?  I think that they have to take a very serious, honest, and self-critical look at themselves.  But before anything can be done, there are several obstacles to making a smooth transition to the next chapter in the history of the Los Angeles Lakers.

In my opinion, the first hurdle to clear is to find out precisely what the NBA’s financial structure will be once this season is over.  Many pundits have said that the NBA is gearing up for a protracted, bloody battle against its own players with the expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement.  When lots of money is involved, you can expect plenty of bloodletting and conflict.

Some observers have commented that this year’s lineup ought to be parted out, suggesting that its four best (and most expensive players) can no longer co-exist and be expected to deliver peak NBA performance.  Unless I’m ignorant of specific personality conflicts (which is entirely possible; I’m just a fan on the sidelines, with no real access to the team or its players), why break the nucleus apart other than for strictly financial reasons (a move that would be dictated by the structure of whatever the outcome of the next NBA labor negotiations is going to be)?  If you can do it in a financially-responsible manner, you hang on to four aces.

Jerry West has said (repeatedly, actually) that the Lakers are un-athletic.  I would agree, especially when you look at the guards and most of the reserves.  Luke Walton may be one of the team’s brainiest players, but in the NBA, brains don’t take you far enough.  Joe Smith and Theo Ratliff are ordinary and stiff and didn’t contribute anything to this year’s campaign.  Ron Artest is a good basketball player, but as effective a defensive stalwart as he is, he is far from the picture of athleticism (witness his muffed breakaway layup attempt from Game 4 in the third quarter).  I haven’t seen enough of 2010-2011 rookies Derrick Caracter and Devon Ebanks, but neither one strikes me as a great athletic type.

Kobe (even at his much reduced level), Lamar Odom, and Andrew Bynum are the team’s best athletes, but they need more help, especially at the guard and small forward spots.

Another shocking Laker deficiency:  Outside shooting.  During the previous off-season, I prayed to the basketball gods for the Lakers to grab Kyle Korver.  He used to torch the Lakers during their previous playoff tussles; he was the kind of weapon I wanted to have by my side, rather than getting shot up by.  Alas, the Lakers’ money was tied up in other players (departed guard Sasha Vujacic, now with the New Jersey Nets – incidentally, I thought the Lakers lost a lot and gained nothing but salary relief when they dealt Vujacic tot he Nets for Joe Smith mid-season; Luke Walton, one of Phil Jackson’s personal favorites) who weren’t giving what the Lakers needed, so there was next to no possibility for the Lakers to augment their arsenal of outside shooters.  Instead, they got Steve Blake, and nasty defensive specialist Matt Barnes.

Without the threat of an outside shot, you basically make things easier for the defense.  Your offense gets predictable, and their defense becomes a matter of cramming as many bodies close to the basket as possible.  You try to throw it inside to your big, they get swallowed up by a double team, he throws it to an open teammate, who then misses the open shot.  It’s an easy blueprint for any Lakers opponent to follow.  Defense gets reduced to concentrating on grabbing the rebound.  With the Lakers’ trio of bigs smothered by multiple-man box-outs, you cut down on the Lakers’ ability to collect an offensive rebound and try again.  Dallas, with their size and renewed determination (I underestimated Dallas’ mental fortitude, I have to admit), thus found it easy to control the ball, gain possessions, and keep the Lakers from executing a good offensive attack.

*****

The key to the Lakers’ immediate future, though, lies in their choice of head coach.  Phil Jackson, GM Mitch Kupchak, and Lakers VP of Player Personnel Jim Buss constructed a roster tailor-made to Jackson’s preferences.  Jackson strongly prefers bigger, dual-role guards, for one thing.  That could be one reason why the Lakers so lacked in athleticism in that area. But no matter what other commentary is made of the Lakers’ current roster, its next season’s campaign will probably be shaped largely by whomever the Lakers choose to take over for Phil.

It’s a very volatile situation, and the Lakers’ short-term prospects will likely be determined by what the next financial structure of the NBA will be.  If we assume the league and the owners get their way, it’s very reasonable to expect that the Lakers will indeed have to make dramatic changes to their lineup, especially if a hard salary cap is introduced.

Here’s the problem:  The Lakers’ core players are all locked up in multi-year deals.  If the new financial structure stipulates a hard salary cap, the Lakers will very probably be forced to shed salary to make it under the cap.  Too much money tied up in too few players will kill an entire team’s ability to compete.

Whatever the solution will show itself to be, it will be firmly tied to the outcome of the labor war the NBA will soon find itself mired in.

*****

I want to close this entry with a few words about Phil Jackson.

I felt so sad to see Phil Jackson walking off the court, into the tunnel, in the aftermath of the Game 4 Dallas massacre.  He looked so sad and disappointed to me and my father.  It seemed the worst possible way for a great coach to bow out.

In the post-game press conference, he was witty, charming, logical, even funny in moments.  He was seemed honest and sincere in diagnosing some of his final team’s problems, but he did it with great diplomacy and tact.  I couldn’t help but get the impression that he felt a great affection for at least some of his players, as well as for all of his coaching and training staff.  But I also got the feeling that he was unhappy with many things in the NBA, specifically with its leader (David Stern) and how he chooses to rule his domain with ruthlessness.

I will always think of Coach Jackson with great affection.  After all, he led the Lakers to five more titles, leaving my favorite pro basketball team, the pro sports franchise that I have loved for most of my life, just one championship short of tying the hated Boston Celtics for the all-time lead in the NBA.  I had hoped the Phil Jackson’s last dance with the Lakers would leave the team one crown short of taking the lead in this, the NBA chase the I hold dearest (being the franchise with the most championships in the NBA).

Alas, it was not to be.

Farewell, Coach Jackson.  God bless, and thank you so much for giving us Lakers fans so much happiness.

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