Sunday, February 24, 2008

Opposing View: 2/24 vs. L.A. Lakers

All season long, Sonics Beat will be consulting an expert on the opposing team as part our gameday preview. Today, we turn to Kurt Helin from Forum Blue and Gold, the outstanding Lakers blog. Here's Kurt's preview of tonight's matchup. The BasketBlog also has a look at the Sonics.

How much of the credit does Pau Gasol deserve for the Lakers going 8-1 since he entered the lineup?
He gets a lot, although the change he brought to this team was mental as much as physical. After Andrew Bynum went down with a knee injury, the Lakers struggled (especially on defense) and the team went into a bit of a malaise. From the day the trade was announced, even before Gasol stepped on the court, the Lakers have been playing with a renewed energy. Now they are starting to show the confidence of a contender.

On the court, Gasol’s game blends perfectly with what the Lakers want to do. In it’s pure form, the triangle offense likes a post player to be productive in both the low and high post. (Shaq, back in his prime, passed well enough from the high post to be useful that far from the hoop.) Gasol fits so well because he has a variety of post moves, can shoot it consistently out to 18 feet, can put the ball on the floor and is a very good passer from the post. With him on the court you see a Laker offense really clicking because everyone keeps moving and spreading the floor — if you’re the guy with the best shot he gets you the ball. That type of play is infectious, and right now the Lakers are passing very well.

Have you noticed any effect of Kobe Bryant's torn ligament in his pinky finger?
Not much. The first couple of games it clearly bothered him, but after longtime Laker trainer Gary Vitti came up with a specific tape job that keeps the finger in a better position Kobe seems to be Kobe. He is still driving to the lane like always. His outside shooting, particularly from 3, seems less consistent (shooting just 30% from three in the last 10 games) but he continues to be efficient in the offense -- the other night against the Suns he was 16 of 25 from the field. The other thing you may notice, he’ll take fewer shots. Last night against the Clippers he had 11 shots. That however is more a function of how the Lakers are playing unselfishly on offense than it is the finger.

When you compare the Lakers with Gasol to the Lakers with Bynum before his injury, how are they similar or different?
There are a few key differences. First, the Lakers have not been as good defensively (giving up two more points per 100 possessions in the last 10 games than they do for the season, from stats prior to the Clipper game last night). Bynum had become a very good defender in the paint, blocking and altering shots, then grabbing the rebound. He really protected the rim. Gasol is a nice defender in the paint, smart and solid, but he doesn’t bring the intimidation Bynum did. However, the defense issues haven’t hurt them because the offense has been so much better.

The other thing of note is the pace is slower, but the team is more efficient in the half-court offense now. With Bynum protecting the paint, the Lakers perimeter defenders took more chances, and Bynum’s rebounding and outlets helped fuel some speed. That led to easy baskets. Plus, a favorite play of those Lakers was to have Bynum trailing the play setting a drag pick (a pick and roll early in the clock, before the defense is set) on which everyone would rotate to Kobe and Bynum would roll hard to the basket and get a lot of lobs and dunks.

With Gasol the Lakers are going at about three fewer possessions per game, but they are much more efficient in the half-court offense. Gasol has a much more rounded game and can score away from the basket. The Lakers are cutting without the ball, guys like Derek Fisher and former Sonics forward Vladimir Radmanovic are spreading the floor and getting more open looks because of the extra pass. Also, Lamar Odom is much more comfortable in the role of third option, without the pressure of having to score much, and the result is he is become far more aggressive when he gets a matchup he likes. Odom is averaging 15 points and 12 boards a game in the last 10.

After losing to the Suns in the playoffs the last two years, is it meaningful that the Lakers won this year's season series 3-1?
It’s not just that they beat them, but how. In the first few meetings, the Suns had no real answer for Andrew Bynum’s offense, they had nobody large enough to to contain him on the block. The Suns countered by getting Shaq — but in doing so they gave up their best perimeter defender. So when the Lakers played them this week (on the second game of a back-to-back for LA) the Lakers took advantage out on the wings. Plus, Gasol pulled Shaq out 18 feet from the basket, then shot over him and drove around him. And, at the end of that game, the Lakers went with a smaller lineup (Kobe playing the three) and beat the Suns that way.

The Suns are a very good team, you never know what will happen in the playoffs, but I think the Lakers don’t fear the Suns this year. Really, because of the versatility of the roster, I don’t think they fear the matchups with anyone in the West.

What don't we know but should about the Lakers?
I think the one thing not many people see — because of the amazing record since Pau arrived — is that the defense really has not been as good. Nobody is in panic mode, because Bynum will be back next month and that will help considerably. But it is going on right now.

One other thing — the Lakers have played the toughest part of their schedule. While there are no easy games in a very deep Western Conference, the Lakers have played their season series against the Suns, Celtics, Pistons and most of their games against the other top teams in the West. While the Lakers still have to blend Bynum back into what they do, it will be easier to do it against more teams likely headed to the lottery than what their competition at the top of the West have left.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Kia Surprising Stat: 2/24 vs. L.A. Lakers

After holding opponents to sub-40% shooting just nine times all of 2006-07, the Sonics have done so 14 times this year, including four of the last six games and both matchups against Portland.

The Sonics are 9-5 when holding opponents below 40% shooting.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Kia Surprising Stat: 2/22 vs. Portland

Last night's Portland victory over the Sonics moved the Blazers to within two wins of evening the all-time series. The Sonics and Blazers have played 190 times in the regular season over the last 38 years, with the Sonics winning 96 and Portland 94.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Shootaround Notes

PORTLAND - Made the drive down I-5 this morning and got to the Rose Garden just in time to catch Sonics Head Coach P.J. Carlesimo after the team's shootaround. Johan Petro will replace Kurt Thomas in the starting lineup after yesterday's trade.

Also, good news on Kevin Durant, who went through shootaround and looks to be feeling better. He should be a go for tonight's game.

Opposing View: 2/21 at Portland

All season long, Sonics Beat will be consulting an expert on the opposing team as part our gameday preview. Today, we hear from's Casey Holdahl, whom I've been reading on three different sites for years now. Check out Casey's Center Court blog, Mike Barrett's world-famous blog and's preview of tonight's game. After you've finished that, Blazers Edge is one of the net's finest team blogs and don't forget to stop by the Behind the Beat blog by Oregonian beat writers Jason Quick and Joe Freeman.

How exciting was Brandon Roy's All-Star performance for Blazers fans?
I think the stellar performance that Brandon Roy had in the All-Star game was just icing on the cake. Being a first-timer, we all kind of expected that Brandon would get a few token minutes here and there, so it was a real pleasant surprise to see Roy get as much run as he did. And for Brandon to make as much of a mark as he did in those minutes was about as gratifying as anything a Portland player has done in recent memory.

When Brandon was announced as an All-Star reserve, it seemed like a weight had been lifted off the city. Roy making the All-Star game was validation and recognition of the turnaround that we’ve been fostering here in Portland. I think Blazer fans tend to feel a little slighted by the media, probably due to being up here in the Northwest and in a smaller market, so to get that respect on a national stage was eminently gratifying.

How, if at all did the winning streak change expectations in Portland?
The streak was a bit of a dual-edged sword. It was obviously a great thing for the team and the fans, but in a way, it might have given the Blazer faithful a false sense of what to expect from the team this season. Winning 13 games in a row is impressive no matter how you slice it, but it’s still just a little more than a fifteenth of the entire season.

As far as expectations go, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that a lot of fans assumed we’d be playoff bound after the streak ended. As the season wears on though, I think people here in Portland are seeing that a lot can happen, both good and bad, throughout the course of 82 games. Are fans still excited about the possibility of making the playoffs? Absolutely, but they’re also patient and smart enough to realize that it’s not the end of the world if the youngest team in the NBA doesn’t make the postseason.

What's been the most surprising aspect of this season?
There have been quite a few surprises this year. I don’t think anyone was sure how the team would respond to losing their leading scorer and rebounder, so the fact that the Blazers are a better team this season is in and of itself at least a little surprising.

I also think people assumed that Brandon Roy might have had a bit of a sophomore slump, especially considering that he’s the focus of every opposing team’s gameplan, but the exact opposite has happened. At the start of the season I think even the most hardcore fans would have told you that Brandon is a great player, but maybe not of superstar caliber. Now I don’t think anyone doubts that Roy has the makings of a Hall of Fame career.

And I can’t talk about surprises without mentioning the play of Travis Outlaw. He showed flashes of what he could do at the end of last season, but he’s really come on strong this year. His maturation from this time last year has been the biggest surprise for me. I think he’s a legit contender for Sixth Man and Most Improved.

How has James Jones' injury affected the Blazers?
It’s impossible to overstate how important James Jones is to this team. There are a fair amount of people who would argue that James’ return to the lineup at about the 17-game mark is what really spurred the winning streak. His outside shooting and ability to spread the floor in the second unit give the Blazers an entirely different look. But James might most be missed for his calming presence on the floor and on the bench. He just doesn’t get rattled. Up by 20 or down by 20, James Jones is the exact same presence on the court.

The thing about James Jones that people might not realize is that he’s an incredibly smart guy both on and off the court. He understands the game and everything that comes with it as well as anyone I’ve ever met. It’s like he’s got a sixth-sense for hoops.

What don't we know but should about the Blazers?
The “Jail Blazers” days are over. This franchise is dead serious about winning the right way; anything less is simply unacceptable. I can’t imagine there’s another team, and I’m talking about everyone from the basketball side to marketing to ticket sales to broadcast to community relations, that is more focused on winning a championship with good people than we are.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Kia Surprising Stat: 2/21 at Portland

Today's surprising stat is actually a graph. I wanted to look at Portland's record relative to .500 over the course of the season. Check it out.

The 13-game winning streak stands out, obviously. After the end of their streak, the Blazers split games for a period of a couple of weeks before the team's current five-game losing streak.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Opposing View: 2/19 vs. Memphis

All season long, Sonics Beat will be consulting an expert on the opposing team as part our gameday preview. Today, Chris Herrington, who writes the Beyond the Arc blog as part of his coverage for the Memphis Flyer. Also check out Graham Kendrick's preview of tonight's game for

Is it safe to say that, post-Pau Gasol trade, this is a new Grizzlies era headlined by Rudy Gay and Mike Conley, Jr.?
I’d say so. Clearly, Rudy Gay is the focal point right now. He’s a 21-year-old, second-year player who is averaging 20 points a game, shooting well from the floor and the three-point line, and shows signs of developing into a disruptive force defensively. He’s on the all-star track. (You could argue that he’s the best 21-and-under player in the league right now, though Durant, Oden, Bynum probably have more upside.) It’ll be interesting to see what Gay does in the second half as the clear-cut first option: Can he push that scoring average closer to 25 points per game? Can he be that kind of scorer heading into next season?

Conley’s only played 23 games so far because of injuries and a decision to break him in slowly, but he’s acquitted himself very well for a 20-year-old rookie point guard. He hasn’t done anything to shake the faith that he can be an All-Star level point in a few years, though there is some concern about his durability. (He’s got a pretty slight frame.)

Add those two to whomever the team drafts with what is likely to be a Top 5 pick in this summer’s rookie draft and you’ve got the young core this team will probably be built around.

With the deadline coming up on Thursday, do you see Memphis making another move?
Anyone, aside from general manager Chris Wallace, who claims to know what the Grizzlies are going to do before this week’s trade deadline is not to be trusted. Wallace has developed a reputation for candor this season, especially in the wake of the Gasol trade, but that’s only after moves have been made. Word of the Gasol trade didn’t leak out until the day it happened and people I talk to around the team say there’s no real scuttle about potential deals.

That said, it’s clear that Mike Miller, Kyle Lowry, and Hakim Warrick (and possibly Javaris Crittenton) are potentially available.

Miller was made available to Houston in the trade that netted Rudy Gay (the Rockets chose to take Shane Battier instead – oops!) and also was being discussed with the Bobcats last summer (with the Bobcats acquiring Jason Richardson instead). His potential availability is nothing new.

As for Lowry, Chris Wallace has already stated his intention to trade one of the team’s three young point guards before next season. Conley isn’t going anywhere, but there’s plenty of reason to suspect Lowry is going to be the odd man out, now or this summer.

Warrick has played well since the Gasol trade, but no one thinks he’s the long-term answer as a starting power forward.

My best guess: That there’s reluctance to trade Miller and risk further alienating a dwindling fan base that didn’t understand the Gasol trade. If a team (like the Heat) were willing to take Brian Cardinal’s contract as well in return for expiring contracts, then I think Miller will be dealt. Barring that, my hunch is the team waits until this summer to make a move with Miller. If I’m wrong, then I suspect Cleveland is the team that would end up with Miller if Wallace decides to pull the trigger now and can’t move Cardinal.

I think Lowry is a better bet to be dealt this week, probably in exchange for a first-round pick in this summer’s draft. Denver and Phoenix are teams I’d think most likely to make that deal.

Personally, I’d like to see the team stand pat this week and use those assets in potential sign-and-trade deals this summer to try and pry away a restricted free agent or two.

How will the situation at point guard eventually shake out?
Barring something unexpected, Conley is the point guard, now and in the future. Assuming Lowry is dealt, the hope would be that Crittenton can emerge as a combo guard off the bench, backing up Conley and sometimes playing alongside him.

What has Darko Milicic given the Grizzlies this season?
Darko has been erratic, plagued by thumb, knee, and ankle injuries, but probably a little underrated. He’s been a very effective post defender and has played some of the league’s best centers — Tim Duncan, Yao Ming, Marcus Camby — to draws.

Darko’s shown some positive signs since the Gasol trade. In his last five games without Gasol in which he’s gotten 30+ minutes (5 of the past 7 games), Darko’s averaged 13 points, 11 rebounds, and 2 blocks.

He gets flack for not living up to his pre-draft hype, but Darko is still only 22, is a legit center, and has the chance to be a quality rebounder and defensive anchor. Optimistic Grizzlies fans would point to the slow development of players such as Tyson Chandler and Chris Kaman and assert that Darko still has a chance to develop into a center of that caliber.

What don't we know but should about the Grizzlies?
After playing fewer than 20 minutes for three consecutive games, Kyle Lowry played 40 against Philadelphia prior to the All-Star break. Many assumed he was being showcased for a possible trade. If that’s the case again tonight, he should get plenty of minutes to match up with the player Grizzlies fans most often compare him to: Former Griz and current Sonic Earl Watson. Both are physical, attacking point guards with shaky jumpers and limited playmaking ability. Early on, Lowry was thought to be the evolutionary version of Watson, but this season fans are starting to wonder if he’ll really be any better in the long term. That limited upside is one of the reasons Lowry is the most likely of the team’s three point guards to be dealt.