Give And Go: Can Kobe revitalize Lakers? Will Knicks fortify D? More trend analysis
Give And Go is a recurring feature in which The Point Forward’s Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney bat an NBA topic du jour back and forth.
This week: Deciding whether various early performances will hold up or fall apart as the rest of the season plays out. (All stats and records are through Nov.20.)
1. Despite their many well-documented issues last season, the Lakers managed to end the year ranked No. 8 in offensive efficiency. Without Kobe Bryant (injured) and Dwight Howard (departed), L.A. ranks No. 25 overall and 14th in the Western Conference in that category. Will this early futility continue or will Bryant’s return dramatically change the Lakers’ outlook on offense?
Ben Golliver: No matter what happens during the rest of his coaching career, Mike D’Antoni will be remembered first and foremost as the offensive genius who guided the Suns to the top of the league’s scoring charts. If the season ended today, this year would go down as the worst offensive performance by a D’Antoni-coached team, worse even than the inconsistent Knicks clubs he struggled with before abruptly resigning. The Lakers’ season doesn’t end today, though, and really it’s just beginning as we inch closer to Bryant’s much-anticipated return from an Achilles injury.
The Lakers — without Howard or any other go-to scoring option, with Pau Gasol off to a mediocre shooting start (39.5 percent from the field) and with Steve Nash dodging retirement talk — are asking the world of Bryant. Coming off a season in which he posted a 23 Player Efficiency Rating and ranked No. 3 in scoring, Bryant is sure to improve L.A.’s attack by the end of the season. But how big will his impact be considering his weak cast of colleagues and his recovering Achilles? Those are difficult questions, and there’s no concrete history to turn to for answers.
The most ball-dominant year of Bryant’s career was 2005-06, when he averaged a career-high 35.4 points and shot more than 27 times (!) per game. That gunning managed to carry L.A. to the No. 8 offense and the playoffs. It must be noted that Bryant was 27 that season, not 35 like he is now, and he played 80 games while averaging 41 minutes. He’ll be lucky to play 65 games this season and it’s quite possible he plays fewer minutes this season than he has since he was a teenager.
Perhaps the goal should be the standard set by D’Antoni’s somewhat dysfunctional Knicks teams, which ranked No. 17 in offense in 2008-09, ’09-10 and ’11-12. If a recovering Bryant can lift the Lakers from “clearly bad” to “slightly below-average” on offense, that would qualify as a successful comeback in my book. It wouldn’t be enough to make the Lakers players in the Western Conference playoff race, but it would at least be something to build on heading into a crucial offseason.
Rob Mahoney: Having some version of Kobe on the floor — even a diminished one — should help, though I say that with full acknowledgement that Bryant’s return lacks any kind of positive precedent. This is a brutal injury for an NBA player to come back from, even one accustomed to playing through pain and injury-induced limitation. We can say rather safely that Bryant will not be picking up where he left off. He won’t likely touch that 2012-13 level of volume and efficiency ever again, and in many ways he could be forced to compromise his game to deal with his new reality. In all, the Lakers need to be prepared for the fact that Kobe won’t likely be himself on the court, as well as what that development means for their offense.
In this case, that should still mean a sure improvement over the present, if only because their current marks are so dismal. Scoring this inefficiently is somewhat understandable, given Bryant’s absence, Nash’s injury and the prevalence of cast-off players in the rotation, but having Kobe around changes that dynamic considerably. He’ll free up his teammates for open looks simply by being on the floor, should still be able to pump-fake his way to the free-throw line (he averaged eight attempts last season, particularly relevant as the current Lakers are one of the league’s worst foul-drawing teams) and is a better funnel for possessions than the likes of Nick Young or Xavier Henry.
The Lakers are not a good team and likely won’t be one even with Kobe. They just shouldn’t be expected to be this bad once he does return, particularly if Nash is in any kind of useful (or even usable) form.
2. Oklahoma City ranked No. 2 in offensive efficiency last season and San Antonio ranked No. 2 in offensive efficiency during the 2013 playoffs. The two Western Conference juggernauts are faring well in the standings this season, but their attacks have gotten off to slow starts, at least by their standards. Which team has a better chance of finishing the season ranked among the league’s top five offenses?
Golliver: The extenuating circumstances here are obvious and must be mentioned: OKC was without Russell Westbrook to begin the season and San Antonio has played through a particularly rough opening stretch from Tim Duncan. Those acknowledgements made, the Thunder are still 7-3 with the No. 8 offense and San Antonio is 10-1 with the No. 10 offense. Even when facing situations that might lead other franchises to serious breakdowns, these two machines continue to find a way to achieve excellence.
Although the two teams aren’t separated by much in the standings or in the offensive efficiency ratings, I think San Antonio’s start has been significantly more impressive. The Spurs’ margin of victory is an outstanding plus-9.3 (No. 2 in the league), whereas Oklahoma City’s is plus-2.1 (No. 13 in the league, sandwiched between the Suns and Pelicans). Sure, San Antonio has had an easier schedule, but that’s a whopping gap between the two teams. Remember, the Thunder led the league in point differential last season (plus-9.21), so their current performance represents a fairly dramatic fall. I picked the Thunder to reach the Finals and I’m not about to second-guess that pick, but the Reggie Jackson/Jeremy Lamb combination hasn’t succeeded in approximating Kevin Martin’s impact.
Oklahoma City is still very potent, but there are enough good offenses this season that I can see it getting squeezed out of the top five. Meanwhile, I expect Duncan’s end-of-season numbers to look significantly better than his current production, Kawhi Leonard’s 28 percent three-point shooting to pick up and Manu Ginobili’s contributions (10 points, 41.2 percent shooting) to improve at least somewhat. That, plus Tony Parker’s sustained brilliance, should put the Spurs in position to battle for a spot in the top five.
Mahoney: On grounds of approach alone, I’ll say the Thunder. Oklahoma City has far more to figure out than San Antonio and has two superstars fit to play major minutes (especially Kevin Durant, who is averaging 39.3 minutes) as the team looks to sort through its various issues. Among those issues is the offense, which is still a bit clumsy after losing Martin’s elite floor spacing and suffering a brutal shooting start from Thabo Sefolosha. OKC’s starting shooting guard made 42.2 percent from three-point range over the last two seasons, but he’s at 25.9 percent this season.
That’s killer, and part of the reason why the Thunder starters — one of the best lineups in the NBA last season — have scored at a dreary rate of 91.5 points per 100 possessions. With Sefolosha a non-threat, Kendrick Perkins something less than that and Serge Ibaka still a bit limited, it’s been a challenge for even that previously successful lineup to generate points. The Thunder will find workarounds eventually, though, as Durant and Russell Westbrook are too sharp in identifying openings on the fly to tread on like this for the remainder of the season.
As it stands, a team accustomed to a dominant effective field goal percentage hasn’t quite found itself, even since Westbrook’s return. I trust the Thunder will sort some of that out in time, though, and have plenty of ground to make up on the level of shooting efficiency they’ve made their standard. The Spurs, on the other hand, have suffered a setback in really only one of the four factors — free-throw rate — compared to last season. They’ve simply been nudged downward in overall offensive efficiency, largely due to the number of teams threatening for top-10 slots that weren’t a season ago. Of those teams, almost all have more to prove than San Antonio, a team with an intact core fresh off a near-championship run.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich knows that his base offense works effectively with this group of players. From there, it’s all process; Pop will experiment, he’ll fine-tune execution and he’ll dabble with lineup variations. He’ll rest his starters plenty to save their legs and make sure those next in line are ready to contribute. All of this is ultimately good for the general health of the offense, though in this particular case tends to result in offensive marks slightly lower than they otherwise could be.
Next page: Knicks’ and Nets’ struggles, Jazz’s run at history and more