Stray Shots: Examining the Lakers in a Post-Kobe World, the Knicks’ (Barely) Walking Wounded, and the Continued Genius of Marc Gasol

After a crazy night of NBA injuries, wild finishes, and resounding wins, a smorgasbord of random thoughts that don’t merit their own posts:

• The Lakers’ defense has been a disaster over the last 20 games whenever Dwight Howard sits, mostly because the Lakers have zero reliable big men beyond Howard, with both Pau Gasol and Jordan Hill injured. An Earl Clark-Antawn Jamison-Metta World Peace front line offers some interesting athleticism, but very little in the way of size or rim protection. It cannot survive against good offenses over extended minutes.

But now we might get to see the opposite challenge: Can the Lakers’ offense survive without its own crutch in Kobe Bryant, dealing with a severe ankle sprain suffered when Dahntay Jones stepped underneath him in defending a potential game-tying shot? (Note: Can you imagine if the Lakers rallied to win that game, with the Hawks missing a couple of late free throws and Kobe nailing a instant killer 3 on an out-of-bounds play to keep L.A. alive with about 20 seconds left? The Lakers were due for a close loss after semi-miraculous wins over the Hornets and Raptors in the last week, but they damn near pulled off another one.)

Bryant has been the alpha and omega of L.A.’s offense all season. When the Lakers run Mike D’Antoni’s pet spread pick-and-roll system, it’s mostly Bryant, and not Steve Nash, running high pick-and-rolls with Howard. And when they abandon that system, or tweak it, to work through Kobe in the post or run side pick-and-rolls below the foul line, it’s Kobe holding the ball, reading the layers of help defense, and making a play.

So what happens now? Nash is having a below-the-radar 50-40-90 shooting season, but he’s using fewer possessions than at any time since 2005-06, and many of the ones he’s using are spot-up looks Kobe generates on the pick-and-roll and the post. Nash is still running a decent chunk of pick-and-rolls, especially in semi-transition, but he hasn’t been able to turn the corner consistently, and his looks on the move are just a bit harder than they were in the past.

Of Nash’s 1,392 minutes this season, just 76 have come with Kobe on the bench — a remarkable number, per NBA.com. D’Antoni simply hasn’t trusted Nash, fresh off a broken leg, to run the offense alone. He might have to now. Is the two-time MVP up for it?

• Memphis put on a clinic in how to operate within tiny slivers of space against the Clippers last night in L.A., piling up better than 115 points per 100 possessions in a slow-paced and rather emphatic road win over a would-be contender. The Grizz are now 15-3 with Tayshaun Prince in the lineup, and they’ve scored about 105.3 points per 100 possessions in that span — a mark that would rank ninth overall, per NBA.com. Memphis ranked 21st in that category last season, and 21st this season on the date of the Rudy Gay trade. It’s too early to declare the trade an indisputable on-court success, especially since Memphis has had the league’s third-easiest schedule during that stretch. And as Kevin Pelton of ESPN.com has noted repeatedly over the last two weeks, the insta-evaluation of NBA trades is inherently sort of dumb. Teams make trades for very different reasons, and the profile of who “won” and “lost” a deal can swing multiple times over a year or two — as has occurred, Pelton notes, with both the Carmelo Anthony deal and New York’s de-facto swap of Jeremy Lin for Raymond Felton.

But the early signs are very, very good for Memphis.

• The Clippers’ defense continues to spring serious leaks. The Clips have been slightly below-average on that end since the calendar flipped to January, and the Grizz very intelligently exploited a tendency I pointed out on Wednesday: the Clips’ habit of having both big men rush above the foul line to contain a pick-and-pop, allowing the secondary opposing big man to slip behind both their front-line defenders and into the paint. That leaves the other three L.A. defenders with a terrible choice: allow a wide-open dunk or crash hard into the paint, leaving shooters open elsewhere.

Memphis doesn’t really have shooters, but they played toward this tendency anyway by having Gasol pop out for jumpers on the pick-and-roll while their other big cut from the foul line down toward the basket. On the play below, Ronny Turiaf (guarding Gasol) and Chris Paul trap Mike Conley on a Conley-Gasol pick-and-roll, leaving Gasol open for a catch and possible jumper. As that happens, Memphis’ “other” big man, Ed Davis, cuts straight down to the hoop, knowing his defender, Lamar Odom, is likely to rush out at Gasol even as Turiaf also retreats toward the Spanish big man:

The result is a nice high-low, with Davis sneaking below both Clipper bigs and Jamal Crawford abandoning Jerryd Bayless in the left corner to try to prevent an easy Davis lay-in. Bayless isn’t a great 3-point shooter, but he checks in at league-average on a decent volume of attempts, and leaving a league-average 3-point shooter open in the corner is a failed outcome for any defense.

This wasn’t an isolated incident. Here are three other plays in which a Memphis big man flashes open in the lane as both L.A. bigs rush out toward Gasol at the foul line:

Memphis isn’t doing anything out of the ordinary here. The pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop is the NBA’s go-to play, and lots of teams with two skilled big men run things so that one is going south while the other is going north. But the Clippers, more than maybe any team in the league, respond by having both bigs sprint away from the rim instead of sending the first line of help — the help defender rushing at the Gasol pick-and-pop jumper — from somewhere along the perimeter instead of from in the paint. Teams are starting to pick up on this.

• Memphis also ran a lot of screen-the-screener action, in which Gasol would screen for Randolph in the paint (or vice versa) as Randolph ran up to set a high screen for Conley. It’s a simple thing, but Memphis clearly believed they could create a bit of confusion for the Clippers’ bigs that way.

• The fourth quarter also showed the no-win situation Vinny Del Negro (and his hair) faces in picking between Lamar Odom and DeAndre Jordan to close games next to Griffin. Jordan can’t shoot free throws (neither can Odom), and while Odom is probably a more intuitive defender in space and carries the lingering perception of being a “shooter,” he has trouble against post behemoths like Randolph and Gasol. This is probably the biggest issue facing the Clippers.

• And, yes, Gasol’s performance last night was basically basketball porn for me. He nailed jumpers, facilitated brilliantly from the elbow, had two dribble-drive baskets (including one facial on Odom), and was one step ahead of L.A.’s offense on the other side of the ball. Gasol somehow recorded five steals and was playing volleyball at one point, deflecting pass after pass. A brilliant player.

• Quincy Pondexter is the most anonymous important player in the league. He worked his tail off to become a competent 3-point shooter, especially from the corners, and the Grizzlies will need him in big moments during the playoffs to provide that combination of shooting and defense at both wing positions. Bayless is a wild-card at shooting guard, Austin Daye will probably spend most of the playoffs out of the rotation, and Lionel Hollins sometimes has a short leash with Tony Allen, since opposing defenses ignore Allen to screw up what passes for spacing in Memphis’ offense. Hollins likes Pondexter, and he should. Memphis will need big things out of him.

• I chatted at length with Monty Williams after the Hornets’ practice in Brooklyn on Wednesday, mostly for a post that will likely come out next week. But Williams said a few interesting off-topic things that won’t make it into that post, and I wanted to share them here. I asked him if we’d see more of the Ryan Anderson-Anthony Davis big man combo, even though the Hornets have given up an unsightly 113.9 points per 100 possessions when those two share the floor — nearly five points worse than Charlotte’s league-worst defensive efficiency mark. Williams, a Spurs alum and a very smart coach, stopped me in part to protest the over-reliance on analytics: “Yeah, the numbers are bad, but I’m not a numbers guy. Honestly, these numbers have gotten a little out of hand for me. A lot of teams have good defensive numbers, but sometimes guys just miss, OK? Sometimes guys just miss shots. Or they make crazy shots. But that doesn’t mean it was a good shot, and it doesn’t mean it was bad defense. It’s like guys who get paid for numbers, but if you check their winning percentages, would you still pay that guy? I feel the same way about these numbers. Ryan and A.D. — their defensive prowess would look a lot better if we could stop the ball, and if there wasn’t so much penetration. That’s something we have to get better at — guarding the ball at our wing and guard spots.”

You could misread this as an anti-analytics rant, but that’s not what it is. Williams knows the numbers. He studies them, takes them in, and thinks about them. What he’s saying is essentially what any smart basketball person who understands the non-debate between “stats” and “eyes” has been saying for years: You have to use every tool in order to really understand what’s happening on the floor. Sure the numbers are bad. But why are they bad? The why and how are incredibly tough questions to answer in a fast-moving sport with interacting parts. Williams seems to believe the “why” in this case has to do as much with his perimeter players as it does with the limitations of Davis and Anderson, and the Anderson-Davis pairing.

Williams finished by saying he’s confident the Anderson-Davis pairing can do better, and that we’ll see more of them as the season finishes up. That’s in part the result of Jason Smith’s season-ending shoulder injury; Williams called Smith the team’s best overall defender, and a good mentor for Davis. Only $1 million of Smith’s $2.5 million deal for next season is guaranteed, but that’s still twice as much as Robin Lopez’s $500,000 guarantee amount. Something to keep in mind when trade season starts again.

• Williams also acknowledged it’s been hard to find the proper balance between ball-handling duties for Eric Gordon and Greivis Vasquez. During his peak in the middle of the 2010-11 season, Gordon became something very much like a lead ball handler, partnering with Griffin to form a powerful side pick-and-roll combination. A healthy Gordon is obviously a very good shooter, but he’s only 6-3, and coming off screens for catch-and-shoot chances, in Ray Allen- or Rip Hamilton-style, was never a huge part of his game. He looked like a guy who would probably be best with the ball.

Vasquez is really only good with the ball. He has turned himself into a league-average 3-point shooter, but defenses aren’t going to respect him away from the ball. This presents a problem for Williams, especially since his other wing players — his small forwards — are non-threatening from the perimeter. “We try to mix in Eric getting the ball and giving him a lot of freedom,” Williams says. “But because we don’t have great shooting on the wings when Eric has the ball, the other team will just trap him, and that takes him right out of the pick-and-roll. He really spaces the floor for us, and that allows Greivis to penetrate with the ball. If we do things the other way around, we might not be as efficient.”

The Hornets, with a ton of cap space and a lot of interesting decisions ahead of them, will be a team to watch this summer. They’re not enamored of Gordon, and Vasquez’s rookie deal is up after next season, which means he’s in line for a big (and dangerous) raise.

• Speaking of guys who get ignored on the perimeter: In lobbying for Matt Barnes to start over Caron Butler, I noted that defenses still treat Barnes with disdain, even though he’s emerged as an average 3-point shooter. On the flip side, they probably treat Butler with a bit more respect, even though Butler is only a slightly above-average 3-point shooter; the sheen of multiple All-Star appearances fades slowly.

But I doubt you’d see defenses ignore Butler as brazenly as Tayshaun Prince ignores Barnes here:

And here:

The question is: Why don’t defenses treat Butler like this, if indeed they don’t?

• Finally: Carmelo Anthony’s return to Denver went about as poorly as could be for the Knicks. He left the game with knee pain, and he revealed this week that he’s been dealing with some knee issues for a while; he has left the Knicks’ road trip to get the knee drained. Tyson Chandler suffered a knee contusion, and though he’s listed as “probable” for the Raymond Felton Weight-Loss Bowl in Portland tonight, any limitation on Chandler’s game is basically a season-killer for the Knicks. He’s the only thing separating the team’s defense from Sacramento/Charlotte-levels of awfulness, and the Knicks’ roster is getting awfully thin — to the point that it recalls last season’s first-round loss to Miami, when injuries (both on-court and fire-extinguisher-related) didn’t necessarily sap the Knicks of essential pieces, but rather simply removed too many playable NBA types from the team’s rotation.

I mean, the Knicks are carrying eight players who are either out with long-term injuries or total unknowns when it comes to trusting them with actual playoff minutes this season:

1. Rasheed Wallace
2. James White
3. Chris Copeland
4. Pablo Prigioni
5. Marcus Camby
6. Kurt Thomas
7. Kenyon Martin
8. Amar’e Stoudemire (admittedly, a semi-unpredictable casualty).

That’s more than half the full 15-man roster made up of guys who are hurt, unreliable, almost totally unknown, or good for only tiny stints at the beginning of games before Mike Woodson concludes, again, that they simply can’t be on the floor. That’s half the team. It makes it all the more strange that the Knicks traded Ronnie Brewer for nothing. Brewer faded badly after a hot start, and his defense fell off with his offense, but the guy is a live body capable of playing competent minutes in an NBA game. He’s a below-average NBA player when his defense is off, but he’s playable. And he can walk on two feet for prolonged periods of time!

And please spare me the notion that the Brewer trade “opened” a roster spot for Martin, himself a bit of an unknown as he re-proves himself at this level. The Knicks could have, and probably should have, waived any number of these guys before trading Brewer. Wallace is unlikely to play again this season, anyway, and New York might waive one of these players in the next few days anyway in order to sign another player.

The Knicks are still a very good team when they’re healthy and on point, passing the ball, rotating like hell on defense, and leveraging Anthony’s advantage at the power forward spot. I hope we see that team in April and May.

Filed Under: Anthony Davis, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant, Mike D'Antoni, NBA, New Orleans Hornets, Steve Nash, Stray Shots, Zach Lowe

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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