Talking Lakers-Hornets With At The Hive

For coverage of the New Orleans Hornets, you can't do any better than At The Hive, one of our sister sites here at SBN. To get ready for the Lakers' series with the Hornets, I enlisted the help of Rohan Cruyff, who runs the show over there. Rohan and I have had a far-ranging email conversation over the past couple days that you can read after the jump. We discuss the strange season the Hornets have had, the curious decline of Chris Paul, the trade that sent Kobe Bryant from the Hornets to the Lakers in 1996 and much, much else.

We hope you enjoy.

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Dexter Fishmore: Before we dive into the particulars of the first-round series between the Lakers and Hornets, let's take a moment to reflect on the regular season just passed. For the benefit of Laker fans who haven't been following the day-to-day of Hornets World, how would you characterize the team's regular season? From where I'm standing, it seems to have been an unusually eventful one. It started with the Chris Paul trade demand that apparently wasn't. There was some arena drama and the takeover of the team by the NBA. There were a couple pretty significant trades, plus the injury to David West. There were some impressive winning streaks mixed in with some rough patches. But in the end, here they are in the playoffs, which they weren't last year.

On the whole, did the Hornets' performance in the regular season exceed your expectations, fall short or neither? And are you more or less optimistic about the future of the Hornets than you were before the season started?

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Rohan Cruyff: This season has just been absolutely wild. The winning streaks, the losing streaks, the "let's never play this guy that was really good last year, is a local hero, and is good at the exact things that we suck at," the stretching/wheelchairing off of the team's two best players, the BEING OWNED BY DAVID STERN, the inexplicable proclivity to dump large offensive burdens on Trevor Ariza and Willie Green on a nightly basis... I don't think "wild" does it justice really.

The weird thing is that the team finishes the season more or less where I anticipated. I basically thought the 2010-11 Hornets were going to be an elite offensive team and a middling defensive one that would win around 45-50 games. The exact opposite has happened - I've torn my hair out over Monty Williams' rotations and offensive sets, but the defensive turnaround has been stunning. With a healthy David West, I think the Hornets would have been in reasonable position to make some noise in the first round against teams like Dallas or Oklahoma City. So that's a positive.

On the whole, I'm significantly less optimistic about the future of the Hornets than I was in November. Maybe this is misguided, but I always felt like New Orleans would need to win at least a round in the playoffs this year to make Chris Paul seriously consider sticking around. Sure, a lot of stuff outside of the team's control has conspired to ensure that won't be the case this year, but I don't know that the future looks very bright regardless. Trevor Ariza has been a disaster, the team doesn't have much young talent, nor will there be any young talent coming in with the team's draft pick traded away, and obviously we don't know when or in what shape David West will return. But the biggest reason for pessimism has probably been the play of Chris Paul himself. He's gone from being one of the league's best passers and scorers (2007-2009) to simply an amazing passer. Some of his trademark shots like the floater have been completely removed from his arsenal, and I'm not holding my breath that the old Chris Paul is ever coming back. Don't get me wrong - I think he'll be fantastic if/when he moves to somewhere like New York, where he'll be surrounded by guys he can make plays for. Unfortunately, the current construction of this Hornets team requires both the scorer and passer versions of Paul to be successful.

In any case, New Orleans this year has shown a tendency a lot of people also ascribe to the Lakers - playing up or down to the level of competition. How true are those claims about L.A. in your estimation? I'd imagine that as a fan, seeing a true contender playing down to competition would be a bit more vexing than seeing a more average team like New Orleans do it.

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Dex: You know, I'm not sure that "playing down to the level of competition" is the right diagnosis for this year's edition of the Lakers. I think it's more that they go through stretches in which they don't compete with much effort or attentiveness, but the timing of those stretches doesn't bear any obvious relation to the quality of their opponents. Certainly they've proven themselves just as capable of mailing in games against the Heat or Spurs as they are against the Cavs or Bucks.

But yes, it's definitely vexing, though I'd say most Laker fans have made peace with the fact that this is simply how the Lakers work. We know they're not going to be dialed in for as much of the regular season as we'd like, but we trust that they know how to get themselves ready for a long postseason run. The only question is whether their failure to secure home-court advantage over a few other contenders will cost them in later rounds, and I don't think anyone will know the answer to that until the playoffs are over.

Your comments about Chris Paul touch on the main thought that's been running through my head whenever I've seen him play lately, which is: why the hell isn't this guy shooting more? I was particularly struck by this back on March 27 in the last regular-season meeting between the Lakers and Hornets. That was a game in which the Hornets were really struggling to generate points, and yet Paul took only 10 field-goal attempts and a couple free throws. (I'd love to believe it was due to the lockdown man-to-man D of Derek Fisher, but I'm not that delusional.) Now that I'm looking at Paul's season stats, that performance seems symptomatic of long-term trends in his game. His usage rate, field-goal attempts and free-throw attempts are all down, and unfortunately it's not because the Hornets' front office has surrounded him with great scorers.

So let me throw a few Chris Paul-related questions at you:

1. Do you have a hypothesis to explain why he doesn't shoot as much as he once did?

2. What kind of series do you expect him to have against the Lakers?

3. What would you say is the probability that next season will be his last in a Hornets uniform?

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Rohan: Paul doesn't shoot as much this year primarily because he can't shoot as much this year. I think the best place to clearly see the decline of Chris Paul is end of quarter situations.

John Schuhmann wrote an article for NBA.com this year that documented how the Hornets were, from 2006-2010, the most clutch team in the NBA. During the ends of close games, their efficiency was far and away the best in the league. Most teams isolate their best player and let him go one on one (a "play" Lakers fans are, no doubt, familiar with), and while that looks awesome when the ball finds the net, it's one of the least efficient ways of going about things. The Hornets basically never did that, instead opting to let Chris Paul break his defender down, get into the paint, and find a very open, high percentage shot. In 2011? The Hornets' end of quarter plays are, almost without fail, Paul performing a perfunctory crossover and shooting a low percentage fadeaway over an outstretched hand. The new Paul struggles to get past that first defender where for the old Paul, the first defender may as well have not existed.

His decline is rather visible in other areas too. A great example is the way Paul turns the corner on screens. In the past, it was a lightning quick cut inside of the defending big; now, he's quite often hedged off and forced to approach the hoop at awkward, side angles. One of the weird ones is the decline of his floater, a shot I wouldn't expect to be severely affected by limited mobility. Even when he gets into the paint, the floater doesn't fall with a high degree of accuracy.

I realize I probably come across as extremely pessimistic about Paul with all of that. In reality, I still consider him a top 10 NBA player. I don't think there's a basketball player in the NBA right now with better vision and better ability to create for teammates. The angles he sees on the court are just surreal, and watching him play basketball - even now - is incredible. But he's definitely not the same as before. In terms of this series, I think he'll play similarly to how he's played all year - stretches of absolute brilliance, stretches of absolute apathy. 

In terms of his future, my gut says he won't be a Hornet in 2012. It will no doubt be the saddest day in my career of following sports, with injuries to him, David West, and Tyson Chandler conspiring to truncate what could have been a stretch of a tremendous few years. But that's sports.

That brings me to a question only a Lakers or Yankees or Manchester United or other similarly evil team's fan could accurately answer - is there a marginal value loss for each consecutive title won? And maybe this is dumb, but I'd extend that question out to your opinion on the player perspective of it as well. As in, is the Lakers taking long stretches off partly a function of this being a "threepeat" campaign? Obviously, there is value to going out and winning multiple titles in a row, establishing a dynasty etc., but I'm curious as to your take on the effect of chasing consecutive titles on team motivation.

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Dex: That's a fascinating question, and one that, from a fan's perspective at least, I've never really contemplated. Does each successive championship mean a little less than the one that came before? The answer will no doubt vary from person to person, but speaking only for myself, I'd say: the year N+1 championship means a little less than the year N championship, but only by a miniscule amount so that the difference is nearly imperceptible. In part that's because I'm incredibly greedy. I want a new banner every year, and I'm hard-wired to be emotionally invested in the drive for it. But in part, it's also because each new title run has a fresh set of sub-narratives. In 2009, it was about redeeming the Lakers' failure in the NBA Finals the year before. In 2010, the storylines shifted, from what we assumed would be a Kobe-LeBron supremacy battle to (when the Celtics came out of the East) the moral imperative of slaying the Lakers' ancient rivals. This year, it's about Phil Jackson and his final season as coach.

If the Lakers had lost to the Celtics in Game Seven last June, it would've been a teeny-tiny bit easier to take because they'd won the year before, but still incredibly embittering. The same will be true this time around. The first one is always the sweetest, but the ones that follow are pretty damn sweet.

From the team's perspective, I do think their taking stretches of the regular season off probably is a function of this being a threepeat campaign, but I don't think the issue is motivation. Best I can tell, everyone wants it enough. I think it's more a function of needing to pace themselves because of age and the crazy amount of basketball they've played the last few years. The Lakers are not a young team - only the Mavs are older. And since the beginning of the 2007-08 season, they've played 395 regular-season and playoff games. Add that to FIBA and Olympics play, which has drawn in Kobe, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, and you begin to understand why it's not realistic to expect them to go 100 percent from October to April. If they did, there'd be nothing left at this point.

Ironically, though, it's Kobe who stays dialed in the most. As he's aging, he takes more plays off on defense than he once did, and Phil manages his minutes pretty carefully, but he goes hard more than any other Laker, despite having more miles on his engine than anyone else.

On the subject of Kobe, I feel compelled to bring up what might be a painful subject for Hornets fans: his trade to the Lakers by the Hornets in the summer of 1996. Or maybe it's not a painful subject, which I suppose is the question. Do you ever stop to imagine an alternative history in which that trade never happens and the Hornets hold on to Kobe's draft rights? Or are the statements at the time by Kobe's agent Arn Tellem, that playing for Charlotte was "an impossibility," enough to satisfy you that Kobe was never actually going to be a Hornet, with or without that trade?

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Rohan: I don't think Hornets fans think much of it. Charlotte Kobe would certainly have been interesting obviously, but like you mention, I highly doubt that he and his agent were ever going to let it happen. I suppose the silver lining is that we did get a rather hilarious draft interview out of it. "Here's your Charlotte Hornets magazine." "... thanks."

It's also really interesting how on point pre-draft opinion of Kobe was at the time. I guess I don't mean by teams (since he dropped so far), but rather by analysts and the like. There seems to have been a strong consensus that Kobe, given proper development, could become one of the best players in the NBA. And basically every ceiling that people dreamed up for him has been matched if not exceeded obviously. Do you think Kobe entering the league at 18 will have an impact on the length of his career at all? I think it's pretty clear that a player like Kobe will age rather well, but how many more "top 5 players in the NBA" seasons do you feel he still has left?

And something that's very related to that is the current Laker championship window. I was quite surprised that Boston tried to "extend" theirs this year by jettisoning Kendrick Perkins to add a young "star" to an old core (yeahh, not the biggest fan of Jeff Green). When do you see this window for the Lakers closing?

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Dex: Ha! I'd forgotten about that draft night interview. I love that someone had the idea of presenting him with a magazine.

On the one hand, it seems intuitively correct that the extra miles put on Kobe's legs by his early entry, not to mention all the deep playoff runs he's made over the years, will limit the back end of his career. On the other hand, I might be a bad person to weigh in. If you'd asked me this a couple years ago, I'd have predicted that by the spring of 2011 he'd be pretty clearly into his decline phase, and that just hasn't happened. He's already blowing through my expectations for him.

The talent around Kobe should permit him to keep his minutes fairly stable in the range of 32 to 34 a game over the next few years. Gasol will be in his prime for a while longer, and Bynum is just entering his. Odom should remain a very productive player for a few more seasons. All three guys have the ability to be high-usage players and, with the exception of Bynum, can be depended on for heavy minutes. That means Kobe should have the luxury of picking his spots and very gradually ramping down his role on the team. Assuming it all plays out like this, I think he can maintain his current level of play for another two years and maybe three.

If the important pieces of this Lakers team are kept together, I imagine they've got a championship window of two more years. Next summer, the front office will have some difficult decisions to make. Chris Paul and Dwight Howard could be on the open market, and if that's the case, the Lakers will need to decide whether they'd be willing to break up their existing core if it meant doing a sign-and-trade for one of those guys. If they don't, another set of tough choices arises in the summer of 2013. That's when Bynum's and Odom's contracts are up, and Gasol's and Kobe's will have just one season left. The front office will need to decide whether to keep the aging crew together or, alternatively, whether to initiate a wholesale reboot. It's possible that by then, Kobe will have made his retirement plans known, which will help inform the process. My guess is that by the start of the 2014-15 season, the Lakers' roster will have been substantially broken down and reconstituted.

But there's plenty of time to worry about that later. Let me get your views on this playoff series that starts on Sunday. I've been scarfing down previews and predictions left and right, as I'm sure you've been doing as well, and not only have I yet to see anyone willing to predict a Hornets victory in the series, I haven't even come across someone who thinks it's going six games. What do you see as the Hornets' reasonable best-case scenario here, in terms of the number of games they can win? And if the Hornets somehow, someway knock off the Lakers, would it be the greatest upset in NBA playoffs history?

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Rohan: Oh, no question. I think if we look back at some of the more famous and unlikely upsets in NBA history, there was almost always some minor flaw, some matchup issue, some Achilles heel for the superior team relative to the inferior one. I just don't see such a thing we're overlooking in this series.

I think a reasonable best case scenario is for the Hornets to keep it close (within 10) in each game. If the bench - especially Jarrett Jack and Willie Green - end up having a good series, I could see it going from a straight sweep to a "gentleman's sweep," maybe. At the end of the day though, I think many fans recognize all that the Hornets have been through this year and everything they've had to fight against simply to make the playoffs. Even if the future looks uncertain, there's at least some modest sense of achievement already associated with 2010-2011. In all honesty, I expect more from the fans this series than from the team itself; if New Orleans Arena is filled with primarily Hornets fans (always tough when the opposition is the Lakers, heh), I'll be moderately pleased.

In your estimation, what is the best way to beat the Lakers, from offensive and defensive perspectives?

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Dex: Well, the best way to score against the Lakers is to get Andrew Bynum off the court. When he's performing as he was between the All-Star break and his latest injury scare, he transforms the Laker D from decent to frightening. Fortunately (for Laker fans), he's become much better at staying out of foul trouble, so unless you're DeJuan Blair or the Memphis Grizzlies, getting him off the floor is a tough task.

When Bynum's in the game, there are still a couple ways to attack the Lakers. One is by running. The champs have a tendency to get lazy in their transition D, mostly because transition D takes away valuable time that could otherwise be spent complaining to the refs about non-calls at the other end. The latter is always priority one.

In the halfcourt game, the key is aggressive and powerful dribble penetration. It's not enough just to get by Derek Fisher and hope for a pull-up jumper in the lane, because Bynum and Gasol will swallow those up. What you need is someone who can take the ball from behind the arc to the rim in a second and a half, going straight into the chest of the Laker bigs. That draws in help from the perimeter, leaving shooters open behind the arc, and takes the Laker bigs out of rebounding position. But there are only a few guys who consistently destabilize the Lakers in this fashion - Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, LeBron James, maybe Dwyane Wade - and we won't be seeing any of them in this series.

Whatever approach they take, the Hornets are going to need strong production from their shooting guards. Otherwise, Kobe will be free either to play free safety and roam around for steals or cross-match onto Paul, as needs arise.

To slow the Laker offense, you need size and physicality in the middle. The size is to handle Bynum, who simply backs down guys who are smaller than he is. The physicality is for Gasol, who can be taken out of his game by power forwards who play with a brawler mentality. And obviously, you need someone who can stay in front of Kobe and keep a hand in his face without falling for swing-through moves and other tricks he deploys to get to the line. The more possessions you can route toward Fisher, the better off you'll be.

Sounds like we and the rest of the world are in agreement that the Hornets don't really have the pieces to cause real problems for the Lakers in this series. Hopefully Hornet fans will find some things to enjoy in these games, even if the outcome isn't much in doubt. I do suspect that the Lakers won't have quite turned the knobs up on their playoff intensity, so I'm picking the series to go five games. I think the champs will sleepwalk through one of the games in New Orleans, giving the locals one final victory to savor.

Let me tie a ribbon on all this by noting how this matchup is an interesting one for you personally, in that even though you're a devoted follower of the Hornets, you actually live in Los Angeles. As far as you know, are you the only Hornets fan in L.A.? And what's it like rooting for a distant team while living in the heart of the Laker empire?

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Rohan: Yep, I go to school out here in L.A. And I can confirm that there aren't very many fans of the Hornets out here unfortunately. But League Pass, blogs, Twitter, and all that stuff make it pretty all right.

Not that you will need it, but best of luck this round.

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Dex: Thanks much, and thanks for repping Hornets fans here and At The Hive. We look forward to your coverage of the series, and if the Hornets do somehow spring the miracle upset, we'll insist on having you back here to give your squad a well-deserved tip of the cap.

Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore. Follow Rohan on Twitter @Rohan_Cruyff.

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