May 21, 2012; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (24) reacts to a play against the Oklahoma City Thunder during the first half in game five of the Western Conference semifinals of the 2012 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-US PRESSWIRE
The Roof, The Roof, The Roof is on fire. We don't need no water, let the mothaf***a burn.
The Los Angeles Lakers season is over, having been mercifully put down by a group of kids who were stronger, faster and more skilled than the team the Lakers were able to put out on the floor. Those qualities were why nobody expected the Lakers to advance past the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2nd round of the playoffs, but those qualities were not what ultimately led to the Lakers' dismissal in five games. The qualities the Thunder had, and which were absent in the Lakers, were mental toughness and unity. The Lakers had their chances, but in the final moments, both of important games and the series, were too busy bickering at each other to do what needed to be done.
It didn't have to be this way. The Lakers could very well be the ones advancing. Games 2 and 4 were theirs for the taking, only to slip through their grasp for the exact same reasons: Not enough execution in crunch time, not enough people on the same page. We've seen it all series, and we've seen it often during the season, and now it has led us to the abyss. To which I say: Good
The Lakers' house is on fire, and the fire should not be put out. It should be allowed to continue unabated, and only stop when it has run out of fuel to consume it. When you rebuild anything, be it a house, or a basketball franchise, the easiest way to do it is to start with the foundations, and the foundations are only easily accessible if the house has been irrevocably destroyed.
The foundations need to be where this process starts, because it is those foundations where the flaws exist. Any conversation that discusses a fundamental overhaul of the Lakers has to start with its primary foundation, one Kobe Bean Bryant. The Black Mamba is an amazing player, and unlike many of his teammates, he went down fighting. He scored 42 points on an efficient 33 shots. It was easily his best game of the series, and its nice to know he still has that in him, even as the team around him dissolves. But this was not Kobe's finest season. In fact, it was one of his worst.
Kobe Bryant's performance suffered in every single statistical category, in comparison only to himself. His PER of 21.9 was his lowest since 1999-2000. The only year he started and gathered less rebounds (by %) was, ironically, 2005-2006. He had the lowest assist % of the past decade, despite being finally "freed" of the shackles of the triangle offense's affect on guard assists. He had his lowest Steal % ever, and the third worst Block % (not that either stat really matters). And the only time in the last decade he turned the ball over at a higher rate was the disastrous 2004-2005 season, his only year missing the playoffs. But I saved the worst three stats for last. In 2012, Kobe Bryant had the worst shooting % of his career, by a significant margin. His 46.2% eFG and 52.7% TS were .15 and .17 points worse respectively than his rookie campaign. And those shooting percentages came while Kobe was putting up the 2nd highest usage rate of his career, behind only his 35 points per game 2004-2005 campaign. Translation: As he was shooting worse than he ever has in his career, Kobe shot the ball more than at almost any other point in his career.
There were some mitigating circumstances. The lockout was rough on shooting percentages league wide. The lack of training camp, the condensed schedule, the new coach and offensive system, all were contributors to the Lakers and Kobe not having the time to figure out exactly what needed to be done, and the confusion led to a lot more deferring to Kobe than perhaps anybody, even Kobe himself, might have wished. Kobe Bryant is not the problem. But Kobe Bryant is a problem. Both in this season, and in this series, it was made abundantly clear that focusing the offense only through Kobe in the waning moments of close contests is no longer a viable strategy. This isn't about clutch or non-clutch, about trying to take away the myriad of accomplishments Kobe has earned over the years. It's about how, over time, what was easily predictable has now become easily preventable, and how, over time, Kobe and the rest of his teammates have fallen into a pattern because of a level of success that is no longer present. It takes NOTHING away from Kobe's illustrious career to say that if Kobe is to be involved in the next great Lakers team, he needs to learn how to play a different way, and his teammates need to learn with him. But Kobe Bryant isn't going anywhere. He will be part of the solution to this mess, if there is a solution to be found.
The other foundations? Let the mothafuckas burn.
Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Mike Brown are the other cornerstones of this team, and it would not surprise or upset me if all three are gone by next season. We'll start with the Spaniard. I have no idea whether Pau Gasol's game has truly diminished over the past couple seasons, or whether it is simply the result of his inability to carve out his own niche when stronger personalities are constantly trying to usurp his territory in the offense. I simply know this: there is no reason to expect Pau Gasol to be anything close to the player he was two seasons ago. Not with this team. Not with this city. Not with his apparently fractured chemistry with Kobe Bryant. I appreciate Pau Gasol. I think he got dealt a crap hand in having to deal with Kobe as he enters the limelight, and with Andrew Bynum as he enters the spotlight. He was asked to make changes to his game to support both, and he has done so mostly without complaint. But its not working. He's not a consistent enough outside shooter, doesn't make decisions quick enough to attack defenders who close out on him. There have been times this season when the offense has run through Pau Gasol, and those times have often been glorious. But there have also been times, far too many times, when he has been muscled out of rebounds, when he has disappeared from the action. A part of me will be sad to see Pau Gasol go, but it is abundantly clear that go he must.
Andrew Bynum? If indeed he does go, there will be no sadness. I am biased in this argument, and therefore my reason cannot be trusted, but there is no place in my heart for Andrew Bynum, and the events of this season have only solidified those beliefs. The events include turning into the most dominant offensive center in the game and showing that, in the right system and circumstances, he can be a fantastic defensive anchor. Put it together and you have a behemoth of a man who has as much or more potential than any other center in the game, including Dwight Howard. And I still want no part of it.
Andrew Bynum is a bad teammate. It's as simple as that. He cannot be relied upon, game in and game out, to give the necessary effort, and the worst part about his inconsistency, as compared to somebody like Pau Gasol, is that his effort is entirely within his control. Which means when the effort isn't given, it is because Andrew Bynum has chosen not to give it. He has shown, through this effort and other, stupider actions, that concern for his teammates is not high on his list of priorities. The Lakers lost their first game of the season, in no small part due to Andrew Bynum being suspended. They lost their last game of the season in no small part due to Andrew Bynum picking up 10 points and 4 rebounds in 35 minutes. Yes, early foul trouble kept him off guard and off balance, but that's no excuse for the steady barrage of dunks and layups that were allowed on Bynum's watch.
He has also shown, in his unfiltered comments about playing where ever there's a bank, that playing basketball is a means to an end for him. That's fine. It's not a crime to choose to work in a field you are good at, as opposed to one you love, especially when that field provides you the opportunity to make millions and millions of dollars. But if you have no love for your work, you sure as hell better have a heavy dose of professionalism about it, and Bynum fails that measure all the way around. He fails it whenever he gets frustrated and cheap shots a player (which, to his credit I guess, did not happen this season). He fails it whenever he decides not to bother with rebounding or help defense. And he most certainly fails it whenever he whimsically decides to pull stunts like taking flippant three pointers. On talent alone, Andrew Bynum is a top 10 player in this league, and a guy who could be the cornerstone of a championship team. But talent alone has never been the deciding factor, and Bynum has failing marks in all the other categories.
Which brings us to Mike Brown. Despite my earlier comments, I do not actively want Brown fired. Brown deserves a chance to do this job the right way: To have a training camp, to have a season in which he gets to practice with his team more than once a week, to have a full season of having personnel better suited to run the type of game plan he wants on both sides of the ball. And there were some positives to his first season as head coach of the Lakers. At the start of the season, the Lakers defense was very good. After the trade deadline, he did an excellent job of integrating Ramon Sessions into the team, leading to the offense taking off for a six weeks. Neither of these improvements lasted, and by the playoffs the defense was a mess and Sessions, God rest his soul, played his way out of Lakers' deity status faster than anybody I've ever seen. But even in the Oklahoma City Thunder series, Brown did some very good things. He had the team focused on defense for Games 2-4 after a poor showing in Game 1. He responded to the Thunder's small ball lineup brilliantly on multiple occasions, first simply refusing to adapt to it, at one point letting Jordan Hill guard Thabo Sefalosha or Derek Fisher, and then later, by playing MWP at power forward to negate any advantage gained. There are plenty of reasons the Lakers were beat by the OKC Thunder, and Mike Brown is not central to many of those reasons.
But if Brown is gone, no tears will be shed, because every negative thing that was said about him prior to the season has come true. The Lakers offense was a mess for much of the season. The offensive strategy ended up leaning towards way too much deferment to Kobe Bryant, as feared. And worst of all, the defense wasn't very good. It may not be his fault, because his defensive schemes may simply require a central figure that provides consistency that Bynum refused to give. But the bottom line is that he is supposed to be a defensive mastermind and the Lakers defense was statistically worse than it has been in five seasons.
And the rotations ... good God, the rotations. Mike Brown threw the back end of the Lakers roster in and out of the lineup without rhyme or reason. He was throwing things against the wall to see what sticked, but even in doing so, it seemed like he was ripping the things thrown off the wall before even figuring out if it had worked. He continually allowed weird lineups, like the Steve Blake-Ramon Sessions pairing, to get torched defensively. And all the while, he was riding his horses hard. Andrew Bynum played easily the most minutes of his career, Pau Gasol played the 2nd highest of his career. Kobe played 4.5 more minutes per game than last season. And in the end, the Lakers lost two of three close playoff games because they couldn't muster the necessary performance in the end game. Were the stars too tired to get it done? That's certainly what it looks like.
The rest of the roster is exceedingly flawed. Steve Blake is inconsistent. Ramon Sessions has been abducted by aliens. Metta World Peace remains a wild card, and the rest of the roster is extremely weak. But the foundations must be fixed before addressing either of these more minor problems makes any sense.
The Lakers house is on fire. Leave your water at home.