Monday, May 18, 2009

Lack of Heart vs. Not Very good

The sentiment on L.A. radio today (and those with outlets to me via other outlets, like say…conversation) seems to be an air of dominance after yesterday's altogether dominance of the Aaron Brooks's – ahem, the rockets (lower-case to represent their shell of a team). True, yesterday's performance was entirely one-sided, and despite gritty and tough play from Houston, Bynum, Gasol, Ariza, and others completely controlled all aspects of the game, BUT, what exactly does that mean.
Vegas, for what it's worth, thinks it means little. They give the Denver Nuggets a very realistic chance of winning the series, and considering the Lakers have home-court advantage, somewhat implies that in a neutral arena, Vegas, (whose opinion I value more than any analyst's) thinks the two teams are just about equal. While Denver did earn the number 2 seed, they finished eleven games behind the Lakers, and a staggering .140 points behind the Lakers in the Pythagorean standings. (Denver also finished behind the Celtics, Spurs and Blazers in the Pythagorean standings, three teams currently watching on television) What this means, is that despite no injuries, and despite the Lakers's convincing five-game disposal of the Jazz in the first round, some time in the last two weeks, Denver has made up 11 games of regular season separation and .140 points of Pythagorean separation to even up (or at least come close to evening up) the perception that the Lakers are BETTER than the Nuggets, save for home-court.
While Denver was quite impressive against Dallas in the second round, Dallas's Pythagorean winning percentage was barely better than Pheonix, who missed the playoffs altogether and has to be, at least somewhat, expected. What happened is, at least in Vegas's mind, is that the Lakers' struggles with Houston changed the perception of how good this Lakers team can be. Houston's obviously injured stars should have made for an easy series, but they were unable to capitalize, and were forced to subject their fans, and their own bodies, to a surprising game 7. A lot has been made about their heart, their character, and their "championship will" but I think eventually, like Vegas has done, we need to start looking at other factors such as: age, fatigue, and maybe this Lakers team is not that good.
Am I ARGUING they are not good, or even that they will lose a series…not really. I am saying that perhaps all of the things that critics and fans of the Lakers say they lacked in their 2 defeats in Houston in games 4 and 6, were effects, not moveable variables, of more fixed variables that have changed the perception of the Lakers' dominance in the Western Conference.
Some things to consider: Kobe Byrant, the unquestionable heart and soul of this team, is now 31 years old; however, like many astute critics will be quick to point out, he is an "old" 31, for he came into the league at age 18, and has, for the most part, started since his third year. In his thirteen-year career, he has played in 1112 games, starting 944 of those. This is not counting Olympics, preseasons, or the fact that Kobe is known as the hardest working player, off the court in the NBA. In the past two seasons alone, he has played in 197 games, starting each of them and averaging about 38 minutes per game. These numbers are STAGGERING.
To put this in perspective, over his career, he's already played 16 more games than Magic Johnson played in his entire career, and Johnson's numbers began a slight decline (especially in scoring, rebounds, and defensively) after about 900 games. Larry Bird played in 55 less games than Bryant and his numbers also took a sharp turn (also in part to his back problems) after about 900 games. Not counting his Wizard's numbers, Kobe has even played more games than Jordan, whose career total was 1109. Jordan also took two and a half years off in the mid-90s, and, though he did experience a SMALL dip in his numbers in the last two years of his Bulls career, he still won the championship those seasons.
Kobe, by contrast has NOT yet seen a dip in his numbers. He won his first MVP in 2008 in the season he surpassed the dreaded 900 game clip. Up until maybe two months ago, he was the undisputed, unanimous choice for "best player on the planet," and despite his age and games played numbers starting to reach some important benchmarks, has not (at least to the untrained eye) shown any signs of erosion. (There are some statistics such as FTA and points in the paint that do, in fact, point to a small decline in his athleticism, but Jordan worked through that, meaning there's a precedent to follow).
But the point I'm making with all of this data is that: instead of assuming that players age only during the off-season; the assumption that Kobe's 08/09 exists in a vacuum and signs of fatigue or maybe age will only emerge side by side with his 09/10 numbers is simply wrong. In fact, can't we assume the opposite is true? Can't we assume that players probably age more during the season that after? Can't we assume that Kobe, who seems to be playing at as high of a level as he was last year, is not even playing at as high of a level as he was in November? That assumption goes for Bryant, Fisher (1111 GP), even younger players like Gasol (629) or Odom (723) who may not be "old" but may be experiencing some sort of age-related fatigue after playing the amount of games at the level that they've been playing at over the last eighteen months? Look at Boston. Garnett and Pierced look like they're about 65 years old right now. Their month-long winning streak over November and December seems like it was three years ago.
So maybe, while fans and critics jump on the "will the Lakers show up tonight" bandwagon, they should be looking at another point. Furthermore, maybe the Lakers just aren't as good as we thought. The NBA season, despite being 6 months long, is only 82 games. While 82 games is a large sample size (6 times longer than the NFL) it is far from perfect. It is half as long as baseball's; it is played through an unbalanced schedule, and does not ALWAYS tell the exact story of the best team's in the league. For instance, Denver, Portland, and San Antonio all finished with identical 54-28 records. Houston, with Yao, and half a season of McGrady finished one game behind with a quite comparable 53-29 record. I am considering the fact that the Spurs are banged up, but also considering Houston as even more banged up. In the playoffs, these four teams, despite essentially identical records, have played four ENTIRELY different post-seasons. Denver is 8-2, Houston 7-6, Portand 2-4 and the Spurs 1-4. Since these are small sample sizes as well, little could be said about which team's are "the best" but perhaps the Lakers' 65-17 might not be as impressive considering their second-round performance.
Here again, my point is that maybe, while their regular-season record was more than impressive, perhaps it's sample size was too limited to expose the fact that the Lakers were merely not as good as their record indicates (and their Pythagorean record confirms). For instance, from February 29 through March 31, the Lakers played at a 10-6 clip. Maybe this pedestrian .625 record (duplicated in during a significant stretch in December) is truer to form than the much higher percentage played in other, hotter stretches. Again, I am not arguing that this is the case, but it would not be a stretch to say that the Lakers are closer to a .625, or even .659 (Denver's reg. season Winning pct.) than the loft goal of .793 they actually set. In fact, their post-season record right now (against a free-falling Jazz team, and a terminally injured Rockets team is .666 with 7 of 12 games being played at Staples Center.
Obviously this small sample size renders these numbers ALMOST irrelevant, but perhaps this sample is truer than other samples. Especially considering Kobe's age, the entire team's fatigue, and other fixed variables that are being interpreted by both familiar and unfamiliar sources as moveable variables, maybe the Lakers are just about as good as the Nuggets.
I could go on and discuss the hypocrisy of judging a team's merit based on an incredibly small sample size when a much larger sample size is readily available, or the virtue of match-ups, home-court advantage, and the ever-popular "heart", but I think that Phil and Kobe SHOULD be able to answer any questions over the next month.
I do not want to make any predictions, and I do not want to assume anything. All I will say is to my L.A. brethren, you just went 7 games with a team that most likely would be a high lottery pick if they played the entire regular season with their game 7 roster. Of the four teams in the final four right now, none is more fatigued than you, none is under as much pressure as you, and all three are playing better at this stage of the playoffs. Of course this can change drastically and quickly, but instead of basking in the game 7 domination, maybe a quick fan gut-check is in order. Shit-talking to a minimum, concern at an all-time high.

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