Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Superhuman Highlight

In the days since Kobe Bryant unexpectedly crumbled at Harrison Barnes’ feet, in hopes of unearthing a clue as to what lays ahead for the Laker legend, an army of amateur physicians has mobilized, scrambling to bone up on possible causes of torn Achilles tendons and the impact of said tears – short and long term – on the effectiveness of NBA players so unfortunate as to feel their sting. For anyone hoping to once again witness Kobe at the peak of his breathtaking power, the findings are, by and large, less than encouraging: 

  • As vicious a competitor as the league has known, Isiah Thomas suffered a torn Achilles in the final days of the 1993-94 regular season. It ended his career. 
  • Once a rising star and a major contributor to the first-ever 8-over-1 upset in the NBA playoffs, LaPhonso Ellis – who was capping off a strong season, averaging 21.9 points and seven rebounds – ruptured his right Achilles on April 4, 1997. The injury did not end Ellis’ already injury-marred career – he bounced around the NBA for another six seasons – but he never came close to regaining his mid-90s form. 
  • Though not the star many had expected him to become based on his Duke days, Christian Laettner was building a very solid NBA career, having averaged at least 16 points and eight rebounds in each of his first five seasons and earning a spot in the 1997 All Star Game. However, an Achilles tear suffered late in 1997-98 season marked the beginning of the (rather protracted) end for Laettner. He spent another 6+ seasons in the NBA, but only once more had a double digit scoring average and only twice averaged as many as six rebounds per game. 
  • In August 2007, Elton Brand, then a member of the Clippers, ruptured his left Achilles tendon during an offseason workout. An MVP candidate and top-three power forward at the time of the injury, Brand missed all but eight games in 2007-08. He remains an active NBAer and still an excellent rebounder and solid interior defender, but has not come particularly close to recapturing past glory. 
  • On April 17, 2010, in the Utah Jazz’s playoff opener against the Denver Nuggets, Mehmet Okur ruptured his Achilles. He missed the remainder of that postseason, as well as that summer’s World Basketball Championships, but managed to make his way back on to an NBA floor in exactly eight months, returning on December 17, 2010. Sadly, Okur was never again an effective NBA player, scoring 194 points in 30 games after the injury. He retired last November. 
  • On February 7, 2012, while playing for the Clippers in Orlando, Chauncey Billups tore his left Achilles tendon. He’s had an extremely tough time bouncing back, taking part in just 21 games since, averaging 8.0 points in 19 minutes per game. It’s unlikely that he’ll play at a high level again. 

Not a pretty picture, huh?

Which brings us to the curious case of Dominique Wilkins.


On January 28, 1992, in the second quarter of a home tilt against the Philadelphia 76ers, like Kobe and the half dozen gentlemen mentioned above, Wilkins, tore his Achilles tendon. The injury, which left the tendon in his right leg looking, as he described it, “like a shredded mop," occurred a decade into the Hawks’ superstar’s career, at age 32. With Kobe, also an explosive wing scorer, clocking in at 34 years of age, Wilkins has emerged as the best case scenario. Now, it’s worth noting that despite the proximity in age, their respective odometers bear little resemblance to one another. At the time of his injury, Dominique had logged 27,482 regular and postseason minutes over 10 seasons, while Kobe, in his 17th season, has played 54,041 NBA minutes. Putting this aside – because, frankly, what the fuck do we know? – at the time, questions abounded – as they do about Kobe now – regarding Dominique’s future in the NBA, if he was to have one at all.

According to Wilkins, it took nine months and whole lotta patience before he fully regained confidence in his body’s ability to answer the NBA bell. By the start of the following season, ‘Nique had his mojo back. What followed, beyond serving as something for which Laker nation will spend the coming months crossing its collective fingers, remains, two decades hence, perhaps the NBA’s most remarkable (and, really, under-celebrated) triumph over injury – Adrian Peterson on the hardwood: Dominique Wilkins’ 1992-93 season.

His return to the floor brought with it not only external doubt and – one can only imagine – at least a little bit of internal fear, but also the band of bullies known as Pat Riley’s Knicks, ‘Nique came out swinging, however, making half of his 26 (!) shot attempts, en route to 30 points, albeit in a losing effort.

If his post-injury debut was a thrill, Wilkins’ second game back, the following night at Chicago Stadium against Michael Jordan and the now-two-time champion Bulls, was downright euphoric. While the reigning king managed 35 points, making 13 of 29 shots, and 11 assists, the night belonged to ‘Nique, who scored 33 on just 20 shots and grabbed seven rebounds in a 100-99 Hawks win. And he was off. Wilkins would score 30+ in four of the Hawks’ next six, capped off by a 41-point, 16-rebound explosion in a 116-107 home win over the Boston Celtics.

By the time all was said and done, Dominique had not only answered any questions regarding his ability to once again compete in the NBA, he’d summarily dismissed them and put together perhaps the greatest season of his Hall of Fame career. Dominique took part in 71 of the Hawks’ 82 regular season games in 1992-93, starting 70, playing an average of 37.3 minutes per game.

He finished behind only Jordan in the league’s scoring race, averaging 29.9 points per game, surpassing 20,000 career points in the process. A model of consistency, he scored at least 24 points in 58 of 71 games, 21 times going for at least 35, hanging 40+ on eight of those occasions. More remarkably, ‘Nique was as efficient as ever, shooting 46.6% from the field (his career average was 46.1%), with a career-best True Shooting Percentage of 57%. He posted a PER of 24.3, the second highest of his career (26.4 in 1989-90), good for fifth in the NBA, and well above his career average of 21.6. Per Basketball Reference, 1992-93 ‘Nique posted a career-best Offensive Rating of 119 and .191 Win Shares per 48 minutes – the second best mark of his career (.197 in 1986-87), FAR outstripping his career average of .148, and placing eighth in NBA. He was named an All-Star for the eighth time in his career, selected All-NBA Second Team for a fourth time (in addition to his First Team selection in 1985-86) and, again per Basketball Reference, finished the season fifth in MVP Award Shares.

The injury did force him to become more of a perimeter scorer, a conversion he managed with great effect. In ’92-93, Wilkins averaged 4.5 3-point attempts per game – up from 3.0 the season prior to his injury – of which he made a then-career best 38%. Now, lest you think a little bed rest had sapped the aggressiveness from ‘Nique’s game, it’s worth noting that only five NBAers attempted more free throws in 1992-93 than his 627, of which he made 82.2%. As already evidenced by his playing time and gaudy production, Wilkins’ role in the Hawks’ offense was not impacted in any meaningful way in the aftermath of his injury. In 1992-93 his Usage Rate – a whopping 31.9% – exceeded his career average of 30.3%. That this is only the sixth highest Usage Rate of his career speaks more to his insane run from 1984-85 through 1987-88 (USG%’s of 32.5%, 32.9%, 32.3% and 35.2%; that’s four of the top 64 Usage Rates, including the 13th highest, since 1977-78), than any lingering effects.

In terms of rebounding – an area presumably vulnerable to the lasting physical effects of an Achilles tear – ‘Nique lived up to his usual standard, averaging 6.8 per game (v. his career average of 6.7), 2.6 coming on the offensive glass. His Offensive Rebound Rate slipped (7.6%, v. his career average of 8.5%), while his Defensive Rebound Rate ticked higher (12.9%, 12.5% for his career). Overall, Dominique grabbed 10.1% of available rebounds while on the floor in 1992-93, in line with his career rate of 10.4%. He also became a more willing – and effective – passer, handing out 3.2 assists per game (compared with his career average of 2.5) and posted an Assist Rate of 14.9%, matching his career-best figure from 1986-87. Meanwhile, his Turnover Rate of 9%, while up slightly from its late-80s lows, was a) down from each of the previous two seasons and b) well below his 9.7% career mark.

In 1992-93, for the first (and only) time in his career, Dominique averaged at least 29 points per game, with a True Shooting Percentage of at least 57% and a 24+ PER. At the time, he joined a group of just 12 players in NBA history who’d collectively produced 28 such seasons. In the 20 years since, the feat’s been achieved nine times by seven players – Michael Jordan (who also did it five other times before Dominique), David Robinson, Shaq (three times), Kobe, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant and LeBron James.

Wilkins led the 1992-93 Hawks to a regular season record of 43-39, qualifying them for the postseason as the Eastern Conference’s #7 seed. The three-game sweep by the Bulls that ended their season was an anticlimactic, if hardly unexpected conclusion, though it does little (and frankly, less and less as time passes) to tarnish Dominique’s triumph over an injury that has otherwise proved a death knell for virtually every NBA career it’s afflicted.

This mini-project began less as an ode to herculean feat by a too-often overlooked great from my youth as it did a Laker fan’s quest for comfort. Comfort in the belief that learning about one recuperative miracle will somehow beget another. It should surprise no one if, in the coming months Dominique Wilkins becomes an icon in Laker nation. However, to reduce him to a mere rallying cry will be to do him a disservice. Yes, two decades ago, Dominique Wilkins returned to professional basketball more successfully in the aftermath of a torn Achilles than had any player before (or since). More remarkably, however, he did so at a level exceeding much of his pre-injury prime and, frankly, given the circumstances, turned in one of the great individual campaigns in NBA history.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Culmination of Kobe Bryant - 2.0



The realization on Friday night that Kobe Bryant – a man for whom the term “pain threshold” resides in a foreign tongue – had, in the midst of one of the NBA’s great feats of endurance, finally succumbed to physical limitation – mind you not until his third injury of the evening – was utterly jarring.

In characteristic fashion, Bean did not make for stage left until he’d literally done all he could. In an 80-second span, not five minutes after hyperextending one of his knees and tweaking an ankle, he buried a pair of 3-pointers – the second from nearly 30 feet out – to wipe out the remainder of a nine-point Warriors lead. Then, with 3:08 remaining and the Lakers trailing by two, he collected the ball at the left elbow and prepared to work on Harrison Barnes. As he drove to his left against the Dubs’ rookie, however, Kobe crumbled. That for some time he kept his seat on the floor, clutching at his left heel, was bothersome, but to pretend in hindsight that we expected Kobe to do anything less than give more of himself in pursuit of victory would be revisionist.

And, for a precious, fleeting moment, he did just that. After rising gingerly to his feet and plodding his way to the Lakers’ bench, Kobe reemerged, wearing an unfamiliar (compared with the one at which he idles) wince of pain, but reemerged none the less, allowing us, for one final moment, to continue taking for granted his indestructibility.

It was then that the wave finally broke. Upon burying his second free throw to tie the game at 109, it became terrifyingly apparent that business was no longer unfolding as usual. The Lakers immediately scrambled to take a foul so that Kobe could be substituted out. Again, he plodded toward the Lakers’ bench – only he kept going, down the tunnel, concentrating on each step, wearing, for the first time in recent memory, a look not of determination, but resignation.

The only thought I could conjure at the moment Kobe Bryant was forced from the floor was of the unfathomable pain he must have been experiencing. With Steph Curry eyeing 50 in a nail-biter on his home court, with the playoffs in the balance, the most injury-defiant of superstars met his physical limit. This had to be persuasive Eastern European prison guard bad.

It was, as it turned out, debilitating.

As always, however, Kobe did as Kobe does, justifying our blind belief in his preternatural ability to endure and overcome. What we know now that we did not then is that he managed those final free throws and unsettling trip to the locker room with the aid of one Achilles tendon.

Stop. Let that marinate for a second.

Dude buried a pair of freebies – in the final three minutes of two-point game with massive playoff implications – and then walked off after popping his Achilles.
Kobe. Bean. Bryant.

This, however, is not a eulogy.

Yes, immediately after discovering the extent to which the NBA’s ultimate warrior, I went there. I’d wager rather heavily that we all did.

Was that it? That can’t have been it. There’s no fucking way. Seriously, THAT WAS IT? 

“The hottest love has the coldest end.”
- Socrates 

Like many, I sat, catatonic, in the late-night glow of the television, a golf ball in my throat, watching, re-watching, damn near committing to memory Kobe’s raw, honest and vulnerable addressing of the media, exhausted, still-purple and gold-clad, eyes reddened by tears of frustration. I sat, adrift in a sea of (admittedly selfish, since, y’know, my tendons remain intact and I’m not looking down the barrel of a pregnancy’s worth of rehab) emotions.



Shock. Devastation. Heartbreak. Confusion. Loss. And, for every game I did not watch, and every time I prioritized a couple hundred bucks over witnessing generational genius in person, guilt.

Thoughts turned to the remainder of the playoff push (I’d rather send a mid-first-rounder to the Cavs than another $3 million to Bobby Sarver), the chance of a puncher’s chance at a playoff run (paper thin with Kobe) and the team’s future, financial (at least $70 million, and possibly nine figures, in luxury taxes due next year) or otherwise (Dwight’s show now – yay?), if only because addressing the current state of the Lakers’ union was too frightening. It is fitting that this, most soul-crushing of roller coasters has discovered a new depth of depravity, not only rendering the most energizing victory of this Laker season pyrrhic, but casting legitimate doubt on the future of the touchstone of a generation.

Hours passed, a new day dawned, and with it came a shift. The heartbreak lingered, but the fear and mourning were no more, replaced by defiance (by proxy; again, not my tendon), born of faith in a track record 17 years in the making.

This isn't the end. Why would it be? What, in our shared history with Kobe Bryant, would lead one to view this as the opportune time to doubt him? As Tom Ziller points out, for better and for worse, we’ve not only accepted Kobe’s superhuman ability to shrug off injury, we have reveled in it. We’ve come to demand it. And now, at the first hint of mortality, we abandon ship?

Yes, the Achilles is by far the most serious and time-consuming of the multitudinous ailments he’s accumulated through the years. And yes, given his age and the incredible mileage on his odometer, his game may undergo a transformation, perhaps more resembling that of Paul Pierce more so than Dwyane Wade. But the end? C’mon. Is the prospect of a successful return any less probable than the feats of physical endurance we’ve already seen? This guy does not go out that way.

No one’s gotten rich consistently betting against Kobe Bryant though the years. Provide the NBA’s most voracious student and maniacal workaholic with proof of concept (an athletic scorer no less), plus some forced convalescence for his laundry list of other maladies, and it still looks a sucker’s bet.



We’re not done here.


Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Thank you, Dr. Buss



My greatest celebrity encounter came about eight years ago, at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, early Saturday evening, while playing Pai-Gow Poker, as I often am when in Vegas, in the pit directly in front of the Studio Cafe. Alone at the table – not a terribly high limit one – $15 or $25 I believe, I see Dr. Jerry Buss approaching, 2 gorgeous young ladies in tow. The ladies sit down at third base and the seat directly to its left, with me situated two seats to the left of that. Dr. Buss calls over the pit boss and immediately has the limit at the table raised to $10,000 per hand, presumably so that his dates could play ($25 a hand) in peace without getting harassed by any Patron’d up party boys.

A “he’s cool” from the pit boss was thankfully sufficient to grandfather me into my seat and a sub-five-figure limit. All of the necessary arrangements in place, Dr. Buss prepared to head off, presumably to a smoke-filled, marble and crystalline room, where a collection of tycoons of his ilk would proceed to play Monopoly – with actual real estate. As he began to walk to away, I had fanned my cards in order to set my next hand. As I did this, I spotted something over my right shoulder, out of the corner of my eye. It was Dr. Buss., scoping out my cards. We agreed with a nod on the proper play and I set down my hand.

Winner.

Sweet! I just played a hand of Pai Gow with Jerry Buss! And won!

Only, Dr. Buss remained at my shoulder as the next hand was dealt about a minute later. Again, nary a word during our momentary strategy session and setting of my hand.

Another winner.

Holy hell it happened twice! This. Is. AWESOME.

A third hand is dealt, this one a dud. We both cringe and chuckle, as I set my hand and hope for the best. A lucky push! Rinse, repeat, try not to tremble visibly.

It is on the ensuing hand that I am finally dealt defeat, at which point Dr. Buss announces that he’s “got to get going.” Upon doing so, he pats me on my now-catatonically paralyzed back, smiles and says, “I wasn’t going to leave while we were winning.”

While we were winning. The owner of Los Angeles Lakers – Dr. Jerry freaking Buss! – didn’t want to mess with my mojo.

Reduced at this point to puddle in my chair, all I could conjure was "Dr. Buss, I am a lifelong Laker fan. Thank you so much, for everything." He shook my hand and proceeded to thank me. With that, he was off, over the neon horizon, in search of a hot streak of his own. Unsure whether to vomit or cry, I just sat there, for what felt like an eternity.

No, Dr. Buss. Thank you.

Thank you for your vision. Thank you for your commitment. Thank you for trusting your gut – as well as those of the men and women in your employ. Thank you for 33 seasons, 31 playoff appearances, 16 Finals appearances and 10 new banners. Thank you for taking care of Ronny Turiaf's heart surgery his rookie season. Thank you for – not once, but twice – convincing Kobe Bryant pastures are never greener than when they are purple and gold.

Thank you for "These men put their hands together, their souls together and brought me with them":


Thank you for the impossibility that was Forum in the 1980s. That, in a city like Los Angeles, it was your venue to which the A list would show up early, create a playoff atmosphere during even a mid-March tilt against the Indiana Pacers, and keep partying, well into the night. You made possible and presided over a time in Los Angeles that will not, can not, ever be replicated. Neither the Lakers nor the NBA will ever be the same in your absence. That everything will always work out in Lakerland can no longer be taken for granted.

Rest in peace, Dr. Buss.

Thank you for running your team the right way. Thank you for bringing so much joy to so many.


Saturday, February 16, 2013

The 1997 Rookie Game - Future Stars Collide

As part of a history project I recently undertook at Forum Blue and Gold, I reencountered the NBA's 1997 Rookie Game.

Though I've seen it in its entirety several times (still got it on VHS!), this is the most attention it's garnered from me since it truly shape-shifted into the opening stanza of the opening chapter of an epoch that now spans 17 years: Kobe Bryant at All Star Weekend.

Kobe, however was not alone, as an impressive contingent of rookies – Laker (Derek Fisher and Travis Knight - not crazy at the time) and otherwise – trekked to Cleveland for a weekend that, fittingly, also included a celebration of the 50 greatest players in NBA history. Now, as I've mentioned before, far be it for me to gloss over an excellent performance by pre-Fro Kobe – a then-record 31 points, plus eight rebounds (seven turnovers, though) – but even the most rudimentary run through this game turns up a greatest hits of "cool shit goin' on" involving one of the great rookie classes in NBA history. (Huge bummer that Stephon Marbury missed this game due to injury - how epic could this have been?)

For starters, we’ve got Red Auerbach coaching Allen Iverson (the game’s MVP with an efficient 19, nine assists, three steals, three blocks and, if memory serves, braids for the first time), Antoine Walker (not yet in search of the elusive 4-pointer) and Ray Allen, while Red Holtzman coached Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash. Let that marinate for a second.

Cool? Cool. Ok…

   

A few viewing notes:

0:23: "He [Iverson] may be feisty, he may outspoken..." What are you trying to say, dude?

0:26: See Allen Iverson. See Matt Maloney. See Allen Iverson torch Matt Maloney. Might wanna light a candle for Matt right about now.

0:32: See Allen Iverson. See Derek Fisher. See Allen Iverson torch Derek Fisher. I mean, damn, I genuinely love Fish (who had a fantastic game, with 16 points on just nine shots and six assists in 15 minutes), but those two don’t even look like they share a species.

0:40: Derek Fisher's chances of getting an invite to Kobe's pad were never higher.

0:57: Vitaly Potapenko smash! Drink!

1:07: Oh, hey Steve! What’s shakin’? “Not much. Just point-goddin’.”

1:42: A-freaking-I. If you think I’ve got a massive mancrush on Allen Iverson, you’re absolutely correct, but still, the level of devastation he wrought during this game cannot be overstated.

2:02: Turns out it wasn’t just Matt Maloney’s ankles that were in peril. Swatted twice in 3 seconds, once on a jumper – by Allen Iverson. Will the indignities never cease?

2:17: For those keeping score, that’s now two sweet alley-oops to Kerry Kittles. Such a bummer that his body failed him.

2:37: A.I., all 5’10” of him, head at the rim. Nothin’ to see here.

2:58: See Kobe Bryant. See Allen Iverson. See Kobe Bryant straight DITCH Allen Iverson at the arc. 

3:12: Steve Nash checking young A.I., with a live dribble. In related news, wounded gazelles do not thrive on the savannah.

3:35: R.I.P., Lorenzen Wright.


4:09: Say what?? May I have another? Open. Court. Legend.

5:07: AIMVP


Friday, November 16, 2012

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Expedited Delivery

I am watching a good amount of Bobcats basketball these days. No, I’ve not moved to Charlotte. No wagers were lost. My remote is just fine, thank you.

You see, the 2012-13 Charlotte Bobcats are actually pretty good and, yes, a pleasure to watch. Alright, maybe “pretty good” ought to be graded on a curve, but 4-3 for a squad whose unconscionably inept predecessors found a win in every nine outings a bridge too far is cause for optimism, if not out and out celebration. Playoff talk is a bit premature, but a meteoric (yes, meteoric) rise to 11th, even 10th, in the East is not out of the question. Given the state of affairs in Washington and Detroit, the forthcoming slap of reality heading for Orlando and the prospect of injuries derailing a mid-pack squad (like you can’t see the Sixers losing Holiday while Bynum YOLO’s his rehab into February), as many as five East teams could end the season look up at the ‘Cats.

Beyond the strong start, the Bobs boast a perimeter trio (apologies to former Lakerland hero Ramon Sessions and future poor man’s Jason Terry, Ben Gordon) capable of serving as the foundation for, I dunno, something positive. Gerald Henderson (currently out with a sprained left foot, but due back by December) is not a star, but the fourth year man is a solid defender and possesses a mid-range game that should make him a solid glue guy for some time. Then there’s the 2011-12 preseason Hype Rookie of the Year, Kemba Walker. A disappointing rookie year under his belt, Kemba’s a different player this year (a great read on his improvement from Ben Swanson at Rufus on Fire), both statistically, where he is more productive (19 points, 5.1 assists and 2.9 steals per game, compared with 21.1, 4.4 and 0.9 a year ago) and more efficient (51.4% True Shooting, 86.5% FT, 25.1 USG, compared with 46.4%, 78.9% and 25.2 a year ago), as well as in presence. The team is looking to Walker be its star, and this year he’s down to give it his best shot.

As valuable as Walker has been to this team, however, the most valuable member of the Bobcats might be a man whose NBA resume consists of just seven NBA contests, largely against subpar competition. It’s worth noting, however, that this “subpar competition” is even a thing, given the rust standard for subpar competition set by this franchise over the past decade.



That Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s efficient, all-around contribution from the starter’s pistol has contributed to a world in which the Charlotte Bobcats are no longer dismissed out of hand is an achievement unto itself. You might once again point out that it’s only been seven games. I’d counter that small samples are more likely to work against a 19 year old at the start of his rookie campaign than they are in his favor. In barely two weeks, Gilchrist has not only shown himself to be NBA ready, but made a huge impact at both ends of the floor. He’s not a polished offensive player – as evidenced by a .67 Assist/Turnover ratio and a Turnover Rate (13.75%) well above the league average (~10%) for a swingman – but does an excellent job of playing to his strengths – setting screens for others, crashing the boards and getting to the bucket.

At 6’7”-230, MKG is built for the NBA game. Beyond that, he is a hypercompetitive workaholic that just knows how to play the game. He’s rarely rattled or out of control. Absent are the mental lapses and boneheaded plays that are so common in players this young and inexperienced. In short, bad stuff seems to happen less frequently when MKG is on the floor. Do the numbers bear it out?

Join me if you will, at center stage of the Comically Small Sample Size Theater, where we will consider…

In just under 28 minutes per game, Gilchrist is averaging 11.1 points with a True Shooting Percentage of 54.5%. He’s attempting 3.4 free throws per game, connecting on 79.1%. More impressive is his .46 Free Throw Rate (FTA/FGA), nearly double the league average for swingmen (.242) and tied for fifth (with Manu Ginobili) among 2s and 3s.

Of his 8.7 field goal attempts per game, nearly two thirds (5.6; of which he’s making 64.1%) are at the rim. In fact, of his 27 made field goals, all but three have come from within four feet. The only other shot he’s dialing up with any frequency is the dreaded “long 2,” though he’s attempting just 1.9 shots per game from 16-23 feet out. He’ll do well to avoid a Josh Smith-esque fetish for the feel of the 3-point line on his heels, but reality is that an 18.5 Adjusted PER is not bad for a guy with a sub-20 Usage Rate that wasn’t supposed to contribute much offensively right away. And we haven’t even grazed the good stuff!

On the boards, MGK already ranks among the best at his position, and is potentially one of the best offensive rebounders of the non-big lot. Of his 6.9 rebounds per game, 2.4 – best among NBA swingmen – are corralled at the offensive end. His rebounding rates do little to hurt the argument: his 13.3% Total Rebound Rate ranks in the top 10 among swingmen and his 17.6% Defensive Rebound Rate places him in the top 20 among wings. Again, however, it’s on the offensive glass where he is at his best, sports an 9.1% Offensive Rebound Rate, more than double the 3.5% league average for swingmen (15+ minutes per game), trailing only Phoenix’s P.J. Tucker (12.6%) and Magic rookie Moe Harkless (12.5%).

And then we’ve got the defensive end, where Gilchrist was supposed to earn his NBA stripes – and has not disappointed. He’s averaging more than a steal per game, though this is owed almost entirely to five against the Mavericks on November 3. He has, however, immediately established himself as one of the NBA’s best shot blockers on the wing. MKG is averaging 1.7 blocks per game (only Andrei Kirilenko’s 2.0 is higher among non-bigs), swatting 5.1% of the shots with which he’s presented – 15th in the league, ahead of both Josh Smith and Joakim Noah – and has blocked a shot in all but one game thus far, with multiple blocks on four occasions.

Impressive in a vacuum, certainly, but what’s truly incredible has been MKG’s impact on the overall performance if the Bobcats – who have ascended from historical atrocity to, well, loftier heights. It’s frankly staggering. Credit where is it due to his teammates for their work, but man…

Per NBA.com, when MKG is on the floor the Bobcats secure 51.7% of available rebounds, compared to just 43.3% when he’s on the bench. Interestingly, on the offensive glass the dropoff is slightly less pronounced – 32% with MKG on the floor; 27.5% when he’s off – while at the defensive end, Charlotte is grabbing an awesome 71.8% of available boards with MKG on the floor, and 60.7% when he is not.

Crazier still, in the 194 minutes in which MKG has seen the floor, the Bobs’ offense is a fantastic 13.8 points per 100 possessions (106.6 vs. 92.8) better than in the 147 in which he’s sat, while at the other end the Bobcats are a whopping 11.5 points per 100 possessions better (97.9 surrendered, compared with 109.4) when he plays, compared to when he does not. If my math is correct – well, actually, assuming the gift of reading numbers has not yet deserted me – the Charlotte Bobcats are a silly 25.3 points per 100 possessions better when Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is on the floor than when he is not.

For the sake of comparison, the New Orleans Hornets are actually a point per 100 worseTWENTY points per 100 worse on D – with Anthony Davis on the floor (Note: Davis has played v. the Spurs, Bobcats and Rockets and got hurt 14 minutes in against the Jazz, while sitting against the Bulls and 76ers), and Portland – they of the “war crime against competitive endeavor” second unit – is nearly eight points per 100 better with Damian Lillard on the floor, though it’s worth noting they’ve been outscored when Lillard is on the floor (-2.2/100) as well as when he is on the bench (-9.9/100).

Now, unless Gilchrist has immediately hit the ground running as one of the greatest players in NBA history, the impact of his presence on the floor is likely to regress some. The overarching fact, however, is that MKG – drafted as much for his capabilities without the ball as for those with it – has delivered all the Bobcats dared hope for as they spent the #2 overall pick to secure his services, and in so doing is playing a vital role in inspiring hope in a situation that very recently was completely desolate.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Reading Between The Lines - Hardwood Hype's 2012-13 Eastern Conference Preview

A week ago, as part of an elaborate annual preseason ritual (tonight, sweat lodge!), I broke down the 15 combatants in the NBA’s Western Conference and – with a helping hand from the invisible (unless you’ve got an internet connection and an account) hand of the open (betting) market – hashed out some opinions on the fate awaiting each in the coming months. 

Out West, collection of participant in the 2013 playoffs will likely strongly resemble that which took the floor(s) last spring, though the power structure has undergone something of a facelift. The acquisitions of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard have the Lakers once again ensconced in the uppermost tier of contender while some brilliant opportunism has elevated the Denver Nuggets to the second tier spot vacated by the Lakers. Injury and big game hunting gone could relegate the 2011 champion Mavericks from playoff picture, but the ascendant Utah Jazz, last season’s #8 seed, appear poised to assume their spot. 

The East differs somewhat. Frankly, it’s a hodgepodge of mediocrity. Outside of the top four, and probably a couple of bottom feeders, there is a case to be made that in no team is a lock to out- (or under-)perform its counterparts in the fat portion of the Eastern bell curve, as win totals in the 30s (and low-40s) abound.

The opening act of this production, while thorough and (I can only hope) occasionally amusing, ran a tad, um, how do you say… fucking long. My aim as I eyed the Eastern Conference was efficiency, conciseness. And…


Yeah… about that…

At least we've still got thoroughness and possible amusement, right? Let's move on.


Atlanta Hawks
2011-12 Record: 40-26 (5th in the East; lost 4-2 in Round 1 to the Celtics)
Key Additions: Devin Harris, Lou Williams, Kyle Korver, DeShawn Stevenson Anthony Tolliver, Anthony Morrow
Key Departures: Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams, Willie Green, Tracy McGrady, Kirk Hinrich
Likely Rotation: Al Horford, Josh Smith, Jeff Teague, Devin Harris, Anthony Morrow, Lou Williams, Kyle Korver, Zaza Pachulia, Ivan Johnson, Anthony Tolliver, DeShawn Stevenson

OK, gonna try this again… THIS is the season in which the Atlanta Hawks fail to exceed expectations.

The loss of Joe Johnson, issues with depth on the wing (Kyle Korver, John Jenkins and DeShawn Stevenson? I smell long 2s from J-Smoove), the defensive difficulties that will likely accompany a Devin Harris-Jeff Teague-Lou-Will backcourt and the inevitable rollercoaster ride that is Contract Year Smoove casts doubt on this team’s ability to win 45+ regular season games.

And yes, shedding a commitment of nearly $90 million over the next four years is a huge plus for the new owners of an enterprise value at roughly $400 million, losing Joe Johnson will hurt. To contend otherwise is ridiculous. It’s like we’ve allowed an awful contract to cloud the reality that Johnson is a damn good NBA player. Yes, Devin Harris and Lou-Will will likely replace his statistical production, but you replace a steady All-Star – and your crunchtime catalyst – with Lou for One, and you will feel it.

That said, this remains a playoff caliber squad. Few teams boast a frontline combo as talented or versatile as Josh Smith and Al Horford. If Jeff Teague – who will be relied on more than ever this season – can play to their strengths, while making the most of arguably the East’s deadliest long-range duo in Korver and Anthony Morrow, this is potentially an excellent team. I would, however, like to see it first.

This team will win some games, and is a decent bet to wind up in the vicinity, but the call here is for UNDER 43 wins, if only because the alternative is tough for me to commit to.

Boston Celtics
2011-12 Record: 39-27 (4th in the East; lost 4-3 in conference finals to the Heat)
Key Additions: Jason Terry, Courtney Lee, Jeff Green (missed last season due to heart surgery), Jared Sullinger
Key Departures: Ray Allen, Greg Stiemsma, Mickael Pietrus, Jermaine O’Neal, Sahsa Pavlovic
Likely Rotation: Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry, Avery Bradley, Courtney Lee, Brandon Bass, Jeff Green, Jared Sullinger, Jason Collins, Fab Melo

I love this team. I am of the belief that the 2012-13 Boston Celtics’ performance will exceed preseason expectations.

This Celtics team is eerily reminiscent of recent iterations of the Spurs – let’s Mad Lib, shall we?

Simultaneously over- and underrated Tony Parker Rajon Rondo returns, as not only the primary offensive catalyst (I’m looking for 17 points per), but the night in, night out linchpin that generates early season MVP buzz beyond any he’s garnered before. Manu Ginobili Paul Pierce continues to answer the bell. Not reliant on athleticism for his scoring, Manu Pierce continues to add to his legacy as perhaps the greatest grinder of his era. In those, most vital moments – on the road, shorthanded and the fate of the season in the balance – few players can be counted on with greater faith than Manu Pierce to, hell or high water, figure out a way – any way, no matter how ugly – to hang 25 on the scoreboard. Anyone that watched Game 2 of the Celtics' first round series in Atlanta – Rondo suspended and the Hawks eyeing a 2-0 advantage – was witness to absolute mater class in grinding, P.P.-style.

And Tim Duncan Kevin Garnett? Hehe.

Duncan Garnett, now entering his 16th 18th season, is no longer the player he once was. Right?? Sort of. That Duncan KG is simultaneously well off of his peak yet remains offensively productive, a genuine gamechanger on defense and perennial top-12 MVP candidate (admittedly, this applies more to Garnett) speaks less to any emergent shortcomings in his game than it does to the unfathomable heights to which he’s ascended over the past decade and a half.

Outside of the top three, the Spurs Celtics boast an irrationally confident veteran off of the bench for whom confidence sometimes outstrips ability – potentially abrasive in the wrong situation, but an ideal fit alongside an established core (Stephen Jackson Jason Terry; there is a Manu parallel to be drawn as well), a young-ish big man whose role seems to expand with time, but tenuously at best (Tiago Splitter Brandon Bass), a high-upside young big with health concerns (DeJuan Blair Jared Sullinger/Jeff Green) and a pair of perimeter defenders (Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green Avery Bradley, Courtney Lee) whose the ability to contribute at both ends in big moments could play as big a role playoff life and death as any performance turned in by their more accomplished mates.

Either I’m an idiot, or... that may not end well for me. Either way, look for the 2012-13 C’s to cruise past 50.5 wins, settling somewhere in the 55-57 range.

Brooklyn Nets
2011-12 Record: 22-44 (12th in the East)
Key Additions: Joe Johnson, Reggie Evans, Mirza Teletovic, Andray Blatche, Josh Childress
Key Departures: Anthony Morrow, Jordan Farmar, Gerald Green, Shelden Williams, Johan Petro, DeShawn Stevenson
Likely Rotation: Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Gerald Wallace, Brook Lopez, Kris Humphries, C.J. Watson, MarShon Brooks, Andray Blatche, Reggie Evans, Mirza Teletovic, Josh Childress

Let’s keep this simple: the Brooklyn Nets are the best professional basketball team in New York City. And it might not be close.

A year ago, in previewing a potentially catastrophic lame duck team, I said of Deron Williams, “… a legitimate superstar – perennially one of the NBA’s ten best players, top-three at his position, and, barring a catastrophe, a Hall of Famer. Greatness doesn’t lose two out of every three games.”

So… maybe it does. But last year, in a nightmare situation – in an arena as inspiring as the Berlin Wall, lame ducks moving not to the greener pastures of a new region, but less than 20 miles east, to just a cooler neighborhood (think about that. The 2011-12 Nets played their home games against a backdrop of “Ok, let’s get this over with a blow this shitbox for our new digs down the road. As long as we still have to be here, can we interest you in some $40 upper level seats?”) – 22-44 had to feel downright triumphant. (And topped 21.5. Holla at the dirty Jerse!)

For a team that got a whopping five games from its 20-a-night center, just 16 from Gerald Wallace following his acquisition at the trade deadline, trotted out Shelden Williams and Johan Petro for more than 2,200 minutes and lived in constant fear that its cornerstone piece would spurn them in free agency, survival was victory.

Script flipped.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Reading Between The Lines - Hardwood Hype's 2012-13 Western Conference Preview

I have yet to unearth a more effective method of crystallizing my own take on each team’s fate that staring down a single question, with (usually) a binary outcome.

Last season, as I have done mentally for several years, and a couple of times in writing, in order to organize my thoughts on the offseason that was and the upcoming NBA season, I turned to the open market. Using the Over-Under lines for regular season victories to “assess the market’s assessment” of teams’ fortunes, I previewed the season that was to be (West and East) – and actually got some right!

Let’s keep this simple, since there are plenty of words to come. I, like you, have spent recent weeks immersed in depth charts, shot charts, game logs, and the treasure trove that is the top-shelf work turned in on a daily basis by the NBA blogosphere Thanks to offshore sports books the web over, Basketball Reference, Hoopdata, the Basketball Prospectus crew, and the tireless efforts of Zach Lowe (currently in 1993 MJ mode), as well as the fine gentlemen at Ball Don’t Lie, The Basketball Jones, SI.com, and too many team-specific sites to mention individually, I assembled some semi-coherent, if long winded thoughts on the Western Conference in 2012-13 :

Dallas Mavericks
2011-12 Record: 36-30 (7th in the West; lost 4-0 in Round 1 to OKC)
Key Additions: O.J. Mayo, Darren Collison, Chris Kaman, Elton Brand
Key Departures: Jason Terry, Jason Kidd, Brendan Haywood, Lamar Odom
Likely Rotation: Dirk Nowitzki, O.J. Mayo, Darren Collison, Chris Kaman, Elton Brand, Brandan Wright, Shawn Marion, Vince Carter, Dahntay Jones, Delonte West

Thanks to the cost-conscious decision to part ways with Tyson Chandler and the Lamar Odom heist that (generously) didn’t quite pan out, the Mavs’ 2011-12 title defense was dead on arrival. Recognizing this – and after whiffing on Dallas native Deron Williams, Dwight Howard and one-time Mavs’ QB Steve Nash – cost-cutting and judicious spending were the orders of the day. The endgame is simple for Mark Cuban: maximize financial flexibility by limiting long-term, big money commitments and steer clear of the luxury tax (under the new CBA, as of 2013 tax payers cannot take part in sign-and-trade deals) in order to remain a player for any superstar that hits the market. Sound strategy.

Beyond this season (in which they’re on the hook for $65.7 million), the Mavs are committed for $44.5 million in 2013-14 and have no commitments beyond next year. Though change has been a constant for much of the Cuban era, the stage is clearly set for a massive overhaul in Big D, one that, not coincidentally, will coincide with the final act of Dirk Nowitzki’s magnificent career.

What does this mean for 2012-13? A collection of viable NBA talent, made up largely of talented underachievers and stars rapidly approaching their respective “sell by” dates. In terms of on-court results, a core of Dirk, Shawn Marion, Darren Collison, O.J. Mayo (a longtime Hype favorite; this is a make-or-break year for our relationship), Elton Brand, Vince Carter, Rodrigue Beaubois and Chris Kaman ought to keep the Mavs competitive on a nightly basis, but it’s tough to see this hodgepodge as much more than a .500 stopgap. And if these ominous quotes from Dirk mean what (let’s be honest) they probably mean, the Mavs will finish the 2012-13 season with well UNDER 44.5 wins.

Denver Nuggets
2011-12 record: 38-28 (6th in the West; lost 4-3 in Round 1 to the Lakers)
Key Additions: Andre Iguodala, Anthony Randolph
Key Departures: Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington
Likely Rotation: Andre Iguodala, Danilo Gallinari, Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried, JaVale McGee, Wilson Chandler, Andre Miller, Kosta Koufos, Timofey Mozgov, Corey Brewer

If you’ve been anywhere around the NBA blogosphere of late, you’ve heard about this situation. The second biggest beneficiaries of the Dwight Howard trade, the Nuggets are being touted as anything from upgraded League Pass darling to darkhorse title contender. I suspect this squad is more the former than the latter. That said, much of the hype is not misguided. This is a really good, brilliantly assembled team.

Since taking over at GM – in the midst of the Carmelo Anthony saga, remember – Masai Ujiri has put on an absolute master class in personnel management. Gotta trade Melo? Fine, get a haul of versatile young talent and dump Chauncey Billups’ contract in the process. Nene hits free agency? Max him out., if for no other reason than to retain a valuable, if overpaid asset. Losing one of your best players for nothing in the name of fiscal responsibility seldom works out well. Sure, overpaying can also be a mistake, but letting good players walk away for absolutely nothing is not a great habit to get into. And who knows? Just months later, maybe you’ll have an opportunity to get younger, cheaper and more athletic at the position. And turning Arron Afflalo into Andre Iguodala while dumping three years and more than $21 million of Al Harrington? Bravo!

Have the Nuggets built a title contender? No. Until they become at least an average defensive team, that conversation stays on the shelf. But this team is a legitimate threat to beat anyone at any time, and has enough talent and versatility to win a good number of games. This is the Daryl Morey method perfected. And they’re going to be a blast to watch. Ty Lawson has game-changing speed, and will be flanked by some combination of Danilo Gallinari, Iguodala, Wilson Chandler and Kenneth Faried (see how I steered clear of the Anthony Randolph landmine? He’s not getting me again).

However, another void that will have to be filled before any talk of contention can begin is inside. Kenneth Faried is the only power forward on the roster, and while his toughness and endless energy are a huge part of who this team is, Manimal’s not yet a legitimate offensive weapon. As for center, the trio of JaVale McGee, Kosta Koufos and Timofey Mozgov is solid, but has question marks. Koufos and Mozgov are useful NBA big men, but neither is a game changer. And JaVale? Physically one of the most gifted centers in the game, he has the unrivaled ability to introduce the absurd into a professional basketball game. At his best he is an evolutionary Larry Nance. Other times you’d think he was on acid. In a harmless lovable way, though. On balance, this should prove to be a flawed-but-solid, occasionally comical crew.

Can the Nuggets win more than 50 games? Sure. And it’s a safe bet they’ll wind up in the neighborhood. If I had to wager, though, I’d place my money slightly UNDER 49.5 wins, and not feel great about it.

Golden State Warriors
2011-12 record: 23-43 (13th in the West)
Key Additions: Andrew Bogut (acquired via trade last season; has yet to play for team), Harrison Barnes, Carl Landry, Jarrett Jack
Key Departures: Kwame Brown, Nate Robinson, Dorell Wright
Likely Rotation: Andrew Bogut, Stephen Curry, David Lee, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Brandon Rush, Richard Jefferson, Carl Landry, Jarrett Jack

I don’t like the Warriors as much as I am supposed to.

Apparently Andrew Bogut’s stellar play on defense will elevate that of those around him, including noted sieve David Lee. Because y’know, Bogut will be healthy for the majority of the season (Oy). And David Lee will now learn to keep someone, anyone, in front of him.

On the other side of the ball, Steph Curry – one of this generation’s purest hoops geniuses – will link up with Bogut, Lee, Klay Thompson, Brandon Rush, Richard “let’s just exercise that $11 million 2013-14 player option now” Jefferson and rookie Harrison Barnes, to spark a dynamic attack befitting the Warriors’ offensive legacy. Because, y’know, Steph’s ankle aren’t made of porcelain anymore. And Jefferson isn’t done. And a paid Barnes is fully focused on maximizing his potential as a pro. And NBA-ready to begin with.

Could happen. That’s just an awfully big parlay to have to hit to ascend to mediocrity. I’ve got the Dubs UNDER 35.5 regular season wins.

Houston Rockets
2011-12 record: 34-32 (9th in the West)
Key Additions: Jeremy Lin, Omer Asik, Terrence Jones, Carlos Delfino, Jeremy Lamb, Royce White
Key Departures: Luis Scola, Chase Budinger, Marcus Camby, Samuel Dalembert, Goran Dragic, Courtney Lee
Likely Rotation: Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lin, Omer Asik, Chandler Parsons, Terrence Jones, Marcus Morris, Carlos Delfino, Shaun Livingston, Donatas Motiejunas Jeremy Lamb, Royce White

As always, the Rockets boast a number of interesting pieces and the potential to overachieve, but it’s difficult to view this as anything but a throwaway year. And, frankly, I don’t think Daryl Morey would have it any other way.

Monday, October 15, 2012

2012-13 NBA Blog Previews - This Time, No Lockout!

So, apparently this is a thing.

For two years running, late in the spring, with the NBA field whittled to the point where the ultimate prize is within everyone’s grasp, on the heels of an ode to a first-time-champ/Finals-MVP-to-be, I have embarked on a journey. In a literal sense, this usually involves recreational jaunts to Mexico and Las Vegas, but in realty, my annual pilgrimage delivers me to the proverbial edge of the earth, where – like the rat for whom the maze is almost… I fall over.

As it pertains to my work here (this site specifically, but really all internet locales), I question whether there is anything left to write. Scratch that. While continuing to watch and identify so much I’d like to say so much about, I perpetually sweat whether my capacity to effectively explore an idea has vanished – what with anything longer than a ‘graph-long work email requiring a strategy session, outline and 45 minutes of “crafting.”

Thankfully, however, the ability to punch out of this rut also appears to be a thing. Be it regular rereads of Aaron McGuire masterfully tackling writer’s block (by the way, if you’ve not read Gothic Ginobili’s player capsules from this summer, I give you Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose. You’re welcome. Now clear your calendar for the week), the continued support of the Forum Blue and Gold crew and community, Basketball Twitter, a fast-approaching NBA season and, well, the love of the game, I plod along.

Additionally, for the second consecutive year (of the seven that it’s been in existence), I am a part of the contingent of writers from home bases web-wide that united to create the 2012-13 NBA Blog Previews. Thanks again to CelticsBlog’s Jeff Clark for lending his considerable powers of organization to the project, and for once again inviting me to the shindig. As was the case a year ago, my contribution to the group focused on the Lakers. Whether or not you’ve checked out Mitch Kupchak at his baddest ass and a (hopefully valid) argument for why Kobe Bryant will not torpedo this star-studded production, check out the stellar work by my fellow members of the basketball blogosphere (while you're here, check mine out too, huh?):

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The NBA's 1% - Previewing The 2012-13 Lakers




Team Name: Los Angeles Lakers
Last Year's Record: 41-25
Key Losses: Andrew Bynum, Matt Barnes, Ramon Sessions
Key Additions: Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, Antawn Jamison, Jodie Meeks


1. What significant moves were made during the off-season? Y’know. Just a couple of tweaks.

It’s funny, in recent summers, given the roster’s perennial, glaring shortfalls, bolstering the bench with an aging-and-inefficient-but-still-capable veteran scorer and a young(ish), moderately consistent perimeter threat would have sparked celebrations in the farthest reaches of Lakerland and further ratcheted up already-stratospheric expectations.

This year? Not so much.

I’ve frankly had spells during which I have forgotten entirely about Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks. How, pray tell, on the heels of a season in which just two second-teamers – Matt Barnes (7.8 points, 5.5 rebounds per game) and (generously) Steve Blake (5.2 points, 3.3 assists per) – took part in 50+ games and provided something bearing even a vague resemblance to consistent production, do Jamison (17.2 points per game last season, though just 40.3% from the field – Nash should help here) and Meeks (235 3-pointers made over the past two seasons, with a 38.3% success rate) find themselves as mere footnotes in the mind of even the most rabid fan?

Well…




2. What are the team’s biggest strengths? As it has been for some time, the strength of this Lakers squad is concentrated at the top of the roster. In last year’s preview, I not-so-controversially declared that, “Barring an unforeseen series of events, the 2011-12 Lakers top four [then Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom] will once again rank among the league’s very best.” The more things change, huh?

While the claim rings true today as it did a year ago, not even the most optimistic citizen of the Nation would have dared predict that in 2012, as summer turned to fall, the Lakers would manage to significantly upgrade the quartet atop the roster. However, by roundaboutly parlaying Odom into one of history’s great playmakers and perhaps its best-ever shooter, and soon after flipping the NBA’s second-best center in exchange for arguably the NBA’s second-best player (and, y’know, first-best center), Mitch Kupchak succeeded in doing just that.

More importantly, rather than simply accumulating a treasure trove of incongruous talents, Kupchak, patient yet aggressive, cherry-picked a pair of prized assets for whom collaboration with the incumbents should come fairly easily. Nash is a no-brainer – a hoops genius whose shot, playmaking and leadership have seldom been seen at the position. His execution on the pick and roll – if not flawless, not far off – is unlikely to suffer as a result of teaming up with Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol. Additionally, no lead guard in the NBA is as effective at finding open shooters on the perimeter (Metta World Peace, Jodie Meeks, c’mon down!), which is helpful, given the frequency and incisiveness with which Nash infiltrates the paint.


Now, like Andrew Bynum, Dwight Howard will occasionally displace Gasol from the post. While last season this did result in Pau’s worst as a Laker (a career-low 17.4 points per game, his worst TS% since 2003-04 and lowest PER since his rookie year), there is a case to be made that, given a lead guard with a basketball IQ on par with his own, with both the ability and willingness to deliver the ball at the proper time and place on the court, a bounceback season is in the cards for Pau.

And what of the aforementioned Howard? He should – thanks to Steve Nash being, well, Steve Nash, the defensive attention commanded by Kobe, Nash and Gasol, and post moves that, while hardly Hakeem-esque, are too often sold short – be in line for the most efficient offensive season of his career. Additionally, his work on the offensive glass (12.07% ORB Rate, 19th all-time) and incredible athleticism on the pick and roll, when paired with the penetrating and passing prowess of Nash should transform the Lakers into the NBA’s undisputed kings of the half court.

Oh yeah. And Kobe Bryant is still a thing too.

3. What are the team’s biggest weaknesses? Though mitigated somewhat from years past, the Lakers’ greatest weakness lies, once again, in the second unit.

Thanks to Antawn Jamison (he won’t shoot 40% again, right??) and potential Steve Nash All Stars Jodie Meeks and Andrew Goudelock, the 2012-13 Lakers’ reserves should put up some points from the perimeter. Problems arise, however, when we look behind Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol and discover that backing up the league’s most prolific interior duo we have offensively-challenged rebounder/spark plug Jordan Hill, potentially serviceable rookie Robert Sacre, Earl Clark and…

(Crickets)

In reality, the Lakers will spend the vast majority of their 2012-13 minutes with at least one of the their front line bigs on the floor. In the best of times the lack of frontcourt depth will likely not come into play.

HOWEVAH…

Like any deal that is priced for perfection, unforeseen circumstances (foul trouble and, far more importantly, injuries) have the potential to throw this crew for a loop. Not even the best prepared team could “replace” either of these singular talents, but to enter a season with your All-Universe center recovering from back surgery (though he is, by all accounts, progressing quite nicely) with nothing in the way of insurance beyond Hill, Sacre and Clark is something of a tightrope walk.

4. What are the goals for this team? ‘Round these parts, it’s quite simple. Championship or bust. The message has not changed, though it must be said that it’s delivered with far more sincerity this year than in the last couple.

5. How will Kobe Bryant fare as a member of an ensemble cast? Aside from injury, that’s the biggest pitfall here, right?

From the moment we learned that Steve Nash was to become a Laker, questions abounded:

Will Can Kobe subjugate his rock-monopolizing tendencies to accommodate an unimpeachable point guard whose lifeblood is a live dribble? How will Kobe react to once again teaming up – this time as a veteran of nearly two decades – with the league’s best big man, who happens to be firmly ensconced in the prime of his career? After years of vacillation between grudging half-reliance on and blatant distrust of teammates whose ability and desire chronically fell short of his lofty expectations, can Kobe find the capacity to genuinely trust not one, but two new superstar teammates whose respective bodies of work warrant nothing less?

In short… does Kobe want to win on terms that are not his own?

Be it Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Shaquille O’Neal or some other star with whom he’ll one day join forces, as long as Kobe Bryant occupies a spot in the NBA sandbox, both his willingness and ability to play nicely with others will be called into question. And not without reason. Few players in NBA history (young Mike? Larry Bird? Jerry West?) have so publicly combined monomaniacal competitiveness with blatant disregard for the opinion of all they encountered.

Thing is, however, Kobe Bean is no fool. He is, by all accounts, in fact a rather intelligent man. After what must feel like a lifetime of Smush Parker, Chucky Atkins, Sasha Vujacic, Jordan Farmar and a rapidly declining Derek Fisherthe suggestion that Kobe would allow his ego to alienate Steve Nash a player that he himself recruited, whose approaches to conditioning, preparation and competition mirror Kobe's own discredits immensely Mamba's understanding of not only the finer points of the game itself, but the legacy he's taken such immense pains to construct.

Meanwhile, Kobe has thus refused to cede much of anything to Dwight Howard (and why exactly at this stage should he?). Again, however, make no mistake: Kobe remembers the Shaq era. As far into the rearview as those days have faded, memories of the dominance exerted by the NBA's best inside-outside combo working in concert, and the relative ease with which each facilitated the other's first three rings, remain vivid.

Given what we know of his personality and track record, to question Kobe Bryant's ability to thrive as part of a superstar cast the likes of which the Lakers now boast is only natural. However, to assume that the inherent selfishness that is almost universally ascribed to the man would preclude his ability to function as a part of this unit takes the pennywise-pound foolish image wrongly ascribed to Kobe to obscene heights. Anyone suggesting that Kobe would willfully sabotage a legitimate opportunity at ring #6 in favors of a few more dribbles and a couple of extra shots per game is himself willfully overlooking one rather significant point:

Kobe Bryant knows many things. On no topic is he more knowledgeable than the enduring legacy of Kobe Bryant.