Posts Tagged ‘Steve Blake’

Kobe, Lakers Still Need Plenty Of Work




VIDEO: The Lakers cannot find the mark and get worked by the Hawks

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – You don’t need a CSI kit to figure out that these aren’t the Los Angeles Lakers of old. They look more like the old beat up Lakers right now, a team totally incapable of mustering enough healthy bodies, energy or effort to fight off an elite team, let alone a decent team like the Atlanta Hawks.

The mirage that has been the Lakers’ season thus far, with and without Kobe Bryant, is coming into focus now and it’s not nearly as inspiring as it might have seemed as recently as three weeks ago, when Mike D’Antoni was pushing buttons on a feisty crew of underdogs, yes underdogs, as they awaited Kobe’s return from Achilles surgery and the months of rehab that followed.

These Lakers aren’t big enough, strong enough and don’t have enough of the star power they are used to (at least not healthy) to even utter the words “championship contender” right now. And it was all on display Monday night at Philips Arena, when the Hawks pawed at a listless and defenseless Lakers team early and then slapped them around after halftime before finishing with a season-high 114 points in the win.

They need work, and plenty of it, before anyone starts talking about them being anything but what they are at this moment, and that’s a flawed crew on the far side of the playoff bubble in the rugged Western Conference.

“That’s you guys talking about June,” D’Antoni said. “Right now we’re just trying to win a game.”

When Elton Brand swats three shots, before halftime mind you, as the Hawks’ frontcourt crew of Al Horford (19 points, 11 rebounds, five assists), Paul Millsap (18, nine and four steals) and Brand (eight points and seven rebounds to go along with his blocks) stalemate your frontcourt of Pau Gasol, Robert Sacre and Jordan Hill the way they did, it makes Kobe’s and hence the Lakers’ struggles understandable.

Sure, Bryant shot just 4-for-14 from the floor, turned the ball over way too much (five) and didn’t make up for it with another double-digit assist night, not with the Hawks’ energetic DeMarre Carroll doing his best Raja Bell impersonation for much of the night. But it’s also clear that he doesn’t have the sort of help that will allow him to work his way through these tough nights as he gets his body back into the type of shape he’s used to. He’s playing out of position at point guard, while Steve Nash, Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar all nurse injuries.

The Hawks didn’t have to say it but it was obvious, with Kobe as their point guard the Lakers are much easier to figure out than when he’s in his normal role at shooting guard. Kobe cannot take advantage of defenders in the post and work them around screens when he’s running the show, when he’s responsible for making sure Gasol, Hill, Jodie Meeks and others get into the flow of games.

“They were picking Kobe up full court and making him work,” D’Antoni said, “so we didn’t create any motion or movement or energy for ourselves. we have to make sure we continue to get motion.”

Bryant will be back at the controls Tuesday night in Memphis. He’ll have to drag his tired body back out on the floor on just a few hours’ rest and then chase Mike Conley around as best he can.

“The back-to-backs are always tough,” Bryant said. “I just have to get ready, I have to do whatever is necessary to get ready for the next night and get right back out there.”

That’s much easier said than done when your body betrays your natural instincts and the things you have conditioned it to do the past two decades. As Bryant admitted, this is a new process for him, trying to find his way back to normal from his injury. It’s not like anything he has dealt with before.

“Every night is like a different puzzle,” Bryant said. “So every night you have to try and problem solve.”

He also has to take mental notes of his own, as he’s learning what does and does not work for him on this journey back to the Kobe Bean Bryant everyone is used to seeing.

“It’s tough to say,” he said, “because there are certain things I feel like I can do and there are other things I can’t do, but I feel like they are coming. You have to be patient and keep your eye on the big picture and continue to work and get stronger.”

Kobe’s foot and ankle were immobile for so long that there is still some physical discomfort that he’ll have to endure until those issues dissipate.

“The next level of progression is playing these games when you sit back out, get back in, is keeping it loose,” he said. “It’s just a matter of time. You increase the activity, the ankle gets used to it a little more.

“I’ve just got to keep my eye on the big picture and focus on getting better.”

That’s also why he’s not ready to panic about the Lakers’ 11-13 record nine days before Christmas. This is not the same train ride the Lakers were on last year, when D’Antoni, Gasol, Dwight Howard, Nash and Bryant couldn’t steer clear of the mess as they careened on and off the tracks nearly all season long.

Any rumblings about the Lakers’ front office pressing the reset button and making a trade to shake things up are things Kobe does not plan on worrying  about right now.

“That call is completely up to them (the front office),” he said of making a call on any potential moves that could be made. “As a player, you rely on experience and the years that we’ve had slow starts. I just try to stay focused on that. Last year, it was really, really dire straits. And this doesn’t feel like this is that type of situation. You know, I don’t really sweat it too much. There are certain things we can correct and fix and a lot of it starts with me and getting healthy. And I’ll get there. And I’ll be able to control things a lot more. But I don’t really trip over it much. As players we’ve got to stay focused on what we do, and management obviously has to do the same thing on their end.”

In the meantime, the Lakers would be wise to keep their heads down, keep working and pray for some good fortune on the health front. Who knows what else the next few weeks might bring?

Curry Makes Biggest Impact Offensively


VIDEO: Stephen Curry lights up the Mavs and hits the game-winner

The List

Biggest on-off-court differential, OffRtg

On floor Off floor
Player Team MIN OffRtg MIN OffRtg Diff.
Stephen Curry GSW 744 112.0 370 86.5 25.5
Kevin Love MIN 748 109.5 313 86.0 23.5
John Wall WAS 755 104.6 230 83.9 20.6
Paul George IND 809 106.2 252 89.1 17.0
Klay Thompson GSW 872 107.1 242 91.8 15.3
Marcin Gortat WAS 691 104.3 294 89.4 14.9
Luol Deng CHI 656 101.3 324 86.6 14.7
Corey Brewer MIN 748 107.0 313 92.5 14.6
David Lee GSW 774 108.1 340 94.0 14.2
Ricky Rubio MIN 716 107.3 345 93.3 14.0

Minimum 300 minutes on the floor
OffRtg = Team points scored per 100 possessions

The Context

Last season, the leader in this category was Damian Lillard. The 2012-13 Blazers scored 11.5 more points per 100 possessions with Lillard on the floor than they did with him on the bench. Right now, Curry’s differential is more than twice that.

With Curry on the floor, the Warriors have scored 2.5 more points per 100 possessions than the best offense in the league (Portland). With Curry on the bench, they’ve scored 7.2 fewer than the worst offense in the league (Milwaukee).

Curry is one of the most dangerous weapons in the league and a unique challenge to defend, because he’s one of the league’s two or three best shooters, but also has the ball in his hands to start most possessions. He leads the league with 15.8 pull-up jumpers per game, including 5.1 from 3-point range.

Curry not only gets buckets himself, but the threat of him pulling up clearly creates openings for his fellow perimeter players. Klay Thompson has shot 7.4 percent better from the field and 9.9 percent better from 3-point range with Curry on the floor, while Andre Iguodala has shot 31.1 percent better from the field and 43.7 percent better from beyond the arc.

The Warriors have not only shot better with Curry on the floor, but they’ve turned the ball over 6.1 fewer times per 100 possessions. Both Nemanja Nedovic and Kent Bazemore have turned the ball over on more than 20 percent of their possessions.

Iguodala’s absence is certainly a factor in the offensive drop-off when Curry steps off the floor. Iguodala, who is the team’s back-up point guard in addition to being the starting small forward, and who also has a tolerable turnover rate, has missed the last 10 games with a hamstring injury.

But before Iguodala’s injury, the Warriors were still pretty bad offensively with Curry off the floor and Iguodala on, scoring only 93.7 points per 100 possessions over 195 minutes. They were strong defensively, however, and that’s where Iguodala’s absence has been felt most. Golden State has allowed 104.1 points per 100 possessions over the last 10 games after allowing just 96.5 over their first 13.

Even when Iguodala returns, backcourt depth will be an issue. Mark Jackson hasn’t been able to trust Nedovic and Bazemore, who have played a total of 114 minutes over the 10 games that Iguodala has missed. Curry, meanwhile, has played 40-plus in eight of the 10. Both Curry (11th) and Thompson (seventh) now rank in the top 11 in minutes per game. They’re young, but that’s a heavy burden to shoulder.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that Golden State has been included among the teams interested in trading for Kyle Lowry. What they’d have to offer the Raptors is the issue. They don’t have much of value beyond their top six players.

The Warriors have played a tough schedule, with 14 of their 23 games on the road and 19 of the against the Western Conference. But their lack of depth has become a real concern. Nobody can come close to replicating what Curry gives them when he’s on the floor, but they need somebody who can at least keep their offense from falling completely off the map.

The Video

Here are Curry’s nine 3-pointers against the Clippers on Oct. 31, here are his 15 assists in Memphis from Saturday, and here’s his game-winner against the Mavs on Wednesday.

The bottom of the list

The Pacers have scored 14.7 more points per 100 possessions with Ian Mahinmi on the bench (106.5) than they have with him on the floor (91.8). Yeah, there’s still a big drop-off when Frank Vogel goes to his bench, but the reserves do their jobs defensively, Luis Scola has given them more offense than Tyler Hansbrough did, and Roy Hibbert‘s minutes are up from 28.7 per game last season to 30.7 this season.

Just ahead of Mahinmi is the Lakers’ Steve Blake at -14.6, and I wrote last week how L.A.’s bench has been so much better than their starters. Ahead of Blake are the Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard (-13.8), Vitor Faverani (-13.4) and the Pacers’ Orlando Johnson (-12.7).

Trivia question

What player has scored the most points without a single one coming from outside the paint? Hint: He’s a Western Conference big man who was once a top 10 draft pick by an Eastern Conference team.

More on-off-court notes

  • The presence of three Warriors in the top 10 further illustrates their lack of depth. Also in the top 10 are two Wizards, and when you take defense into account, John Wall has the largest on-off-court NetRtg differential. Washington has outscored its opponents by 5.6 points per 100 possessions with Wall on the floor and has been outscored by 24.1 with him on the bench. That Eric Maynor addition hasn’t worked out too well.
  • It’s also interesting to see Luol Deng on the list. We understand how important Deng is to the Bulls’ defense, but it’s now clear that, without Derrick Rose, they desperately need Deng offensively. With him out over the last three games, Chicago has scored a brutal 79.8 points per 100 possessions against three bottom 10 defensive teams (Detroit, Milwaukee and New York). And no, D.J. Augustin isn’t going to help much.
  • At the top of the list defensively? Nate Robinson. The Nuggets have allowed 15.5 fewer points per 100 possessions with Robinson on the floor than they have with him on the bench. Seems crazy, but the Nuggets have been just awful defensively in the first six minutes of games, allowing 121.2 per 100 possessions, more than 20 over the league average of 100.9 during that time. That has forced them to play catch-up when their reserves enter. Nate for DPOY!

Trivia answer

Andrew Bogut, who has 164 points, all from the paint (150) or from the free throw line (14).

Lakers’ Point Guard Troubles Continue


VIDEO: Mike D’Antoni discusses how the Lakers will press on without Steve Blake

HANG TIME WEST – The Lakers’ move toward improved health, with Kobe Bryant back and Steve Nash expressing optimism about his recovery, suffered another setback Thursday with the news that Steve Blake is expected to miss at least six weeks with a torn ligament in his right elbow.

The Lakers have quickly gone from starting the season feeling good about their depth at point guard to not having a single true point guard on the roster, with projected starter Nash sidelined by nerve damage in his back, Jordan Farmar out with a torn left hamstring and now Blake pushed to the sideline.

The immediate response, coach Mike D’Antoni indicated after practice in El Segundo, Calif., will be Bryant at the point and Jodie Meeks at shooting guard when a four-game trip begins Friday in Oklahoma City. One of the worst places possible, in other words, with Russell Westbrook waiting, before the Lakers continue to Charlotte (with Kemba Walker as the leading scorer, though a volume shooter), Atlanta (Jeff Teague) and Memphis (Mike Conley). And when that swing ends, the next three opponents are Minnesota (Ricky Rubio), Golden State (Stephen Curry) and Phoenix (Eric Bledsoe/Goran Dragic).

The bigger picture is that outside reinforcements capable of making an impact are unlikely. While it is easy to suggest making a trade, and Toronto’s Kyle Lowry has become the name de jour in trade rumors, the Lakers won’t give up much for relief help if indications are that at least two of the three veterans at the position are working toward returning soon. In a related development, the Lakers don’t have much to give up.

Adding a free agent at the position, for practice and limited game duty, seems a more-reasonable expectation. Mike Trudell, the beat writer for Lakers.com and sideline reporter on TV and radio, quoted general manager Mitch Kupchak that finding someone who can play ahead of Bryant, Meeks and Xavier Henry is “unlikely.” Leandro Barbosa and a pair former Lakers, Darius Morris and Chris Duhon are “on the list” of candidates, Dave McMenamin of ESPNLA.com quoted Kupchak as saying.

Otherwise, it’s a waiting game on the point guards already in house. Nash said last week he has been encouraged by his body’s response to increased workouts, but no timetable has been set for a return and he is not expected to accompany the Lakers on the four-game trip. Farmar has also given positive reports on his recovery, but likewise is staying away from a target date for playing again.

Blake is averaging 9.8 points, 7.7 assists and 31.8 minutes while shooting 39.8 percent in starting all 21 games. He was hurt in the second half Nov. 26 at Washington, but continued to play with the injury to his shooting arm.

Suspense Runs High As Kobe Returns


VIDEO: Rick Fox analyzes the impact of Kobe’s return

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – As the great Kobe Bryant rescues his flapping No. 24 jersey from all manner of inclement weather with tonight’s triumphant return, are his surprisingly buoyant Los Angeles Lakers really in need of a rescue mission? Or more a celebrated captain to take the wheel?

Staples Center will go goo-goo tonight as Bryant officially begins his 18th season against the wrong-place, wrong-time Toronto Raptors (pregame, 9 E.T., NBA TV). Kobe will be announced to the sell-out crowd and the roof will blow like Mt. Vesuvius. He’ll take his spot around the jump circle and it’ll be so electric in there it’ll feel like the Lakers are back in the NBA Finals, where so many predicted they would be last season before that star-studded roster quickly became as unhinged as characters in a Quentin Tarantino film.

Once the ball is in the air, once the juices start coursing through Kobe’s veins, what happens tonight and over the next 62 games that follow will be as riveting to watch as a Stephen King novel is to read. After all, the king of suspense joined Twitter (@StephenKing) the same day as the Lakers’ dramatic flapping-jersey video revealed Kobe’s return. Nothing in Hollywood is by coincidence, right?

Here’s the thing with Kobe’s return essentially one quarter into the season: For the first time in his career he starts a season a month late, on a team with multiple unfamiliar parts and, most notably, has established something of an identity and definitely a working chemistry without him.

Don’t get that confused with suggesting this team doesn’t need Kobe. That’s preposterous. Kobe’s capabilities coming off a torn Achilles tendon last April, and his adaptation to the team’s style of play, will dictate the level at which this otherwise off-rack roster can truly compete. Without him, as intriguing as they’ve been, the playoffs are as unlikely as Jack Nicholson gifting tonight’s courtside seat to Justin Bieber.

How Kobe chooses to assert himself will be fascinating to watch. Does he acknowledge this season’s progress and work to get his from within the framework and flow of the system, or does he try to strong-arm it?

The Lakers enter tonight’s game against a team Kobe once dropped 81 points on with a 10-9 record compared to 9-10 a year ago with he and Dwight Howard and the once-twinkling images of 70 wins and a championship already extinguished. Collective optimism has replaced pessimism this season as guys named Meeks and Young and Hill and Henry and Farmar have played hard and embraced camaraderie in a way last season’s Lakers team never could — or would.

What have the Lakers become without Kobe?

Surprisingly, an entertaining team whose performances can fluctuate wildly, and, stunningly, a team that is hard to hate, even for the most ardent Lakers haters. They’re playing in the mold of Mike D’Antoni – himself suddenly elevated from the echoes of “We want Phil” chants to early coach of the year consideration. They’re sharing the ball, quickening the pace, hustling and mostly having fun and enjoying each other. They’ve managed to be OK on the road — 4-5 — and hang in enough games to hold up their end of the bargain of hanging near .500 without Kobe despite scoring fewer points than they allow.

No other team in the league has a negative differential and a winning record.

Here’s two key stats that demonstrate D’Antoni’s system at work: The Lakers rank fourth in assists at 24.1 a game (they were 17th last season at 22.2); and they’re third in 3-point percentage at 40.7 (a significant upturn from last season — 35.5 percent to rank 19th) while putting up 26.3 attempts a game, third-most in the league.

Kobe’s buddy Pau Gasol is averaging 3.1 apg along with team highs of 14.5 ppg and 9.8 rpg. Jodie Meeks is shooting 47.3 percent from beyond the arc and averaging 13.5 ppg. Steve Blake is averaging 7.8 apg with 10.2 ppg. Before his injury, bench spark plug Jordan Farmar was dishing out 4.4 apg in 18.9 mpg. Xavier Henry provided an early season boost. Jordan Hill is bringing down 8.5 rpg in 21.6 mpg, including 3.3 on the offensive glass. Nick Young is as swaggy as ever, launching a high rate of bricks in Friday night’s comeback win at Sacramento until tossing in the dagger — a crunch-time scenario he might not see again with the Black Mamba’s return.

No Laker is averaging more than Blake’s 31.8 mpg and 10 are logging at least 17.3 mpg (excluding Steve Nash, who has played in just six games). Last season, Kobe averaged 38.6 mpg, a red-flag number some blamed for his Achilles blowout in his 78th game of the season, but also a number that Kobe, now 35, insisted on playing as the Lakers fought for a playoff spot.

Basically a lot of players are doing a lot of different things pretty well.

So what does Kobe do to make this team, one many pundits predicted would fail to make the playoffs, better? This is truly new — and fascinating — territory for Mr. Bryant.

Apologies, Mr. King, but the suspense is already killing me.

Kobe Will Help, Farmar Injury Hurts


VIDEO: The GameTime crew discusses the latest on Kobe

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – Kobe Bryant is getting closer to his return. Barring a big surprise, it won’t come Friday in Sacramento, but he hasn’t ruled out playing Sunday against Toronto (9:30 p.m. ET, NBA TV). Sunday Lakers games against the Raptors obviously bring back great memories.

Some thought Bryant would return for the start of the season. Some thought he’d be back around Christmas. Few thought the Lakers would win nine games in his absence.

They’ve won nine games with Steve Nash barely contributing and with Pau Gasol shooting a career-low 42 percent. In addition to Gasol, Steve Blake is the only Laker to have started all 18 games and L.A. has been outscored by 116 points (9.7 points per 100 possessions) in Blake’s 559 minutes on the floor.

In 491 minutes with Blake and Gasol on the floor (the most minutes of any L.A. two-man combination), L.A. is a minus-134. And that’s not just because they’ve lost five games by double-digits. They’ve been outscored with the starting pair on the floor together in five of their nine wins.

So how have they won when their starters have been getting blown out  in games?

Bench play.

Jordan Farmar (Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE)

Jordan Farmar
(Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE)

The Lakers lead the league with 47.7 bench points a game. Still, bench points don’t always equate to bench success. The Lakers have been much better defensively, too, with their bench in the game. More important than the scoring is that the Lakers are a plus-76 with Jordan Farmar (who hasn’t started a single game) and Xavier Henry (who has started two) on the floor.

The starters have put them in holes. The reserves have dug out of them.

Offensively, the Lakers have shot better, turned the ball over less, got to the free-throw line more and grabbed more rebounds once the bench is in. Shot selection is a factor. Gasol, who starts, has taken more than twice as many shots from mid-range (116) as he has from the restricted area (56). Nobody on the Lakers gets to the basket very often, but restricted-area shots and 3-point attempts* are both up when the bench is in.

* The Lakers have attempted 64.3 percent of their shots from the restricted area or 3-point range with Farmar and Henry on the floor, but just 53.9 percent with Blake and Gasol on the floor.

Defensively, it’s no surprise that the Lakers haven’t been stopping opponents with Blake, Gasol, Jodie Meeks, Wesley Johnson and Jordan Hill on the floor. What has been surprising is that they are defending well when they’ve put Farmar, Henry, Nick Young and Shawne Williams out there. Young and Williams aren’t exactly Paul George and Roy Hibbert, but they’ve managed to get stops at a similar rate.

In 90 minutes with those four guys on the floor, L.A. has allowed a paltry 77.3 points per 100 possessions. That includes 12 minutes against the Warriors in which they allowed a top-10 offense to score only 14 points. That number certainly smells a little flukey, but it’s a big reason the Lakers have won nine games.

So where does Bryant fit in? Well, even if he’s not himself offensively and is the liability he was last year defensively, he can’t hurt that starting lineup. The Lakers have been outscored by 8.8 points per 100 possessions in the first six minutes of games, the sixth-worst mark in the league.

Gasol leads the team in field-goal attempts per minute and ranks 188th in effective field-goal percentage among 209 players who have attempted at least 100 shots this season. So if Bryant takes some of those shots away, the Lakers would probably be a better team.

Will he stifle the ball movement? Sure, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. With Blake and Gasol on the floor, the Lakers have assisted on 68 percent of their shots and scored only 95.4 points per 100 possessions. With Farmar and Henry on the floor, they’ve assisted on just 56 percent and scored 109.2 points per 100 possessions. A higher assist rate does not necessarily equate to better offense. The Lakers have consistently had lower assist rates and much more efficient offense with Bryant on the floor.

While Bryant’s return will help the starters, Farmar’s absence will hurt the bench. The point guard is out for four weeks with a torn hamstring suffered in Sunday’s loss to the Blazers.

Farmar has been a pleasant surprise. His absence (as well as that of Nash) leaves Blake as the only healthy point guard on the roster.

So now is a good time for Bryant to make his return. But the Lakers won’t be at their best until they have both Kobe and Farmar healthy.

Hill’s Rise Great For L.A., Bad For Kaman?


VIDEO: Jordan Hill talks about his career night against Detroit

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – For Chris Kaman, what goes around is coming around, meaning he could be sitting down, a lot.

When Kaman returned to Dallas earlier this month as a newly minted member of a barely recognizable Los Angeles Lakers team, the loose-lipped veteran center decided to vent. He had pent-up anger toward Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle after the pair had their differences during Kaman’s lone season in Big D.

Kaman started 52 of the 66 games he played, but he averaged a career-low 20.7 mpg and his playing time often fluctuated. During the Lakers Nov. 5 shootaround in Dallas, Kaman ripped Carlisle for playing games with players and he scoffed at Carlisle’s use of him: “They’re going to play me five minutes a game? That’s not going to work.”

Then came Sunday night and the Lakers’ 114-99 win over the Detroit Pistons. Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni, who Kaman lauded that day in Dallas for being more appealing to players, played Kaman a season-low five minutes — 5 minutes, 24 seconds to be exact.

It could become more of a trend than a blip for Kaman, who is averaging only 17.3 mpg anyway under D’Antoni, less than he played in Dallas. On a makeshift Lakers roster still void of Kobe Bryant and thin on the back line, Kaman, 31, hoped to play a bunch alongside four-time All-Star Pau Gasol. But physical, high-intensity power forward Jordan Hill is beginning to claim that spot as his own. In his fourth consecutive start Sunday, the 26-year-old Hill turned in a career game against the massive front line of the Pistons with 24 points and 17 rebounds in almost 36 minutes.

Hill has logged more than 30 minutes in his last three starts. He’s posted three double-doubles, averaging 18.8 ppg and 12.0 rpg with 16 offensive boards, in the four starts. He’s shot better than 50 percent from the floor and is 17-for-19 from the free throw line as a starter after going 6-for-17 as a reserve. He has seven blocked shots and five turnovers, and is a plus-21.

Before D’Antoni inserted him into the starting lineup, the muscular, 6-foot-10, 235-pound Hill was averaging 6.3 ppg and 6.6 rpg in 16.1 mpg. He had scored in double figures once, 12 points in the season opener, and had one double-digit rebound game. On Sunday, Hill made a career-best 11 shots on 16 attempts, killing the Pistons in the paint.

Afterward, highly regarded Pistons center Andre Drummond liked what he saw from the hard-charging Hill: “He runs around, rebounds and plays hard, so it was like playing a clone of myself.”

Kaman and Hill obviously bring decidedly different styles. Hill punishes inside and a scraps for everything. He delivers the hustle plays a team like the Lakers, especially without Bryant, must have to win games. On many nights, L.A. will be outmanned by more talented teams and often the difference between winning and losing will come down to elbow grease.

The 7-foot Kaman, on a one-year, $3.2 million deal with the Lakers, is more finesse and can extend out of the paint with a good mid-range jumper. He’s not a superb defender, but will get his share of blocks and rebounds. Hill, though, adds a fierceness and routinely launches his body to secure rebounds or loose balls, or what are often referred to as 50/50 balls, plays that are up for grabs and will either end the opponent’s possession or prolong his team’s possession.

Hill’s offensive rebounding percentage (the percentage of offensive rebounds a player gets while on the floor) is 18.1 percent compared to 8.3 percent for Kaman. Hill grabs 61.5 percent of his team’s offensive rebounds when he’s on the floor. Kaman gets to 34.6 percent. Hill has nearly doubled Kaman this season in second-chance points and points in the paint.

“He’s a bruiser down there,” Lakers point guard Steve Blake told the the Los Angeles Times. “He goes out there with reckless abandonment and throws his body around and he’s strong. That’s just the way he plays and I think he’ll continue to do that.”

Hill hasn’t had a stellar start to his career. The former Arizona Wildcat is on his third team in now his fifth season. Drafted eighth overall in 2009 by the Knicks, New York traded him later that season to Houston. He didn’t earn much more playing time with the Rockets, who traded him to the Lakers in March 2012 for Derek Fisher and a 2014 first-round draft pick.

Hill showed flashes early last season, but was lost for the season after 29 games to a hip injury that required surgery.

Only now are the Lakers starting to see what Hill might be. That’s great news for L.A. Perhaps bad news for Kaman.

Nothing Ever Free With Howard


VIDEO: The Inside crew discusses Dwight Howard’s game

HOUSTON -- Call it revenge of the snubbed.

When Patrick Beverley’s desperation banker bounced off the side of the rim, it kicked off the kind of gleeful celebration that the Lakers always hoped to have with Dwight Howard on the court.

Instead it came at his expense and it couldn’t have been more sweet and delicious if it were dipped in chocolate.

There was the final image of a leaping Howard closing out way too late on Steve Blake’s game-winning 3-pointer from the left wing.

There were those dozen free-throw attempts that the Lakers gave Howard in the fourth quarter that he might not have had more trouble getting down if he’d been trying to swallow logs.

It was a 99-98 L.A. win in the first week of November that revealed precious little about how Howard’s old team or his new one will look in the meat of the schedule.

But it was an opportunity for the Lakers to exorcise four months of abandonment feelings left by the only high profile star to ever pull up stakes and walk out on the NBA’s most glamorous franchise and it was a night for the Rockets to remember that though they won the $80-million free agent tug ‘o war, their prize doesn’t come without inherent flaws.

“We’ll see them again,” Howard said.

“There’s so many emotions, we’d have to go through and array of stuff,” said Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni. “We win on the road the first time. We beat a good team. We played better. I mean, down there somewhere, yeah, I’m human. It’s great (to beat Howard).

“He made his choice, which is good. You’ve got to respect that. He’s fine. They’re gonna have a great team and he’s a great player.”

However, in this game Howard was little more than average, scoring 15 points, grabbing 14 rebounds and looking confined and uncomfortable.

While the Lakers’ entire season — and maybe long-range future — is on hold while they wait on Kobe Bryant’s return from a torn Achilles’ tendon, the Rockets’ ascendancy to the elite category of championship contenders will be slowed by the Achilles’ heel of Howard shooting free throws.

Little has changed over his 10 NBA seasons to make him little more than a coin flip at the foul line and that hasn’t changed at all with the scenery from Orlando to Los Angeles to Houston.

A year ago, as Howard’s coach, D’Antoni chafed at the rules when opponents intentionally fouled his All-Star center when games were on the line.

But with the Rockets wiping out a 19-point Laker lead and riding James Harden’s 35 points to surge in front midway through the fourth quarter, D’Antoni wasn’t at all averse to hacking the big man at every opportunity.

Howard finished up shooting 5-for-16 on free throws for the night and was 5-for-12 in the fourth quarter. From the time the Lakers first hacked Howard with 3:24 left in the game, Harden never scored again.

“I thought it went real well because we took Harden out of the game,” D’Antoni said. “I think it worked pretty good. And he made foul shots. That’s about as good as he’ll do.

“Harden’s tough to guard 1-on-1 and I’d rather have Dwight there instead of Harden. That’s not gonna work all the time.

“That doesn’t mean you’re not gonna use it if it’s out there. I’m not crazy. But if I could change it, I would probably change the rule.”

The Rockets were trying to get to a 5-1 start for the first time since 2007 even though their play at both ends of the floor has been uneven. Once again Howard and his Twin Towers partner Omer Asik struggled to find a way to function effectively on offense.

Howard, for all his athleticism, has never been a guy who could go on the blocks with 1-on-1 moves and create open shots for his teammates. For now, he is again thriving by catching and finishing around the basket, playing for the first time in more than a year without pain from back surgery or a torn labrum in his shoulder.

It was a date that Howard tried not to circle and wanted to treat as just another day on the calendar whenever asked about last year’s rocky marriage with Bryant that had all the charm and warm feelings of a drive-thru chapel in Las Vegas.

In a pregame chat with reporters in which he said he was still several weeks away from taking part in practice, Bryant had actually complimented Howard.

“He always wants to compete with the all-time greats, the Chamberlains, the Shaqs, the Olajuwons,” Bryant said. “This year should be the year when he can start putting up those types of numbers — 25, 26 points a game.”

But as long as there is that gaping hole in his repertoire at the foul line, the question of whether Howard can carry a team all the way will linger. He’s currently shooting a career-low 49.3 percent on free throws.

“You just got to make them,” Howard said. “I was terrible tonight at the line. We just gotta make them pay next time.

“Every loss hurts. Nobody likes to lose. So it’s very upsetting that we lost the way we did.”

Wait, Were D’Antoni’s Lakers Having Fun?


VIDEO: Lakers surprise Clippers in season opener

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – As joyless and soulless as last season was, the new crew wearing Los Angeles Lakers purple-and-gold — hardly the typical who’s who, but rather who’s that? — needed one energetic, bubbling, pinch-me performance to prove that there is always next season.

Maybe Tuesday night’s jaw-dropping development, a 116-103 going-away win for L.A.’s castoffs over its star-crossed (for one night anyway) Clippers and their $7 million coach, means there is a next life for beleaguered Lakers coach Mike “We want Phil” D’Antoni. A reset button for a bright career gone dim since the day he left Steve Nash and his rocket ship in Phoenix for the empty promise of New York.

With rehabbing Kobe Bryant dressed in all black and watching from the second row of the Lakers’ bench, D’Antoni’s boys played their butts off at both ends. They exchanged jabs with the glamour Clips in the first half to set up Jordan Farmar (16 points, six assists), Xavier Henry (career-high 22 points) and Jordan Hill (12 points, eight rebounds) for one humiliating haymaker after another in a vibrant, hustling and wholly unfamiliar fourth quarter that required not one second from Nash (20 minutes in all) or Pau Gasol (13 of 15 points came in the first half, plus 13 total rebounds).

When Bryant returns from an Achilles tear is anybody’s guess. Even he couldn’t give TNT’s Craig Sager an answer. In the meantime, D’Antoni has a marvelous window to reconstruct his reputation as one of the game’s best innovators. It’s his shot to go roots hoops, back to chalkboard coaching, experimenting and molding a team whose only expectation outside its own locker room is failure.

D’Antoni’s clay is two selfless future Hall of Famers with built-in motivators and an assortment of loose parts — mostly fresh, young legs as opposed to last season’s aging ones — playing with a chip and for a contract. This might as well be a gritty mid-major ready to crash the March party. Those teams typically take on the personality of their coach.

So with a starting lineup of Shawne Williams at power forward, Nick Young giddy to play the role of Kobe — maybe he will one day in the movie — and veteran backup Steve Blake next to Nash, arises this unforeseen, golden chance for D’Antoni. He can re-boot, erase images of the rigid, inflexible, insufferable coach who couldn’t make it in New York, who infamously emasculated Pau and ran off Dwight.

Tuesday’s opener should have been a slaughter the other way around. Chris Paul and company, with those darned golden banners beaming down, should have snarled like a pitbull as the reigning Pacific Division champs with bolder goals ahead. Instead they walked away droopy-eyed and tails hidden between their hindquarters.

It was just one night, but for the Lakers, it revealed more joy, unity and spirit than all of last season combined. D’Antoni clearly had buy-in. His team was running (more than 100 possessions) and gunning (14-for-29 from deep, 93 total shot attempts). They also relished in the dirty work, outrebounding the Clips 52-40 and 18-10 on the offensive glass. Williams and Chris Kaman swatted away more shots — four to three — than DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin.

Of course this mishmash collection of mostly low-rent role players will never be D’Antoni’s seven-seconds-or-less Suns and they certainly won’t look like Phil Jackson‘s Triangle Lakers. But Tuesday’s eye-popping opener suggested this group can do what those great teams did and what last season’s thought-to-be-great team failed at miserably — creating an identity and forging a bond.

The energy was undeniable, on the floor with Farmar’s stunning blow-bys and the front line’s determined board work; and on the bench with Nash and Gasol flashing disbelieving smiles and clapping and cheering as their backups bullied the Clippers’ starters. Where there is energy and hustle and camaraderie, there is a way.

In the unlikeliest of twists, the 16-time champion Lakers emerged on this night as the capable underdog we love to see succeed.

Who knows what happens at Golden State tonight (10:30 ET, NBA TV) or two weeks from now or by the time the Heat visit on Christmas Day? Who knows how things change once Kobe, a different Kobe, comes back? A loaded Western Conference ensures a tough fight just to make the playoffs.

But for one night, D’Antoni proved he’s coaching again. And his team showed that maybe this season can be what likely few among those awe-struck fans Tuesday night believed.

Fun.


VIDEO: Xavier Henry on his breakout performance vs. the Clips

McGrady Not Feeling It For Kobe, Lakers

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HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Tracy McGrady had to settle for a shotgun seat on the San Antonio Spurs Express to The NBA Finals last season to end his career with a lone trip out of the first round. Who knows, had McGrady ever had Spurs-like talent around him, things might have turned out differently for him.

At any rate, the borderline Hall of Famer can spot a lacking supporting cast when he sees one. He spotted just that Tuesday night while taking in some Jazz vs. Lakers preseason action. What he witnessed was so disturbing he felt compelled to take it to Twitter:

Jellybean is, of course, Kobe Bean Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers superstar and son of former ball player Joe “Jellybean” Bryant.

Kobe is working his way back from an awful Achilles tear in April and his return date remains uncertain. McGrady would apparently tell him to take his time getting back. No need to rush.

The 2013-14 Lakers, with or without Kobe, aren’t exactly high on anyone’s predictions chart. Check any Vegas sports book and this bunch is basically sitting at 75-to-1 odds to get Kobe that elusive sixth championship ring and knot him up with Michael Jordan.

Compared to all those souped-up Lakers squads through the decades, this one’s feeling like a stripped-down Vette with a leaky transmission. The horses under the hood buck instead of gallop and the suspension is all out of whack. You swear every time you turn the key it gives off that rotten egg odor.

Recently coach Mike D’Antoni said he was on drugs a year ago when he took over and proclaimed that team could average 110 ppg. And he was medicated on painkillers following knee replacement surgery. The disastrous 2012-13 team, with Bryant playing ungodly minutes night after night, averaged 102.2 ppg, which would have been pretty good if they had played any defense.

Without Bryant this preseason and with Steve Nash approaching 40 years of age by unfortunately grinding through seemingly just as many body ailments, scoring is down to 94.3 ppg. Only the Mavericks and Jazz have averaged less.

Speaking of the Mavs, everybody’s always quick to point to Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion as the only remaining members of the 2011 title team. The remnants from L.A.’s back-to-back title teams in 2009 and 2010? A rehabbing Kobe, a fragile-kneed Pau Gasol and a back-from-Europe Jordan Farmar.

To McGrady’s tweet, this is no Lamborghini waiting to be valet parked at Staples.

Assuming Nash is healthy enough to play (and start) on Oct. 29 when the Lakers open at home, to their misfortune against Doc Rivers‘ new team that shares the building, he’ll be joined by — and please don’t write this in ink — Steve Blake, Nick Young, Gasol and Chris Kaman, assuming the center has recovered from a bout of gastroenteritis.

As for Lakers depth? Among the newcomers are Xavier Henry in the backcourt and Shawne Williams in the frontcourt. The return of power forward Jordan Hill is a positive. Then there’s Farmar, Jodie Meeks, Wesley Johnson, Ryan Kelly, Marcus Landry, Elias Harris and fan favorite Robert Sacre. One will have to go to get the roster down to the maximum 15.

Pedal to the metal? McGrady isn’t feeling it, apparently even after Kobe takes the wheel.

Lakers Know Painful End Is Upon Them

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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol seemed to be reading the 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers their inevitable last rites on the eve of Game 4 of their first-round series against the overpowering San Antonio Spurs.

“I’m proud of the team because we’ve been fighting so much,” the proud Gasol said following what most likely was the Lakers’ final practice of the season Saturday. “We earned the right to be in the playoffs. We competed really hard the first two games in San Antonio. We gave ourselves a chance against a a very tough team and deep team. So I’m happy and proud of how the guys have fought through what we’ve been through and what we’re going through, and that’s what I like to see, that’s what I’ll keep in my mind and in my heart.”

A subdued Howard expressed a similar sentiment the day after the most disappointing team in franchise history experienced its worst home playoff loss ever.

“Despite all the injuries, as a team we’ve stayed together,” Howard said. “When most teams fall apart and blame each other, point the finger, we stayed together. We’ve become a closer team throughout all the adversity.”

Does such a statement signal that the chronically indecisive Howard sees his future in purple and gold?

“I haven’t thought about it,” Howard said.

Gasol or Howard or both might be playing their final game as a Laker. Howard, as a free agent come July 1, controls his future. Gasol, owed $19.3 million next season as part of an $83.1 million Laker payroll before potentially re-signing Howard, does not. Gasol could be traded or set free via the amnesty clause.

“What happens next,” Gasol said, “is totally up to the team and management.”

Gasol has seen it all during this often torturous season. He was benched in the fourth quarter by coach Mike D’Antoni in just the coach’s third game at helm, and then embarrassed by D’Antoni after the loss at Memphis. D’Antoni explained his decision to sit Gasol with this infamous statement: “I was thinking ‘Oh, I’d like to win this game.’”

Gasol played in just 49 games this season, knocked out by a concussion, by plantar fasciitis and by degenerative tendinosis in both knees that he said he’ll tackle this summer. Still, Gasol, along with Howard, is the last of the Lakers starters still standing heading into Sunday’s closing act against a Spurs team determined to put L.A. out of its misery if only to assure itself an extended rest before beginning round two.

Gasol has soldiered on, averaging 13.3 ppg, 10.7 rpg and 6.7 apg in the Lakers’ three opening losses in this series.

“It’s been an emotional roller coaster this year,” Gasol said. “It’s been a very challenging season in different ways. Injuries, ups and downs, just a lot of things that had an effect on our team. We can’t really think about all that right now. It’s something that we’ll probably go back and go, ‘Wow all those things really happened,’ and those things happened for a reason. But again, it has been a difficult, challenging season.”

D’Antoni on Saturday acknowledged that he has regrets from his early, defiant takeover of the Lakers, likely the way he humiliated Gasol and tried to force his run-and-gun system on a club better suited for slow-it-down. He wasn’t ready to talk about those with faint hope for a miraculous comeback just 24 hours away.

“There’s a lot of regrets right now,” D’Antoni said. “But let’s talk about that later. Let’s try to win.”

That’s not likely considering Howard and Gasol will be the only starters in Game 4 that the Lakers figured to have in the playoffs. Joining Kobe Bryant on the injured list Sunday will be Steve Nash and Metta World Peace from the starting five, plus backcourt reserves Jodie Meeks and Steve Blake.

RIP, 2012-13 Lakers.