Monday, June 15, 2009

Finals Musings: In Praise of Odom, Gasol, Ariza

So, the Lakers have won no. 15 as a franchise, no. 10 in L.A, and Phil Jackson has won a record-setting no. 10 to boot. Congratulations to the Forum Blue & Gold faithful. We examined Kobe Bryant's playoffs in depth last week, so let's take a look at some other Lakers in this post-championship hour.

Pro athletes are often hammered for pursuing money above and beyond all else, including winning.

Let's take a second to remember a key moment in the Lakers' championship season, back in preseason in October when Phil Jackson commented that he wanted Lamar Odom to come off the bench - clearly the best move for the ballclub. Andrew Bynum could play a larger role as a starter, and the versatile Odom was the perfect guy to run the show for the second team, and of course he'd have plenty of opportunity to play with the first unit as well.

A complicating factor was that Odom was due to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of '08-09. He averaged 15.9 - 9.8 - 4.8 in 39.3 minutes in 2006-07 and 14.2 - 10.6 - 3.5 in 37.9 minutes in 2007-08. These are impressive numbers that were sure to go down in lesser minutes off the bench, as they did: Odom averaged 11.3 - 8.2 - 2.6 in 29.7 minutes in 2008-09.

Odom balked at the bench role ever so briefly in October, before accepting it with essentially not a peep of dissatisfaction the rest of the season (though the Bynum injury did get him back into the starting lineup for a good chunk of the season).

By accepting a lesser role, Odom placed the good of the team ahead of his own self-interest in terms of trying to maximize the dollars he could command as a free agent, and that acceptance was a key element of L.A.'s season.

It doesn't always work out like this (hello, Shawn Marion). It's not hard to imagine a situation where a player of Odom's caliber objected to the lesser minutes, and became disruptive enough to either affect his own production negatively or even force a trade.

It is sacrifices like these, up and down the roster, that championships are made of. A key to San Antonio's run has been Manu Ginobili's sacrificing multiple All-Star appearances by accepting a role with lesser minutes, which keep his stats artificially low. And now Odom's acceptance of lesser minutes in a free-agent year has helped put L.A. over the top, and he deserves praise for it.

The irony is that - after performing so well in the Playoffs and becoming a champion - Odom may still command the same amount of money he would have with more minutes/better stats.

Also, did you notice that the dude shot .514 (18-35) from 3-point land for the Playoffs, after hitting on .320 (33-103) for the season and .314 for his career. Not just that, but he was .500 or better in each of L.A.'s four series.

After bearing the brunt of a ton of criticism following L.A.'s loss to Boston in the Finals last season, Pau Gasol has deservedly earned a ton of praise for his play in this year's Finals, in which he averaged 18.6 pts, 9.2 reb, 1.8 blk on .600 FG%. He's also received a lot of credit for his play on the defensive end in the Playoffs, up to and including his work on Dwight Howard in the Finals, again deserved.

All good, but there's one element of the big guy's game that I think has been overlooked: what about the way he runs the fast break?! Multiple times during the season and postseason, we've seen Gasol lead the fast break and finish by both making the correct decision and delivering the pass for an assist. How many 7-0 center-forwards in league history have been able to do this so readily?

Watch the play at the :40 mark from the Game 5 highlight package - an Ariza steal which leads to an Odom-Gasol fast break that Lamar finishes spectacularly off the Pau assist. Think about that: a fast break executed successfully by a 4 man and a 5 man - how many teams have that kind of luxury?

Remember Shannon Brown's big dunk over the Birdman in the Western Conference Finals? Again, facilitated by Gasol leading the break like a textbook point guard:

And of course, there was the play from January that made Chris Webber's season - Gasol's Showtime-worthy through-the-legs / no-look underhanded pass to Ariza against the Jazz:

As massive as the Pau Gasol trade was in leading to tonight's celebrations in Southern California, we also have to wonder if the Lakers win this series had Orlando not traded them Trevor Ariza for Brian Cook and Mo Evans in November, 2007.

Ariza averaged 11 points and 6 rebounds in 37.8 minutes for the series, and was a huge factor in the Lakers' pivotal runs in both Game 4 and Game 5. Beyond that, Ariza's pick-and-roll defense against Hedo Turkoglu was a key to the entire series.

Throughout the playoffs, the versatile combo of Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis caused huge matchup problems, but Ariza and Odom (with some good work by Gasol, as well) proved to be a perfect combo to shut down the Magic forwards. Ariza was especially important in constantly fighting through screens to disrupt the Turkoglu-Howard pick-and-roll which had been so lethal throughout the playoffs. Just having someone who could match up with Hedo was a big advantage for L.A., and it's amazing that the player was one who was essentially given to them by the opposition.

Ariza's outstanding work against the team which had traded him for a song was the final example of how quiet, unsung transactions played fairly pivotal roles, especially in the Western Conference, in a postseason in which it became clear that there really isn't *that* much separating the best NBA team from the 8th-best team right now.

You had Denver thriving with key contributions from Chris Andersen, Dahntay Jones, Anthony Carter and J.R. Smith, all players who were available essentially for nothing at one point. You had New Orleans devastated by a truly atrocious bench, even though solid bench players Brandon Bass, J.R. Smith and the Birdman were all Hornets at one time. You had Houston with Luis Scola and San Antonio without him (not too mention that the Spurs also could have Tiago Splitter and J.R. Smith if not for bad luck, essentially). Change those rosters around based only on the transactions that were largely unheralded at the time, and there would be significant change in the standings.

And all this after a year in which the $50M+ signings of Brand and Baron Davis and Maggette from the previous summer barely made a ripple. Who knows, maybe a big Shaq-to-Cleveland trade would have a decisive impact on next season's result. But maybe it just might be someone signing for $1 million or less come August, too.

At this point, it's really hard to fathom that, 20 months ago, Kobe Bryant's departure from the Lakers seemed like it could be imminent. The guy who was on the spot as much as anyone was Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak. In the next 4 months, Kupchak turned Kwame Brown, Brian Cook, Mo Evans, Javaris Crittenton and Marc Gasol into Pau Gasol and Trevor Ariza, and the rest is Lakers history.

Before the Cleveland Cavaliers overreact to the disappointment of a second-round exit, they should take a deep breath and revisit the Orlando Magic's three-point shooting numbers for the playoffs, keeping in mind that the Magic hit at a .381 clip in the regular season:
    vs. PHI: .346
    vs. BOS: .346
    vs. CLE: .408
    vs. LAL: .330
Now, three-point shooting is not done in a vacuum - defense matters in terms of affecting looks at the arc, and I thought that L.A. did a nice job in 3-point D, starting with their nice work against the Turkoglu/Howard pick-and-roll, spearheaded by Ariza's tough play against Hedo. But the fact remains that the Magic knocked down a ton of open looks against the Cavs that they couldn't buy vs. the C's or the Lakers, and I think that Orlando's relative shooting from downtown really affected the course of all three of those series.

The celebrity-laden crowds at Staples Center for last year's Finals were justifiably criticized for being so lifeless. But tonight's crowd at Amway Arena in Orlando was significantly more pathetic, as it seemed to be comprised of 50% Lakers fans. I can't remember the last time an arena has been taken over by so many opposing fans in the Finals. A really pathetic showing by Magic fans tonight.


At 10:18 AM, Blogger Mr. Shrimp said...

New to this site... great article. I admit I'm a happy Lakers fan today. But your article really highlights something that is key to the success of Tex Winter/Phil Jackson: the ability to get the best out of role players, the guys you can get from unsung, quiet deals. Every one of PJ's championship teams had guys like Ariza (or Robert Horry, or Ron Harper) hitting huge 3s, playing great D, and not turning the ball over. It's all about having an option when your superstar is doubled.

At 1:50 PM, Anonymous Tim Lara said...

I'm not happy to be a magic fan today =/ i know they could have done much better and imo the series should be at least 3-2 magic right now. I guess well just take the subservient pats on the head and come back next year looking for some respect...

check out my blog on the finals loss at

At 1:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry time things like this this are not swayed by opinion.

At 9:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

About Gasol on the fast break: there you see the fundamentals of Euro ball and how they train. When playing in FC Barcelona he was projected to be an XL SF!!! (his frame was 1968 Lew Alcindor btw).-

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