Time to put the brakes on Bynum's bandwagon

If we’re not careful we might have a serious tragedy on our hands. The Andrew Bynum bandwagon has reached standing room only status and is going full speed, positively careening out of control. Just about everyone in Laker-land, and even some bandwagon hoppers in other cities around the league, have jumped on the broad shoulders of the Lakers’ 7 foot tall, 275 pound phenomenon and is enjoying the ride. They all better be careful though, lest overconfidence creeps into the unassuming 20-year-old and he comes crashing down under the pressure.

As it is with the reactionary sports media in our great land, Bynum’s 28 points and 12 rebounds performance recently against the Phoenix Suns was reason enough to put the kid on an undeserved and all-to-early pedestal. See stories like this, or this one. Really Stan McNeal of Sporting News, do you really think Bynum is the third best center in the league? Apparently, jumping on the Andrew Bynum bandwagon can also turn its riders irrational and delusional at the same time.

The fact is that Andrew Bynum on the season is averaging 12.5 points, 10.1 rebounds and 2.1 blocks. Solid numbers, but also unspectacular ones for sure. There are a quite a few centers around the leagus putting up similar, or better, numbers. Want to take a guess as to who they are? How about Marcus Camby averaging 8.8 points, 14.2 boards and 3.6 blocks? Or Chris Kaman averaging 18.3 points, 13.8 rebounds and 2.8 blocks? Or Samuel Dalembert at 11 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game? Or even Andris Biedrins, who is averaging 10.7 points, 9.7 boards and 1.4 blocks? We could go on and name at least 3-4 other centers in the L playing just as well as Mr. Bynum. And, then there’s the issue of how Bynum is accumulating those numbers. If you’ve watched any number of Lakers games you know that most of Bynum’s points come from offensive put-backs and alley-oop dunks – hardly the work of one of the 3 best centers in the league. His back-to-the-basket game is still remedial at best.

So, having said all that let us be the first to ease on the brakes and slow this runaway bandwagon down. The reality is that while Andrew Bynum has shown a ton of promise and significant improvement this year, particularly at the ripe young age of 20, his game and his confidence has a long, long way to go. Let’s see Bynum try his alley-oop dunks in the playoffs, when defenses tighten up and the lane is protected like Fort Knox. Let’s see the relatively inexperienced Bynum drag pros like Tim Duncan and Carlos Boozer up and down the court and hold his own in a seven game series. Let’s see Bynum produce in the real, sweat-it-out pressure situations during the playoffs.

Ladies and gentlemen, before we squeeze the accelerator and drive this bandwagon toward an inevitable crash, let’s give the kid some room to grow. Let’s make sure he knows that for the Lakers to be successful in the playoffs this year, one Mr. Odom, not Bynum, needs to be the second offensive option to Kobe Bryant. Let’s bring him along slowly this season, perhaps even moving him back to the bench from Kwame Brown returns from injury, and hope that media hyperbole doesn’t warp his fragile young mind. The Lakers playoff success, this season, and Bynum's continued development in years to come may depend on it.


The Lakers may be in need of lineup changes

Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Luke Walton, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum may be more talented overall, but they aren’t as good together as Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic, Trevor Ariza, Vladimir Radmanovic and Chris Mihm, or at least according to Lakers coach Phil Jackson. After the Lakers beat up on the short-handed Clippers team at Staples on Sunday, Jackson had the following to say to reporters at the post-game press conference.

"I didn't enjoy how the first unit played. The ball stopped too often. They didn't have good movement, didn't play together and did a lot of individual stuff with the ball. As a result, there were turnovers and steals that lost us our momentum in the third quarter, which was difficult to watch…I tell them sometimes that I can hardly wait to get the second unit on the floor the way they're playing."

Jackson’s comment brings up an interesting point though about the Lakers starters and bench lineups as it is currently constituted. We had been contemplating a post discussing the inefficiencies of the team’s lineups for a few days now, but whether its laziness (clearly attributed to the recent chill here in the Northeast), lack of hours in the day (mostly tied to our real job) or a more pressing need to address the Celtics’ historic run, we simply haven’t addressed the issue -- until now, of course.

Despite giving up a whopping 102 points per game, the Lakers, surprisingly enough are third in the league in opponent’s field-goal percentage, holding foes to a stingy 43.8 percent shooting from the floor overall. They’re just as stingy defending the 3 point arc, allowing opponent to shoot only 33.3 percent from beyond the line, good for fifth best in the league. Not bad. But the stats, as they often do, only tell half the story. If you’ve watched any decent sampling of Lakers games you’ll know that the team’s defensive intensity is incredibly inconsistent during the course of a game. And, there are serious lineup issues that can be easily fixed, and will need to be addressed if the Lakers are serious about making noise in this year’s Western Conference playoffs.

But, before we get to the possible lineup changes, here’s how the flow goes in most Lakers’ games:

The team comes out gangbusters (particularly offensively) and generally claims a decent lead by the 4 minute mark of the first quarter

The bench then holds their own against the other team’s second unit, usually taking a small lead into the half

But then it all falls apart in the third quarter (at least in the team’s losses). Turnovers, poor shooting by the first unit and a general lack of defensive intensity drops the Lakers 10-15 points behind by about the 4 minute mark of the quarter

They catch up slightly when some of the second unit players like Farmar and Radmanovic mix with the first teamers like Bryant and Bynum to make a mini-run going into the fourth

But, in the fourth, generally still down significantly, the team, seemingly in desperation, starts taking ill-advised shots, with Kobe usually being the primary culprit. And on the defensive end, while they try to play aggressive, they also lose cohesion and give up easy shots

By the latter half of the fourth the snowball is already rolling down the mountain, picking up steam and there is no way to prevent a loss – at times a player like Bryant, Radmanovic, Fisher, or Farmar will get hot, but it is too little too late

Think back to Laker losses this year to teams like the New Jersey Nets, Milwaukee Bucks, Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors and you’ll remember the same old story – big first and second quarters, followed third and/or fourth quarter meltdowns. Defensive intensity, or lack thereof, is one of the culprits for these outcomes and lack of ball movement, as Jackson pointed out following the Clippers game, is another.

These issues though can be addressed through some minor lineup changes. First, Jackson needs to yank Luke Walton out of the starting lineup in favor of Trevor Ariza. Ariza brings a ton of energy to the floor, but more importantly he’s able to take on the toughest backcourt defensive assignment, leaving Kobe free to focus more offensively. With this small change, the Lakers become a better defensive team at the start of the game, but more importantly when the starters come out in the third quarter. With Kobe and Ariza on the wings and Andrew Bynum developing regularly as a top-tier shot blocker, the Lakers should, in theory, be able to lock down teams defensively coming out of the half and extend, rather than surrender, the leads they usually build going into the break. And, this would free up Kobe defensively to focus more on scoring and setting up his teammates for open shots in the third.

The second change would be to play Lamar Odom more with the second unit, particularly in the second and third quarters. Perhaps, Jackson needs to limit the amount of time Lamar spends on the floor with Kobe Bryant. As we all know, both players must dominate the ball in order to be successful and have never been very complimentary in their respective styles. The simple solution then (other than trading him of course) would be to use Odom as an anchor for the second team, instead of a complement to Kobe.

Lamar should probably still be a starter and he needs to finish games with Kobe, but at all times in between the two could spend very little time on the floor together. So, who could replace Lamar’s minutes with Kobe on the floor? Vladimir Radmanovic, if he’s shooting the ball well that particular game or Ronnie Tauriaf are solid alternatives.

Finally, when Kwame Brown does return to the Lakers following his most recent injury, perhaps Phil Jackson should fiddle with a twin towers lineup, teaming Kwame with Bynum particularly against smaller teams like Golden State and Phoenix -- with Kobe, Radmanovic and Farmar manning the wings in this lineup. Both big men are mobile enough that, unless teams go extremely small, they should be able to stick with players like Al Harrington or Boris Diaw on the defensive end, while dominating those smaller players in the post and on the boards on the offensive side of the ball.

Of course, match-ups dictate a lot of what coaches do with their lineups in the NBA, but it certainly makes a whole lot of sense for the Lakers to use these lineup tweaks as a general rule of thumb. It may better position them for sustained sucess in the playoffs against some of the more elite teams in the Western Conference.


Are the Boston Celtics really THAT good?

Believe it or not, as good as the Celtics have played, that’s a tough question to answer.

Sure, on the surface the Celtics look absolutely unbeatable and have folks in “beantown” dreaming of a title trifecta (with the Cs in basketball potentially joining the New England Patriots in football and Boston Red Sox in baseball as World Champions). Led by the new “big three”, Pierce, Allen and Garnett, Boston has racked up an out-of-this-world 18-2 record and, to steal a line from Stuart Scott is beating down on teams like they stole something. And it’s not like the games are close, as they’re beating opponents by a league-leading margin of 13.8 points per game. At their current pace the Celtics would win 74 games, blowing by the Chicago Bulls record of 72 – possibly establishing their legacy as one of the greatest teams ever. It would seem then that the obvious answer to our opening question would be, “Hell yeah, Bawston is wicked good! Order the Guiness and plan the paraaide route!”

The only problem in all of this is that the Celtics haven’t really played anybody significant yet.

They haven’t played the Detroit Pistons, the perennially “forgotten” Eastern Conference powerhouse. They haven’t had to face the World Champion San Antonio Spurs. Perhaps Duncan and company would have something to say about that title celebration being planned in Boston. They also haven’t played many of the other teams, mostly in the Western Conference, sporting solid records themselves. They haven’t faced the New Orleans Hornets, the Dallas Mavericks, the Houston Rockets, the Utah Jazz or the Phoenix Suns. Of course, it can be said that the blame for the Celtics relatively cupcake 20-game run should fall on the NBA schedule-makers, but the fact remains that Boston is an untested team.

The combined record of all the teams that the Celtics have played so far this season – teams with names like Hawks, Nets, Pacers, Heat, Bobcats, Knicks, 76ers, Bulls, Kings, etc. – is 162-181, adding up to a less-than-stellar .472 winning percentage. That’s certainly not anything close to a murder’s row of opponents that the Los Angeles Lakers have been facing, for example.

Not that the Celtics are only getting their fill of cup-cakes, they do have a couple of quality wins. Boston did blow out the Denver Nuggets by a score of 119-93 and the Golden State Warriors 105-82. Though, it can be argued that both the Nuggets and Warriors have been anything but consistent so far this season. And, the Cs did beat the aforementioned Lakers 107-94. But, they also lost to the Orlando Magic when Dwight Howard and company were red hot and came up short against the Cleveland Cavaliers before Lebron James went out with his injury. So really, fact is that Golden State, Denver, Los Angeles and perhaps Toronto Raptors are the only decent teams the Celtics have defeated all year.

So, it’s easy to argue that the jury is still very much out on the Boston Celtics.

The good news, for those looking to gauge the Celtics true greatness and place among the NBA elite is that they won’t have to wait long to formulate a verdict. Boston plays the Detroit Pistons, broadcast on the four-letter sports network, on December 19. Then, it’s a home game against the Orlando Magic on December 23. And after that begins a 3-game string against tough Western Conference opponents, including back-to-back games against the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Lakers on the road, followed by a home game against the Houston Rockets.

Of course, the Celtics schedule wasn’t going to remain docile for too long. And, sure enough, after a string of open-book quizzes, the Celtics are finally going to face the big mid-term exams. By mid-January then, we should have a clearer, high-definition picture on whether the Boston Celtics are really THAT good.


Old school baller of the week: Sam Jones

Our “old school baller” for this week is former Boston Celtics great Sam Jones. The original “Mr. Clutch”, before Lakers great Jerry West was dubbed as such, Jones won an amazing 10 championships during his 12 seasons with the Celtics – a feat that will likely never be repeated again. So, while Sam Jones barely missed our list of the top 10 Celtics of all-time, let’s take a look at why he is easily the undisputed “old school baller of the week”.

Name: Sam Jones
Position: Shooting Guard
Height/Weight: 6'4"/200 pounds
Teams: Boston Celtics
What made him so special?

The aforementioned 10 championships in 12 seasons are impressive enough, but Jones had plenty of individual accolades to go along with the team success. He was a five time NBA All-Star, was selected to the All-NBA second team three times, was elected into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1984 and was named among one of the 50 Greatest Players of All-Time in 1996. Jones scored more than 15,000 points in his 12-year career, averaging 17.7 points per game while shooting 46% from the floor. The lean and muscular Jones also mixed it up in the paint grabbing an average of 4.9 rebounds, while dishing out 2.9 assists per game for his career.

But, success didn’t come right away for Jones. Although drafted with the 8th overall pick in the 1957 NBA draft, Jones, hailing from unheralded North Carolina Central college, came into the league virtually unnoticed. He proceeded to sit on the bench his first four seasons in the league, watching and learning from established Celtics greats Bill Sharman and Bob Cousy. But, in his fifth season when Sharman hung it up for good, Jones took the starting shooting guard spot next to Cousy and used his silky-smooth shot and stellar playoff performances to get all the way to the Hall of Fame. A master of the bank shot, Jones took on the leadership role later in his career teaming with another Celtic great K.C. Jones – a duo that fans affectionately called “the Jones boys”.

Sam Jones’ game is most like...

Ray Allen. They have a similar build, both muscularly lean. Jones was 6’4” and 200 pounds, while Allen is listed at 6’5” and 205 pounds. As mentioned previously Jones averaged 17.7 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game, while shooting 46% from the floor and 80% from the free-throw line. Allen for his career is averaging 21.4 points, 4.6 boards and 3.9 assists per game, while shooting 44.5% from the floor and a stellar 88.8% from the free-throw stripe. But outside of the pure numbers, the way they moved on the court and played the game were very similar. Offensively, both could hit a jumper from anywhere on the floor and was strong enough with the dribble to get to any point on the court. On the defensive side, both played a hustling style to say in position and didn’t overpower or outmuscle their opponents.

The biggest difference though between the two is that Sam Jones was a winner and proved that he could step up his game in the clutch. Ray Allen of course has very little successful playoff experience. In Allen’s defense though, it helped Jones that he played with Sharman, Cousy, Russell and later K.C. Jones on the legendary Celtics teams. Perhaps Allen, now teamed with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce on the current Celtics will finally prove his playoff mettle this season.

Bill Russell on Sam Jones

"In the seventh game of a championship series, I'll take Sam Jones over anyone who stepped onto a basketball court. When the pressure was greatest, he was eager for the ball."

If he played today

At 6’ 4” Sam Jones was considered a tall guard for his time, but by today’s standards he would be undersized at the shooting guard position. Still, there isn’t one team in the league today that couldn’t use Jones’ uncannily accurate jump-shooting and clutch play. He would probably have to adapt his game to be able to play more at the point, as opposed to the off-guard spot, in today’s league and would have to bulk up to be able to hang defensively, but Jones could easily put up 15 to 20 points per game even today.


Atlanta Hawks need to deal to stay relevant

The Atlanta Hawks are 10 up and 10 down, at .500 in mid-December for the first time in a long time, after taking out the big, bad Orlando Magic last night by a score of 98-87. The roster is peppered with talented and promising young players like Josh Smith, Joe Johnson, Josh Childress and rookies Al Horford and Acie Law. In general, there is much rejoicing in Atlanta, as the lowly Hawks, currently tied with the Washington Wizards and Indiana Pacers for the 5th seed in the Eastern Conference, look ready to make the leap into the playoffs. Really, for the first time since sharpshooter Steve Smith roamed the land in Atlanta during the mid-1990s the Hawks are finally relevant on the NBA landscape.

But while the team has certainly improved over the past season, their solid record and impressive wins over the Magic, Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks don’t quite tell the whole story. One reason for the solid start, if you watch a few of the Atlanta games, is that Coach Mike Woodson, who received his coaching tutelage under the legendary Larry Brown, is following Brown’s defense-first philosophy and doing a good job keeping games close. In fact, the Hawks don’t really get blown out anymore, having lost only 1 game all year by more than 15 points.

But, they also don’t blow teams out themselves – they’ve won only 1 game (against Milwaukee) by more than 15. A closer look at the number clearly reveals that the Hawks are pretty atrocious on offense. They don’t score a lot of points at a paltry 93.2 per game. They don’t take a lot of shots at 43.9 per. They don’t shoot the ball particularly well, making only 43.9 percent of their shots. They’re near the bottom of the league in assists at 19.5 per game, as well as rebounding at 41.1 per contest. In fact, if you look at their differentials – where the Hawks’ average stats are compared in each category against their opponents’ – Atlanta comes out at the positive end only at the free-throw line, and in steals and blocks. And, those last two categories are severely inflated by the stellar play of swingman Josh Smith, who by himself is contributing 2.1 steals and 3.6 blocks per game this season to the team totals.

The bottom line analysis when peeking behind their respectable .500 record is that Atlanta is only winning by slowing the pace down and dragging teams through the mud. They simply don’t have the talent and the offensive fire-power to sustain their relatively strong start. The strategy is a good one by Coach Woodson, given the lack of scorers on his team, but it’s certainly not a recipe for sustained success. Sooner or later, the bad karma and talent deficiency that has plagued the Hawks for so many years will drag them back down among the Eastern Conference cellar-dwellers. Unless of course, GM Billy Knight and the disastrous front-office makes some bold moves.

It’s time to trade a few of the young pieces in order to guarantee long-term success. Because Billy Knight passed on Chris Paul and Deron Williams in order to draft the overrated Marvin Williams, the Atlanta Hawks are still in search of a serviceable NBA-caliber point guard. That would be the first place to start. Good news is that particularly huge faux pas is rectifiable, as a perfectly fitting point guard may be available a few hundred miles up US-95 in Philadelphia. Andre Miller, who has career averages of 14.1 points and 7.5 assists, has been languishing on a rebuilding 76ers team. He is exactly the type of veteran, pass-first point the Hawks need in order to set the table for finishers like Josh Smith and Joe Johnson. Miller may be had for a combination of young talent like Sheldon Williams, Salim Stoudemire and a first round draft pick. The Hawks should try to make the deal.

Speaking of the aforementioned Williams, Knight needs to take a page out of the book of the Wizards’ Eddie Jordan and Ernie Grunfeld and ship him out of town, just like the Wizard’s brain-trust did with the also overrated Kwame Brown. Williams is off to a solid start this season, averaging 15.4 points on 48 percent shooting from the floor. With his value likely at its peak, it’s time to ship Williams and Lozen Wright’s expiring contract out of town for a player who can step out and shoot the 3-ball. Toronto may be willing to send Anthony Parker, who is shooting 50 percent from beyond the arc this season, and little used Juan Dixon (who is on the last year of his deal) to the Hawks.

Once they make these moves the Hawks will be better balanced offensively, and able to score with some of the more prolific offensive squads in the Eastern Conference. With Miller at point, Joe Johnson at shooting guard, Anthony Parker at small forward, Josh Smith at power forward and Al Horford at Center the Hawks will have scoring both inside and out from their starting lineup. Then Juan Dixon, Josh Childress and Zaza Pachulia can anchor the bench, while Andre Miller could groom Acie Law during the 2 years remaining on his current contract.

These trades we suggest aren’t incredibly bold and are all pretty realistic, but they would significantly improve the Hawks’ changes of maintaining their current .500 record and making a run at the playoffs this year. Otherwise, the 10 and 10 record they posses now may only go downhill from here.