A Strangely Prescient Conversation About The Lakers

 

Aaron and I had the following conversation on November 2nd. The Lakers were 0-2 (going on 0-3) as we had the conversation. Mike Brown hadn't been fired. While Nash's leg was already broken, we didn't know that when we were talking (recall that didn't come out until a few days after the Portland game Nash was injured in). Whatever the case, so much was going on with the Lakers, and I didn't know what to make of the stories that kept pouring in. I especially didn't know what to make of this particular conversation. So I didn't seize the moment, as Aaron suggested.

To my astonishment, it's January 25th (nearly three months after this conversation!) and I've had to make only minor edits, all for grammar/spelling, semantic clarification, cussin', and brevity. I can't make you believe we really had this conversation. All I can do is present it for your amusement (and horror, considering how disturbingly prophetic some sections of the conversation are in retrospect). Also, I am revealing to the world that I thought the Clippers would win about 43 games and the Warriors would get 35 wins, so... yeah. Nostradamus I am not. But the rest? That's gravy! Get that oil, son! GET THAT OIL!

• • •

Alex: A thought for your consideration: The Lakers are not conceivably an unstoppable team, because even in their best iteration, they are eminently and fundamentally flawed. That said, they could be scary good. Still, I'd like to see that actually happen, instead of just taking for granted that they'll get there. I mean, plenty of teams could be scary good (remember the Knicks!)... but health can do a lot to that "could" in a hurry, as can redundancy and uncreative coaching.

Aaron: Fair. This is my thought: I think the Lakers could be pretty great, and I see why the consensus is there. But making the leap from "could" to "will" requires a lot of factors to turn up in their favor, and not all are guaranteed to do so. In my assessment:

  • Dwight Howard has to get healthy. His defense looks atrocious and the back problem looms hard, because he can't seem to move laterally anymore or cover as wide an area of the court.
  • Pau Gasol needs to be able to defend perimeter guys in at least a remotely passable manner, as they're going to face good perimeter big men in every round of the playoffs. Frankly, if Pau continues to allow 8-8 on midrange to any half-decent big man he guards, they're going to be awful.
  • Steve Nash needs to be able to play ~30+ minutes per game in the playoffs. This is essential, and an underrated necessity for them. The backup options are so unbelievably bad that anything less leaves them with this gaping flesh wound for 10-15 minutes of the game, and leaves them too vulnerable offensively to respond. It's this huge internal hole the starters will always have to dig out of
  • They need to be in good health and not at all exhausted come playoff time — these are old guys and this is not a given, and exhaustion will sap an old man game more than anything, heh.
  • And finally, in a 7-game series? They need Steve Nash's performance variance either at a very low level around an average mean or at a very high level that errs on the high side.

Now, the thing with these? They all could happen, and even if only 2 or 3 happen, they'll still be a decent team. (Aaron Note: Yeah, nobody really could've seen NONE of them happening coming.) But the other thing is that it's an extraordinarily large assumption to just assume they'll all happen without a hitch. It's basically as big an inherent assumption as a Spurs fan saying: "Yeah, by the playoffs Tiago Splitter will be producing double-doubles nightly, we'll trade Blair/Neal for Anderson Varejao, Tim Duncan will only play 24 MPG of 25-15 ball in the regular season but 40 MPG in the playoffs, Tony Parker will average 30 points per game without breaking a sweat, and Kawhi Leonard will be the 2nd-best SF in the league by May." But one of the sets of team assumptions is today's "conventional wisdom", while the other is (rightfully) completely insane.

Alex: Yeah, I hear that. That kind of analysis actually favors the Spurs, Thunder, and Heat above anyone, playing the odds.

Sure, Dwyane Wade has to be healthy for the Heat to be favored. Sure, Manu has to be healthy for the Spurs to be favored in the West. Sure, Kevin Martin has to turn back the clock about two years and shoot the lights out. Additionally, the Spurs have to shore up their defense come playoff time, the Heat need to get LeBron more rest, and the Thunder need Ibaka to make a big leap. In some sense, though... that's it. If they all those two things and have reasonable health, they're dangerous title contenders. These two things are by no means given for any team, of course, and the Grizzlies actually come out really good according to this perspective of uncertainty, too.

But what I don't like about the Lakers' chances is that Pau has looked really old so far. Unlike Duncan, there's no big precedent for him having a comeback year. And there's no masterful interior defense to bank on. If Dwight was healthy, he'd provide that, but man... he has to be 100%. They're only going to go as far as Dwight can take them, I think. Sure, they could carry him being less-than-ideal for one series, but I doubt they're going to be able to compensate for an 80% Dwight all the way to Kobe's 6th. Not with their other burning questions. Either they cut back his minutes or his performance, and with their roster? That's a choice they can't afford to make.

Aaron: Yeah. They need Dwight at 100%. That's an absolute. Need Nash at a very high level, too.

Alex: Also, you have to wonder. Of course, we all know that Dwight has been an iron man before this back injury. That's a really good sign. On the other hand? He's never had to get healthy before. Take Paul Pierce. That guy's had injuries since he came into the league, it seems, and because of that he's learned to ride them out to an extent. Pierce has learned what it takes to get healthy off a big injury, or as healthy as you need to be to play. Because of his excellent health, Dwight (ironically) has never had to learn that compensation mechanism. Not to this extent. Instead, Dwight is going to try and learn on the fly. Also, I mean... let's be clear, Dwight's injury is sort of unprecedented as a situation. We don't know where it's going. Just as a sanity check, I realize this might be a rationalization on my part... I mean, okay, his pre-injury health has been surreal.

Aaron: Eldritch.

Alex: Demonic, even. Still, how often do players just get healthy with a bad back while playing 40+ minutes over the course of an NBA season? If you didn't answer 100%, well, that's exactly the problem. That's exactly my point.

Aaron: Yep.

Alex: Anyway. Who cares about the Lakers, man? RJ's line is 0-1-0-0-0 on one shot, no TOVs and a -11, in seven minutes. That's just blessed. Heh, I like the Warriors, but I can't shake the feeling that they're also not that... good... [Alex's note: Hey, I'm doing really well in predictions thus far in this conversation. I'm still human, though. All too human.]

Aaron: ... Alright. Let me respond fully to that last Laker point. The Pierce/Dwight comparison is very interesting, because it's true — this is the first major game-changing injury he's had to deal with, and he looks significantly compromised.

Alex: The comparison that comes to mind for me is David Robinson. Remember how Simmons described his first game? Even more of an athletic freak than Dwight, even more impressive physique. Of course... he was never totally the same after that injury.

Aaron: That is not a good comparison. Come on.

Alex: Admiral was around 30.

Aaron: Heh, but Dwight is 27. Like, hmm... That's not... okay, I admit, that's not THAT different, and I'm wondering how many minutes David Robinson had played at that point. Since you often get a better sense of true cardinal age from minutes played in the NBA rather than years spent on this earth. Actually, I'm looking it up now. I'm curious. Which year did he suffer it, again? I was five years old or something.

Alex: Well, it was late 1996, I believe. Like, very early in the season, so D-Rob would've been 31.

Aaron: Okay, at the time Dwight suffered the injury, he had played 22,550 regular season minutes and 2,246 playoff minutes. At the time David Robinson suffered his injury... Okay... now... wow. Uh. You might flip out, so sit down if you are inexplicably standing up while reading this window

Alex: Okay. :swallows coffee:

Aaron: At the time David Robinson suffered his injury, he had played 21,353 minutes in the regular season and 2,084 playoff minutes.

Alex: :spits out coffee:

Aaron: So, even though it seems ridiculous on its face, that's a phenomenal comparison if you take the baseline that David Robinson wasn't ever quite the same dominant D-Rob after that. Also, funny story: After that injury, Robinson never played over 34 MPG in a full season again. He played:

  • 34 mpg in 98
  • 32 in 99
  • 32 in 00
  • 30 in 01
  • 30 in 02
  • 26 in 03

Alex: I think it's very clear that David Robinson was cloned and crossed with something unpleasant to make Dwight Howard. Huh... let me check his MPG before injury, hmm.

Aaron: Way ahead of you. It was 36+ every season.

Alex: Oh man, this is... this is eldritch.

Aaron: 37, 38, 38, 39, 41, 38, 37 for D-Rob.
And... 33, 37, 37, 38, 36, 35, 35, 37, 38 for D-Wight (upon our houses).

Alex: Wow, do you see what I'm seeing (I don't know if it right-adjusts your Trillian window, but it does for mine)? See, if you take that first two years off (Dwight's rookie/soph seasons, I guess) they line up just about exactly. Same number of seasons, almost the same number of minutes per season. Naturally.

00, 00, 37, 38, 38, 39, 41, 38, 37 for D-Rob.
33, 37, 37, 38, 36, 35, 35, 37, 38 for Dwight.

Aaron: Anyway, the most jarring thing about this is that prior to the back injury, David Robinson missed 12 games one year, 2 games another, and 1 another. Dwight missed 4 one year, 3 another. So, Dwight a bit less, but that's phenomenally comparable. They were both preternaturally healthy big guys who suffered big back injuries.

Alex: This is honestly... a huge story. Wow.

Aaron: D-Rob was older, but in terms of minutes played, Dwight actually was more experienced. So yeah, it's pretty insane. And yeah, given tht the conventional wisdom indicates that Dwight will be back to superhuman form in 3 or 4 weeks, this is a pretty big piece. Or, rather, a short piece with a big idea. If you promise to tamp down the crazy metaphors to try and make it more public-consumption level... You know what, Alex? "u can hav this 1, heh. This is 4 U, DewLord McSame. this is UR momnt. Ur time. Ur lyfe."

Alex: What?

Aaron: ... just... uh... make a piece out of the stat. Thanks.

• • •

Dwight Howard's Center Center for Centers

Thus concludes the cautionary tale.

5 comments on “A Strangely Prescient Conversation About The Lakers

  1. Then again, D-Rob won two rings after the injury as part of loaded teams, though not as the primary piece. What's to say that Dwight can't do that (perhaps not with this iteration of the Lakers, however, they suck)?

    • Hard to say, on the one hand Robinson had more offensive versatility. If you need him to flare for a foul-line jumper or find Duncan beneath the basket for an entry pass (or receive the same?), David Robinson could do that.

      On the other hand, Dwight arguably has a better feel for the game and basketball IQ defensively. Dwight's feel for space on the defensive end is so immense, and combine it with his wide body and he'll always be quite decent, even if he loses a step, in my opinion. There's no way I see Dwight, say, regressing to a minus defender, except against top offensive teams. Right now the Lakers are in that weird calibration period defensively, as Dwight figures out what he can and can't do in his current state. It's hard for him to be "effortful" because he may not even know what giving 100% actually means anymore, or if that will cause him pain or stress. He never seems to bend at the waist, for example, which is pretty crazy.

      So a lot of unknowns, but he seems fine offensively, and there's always a place for a fine offensive player that's a plus defender. Unlikely that he's the limiting factor for a well-built contender, put it that way, even if he isn't primary scorer. In the end all we have are questions and an unprecedented situation, on so many levels.

    • The biggest thing with David after his injury was that some nights, he just couldn't move. Especially by the early 00's, he would have entire games where he just looked awful and immobile. It was easy to tell, if his back didn't loosen up early on, he just was bad.

      If Dwight ends up like that, he is going to have a much harder time than David, because David could rely on Timmy to cover him defensively and offensively. Pau is just not good enough/too old/too disengaged to do that with regularity.

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