Are the Spurs doomed to repeat history?
On Sunday, April 21st, at 2:30pm STTOTTM, the Spurs will take the floor of the AT&T center to begin their postseason pursuit of a fifth championship. While it appears that they will face a team with which they have become intimately familiar over the last decade and a half, they will actually battle an unfamiliar foe in a series which could prove to be anything but predictable.
Just about every Joe Schmoe outside of the Alamo City will be feel the pull of the LA media hype vortex, and the narratives it has fashioned from the recent circumstances surrounding the Lakers. The majority of basketball fans will watch to see if Lakers can win this one in the name of Kobe, and restore "Showtime" to its customary position amongst basketball royalty. It’s a compelling storyline, as the Lakers will encounter their first playoffs enterprise in the Kobe-era without their incomparable court dynast.
A similar story developed a couple of years ago in a playoff series many Spurs fans have selectively forgotten. Albeit with much less media attention, the ’10-’11 Memphis Grizzlies scraped into the playoffs, an 8-seed without their leading scorer and supposed fulcrum for success, Rudy Gay. The Grizzlies were destined to lose to the venerable 1-seed San Antonio Spurs, who had just completed only their fourth 60-win season at 61-21.
What developed over the next six games demonstrated how capricious an NBA team can become when they are forced to realign following a seemingly insufferable loss. The Grizzlies played at an unprecedented level, suffocating the Spurs' perimeter attack and rattling their bigs. Without the productive but inefficient Gay, they went on to "grit and grind" their way to a 4-2 win over the Spurs, and followed that act with and a thrilling seven game series with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Had it not been for a triple overtime loss in Game 4, the Grizzlies might have stolen that series too.
After being reminded of that devastating defeat, Spurs fans should really feel the teeth of this argument: the Lakers may be better off without Kobe. And L.A.'s play to close the season adds plenty of fuel to the fire. On the precipice of missing the playoffs for only the second time in almost 20 years, the Lakers-sans-Bryant rallied in their last two games, beating two playoff teams to secure the 7th seed and a date with the Spurs for the first round.
The question is, how comparable is the current situation to that of 2 years ago? Obviously Rudy Gay is NOT Kobe Bryant, for a (very large, nearly infinite) number of reasons, but should Spurs fans be scared of this brand of Lakers basketball? The true similarity here lies not in the loss of one key player, but in the undeniable level of talent available in the remaining players. The Grizzlies had Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, Shane Battier, Mike Conley, Tony Allen, and O.J. Mayo. The Lakers have Pau Gasol, Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, Metta World Peace, and Steve Blake. Will these players, which have taken a back seat to the nigh egomaniacal Bryant for the majority of the year, finally step up to gel into what Jim Buss had hoped they would become prior to the season? It’s the ultimate nightmare for any Spurs fan (or anyone who aligns themselves against the Dark Side). Let’s compare the numbers from these two situations to get an idea of what to expect.
The ’10-’11 Grizzlies vs. ’12-’13 Lakers
On the surface, these two teams appear pretty dissimilar. The Grizzlies were, and still are, a team supported by a tough, physical defense and a grinding, half-court offense run through the post. This year’s Lakers squad however, seemed to devote little of its attention to defense while leaning heavily on isolation and spot up plays by Kobe Bryant. When we dig in to the numbers, however, we find that these two teams were not entirely unalike.
The biggest inconsistency between these two teams’ style has to be in their defenses. Our perception of the Grizzlies, especially tempered through the lens of the current season and the playoff series of two years ago, is that they possess a squelching defense. This year’s Lakers however, have built somewhat of a reputation of infamy for their disinterested and discombobulated defense. The Lakers currently have the 20th ranked Defensive Rating (DRtg) in the league, whereas the ’10-’11 Grizzlies were 9th. Despite the disparity in ranking, though, the raw numbers are very similar. The Grizzlies only managed to hold their opponents to 105.1 points per 100 possessions, and the Lakers allowed 106.6 this year. If they had done the same two years ago, it would have put them just four spots behind the Grizzlies, at 13th in the league. The current Lakers are very bad at defending the P&R in both ball handler (ranked 19th) and roll man (25th) situations, as J Gomez pointed out in his series preview, which is required reading for any serious Spurs fan. The Grizzlies were much better at defending the roll man (11th), though similarly poor at defending the ball handler (20th).
While the Lakers defense seemingly pales in comparison to that of the Grizzlies squad, the offenses are actually not highly dissimilar. Both teams, in full health, had one prolific spot-up/isolation shooter paired with two dominant bigs, a distributing guard, and a decent 3-point shooter on the wing. (Battier was not nearly as deadly from beyond the arc two years ago as he is now; his 3P% then is comparable to World Peace’s now). The offensive play distribution for each team is relatively similar, though the Lakers ran significantly more spot-up (21.3% vs. 16.3%) plays than the Grizz. Otherwise, both teams shared similar pick and roll, transition, and isolation usage. The current Lakers squad boasts an offensive rating (ORtg) of 107.8 (9th), while the Grizzlies were at 107.6 (16th). Combined with the defensive numbers, we see that if the two teams had put up these numbers in the same season, they would have had a very similar differential, with the Grizzlies getting the edge from their better defense. Obviously, different seasons have different teams, and the average league offense was much better two years ago than it is now. That, or the defenses have gotten worse (The league average ORtg was 107.3 in 2010-2011 and is 105.8 this year). Regardless, these two teams, though they do exhibit some key differences, are not as dissimilar as may be commonly perceived.
How Do The Stars Compare?
As I mentioned before, comparing Rudy Gay and Kobe Bryant on a macro-level is a bit absurd. One has made a career trying to be "the guy" while never really delivering, mostly due to a lack of scoring efficiency, frequently tepid commitment level, and questionable mental toughness. The other has been one of the game’s greats, a prolific scorer who has lead his team to five championships in 17 years while exhibiting the greatest level of primal focus since Michael Jordan. In the twilight of his career, however, Bryant has certainly begun to exhibit flaws which were not apparent in his best years, and recently has to a small degree regressed towards the mean. Especially this year, that focus which so wholly drove him to perfection has waned.
More important than the absolute talent and accomplishments of these two players, however, is their relative team roles. In the aforementioned seasons, these players were primarily isolation and spot up scorers who suffered from defensive lapses. They also generally garnered most of the media attention on their team.
On offense, ’10-’11 Rudy Gay and ’12-‘13 Kobe Bryant were somewhat similar. Both spent about a quarter of their touches in isolation plays (25% and 28.3%), though Bryant (0.93 PPP) was more efficient than Gay (0.87 PPP) in these situations. Bryant spent much more time as the P&R ball handler (20.5% vs 10.5% for Gay), though both players were equally efficient in this area at 0.86 and 0.88 PPP, respectively. The ’10-’11 Grizzlies were a poor P&R team, so Gay replaced P&R touches with spot up plays, using significantly more (17%) than Kobe (9.3%). Aside from the P&R/spot up differences, the players are relatively similar scorers.
What Kobe provided this year, and throughout his career, that Gay has never given his team, is assists. Kobe’s assist percentage this year was 29.7%, 30th in the league. Rudy in 2010-2011? 11.6%. That put him at 139th. Rudy is a verifiable ball hog. Kobe has been a decent distributer at times.
Defensively, Gay probably takes the edge. Both are equally decent P&R defenders, but Gay only allowed 0.48 PPP on isolation plays in ’10-’11, putting him at 6th in the league. Bryant managed only 0.71 PPP for 67th. Both were abysmal in spot-up defense, at 213th and 177th respectively. Those two statistics, isolation and spot up defense, should tell us what we need to know: The thing about these two guys defensively, is that if you can get them engaged, they can actually do a very good job on defense. It’s the "getting them engaged" part which was difficult for their teams in the respective seasons.
What Happens When the Stars Fade?
So how did these teams play without their primary scorers? Bryant only missed 4 games this season, so we will have to look at how the Lakers changed in those games while acknowledging the limited sample size. Gay missed 28 regular season games for the Grizz in 2010-2011, so we should have a pretty robust view of his effect on the team’s performance.
Without Gay, the Grizzlies went 16-12 (0.571). Offensively, the Grizzlies ran more post up plays, but otherwise the play distribution was roughly similar. On spot up plays however, the Grizzlies without Gay improved their PPP by nearly 0.13 points. They decreased slightly in isolation PPP but improved in post-up and P&R roll man situations. They also made almost two more assisted buckets per game. All in all, their offense improved by about one and half points per game. On defense, the Grizzlies improved in 6 of the 10 play categories, most notably in transition, and off screens and cuts. They managed to allow their opponents one fewer point per game from the season average. The improved their scoring differential without Gay by more than two points. That’s a pretty significant bump up from 10th to 7th in the differential standings.
The Lakers, meanwhile, have gone 3-1 without Kobe (0.750). With the ball out of Kobe's hands, they have cut their isolation usage in half, while significantly increasing the number of post up and spot up plays. They have however, decline in PPP in 7 of the 10 play categories, improving significantly in only off-screen and hand-off situations, which account for less than 3% of their offensive sets. With a small yet surprising drop in assists, the Lakers have scored almost 7.5 fewer points per game without Kobe. Defensively, the Lakers have allowed 4.5 fewer points per game, and have improved in 6 of the 10 play categories. They have especially improved in defending the P&R ball handler, allowing 0.57 PPP in the four Kobe-less games as compared to 0.81 PPP for the season. This is a very significant decrease which, if it were sustainable, would propel them well into the 1st spot in the league, and with a significant cushion. In reality, this number just isn’t sustainable. Kobe was not even a particularly poor defender against the P&R ball handler, and so it is reasonable to suspect that these four games are somewhat of an outlier in this regard. I expect that during the playoffs this number should experience a rapid increase, especially against a good P&R team in the Spurs. Overall, the Lakers point differential without Kobe decreased by three points below their season average, dropping them well into red numbers and moving them into the bottom third of the league.
The Final Verdict
When the Grizzlies lost Rudy Gay in February of 2011, they had 25 games to retool their strategies and become comfortable scoring and defending without their most hyped player. They managed to improve both offensively and defensively, patching some of the flaws which were often exposed when Gay was on the court. Surprisingly, Gay didn’t even have the highest usage percentage on the team (Zach Randolph), and so the Grizzlies were able to adjust during the playoffs, placing even more load on their talented big men with great results. Every Spurs fan remembers how Z-Bo torched us in that series. He was pretty much unconscious.
While the Lakers face a similar situation, the differences between Kobe Bryant and Rudy Gay are too hard to mask. The situation with Rudy Gay is a likely candidate for evidence of Bill Simmon’s Ewing Theory, which states that a team can drastically improve after losing the player who receives an "inordinate amount of media attention and fan interest" yet was unable to propel his team to anything "substantial." Bryant is not a candidate for this theory. He has repeatedly and consistently propelled the Lakers to the highest levels of professional basketball. Though this year’s Lakers squad is markedly different than those of years past in the amount of All-Star level talent still present, the loss of Kobe is too significant. His fierce competitive drive would likely have propelled him to transcend his regular season level. The Lakers didn’t just lose their leading scorer, they lost the leader, the guy who has taken them all the way fivefold, the pulse of their team. Under the brightest lights, Kobe shines brilliantly. Have the Lakers improved on defense without him? Certainly, and their significant improvement guarding the P&R ball handler gives some cause for concern for the P&R-reliant San Antonio Spurs. Nonetheless, the precipitous drop off in offensive production without Kobe will damn the Lakers playoff chances. With Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter pounding him on the inside, Dwight Howard will have to do all he can to keep a level head and produce. Given his recent history, I expect him to keel. I think Duncan will break him, not physically, but mentally and emotionally.
Here is my prediction. The Lakers are rolling, united and stimulated by their push to grab to 7th seed. The Spurs, on the other hand, are struggling, and finished the season 0-3. They have appeared impartial and apathetic towards winning. Because of this, I think the Lakers will win Game 1. Spurs fans will call for the apocalypse, the media will assure us that Showtime is back, and then the Spurs will remember that the playoffs have started and they are playing one of their greatest nemeses even without their Mamba, and promptly sweep the next 4 games. One lapse of focus, and a subsequent gentleman’s sweep. Spurs in 5.