Lakers are a perfect storm of bad, with no easy way to port

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The Lakers have been bad all season.

Frustration with the team — among players and fans — is coming to a head as the Lakers head into a seeming death spiral and it becomes more and more clear that their $100 million roster of superstars isn’t even going to make the playoffs. (It’s not impossible the Lakers still make the postseason, but it’s standing right next to impossible with his arm around it.)

There is a lot of blame to go around — injuries, lack of depth exposed by said injuries, Kobe Bryant’s shot selection, all the team’s stars, the entire team’s attitude about defense, Mike Brown, Mike D’Antoni and so on. Basically everyone but Lawrence Tanter deserves a slice of blame. The worst part is it has been a perfect storm of problems — every problem seems to exacerbate the next one.

But two targets should be singled out for the biggest slices of the blame pie — Lakers management and Dwight Howard.

And if the Lakers are going to turn this around — even by next season — it will be up to those two to fix the issues.

What to do right is something they can learn by watching what the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat did right (and wrong) in the past five years since they assembled powerhouse teams. Both of them figured it out well enough to win a ring, which is far more than it looks like the Lakers will do right now.

Management issues

Lakers management — Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak and the guy making the ultimate calls in Jim Buss — earned a lot of plaudits when they went out last summer and got Steve Nash and Dwight Howard to pair with Kobe and Pau Gasol forming a new super team. And deservedly so, it’s not easy to acquire that kind of talent and ownership was willing to pony up the taxes to pay for it.

But there seemed to be little thought to real team building — what kind of system the team would play, what would work best for the roster, and then being committed to it and getting role players to fit said system.

Instead the Lakers (at the request of Kobe) worked to bring in a Princeton-hybrid offense — something without play calls and the micromanaging Brown brought as coach. The idea was to make Steve Nash the point god and when he got the ball he could decide to fast break, or come up and call for some pick-and-roll action, or he could go into one of the Princeton sets.

When you have that many options at the top of the offense it’s going to take a long time for get guys on the same page and acting seamlessly. The Lakers never came close to that. Guys were clearly thinking and not reacting, combine that with the return just at the start of the season of Howard and other injuries and you kill any chance of the group jelling.  The offense was a mess. And the defense was still worse (and supposed to be Brown’s specialty).

So the Lakers fired Mike Brown.

And went 180 degrees with Mike D’Antoni — a guy who won playing Amar’e Stoudemire at the five, flooding the floor with shooters and letting Steve Nash run the show as fast as he wanted. That was absolutely nothing like the Lakers roster, even Steve Nash is older and slower. The Lakers had two big men who want the ball in the post, plus Kobe and Metta World Peace like the post, also. “Young” and “athletic” are not words used to describe the Lakers roster.

If you learned one thing from watching Mike D’Antoni operate in New York is that the players must fit the system because the system isn’t changing to fit the players. The Lakers knew that and knew they had a mismatched roster for what D’Antoni wanted to do when they hired them — fans want to blame D’Antoni for not modifying what he does but this goes back to management hiring him knowing he was a system guy. Or at least Lakers fans need to hope management knew that.

And how you fix it is two-fold — D’Antoni somehow needs to learn from what Erik Spoelstra did in Miami tweaking his system until he figured out what worked. We can question if D’Antoni is willing to do it, but he has to be unless the Lakers want to totally overhaul the roster. It took more than a season for Spoelstra to figure out his Heat roster could win best with small ball and pressure, but he did, he adjusted and they had a ring ceremony because of it (and while they have struggled at points this season it is more about focus than system).

Also, the Lakers need to move one of their two tradable assets — Gasol or Howard — to get shooters and players that fit the system. If they don’t think Howard will re-sign with them next summer they have to change their stance to consider offers. It’s all on management, they built the roster and they need to get younger and more athletic (see Earl Clark) to make it work.

Dwight Howard’s pivotal role in the pivot

Howard is clearly not 100 percent after his off-season back injury and that is slowing him — he’s not nearly as explosive and he doesn’t cover ground on defense like he did in Orlando. And with Nash at the point and the Lakers bench the team needed the old Howard to shore up their defense and make it respectable.

Instead in recent games he has looked disinterested and disengaged. Rather than learning from Kobe about the fight needed to be a title contender, Howard has gone to blaming teammates and seeming not to get why what is best for him might not be best for Gasol or Nash. Howard is a great pick-and-roll big but he complains he wants the ball in the post more despite Nash. There seems to be little consideration.

Go read Kevin Ding’s fantastic piece on Howard at the Orange County Register. Do it, we’ll wait for you. He lays it right out there. While no player is blameless for the Lakers woes, Howard and his lack of play at the defensive end is the biggest issue on the court.

Howard seems to think he’s in a competition with Kobe rather than really being willing to sacrifice for the team.

Howard needs to look at the players on the 2008 Celtics, who willingly sacrificed stats and changed their role to do what was best for the team.

Howard needs to look at Dwyane Wade and how he learned to play with LeBron James, even if that means deferring to him, to make it better for the team. Howard can be the co-leader of the Lakers with Kobe if he wants to be. But to do that he needs to give not just take.

He can’t just demand the ball more, he has to earn it. Kobe will pass if Howard steps up and demands the rock — and then does something with it. If you watched Howard’s last three games you can’t blame Kobe and Nash for not passing him the rock — he hurts the offense when he gets it and goes half-speed. He has to play fast and hard. And if you’re not doing something positive with the ball, Kobe will be more than happy to shoot it for you.

The things that got the Lakers into this mess were not simple or singular, and with that the fix is not simple. There is no magic bullet. It’s going to take a lot of guys from the front office to the floor making adjustments.

And after 41 games, its time to seriously question if they can.

Wolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns questionable vs. Knicks after car accident

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns was questionable for Friday night’s game in New York against the Knicks after a car accident in the Minneapolis area.

The Star Tribune reports Towns was headed to the airport Thursday when he was involved in the accident. Coach Ryan Saunders told the newspaper Towns caught a commercial flight after the accident and missed a team shootaround.

Saunders said he had no information on specific injuries for Towns. Guard Tyus Jones told the Star Tribune he saw Towns before the shootaround and Towns was doing “all right.”

“Rest” was listed as the reason for him being questionable on the official injury report

It wasn’t immediately clear where the accident occurred. Minneapolis police said they didn’t handle any incident involving Towns. A Timberwolves spokesman didn’t immediately respond to a phone message from The Associated Press.

 

Kings’ Dave Joerger and Buddy Hield apparently argued after Hield’s late 3-pointer (video)

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Important caveats: I don’t know what Kings coach Dave Joerger and Sacramento guard Buddy Hield said to each other late in their loss to the Warriors last night. It looks like they were arguing, but body language can easily be misread. And even if they were arguing, I don’t know about what.

Let’s read into the situation, anyway.

With the Kings down six and 20 seconds left, Hield pulled up for a deep 3-pointer and made it. Afterward, Joerger and Hield had an exchange:

Could Joerger have been upset about the shot? Sacramento was down six with 20 seconds left. There wasn’t time to work for a better look. The Kings needed points, ideally three, quickly. As soon as Hield felt he confident, he should have shot, as he did.

That set up Sacramento’s final possession, down two with 6.5 seconds left. Hield squared up for another deep 3-pointer, hesitated then worked inside for an off-balance miss:

Hield said he should have let it fly. Did Joerger get in his head?

That’s what Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard said happened:

That’s the easy narrative.

Is that the accurate narrative? I don’t know.

But it’s definitely the easy one.

NBA emphasizes its investigation never concluded Tim Donaghy didn’t fix games

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Did Tim Donaghy fix games while working as NBA referee?

That question still draws interest, even many years after he admitted to supplying gamblers with inside information in exchange for money. Donaghy has denied fixing games.

A new investigation into Donaghy was published by ESPN earlier this week. I recommend reading Scott Eden’s piece in full.

Then, it’s worth reading the NBA’s response.

NBA:

The Tim Donaghy matter concluded over a decade ago with a full investigation by the federal government, Donaghy’s termination from the NBA, and his conviction for criminal acts.  At the same time, at the request of the NBA, former prosecutor Larry Pedowitz conducted an independent investigation of Donaghy’s misconduct and issued publicly a 133-page report.  This report was based on an extensive review of game data and video as well as approximately 200 interviews, thousands of pages of documents, and consultation with various gambling and data experts.

The ESPN Article attempts to revive this old story.  Unfortunately, it is replete with errors, beginning with its statement that the Pedowitz Report “concluded that Donaghy, in fact, did not fix games.”  The Pedowitz Report made no such conclusion.  Rather, the investigation found no basis to disagree with the finding of the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office that “[t]here is no evidence that Donaghy ever intentionally made a particular ruling during a game in order to increase the likelihood that his gambling pick would be correct.”  ESPN ignores this important distinction.

The new material that ESPN has assembled to support its own conclusion that Donaghy manipulated games is not strong and adds little to the existing record.

Quoted Individuals

The ESPN Article includes several quotes from named and unnamed individuals.  But these statements conflict with other evidence in the record and in many cases are based on speculation.  For example:

• ESPN quotes Phil Scala, a retired FBI agent who was part of the government’s investigation, as saying Donaghy’s claim that he did not manipulate games “never really flew with us.” But in 2009, Scala wrote a foreword to a book authored by Donaghy in which Scala characterized Donaghy’s cooperation as “unconditionally truthful” and stated that Donaghy “confess[ed] his sins, [took] full responsibility for his actions, pa[id] his debt to society, and [found] the humility to completely display his past vices.”

• ESPN quotes an anonymous “professional gambler” as claiming Donaghy told him “he liked to call an illegal defense call, right away, in the first minute.” But this claim is not accurate.  In the 274 regular season and playoff games that Donaghy officiated during the 2003-04 to 2006-07 seasons, he called illegal defense three times during the first minute of a game.

• ESPN asserts that Donaghy had “come clean” to Tommy Martino. But the actual quotes attributed to Martino do not appear to support that conclusion – they only suggest that Donaghy told Martino he could influence games, not that he had in fact done so.

Statistical Analysis

The ESPN Article relies on a statistical analysis of Donaghy’s officiating and betting line movements.  We asked ESPN to provide us with the data and assumptions underlying this analysis, but they refused.  Based on the limited information contained in the Article, we attempted to replicate ESPN’s findings – but were unable to do so.  Indeed, our analysis found no meaningful pattern of Donaghy making more calls in favor of the team that had the “heavier betting.”

Further, the original analyses conducted by the Pedowitz team were significantly more comprehensive than what ESPN appears to have done.  For example, ESPN’s work appears to include only foul calls, and not significant non-calls or violations.  It further treats all calls the same, without considering the nature or circumstances of the call – such as “take fouls” or high-impact shooting fouls.  And ESPN questionably excludes from its analysis 10 games that it deemed to be “blowouts” and roughly 50 calls that it could not attribute to a particular referee – omissions that could meaningfully alter its conclusions.

Finally, it is important to remember that a statistical analysis can only suggest a probability of an event’s occurrence – it does not itself constitute direct evidence that an event occurred.  By contrast, the Pedowitz team and the NBA supplemented statistical analysis with an assessment of the accuracy of each of Donaghy’s actual calls and non-calls in relevant games.  These analyses also did not support ESPN’s conclusions.

Anecdotal Evidence from Games

The ESPN Article cites several games officiated by Donaghy that included calls or call patterns that ESPN deemed suspicious.  However, these examples have limited value separate from a more careful video analysis, and they frequently omit material information.  For example:

• Dallas @ Seattle, 12/20/2006: ESPN cites a foul called by Donaghy against Seattle with 23 seconds remaining in the game that purportedly gave Dallas an opportunity to cover an 8-point spread.  But it omits that this was an intentional “take foul” by Seattle.  The Article also cites a streak of fouls called by Donaghy against Seattle in the same game, purportedly to favor Dallas.  But it omits that after this streak, and during the last four minutes of the game, Donaghy called two fouls against Dallas.

• Boston @ Philadelphia, 12/13/2006: ESPN cites two consecutive fouls called by Donaghy against the Sixers’ Andre Iguodala in the third quarter when the game’s score margin was near the point spread.  But it omits that between those fouls, Donaghy called a foul against the Celtics’ Paul Pierce.

• Washington @ Indiana, 3/14/2007: ESPN cites four consecutive fouls called by Donaghy against the Pacers in the fourth quarter when the game’s margin was near the point spread.  But it omits that immediately prior to this streak, Donaghy called four consecutive fouls against the Wizards.

* * *

We recognize there is strong interest in the subject of expanded sports betting and the measures sports organizations should undertake to protect integrity.  However, the ESPN Article does not add anything material to the record of what happened over a decade ago.  There is no dispute that Tim Donaghy engaged in criminal conduct as an NBA referee, costing him his job, his reputation, and for a time, his freedom.  The Pedowitz investigation focused on understanding what Donaghy did and how he did it so we would be best equipped to protect the integrity of our games going forward.

In that regard, the Pedowitz Report prompted changes to the NBA’s officiating and integrity programs.  A summary of the initiatives the NBA has adopted since 2008 is available here.  This summary provides added context that describes the NBA’s response to the Donaghy situation and our continued efforts to ensure that the NBA’s integrity programs meet the highest standards.

The Donaghy matter also underscores the need for sports leagues to have greater access to betting data from sports books to monitor gambling on their games.  We will continue our ongoing efforts to obtain this information to further expand our integrity efforts and best protect our sport in an age of legalized sports gambling.

The NBA is right: the Pedowitz Report did not conclude that Donaghy didn’t fix games. The report merely found insufficient evidence to disagree with the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which found no evidence Donaghy fixed games. A lack of evidence to contradict a lack of evidence is not nearly as conclusive as “Donaghy didn’t fix games.”

But is the NBA really now casting doubt on the notion Donaghy didn’t fix games?

That seems backward. The league should seemingly want to protect its integrity, not call attention to lack of clarity around what Donaghy did and didn’t do.

Maybe the NBA is just trying to cast general doubt onto Eden’s reporting. Some of the above distinctions seem like nitpicking, at least without more context. For example, how many illegal defenses did Donaghy call in the first five minutes of games? The gambler might have been embellishing by saying “first minute.”

Still, the league raises one question that seems particularly relevant: Why did former FBI agent Phil Scala vouch for Donaghy’s honesty then express doubt over Donaghy’s claim he didn’t fix games?

Ultimately, I wish we had better data. Pedowitz reviewed only 17 games, but examined all calls. ESPN reviewed 40 games, but apparently examined only fouls.

However, statistical analysis can’t prove Donaghy’s motives. It can only indicate trends. So, even better data won’t prove whether or not Donaghy fixed games.

But here’s what I can’t get over, no matter how ESPN or the NBA frames these details: Donaghy broke the law to sell gamblers information while working as a referee. Will anyone ever believe he drew the line before fixing games?

Monte Morris plays it safe – to Nuggets’ delight

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DETROIT – Monte Morris entered the NBA inauspiciously.

Despite looking like a borderline first-round pick after his junior year, Morris returned to Iowa State for his senior season. He pulled his quad during the pre-draft process in 2017, missing most of his scheduled workouts. He fell to the No. 51 pick. The Nuggets offered just a two-year, two-way contract.

“I was excited,” said Morris, a Flint, Mich., native. “Where I come from, if you get a chance to get to this level, everybody back home looks at you as the hero. So, I was just happy for my opportunity.”

Morris has seized it.

With Isaiah Thomas sidelined most of the season, Morris has emerged as a quality contributor in Denver. Morris deserves strong consideration for spots on Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player ballots. And this could be just the start.

The knock on Morris has long been his ceiling. The 6-foot-3, 175-pound point guard is neither big nor overly athletic. In four years at Iowa State, he developed a reputation for protecting the ball and taking what defenses gave him. Usually, future NBA point guards bend the game more at that level. They use their burst and/or shooting to dictate terms to the defense. Morris left many scouts believing he’d be a career backup in the NBA – at best.

Morris has improved his outside shooting, making 43.1% of his 3-pointers on 2.8 attempts per game this season. But he’s mostly playing the same style he always has, avoiding bad shots and turnovers. It has just translated far better than expected.

Morris’ 6.4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio is on pace to be the best in NBA history. Here are the highest assist-to-turnover ratios since 1977-78, as far back as Basketball-Reference data goes (assists and turnovers per game in parentheses):

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Morris has gone 127 minutes since his last turnover.

“As a coach, that’s what you want in a point guard,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “He’s a throwback.”

Morris is averaging 10.8 points per game, and he competes defensively. Few reserves have produced like him this season.

Montrezl Harrell and Domantas Sabonis are pulling away from the field in the Sixth Man of the Year race. But the ballot runs three deep, and Morris ranks third among Sixth Man of the Year-eligible players in win shares:

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Not bad for someone who spent most of last season in the NBA’s minor league.

Morris played well there, and he has only continued to improve since. He impressed so much in summer league, Denver signed him to a standard contract a year before his two-way deal would have ended. That way, the Nuggets could use Morris more than the 45-day limit for two-way players within the season.

“He embodied who we want to be,” Malone said. “He embodied our culture. Self-motivated. And every time you gave Monte Morris a challenge, he met it head on.”

Judging Morris’ improvement can be tricky. He played just 25 minutes in three NBA games last season. I suspect he could have handled a bigger role, even as a rookie. But there’s a certain amount of guesswork there. (Not so for my Most Improved Player favorite, Kings point guard De'Aaron Fox, who was demonstrably bad last season then has become a near-star this season).

Undeniably, Morris’ impact this season is far greater than ever before.

Here are the biggest increases in win shares (middle) from a prior career high (left) to the current season (right):

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Everything is trending the right direction for Morris. He’s showing the fruits of his work ethic, and he’s just 23. Maybe we can finally view him as someone with upside. But even if this is his ceiling, it’s high enough. Morris is already a productive NBA rotation player.

Perhaps best of all for the Nuggets, Morris is on just a minimum contract.

Here are this season’s win-share leaders among minimum-contract players:*

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*Excluding players who were bought out or just waived in-season then signed elsewhere for the minimum. Excluding players on rookie-scale contracts who had their salaries increased to the minimum by the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Of the 15 minimum-salary players on that leaderboard, only two have contracts that won’t allow them to enter free agency and pursue raises this summer. Spencer Dinwiddie signed a three-year, $34,360,473 extension in December, which he deemed even better than hitting the open market. Morris has two (!) additional minimum-salary seasons on his deal.

By getting him onto a two-year, two-way deal initially, Denver gained immense leverage in negotiations last summer. Morris could have played out his two-way deal and become a restricted free agent next summer. Instead, he took the safe approach with a three-year contract that guaranteed two seasons at the NBA minimum and included a third unguaranteed minimum season.

It’s incredible value for the Nuggets… and delays Morris getting a payday commensurate with his production. But he’s maintaining the same steady approach he shows on the court.

“It’s cool,” Morris said. “I’ve just got to keep being Monte, keep being on-time, keep being a good person, and everything will take care of itself.”