The Los Angeles Lakers have played six games without the services of Kobe Bryant, who has been out with a shin injury. The Lakers have won four of those games and had impressive performances versus San Antonio, Denver and Dallas. Los Angeles has received excellent play from Ramon Sessions, Matt Barnes and Metta World Peace during that time, but it has been the play of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum that has carried the Lakers. Bynum has become a major focal point of the Lakers' offense, averaging 21.8 points and 15 rebounds over those six games, including a 16-point, 30-rebound performance against the Spurs.
The Golden State Warriors are closing out the season with Andrew Bogut, Stephen Curry and David Lee on the bench. Winning games is not their most important objective at this point; they are out of the playoffs and appear to be “tanking” games to finish with a top-seven pick (otherwise, the pick goes to Utah). The one bright spot of this season for the Warriors has been the play of their Rookie of the Year candidate Klay Thompson. Thompson has been terrific for the Warriors since he was inserted into the starting lineup, scoring over 17 points per game. Although this has been a difficult first year for head coach Mark Jackson, he does have a bright future if he can put Curry, Thompson, Lee, Bogut and a talented draft pick on the court for the Warriors next season.
Key Injuries: Bryant is still out with a shin injury. Lee (groin/hip) was just shut down by the Warriors last week.
Key Difference: Post Play
With the absence of Bryant in the lineup for the past six games, several players have stepped up to help the Lakers to a 4-2 record. Ramon Sessions has been a difference-maker for the Lakers. Without Bryant, he has had the ball in his hands and has been able to get the Lakers into half court sets and pound the ball into Gasol and Bynum. Sessions has averaged 12.8 points and 5.8 assists in the past six games. World Peace has stepped up his offensive game and is scoring 16 points per game while shooting 50 percent from the field.
But the biggest difference without Kobe in the lineup has been the play of Gasol and Bynum. Bynum has become the key player in the Lakers' offense, while Gasol has benefited from more post touches. Bynum has averaged 20.5 field goal attempts during this six-game stretch (more than seven more than usual) while Gasol has attempted 18 (four more than usual). The duo of Gasol and Bynum is averaging a combined 42.8 points per game for the Lakers and dominating the glass with 25 rebounds between the two frontcourt players. The byproduct of playing through the Laker big men has been twofold: they are getting higher percentage field goal attempts shooting .463 between the two big men, and because they are getting higher quality shot attempts the entire team is thriving.
Key Play: “Tanking”
“Tanking” does occur in the NBA. There are multiple ways to tank: start or play younger players, shut down a starter, or replace a fired coach with a more management-friendly one. The teams that are mathematically out of the playoff race have only one thing on their minds: getting the highest draft pick possible. The only way to ensure a higher pick is to lose games. Therefore over the past few weeks various teams have shutdown various players. For example, the Raptors, who have 22 wins, have shut down Andrea Bargnani. The Warriors, who have 22 wins, shut down David Lee. And the New Jersey Nets, who also have 22 wins, did not play Deron Williams Monday night because of a calf injury. Where the Warriors finish the regular season is extremely important to their franchise because they owe a draft pick to the Utah Jazz, but it remains with the Warriors if the pick is in the top seven. Currently they would have the eighth pick, meaning they have some work to do, even before they get to the ping-pong balls. That’s enough reason to keep Stephen Curry on the bench, shut down David Lee and play the younger players on the roster.
Key Decision: Drafting Klay Thompson
There are multiple theories on how to draft. Some teams will draft for need. Others draft the best possible player available. The Warriors are being rewarded for utilizing the best possible player theory. They drafted Thompson with the 11th pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, even though they already had a backcourt of Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis. The Warriors are now being rewarded for their confidence in him and he is considered a longshot Rookie of the Year candidate. Mark Jackson inserted Thompson into the starting lineup after the team traded Ellis to the Milwaukee Bucks and his game has blossomed.
In his last start against the Spurs on Monday evening Thompson gave the fans a preview of what they could expect next season. He scored 29 points, shot 54.5 percent from the field and grabbed eight rebounds dished out five assists. Thompson who was averaging 11.8 points per game for the entire season has seen his numbers climb to 17.6 points per game since his insertion into the starting lineup. Currently Thompson is ranked 10th in the NBA in 3-point shooting at 43.4 percent for the season and during since he has become a starter his 3-point attempts have climbed to 6.25 per game.
The Warriors have one of the top young backcourts in the NBA with Curry and Thompson. Now they just need to find a lockdown wing forward if they can keep this year’s pick.