ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy and Mike Breen address a number of Laker topics
They share their sentiments on the air throughout the NBA season. But with the season winding down and the Lakers appearing in playoff form, it's only natural for ESPN NBA analyst Jeff Van Gundy and play-by-play announcer Mike Breen to address a litany of Lakers topics. They both explain what's led to the Lakers' resurgence since the All-Star break, why Kobe Bryant's on neither of their regular-season MVP lists and why Lamar Odom should win the sixth man of the year award hands down. Van Gundy also argues the Lakers should do everything they can to convince Coach Phil Jackson to not retire after this season. Below is the Q&A in its entirety.
On what's gone into the Lakers' play since the All-Star break
Van Gundy: I think they were probably a bit disappointed with some of the games they let slip away before that time. They're locked in like you would expect a championship-experienced team to be, knowing it's coming down the stretch. They've gotten more focused and urgent due to the Spurs slipping and seeing not only can they catch the Bulls, but also catch the Spurs for home-court [advantage] all the way through.
Andrew Bynum obviously is a huge part of their team. They have the best front court in basketball when all three of their guys (Bynum, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom) are available. Odom off the bench is terrific. Bynum and Gasol's size makes it hard for opponents to score around the basket. Bynum has seemingly accepted that he won't touch the ball as much as a player normally of his skill would normally touch it. The sacrifice for him and to focus on defense, rebounding and making sure he gets good plays for others by getting the offensive boards, that's something that shouldn't be overlooked.
Breen: It sounds simple, but a healthy Andrew Bynum. You put a healthy Bynum on any of the top teams in the NBA and they will become so much better. He's such a great player on both ends of the floor. he's such a presence defensively. He's so much more skilled than he's given credit for on the offensive end. Just having him out there, there's a snowball effect. He starts so Pau Gasol can play power forward and Lamar Odom gets to come off the bench. He just makes every aspect of them more dangerous.To me, the key is having a healthy Andrew Bynum.
He doesn't care about scoring as much. He's pursuing the rebounds. With his size, he's able to grab a lot of boards but he's pursuing rebounds. It's become a mission for him that he wants to be the best rebounder in the game and he wants to get every rebound that's within his reach. I don't know if he had that mindset before. He certainly has that now.
What's changed about Ron Artest's game since the All-Star break?
Van Gundy: Artest, I always felt it was good for him when Barnes went out because they had to play him more. They then knew whether he would succeed or fail because he was playing as poorly as I've ever seen him play over a long period of time. He's bounced back like [the] good player he is. I'm sure he's more engaged with the entire process. It looks like he's shooting the ball better, it seems like. He started defending with more activity. I think he probably felt more needed. He had to play better for them to play well because Barnes is a good player at his position and he was out. He had to either play well or not.
Breen: I don't know the reason why and I'm not going to try to figure it out. All I know is he's much more engaged. You can see it on his presence on the floor. He's more engaged and more active. When he gets going defensively, it fuels him on the offensive end. It's his activity. He's not going to be a big-time scorer, but his activity is there. Now that he's more a part of the offense, I see a little bit more confidence. There was almost a tentativeness to him anytime he had an open three early in the season. It's not the case now.
[I cited a report from ESPN.com's Marc Stein that the "Lakers remain intrigued by the prospect of hiring Jeff Van Gundy" and he declined to comment on the report and whether he'd be interested.] This did bring up a discussion on how Phil Jackson coached the Lakers this season.
Van Gundy: If I were the Lakers, I'd do everything humanly possible to get him to reconsider. I think it's one of the undertalked-about stories in the NBA this year that we are losing the most successful head coach that has ever coached in any sport. He and John Wooden. They've had periods of domination. You don't get too many things that can never be duplicated, but I feel confident in saying this will never, ever be duplicated. If I were the Lakers, I would treat this as if it was Kobe Bryant retiring in his prime and I would do everything in my power to try to get him to reconsider. Same thing with Phil Jackson. Phil Jackson is still in his prime and still at the top of his game.
Breen: I think they're very aware of this being his last year and wanting to send him out with a championship. I don't think he's changed the way he's coached at all. He's tried to downplay [his retirement] and he's not strolling down memory lane, but every once in a while you'll get something out of him and say, 'Oh that's interesting.' He'll reminisce a little bit. But he's sticking to the usual script. I do think the team has been aware of it, especially the guys who have been around, I think they'd love to send him off as a champion.
Van Gundy: Because he's so good, I don't even think of him like that. If he gets the sixth man award, it's almost like a sign of disrespect. Of course, he'll get sixth man of the year. He's better than all of these guys. How many power forwards would you put ahead of him? You wouldn't put many starting power forwards ahead of him so I almost think it's a sign of disrespect if somebody says he might win the sixth man. He should win it every year if that's what he's going to consider him. I consider him a starter. He started when Bynum was out and he's certainly a finisher. To me it would be a foregone conclusion if I considered him a sixth man.
Breen: He's No. 1 right now and I don't forsee anyone beating him there. With him, it's not just statistics. He's had such a consistent year on a team that has had its ups and downs. I thought he should've been on the All-Star team. The guy sacrifices so much of his individual players just to do what's necessary to win games. You know this better than I would, but I feel I can tell how happy his teammates are when he has big games. I like watching benches and see how they react when a certain player hits a big shot. They'll get more fired up for certain players. Sometimes it's the 12th man who never plays. But it's the main guys, you can tell which guy is beloved in the locker room. You can tell which guy means a lot to the team by sometimes how the bench reacts. It seems to me that other Lakers love it when Lamar hits big shots. Same thing with the fans. He's so respected and loved in the locker room and by the fans. I think that gives you an indication of what people think of his value.
Even though the criteria state that a player's eligible for sixth man of the year award so long as he plays more games as a reserve as a starter, does the fact that Lamar is often seen more than just a bench player actually hurt his cause?
Van Gundy: I don't know if him [starting] works against him, but he's so darn good. It's an unfair fight. I don't look at him like that. He's one of the best players in the league. There's very few teams he wouldn't start for. I can't even think of a team he wouldn't start for at small forward or power forward. That's how I look at it. I wouldn't even insult him by talking about sixth man of the year. This guy is a starter and a very good one.
This guy has never gotten enough credit. He was perceived as a knucklehead when he was coming out of college and no one will ever come back and say we were wrong about this man's character. This guy is all about team and all about sacrifice. I know firsthand from my brother [Stan Van Gundy] just how highly he thought of him not just as an all-time player, but all-time people he's ever coached. The versatility, commitment to team and commitment to himself. I never heard people who judged him harshly say we couldn't be more wrong. It gives me good pause that I learned about in coaching. You never know someone until you coach them. You can take what people say, but until you're around that person everyday, you don't know what they're really all about.
There's not a better player that sacrifices more and more willingly than Lamar Odom. He's the whole package. Gasol gets recognition and rightfully so; Bryant obviously does and is a top five player in the history of the game. But Odom does what he does and does his work, sacrifices and goes home. The only time you hear about him where he gets a lot of notoriety is maybe when he doesn't play well.
Breen: I hope that's not the case. Whatever the criteria is and whether or not you agree with it, those are the rules. If you're a voter, you have to go by those rules and he's eligible. You don't vote for him because he started too many games. I don't think that should be the case. If he's the best sixth man, he's the best sixth man. [Manu] Ginobili went through that one year too where because of injuries to Parker hestarted a bunch of games and he was clearly the best sixth man
Van Gundy: To me there is such a difference between MVP and best player or best players. I vote [Derrick] Rose first. I would vote [Dwight] Howard second. You can flip them easily. But I think without question if you replace either guys with just a pretty good player at each position, the win total would drop. Now best player, that's when you start talking about Kobe and LeBron and Wade and all those guys. Kobe has already done it. Bryant has been so good for so long that everyone just takes it for granted. People vote the new kid on the block.
Think about it: How was Jordan not MVP every year? Was he the best player every year? He was and I don't think his value ever dropped. They were winning championships so how was he not the Most Valuable Player? There's a lot of changes in the MVP races. Kevin Durant won it last year and is just as every bit as good this year and he's not even in the discussion. He was in it last year and now he's not even in the picture?
That's why the media shouldn't vote for these awards. They should vote for coach of the year and the players should vote for MVP. I think every bench guy should vote for sixth man. Let their peers judge them. I guarantee you if that was the case, Jordan would've been MVP every year for a decade.
Breen: Right now, I'm having a real tough time. I always wait until the end of the season. To me, you have Derrick Rose and Dwight Howard neck and neck. The way the Lakers and Kobe are finishing, he gets put in the conversation with LeBron James. I want to see how each of those four teams finish their season. That might be how I'll be voting. Right now, I'm leaning more toward Rose and Howard as opposed to LeBron and Kobe. But what if Kobe wins out and Kobe averages 30 in the last stretch of games? What if LeBron has three triple doubles and the Heat win out? There's not one distinguishable candidate, which is great for the league. I legitimately think those four deserve to be up there.
The Bulls have been the most consistent team and the Heat had its ups and downs and LeBron struggled at times. The Lakers certainly had their rough patches. But the reason I put Derrick at the top now is Chicago has been so consistent and he's the main reason why. With Howard, I'm going to steal a line from Jeff's brother Stan, there's nobody in the league that impacts as many possessions on both ends in the floor. Because his strength can't be measured in statistics, his biggest strength is his presence. That's not the glamour part of the game. It's amazing how Orlando is one of the elite teams and he's the only star player on that team. They've beaten all the good teams at least once and I think his presence carries so much on the rest of the roster. I'm not knocking them, but they don't have any real legitimate stars on that team.
If you poll all these MVP writers and broadcasters who vote on it, half of them will say I only vote on the most valuable player. If I take the guy off this team, where would they be? Half of the other voters just pick the best player. Everybody has a different criteria on how they vote and that's what makes it difficult. But at the same time, it's all part of the fun in the debate. I try to balance both.
The idea is to win. To me the MVP has to be on one of the best teams in the league. The Lakers for the first half of the season, you could say were underachieving for a team that good. I want to pick an MVP on a team that's overachieving. Now the Lakers are playing the best basketball in the league so now that's why Kobe is up there with the rest of them. But in the first half, the Lakers were underachieving and he was the leader of that team. That's why he was below the others at that particular time.
Andrew Bynum drew a two-game suspension for throwing a forearm on Minnesota's Michael Beasley. Derek Fisher earned a flagrant foul type 2 on the Clippers' Chris Kaman. And Matt Barnes drew a two-game suspension for escalating the altercation between Steve Blake and Dallas' Jason Terry. What do these incidents do shaping the Lakers' identity?
Van Gundy: Their identity is champions. That's the only identity that matters. Anything else, they do what championship teams need to do to win. Bynum's play, you have to get into somebody's heart to know if it was dirty or not and I don't plan on trying to do that because I'm not capable of trying to see what incidents were. But a hard play or a tough play, that's what NBA champions are equipped to do. Bryant, one of the greatest competitors to ever play this game, his will to win and will to fight through injury sets an example and a tone. When they brought Fisher back and hard-nosed guys like Barnes, those type of guys complement the guys that they have. I think their team is doing what championship teams do, following the leader and doing what needs to be done in that particular game.
Breen: I heard somebody say on the air that it shows they're tough and they're not going to be pushed around. I don't think they need to do that. I don't think they need to send a message. Matt Barnes is always aggressive and he's always ready to go on the edge. So that's his physical way of playing. Derek has always been a physical player too. The one surprise was Andrew Bynum getting a suspension, but I just think it's a matter of emotions. The Dallas game was an emotional game and Dallas really wanted it and they were getting their butts kicked. Terry reacted. But I don't think it's anything about them sending a message that they're a tough team. They don't need that. They're just too good.
First photo: ESPN basketball analyst Jeff Van Gundy on air with colleagues Mike Breen, center, and Mark Jackson, left, during a game in Cleveland. Credit: Garrrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images
Second photo: Denver center Nene unloads a pass between the defense of Lakers forwards Ron Artest and Pau Gasol during the game Sunday afternoon at Staples Center. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times
Third photo: Lakers Coach Phil Jackson plans to retire after this season, but ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy argues the Lakers should do everything they can to convince him to stay. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times.
Fourth photo: Lakers forward Lamar Odom reacts after he was called for a foul in the fourth quarter Sunday afternoon at Staples Center. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times / April 3, 2011
Last photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant has his shot challenged by Nuggets forward Wilson Chandler in the first half Sunday afternoon at Staples Center. Credit: Kirby Lee / US Presswire