Solving For Y With Carl Landry

(You may remember Noam Schiller from his fantastic Omri Casspi article earlier in the season. Well from time to time he’ll be joining us all the way from Israel to chime in on the Sacramento Kings. He is a lover of the professional basketball team in Hapoel, the Daily Dime Live chats on ESPN.com and Omri Casspi.)

Let me take you all the way back to the exotic past, to a time where hope still existed and the world was a better place: February of 2010. Oh, how we long for those days to return! The Boston Celtics were considered title contenders; Lebron James was still playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers before retiring from basketball and returning to his home planet; and the New York Knicks were still trying to recover from the Isiah Thomas era (well, lets face it, that will go on forever).

But lets focus on a small portion of those wonderful times – the February of 2010 Sacramento Kings. As the history whizzes amongst you may recall, back then, the Sacramento Kings were not a very good basketball team, mainly due to two major issues:

1. They were getting nothing defensively out of their frontcourt.
2. They were getting nothing offensively out of their frontcourt.

Good times.

Meanwhile, in a totally different part of the universe, former second round pick Carl Landry was lighting up opposing defenses from the Houston Rocket bench, garnering serious consideration for both the 6th Man of the Year and Most Improved Player awards.

And then, on February 18th, as so often happens when Team A has problems Y and Z, and Team B has Player X which is good at solving problem Y, the Kings traded for Carl Landry. The logic couldn’t be any clearer: take a budding young post scorer, put him on a young team without any post scorer, sit back and watch. Not to mention the extra cap space. And if you have to lose your disgruntled former face of the franchise in the process, so be it.

Fast forward to the present, where, as of April 3rd, Carl Landry has already played 22 games for the Kings. How has it worked out?

Well, at first glance – not great. In those 22 games, the Kings went 6-16, and have played pretty terrible basketball. Then again, it’s hard to pin this on Landry. There are many  non-Landry reasons for the Kings’ struggles: they are way too young; they have way too many bench players getting starter-type minutes; they get nothing defensively out of their frontcourt (remember that?); and, to paraphrase the thoughts of certain unnamed members of the NBA viewership community, they are suffering the dire karmic consequences of moving Omri Casspi to the bench.

The point is, for all their young talent, the Kings are a few years away from even trying to contend. Landry is a very nice player, with youth and a great contract to boot, but he isn’t the last piece of the puzzle. As such, it would be unfair – heck, it would be downright stupid – to judge his short-lived performance so far by team standards. The Kings didn’t trade for Landry so he can lead them to the playoffs – they traded for him because he can finally give them some offense in their frontcourt.

Has it been working?

The first thing we have to remember when judging Landry’s integration in Sacramento is that Sacramento Landry has a very different role than Houston Landry. In Houston, GM Daryl Morey assembled a star-less, ensemble cast of role players and overachievers. Landry fit perfectly into that mold – slipped in the draft due to injury and size concerns, extremely hard worker, and tougher than a German’s forearm. While this allowed Landry to get plenty of touches, it also limited his output on a game to game basis. Landry could be the team’s best player one night, and their 7th best the next; often Houston’s go-to-guy late in games, but never more than just a cog in the machine, albiet an important one.

In Sacramento, the situation couldn’t be more different. The entire team revolves around rookie phenom Tyreke Evans, with Landry a clear second in the pecking order. Again, the impact on Landry is twofold. He gets as many touches and minutes as he wants, no longer has to play off the bench, and is the main offensive option when Evans is on the bench. Then again, Evans is on the court so much himself, that the game will almost almost always go through him, and rarely through Landry.

As one would expect, Landry’s increased role has spawned a dramatic increase in minutes (37.4 per game, up from 27.2), and therefore in his per game numbers. Amongst those categories, predictably, is shot attempts per game (13.5 vs. 10.6). However, Landry is making his shots at a lesser rate, down from 54.7% in Houston to 52.5% in Sacramento. This makes sense as well: now that he’s the second most dangerous option on his team, opposing defenses focus on him much, much more.

Or so one would think.

A closer look shows that, since moving to Sacramento, Landry is shooting a better percentage around the rim, from 10 to 15 feet, and from 16 to 23 feet. The only area where his shooting has decreased is from 10 feet in, which also happens to be the area from which he takes the smallest amount of shots (1.7 a game).

The truth is, Landry’s shooting hasn’t suffered from tougher defenses or reduced ability, but from poorer shot selection.

Since joining the Kings, Landry’s long jumpers have skyrocketed from 1.9 to 4.6 attempts per game. In addition, he’s taking less shots from around the rim – 4.8 a game vs. 5.5 in Houston – despite taking more shots overall, and despite being his team’s premier post option.

All of this raises a pretty good question: why is a player who has experienced a breakout season behind his great post offense taking his offense out of the post?

It could be attributed to laziness. Landry moved from a team fighting (back then) for the playoffs, and went instead to a broken squad with visions of next year. Hard worker as he is, any player in his situation would be tempted to take it easy, and shoot those long jumpers instead of banging inside all game.

But seeing how we’re talking about a player who got shot in the leg and ran to safety, I don’t think banging in the post bothers him that much.

Another possible explanation is cold feet. Sure, Landry never shies away from a challenge, but he seemed so comfortable at Houston. He was perfect for the system, and he was nurtured by Morey throughout his career. It’s perfectly understandable that he would want to make an extra effort to fit in with his new team – play within the flow, take the open shots he gets, and not look for his shot in an overly-aggressive manor. Sometimes, when you get the ball in the post for your new team, passing back out is a better way to fit in than holding it for eight seconds so you can get your best shot at the basket. I get it.

Unlike the laziness thing, I think this could be a factor. I don’t think Landry would ever intentionally hold back parts of his game after rising to such stature through hard work and determination. However, I do think this could have a subconcious, if minimal effect.

Clearly, though, this huge difference in style isn’t solely the product of a new mentality. There’s another factor. And if we assume that Landry is the same player in Sacramento as he was in Houston – and there’s not reason not to – then we can pretty safely declare that this factor is the difference between Tyreke Evans and Aaron Brooks.

See, being a power forward, Landry can’t take the ball from the Kings’ end of the court and create for himself – he needs to get passes. It’s a phenomenon that’s happening throughout the league, and to much better players than Landry. From Brook Lopez to Andrew Bogut, big men all over the league have their FGA numbers toggled on a nightly basis, depending on how much their point guards feel like passing to them. Even superstars such as Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol have complained about touches this year. No matter how good Landry will be, the point guard he plays with has to give him the ball, and his touches will vary accordingly.

Aaron Brooks and Tyreke Evans take more or less the same amount of shots per game (16.3 and 16.0, respectively). The difference between the two is how they take them. Brooks takes an astonishing 6.5 threes a game (making 39% of them), good for second in the league. Throw in 2.7 shots a game from the 16 to 23 foot range, and you got yourself a heck of a perimeter point guard.

Since Brooks is so good at spreading the floor, naturally, he uses that newly created space to find open teammates closer to the rim. In fact, almost half of his assists are to shots under the basket (2.3 of 5.2). Being his team’s best offensive option down low, many of those passes went to Landry.

Evans is the exact opposite. With a jumpshot that’s shaky at best, Reke does most of his damage inside, taking more than half of his shots at the rim (8.3 per game). This means his passes are mainly of the drive and kick variety: Reke goes in, ball goes out. The recipient of said pass – AKA Landry – would therefore spread the floor, drawing out the interior defender enough to get his point guard a layup. Or, if the defender sags to help out on Reke, you have an open mid-range jumper.

Evans’ presence on the team also deprives Landry of his crunch time go-to-guy status. Unlike in Houston, where the 4th quarter offense went to him in the post, Sacramento’s 4th quarter offense is more commonly known as the Tyreke layup line. Tyreke is just so good at getting to the rim in late game situations, that other players are sometimes reduced to spot up shooters – and rightfully so.

This isn’t to suggest that Tyreke has been hurting Landry’s production. Au contraire. Since Landry joined Sacramento, the “Tyreke Evans is not a point guard” argument has become as irrelevant as Tracy McGrady, with Reke averaging a handy 7.2 assists per game. Landry’s improved mid-range touch shows that he benefits from the pairing as well.

It should be noted that Landry’s per-minute production in Sactown has decreased across the board. His drop from 16.1 points in 27 minutes to 18 in 37 is a steep one, and hints that he might be a work in progress as far as a 37 minutes guy. His rebounding numbers, are even more troubling: 6.7 boards a night is way, way too low for a power forward playing 37 minutes. But one should note that Landry still has to go to war with the likes of Spencer Hawes and Jason Thompson every night. Not even good, spry early-season Thompson, but bad, low IQ, late-season Thompson. That rebounding number hurts way less if you play him with somebody who can actually give the Kings something defensively from their frontcourt (last time I say this, I promise).

But this does nothing to change the fact that Landry is an elite post scorer on a team who needs him to be just that. The start might not have been as glorious as the Kings wanted, but it’s been very solid at the least – 18 points per game on 52% shooting is nothing to sneeze at. And after a full training camp, when he and Tyreke learn how to depend on each other’s games, when Tyreke grows more and more comfortable running an NBA offense, and Landry grows more and more comfortable taking the ball down low as he did in Houston, the two should form a dangerous 1-2 combo for quite a while.

Now, about those minutes for Casspi…

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