Los Angeles Lakers: 5 Things That Will Make the Team Title Favorites Once Again
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LA Lakers fans are used to having their team win. Expectations are always high, as any season that doesn’t end with a championship is usually considered a failure.
After hopes for a three-peat died last postseason with a surprising sweep at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks, panic set in among many fans. Following the collapsed trade for Chris Paul (thanks to David Stern and one of the NBA’s biggest historical PR blunders), even more hysteria has spread in the fanbase.
It seems that most Lakers fans feel the team must get an All-Star point guard, center or both to contend for a championship. While any of those scenarios may help the team, one must realize that they are not necessary moves to realistically make the Lakers one of the favorites to win another championship this season.
This article details five areas the Lakers team can concentrate on that will give the team one of the best chances of winning the Larry O’Brien Trophy in June.
1. Mike Brown’s Defensive Philosophy
Mike Brown with Metta World Peace
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Most serious NBA fans are well aware that Mike Brown is one of the best defensive coaches in the league.
In his five years as head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers with older players such as Shaquille O’Neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, as well as mediocre defensive talents in Mo Williams, Sasha Pavlovic, Daniel Gibson and Wally Szczerbiak, Brown drove home a defensive philosophy that allowed his teams to work together to become one of the best at slowing down opponents.
Here are where his Cavaliers teams ranked in points allowed in each of his five seasons:
So far, Brown has had only about a week of training camp, two exhibition games and three season games (albeit on a back-to-back-to-back schedule) with his new Lakers roster. Thus, the team’s ability to effectively utilize and understand Brown’s defensive schemes is just at its beginning.
However, we are already seeing some progress. Currently heading into tonight’s game against the New York Knicks, the team is giving up just 86.3 points per game (fifth in the NBA). Whereas last season the team allowed opponents to shoot 43.7 percent, this season the Lakers are allowing teams to convert at an impressive 39.4 rate.
True, the NBA season is young, and other teams are figuring out their offensive systems as well. However, if the team continues to get better at defense as the season progresses (as nearly every NBA analyst expects), the Lakers can expect to be in a situation to win nearly every game.
2. Regaining the Outside Shot
Steve Blake shooting an outside jumper
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Outside shooting woes have plagued the Lakers over the past few seasons. In the playoffs against the Dallas Mavericks last season, the team managed to convert on only 19.7 percent of its three-point attempts.
So far this season, the team has not done much better, shooting only 22.9 percent from beyond the arc. However, Mike Brown’s offense allows players to get many open shots from the perimeter—most Lakers fans who have watched games this season probably have already noticed this. This is one reason why his Cavalier teams often shot close to 40 percent from three-point territory.
The Lakers added some decent shooters in the offseason in Troy Murphy, Jason Kapono and rookie Andrew Goudelock. Steve Blake is sporting a new and improved shooting stroke, and even Devin Ebanks is said to have worked on his outside shot throughout the offseason.
The team may have a 1-2 record, but if L.A. made an extra three-pointer against the Bulls on Christmas day, the Lakers probably would have ended up with a victory. If the team converted on just a quarter of its three-pointers against the Kings, L.A. also probably would have landed a victory in that match.
These would have been modest improvements from the horrid outside shooting. There is no reason to expect that LA will not end up shooting around 35 to 40 percent from beyond the arc during the season. The players will find their rhythm and become more comfortable in Brown’s offense over time. When the Lakers start converting at these higher rates, other teams better watch out.
3. Not Giving Up Both Bynum and Gasol for Howard and Turkoglu
Is one 6'10" big man equal to two seven-footers?
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It seems most Lakers fans are convinced that one way or another, the Lakers need to trade for Dwight Howard. After all, he is the three-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year.
It’s also no secret that Orlando’s GM Otis Smith wants to acquire both Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, while also dumping the contract associated with Hedo Turkoglu.
If you think this would be a good trade, let me assure you that this wouldn’t be in the best interest of the Lakers organization. If the Lakers want a decent all-around small forward (who can also play dominating defense), the team can use the trade exception from Lamar Odom and acquire Andre Iguodala.
While Howard would look great in a Lakers uniform, he is two years older than Bynum and has a less polished offensive repertoire compared to the Lakers center. As many Lakers fans can recall (ahem, 2009 NBA Finals), Howard also has a Shaq-like weakness at the free-throw line.
Bynum can convert on about 70 percent of his free throws—a much more respectable figure. With the increased role that Brown intends to give him, one should expect Bynum to post about 18 to 20 points, 10 to 12 rebounds and two or three blocks per game. With a higher free-throw percentage, the difference between Howard and Bynum may not be as big as some would think.
The risk with Bynum, of course, is his health. However, giving up Bynum for Howard also means losing a few inches and about 20 to 30 pounds at the center position. This size advantage is one reason why Bynum usually does quite well in his matchups against Howard.
Meanwhile, Pau Gasol may be the best center/power forward combo in the league. He is one of the best-passing big men around and plays solid defense, while always finding a way to avoid foul trouble and stay on the court (unlike Howard).
To give up both of these big men from the Lakers would require the Lakers to get Howard as well as an upgrade at the team’s weakest position, the point guard spot.
4. Upgrading the Point Guard Position
Mo Williams would be a decent upgrade at the point for the Lakers
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One way the Lakers could justify giving up both Bynum and Gasol for Howard and Turkoglu is if the Odom trade exception is used to also land Jameer Nelson. In an instant, the addition of Nelson would be an instant upgrade at the point over Steve Blake and Derek Fisher.
Meanwhile, the crosstown Clippers now have about five quality point guards. Perhaps they would be willing to trade Mo Williams to the Lakers for the Odom exception. That would reunite him with his former coach Mike Brown and allow the team to grasp the new offensive system more quickly.
Darius Morris was impressive in the preseason. It seems doubtful that Brown will allow him to develop as a player much this season, but if Morris gets enough playing time, he could be quite effective for his team.
One way or another, getting improved play out of the point guard spot will be highly important for L.A.’s chances of winning another title.
5. Becoming a Rebounding Powerhouse
The Lakers can become a dominant rebounding team
Hopefully you are starting to see a theme here and realize that Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak did quite well in hiring Mike Brown.
Pat Riley once said that defense and rebounds win championships. In addition to defense, it turns out that Brown is one of the best coaches at getting his team to dominate on the boards.
During his time with the Cavaliers, Brown’s teams were always among the best rebounding squads in the NBA. Despite not necessarily having the most talented big men in the league (Drew Gooden, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Shaquille O’Neal, Joe Smith, Donyell Marshall and J.J. Hickson), Brown was a master of having his big men box out and use their size to dominate the glass.
Here’s where Brown’s Cavaliers teams ranked each season in the NBA in rebounding rate:
By comparison, here’s where the Lakers ranked in rebounding during those same seasons (all with coach Phil Jackson):
With two seven-footers in Bynum and Gasol and decent rebounders in Matt Barnes and Troy Murphy, Brown has big men with better natural rebounding ability than he had at any one time in Cleveland. The potential in this department for the Lakers is waiting to be tapped.
Along with defense, rebounding is important in that it helps limit the possessions of opposing teams. If the Lakers have a rough shooting night, the team can still earn victories with dominant defense and rebounding. If the Lakers have a good shooting night, the team will be bound for a routing victory.
In short, many Lakers fans are rooting for a home run move such as a Dwight Howard trade. But as one should now understand, there is more than just one path to a championship parade in June. If the Lakers can follow the blueprint I just laid out with realistic and attainable goals, then the team will have a great chance to earn its 17th championship banner.