With the NBA season nearing the halfway mark, the Los Angeles Lakers have many issues facing them. While they sit atop the Western Conference by four-and-a-half games and are poised to make a second straight trip to the NBA Finals, make no mistake: anything short of a championship will be pure disappointment.
Here are the top five issues Los Angeles is facing at the halfway point of the season:
5. Andrew Bynum
Many would argue that the presence of Andrew Bynum in last year's finals vs. Boston would have changed the final outcome and given them the toughness in the middle they were sorely missing. So Bynum's return from a gruesome knee injury was much anticipated coming into the season.
Though he's played well at times, and showed enough to earn an extension early in the season, he has underwhelmed compared to his breakout performance last year prior to the injury. Bynum needs to bring the type of intensity every night that is worthy of his talented 7'0", 285-pound frame. (Remember 5.5 rebounds/game in January?!)
4. Trade Deadline/Free Agency
What will the team do to enhance its existing lineup? The recent losses to fellow contenders San Antonio and Orlando have to make you wonder if an upgrade of some degree is needed.
The Celtics were equally dominant last year and still made moves to upgrade their talent level and leadership before entering the playoffs. What moves, if any, will the Lakers make to replicate the Celtics' success?
3. Kobe's Health
The dislocated finger in Monday night's victory over Cleveland is just the latest. While the injury occurred on his ring finger, remember he was due to have surgery on his pinkie in the preseason (which he delayed). He also hyperextended his knee early on in the regular season.
Normal wear-and-tear on the body of an NBA player? Perhaps. But it's crucial to keep in mind that Kobe played all the way to the Finals last year, then to Beijing to bring home the gold, and now 42 games plus playoffs.
It's imperative to the Lakers' quest that Kobe can stay on the court given his propensity for hard play and initiating contact.
He's averaged 11 assists/game in his last three. Perhaps Kobe "the disher" may provide No. 24 with a new role that will reduce the risks.
Flat-out, the Lakers have been inconsistent, not only throughout the season, but even within individual games. They need to be at their best more often, especially against the elite teams, in order to give themselves home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
When you bring up consistency, you have to emphasize "defensive consistency." Remember, defense wins championships. If the Lakers can improve the consistency of their defense (third quarter of Monday night's game vs. the LeBrons), they will enter the playoffs as the team to beat from the West.
But a championship team cannot have constant defensive lapses that lead to 11-0 (vs. Cleveland in the third quarter Monday) or 24-6 (vs. Orlando Friday) runs in the second halves of games, conceding wide-open shots over and over again. If they do, it will lead to flashbacks of last year's Finals Game Four vs. the Celtics.
So there you have it, the top five issues facing the Lakers as they enter the second half of the season. They have a comfortable lead in the conference, and they have a three-time champ, the reigning regular season MVP, and gold medal winner Kobe Bryant.
Will it be enough?