The NBA season is two days old, and already the Los Angeles Lakers are an absolute mess. Players are frustrated, pundits are questioning the offense and the defense, and fans are stuck wondering if the aging roster with little depth is too old and thin to be a real competitor.
Charles Barkley had the early Quote of the Year after the Lakers' season-opening 99-91 home loss Tuesday to Dallas, saying, "I want my accountant from Princeton. I don't want my damn offense from Princeton."
Barkley went on to explain that putting Steve Nash and Dwight Howard in a slow, half-court offense isn't using either player to the best of his abilities. The Lakers need to run the ball, and the modified Princeton offense doesn't give them enough opportunities to do that.
Kenny Smith agreed with Barkley on the TNT set, going so far as to suggest, "That style of play will keep every team in the game with you."
Smith explained that slowing the game down when their team has more talent—Nash, Howard, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol combine to be more talented than most NBA rosters, age and health notwithstanding—gives the opponent more opportunities at the basket, keeping games closer than they should be*.
You know what else gives the opponent more opportunities at the basket? Turnovers. While pundits are imploring the Lakers to speed up the game, right now, slowing it down and protecting the basketball might be more prudent.
Through two games, the Lakers have turned the basketball over 39 times, including 24 giveaways to the host Portland Trail Blazers in a 116-106 loss on Wednesday night. The Lakers lost their first game because the offense sputtered and they couldn't hit free throws. They lost their second game because they gave up too many easy buckets.
Portland scored 44 points in the paint, the same amount as the Lakers, but had a 19-6 edge in fast-break points. With Howard and Gasol in the lane, no team should be able to hang with the Lakers down low, and with Nash controlling the point this season, no team should be out-breaking them either.
Our own Ethan Sherwood Strauss wrote about the Lakers' early-season woes, adroitly outlining the biggest issues in Los Angeles: The defense is terrible, Howard isn't back to full strength, and the team lacks depth.
Two of those issues can change in time. The defense, much like the Princeton-style offense, needs time to work together. Howard will get stronger with each passing game, and depth—well, that's going to be an issue all year, especially if the starters don't stay healthy.
The offense struggled after Nash got injured against Portland, shooting just 47.4 percent from the field after hitting on 52.9 percent in the first half. While the Lakers did have 13 turnovers in the first half and 11 in the second half, Nash had just two the entire game.
In fact, it was Bryant who led the team in turnovers with seven, including four in the second half. Bryant, who also picked up a technical foul after complaining to the referees, didn't seem too happy after the game. From the L.A. Times, Bryant said:
It's going to be a little edgy because I'm not a very happy camper walking around here right now. There's some things we have to shore up. We have to make sure we keep a sense of urgency.
Playing with urgency is important, but playing more urgently, if you pardon the play on words, may not be the way to win right now. Even if he scores 33 points and shoots 50 percent from the field, Bryant cannot turn the ball over seven times a game if the Lakers stand any chance to win.
The fact is, Bryant was lucky his turnovers against Portland didn't cost the team more. While Los Angeles allowed 28 points off turnovers, Bryant's seven giveaways only led to seven points for the Blazers, including the technical foul he was given for complaining.
This, of course, is bigger than turnovers or slow play or the Princeton offense. The last time the Lakers won a basketball game was May 18, 2012. To say there's a sense of urgency is an understatement.
Mike Brown is already under a ton of heat this season, with a roster more talented than he's ever worked with and expectations higher than any season since his last with LeBron James in Cleveland. Brown has to make this work, or the Lakers will have to go out and find a coach who can.
People will continue to deride the use of the Princeton offense until Brown's team can consistently and efficiently make it productive. Even then, until the Lakers can beat the top-tier Western Conference teams using that style, pundits will never buy in.
The more immediate issue is fixing the defense. The Lakers gave up 116 points to the Blazers after surrendering 99 at home to the Dirk Nowitzki-less Mavericks. If Los Angeles is going to play an offensive style that gives the opponent more looks*, it's going to have to be a little stronger on the defensive end. Still, with Bryant, Howard and Metta World Peace together on the defensive end, things should get better.
(*I've mentioned this twice, and we should take the time to inspect what "more looks" actually means. Kenny Smith is right that a slower style of play will keep opponents in the game, but his notion the Lakers had 77 attempts and the Mavericks had 85 in the season opener is completely faulty.
When factoring in each team's attempts at the line—31 attempts for Los Angeles to 18 for Dallas—accounting for one-on-one situations and three-point plays, the Lakers had 91 offensive possessions that resulted in a scoring opportunity, while Dallas had 92.
In the second game of the season, the Lakers had 72 shot attempts with 15 additional possessions at the line, while Portland had 83 attempts with 11 additional chances at the line, making the discrepancy—94-87 in favor of the Blazers—a little greater for Game 2. Smith's point is right, but his math was wrong.)
Numbers aside, the Lakers just haven't looked right this season, making the matchup this Friday night with the Clippers far more important for the Lakers than it should be.
It is not time to panic in La La Land just yet, as talented can teams take time to gel, especially when the biggest new piece is coming off a serious injury. Still, if the Lakers fall to the Clippers, the panic will continue to spread.
There will be a lot of energy in the Staples Center on Friday night, and from those wearing purple and gold, it will surely be the nervous kind.
For now, two games in to a long season, everyone needs to just slow down.
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