Prior to the 2012-13 NBA season, Los Angeles Lakers fans and NBA pundits were already crowning the team as champions. Who would have thought that the team would start the year on an 0-3 slide, their worst start to a season in 34 years?
With four superstar talents in Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard, that abysmal start would have seemed ludicrous to fans calling for a 73-win season to break the Chicago Bulls' single-season record of 72-10. However, that’s where the team stands.
They did earn a blowout win against a lowly Detroit Pistons team, but that’s done little to ease the confusion of an 0-3 start.
So how did the Lakers get to this point so early in the season? Let’s evaluate five key things that we learned about the team that is widely projected to win it all in 2013.
Prior to the 2012-13 NBA season, I wrote an article discussing exactly this topic. Is Steve Nash still, at 38 years old, a top-five NBA point guard?
Concluding that Nash’s poor defense ranks him below Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo, Deron Williams, Derrick Rose (when healthy), Russell Westbrook and (arguably) Tony Parker, I said no. That stance has been solidified by the start of the 2012-13 season.
In the Lakers' first loss of the season against the short-handed Dallas Mavericks, Nash looked completely lost in the Lakers offense. Nash is no stranger to half-court sets, but that’s if those sets run through pick-and-rolls orchestrated by the Canadian.
So far this season, Nash has hobbled his way through the motions, reminding me personally of his days with the Phoenix Suns under head coach Terry Porter. Porter was a defensive-minded coach who called for numerous post-up plays to an aging Shaquille O’Neal during his brief stint in Phoenix.
After the ugly loss to the Mavericks, Nash played just 16 minutes against the Portland Trail Blazers before fracturing his left leg trying to defend rookie Damian Lillard via full-court press. A bizarre way for Nash to get injured when you consider that he’s not the world’s best pressure defender (by a long shot).
According to Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times, Nash’s leg injury could cause him to miss up to four weeks of action. That will only hinder his comfort level in a brand-new offensive scheme moving forward.
I alluded to this during the previous slide, but Steve Nash simply has to have the ball in his hands to be effective. Dribbling the ball up the court and immediately giving it up to teammates to run isolations and set plays won’t help. Involving Nash as much as possible to run the Lakers’ engine has to be the key.
Prior to the Lakers’ first win (a 29-point drubbing of the Detroit Pistons), Los Angeles ranked 15th in the NBA in points per game. In other words, their offense was right in the middle of the pack despite sporting a superstar-loaded roster.
The season is still in its beginning stages with plenty of basketball left, but the Lakers either need a change in philosophy or a shift in lineup structure.
Perhaps Mike Brown and company should consider playing Nash and Kobe Bryant separately when Nash returns from injury as a change of pace.
This would allow Nash to push the ball, run pick-and-rolls with the bigs, penetrate to the basket to score/pass and do general Nash-like things. When Nash sits, Bryant can go back to dominating the ball and scoring at will via isolation.
Integrating Nash and Bryant together will still be an issue, but having two of the game’s best guards in the same backcourt should never be viewed as a negative.
Building on the Lakers’ offensive struggles, NBA analyst Kenny Smith had an interesting take. Following the Lakers’ season-opening loss to the Dallas Mavericks, Smith said during the TNT postgame show that the Lakers will almost always be in close games because their slow half-court offense doesn’t allow for many runs. They often shoot the ball with six to eight seconds left on the shot clock, slowing the game down.
Unless the offense can rattle off points via the fast break, the defense will be put under the added pressure of getting numerous stops to build leads. Which leads me to...
After four games of the 2012-13 season, the Lakers rank 20th in the league in points allowed per game, giving up 99.8 per contest. As expected, the Lakers point guards (mainly Steve Nash, Steve Blake and Darius Morris) haven’t been able to defend anybody.
Dallas Mavericks point guards Darren Collison and Rodrigue Beaubois combined for 28 points on 12-of-20 shooting on opening night.
Damian Lillard of the Trail Blazers went for 23 points and 11 assists against the Lakers.
Chris Paul, arguably the league’s best point guard, torched the Lakers for 18 points and 15 assists while turning the ball over just once.
The Lakers’ defensive struggles don’t start and end at the point guard position, however. Currently, the Lakers rank 18th in the NBA in steals per game and 16th in the NBA in blocks per game. They aren’t forcing turnovers on a regular basis, and their opponents' field-goal percentage of 44.7 percent puts them in the middle of the pack.
In addition to that, the Lakers average 23.2 personal fouls per game. That ranks them 24th in the NBA in that category.
Sometimes, sound defense simply means not fouling the opposing team and giving them easy points at the charity stripe. Well, the Lakers certainly didn’t get that memo. They need to stop fouling at this rate as the season continues if they hope to have defensive success.
For a team that has always been competent defensively and a roster with a combined four Defensive Player of the Year Awards (one for Metta World Peace and three for Dwight Howard), the struggles are difficult to understand.
Nash, at least defensively, was looked at as the weak link. However, nobody on the Lakers roster has set the tone defensively early on.
Mike Brown has one of the most difficult and pressure-packed jobs in the entire NBA. When expectations for the team that you coach are “championship or bust,” starting the season 1-3 will undoubtedly put you on the coaching hot seat.
The offense is stagnant, players and fans are frustrated and the defense has been abysmal for the talent available. So where should the Lakers go from here?
Well, the season is still in the beginning stages. It’s not a time to jump to conclusions and make rash decisions. However, should Lakers management blame the coaching staff? The players? Injuries? Should they try to add even more talent to the roster following the plethora of moves that they made this summer?
I think we can all agree that the Lakers have the talent to compete at the highest level. When Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash become 100 percent healthy, they have absolutely no excuse not to win on a regular basis.
With that said, Brown’s coaching job is on the line if he doesn’t figure out at least some of the struggles that accompany a 1-3 record.
Last season, the Lakers bench ranked dead last in the NBA in points, averaging 20.5 per game.
This season, despite adding Antawn Jamison, Jodie Meeks and re-signing Jordan Hill, the Lakers bench ranks 29th out of 30 NBA teams (only the Portland Trail Blazers' bench scores less). The second unit is scoring just 18.8 points per game.
Following a year where the second unit was absolutely forgettable, fans were able to assume that it couldn’t possibly be worse. On the contrary, the Lakers’ second unit is actually scoring fewer points off the bench than they did a season ago.
After four games, the Lakers leading bench scorer isn’t Jamison, it isn’t Meeks, it isn’t Hill, not even Steve Blake. The Lakers' leading bench scorer is Darius Morris, averaging just 6.5 points per contest.
Jamison, the marquee signing meant to fix the lowly bench, is averaging 4.3 points per game thus far. The former Sixth Man of the Year award winner averaged 17.2 points per game a season ago for the Cleveland Cavaliers, so an output of less than five points is disappointing to say the least.
Additionally, Meeks is averaging just two points per game as Kobe Bryant's backup.
With that said, the bench has had very little time to get acclimated to the new offense. Jamison has seen just 16.8 minutes per game off the bench while Meeks has received just 7.3 minutes per game. Very few NBA players can develop a solid rhythm without steady playing time.
Mike Brown seems content to rely heavily on the superstar starters, but if an injury occurs (a la Steve Nash), the second unit has very few options that are able to step in and contribute on a high level.
The bench doesn’t have to be great, but it has to avoid being so nonexistent if the Lakers hope to win a championship this season.