Lakers defense must tighten up if they hope to win a championship
Forget talk today of a title run; the Los Angeles Lakers face formidable odds merely trying to make the playoffs.
At 12-14, they'll need to go 36-20 the rest of the way just to get to 48 wins and a probable postseason berth.
Nothing is impossible, but L.A. certainly has dug a deep hole to start the season.
They've looked nothing like the team that formed this summer in one of the Lakers' best offseasons in history. Who wouldn't be giddy with anticipation, knowing that L.A. had just traded for Steve Nash and Dwight Howard?
But for L.A. to secure both Nash and Howard felt like the city of Los Angeles had just won Super Lotto in a scratch off. Lakers fans pinched themselves so much this summer they needed extra time with their therapists.
In Pau Gasol, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Howard and Nash, the Lakers suddenly had four starters most likely headed to the Hall of Fame when their careers were over.
Little did anyone see the gut-wrenching roadblocks and sheer bad luck that would be tossed in their collective paths as summer turned to fall and training camp turned into a trip to the dark side.
From Mike Brown and the Princeton offense to Mike D'Antoni and the seven-second offense for old guys, the Lakers have not had much time to settle in and get comfortable with each other. And now the pressure is really on.
As Nash prepares to return to action, the time for the Lakers to find themselves and start their mad dash to the playoffs and beyond is now. They have their work cut out for them—let's look at what's most important for L.A. to be a factor come April.
Lakers defense breaks down all too often.
"I just don't think we've had a gut-check moment yet," Mike D'Antoni told the Associated Press after the Lakers lost at Cleveland on their recent road trip. "At some point we're going to draw a line in the sand and that's it, you have to fight. It seems like things happen on the court that get us down. Are there possessions we just throw away? Yeah. We have too many guys who will take a possession off."
The Lakers are horrible in transition defense. Because they play under Mike D'Antoni's hurry-up offense, the team is often caught flat-footed after missing a shot and gives up too many fast-break points to the opposition.
It's more than a problem. It's an epidemic.
The Lakers gave up a ridiculous 58 points to Charlotte in the first half of their Tuesday night game. Charlotte often had two and three quick guards in the game at one time, because they knew they could exploit the slow Lakers who fumble and stumble their way through many transitions.
The Lakers escaped with a one-point victory, mostly because they held the Bobcats to 42 points in the second half and made free throws down the stretch.
But beating a terrible team like the 7-17 Bobcats by barely hanging on is not going to cut it against the likes of their next two opponents, Golden State and the New York Knicks. L.A. must transition better by getting back against the fast teams or it'll continue to suffer the consequences.
D'Antoni's decision to start Jodie Meeks as a wing (along with Kobe) makes sense in terms of speed and energy. It remains to be seen if it will help with transition defense, but it is worth a try.
Pau Gasol needs to get touches in the post to be effective. He is not a seven-foot point guard.
While it may take him a week or two to get back in shape, Pau Gasol looked pretty good against Charlotte after an eight-game layoff due to tendinitis in both knees.
His shot is rusty, but Gasol moved well without the ball and hustled for rebounds and loose balls. He finished with 10 points, nine rebounds and five assists in 29 minutes.
There were moments of what could be, as evidenced by several tremendous passes to both Dwight Howard and MWP that resulted in two points.
D'Antoni continues to say that Gasol fits very nicely into the team's offensive system and that it can be productive and work. But he also needs to compromise and let Pau the facilitator roam in closer to the basket where his skills are at their best.
The true test comes shortly (perhaps Saturday or Christmas Day) when Steve Nash is expected back in the lineup. Gasol and Nash should be a dynamic pairing, both highly intelligent, skilled passers who together will help move the ball around to open men with regularity.
If this experiment works, expect Gasol's game to soar.
If the Lakers continue to lose, expect the team to realize they made a mistake and try to make a trade before the All-Star Game in February. Chances of that happening are slim, but then, this season has been full of surprises.
Steve Nash the magician? Can a 39-year-old dribble, shoot, score, pass and defend all at once? The pressure is on.
He is a two-time league MVP and a lock for the Hall of Fame. For the Lakers to reach their goal, Steve Nash needs to rise to the occasion and be close to the Steve Nash who averages 14 points and nine assists per game for his career.
Anything less is unacceptable and won't get L.A. to the promised land.
Nash was lost to the Lakers after just two games when he broke the left fibula on his leg and has been out ever since.
Almost 39 years old (in February), Nash is being counted on to "save" the Lakers season which hangs precariously in the balance at 12-14. L.A. mostly likely needs about 36 more wins to qualify for the postseason.
And they need Steve Nash to direct the show like he has done so often over a brilliant 16-year career. Just last year on a bad Phoenix Suns team, Nash averaged almost 11 assists in 32 minutes of action. If he comes close to that as floor general for the Lakers, the sky is the limit.
"It's starting to get exciting just because I'm able to do some things," Nash said via Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.com. "The majority of the last six weeks have been pretty inactive. So it's nice to be able to get out there with the guys and just see some light at the end of the tunnel.
"It's definitely sore and it's definitely going to be a process -- not just to get back to complete health but also to get back into shape. But I have to take what I can get. To be on the court sweating and playing and just working on my game a bit is important to me."
That is an understatement.
Metta World Peace as sixth man could prove to be the spark Lakers bench needs.
It appears that Mike D'Antoni wants a fluid roster with interchangeable parts. Today, that means Metta World Peace is playing the 4-position and coming off the bench.
The goal is to have starters and backups who, collectively, will score enough points and play sound defense for the Lakers to succeed. It's a simple formula but so far has proved elusive.
Most teams with so many new faces would take a couple of months to come together as a unit. These Lakers don't have that luxury, given that Steve Nash has been out with injury since the second game, Steve Blake for over a month, and the club has had three coaches over the course of its 26-game season.
As Mike Trudell reports on the Lakers website, it appears that Mike D'Antoni is considering this lineup when Steve Nash returns this weekend or next Tuesday:
Starters: Nash, Jodie Meeks, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard
Subs: Chris Duhon, Darius Morris, Metta World Peace
The positives coming out of this ill-timed situation is that players like Duhon, Morris, Meeks and Antawn Jamison have been getting extra minutes and allowed to work through nervousness and uncertainties, and adjust to the new system. Meeks has been the most pleasant surprise—his catch-and-shoot perimeter-shooting prowess is finally starting to kick in after suffering early in the campaign.
As L.A. Times beat writer Eric Pincus points out: "After looking initially like a front-office mistake, Meeks might still be a significant factor for the Lakers this season."
The 6'4" shooting guard was a nonfactor in nine games under Mike Brown and Bernie Bickerstaff, connecting on just 25 percent of his three-point attempts. Since D'Antoni took over, Meeks has that average back over 40 percent, and his confidence on both ends of the court is palpable.
D'Antoni on Meeks (via Lakers website and Mike Trudell): "(Meeks) has a little pop to his game, both offensively and defensively. He spreads the floor, always a 3-point shot waiting to happen. I think he's playing extremely well; he's a good player."
Kobe Bryant Needs to be strong and productive the entire season—there is no time for tired legs.
It really is hard to criticize the league's leading scorer, primarily because he's been a most valuable asset through one of the roughest patches in recent Lakers history.
If Kobe Bryant is shooting less and facilitating more, it usually means the Lakers are performing well and winning with regularity. It is still hard to argue with the Mamba's performance this year.
For those who think Bryant shoots too much, consider that he attempts 20.7 shots per game. Compare that with the two years the Lakers won titles in 2009 (20.9 attempts) and 2010 (21.5) and you find a more efficient Kobe Bryant.
In addition, he is shooting 48 percent from the field, including 38 percent from beyond the arc. He was 47 percent and 46 percent, respectively, from the field in 2009 and 2010.
Kobe Bryant leads the league in scoring with a 29.5-point average and just set a record for most consecutive 30-point games (7) for a 34-year-old player.
Bryant will almost always be the guy with the ball in the final seconds of a close game. The subtle difference, however, between a good and bad Lakers team will be how the rest of the squad reacts in those tense situations.
If they continue to move without the ball, looking for position to score or rebound, then the Lakers will be a championship-caliber team. Bryant wants nothing more than to see his teammates rise to the occasion, because that can only mean one thing:
Ring No. 6 for the Black Mamba.