How long will it be before the Los Angeles Lakers' two biggest stars are comfortable sharing the stage with one another?
That may be the last trick up their sleeve to get them in gear towards a playoff push. They have no choice but to shed their disappointing 15-21 start and dominate the rest of the way like they were expected to all along.
With the season almost halfway through, it's now or never for the Lakers. As it stands, they are in 11th place in the West—three games out of the playoffs. The Lakers need to win about two-thirds of their remaining games to secure a postseason berth that seemed preordained for them before the season began.
So what will it take for the Lakers to get their act together? Here are three things that would help.
1. Settle on a Rotation
Injuries have had a lot to do with the instability, but the Lakers haven't had a single five-man lineup log even 200 minutes together. A steady rotation is crucial to building team chemistry. Role players need to know what their roles actually are. You have to find lineups that function well as a unit.
And it's not just the erratic substitution patterns. The Lakers have used 11 different starting lineups this season. Coming into the year, no one would have thought that Earl Clark and Robert Sacre would be seeing rotation minutes, let alone starting games.
Now the big question is what to do with Pau Gasol. He has made it clear that he wants to remain a starter as he always has been, but statistical evidence and the eye-test suggest that a bench role may be more beneficial to the team.
Playing Gasol with the second unit would allow him to be featured in the post more, where he excels as an offensive force. While he's proven to be versatile enough to serve as a mediocre stretch-4, he remains vastly underutilized in that role.
When Gasol shares the floor with Dwight Howard, 57 percent of his field-goal attempts come outside the paint. He shoots 36 percent on those attempts.
Without Howard in the game taking up all the space on the interior, Gasol attempts 63 percent of his shots in the paint and connects on 59 percent of them.
That's a monstrous gap in efficiency for Gasol. And it manifests itself in the overall team performance as well.
In situations where Gasol is on the court without Howard, the Lakers score at a rate that is better than the best offense in the league and outscore opponents by more than 11 points per 100 possessions.
On the other hand, when the two big men share the floor, the Lakers' offensive output is worse than their overall mark, basically dead even with their opponents.
I don't believe the solution is to necessarily bring Gasol off the bench full-time. You would then run the risk of completely losing a player who's prone to emotional letdowns. But it would be wise for D'Antoni to stagger the minutes of his twin towers to better capture Gasol's true talents.
2. Protect the Rim
With Howard and Gasol on the roster, you'd think the Lakers would be a shoo-in as the best interior defensive team in the league.
Sadly, that hasn't been the case.
Only nine teams have surrendered more shots to opponents in the restricted area than Los Angeles. Of those nine, only one team has allowed their opponents to shoot a higher percentage there than the Lakers have.
Extend it out a bit further and the results don't get any better. Again, only nine teams have allowed opponents more non-restricted-area looks in the paint, but the Lakers' opponents have shot a higher percentage in that zone than any of the other nine teams ahead of them. (Shooting stats courtesy of NBA.com)
The main problem has been pick-and-roll defense. The Lakers are notorious for not having any players capable of defending point guards, but it hasn't been the ball-handler in pick-and-roll situations that have inflicted the most damage. It's been the roll man.
Defensive rotations have been abysmal for the Lakers. When Howard or Gasol leave their man to help contain the driving ball-handler, their teammates are always a step late at crashing the paint and helping on the roll man.
That's leaving clean looks at the rim after simple pocket passes from ball-handlers or easy putback opportunities on misses from attacking guards.
In L.A.'s latest game against the Miami Heat, Miami took 41 of its 83 shots from below the dashed semi-circle in the paint. Nearly half of their field-goal attempts came from point-blank range and they converted more than 75 percent of them.
Meanwhile, the Heat shot an atrocious 9-of-42 from everywhere else on the floor.
In order for the Lakers to improve defensively, they really have to start protecting the rim a lot better.
3. Time and Health
It's simple really. The more time the Lakers get to come together as a team, the better they will get.
Let's not forget that they are on their third coach of the season and—as I mentioned earlier—do not have an established rotation yet.
Injuries have not been kind to them either. Their four stars have yet to develop the requisite chemistry to succeed. Dwight Howard's back injury has not only hampered his game, it kept the Lakers from practicing together during training camp and in the preseason.
Howard, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash have combined to miss 40 games already. Those three plus Kobe Bryant have started together in just nine of L.A.'s 39 games this season. It feels like just as one guy gets healthy, another is lost to injury.
As the Lakers heal, they will get to play together more and learn the nuances of each other's games as well as their new coach's offensive systems and defensive schemes.
Also, as more time passes, each ailing player will be further removed from their injury and return to peak form.
If the Lakers can come together as a unit and iron out some of their weaknesses, they can still turn this disaster of a season around.