Definitive Blueprint for LA Lakers to Turn Around Nightmare Season
With just two wins in their past eight games, the Los Angeles Lakers look more like a team battling for draft position than the preseason-crowned Western Conference champions.
But even with their struggles, it doesn't appear is if the team has been delivered a knockout blow—yet.
Not with 41 games left on their schedule, and certainly not with the talent level on the roster.
Granted, that talent has been in place for a large portion of the club's opening 41 games. And despite some sizable advantages on paper, the team has won just 41.5 percent of them (17-24).
As the back end of the Western Conference playoff standings creeps closer to the .500 mark, the Lakers will need to play 28-13 (.682) ball from here out to hit the 45-win mark. In other words, they'll need to finish the second half of the season with a winning percentage better than the first-half performances of 26 teams in the league.
It's a long shot by every measure of the word, but not an impossible task. Not if this team can finally capitalize on the tantalizing collection of talent that had Metta World Peace setting a lofty 73-9 goal before the season, with the basketball world not entirely able to write off his aspirations.
*All statistics used in this article are accurate as of 1/22/2013.
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Before the Lakers can identify a winning strategy, they'll first need to decide on which players are going to be around to see that transformation through.
It's hard to imagine any significant trade that doesn't involve one of the team's four core superstars: Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard. And it's just as unlikely that Bryant or Nash is headed anywhere.
Gasol was given the label as the most likely player to be dealt, and long before coach Mike D'Antoni relegated the big man to the second unit. The fact that Gasol hasn't shied away from voicing his displeasure with the decision (according to Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News) has only fueled those trade rumors.
But there are major hangups to any moves involving the Spaniard. There simply aren't that many teams searching for a declining 32-year-old with more than $19 million owed to him next season.
That leaves just the free-agent-to-be, Howard. He's been far more productive (17.1 points, 12.3 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game) than Gasol, comes with no financial commitments beyond this season, and he's only 27 years old.
But how likely is a Howard trade? I'd say not at all.
Even without security beyond this season, why would a team struggling mightily on the defensive end of the floor cut ties with a three-time Defensive Player of the Year? Howard hasn't even been 100-percent fit this season, and he still ranks first in the league in rebounding and fifth in blocks.
While the Lakers would like to add a young, athletic defender for the wing to relieve some of the mounting stress on Bryant, they can't afford to do so by weakening their interior.
For better or worse, this is how the Lakers roster will look for the rest of the season, save perhaps for minor additions and subtractions to the end of the bench.
It's in the team's best interest for the front office to continue backing all of the players currently on the roster.
Adjust Defensive Strategy
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Now that the players are in place, it's time to find what has thus far eluded D'Antoni: a winning strategy with the current Lakers team.
For starters, LA has to find a reliable defender to move Bryant off of the opposition's best perimeter scorer.
While the Black Mamba has reinvented his defensive reputation of late, he's done so at tremendous expense to his 34-year-old legs, which have logged over 43,000 career regular-season minutes (via basketball-reference.com).
The effects of his added responsibility are glaring. His 26.9 points and 42.9 field-goal percentage in the month of January (via ESPN.com) are his lowest monthly averages of the season (not counting the two games the team played in October).
World Peace still plays with the physicality that has cemented his reputation as a tough defender, but the 33-year-old no longer has the necessary lateral quickness to cover the league's perimeter elite.
For smaller, quicker backcourt threats, Darius Morris has to draw more of the assignments, particularly when Howard is off the floor. Nash has never been known for his defensive ability, and the 38-year-old has not aged well on that end of the floor.
For bigger wings, D'Antoni may be forced to take an Earl Clark-like look toward the end of his bench. Seldom-used reserve Devin Ebanks might produce some cringe-worthy offensive moments for his coach, but he's the lanky, athletic defensive stopper that this team is searching for on the trade market.
Adjust Offensive Strategy
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Offense has clearly been the strength of this team, with the Lakers posting the fifth-best scoring average in the league (102.6 points per game).
But that doesn't mean that end of the floor has been problem-free.
Their season has reached the midway point, yet this club still lacks an offensive identity.
It's time for D'Antoni to adjust his schemes to his roster.
Gasol has the range to step away from the basket, but that range stops well shy of the three-point line. Part of the reason he's been such an effective threat at the elbow throughout his career is the fact that he regularly abused opponents in the post. When he's clicking on the interior, defenses simply pick their poison and afford Gasol extra space from the mid-range.
And he's not the only one needing more touches on the block. This may not be the Howard that L.A. fans thought that they would see, but he's still the Lakers' most effective offensive threat (58.2 percent from the field).
L.A. has enough three-point threats (Nash, Morris, Bryant, World Peace, Jodie Meeks and Chris Duhon all shoot between 35 and 39 percent from deep) that the team can maintain court spacing with both Howard and Gasol operating near the basket.
Gasol is a tough player to double, given his willingness and ability to pass the ball. It's something he showed time and again during back-to-back championship runs alongside Andrew Bynum.
But Howard and Gasol have to do a better job of creating their own offensive opportunities. Nash is as willing a passer as any point guard in the conference, and if Howard and Gasol sprinted up court alongside him, he'd find them.
Of course, an increase in scoring chances for Gasol and Howard won't demand adjustments from only D'Antoni. It will also mean that Bryant can no longer fire off his league-high 22.1 field-goal attempts per game.
Bryant might think he's doing what he can to involve Howard in the offense (as he told Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports following the Lakers' 95-83 loss to the Chicago Bulls), but Howard's fluctuating field-goal attempts tell a different story.
Solidify the Rotation
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Coach D'Antoni knows the importance of opportunity better than anyone.
Last season, he plucked Jeremy Lin from the end of the New York Knicks bench and subsequently sparked a global phenomenon.
The insertion of Clark, spurred on by numerous injuries to key contributors as Lin's was, offered D'Antoni an unexpected addition to his rotation.
But he has to find more answers from an inconsistent reserve core.
A lot of those inconsistencies can be blamed on playing time that seems to fluctuate on a nightly basis. Just as soon as veteran Antawn Jamison found his way back into D'Antoni's good graces, sharp-shooter Jodie Meeks played his way out of them.
What makes Meeks' demotion so troubling is the fact that without Devin Ebanks holding a spot in the rotation, Bryant's only backups now are naturally point guards (Morris and Duhon).
Bryant can't continue playing nearly 39 minutes per game. As much praise as he's earned in his individual matchups, he's given right back with his nonexistent showings as a help defender.
Likewise, the 1,348 minutes already logged by Howard are another troubling sign. He won't let the fans or the media soon forget that he wasn't even supposed to be back from April 2012 back surgery until this month.
The Lakers figured to face deficiencies on the defensive end, given the age of their starting five. D'Antoni has only exacerbated that problem by expecting this team to play an up-tempo style of basketball, despite a frighteningly shallow bench.
Follow Past Precedents
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What made the Lakers' overhaul appear such an effortless transition over the summer was the fact that this kind of transformation had been done before.
The Miami Heat embarked on their own star-studded journey just two seasons ago.
And they experienced their own early turbulence, although their 9-7 start wasn't nearly as sustained or season-threatening as that of the Lakers.
But it required attention, a change in the way the franchise operated.
Sound at all familiar?
Ultimately, the Heat found a path to the success, success being first a trip to the 2011 Finals, then later a 2012 NBA championship. What's most often credited as the source of that championship-producing turnaround was Wade's willingness to play the role of Scottie Pippen to LeBron's Michael Jordan.
Anyone who has followed the career trajectory of Bryant knows how unlikely a similar occurrence taking place within the Lakers organization really is.
But Bryant doesn't have to hand over sole ownership of the club to his new teammates, but rather invite their presence into a joint partnership role.
Bryant's never shied away from publicly backing his teammates (he remains perhaps the biggest backer of Gasol within the franchise), but this requires something more than that.
It means dialing back those gaudy field-goal attempts. It means sacrificing a potential assault on the career-scoring ranks for the betterment of the franchise.
It even means curbing some of those public criticisms if his teammates aren't responding to them (and clearly they're not).
No one said that this revival was going to be easy, not even for some of the game's all-time greats.