6 Things That Must Happen for Lakers to Deliver Kobe Bryant's Playoff Guarantee
In an interview with Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated published on Thursday, Kobe confidently endorsed his team's playoff hopes, saying, "It's not a question of if we make the playoffs. We will. And when we get there, I have no fear of anyone—Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Denver...whoever. I have zero nervousness about that."
That almost seemed like a veiled threat to the best teams in the Western Conference. Watch out now. These past few months of mediocrity have made the Black Mamba mad.
The Lakers have struggled this season, but they still find themselves in ninth place, just three-and-a-half games behind the Houston Rockets for the final spot in the playoffs.
As shown by Wednesday's victory over the Boston Celtics, this Lakers squad is capable of playing excellent basketball. Now they just need to do it on a consistent basis.
Here are the six conditions for the Lakers to get into the playoffs.
Steve Nash is a poor defender. That's just one of those things in life, like taxes. But the Lakers also boast three of the finest defenders in the NBA over the past ten years.
Dwight Howard has been named Defensive Player of the Year three times and made four NBA All-Defensive First Teams. Metta World Peace was the DPOTY in 2004 and made All-Defensive First Team twice. Kobe has made a staggering nine All-Defensive First Teams.
So why isn't the defense better?
The Lakers run an up-tempo offense in the Mike D'Antoni style. They average the fourth most possessions per game in the league. And that means a lot of scoring for both teams.
While the Lakers score the eighth most points per possession in the NBA, they are 15th in points per possession allowed (per ESPN).
They defense will need to improve to make up the necessary ground for a playoff push. One encouraging sign is that the Lakers' best defensive quarter is the fourth (per TeamRankings.com). They will need to build on that stingy mentality.
Even when you have a future Hall of Fame point guard like Steve Nash, chemistry takes time. But Dwight Howard and the Lakers appear to finally be absorbing the finer points of the Mike D'Antoni offense.
Earlier in the season, the pick-and-roll that has been a staple of D'Antoni's scheme was not clicking. Nash missed a chunk of time due to injury, and once he came back, Howard seemed to have forgotten how to screen and then roll.
Howard tended to slip off his screens too early, failing to provide Nash with the cushion to shoot or pass and failing to give himself room to roll toward the goal.
But now they are heating up. In Wednesday's victory over Boston, the Lakers offense ran like a well-oiled machine. Nash commented on the pick-and-roll coming together (per Associated Press, via ESPN):
He has to find ways to free me up and therefore, I am going to find ways to free him up. It is still a work in progress, but the last two games before the break he really committed into running pick-and-rolls, setting good screens, rolling hard and you saw either me free for jump shots or him going down the paint for fouls or finishes.
D'Antoni must be jumping for joy. The Lakers' offense is starting to look potent, so they don't have to rely on Kobe to put up 30 every night.
Nash continued, saying, "We looked like a team...It gives us a little more of an identity." And he's absolutely right. It gives them a playoff identity.
Earl Clark's Strong Play
Another element driving the Lakers for the last month or so has been the emergence of Earl Clark.
After starting just one game and averaging 2.7 points for the Orlando Magic last season, Clark has made 19 starts for L.A. He's putting up 8.3 points per game, but those numbers are trending upwards.
He averaged 10.3 PPG in January and he's upped that to 12.6 through nine games in February. The Clark-sanity started back on January 9 with his 22-point outburst against the San Antonio Spurs.
Since then, he has quietly become a crucial part of the Lakers rotation, especially in the absence of Pau Gasol. Clark is averaging 36 minutes per game.
Clark has also been pulling down rebounds like Dennis Rodman. Well, maybe not that many, but still a lot. He's grabbing 9.4 boards a game in February. His career-high 16 rebounds on Wednesday against the Celtics was a sight to behold.
His defense won't make anyone forget about Dwight Howard, but he has good athleticism and potential if someone other than Mike D'Antoni can coach him up on defensive fundamentals. Maybe Dwight can tutor him.
End the Beef
In the SI interview with Kobe, McCallum recalls an interesting exchange he has with an unnamed NBA assistant coach.
In discussing Dwight Howard, McCallum recounts that he was clearly struggling to find the proper words: "Dwight's just...I mean, I don't know him personally that well, but when I watch him...it's just...I see him the locker room and..."
"Let me say it for you," the coach said. "Dwight's a clown." "And that is a problem," I added, "because Kobe doesn't do clown real well."
No, the Black Mamba does not do clown well. And the 2013 version of Kobe seems especially grumpy. He's here to win a sixth championship and he's in no mood for any flack.
Without recounting it in any detail, there has been one passive aggressive comment after another between Howard and Bryant. Seemingly every week, there's new media fodder dealing either with Dwight's petulance or Kobe's derision of that petulance.
The petty bitterness was seemingly squelched by a light-hearted picture of the two of them engaging in a staged fight with their coach between them. But there have been subsequent backhanded statements made in the media.
Kobe told ESPN's Jackie MacMullan that the Lakers "don't have time for [Howard's shoulder] to heal...We need some urgency." Dwight subsequently observed, "That's his opinion, that's it. He's not a doctor" (per Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com).
Dwight Howard should probably just stop talking all together. Or he could take lessons from the Bill Belichick school of speaking to the media. The trick is to never say anything but use a lot of words to do so.
Win on the Road and in a Marquee Game
The Lakers are currently 9-18 on the road. That's the same road winning percentage as the New Orleans Hornets, an ignominious comparison. L.A. has 14 road games remaining and 10 of them are in March.
A losing streak during that road trip could torpedo their playoff hopes.
The Lakers will also need to circle a few marquee games on their calendars. They need to win at least one of these three games against the best in the West: March 5 at Oklahoma City Thunder, April 5 vs. Memphis Grizzlies, April 7 at L.A. Clippers.
So far this season, the Lakers are 1-2 against the Thunder, 0-2 against the Grizz and 0-3 against the Clippers.
They're also 0-2 against the Spurs, whom they play again on April 14 at home. But seeing as that's the penultimate game of the regular season, Gregg Popovich is sure to be resting his starters.
That poor record against the best in the West is an indictment of their prospects for success in the playoffs. They'll need to provide some evidence to the contrary.
Play for Dr. Buss
With the passing of Jerry Buss, the NBA lost one of the greatest contributors in the history of the league.
While it's a pity that the Lakers had not been playing to a high standard this season, the team should take the legacy of Dr. Buss and use it as powerful motivation.
When L.A. took on the hated Boston Celtics on Wednesday, the game was preceded by a moving tribute to the Lakers' dearly departed owner.
Then they came out and played with conviction and heart, handily defeating Boston 113-99.
If the Lakers can conjure up that inspired play on a game-to-game basis, they will certainly coast into the playoffs. And at that point, no team will want to face Kobe and the Lakers.
As the Black Mamba told SI, he has "no fear of anyone." Everyone, fear Kobe.