1 Area Every LA Lakers Starter Must Improve Heading into Playoffs

Sean Hojnacki@@TheRealHojnackiFeatured ColumnistApril 2, 2013

1 Area Every LA Lakers Starter Must Improve Heading into Playoffs

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    Now it's April and everyone is still waiting for Showtime to return. That falls squarely on the shoulders of L.A.'s superstar starters.

    When the Los Angeles Lakers supplemented Kobe Bryant with Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, the purple and gold seemed destined for the NBA Finals.

    But the whole has not been greater than the sum of its parts.

    The Lakers stumbled out of the gate and fired their head coach after five games. But once Mike D'Antoni was brought in as the new honcho for a reunion with Nash, it was only a matter of time before the engine would be running on all cylinders. Right?

    You could count the number of games left in the season on your fingers, and the Lakers' middling play has them scrapping for the final playoff spot in a dogfight with the Utah Jazz and Dallas Mavericks.

    And all that would grant is the tall task of facing the San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round.

    The Lakers often appear to be playing to diminished ability rather than lofty reputation.

    They have the league's eighth-most efficient offense (as measured by points per 100 possessions), but the 18th-ranked defense. The defensive accolades of Kobe, Dwight and Metta World Peace have not yielded the desired results.

    Having lost World Peace for the remainder of the season, the rest of the Lakers starters have to dig deep and come through with their best basketball.

    Then the star-studded lineup can play the role of giant slayers in the postseason's opening round.

Steve Nash

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    Steve Nash is only 6'3", but he was one of the biggest offseason acquisitions for the Lake Show. He was even welcomed with free beer on the freeway.

    During his first season in L.A., even though his scoring average mirrors what he put up in Phoenix, his assists are down from 10.7 per game to just 6.7. And that just masks the change in his play this season.

    His assists are down proportionally all over the floor, with the biggest drops coming at 3 to 9 feet from the hoop and in the 16-23 foot range (per HoopData.com).

    His assists in those areas are half of what he produced last season, even though he has Dwight Howard to roam near the rim and Kobe Bryant to drain the mid-range jumper.

    It's not an accident that Nash has reduced his turnovers from 3.7 per game last season to 2.5 a night with the Lakers. That's a byproduct of his tentative play this season. He's taking fewer chances and creating fewer opportunities.

    The two-time MVP is not attacking defenses like he used to. Despite averaging 101.5 points per game, the Lakers are 17th in the league in team assists per game, at 22.1. Last season, they finished tied for sixth in the category (with the Phoenix Suns, ironically).

    Nash should be breaking down defenses and penetrating to open up mid-range jumpers for Kobe and Pau Gasol.

    Among point guards, Nash has the 52nd lowest usage rate, tied with Devin Harris of the Atlanta Hawks and just behind the illustrious Mike James of the Dallas Mavericks (per ESPN). 

    Just as the Lakers need Nash to become a more potent point, he exited Saturday's game against the Sacramento Kings after playing just two minutes.

    According to Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times (via Twitter), Nash will miss the Lakers' game against the 10th-place Dallas Mavericks. He's hampered by injuries to both his hamstring and hip, and he's already missed 24 games this season with a variety of ailments. 

    Of course, his balky legs won't do anything to help his already limited mobility on defense; his steals average will always be miniscule. But it should encourage him to pass the ball.

    Nash must channel the healing powers of Wolverine, because without him as a genuine offensive threat, the Lakers will be mutating into couch potatoes come playoff time.

Jodie Meeks

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    The mere fact that Jodie Meeks' name is on this list should be a clear indication of what needs to improve. 

    With the injury to Metta World Peace keeping him out until the second round of the playoffs, the Lakers' razor-thin bench needs to step up. They've turned to Meeks as a starter in the backcourt and slid Kobe to the 3. 

    Unfortunately, Meeks has not been the sharpshooter the Lakers need. Over his last 10 games, he's averaging 8.7 points on just 36.9 percent shooting in 29.2 minutes.

    That's unacceptable, especially for a guy that struggles to play even a lick of defense. As a result, Meeks' uneven play puts a tremendous burden on the mercurial Steve Blake.

    In fairness to him, Meeks has played so seldom as part of the first unit that he doesn't even appear with Kobe, Nash, Dwight and Gasol in the team's top 20 five-man units (per 82games.com). But that's no excuse for a shooting specialist putting up so many bricks.

Kobe Bryant

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    Kobe Bryant has played so well this season that he's rightly earned a new nickname—Vino. The 34-year-old is in his 17th NBA season and getting better with age. He just moved past Wilt Chamberlain for fourth place on the all-time scoring list.

    He's putting up 27.1 points per game on 46.4 percent shooting, his best field-goal percentage in the past four seasons. He's also averaging 5.9 assists a night, his highest total since 2004-05.

    But it hasn't been all roses and cabernet. Bryant leads the conference in turnovers, and his defense has been so lackadaisical that it prompted Zach Lowe to publish an open letter to Kobe on Grantland.

    It's an excellent blow-by-blow of Bryant's shortcomings this season, such as when he watched his shot carom off the iron as his man streaks up court for an easy bucket in transition. No wonder the Lakers rank second worst in fastbreak points allowed.

    Kobe has been named to nine All-Defensive First Teams, but the regard of his defense finally slipped last season as he found himself on the All-Defensive Second Team for the first time since 2002.

    Bryant receives those votes on respect and reputation more than anything else. Though Kobe is capable of being a lockdown defender, his effort can vary wildly from night to night and quarter to quarter.

    In Kobe's 72 games this season, he finished with a rating of plus-2 or worse 41 times (per Basketball-Reference.com). His notable clunkers include a minus-35 performance in the Valentine's Day loss to the L.A. Clippers.

    Let's hope Kobe has been saving himself on defense for when the playoffs roll around. But with the final spot in the playoffs in the balance, Bryant needs to realize that all remaining games are like playoff games.

    He'll have to fight through his bone spur and commit to full intensity on both ends of the floor, even if that means sacrificing a few field-goal attempts (and possibly increasing his assist totals). After all, he'll need to make good on his playoff guarantee.

    It also appears that the Black Mamba is almost ready to slither off into the sunset when his contract expires after 2013-14. It makes sense to go out on top financially speaking, as Bryant will cripple the Lakers next season with his $30.45 million salary.

    When asked by NBA.com's Scott Howard-Cooper if it's his sense that next season will be his last, Kobe responded, "As I sit here right now, yeah ... It’s really how I’m feeling physically." He'll be feeling very poorly indeed if the Lakers finish in the lottery after such high expectations.

Pau Gasol

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    Pau Gasol returned from his plantar fasciitis just in time to replace Metta World Peace, the latest Laker bitten by the injury bug.

    Gasol has been progressively regaining his sea legs.

    He's scored a dozen or more and shot better than 50 percent in each of the past three games. In two of those contests, he snagged nine rebounds; in the other, he dished 10 assists.

    Maybe he could teach Steve Nash a thing or two.

    Overall his scoring stats have dipped precipitously. After averaging 17.4 points per game on 50.1 percent shooting in 2011-12 (over 65 games), Gasol is posting just 13 points on 45.5 percent shooting this season in 41 games. He's also averaging 2.8 fewer field-goal attempts per game.

    So much for Mike D'Antoni being an offensive guru.

    Gasol is a versatile scorer, but his effectiveness has been muted this season, and we need look no further than Gasol's shot distribution (via NBA.com/stats). Last season, his shot chart looked like a beautiful green fan. This season, someone spilled red all over it.

    Overall, Gasol's favorite place to shoot last year was from 8 to 16 feet on either side of the basket, where he was 72-of-159. This season? Just 15-of-44 from the same spots on the floor. Last year, Pau flushed 254 buckets in the paint at a 57 percent clip. This season, he's attempted only 227 field goals neat the rim.

    One might be tempted to say that Pau is all right, but it would be more correct to say that he's all to the right. Amazingly, he's made just 14 two-pointers from the left side of the floor all season.

    He's made more than twice that amount from the right side. Last season he shot 73-of-170 from the left.

    Whatever it takes, Gasol needs to get back to his bread and butter, D'Antoni be damned. He has to work with Kobe and Nash to get his fair share of looks near the basket and in the mid-range to become the 20-point threat he used to be.

Dwight Howard

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    Foul Trouble

    It's very tempting just to say Dwight Howard must improve his free-throw shooting and be done with it. He's averaging 48.6 percent from the line this season. Bizarrely, he's much worse at home (43.9 percent) than on the road (53.2).

    But I know Howard works hard on his foul shooting, and his futility from the charity stripe is just one of those constant and unavoidable things, like taxes.

    The real problem for Dwight has not been his foul shooting, but his foul trouble.

    In February and March, Howard averaged 4.1 personal fouls per game. His partially torn labrum is certainly contributing to the problem, as some of those fouls result from lazy arms and poor positioning as he plays through pain.

    On the season, Howard is averaging 3.8 fouls a night, the highest total of his career.

    Many of his games have followed the same pattern. He picks up two quick fouls in the first quarter (at least one of them being a needless foul) and another early in the second, then spends 10 minutes of the first half on the bench watching Earl Clark and Pau Gasol scramble to fill the void.

    This also hampers his aggressiveness on the boards and in the paint down the stretch. No wonder his rebounds, field-goal attempts and steals are all down from last season.

    In order to be able to help his team pursue a championship, the first step for Howard is to remain on the court. He will have to keep his hands to himself and stay out of trouble.