Why Am I The Only One Who Understands The Lakers?

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Why Am I The Only One Who Understands The Lakers?
(Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Sometimes I think I'm the only one who knows why the Lakers won the Western Conference by eleven games—and why they've struggled so much in recent playoff action against Houston and Denver.

I flip the car radio on and marvel at the "experts" railing forth on Mike & Mike, Dan Patrick, Jim Rome, and the rest of the talk radio universe. You know the blather I'm talking about: the cliches and contradictory blanket statements with no basis in reality whatsoever.

"The Lakers are inconsistent. The Lakers are talented. The Lakers are soft. The Lakers are long. The Lakers have the greatest coach in the league. The Lakers have the best player in the world. The Lakers are all hype and no backbone.

"Andrew Bynum is a star-in-waiting. Andrew Bynum should never play again. Derek Fisher is a savvy veteran leader. Derek Fisher is past his prime and should be benched. Lamar Odom is an un-guardable, nightmare matchup for the opposition. Lamar Odom is the perfect complement to Kobe Bryant. Lamar Odom is invisible and should be traded yesterday."

So I give up. 

I've quit watching pregame, halftime, and postgame shows altogether. Sorry, but I'm sick and tired of listening to people who have watched the Lakers play 10 or 15 times all season explain them to me—the guy that (thanks to the wonders of NBA League Pass) has watched every stinking game the whole year long.

And it's not just the media.

I don't think even the coaches and players really understand the strengths and weaknesses of the 2008-09 Los Angeles Lakers.  Maybe it comes down to being far enough away (like on a couch in Ohio?) to really break down what's going right and what's wrong. 

No, this is no ego trip.  I honestly believe it: Sometimes it seems like the only person who understands my team is...well...me.

And because I believe in sharing, I'm willing to explain this Jekyll-and-Hyde mystery of a basketball team to you. I can't tell you if the Lakers will beat the Nuggets or not. I definitely can't guarantee if they'll win the NBA title or not. 

But I can explain what the real keys to success or failure are. Take it from somebody who's seen this team at its best and worst enough to know.

Call me your personal mythbuster—this is the real scoop on the league's most talked-about team—in no apparent order whatsoever.

Drumroll, please.

 

1.  For the Lakers to win the title, their perimeter shooters have to knock down open jumpers. 

While winning a conference-best 65 games in the regular season, LA averaged almost seven made triples per contest, converting over 36 percent of their shot attempts behind the arc.  In their five playoff losses to the Rockets and Nuggets, the Purple and Gold are only 30-105 from distance, which translates to a frigid 28.6 percent. 

Contrary to popular opinion, Lamar Odom is not the key to the Lakers' success. Instead, it's the outside shooting of Trevor Ariza, Sasha Vujacic, and the three-headed point guard monster (Derek Fisher, Jordan Farmar, and Shannon Brown). 

Let's use Wednesday's Game Five as an illustration. Odom exploded for a monster game with 19 points and 14 rebounds off the bench. This has led seemingly every NBA analyst in America to describe Odom as the X-factor for the Lakers' championship hopes. 

If Odom's stellar play made all the difference, why exactly was Game Five tied after the first quarter?  And after the second quarter?  And the third quarter?  The most talented team in the NBA got perhaps a season-best performance from its "X-factor" and almost lost a must-win playoff game at home? 

Don't think so.

To answer this perplexing question, we need only to peer a bit farther into the box score, and look for the three-point shooting. Oh yes, that. 

Los Angeles was 3-16 from behind the arc in Game Five, which equals both 18.8 percent and horribly awful, depending on your choice of terminology. What really happened Wednesday is that Kobe Bryant was consistently double-teamed whenever he touched the basketball in the frontcourt. 

Instead of executing the pick-and-roll with Pau Gasol, as he would have liked to (please don't buy any of the "intentional decoy" coach-speak garbage!), Kobe drew Gasol's defender, taking two Nuggets out of the play, and gave the ball up early to Gasol. 

This gave Gasol the chance to knock down mid-range to outside jumpers (the same shots the Lakers have conceded for the whole series to one Kenyon Martin, with mixed results), but the Nuggets weren't willing to give those shots up. 

The double-team of Bryant then necessarily leads to a help-side defender rotating to Gasol, which opens up the dive to the rim—a move perfected by...you guessed it...Lamar Odom.

So Kobe draws two defenders to one side of the floor, Gasol brings a third, Odom gets open for a couple dunks or layups each quarter at the rim, and the rest of the time, the Lakers' hopes for scoring consistency rest on the opposite side of the floor—where Vujacic, Ariza, and Fisher hang out, eat popcorn, and wait for the skip pass to come. 

If the shooters make shots, the Lakers win.

If they don't, it's gonna be interesting from now until the fat lady's operatic solo.

 

2.  If not corrected, the Lakers' penchant for turning effort on and off will seriously jeopardize the team's hopes for a June parade. 

I don't think the Lakers are inconsistent. I just don't think they care on a night-in, night-out basis. If they're mentally involved and committed to execution, they play well. For the doubters, compare Game Three at Houston (a 108-94 road win) with Game Four—an underwhelming beatdown where the visitors trailed by as many as 29.

What scared me as a Lakers fan about Wednesday's nailbiter with the Nuggets is that the Lakers looked desperate to win, which isn't usually the case. Yet they still almost saw the game (and likely the series) slip out of their grasp. 

When you watch Kobe and company, judge them on effort. Do they dive for loose balls?  Do they rotate and help on defense (or give up easy dunks)?  Do they chase down opposing players' breakaway attempts?  Do they take charges on Carmelo Anthony (or reach in as he dribbles circles around them)?

Yes, the Lakers are talented offensively. That's been a big part of Phil Jackson's problem. As anyone knows, a habit is formed by a number of successive repetitions. The Lakers have a habit of not working hard on defense, because they were able to outscore the opposition seemingly at will for most of the regular season. 

I don't know if LA can break its habit in the next few weeks, but Houston and Denver have made Laker fans nervous because the favorites simply don't take opponents seriously enough to play 48 minutes of solid defense every single game.

 

3.  Good Lakers possessions go through the block, not necessarily the Mamba.

Perhaps more than any other Laker fan in the world, I want Kobe to touch the ball on every LA possession. To a fault, even. 

I would be fine with watching Kobe single-handedly try and score on every single trip. I think it's entertaining, I think it would give him a challenge, and I think it would be more consistently effective than some of the team's offensive approaches. 

I mean it; do you remember those two 15-point quarters in Game Six against Houston?  If you gave Kobe the ball every trip for a twelve-minute quarter, I guarantee he scores more than 15 points. Easy. But I digress.

Despite my admiration for the offensive skills of the best basketball player in the world (and no, this isn't going to be a LeBron vs. Kobe article—heaven knows B/R has enough of those already), I still maintain the Lakers' best chance to give their coach his tenth gold trophy is throwing the ball inside. 

There is not a team on the planet that has the size and ability to guard both Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum simultaneously. However, you wouldn't know that by watching a Lakers playoff game. 

For LA to dominate inside, they need to throw the ball to the block early and often, no matter which post player is available first. In this humble writer's opinion, the Lakers look dead-set on getting Gasol involved...or getting Bynum involved...to the exclusion of every other body on the roster, including the second post player. 

I want to see both bigs involved at once. Did you notice the beautiful no-look assist from Gasol to Bynum last night for the "and-one?" 

Yes, the Lakers are big and long. Now Phil needs to figure out how to use that to his advantage. 

The reason the Lakers disposed of Utah in five games is the inside domination the first-seed enjoyed. Gasol scored so early and often that he was drawing Jazz double-teams in the first quarter.  When Kobe Bean Bryant is a guard on your team, and the opposition is doubling the post, good things are bound to happen: take that to the bank. 

If LA didn't worry so much about Kobe facilitating everything, they could calm down, run their triangle offense, and pound the basketball to either block. High-percentage shots, layups, dunks, offensive rebounds, and opposition foul trouble would follow shortly.

Kobe would then have an even easier time of taking over down the stretch, like every single person watching the series knows he's going to do as the fourth quarter kicks off.

 

There you have it.  Now you know.  Whether the Lakers win or lose from here on out, judge my favorite team on these three keys and you should have a perfect predictor of the win-loss record. 

After all, the Lakers beat the second-best team in the West last night while only hitting on two out of three cylinders: the bigs got touches, the effort was there, but the shots didn't fall.

If the players and coaching staff figure out how to complete the trifecta in the next month, they'll be hanging a banner in Staples Center.

Guaranteed.

 

 

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