The Los Angeles Lakers had another bad loss last night, losing to the San Antonio Spurs. As bad as they looked on their road trip, and they looked horrible, they were just downright terrible on their home floor. The fans had no choice but to boo the home team as they wasted money, time, and Easter to watch a half-hearted effort on the part of the Lakers.
It’s like a mother who chastises her son for bringing home poor grades. “It would be different if you couldn’t do the work, but we know you can. You have so much potential.” The fans look at the Lakers in the same way that the mother looks at her son.
The disappointing thing is not the embarrassment of the loss, but the fact that the effort wasn’t even there. This Lakers team has so much potential, but it is in danger of wasting that potential and wasting an opportunity to win another championship.
Of course, looking at the glass half full and many may be wondering why there’s even a concern in Lakers nation. After all, the Lakers are virtually assured to repeat as the top seed in the Western Conference and they’ve already secured yet another Pacific Division title.
They are going to win 55-plus games this season and are widely considered to be the best or second best team in the league.
But see, that perception is based upon past performance and future potential. The Lakers, on paper, certainly look like a team to be reckoned with, but they are not playing like it. Perhaps they are cutting corners because seven times out of 10, they can get away with it and still win. Perhaps they feel as if they have nothing left to prove in the regular season. Whatever the excuse is, the Lakers have gift-wrapped teams the most important commodity in sports: confidence.
Now teams that would be happy just to make the playoffs, such as the Thunder, legitimately believe they can beat the Lakers. A year ago, only a fool would want to play the Lakers in the first round. Now teams are lining up for the chance to brag about being the ones to knock of the defending world champions.
Some commentators have speculated that Kobe Bryant has gotten older. Kobe may only be 31, but he has the miles on his legs and knees that rival a 36 year old. And I’ll even admit it, Kobe has looked more like that Kobe wannabe at the local park than himself these last couple of games.
Some in the national media like to blame it on Kobe’s inability to play within a team concept. I reject that thinking. Every night, Kobe plays the same way as far as I can tell. Some nights, he hits shots and people think that he’s amazing. Some nights, he can’t make a bucket and he looks rather pedestrian. The shooting percentage—not volume—and his turnovers, are what should be most concerning.
In defense of Kobe, who here is tired of the silly and over-used stat that attempts to demonstrate that when Kobe shoots less, the Lakers win more often? Here’s a stat I would like to see, Hollinger. I would like to see the field goal percentage of the Lakers' perimeter players off of Kobe Bryant's passes. To me, it isn’t how much Kobe shoots that determines the game, but how well his teammates convert easy and open opportunities. I think that is probably a better correlation to winning than shot attempts.
You may say I’m just making excuses for Bryant, but that is not true. Think back to last year. Nobody ever talks about this, but the Lakers won the championship last year in large part because Trevor Ariza understood that when Kobe gets trapped or doubled, the first place he looks is that corner. Ariza’s ability to rotate to the corner, catch, and shoot those corner 3s without hesitation really was the difference in several games last postseason.
What’s more is that Ariza would hit these shots early and late in the game. His play really did wonders to open up the opportunities for Gasol and Bryant and put the defense in an incredible position of making tough decisions.
What thinking is there to be done if the choice is doubling Kobe Bryant or leaving Artest open? Artest has got to be able to hit that corner three with Ariza-like frequency if the Lakers want to repeat.
Kobe’s poor play of late has nothing to do with his age though. Don’t forget, for the first 40 games of the season, Kobe Bryant was CLEARLY the best player in the NBA. Lebron is my MVP, but you put a healthy Kobe on the hardwood and there’s no doubt whom the best player in the league is.
But that’s precisely the issue; Kobe isn’t healthy. How well the Lakers fare in the post season will be influenced by how well Kobe manages his injuries.
If Phil Jackson were to read this column, I would suggest that he sit Kobe for the remainder of the season. First, there’s the obvious advantage of letting Kobe Bryant rest his heavy legs and ugly fingers for a dominant playoff run. Second, and less obvious, is that it’ll allow Sasha Vujacic to get more minutes before the playoffs begin.
Lakers fans may laugh, but Sasha may very well be the key to the title. My theory is that if the Lakers have a reliable three point threat, then they will win. If they do not, they will lose. The Cavs, the Magic,, the Spurs, and other great teams have good balance. They mix inside play with timely perimeter shooting. That is the recipe for a championship and the Lakers need to start developing the ingredients for that right now if they are to repeat.
Sasha’s confidence right now is low, but he’s a superb shooter who can get into those corners and make some shots. Allowing Vujacic to redeem himself now with quality minutes will pay dividends in the playoffs.
Far be it from me, a writer who has never played in one NBA game to give advice to a 10-time championship coach, but the Lakers just don’t fare well this year when they run the Triangle. The Lakers do score on almost every possession in which they run the pick and roll with Gasol and Bryant. Coach Phil Jackson usually reserves pick and roll ball for the last three minutes of the ball game, but it wouldn’t hurt to run those sets earlier when the offense stagnates.
While we are on the subject of pick and roll basketball, some coach needs to take “high IQ” Pau and teach him how to defend it. If he doesn’t do any better on the pick and roll in the playoffs than he did on Sunday night, people are going to stop calling him “soft” and start calling him “stupid.”
Yet, Pau is right about one thing: the Lakers need better ball movement. And I’m not looking at Kobe Bryant. I’m looking at Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar. Every game, six to seven possessions are wasted because those two are trying to get theirs.
I guarantee that if Jordan Farmar would focus more on getting assists than points, fans would have already thrown Derek Fisher a retirement party. Instead, Fisher is still a superior player to Farmar and that’s perhaps the biggest indictment on Farmar’s game.
All this criticism of individual players is missing the point though. The game is not about the individuals, it is about the collective. Lamar Odom figured it out weeks about, but his revelation has been all but ignored. He said that the Lakers need to have dinner together.
See, it isn’t Kobe’s age or Pau’s defense or Ron’s shot or Jordan’s selfishness. Those things are masking the underlying problem: chemistry.
Last year, and even earlier this year, those guys in purple and gold would have bled for each other; they didn’t just play to be the best, they played for each other. They weren’t just a team, but a family.
That infectious camaraderie is missing. When you play for each other, you make the extra pass. When you play for each other, you get the loose balls. When you play for each other, the open shots tend to go in just a little bit easier.
So we can talk about potential. We can discuss effort. Those things are important. But the talent has to be complimented by a will to win together and until the Lakers rediscover their love for each other, their title hopes appear dimmer by the minute.
Perhaps dinner is in order for the defending champs.