(This will be the first in a series that will detail things learned about each of the NBA’s 30 teams)
We’re 12 games into the season with the defending champs and, well, some things don‘t change—the Clippers are terrible, the Suns can rattle off 100-point nights like PlayStation distributes defective systems and the Lakers are still the flashiest team on this side of South Beach.
Though it's still early in the season, it doesn’t take long for teams to start establishing trends and revealing strengths and flaws.
Without further adieu, let’s take a look into what the Los Angeles Lakers have shown us so far.
Its no secret that Bryant has aged. He’s no longer the most frequent or creative dunker in the league or even his own team thanks to Shannon Brown.
He doesn’t have the stamina he used to and is far more reliant on his jumpshot and the occasional post up than he is on his ability to drive off the dribble.
Bryant will undoubtedly go down amongst the greatest to ever play the game and with the accomplishments he’s earned during his time in the league, he should be considered no less than a top 10 all-timer, but what many don’t realize is that those facts don’t take away from the fact that age has diminished overall game a bit.
Gasol on the other hand has jumped leaps and bounds since his arrival in Los Angeles.
To say that Gasol went from being pushed around in the 2008 Finals to holding his own against league’s elite is a trite understatement that doesn’t fully detail the transformation we’ve seen in him.
It's true that Gasol is meaner, more aggressive and tougher, but he’s also more skilled.
While pure size and strength plays a key part in securing rebounds, so does aggressiveness, timing and maneuvering.
Gasol’s increased comfort in the post, banging with other bigs and his increased effort on the boards has enabled him to increase his rebound average every year since he’s been with the purple and gold.
He averaged roughly eight boards a game during his first semi-season with the Lakers in 2008 (he arrived in February), 9.6 boards in 2009, 11.3 in 2010 and a career high 12.3 rebounds in this season so far.
Yes, Gasol’s stats will suffer with the return of Andrew Bynum, but the fact of the matter is that Gasol is the Lakers’ most consistently efficient offensive weapon and their most dependable post option in light of the wavering health of Andrew Bynum.
Having said all this, the Lakers are still Kobe Bryant’s team.
They just are. If for no other reason than seniority with the team and name recognition, this will always be Bryant’s team.
Bryant is still the team’s best option in the clutch, where Gasol has shown difficulty producing in the past, particularly at the free-throw line.
Bryant is still the heart and soul of the Lakers as a whole and a barometer for the team’s success.
But although this is Bryant’s team, Gasol is his copilot. He may not carry the same weight in the locker room, but should the Lakers capture a third straight championship, Gasol will be right at the center of it all, alongside Bryant.
Don’t be surprised if Gasol winds up snatching the Finals MVP away from Bryant this year though…
The funny thing is that this guy was supposed to be a throw-in, a means of dumping additional cap space and getting the Lakers to bite on a trade for sharpshooter Vladimir Radmanovich for bench warmer Adam Morrison.
Radmanovich was a malcontent. He was a liability on defense (one that the Celtics had no qualms about exploiting in ‘08) and didn’t get along well with Phil Jackson. At all.
Well, when you’ve got yourself a sharpshooter who’s worth squat on the other end of the floor and a man with (then) nine championship titles, which one do you keep? Yeah, thought so.
That was pretty much the logic used by the Lakers front office as they welcomed Morrison and Brown aboard.
At first, Brown was good for a highlight reel play here and there; the Lakers needed a dose of that. They were far from San Antonio Spurs boring, but prior to Brown, the Lakers didn’t make a ton of crowd pleasing, team inspiring plays.
A ShowTime era-like pass here or there, throw one of Kobe Bryant’s impossible shots in the mix and maybe an alley oop to Bynum on occasion, but that was all.
The Lakers have always had their flash, but rarely did it show in crunch time when there were fewer fast break opportunities and defenses paid even greater attention to Bryant.
That was the hole Brown was supposed to plug, all of a sudden he’s that and so much more.
The time he’s spent working on his jumpshot has paid off dividends already. Of the 44 three-pointers he’s taken this season, he’s made 21.
Allow me to put that in perspective: excluding the 2010 season, he had just 30 makes in five seasons, last year he had only 62 makes.
Now we’re 13 games into the season and Brown is on pace to exceed 126 total makes from beyond the arc, more than he’s totaled in his previous six seasons combined.
Yes, some of Brown’s success is due to the fact that he logs more minutes than he used to (still not as many as his career high 20.7 last year), but point blank: he got game.
At the rate his game’s improving, Brown could be an integral part of the Lakers’ post-Bryant future.
In 2008, the Lakers were all about offense. Though they averaged the best point differential of any Western Conference team in the regular season (+7.3), the 101.3 points they surrendered were more than any other team that advanced past the first round of the playoffs that year.
In 2009, the Lakers were a bit more balanced but still clearly more oriented towards offense. They again finished in the top three in point differential (second overall) but still surrendered just under 100 points per game.
The 2009 Lakers often had lapses on the defensive end of the floor, none more noticeable than their series against the Houston Rockets in the second round of the playoffs. Though speedy point guard Aaron Brooks was a nightmare matchup for Derek Fisher, the Lakers didn’t adjust or offer enough help defense to neutralize Brooks’ penetration.
In 2010, the Lakers’ offense took a backseat to their defense. They fell out of the top 10 highest scoring teams in the league, but joined the 10 stingiest defenses in the league as they allowed only 97 points per game.
The Lakers’ point differential actually suffered as a result, and they often went through stretches where they couldn’t have bought a bucket from a “Toys R Us”, particularly when Bryant and Gasol were resting on the bench.
This year the +10 point differential the Lakers currently boast is the highest they’ve seen in the 2000s and although they’re back to surrendering over 100 points a game, they’ve proven to be capable of digging their heels in on defense whenever they have the motivation.
If center Andrew Bynum is able to return in December as scheduled and remain healthy, the Lakers should prove to be more efficient on both ends of the floor than any team since the ‘96 Bulls, which featured three All-NBA First Defensive Team Members, the highest scoring average in the NBA and an unreal +12.2 point differential.
Though the Lakers have proven their ability to dominate on both ends, its no secret that their frontcourt has suffered due to the absence of Andrew Bynum.
On one hand, Bynum’s absence has allowed Gasol to fully manifest his many abilities and further assert himself as the best overall big man in the game.
On the other, Bynum’s absence has made the Lakers terribly thin upfront while Gasol rests on the pine. Lamar Odom doesn’t have the size to protect the rim, and Theo Ratliff at age 37 isn’t meant to log heavy minutes and is already expected to miss the next 4-6 weeks as he recovers from knee surgery.
Due to the Lakers ability to succeed without Bynum, his absence is rarely given the attention it deserves. While it's true that the Lakers have won the last two titles without significant contributions from Bynum in either series, they have a much smaller margin of error when their great size is diminished.
With the Celtics adding Shaq and welcoming back Kendrick Perkins in a few months, a potential Finals rematch would require the Lakers to have as deep a frontcourt rotation as possible, particularly if those rumors about bringing Rasheed Wallace out of retirement in time for the playoffs hold any weight.
One would also think that Bynum could play a key role in a Finals series against the Miami Heat. While much has been made of the Heat’s struggles to defend speedy, scoring oriented point guards, they’ve had at least as much trouble protecting their own paint.
This was evidenced by the shellacking the Celtics gave them in both of their matchups so far and their humiliating loss to the Jazz in which they led by as many as 22. Oh yeah, and Paul Millsap ravaged them for 46 points.
I’ll repeat: Paul Millsap ravaged them for 46 points.
Not Amar’e Stoudmire. Not Pau Gasol. Not Karl Malone. Paul Millsap.
Yeah, I think Bynum could really help the Lakers do some damage against the Heat.
It wasn’t exactly a secret that the sudden shift in attention from Los Angeles to Miami could serve as motivation for the Lakers.
After all, it's not too often that a team enters a season looking for a third consecutive title and isn’t the most talked about team in basketball.
That might have been par the course for the Spurs but not a team as flashy as the Lakers—not in a city like L.A.
The irony is that the Heat haven’t proven to be what they were cracked up to be. Their 8-4 start would have been good for the Nuggets or the Hawks, but not for a team with three of the top 12 players in basketball.
Not for a team that some believed would threaten the supremacy of the ‘96 Bulls 72-win record.
Some of the Heat’s issues come from a lack of familiarity, others from a lack of defined roles and Erik Spoelstra’s ineffectiveness, but the rest have come from the fact that they don’t have a complete roster.
The Celtics lucked out with Rajon Rondo. Not too many players would have thrived the way Rondo did in a must-win-now environment with heavy expectations, a lot to learn and not much time to learn it.
Though it's early, the Heat don’t seem to have the same luck with Mario Chalmers.
All this said, we’ll learn a lot about the Miami Heat on Christmas when they visit Los Angeles.
We may even learn a bit about the reigning champs too.
Though the Heat’s presence seems to have given the Lakers’ motivation an additional jolt, we’ll learn if the media’s attempts at creating animosity with the clubs succeed the way they have with the fan bases.
We’ll learn if the Lakers take the media’s premature coronation of the Heat as personally as the Celtics did.
One thing we already know is that with the Lakers 10-2 start to the season, their focus is where it needs to be.
Many expected the Lakers to adopt the 2010 Celtics’ laissez faire attitude to the regular season, either by choice or by necessity with Bryant getting older and Bynum out for a good portion of the season.
I don’t understand why people believed the Lakers would ever choose to jeopardize the recipe that‘s brought them so much success.
The Lakers have played in all 12 of the possible 12 playoff series of the last three years. They won 11. They held homecourt in 11.
Are you seeing a pattern?
The only Western Conference teams to post Ws on the Lakers home floor during the previous 3 post-seasons are the Rockets and the Nuggets. Both happened in 2009, and the teams only managed a single win apiece.
The Celtics are the only other team to have won at Staples in that time period and of their two wins, they had to rally from 24 points down to secure one.
These guys know how to take care of business on their home floor so why would they ever risk relinquishing that?
Those who believed the Lakers would have to take a backseat in the regular season weren’t thinking very rationally either.
Though the Western Conference is by far the more competitive of the two conferences, no team in the West has the Lakers’ talent or depth.
The Oklahoma City Thunder were considered the most team most likely to challenge the Lakers for the No. 1 seed and though the season is still young, their 8-4 start isn’t quite the world-beating start optimists had hoped for.
While the New Orleans Hornets and San Antonio Spurs currently hold a better record than the Lakers with their identical 10-1 records, the Hornets won’t maintain their play for the rest of the season. They have practically zero size in their frontcourt and have yet to face off against the Lakers, Celtics or Magic.
They haven’t sustained a major injury yet either.
The Spurs haven’t been equipped for the long haul of a regular season since 2008. Gregg Popovich is known for his postseason oriented mentality and although Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker have performed admirably up to this point, Tim Duncan is in his second consecutive season of establishing a career-low in points.
If the Spurs are serious about challenging for the West’s top seed, they’ll need Duncan to return to dominance and one has to wonder whether he can at this stage in his career.
The No. 1 seed may seem up for grabs now, but by this time next month, the Lakers will have likely separated themselves from the West’s No. 2 seed by at least 3-4 games.
Over the last few seasons, the Lakers have been one of the worst teams in the league at maintaining focus. They’ve won games in much uglier fashion than necessary quite frequently, and often enough they’ve blown games altogether.
Some of that was due to the lack of depth that plagued the Lakers over the last two seasons. The rest was a lack of focus.
How else can you explain how the Lakers could blow the Houston Rockets out by 40 points in Game 5 of the second round of the 2009 playoffs and then turn around and lose by 15 in a game that was even worse than the final score 95-80 illustrated?
Well, the Lakers still seem to be prone to lapses like those. Losing the fourth quarter of their most recent matchup against the Nuggets by 14 points shows as much.
However, the Lakers don’t seem to be as lackadaisical about that loss or their recent play as they would have been in the past. How many headlines have the Lakers grabbed this season by calling each other out, even in games they won, holding each other and themselves accountable?
That’s the mark of a team serious about winning. That’s the mark of a champion.
Pau Gasol is averaging the most points and rebounds of his career and consequently having his best season in Purple ‘N Gold this far, and Phil Jackson is telling him to quit being “so nice,” get “tougher” and inflict some pain.
Laker fans have been eyeing another three-peat championship run, since Bryant jubilantly accepted his first Finals MVP trophy in Orlando and ended the Lakers seven-year title drought, and with the increased focus and almost angry demeanor the Lakers have brought into this season, one might think they’ve been eyeing it for awhile as well.
Trevor Ariza couldn’t have asked for a better situation heading into 2011.
His team, the Hornets are currently on top of the conference, and he isn’t being asked to take on the role of a primary scorer.
That said, it just hasn’t been the same for Ariza since he allowed his agent to wheel and deal his way out of L.A.
Last year, Ariza's Rockets failed to qualify for the playoffs and he didn’t transition well into being one of his team’s primary weapons. While he averaged a career high 15 points a game, his efficiency fell through the basement as he converted on only 39 percent of his shots.
At least he's winning In New Orleans, but he’s even less efficient now than he was last season and averages fewer points.
Four years ago, Pau Gasol wasn’t a household name unless you lived in Memphis. He wasn’t even the second best power forward in his division.
Now, given the way his arrival changed the Laker franchise around, he should be mentioned among the very best forwards to ever play the game.
The improvement in Shannon Brown that we talked about earlier couldn’t have come at a better time. The Lakers have been noticeably thin at guard since they rented Gary Payton.
No one is going to say that Brown’s potential is without a ceiling, but given how far he’s come in such a short time, not too many would argue that he’s reached it either.
I guess what I'm saying here is that every league has that team.
You don’t necessarily have to have the most titles to be that team either.
You need a world-class centerpiece, a distinct swagger and an established pride that boosts the motivation and production of the team’s players.
In the MLB, it’s the Yankees, in football it’s the Patriots, here we’ve got the Lakers.
Whether it’s the decline of players we’ve seen leave the team or the betterment of those who stayed, the Lakers have proven themselves to be that team.