Kobe Bryant to Phil Jackson: What the LA Lakers Need to Play As an Elite Team
The Los Angeles Lakers still have one of the better records in the NBA this season.
When the team reeled off eight straight wins to begin the year, many were saying that the Lakers were the heavy favorites to win the NBA Title next June.
However, after those eight consecutive victories, the Lakers have gone 8-7 and included a four-game losing streak. That string of losses was a first for LA during the Kobe Bryant-Pau Gasol era.
Considering that Bryant and Gasol form the NBA’s best inside-outside duo, that streak should be unacceptable.
Clearly, the Lakers need to make some changes and have a few factors go in the team’s favor.
Andrew Bynum (and Theo Ratliff) Returning
Starting with the obvious, two big events the Los Angeles Lakers can look forward to are the returns of the team’s centers: Andrew Bynum and Theo Ratliff.
At 7’0” and 285 pounds, few players can match Bynum’s size and brute strength. Besides being able to get easy scores, usually among the league leaders in field-goal percentage, Bynum’s return will provide many additional advantages for his team.
First, Bynum playing the center position will allow Pau Gasol to play his natural position of power forward. While playing the four position, Gasol is less likely to get beaten up as much by true centers.
Furthermore, when Bynum goes to the bench, Gasol can play some backup center and have his way with opposing reserve unit centers.
Bynum starting will signal Lamar Odom’s return to the bench. Resuming his role as a super-sub, Odom can team with the Killer B’s unit of Steve Blake, Matt Barnes, and Shannon Brown to form perhaps the best bench in the NBA.
The return of Andrew Bynum will also allow Gasol to get some much-needed rest, as he is averaging about 40 minutes of playing time per game so far. This has led to several recent poor games and a hamstring injury.
The return of Theo Ratliff will help spell additional relief for Gasol and Odom, who has been forced at times to play center this season. Ratliff, along with Bynum, will help shore up the interior defense for the Lakers.
No one really fears Gasol in the middle, as opponents routinely get layups at the rim against LA. Bynum is more of an intimidating presence, not afraid to bang down low with other bigs.
Meanwhile, Ratliff is one of the all-time leading shot blockers in NBA history. Like Bynum, Ratliff is less likely to let easy opportunities at the basket.
Having Gasol and Bynum play together once again will give LA an imposing twin tower lineup that will make it much more difficult for opponents to score close to the basket.
In short, there are so many factors that look to play into the Lakers’ favor once Bynum and Ratliff return to court action.
Better Ball Handling
Los Angeles may be the 10th best team this year in ball handling, averaging just 13.9 turnovers per game.
However, this number is misleading given the team’s potential.
Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom may be the best-passing big men combo in the game. Steve Blake and Derek Fisher, the team’s point guards, are usually among the NBA’s leaders in the assist/turnover ratio.
Yet, each game the Lakers seem to make telegraphed passes that get picked off by the opposition. When the passes aren’t predictable, there seems to be too many forced inside passes that end up leading to turnovers and resulting fast breaks.
Against the team’s most recent loss against the Chicago Bulls, this was evident when the team turned the ball over eight times in the second quarter alone. At least two turnovers where made from ill-advised long passes to players along the sidelines, leading to the ball going out of bounds.
Being that turnovers usually lead to baskets on the other end, the Lakers can help themselves out by handling the ball better and perhaps preventing some scoring by opposing teams.
Kobe Bryant More Efficient in Fourth Quarters
Despite many critics suggesting that Kobe Bryant was no longer going to be an elite player this year, he has proven doubters wrong.
Once again, he is among the NBA’s scoring leaders and has displayed his usual outstanding all-around game. As usual, Kobe has shown why he is the best shooting guard in the league.
Of course, being that he is one of the top five players of all-time, few should doubt Bryant when he says he can play at an elite level.
Yet, there is room for improvement this year. While he was one of the NBA’s best last season in the clutch in hitting six game-winning shots, this season has been a different story.
Part of the reason Kobe Bryant’s shooting percentages this season are lower is that Bryant has mostly gone cold from the field during fourth quarters. More often than not, Kobe hits nearly half of his shots through three quarters before going 1-for-6 or 2-for-7 in the final quarter of games.
This late-game poor shooting has in part led to several blown victories for Los Angeles. Clearly, the team needs one of the best closers of all-time to step up.
While his shooting has needed help late in games, Kobe Bryant has generally made the right plays. Ill-advised shots that Kobe would have taken earlier in his career are now passes to open teammates.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t help when Kobe passes the ball to players for easy baskets, only to have his teammates turn the ball over.
Such was the case in the team’s close victory against the Clippers as Pau Gasol and his “butterfingers” twice coughed up the ball in the closing minutes.
Still, Kobe took a step in the right direction in that game by hitting two key clutch baskets before having a potential game-winner waived off.
If Bryant can keep going in the right direction in clutch efficiency, then it will be much more difficult to beat the Lakers.
Learn That No Lead Is Safe
It is natural that NBA teams tend to take their foot off the gas pedal after building a substantial lead. This season, this problem seems to plague the Lakers.
For example, the team endured its first loss after losing a 10-point lead with 11 minutes left in the game against the Denver Nuggets.
Against the Utah Jazz, the Lakers found a way to lose after building an impressive 19-point lead.
In Chicago, the Lakers held a 13-point advantage against the Bulls only to see that lead also evaporate.
While it’s natural that teams go on runs during games, championship-caliber teams are usually rather adept at holding onto sizable leads, especially late in games.
The solution is simple. The Lakers under the guidance of Phil Jackson know how to play smart. The core group has been together for about three years.
The complacency issue or lack of energy needs to be disposed of immediately. Instead, the team can try to act with a sense of urgency.
Step Up the Defensive Intensity
While the Lakers offense has generally been among the NBA’s best, the team’s defense has yet to match last year’s championship team.
For instance, the Lakers have let teams score over 100 points in 11 of the 23 games played thus far. In a home game against Phoenix, LA gave up 22 three-pointers, which was the second highest total in NBA history.
This was a far cry from last season, when Los Angeles led the NBA in opponents’ three point percentage defense.
To be fair to the team, the Lakers defense has improved over the past couple of weeks, as fewer teams are scoring over 100 points or shooting high percentages.
Derek Fisher has recently given his signature motivational speeches trying to get his teammates to play tougher defense.
He has stressed strong perimeter defense, and the difference in tenacity from Ron Artest, Matt Barnes, and Kobe Bryant has been noticeable.
Sometimes poor shooting nights will lead to losses. However, strong defense will at least keep the team in games and give LA a chance to win.
And in the end, the common saying is that “defense wins championships.” If the Lakers can continue to improve on defense, especially once Bynum and Ratliff return, then Los Angeles will be well on its way to defending its title.
Phil Jackson Needs to Change His Style At Times
By all accounts and measures, Phil Jackson is the greatest NBA coach of all time. Through the league’s history, Jackson has the highest winning percentages in the regular season and playoffs, most championships, most playoff wins, and most playoff series wins.
However, he is not the perfect coach. One of the most annoying strategies that Jackson uses is his refusal to call timeouts when the Lakers lose sizable leads and other teams go on a run.
His reasoning is simple: Phil wants his players to figure it out. And while there is a time and place for that strategy, so far it has cost the team quite a few victories this season.
Over and over again this year, the Lakers lose big leads and then go on to lose the game. One reason that may contribute to this is the fact that teams play different when they play with a lead vs. from behind.
A few losses early in the season may seem like they hardly matter, but quietly other teams have built better records than LA. These teams include San Antonio, Dallas, and Boston.
If the Lakers can learn anything the past few years, having home court advantage throughout the playoffs can mean the difference between winning the Finals (2009 and 2010) and losing the championship (2008).
Here’s a word of advice for the Lakers: if you build a large lead, it is much easier to win if you play smart and work hard to stretch those leads. It is never good to lose big leads and let momentum switch to other teams.
Win Against the Bad Teams
This year, the Lakers have lost to quite a few mediocre teams.
These losses include games against Phoenix (12-11), Indiana (11-10), Memphis (10-14), and Houston (8-14). Don’t forget that if LA won those games, each of those records would have one less victory and one more loss.
The best teams can usually win against teams with poorer records.
Los Angeles cannot afford to overlook inferior teams. The Lakers are the two-time reigning champions. With that in mind, combined with the glamour of LA and the rich history of the Lakers, every other team is going to put its best effort against the Lakers.
The Lakers need to find a way to match the energy of their opponents. It’s never a good idea to think that playing intelligently despite getting out-worked can lead to wins.
Realize That Nothing Is a Guarantee
Lastly, the Los Angeles Lakers need to realize that nothing is a guarantee regarding another championship this season. Twenty-nine other teams want the Larry O’Brien and a few teams so far have very good chances at beating LA in a playoff match.
As hard as it is to win a championship, it is harder to repeat. The Lakers will have to work for every win.
The Boston Celtics desperately want to get revenge for their loss to the Lakers in June. The Orlando Magic wants a similar outcome to make up for the team’s loss to LA in 2009.
San Antonio might have added another two or more championships if not for the LA Lakers.
It is clear that other teams have plenty of motivation.
But Los Angeles should try to play hard in order to catch up with these other teams. And if that is not enough motivation, consider what a third championship in a row would bring.
First, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol and Shannon Brown could say they were part of a Lakers dynasty, which could add to their legacies. For Gasol, this could help propel him into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
This year could also bring rings to Matt Barnes, Steve Blake and Theo Ratliff for the first time. Being that this might be Ratliff’s last year in the NBA, one would think he would play with a sense of urgency.
In addition, this could be the team that ties Derek Fisher and Kobe Bryant with Michael Jordan at six rings apiece.
Finally, this season can also lead to the Lakers tying the Celtics at 17 championships.
There are plenty of motivating factors that the team can use to propel itself to success. Now is the time to put those to good use.
When analyzing the seven losses this year, the Lakers could have won each of those games in the fourth quarter. This indicates that LA just needs a few tweaks in order to be an elite team.
Sometimes the difference between good and excellence is a thin margin.
Lakers fans are quick to panic when their team struggles. There have been some growing pains for sure, but few expected the team to start off as strong as it did.
With Bynum’s injury, I myself said that Los Angeles should be able to win 12 or 13 games in November, and the team ended up with 13 victories.
Considering the frontline problems, the team has a lot to look forward to when Bynum and Ratliff return. And should the team follow the suggestions previously put forth, victories should be easier to come by.
Once these things happen, barring any freak injuries to key players, the Lakers should once again be the elite team that fans yearn for.