Suppose everyday after school, a 16-year-old plays Madden with his 8-year-old brother.
Game after game, day after day, month after month, the older brother demolishes the younger one. It’s not even close. We are talking scores of 56-3.
After a while, the older boy realizes, because he is so much better than his brother, he can do practically anything he wants in the game and still win.
He can play as the Detroit Lions, go for it on 4th-and-30 from his own 10-yard line, and it doesn’t matter. He knows he can’t lose. All the older brother has to do is show up.
Until one day, the 8-year-old gets a little smarter, controls the clock, kicks field goals instead of going for it on fourth down, and ends up winning the game in the fourth quarter. He finally devised a successful plan to beat his brother.
Does this mean the younger boy is indeed “better” than the older one? No. It means he became a little smarter and overcame his lesser abilities to find a way to win.
The Los Angeles Lakers, in a nutshell, are the older brother.
The Lakers were punked on Christmas Day at home by LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers. Sandwiched between those two contests was a double-overtime win over the Sacramento Kings Saturday night.
Despite the recent funk, the Lakers are 24-6 and own the best winning percentage in the NBA. But what is going on with this team? It has to be something, because this juggernaut isn’t playing like a team of that record.
I can only come to one conclusion, because the Lakers’ problems (besides health issues) aren’t physical. They are the most talented team in basketball. There isn’t much disputing that.
They have two seven-footers in Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum.
They have a 6-10 forward in Lamar Odom who would start for any other team in the league.
They have the beefy Ron Artest who is one of basketball’s best defenders, even if there is currently a warrant out for his offensive game.
They have Derek Fisher running the point, a veteran presence that can hit clutch shots late in games (a la Ray Allen in Boston).
Oh, and they have Kobe Bryant.
That’s a nucleus not many teams can match.
The Lakers outperform their opponents in field goal percentage, three-point percentage, free throws attempted and made, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks.
The only areas the Lakers are worse than their opponents are offensive rebounds and turnovers.
By all accounts, the Lakers have superior size and talent to anybody they play. So, the problem? It’s psychological.
It’s knowing you are so talented and so good and therefore feeling the game nearly owes you a victory by simply showing up to the arena. It’s fighting the disease of the older brother playing Madden, failing to hold onto any sense of urgency to win. It’s allowing complacency to creep in when you start a season off by wiping everybody off the court.
The Lakers have some issues to address on the court, but the team needs to remain hungry in order to play its best ball.
Fisher is a solid point guard but, as we saw Monday, he can no longer keep up with faster, shiftier guards. Steve Nash made a clown out of Fisher, and Nash didn’t play his best ball.
Shannon Brown is quicker and more athletic than Fisher, but he’s not ready to seize the starting role and the responsibilities that come with those minutes.
As of late, the Lakers’ big men have played small. Andrew Bynum is on vacation while Gasol has sporadic moments of greatness spread throughout far too many moments of sluggish defense.
It’s not as if Gasol is playing poorly; he is a tremendous player. But the Lakers have built certain expectations for themselves as a team, and they aren’t playing at that level.
When opposing guards penetrate the paint, Bynum steps up to defend but too often commits a foul. His better minutes have been spent on the bench, and that’s a severe problem for the Lakers. And this is after he opened the season playing at an All-Star level.
Cleveland cut through the paint with ease last Friday, creating a plethora of lay-ups and dunks. With the Lakers’ size, this simply shouldn’t happen. Physical basketball is an attitude, and the Lakers have yet to commit.
With Artest sidelined due to a concussion he suffered after falling down the stairs in his home, defensive assignments have shifted and the Lakers’ bench has been exposed even more.
At times, the triangle offense becomes a square stalemate with too much standing around and too much dependence on Kobe. Kobe is nursing a broken finger on his shooting hand and a sore right elbow, a nagging injury that caused him to play the fourth quarter Saturday left-handed.
Gasol has an arsenal to go to, but Bynum has yet to become the dominant inside scoring threat the Lakers need to open up outside shots. Bynum’s go to move is a quick dribble and a right-handed jump hook, but it lacks touch. The shot too often clanks off the rim or backboard. If I’m the opposing team, I give him that shot 30 times a night.
The Lakers don’t need an overhauling of their game; they are so incredibly good when they choose to be. But that’s the conundrum surrounding this club.
When they choose to be.
There’s a reason why some players who come from poverty-stricken backgrounds and poor families sometimes achieve success outside the realm of their physical talents.
It’s because the game isn’t just about winning to them: It’s about surviving. They make the most of themselves because they have no other choice.
The trick is to generate that chip on the shoulders of players who live more comfortable lives.
How do you create that hunger and the feeling that you have never quite made it? It’s a fascinating question, and it’s one that Phil Jackson must address as the Lakers look forward to 2010.
It’s a great luxury to have as much talent as the Lakers.
However, it’s a deadly trap to know it.
You can reach Teddy Mitrosilis at email@example.com.