On Wednesday night the Los Angeles Lakers, coming off a brutal loss to the Houston Rockets, took the floor against the lowly Hornets. Kobe Bryant—the man, the myth, the legend—began the night just 13 points shy of joining the coveted 30,000 point club. Bryant, a man painfully conscious of his legacy, was never going to leave that record on the table for another night. With commissioner Stern in attendance, he scored 29 points in the Lakers 103-87 victory, to join Karl Malone, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Michael Jordan as THE elite scorers in NBA history.
This was a night off from the circus that has been the Lakers season thus far. They weren’t going to fall to a Hornets team with such a record within Kobe’s grasp. He willed them to victory on Wednesday night, refusing to let his impressive achievement be marred by another disappointing defeat. But the cracks were still apparent; the weaknesses still obvious in the way that Robin Lopez carved up the Lakers defense in the first half on the pick-n-roll—just as the likes of Nikola Vucevic and Greg Smith has done in the previous two loses—and the way the Lakers failed to get back on defense in transition.
A quarter of the way through the season, the Lakers find themselves 9-11—fresh off a loss to a young, hungry Thunder team on Friday night—sitting behind the Warriors and Clippers in their division. Granted, it’s still early days, but a team that was supposed to be an NBA juggernaut—many peoples’ favourites to win the Western Conference—has some real problems. Problems that even Kobe can’t solve on his own.
For the past few games, the Lakers’ starting line-up has been as follows: Duhon-Bryant-MWP-Jamison-Howard. There’s something wrong there, correct? Yep, Chris Duhon, a man that could barely break into the Orlando Magic’s rotation last season, is STARTING at point-guard for the Lakers.
It hasn’t been by design, however.
Early reports were that Nash would be back in one week, but it’s been over a month now since he went down and his return date is still not clear. Mike D’Antoni, who was likely attracted to the Lakers job in part because of the chance to work with Nash again, needs an elite point-guard to run his system—and Duhon and Darius Morris are not elite point-guards.
Bryant has been taking over much of the ball handling duties in Nash’s absence, and although he’s playing at a mind-blowing level, it’s something the Lakers were trying to get away from by signing Nash. They need Kobe to take a step back, to not have to work so hard for his shots, and to not have to take 25-30 shots a night—essentially to preserve those ageing knees. As well as he’s been shooting this season—and he’s been shooting the ball REALLY well—the Lakers are at their best when he’s a part of the offense, and not THE offense.
And Nash’s return, whenever that may be, is also essential in another respect: It may finally get Pau Gasol going this season.
Struggling to put on his big-boy pants
Recently we found out that Gasol has been suffering with tendinitis in his knees, and was rested against the Rockets, Hornets, and Thunder because of it—NOT, the Lakers assure us, because he’s about to be traded.
But tendinitis or not, Gasol has been a shadow of himself this season, and it’s a big reason why the team has performed so poorly. Averaging just over 12 points per game, and shooting just over 40% from the field—both career lows—the big Spaniard has looked lost out on the court. He’s adapting to a new system, tough on any player; and sure, the frontcourt is crowded now with Dwight occupying a lot of space, but Gasol has looked timid, slow and generally uninterested on the floor. His teammates have tried to get him going in games, attempting to post him up, but he seems content with kicking the ball out and being a passive spectator.
At his best Gasol is one of the most skilled big-men in the league. He’s fantastic in the low-post, with a deadly array of moves, and can rebound with the best of them. But Gasol has been far from his best this season.
Speculation is now rampant that the Lakers will trade Gasol unless he can adapt to the D’Antoni system. D’Antoni’s teams have always thrived with one athletic big-man on the floor—Amar’e Stoudemire in Phoenix, for example—surrounded by shooters and an elite point-guard. Gasol isn’t an elite outside shooter, although he has a nice mid-range game, and there are many who think the Lakers would be better off with a player like Andrea Bargnani (PLEASE TAKE HIM–says every Raptors fan), or Ryan Anderson, at power-forward to complement Howard—players that can hit the open 3.
However, the Lakers may wait on trading Gasol until they see how he meshes with Nash. In an interview with Doris Burke, Nash alluded to the fact that was promised that he’d get a chance to play with Gasol, and in theory, those two players seem made for each other. Gasol has that ability to roll to the rim and finish on the pick-n-roll, or pop out and hit the mid-range jumper—to play the Amar’e role. Thus, Gasol may get a stay of execution until Nash returns, and D’Antoni can see how the two play together.
It’s the Defense, Stupid!
Unfortunately, the return of Steve Nash—who is 38 years old and coming off a broken leg—isn’t the magic solution to all of the Lakers woes. Despite his transcendent offensive talents, Nash has never been known for his defense—and defense has been a problem for the Lakers.
On offense the Lakers rank among the top teams in the NBA—scoring over 100 point per game, and as a team, hitting over 45% from the field. That’s not surprising given that Kobe and Dwight are two of the most dominant players in the NBA. But on the defensive end the Lakers have been far from impressive. The overall numbers aren’t terrible to look at, but it’s been late in games when their defensive woes have really come to the fore. The Rockets and the Magic tore the Lakers to shreds down the stretch, utilizing a simple pick-n-roll that they couldn’t get to grips with.
Dwight has been his usual shot-blocking self, but his back isn’t 100% yet, affecting his mobility, and the rest of the team’s defense leaves a lot to be desired. Jamison is an awful defender, Kobe has always been overrated at that end of the floor, and Pau of course, has had major issues at both ends this season.
If the Lakers are to take advantage of Nash’s return to the line-up, they’re going to have to play better defense down the stretch.
And speaking of down the stretch, Dwight Howard has become somewhat of a liability in that phase of the game. Mike D’Antoni recently told the press that he would never consider benching Howard at the end of games. That is understandable, but his awful free throw shooting has cost the Lakers games this year. Teams have been employing the hack-a-shaq strategy on Dwight—entirely logical given his charity stripes woes—and that has ground the Lakers offense to a halt at the end of games. It also appears to have wrecked the big man’s confidence in the process. He looks absolutely dejected heading to the line.
If Howard can’t start hitting his free-throws consistently, it’s a problem that the Lakers are going to have to contend with all season long—whether they improve their defense or not.
Two years ago another heavily hyped ‘super team’ found themselves 9-8, besieged by questions from the media, and major internal issues. There was talk of firing the coach, but after a players-only meeting, that team turned things around. They won 12 straight games and eventually made the NBA Finals that year. That team was, of course, the Miami Heat.
Like the Heat in 2010, this Lakers experiment was never going to run like the well-oiled machine some people expected. You can’t simply throw a bunch of talented players together and expect them to mesh overnight. But the Lakers have also had injury issues to Nash and Gasol, and D’Antoni has yet to be able to fully implement his system.
But there are also problems that just aren’t going to disappear when everyone’s health improves. Howard’s probably going to be a 50% free-throw shooter all year, Nash isn’t getting any younger, and you cannot ignore the fact that the Lakers bench is, for want of a better word, GARBAGE.
The Lakers aren’t going to flounder at .500 all year. They will turn things around eventually—just having Howard and Bryant on the team will ensure that. But simply winning in the regular season and making the playoffs, isn’t the goal for this team. For the Lakers it’s championship or bust. Time is running out for Kobe and Nash, and Howard’s a free agent next summer—who knows if he re-signs if things don’t go well.
This team doesn’t have years to experiment, iron-out chemistry issues, and ‘find’ themselves—a luxury that the younger Miami Heat possessed. It’s now or never for the Lakers. It’s time to put on those big-boy pants.