It feels strange to talk about needing to play winning basketball when referencing the Lakers. I mean, this team has won a lot of games this season and is poised to take the Pacific Division and earn the #1 seed in the Western Conference for the third straight season. These guys aren’t slouches when it comes to racking up the “W’s”. But at this point in the season and when looking at how the Lakers are playing, this is where we’re at because the inconsistency has gotten to the point where no game is guaranteed and the Lakers are (essentially) losing as many games as their winning by going 6-4 in their last ten games. There was a time, during this season, where mistakes could be written off or explained away but we are too late in the 2010 campaign for those types of thoughts. The Lakers are not playing well, it’s been that way for a while now, and there is precious little time to correct it for the playoffs. So, below are some things that I’ve noticed when watching this team that I hope they can improve when going into the playoffs. To me, these are all things that, if executed better, can get the Lakers back to playing winning basketball.
The first improvement can come on the defensive side of the ball. And yes, getting Bynum back will help in achieving better defense. Because, even though Bynum has his faults as a defender, he’s a big body that is an imposing figure in the paint that contests, deters, and blocks shots. But just getting ‘Drew back will not be enough. So, one specific improvement that I’d like to see is that the Lakers use a more consistent strategy on the P&R. Yesterday, and in many games before it, we’ve seen the Lakers use different philosophies on the P&R and that inconsistency, I think, is really causing our defense some issues. The one technique that seems to work the best is to have the big man hedge and stay with the ball handler until the guard can recover back. Most recently though, what we’ve seen is a token “show” by the big man that does little to disrupt the ball handler. What I mean is that the big man will step out, put his arm out as if he’s one of those electronic barriers at a parking garage, and then in an effort to recover to his own man he then scurries away with little to no recognition as to what the ball handler is actually doing. I’d like to see this stop. Instead, what I’d like to see is the big man show hard and then recover back to the paint only when the player that got screened is back into position to defend. Sure, this will expose our big men more and it will put the onus on them to contain penetration for a second or two longer as the screened guard/wing recovers to the ball handler, but what we’re seeing now is not working. The big man half way showing and then attempting to recover is not slowing down the ball handler nor is it stopping the screen man from either rolling to the hoop or spotting up for a jumpshot. In the P&R, the Lakers need to start taking something away and I think it should start with the ball handler. And since this isn’t really an adjustment to what the Lakers have been doing all season (it’s just putting a grearter emphasis on dealing with the ball handler), I hope they can start to guard this play better as they’ll need that better execution against every team in the western conference playoffs.
The second thing I’d like to see the Lakers do better is to get out and push the pace more on offense. The other day, during the Jazz game, Phil Jackson commented that the Lakers were playing too much at the Jazz pace and that we weren’t operating well playing at that speed; that our execution was suffering due to how fast we were playing. I saw the same thing and agreed whole heartedly. However, the Lakers are one of the more athletic teams in the league, especially in the front court. Gasol, Odom, and Bynum can all change ends relatively quickly and can create mismatches in transition. And I think this team can take advantage of this fact more than they currently are. This season, the Lakers have dropped to 13th in the league in the pace that they play. Last season they were 5th. The season before that they were 6th. At a time when our offense is struggling, I think getting more easy buckets in transition and earlier in the clock can help relieve some of those offensive struggles. Get the ball up court faster and be more decisive in where the ball is going. Make the defense scramble early in the clock and easier shots will come. Now, I understand that one of the reasons that the pace at which the Lakers play has slowed is due to the insertion of Artest for Ariza. However, that is only a one player difference and everyone else on this team is exactly the same and it’s not like Artest can’t get out and run the floor. Get out and push the ball and see what we get. Based off how some of our half court sets have looked lately, trying to get some easier baskets in transition can’t hurt (even if our guards can sometimes display questionable decision making).
The third thing I’d like to see - and this plays into playing at a faster pace – is a return to trapping the ball more on defense. Last season, the Lakers ranked 6th in opposition turnover rate. This season they rank 16th. Even though the Lakers are a stronger defensive team in one on one situations in this season compared to last, they’re not forcing the turnovers that they were last season. And the main difference between last year’s defense and this years is how often the defense is executing traps on the ball handler. When was the last time we saw a good, hard trap on the ball? Whether it’s on the P&R or on a dribbler on the wing, the Lakers need to be more active on defense and get players out of their comfort zones. I understand that one of the reasons why the Lakers trapped so frequently last season was because of the strong side zone scheme that was employed on defense. That scheme put the second defender much closer to the ball handler and it enabled that second man to move into a trapping position much more easily. That said, the Lakers can still go back to aggressive traps in certain situations and I think it would be beneficial in forcing turnovers and throwing the opposing offense off guard. The length and quickness the Lakers possess on defense (even with the Artest/Ariza swap) has not gone down significantly. And with Artest’s defensive instincts and ability to get deflections the Lakers have probably improved in their ability to effectively trap opposing guards and wings using their dribble. So, get back to pressuring the ball with traps to get the opposition on their heels. Force some bad passes and take them the other way for easier baskets.
Obviously, getting back to playing winning basketball will depend on more than these three items. The problems that we’ve cited all season will also need to be improved (even if only slightly) for this Lakers team to get the 16 post season wins it’s searching for. And getting a healthy Andrew Bynum back into the line up will help a great deal too. But, these are things that I’ve seen in many of the Lakers’ recent games that just aren’t up to par and, if improved upon, can help this team get some key stops and get some easy baskets. To get back to the point where every game isn’t the uphill battle that we’ve witnessed recently. It should be said that I’m not in the coaches meetings, in the film room, or attending the practices. I have no clue if these are points of emphasis or not. And I’m not implying that I’m smarter than the guys that coach this team (far, far from it). But, I sure would like to see the return of some (if not all) of these acts because I think they lead to winning basketball for this particular group of Lakers. But what do you think?