Our wait is nearly over. Tomorrow night the Lakers begin their pursuit of a third consecutive championship. There is no better time to be a fan of the Lakers and in a league that has reshaped itself in the hopes of dethroning the champions, this season promises to be as exciting as any we’ve seen in the past 20 years. But with the dawn of a new campaign upon us, there are questions to be asked and thoughts on this group to be hashed out. And with that, we present our season preview. Rather than give a standard preview of the team overall, we took the approach of looking for answers to questions that interest us. So without further ado, here were some of the pressing topics on the mind of me, Phillip, and Jeff as we look at the 2010-11 season.
The Starters Rule, But What About The Bench?
For several seasons now the Lakers have been a top heavy team. With Kobe, Gasol, Odom, Bynum, and last season’s addition of Artest, a roster was created that, on paper, is one of the best assembled since Jordan’s Bulls. And with this much talent, it’s easy to see why Lakers’ units that used any combination of 3 or more of these players generated excellent plus/minus numbers. Regardless of who the opposition throws out there, they’re going to struggle to contain that group. But, even with the dominance of these players, the Lakers still didn’t play to their capacity as a team. And while some of that was injury based and even more of it was due to complacency, the reason for not playing better was due to the lack of consistent production from the bench.
The Lakers look to change that this season. With the additions of Steve Blake and Matt Barnes, the Lakers have filled in the cracks the reserves showed last season. Plus, these two players fit right in with the style of play that the starters exhibit. Some may argue that this isn’t the best formula – the argument says that by having a running bench the Lakers change the tempo and that difference throws off the opponent – but I don’t buy that. Last season I wrote that I was hoping for the bench to play more like the starters because that consistency from unit to unit would mean better execution, and thus better results. Well, this season, we’re surely going to get that duplication from the reserves. And what I thought would occur last season will be delayed and deployed during this one. The Lakers bench will be slightly less effective version of the starting group and with that will come what we haven’t seen in nearly 2 full seasons – a bench that can control the game, hold or extend leads, cut into deficits, and limit the starter’s minutes. As we’ve seen this preseason, the presence of savvy veterans that play smart, tough basketball will be a welcome addition to a team that has had to push its starters too long in games that should have been more easily won. Second units around the league will no longer have the opportunity to bait the reserve guards into long jumpers early in the shot clock or careless drives to the hoop. In fact, they’ll see the opposite – steady, consistent play with a focus on execution.
Another Leader Is Here
The addition of Steve Blake–a starting caliber point guard–should help stabilize one of the Lakers’ long-term problem areas heading into the 2010-2011 season. Incumbent starter Derek Fisher’s 43% shooting from the field (50% from beyond the arc) in eight preseason games was actually an improvement over his shooting figures from last season, though you can’t really place too much stock in anything this time of year. For most of 2009-2010, the veteran guard’s shooting was anemic at best, yet Derek still managed to come up with a bevy of clutch baskets come playoff time. With newcomer Blake quickly picking up the offense during L.A.’s eight preseason games, talk has begun anew in Lakers Land about how long it will take him to replace Derek in the starting lineup. It’s not as if Fisher’s job is in jeopardy; regardless of who begins the game on the bench, expect each to play around 21-25 minutes per game. If anything, Blake’s steady play should provide some much-needed relief for Fish, which will help keep him fresh for when the Lakers need him most in April, June and May. Aerial acrobatics and streaky shooting aside, Steve Blake is everything former backup one Jordan Farmar was not—reliable, selfless and most importantly, consistent. He’s not a player who’s going to dazzle you night in and night out, but instead one that knows his role intimately and rarely plays outside of his abilities. He is also a dramatically better shooter than his 39% preseason shooting would lead you to believe. Though Blake will likely see ample playing time with the starters too, his savvy veteran presence should go a long way toward grounding what is shaping up to be the Lakers’ deepest bench since the 2007-2008 season.
Closing Out Games
When one thinks of the last few minutes of a Lakers game, Kobe Bryant instantly comes to mind. The guy is absolutely brilliant in end-of-game situations. However, we’re not concerned with Kobe right now, but more concerned with who should compliment Pau Gasol in the frontcourt. Should Lamar Odom close out games, or should it be Andrew Bynum. Now, this isn’t exactly the most pressing question to be asked at this point in the season considering Andrew Bynum isn’t seeing any game time any time soon, but as the season progresses, this becomes an important issue.
I’ve always felt that a Bryant-Odom-Gasol gives the Lakers the best possible offensive trio because of the way Odom and Gasol work together from 17-feet and closer. Post passing is at a premium in this league, and the Odom-to-Gasol or the Gasol-to-Odom connections are as good as you’re going to see. However, having Andrew Bynum out on the floor is going to help Gasol out on the defensive end. The NBA is currently in a transition from trying to bring in players to run the run-and-gun offense that has been so popular the last 5-6 years and following the Lakers model of size and length.
Take a look at teams like Portland (Marcus Camby, Fabricio Oberto, Greg Oden, Joel Przybilla and LaMarcus Aldridge), Dallas (Brendan Haywood, Tyson Chandler, Dirk Nowitzki and Brian Cardinal), San Antonio (Antonio McDyess, Tiago Splitter, Tim Duncan and DeJuan Blair), Houston (Yao Ming, Brad Miller, Jordan Hill, Luis Scola, Chuck Hayes and Jared Jeffries), Orlando (Dwight Howard, Marcin Gortat, Rashard Lewis, Ryan Anderson and Brandon Bass), and of course, Boston (Kendrick Perkins, Jermaine O’Neal, Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Garnett and Glen Davis) have considerable size, and all of these teams are just following the Lakers model.
It isn’t going to be easy leaving Odom out to close games every night with Andrew Bynum sitting. Gasol is much more effective at the power forward position, and he only gets to move to that spot with Bynum (or, to a lesser extent, Theo Ratliff) on the floor. I do believe that Odom will get a lot of close-out minutes, but Bynum has to get the lion’s share, especially as we get closer to the playoffs. Not only because of the increased size across the board, but because it’s time for Bynum to start taking his game to another level.
You Remember Our Motto, Right?
From our earliest days of youth basketball, we learn that “defense wins games, free throws win championships.” For the Lakers, it’s the other way around. In Game 7 of the NBA Finals the Lakers were awful from the free throw line (67.6 percent), but only allowed 79 points. This season, the Lakers are going to have to do much of the same. The offense is going to come and go, but defense is a matter of effort.
This season, the Lakers defensive philosophy will continue as it did last season – they’ll overly aggressive on the perimeter, funnel penetrators to the bigs, close out on three point shooters and foul as little as possible. With the addition of Matt Barnes, the Lakers hope to not lose a beat on that end of the floor when either Kobe or Ron Artest take a breather. Barnes, as you’ll remember from his days of defending Kobe, is another physical perimeter defender who fears no offensive player. Much like Artest, he takes pride in shutting down the opposition’s best perimeter scorer. Considering how well Bryant and Artest played together, I see Barnes fitting right in, and even improving a defense that finished fourth in defensive efficiency rating a season ago.
I expect to see a lot more of their usage of the strong size zone this year. The Lakers like to force the ball handler to one side of the floor and have their big men step into help side. Because of their length, skip passes become difficult, penetration lanes become less plentiful and three point shots are harder to get off. In fact, teams shot worse from behind the arch against the Lakers than they did against any other team in the NBA. If they’re not in their strong size zone, they’re straight up man-to-man. Because of the Artest-Barnes-Bryant trio, they have the personnel to match up with any backcourt while having the size up front with the Gasol-Bynum-Odom trio to give any big man problems. What I’m trying to say is, if this defense plays the way it should, it’s a defense that will win them another championship.
It’s A Long Season, Stay Patient
I could write a doctorial thesis on how the marathon of an NBA season is often over valued when judging what teams will have post-season success. This isn’t to say that the regular season means nothing – that’d be a dumb thing to say – but I am saying that you must look at more than simple wins and losses or even point differential when coming to any conclusions about the 82 game campaign each team embarks on.
Last season showed that more than anything else, the regular season is important as a bridge to the playoffs. Both the Lakers and Boston showed that regular season success, while important, is only one part of the preparation for a long post-season run. Health is just as important. Developing chemistry and establishing roles for the players is key. Building momentum can come in the form of a winning streak, but it can also come in the form of having everyone on the same page and moving in the same direction as a like-minded unit. Once that occurs, if all things fall into place, the ultimate prize will be within reach.
I bring all this up because this season will be filled with peaks and valleys. Like every other season that we’ve observed as followers of this team, there will be moments where hope is low and where the frustration spawned from suspect results will dominate the mind. Do not succumb easily to these feelings of doubt. The NBA title will not be decided on Christmas Day or on the Grammy Road Trip. These are just steps in the process and must be separated out from the larger goal at hand. Enjoy the journey and understand, again, that it is a long one. Championships aren’t won in a single game during the regular season, but over the long haul the lessons learned from the cumulative will prepare the players (and the fans) for the bigger prize.