Righting The Ship

Darius Soriano —  December 27, 2010

After back to back blowout losses – at home, no less – it’s obvious to any basketball observer that the Lakers are playing poorly.  In the past few weeks, they’ve played below a “championship standard” and while wins have come, the caliber of basketball played has been mediocre at best.  During this period, I’ve often taken the approach that patience is what’s needed.  Championships aren’t won or lost in December and in order to reach the goal that this team seeks, there will be growing pains and the general ups and downs that every team goes through.  Essentially, the Lakers are in a funk where their overall talent will get them wins against many teams but on any given night we could easily see a struggle where the Lakers either barely win (or barely lose) or meet a team that has a very good game and a blowout loss results.

This is what we’ve seen in the past two games and I can’t find one person that has an interest in the Lakers’ success happy with it.  Not the coaches, not the players, and certainly not us fans.  We want strong performances and the wins that come with them.  We want momentum to be built so that as the season advances this Lakers team gets better, enabling themselves to peak and play their best ball when it’s needed most.  Right now, we’re seeing the opposite of that.  The Lakers are floundering and based off the last 8 quarters of basketball it’s tough to see the light at the end of the tunnel. 

However, we know – just as the players and coaches know – that better play lies in this team’s future.  The question is how to actually get there.  After the loss to the Heat, Kobe (as well as other players) spoke about correcting their mindset and getting their focus back.  They admitted that right now these games seem to matter more to the opposition and reversing that mentality is their first priority.  Kobe mentioned that he’ll personally reinforce this need to change in practice sessions so that his teammates understand the urgency of the season.

But besides changing the mental approach of the team, the Lakers also need to shore up their on court play and improve their execution on both sides of the ball in order to truly improve.  Greater focus will only go so far if that mental energy is still expended on doing things incorrectly.   Below are two points of emphasis – one on each side of the ball – that I’d like to see the Lakers work on and improve that I think will help this team get back on track.

Offensively, the Lakers need to get back to being decisive in all their actions both when working with and without the ball.  In recent games, players (I’m looking most at Pau Gasol) have not been quick to make decisions with the ball and it’s really hampered the team’s execution.  When a player makes a catch, he needs to know within a couple of beats what the next action is going to be.  Whether deciding to shoot, pass the ball on to an open teammate, or attack off the dribble the man with the ball needs to hesitate less and trust in the decision making that’s being drilled into them in practice and film sessions.

In order to reward that trust, the players off the ball need to start to do the little things better and with more effort and consistency.  Cuts and screens need to be more crisp.  Players expecting a screen need to hold their position for a half second longer to allow the screener to properly set the pick that creates the opening.  When players come off those picks they need to explode into space and anticipate receiving a pass so that they’re ready to catch and either finish or move the ball on again.  The Triangle is a read and react system, but as we’ve discussed many times before it’s also like a dance where the team moves in unison because they’re seeing the same things.  This togetherness is what leads to the type of execution that we saw early in the year.  If the Lakers are to get back on track, they need to rediscover that timing and togetherness.

Defensively, the Lakers don’t have that same history of success from earlier in the year to lean on so they have much further to go before they’re at the level they need to be at.  But, like on offense, if there’s on thing they can improve on it’s their cohesiveness and trust in the scheme.  When you watch the Lakers play, D their rotations are almost always a step slow and it only takes two or three passes to get them into a scramble.  The only way to really improve that is to talk  more and to trust that a teammate is going to be where he’s supposed to be once the offense begins attacking.  Often times the Lakers back end defense is late because the front line defender seems indecisive or not fully committed to the scheme.

We see this consistently on the P&R defense where the big man hedging is either not stepping out hard enough and allowing the guard to turn the corner or he’s stepping out too far and allowing the guard to split the hedge and get right into the paint (we saw Wade do this countless times on Saturday).  This creates confusion on the back end because those players rotations are predicated off the hedge man containing the guard and if that fails the entire defense breaks down.  Many times, it seems to me that the hedge man is too concerned with what’s going to happen after the P&R rather than just focusing on his job and trusting that his back end help will be there.  If the Lakers are to improve their defense, it starts with the hedge man trusting his mates and then the back end guys doing their jobs as needed.  This will create better execution throughout the Lakers D, leading to more stops, and more opportunities to take the ball in the other direction against a team that’s not set up their own defense.

Obviously, with the way the Lakers have been playing of late there are more than a couple of things on both sides of the ball that need to be improved.  But these are initial steps – along with more focus and urgency – will jumpstart this team.  After the Heat game I mentioned that the loss showed me how far this team has to go in it’s growth towards being a contender.  Well, doing these things better is where I think it starts.  How about you?

Darius Soriano

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22 responses to Righting The Ship

  1. I like your style Darius. No naming specific players (Pau deserved the exception), but how the players are accepting the system they have.

    However, perhaps what these players need is also a little sense of fear. The competing teams in the West have gotten noticeably better – not to mention the East. The Lakers are not head and shoulders above other teams in talent. In this case, perhaps a little fear would lend urgency to the individual games we are going through. Knowing what to do is only part of the equation.

  2. The Lakers have never been a good pick and roll defensive team, even in the Shaquille O’Neal years. I have never been able to figure that out, since Phil’s Bulls teams were superior in defending the pick and roll. For whatever reason, Phil never got through how to guard the pick and roll to these Lakers teams.

    Bottom line, we just have to play better all around. Everyone individually has to play better offensively and defensively. There’s too much talent on this team to be struggling like this.

  3. Most of the weight will rest on Pau until Bynum is back into some of kind of game shape, or at least has a better idea of what his body will let him do. I can’t see Bynum getting comfortable until the last week of January. It doesn’t leave Phil with a lot of options for the center position, especially when Ratliff is hurt. I’d rather see them commit to defense and let the offensive flow from there, but too many guys are cheating on defense. Stopping the transition defense as much as possible would be a start. I’d rather them run out the 24 than shoot a 3 that leads into a fast break. Phil has already used the fear card by mentioning Dallas and the Spurs earlier in the week. That didn’t work at all. He seems to be going through a process – asking fans to be patient, not really coming down on Pau, etc. It will be interesting to see how he’ll act if the play doesn’t improve on Tuesday.

  4. As a huge Laker fan, I find it very shocking to hear kobe criticize the team when his defense this year has been non-existent, and his offense nowhere near his prime. I have watched every game this season in its entirety and what I see consistently is that Kobe’s man is always open for wide open 3′s or jump shots and he has been getting killed off the dribble. He puts very little effort into playing team defense (poor rotation) and should look in the mirror as the primary reason they Lakers are struggling big time. He is shooting a near career-low for field goal percentage, can’t hit the 3, and has yet to make a big shot in a big (or small) game. Others are struggling too, but because Kobe takes so many shots, his struggles mean much more to the team than others.
    Lakers need to realize that last year they got lucky and ended up having the home court advantage in the playoffs for every series despite not having the best record. There is no way they could have won the title without having home court and this year they can’t expect to get lucky like last year and get home court without actually having the best record. Boston, Miami Dallas and San Antonio are all going for the best record because they know its importance.

  5. I wonder how much of the team’s troubles are tied into mental fatigue and assimilating the new pieces.

    Mental fatigue from the grind of the last couple of seasons. In 09 after the humiliation of 08 Boston, the team came in with a focused attitude and unfinished business mentality the entire year. In 10 it was defending the ring culminating in that brutally tough G7. Normal championship seasons are hard enough but to go through two consecutive seasons like that has to wear.

    Now you throw in assimilating Blake and Barnes playing key roles and minutes. Even Shannon is like a new player. Luke is re-learning his way after being out. Theo hasn’t played much. Bynum of course.

    So all that, plus not to mention playing with a short roster for a good month and we’re only two and half months into the season. That’s a lot of change and focus needed to get everyone on the same page.

    In a lot of ways, I think the hot shooting by the bench starting the year masked the unfamiliarity everyone had with each other and was somewhat detrimental to the team’s overall growth. The D wasn’t great to start and any lack of crispness in the triangle sets was papered over by the hot shooting.

    The coaches almost have to treat the team like it’s the beginning of the season. Break everything down to the fundamentals and drill them in doing the little things and focusing. Because two and half months into the season, this team looks like it’s closer to training camp and learning the right skills rather than reinforcing skills they’ve learned.

  6. Great article Darius, this should be sent to the Lakers coaching staff for sure. I remember a recent game where the Triangle was run perfectly, and the Lakers just destroyed the opposing team (scoring at will and with ease), I forgot who that was but they need what you mentioned in this Post to get back there. The whole team seeing the same thing at the same time, and just automatically doing what is needed for the easy basket. The players need to make those open shots when they get them, they just can not buy a basket it seems like right now. I do believe we will be fine come playoff time, and the Lakers will be playing great basketball together. Unfortunately, a three-peat is very difficult to accomplish, but anyway we should all enjoy the ride.

  7. Simply put, our team has to play with a greater sense of urgency. HCA is huge when it comes to the all important game 7s. Other than our win over Sactown in 2002, when’s the last time we won a game 7 on the road? It sure was nice to have game 7 against the Rockets at home in 2009 and obviously, having game 7 of the Finals last year was huge, too. If we can’t get HCA for the Finals, we should at least focus on the teams in front of us in the west, because Dallas and San Antonio are playing great right now. It will be interesting to see if our team plays with a sense of purpose on Tuesday night. There aren’t many must-win games in December, but this qualifies – it helps inch us closer to the top and sends a statement that we can win against talented teams. Play with purpose, precision and poise. And for the love of Pete, please slow down San Antonio’s outlet passes and you turn them into a less-effective offensive team. They are thriving on the quick outlet and beating teams downcourt so that opposing Ds can’t get set.

  8. PJ alluded to something being “wrong” with Pau, and I get the sense it’s not a physical thing. Has there been any gossip in the league about something going on in Pau’s life?

  9. @4,

    Kobe is criticizing a team that he is a part of. Therefore, he’s not assuming blame to everyone else but himself. And sorry but the “since he takes the most shots, he is the most to blame” argument does not work. The Laker’s problems extend far beyond shot distribution. The Lakers simply are not competing. They are not engaged. They are not hitting wide open perimeter shots. They don’t defend. They don’t defensive rebound. They don’t stop penetration. They are careless with the ball. Etc. Etc. Obviously, the talent is there, but they are not looking like a team. However, as a fan I’m not about to panic or make some absurd claim that the Lakers are not a playoff team. It’s December. But as Kobe said, they need to start by addressing the way they approach games. They need to stop taking games off and start playing like a championship caliber team. Period.

  10. Looks like Devin Ebanks was sent to the D-League. I may be able to go check him out in the coming weeks and write something up for you guys.

  11. Reign on Parades December 27, 2010 at 4:59 pm

    A lack of devotion to the team scheme is definitely what’s lacking most in what we’ve seen.

    Remember when Kobe and Pau used to always discuss what went wrong or should’ve happened every other play?

    Defensively I’m not sure the guys are holding each other accountable. It’s just like, well they scored, there was this or that breakdown, whatever.

    Maybe I’m reading too much into body language but, man, I dunno

  12. Coming to think of it, the Lakers never really have been a good P&R defensive team since Kareem retired ….

    But anyway, I think it’s worthwhile that we have these discussions, but not try to make too much of what appears to be a blip on the radar. This team’s problem appears to be the same as it was circa March i.e. lack of urgency, poor defensive effort, lack of accountability etc. It obviously isn’t talent as the Lakers are probably the most talented of all the contenders of the Big Four – incl. Boston, Miami and San Antonio. Not the deepest, but the most talented. But they’re struggling even against bad teams like New Jersey, Washington and Memphis.

    I tend to agree with Chownoir about the “grind” of winning tough championship series. Winning Game 7 last year was enormous, but it sure took a lot out of the guys and given that much of the core of the title winning squad (Kobe, Pau, Drew, LO etc) have been playing non stop ball since about 2008, you do wonder if an already mature team is falling victim to burnout.

    Nonetheless, I think this team is too talented to finish outside of the 3rd seed, though given the razor thin margin by which L.A is separated from Utah and Oklahoma, it isn’t a done deal. We will find some balance (I think) by January and hit out full stride by the All Star break, at which point Bynum regains his funk, Pau will rediscover his November form and Kobe reaches near 100%.

    The glass is always half full with this team, guys. Always remember that.

  13. The team is playing with no confidence in executing its sets on the offensive and defensive end. For players to claim that the team is playing overconfident is a joke to any fan who watches the game. If confident in your game it gives you a swagger that the top teams(Spurs, Mavs, Boston) are currently playing with. Not playing like turtles ready to hide when the going gets tough and making every excuse under the sun for a lack of effort. Time for LA to play like their lunch has been taken, get back to the game we all love to watch.

  14. After two championships with the same core, complacency is a given.

    The problem is, what was there before does not always stay there if you don’t work on it. Players may feel that they have what it takes and it only takes some ‘serious mindset’ to dig it back out, but that’s not the case.

    Everyone is a year older, new injuries happen and new contenders show up while contenders of old shore up their weaknesses.

    The problem I think starts with the veterans in this team who must realize that this year’s team is a different team despite the number of familiar faces and that they have as much chemistry building to do as Miami, if not more because it’s much more difficult to mold one person around the team’s need than it is for all players to realize that they have to change their style.

    Also, as much as I appreciate the value of pacing, a la San Antonio of old, PJ is NOT a coach who deliberately paces a team, and it’s alarming that we’re overusing Pau and Odom while getting results that would’ve been no different had we played them 30 minutes per contest.

    I think it’s time for PJ to make up his mind – to say hell with HCA and keep the team healthy and incorporate all the new players, or to say hell with health concerns and go with HCA. He is probably already aiming for the latter…

  15. Not just of old, harold – even today. Parker leads them with 33 minutes a game. Jefferson and Ginobili each get a hair over 30 while Duncan is held to 28, despite checking himself into games for PT. And they’re what, 26-4?

  16. I wish I shared what appears to be the sense here that the Lakers struggles are simply ‘mental’– either a lack of ‘desire’ or just ‘a failure to execute’. Instead, the recipe to beat this team is becoming clear: (1) push Pau (or Drew) off the block; (2) pack the paint, often with a zone, to discourage interior passing and cutting– the combination of these 2 factors (plus doubling Kobe in the 4th) is pretty much killing us night after night, and only lights-out 3 point shooting from Blake or Shannon or maybe Matt gives us a chance (which is obviously NOT how we’re supposed to play). Of course, coaching the other side of the ball is even easier– initiate strongside, then reverse to the weakside where Kobe’s man (and often Lamar’s man) is inevitably camped behind the lane for a wide open three.

    Given how much Pau has struggled with Noah, Hibbert, and Z, I really fear what it’s going to look like when we play a really physical team. Perkins is going to eat him alive.

  17. Lakers just need to give a damn. Period.

    When they do, the defense and team help will click, which will jumpstart the offense, which will energize the bench, which will advance the playcalling, which will produce a string of wins.

    Expect the team apathy to finally fizzle after the All-Star break.

  18. I’m still devastated.

    Is it Ron not fitting in on offense/wearing the wrong shoes on defense–or Fisher finally going over the hill, or Lamar being Lamar, or Pau being softer than butter, or partially recovered Drew not making much difference or Kobe finally showing his injuries and age, or . . . . . did someone sneak into the Laker locker room and steal the team’s mojo?

    I don’t really believe any of the cliches, but I haven’t seen a Laker team like this since I can remember. It’s very humiliating.

  19. Yeah that’s definitely not drrayeye.

  20. I would agree with Simonoid, for one thing it is just to early in the night for him to comment. It is a funny comment though.

    “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.” – Albert Einstein

  21. Great observations. We need Drew back healthy for everything to work like it should. But…..why are San Antonio, Dallas, Boston and Miami playing so well with key injuries? Depth!!! The Lakers did not need to save $9 million, they needed to add depth where they lacked it to keep the continuity of what they were trying to do.

    The Center and Power Foward positions are ones of concern. Players can’t trust Pau if he’s playing tired or pre-occupied in his personal life. Lamar is doing everything else and to expect him to cover 20 feet in 2 seconds is asking a bit too much. Drew isn’t ready yet. Why couldn’t we have addressed the position when we had a trade chip in Sasha?

  22. I truly believe that what the Lakers need is a good
    hypnotherapist. Someone ( a professional), who can
    get to individual players and put “winning” suggestions into their heads , and then as a group
    put a team suggestion. I believe that the Lakers are
    suffering from a breakdown mentally. They just are
    not consistent; they lost their memory of this earlier
    season where they were the best around. It’s almost
    as if they can’t or won’t believe that they have every-
    thing they need at their disposal. I think that this would be a very positive and timely solution for them.