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?