Archives For December 2011

The season that was nearly lost to labor strife is finally here, but based off the chatter amongst a large sect of Laker fans you’d wonder if that’s actually a good thing. Uncertainty is in the air and fans are stirring in their chairs like their parents just sat them down to confront them about the box of “stuff” they found under the bed. Now is not a time of comfort for the Lakers nor those that root for them.

Gone is Phil Jackson, his calming zen approach, and his championship pedigree. When Phil Jackson paces sits in his high chair on your sideline, every potential negative has a duller edge. A suspect rotation? Phil will sort that out. A tough to manage star player? Phil can reach him. Marginal players that may not have a full NBA skill set? Phil will find a way to maximize their talent. Plus, he’d deal with the media masterfully and make even the most dire situation feel manageable.

Gone too is the calming presence and swiss army skill set of Lamar Odom. To a man, every player in the Laker locker room has a deep respect for Odom. His life challenges have been more than many would face in five lifetimes yet he almost always wore a smile and carried a demeanor that invited playful interaction that could bring the most diverse group together. When on the hardwood, he was able to provide nearly any skill that was needed on any given night. He was the guy that could fill all the gaps – no matter how wide – or step back and play the simple role all in a single game. Few players have the mental or physical ability to be that player, but Odom was for the Lakers.

Plus, Jerry Buss continues his slow drift to the background while his son, Jim, takes a more prominent role in every decision made. I might be biased, but Dr. Buss has been the best owner in sports for the entirety of his tenure as top man of the Lakers and his stepping back has many feeling uneasy. Will Jim have the same golden touch of his father? Will he be able to relate to people with the same common man touch? Will he be willing to make the hard decision or gamble at the right time and come out on top as often as his father did? Many wonder if any of those questions can be answered in the affirmative and that uncertainty has many on the verge of panic.

Yet, the season will go on and the Lakers must be ready to play despite all this change.

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The roster the Lakers bring into the season is both enviable and full of question marks at the same time. Any general manager would love to have a foundation of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum as this year’s Lakers do. Despite the incredible mileage on his legs, Kobe still checks in as one of the elite wing players in the game. He offers fantastic post and mid-range skill on offense and can still provide elite level defense when called upon. His game may based more on craft and cunning than on outright explosiveness with crossovers replaced by up fakes and catch and go’s replaced by an amazing triple threat arsenal, but through the evolution of his game, the effectiveness remains due to smarts and sheer hard work. And the Gasol/Bynum duo represent fourteen feet of diverse, inside-outside skill that can control the interior on both ends of the floor.

Beyond these three, though, the Lakers bring an assortment of role players that leave me wondering if they can be consistently good enough every night. At point guard the Lakers still harbor the same issues that plagued them last year. Fisher is aged and his legs make it so he can no longer be the consistent performer that helped the Lakers earn titles in ’09 and ’10. His hard-nosed defense can still be effective in compact areas and he can still do well in a team scheme funneling his man where he’s supposed to. However, he’s a liability in space (save for as the last man back on a fast break) and is blown by too often, leaving his big men scrambling behind him to cover up for his deficiencies. Steve Blake is younger and brings more energy on both ends, but the decline he showed last season was real and until he can consistently show that it was a fluke, the questions about his ability to play 25-30 minutes a night for a championship contender are legitimate. That said, the hope is that a new scheme where he’s asked to do more than stand in the corner on offense will keep him engaged for longer stretches and inspire the bounce back year that’s needed.

On the wing the Lakers have a glut of players, all of them with holes in their game that will need to be pasted over with smart substituting and situational play. Ron Artest Metta World Peace will be looked at to be an offensive spark for a second unit that sorely needs another scorer and his defense will be needed both on that unit and in the closing minutes against the league’s elite wings. Barnes was expected to replace MWP in the starting group, but he too will play a bench role, likely providing spot minutes at both SF and SG in relief of Kobe. Both will be relied upon to play strong wing D and give a veteran toughness to a unit that, last season, surrendered too many leads with inconsistent effort on both ends of the floor. Jason Kapono has been added as a three point specialist but the limitations in the rest of his game mean he’ll need to be hidden a lot on defense and provide little more than his shooting and floor spacing on the other end.

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The big concerns coming into the season were shooting and foot speed and while the Lakers have hopefully sufficiently addressed the former with the addition of Kapono, Troy Murphy, and a resurgent Steve Blake, the latter remains a real issue. The pre-season showed that the Lakers will have issues covering backside rotations to corner shooters when the ball was reversed quickly. Their big men will also be tested in their new hard hedge/recover technique when covering the pick and roll as they’ll be asked to cover a lot of ground when stepping out on ball handlers 25 feet from the hoop and then sprinting back to the paint to protect the rim. This approach to covering the P&R will also stretch the Lakers’ perimeter defense as wings will need to dip down to the paint to help the helper and then recover back to the perimeter to close out on shooters spotting up behind the arc. Will guys like Kapono, MWP, and Barnes have enough juice in their legs to perform these duties?

Where the Lakers have tried to address these issues of speed and athleticism is in the addition of Josh McRoberts and the promotion of second year forward Devin Ebanks to the starting lineup. Both players have a bounce in their step, an attacking nature on offense, and a willingness to go hard every minute they’re on the floor. Experience is definitely an issue with these two and relying on them for too much could prove to be costly in any given game as youthful mistakes can turn the tide of a contest. However, I remember thinking the same thing about Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic in 2009 and 2010 but they both made key hustle plays in those runs that more experienced players with their older legs may not have been able to make.

And this is where the balance for the Lakers will be this year. This team will have to smarter than ever before as their talent level is no longer so superior to other teams that they can simply outclass teams via the strength of their roster. They’ll need to outthink opponents, execute better, and be sharper than in season’s past. However, they’ll also need their younger players to make some key plays that the mostly veteran group of last season were physically unable to make. A key loose ball will need to be grabbed; a long rebound will need to be gobbled up and it will be the Lakers that have to get them if they hope to win and advance further than last year.

And all of this will need to happen under the guidance of a new head coach with new schemes that will be learned on the fly. Brown’s schemes are not the most complex, but they do require patience and teamwork. They’ll also require hard work and accountability. Luckily for the Lakers, these are traits these players are used to from the previous regime. The key will be, as always, if the Lakers can stay healthy and come together as a team that is greater than the sum of its parts. Last season, the Lakers fell woefully short in this area and that, as much as anything else, was the reason their year ended in the embarrassing fashion it did. The expectations and the talent were in place, but the togetherness was not. This year, the talent has been lessened some, but the potential for this team to come together and outpace what last team’s group achieved is certainly possible. But it will take a comfort level with each other and with their coach; it will take everyone being on the same page and striving for the same thing. And, of course, it will take some luck.

In the end, though, this is why they play the games and why we watch them. As much as we’d like to prognosticate who will do what, it will all be decided on the court and I’m going be following every second of the way to see what this team can do. Through all the ups and downs with all the wins and losses. This Laker team is changed from the ones we’ve been used to the last few seasons, but, that may end up being a very good thing. Only time will tell.

L.A., L.A.: Big City of Dreams

J.M. Poulard —  December 24, 2011

The Los Angeles Lakers are the NBA’s signature team and generate a plethora of interest given their elite status. In addition, with the franchise being located in one of the biggest markets in the country, it’s only natural that the team gets an incredible amount of media coverage.

Whether it’s a trade, a non-trade, a trade demand, a free agent signing, an exhibition game win or even a loss; the Lakers always dominate the headlines. There is no escaping that.

Indeed, when the trade that brought Chris Paul to the Lakers was essentially rescinded (or blocked, depending on the explanation du jour), journalists from around the country all had an opinion on the matter. The collateral damage of the failed transaction was Lamar Odom (the swap would have made Odom a Hornets player); who requested to be traded and got his wish and relocated to Dallas to play for the defending champions.

This prompted the likes of Stephen A. Smith and Ric Bucher to proclaim that Kobe Bryant was not only livid at Jim Buss and the organization, but that the mercurial guard would soon request to be traded. Once again, water under the bridge in Lakerland.

Head coach Mike Brown is now learning the added pressure that comes with coaching the Lakers. Indeed, after an exhibition game loss against the Los Angeles Clippers, Brown responded to a question about Kobe’s play. His statement:

“Kobe is going to be fine offensively. But defensively, Kobe was just as guilty as everybody else at not contesting shots and so he as well as the rest of the guys have to make sure that they focus in on that area of the floor.”

The statement in itself is quite harmless. Brown didn’t really call out his superstar; it was more so about a head coach sharing his insights on the play of the best player on the team. It may have caused some to raise their eyebrows because the former Cavs coach never really made such statements about LeBron James; but then again perhaps Brown now wants things done a little bit differently given his experiences in Cleveland.

Nonetheless, the statement flooded the airwaves and many were quick to direct their attention to Kobe just to observe his reaction. Bryant gave his head coach the vote of confidence and the issue pretty much died.

On this front, Brown hasn’t yet been through the fire much like Phil Jackson has; thus he is learning how things function in Los Angeles. Consequently, one would expect the head coach to perhaps choose his words a bit more carefully next time around to make sure he does not stir something up that’s not actually there.

For all the talks about small versus big markets, rarely is it mentioned that players and coaches that play for glamorous teams often get a huge amount of criticism thrown their way whereas small market teams can occasionally escape them (Exhibit A: no one ever blasts Manu Ginobili for his atrocious foul on Dirk Nowitzki in Game 7 of the 2006 Western Conference Semifinals. Exhibit B: Everyone remembers the Patrick Ewing finger roll).

Erik Spoelestra went through the inferno last season and may in fact be a better head coach for it when this season gets underway. The Heat head coach had to deal with questions about LeBron bumping into him, the team’s inability to defeat the top teams in the league and Crygate. Those situations had nothing to do with basketball per se and yet could have derailed Miami’s 2010-11 regular season.

Much like his counterpart in Miami, Brown will surely face other situations throughout the course of the upcoming campaign that may in fact threaten the chemistry in the Lakers’ locker room. Thus, Brown will have to evolve as a head coach during the season to ensure he is more than capable of handling whatever is sent his way.

Ultimately, the manner in which Brown handles the ever growing demands of being the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers will determine what type of unit he has by season’s end.

L.A. is where it’s at and Mike Brown is clearly not in Cleveland anymore.

Friday Forum

Dave Murphy —  December 23, 2011

Our shortened preseason fades from view, Christmas is two days away. The start of the regular season no longer seems farfetched but the dark days are not so distant. In mid-November, I resorted to a fictional holiday miracle to pass the time. Sometimes the stories don’t come easily – it may simply be my own perception but it almost seems like a hiccup in Lakers ink, this close to the blessed event. There’s certainly no shortage of Clippers articles. Is this how it feels, to be beneath the underdog? I doubt it. From Kobe’s mind-over-matter to Blake’s emergence to Metta’s misfires, here’s some stuff to read on a Friday morning.

Matt Moore, Eye On Basketball: Most people would be out a few weeks with this injury. Kobe Bryant is not most people. But there are larger questions in play here. Can the Lakers win without Bryant? It’s possible. The Bulls game may be a loss, but that was questionable from the start what with Derek Rose being guarded by Derek Fisher and Steve Blake. The larger problem isn’t Bryant’s absence, though he is imperative to any Lakers gameplan. It’s that Andrew Bynum is serving a five-game suspension starting Sunday for a flagrant foul on J.J. Barea in last year’s playoffs. The Laker can survive without Kobe Bryant for a few games. Surviving without Bryant and Bynum becomes a much tougher trick.

Kevin Ding, the OC Register: Mike Brown told his designated bench spark Metta World Peace after his 0-for-8 shooting outing in the exhibition opener Monday night: “If you’re going to shoot that much, you’ve got to make ‘em.” World Peace was still cold in the next game Wednesday night, but he rallied a bit to finish 4 for 13 from the field. Brown said World Peace is adjusting to finding his shooting rhythm coming off the bench, but the plan remains for World Peace to do a lot of shooting and posting up with the Lakers’ second unit this season “I have faith in him,” Brown said.

Andy Kamenetzky, The Land O’Lakers: “I should be fine,” said Kobe when asked about his availability for the Christmas Day season opener against the Bulls. Of course, “fine” isn’t necessarily quite sunshine and lollipops. Kobe described his wrist as “swollen and painful,” and I’m guessing that won’t change by the time Sunday rolls around. The Mamba has a famously absurd tolerance for pain, but I have a hard time believing lacing ‘em up on Sunday won’t entail enduring an exceptional amount of discomfort. There’s also the question of the effects the injury will have on Bryant as a player. After all, right-handed players tend to use their right wrists a decent amount of time over the course of a basketball game. Plus, that wrist is connected to a hand with some jacked up fingers. It’s not really going to heal,” Bryant conceded. “I mean, it’s gone. The ligament is gone.”

Ben Bolch, the L.A. Times: Steve Blake is making more shots in part because the misses no longer bother him as much. “Being with these guys for a while,” the veteran guard said of his Lakers teammates, “when you miss a shot you’re not as hard on yourself anymore.” There was no need for self-doubt Wednesday night at Staples Center after Blake capped a strong preseason with some steady shooting during his team’s 108-103 loss to the Clippers. Blake made six of nine shots, including five of seven three-pointers, on the way to 20 points. In two exhibition games, he made six of 10 (60%) of his three-pointers.

Mark Medina, L.A. Times Lakers blog: Cast Matt Barnes as one of the few not exactly enthralled with the “Lob City” Clippers. After seeing them throw up down numerous dunks during their preseason win Wednesday over the Lakers, Barnes maintained the team’s apparent excessive celebrations prompted him to push Clippers forward Blake Griffin to the floor with 6:48 remaining in the third quarter. “It’s a preseason game,” Barnes said after Thursday’s practice at the Lakers’ facility in El Segundo. “Yeah, they’re catching lobs and dunking. But it’s just a preseason game. Let’s just play basketball. If you make a dunk, act like you’ve done it before. He’s got hundreds of them. There’s no need for the hoorah after every single dunk. It’s unnecessary.”

Emile Avanessian, Hardwood Hype: Sure it’s been a rough few months in Lakerland- a humiliating effort against the Mavericks, the departure of Phil Jackson, the emergence of Jimmy Buss, getting Stern’d on a seemingly successful trade for Chris Paul, dumping Lamar Odom for next to nothing in the immediate aftermath, and now a new injury for Kobe to make a mockery of but the doomsday predictions are a bit overdone. Is it so hard to believe that when healthy, a team led by Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum (yeah, yeah) and a collection of capable NBAers, a team with the capacity to add another $8.9 million player via trade, could win three out of every five games? It’ll be close and I wouldn’t go into debt to wager on it, but bet against this team at your own peril.

Matt Scribbins, Magic Basketball: I’m starting to feel like we are approaching an experiment in the NBA that should never be conducted again. Eventually, there will be a rule in place to limit the number of obstacles all-time greats can endure towards the end of their career, and it will probably be called “The Kobe Bryant No Dumping Rule.” The man has solidified his status among basketball’s greatest players by leading the league in competitive drive and determination every season. Right or wrong, he did it his way, and his way has resulted in a sure-fire first ballot Hall of Fame birth. His way has provided fans with fifteen straight seasons of thrills, and he has been rewarded with fifteen straight seasons of boos. I was starting to think fans may soften their stance on Kobe as his rank among NBA players slowly falls and his career comes to an end, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. He is once again in the spotlight, and the league is antsy for the opportunity to jeer and watch him fail.

A lull before the storm, may only be a gathering breath. The current state of the Lakers, did not begin or end with CP3 and David Stern’s heavy-handed interference . Yes, that qualified as one of the year’s major sports stories but it also shared space with last season’s shocking collapse in the second round, with the exit stage left of a coaching legend, with the firing of anyone connected with him, save Jeanie Buss. It came when the league should have been healing rifts, not creating them. Nonetheless, the Lakers organization has created a restore point. It may not be the new look that everyone wanted but as villagers collect their torches and tar, the team itself seems simply ready to play.

- Dave Murphy

The Los Angeles Lakers took the court last night and faced the Clippers for their second game of the exhibition season. With Kobe Bryant nursing an injured wrist, the purple and gold changed up their strategy a little and essentially ran what could be characterized as the twin towers offense.

The Lakers showed a lot in last night’s game; let’s have a look at some observations:

  • Andrew Bynum’s activity level in this second exhibition game was quite impressive. With Kobe missing the game, Bynum was probably excited at the prospect of being the focal point of the offense and it showed. The young center was energetic and quick to get to his spots on offense. He displayed good footwork as well as some solid post moves against the Clippers big men. Indeed, even on his misses, it was rather evident that Bynum has the required tools to carry the team on offense for stretches. The majority of his shots came directly at the rim as a result of post ups, put backs or lob passes he caught from his teammates.  Although his 26 points and 11 rebounds were impressive, one could not help but notice how invested the Lakers starting center looked in the offense even when he wasn’t directly involved. For instance, the purple and gold repeatedly tried to post up Gasol against Griffin but had Bynum hang around the top of the key; which led to DeAndre Jordan sagging down (Jordan was defending Bynum) in the lane to double team the Spaniard before the ball got there. Instead of simply watching the action unfold, Bynum set screens for perimeter players around the free throw line to help free up shooters since Jordan was down in the lane helping out on Gasol and thus unable to participate in defending against the players coming off screens. When Bryant returns, this screen action may free him up for some easy jumpers should teams continue to defend the Lakers this way.
  • There was some trepidation going into last night’s game on how Metta World Peace would perform after failing to contribute in the team’s first game against the Clippers. MWP was active on offense, cutting to the basket and looking for post up opportunities. With that said, he still drifted to the perimeter and took some questionable shots, but was still able to convert a pair of 3-point field goals which could be characterized as fool’s gold. Nonetheless, he was able to produce on offense and give the team some kind of spark from the bench to help out his teammates.
  • In recent seasons, fans came to expect that the Lakers would coast during games and only occasionally show some interest in certain regular season match ups; but this year could be different. Although the Lakers lost their second exhibition game, they clearly seemed invested in this contest. There was a bit of trash talk between the teams, a few shoves as well as some hard fouls. If the Lakers are going to give this type of effort prior to the start of the season, one can only hope that it translates to the regular season.
  • For the second game in a row, Pau Gasol’s defense gave Blake Griffin fits. Granted, the Clippers power forward scored 30 points, but none of his baskets against Pau came easily; as the Lakers power forward made things hard for Blake by moving his feet and contesting his shots. On offense though, Gasol was limited to a mere seven shot attempts. The Clippers double teamed him and thus forced the Lakers to beat them from deep, where they converted 12-of-24 shots. And although they were able to make the most of their attempts from 3-point range, there still needs to be an adjustment to help Gasol get more scoring opportunities given his efficiency on the low block.
  • Steve Blake was assertive on offense last night, looking to create opportunities for himself by running out in transition and taking shots where available within the flow of the offense. The end result was a 20-point night on ­nine field goal attempts. The back up point guard made five-of-seven 3-point shots and converted all of his free throws for an almost perfect night.
  • Although it’s only the preseason, one has to worry about the Lakers chemistry as well as their ability to play together currently. After turning the ball over 21 times on Monday night, they turned the ball over 21 times again last night which essentially completely nullified their 44-27 rebounding advantage. The purple and gold will unquestionably have to address their ball security going forward in order to maintain any type of semblance of efficiency on offense. Also, given their ability to control the boards, as long as they do not give the ball away to the other team, they should be able to score at a high rate.

The Lakers have some work to do but they still managed to hang in a tight (and entertaining) game despite the absence of their closer. Their energy level was much better this time around and this bodes well for the Christmas day game against the Chicago Bulls.

The compacted pre-season comes to a close tonight with the Lakers again facing the rejuvinated Clippers. We’ve had plenty to say about the first game so there’s little point in going into a big strategy session about what the Lakers need to do to win this game. In fact, whether they win or lose isn’t even that important.

What is important is that the Lakers escape healthy with no more nicks and bruises accumulated and that they continue to fine tune their comfort level with their offensive and defensive schemes. It’d be nice if they played better – hitting a few more outside shots, playing some better P&R D would be nice first steps – but if that doesn’t lead to a win, it’s not the end of the world. The real games start Sunday and we have a long season – though in a compressed time frame – to get on track.

With that in mind, here are 5 things I’ll be looking at in tonight’s match up:

  1. How does Derek Fisher look? This will be Fish’s lone pre-season work and it will be interesting to see how he fares. PG is the obvious weakness of this team but Brown has made a commitment to Fish as the starter so it’s fairly important that he shows he’s in game shape and is ready to go once the season starts. Normally I wouldn’t worry about Derek’s conditioning (and I’m still not worried, per se, though I am curious), but he spent most of his summer in negotiating sessions and that surely limited how much gym time he could put in.
  2. Can Darius Morris provide an encore? The rookie turned some heads with his ability to push the ball and create shots in the half court. In his 20 odd minutes he certainly showed that he belonged. But what rookies learn quickly is that maintaining a level of performance under the rigors of an NBA schedule is quite difficult. His young legs shouldn’t be too tested by a second game in 3 nights, but I wonder how he’ll respond mentally after receiving some praise in the press and if he’ll show if he’s learned anything in the past couple of days. The kid has promise but turning that into real, consistent production is always the real test.
  3. Will MWP show anything on offense? His oh-fer performance didn’t do much to alleviate the skepticism he could be the “go to guy” for the second unit. His jumper was erratic and he did little, if any, work inside 15 feet all night. Considering he has a history of being a pretty good all court player, I’d like to see some glimmer of that talent. To be fair, I liked that he took mostly good shots in the rhythm of the offense. But, to be a threat some of those shots must fall.
  4. Will Pau rebound better? One of the reasons the Lakers struggled as a defensive rebounding team last year was that they relied more and more on their length to corral caroms, rather than doing the work to secure the ball. Gasol showed those same habits on Monday and they’re ones he’ll need to break against teams with equally long (or athletically superior) front court players like the Clippers. I don’t expet Pau to bully players, but I would like to see the effort to but a body on a man and then go after the ball. It’s the way rebounding is taught from the infant stages of basketball development. Pau knows better. I want to see him show it.
  5. Will sets on both sides of the ball be any more crisp? Monday revealed a team still learning their schemes and each other. Defensive rotations were a step slow. The ball was held for an extra beat before a pass was made. I don’t expect this to go away in one night. After all, comfort levels often increase with time. That said, Sunday will be here soon and even the most incremental progress will be welcomed tonight. Here’s hoping we see some.

With all that, enjoy the game. You can watch, locally on KCAL and listen live at ESPN Radio 710AM.