Archives For February 2012

UPDATE: Kobe Bryant has been cleared to play in tonight’s game. And, with that clearance, he will start at shooting guard. Mini-crisis in the form of lineup questions averted. With the lineup and rotations now stabilized (or at least as stable as a Mike Brown lineup and rotation can be), a normal game plan should result. We’ll now see if the T’Wolves stick with Ridnour in the starting lineup or if they decide to go with a bigger wing player (likely Martell Webster) in his place to better match up with Kobe on the defensive end.

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Records: Lakers 20-14 (6th in West); Timberwolves 18-17 (9th in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 103.0 (17th in NBA); Timberwolves 103.7 (14th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 101.0 (12th in NBA); Timberwolves 102.1 (13th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, no clue, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Timberwolves: Ricky Rubio, Luke Ridnour, Wesley Johnson, Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic
Injuries: Lakers: Kobe Bryant (questionable); Timberwolves: Kevin Love (questionable)

The Lakers Coming in: Coming out of the all-star break there are many questions about this Laker team – including one major one – that are directly tied to how well this team will perform in their last 32 games. The time to make a real push is right in front of this team and it’s surely on the minds of the organization, just as it is the fans.

That said, the big picture must be narrowed down coming into tonight’s game. Kobe Bryant suffered a broken nose and a concussion in Sunday’s all-star game. And, due to the league’s new (for this season) concussion policy, Kobe will need to pass several tests, including some involving physical exertion before he’s cleared to play tonight. Reports state that Kobe’s making progress and is performing well in these tests, but as of right now, his status is still unknown. We’ll keep you posted as to whether or not he plays, but as you can see above, if he doesn’t play, then I’ve got no clue who will start in his place. The most likely candidates are Kapono, Ebanks, or even Steve Blake (he can match up with Luke Ridnour), but Mike Brown isn’t tipping his hand here.

(As an aside, that list of potential replacements once again shows the lack of guard depth and the roster imbalance on this team. Blake is the backup PG and both Kapono and Ebanks are natural SFs. It still amazes me that there’s not one true SG on this team outside of Kobe. But I digress…)

The Timberwolves Coming in: The T’Wolves have won 5 of 6, and besides a win over the Bobcats, none of them were slouches. Their lone loss in that stretch was in OT to the Nuggets on the road. Last night, they beat the Clippers by pulling away down the stretch with Kevin Love on the pine (bruised ribs) and their bench (72 points in the game!) carrying them. Michael Beasley and rookie Derrick Williams both had huge games, and as a team, they picked up their D to shut down the Clipper attack.

All this is to say that the T’Wolves are playing quite well right now. They’re playing team ball, defending better, and are gaining confidence nightly. There will still be the mistakes that come with playing a lot of young players, but their talent level and coaching is good enough to overcome some of them. As all teams gear up to try and make a playoff push, this team should not be ignored. They have all the ingredients to not only make the second season, but to knock off a team when they get there (especially if they can avoid the Thunder in round one).

Timberwolves Blogs: Check out A Wolf Among Wolves for superb writing and coverage of this team.

Keys to game: Obviously, Kobe’s status for this contest is a key variable to how the game plays out. If #24 is able to play, the game plan should look very similar to what it’s been all year vs. all opponents. The Lakers will need to go inside, but that will need to be balanced with Kobe working well both on and off the ball to free himself up to get good looks. If Kobe does play and the Wolves keep Ridnour in the starting lineup, Kobe will likely be guarded by Wes Johnson, which would leave Ridnour or Rubio to guard Ron. If that’s the case, I’d love for Ron to get some post touches and see if he can collapse the defense and create open shots for his teammates, especially to Gasol and Bynum as the help is likely to come from a big man (this strategy should also be in place should Ridnour guard Kobe).

If Kobe doesn’t play, the Lakers’ perimeter offense just got a lot weaker and the Lakers will need to be even more reliant on their big men to produce points and good shots for others by establishing the post and making good reads. The emphasis on ball movement will need to go up a notch as Kobe won’t be there to create in isolation situations and bail out the team. The ball will need to be swung from side to side and the Lakers would be wise to run more P&R actions with Blake (and Goudelock) to get the defense shifting, which should promote better passing angles and more open shots.

All that said, Kobe’s presence and how it affects the game won’t be the only key. How the Lakers play defense also matters here. They’ll see countless P&R sets with Rubio handling and Love popping out so the rotations will need to be crisp. Going under the screens on Ricky is the preferred tactic, but the Lakers will still need to cut off the corner as the young Spaniard is crafty with his dribble and will still find cracks in the D when given angles. If he’s able to get into the lane and collapse the interior, it will only open up shots for Love on the perimeter and for Beasley, Webster, and Ridnour to get open looks as well.

Of course, there’s other matchups that intrigue too, and Bynum vs. Pekovic is one I’ll be watching closely. Drew claims he’s feeling fine after his knee injection over all-star weekend, and he’ll get a nice test on both ends of the floor tonight. Pekovic uses his strength to dislodge post players and his good feet to cut off angles on D, while on offense he slashes to the hoop in P&Rs . Bynum will need to stay active and do his work early on offense to try and carve out space, while on defense he can’t be caught flat-footed.

Another player to watch closely is JJ Barea. The Lakers are quite familiar with him from his days in Dallas and his game hasn’t changed much. He’s playing off of Love much like he did Dirk, running countless P&Rs to free himself up for his mid-range jumper and/or get to the rim, where his craftiness allows him to finish amongst the trees. His quickness will likely still give the Lakers fits, but that simply means it will take a team effort to contain him off the bounce and make him a passer rather than a scorer.

Lastly, the Lakers must bring their hard hats to the paint and find a way to rebound the ball against this team. We all know what Love is capable of doing on the glass, but Pekovic is also a good offensive rebounder and their large wings (Beasley, Williams, Johnson) can also go to the glass hard. Barnes, Ron, and the Lakers’ guards will all need to make a concerted effort to close down the free throw line to snag long rebounds and hit the glass hard to help out their big men. If the Wolves grab 15+ offensive boards they’ll likely win this game, so the Lakers must limit them to single possessions while also grabbing some extra rebounds on their own offensive glass to earn extra shots themselves.

Where you can watch: 7:30 start time on Fox Sports West. Also listen live on ESPN Radio 710AM.

Wednesday Storylines

Dave Murphy —  February 29, 2012

The current storylines revolve mostly around Kobe’s broken nose and concussion and trade rumors and Andrew’s knee and Devin Ebanks getting called up from the D-league and tonight’s game against the T-Wolves and Kobe’s broken nose and concussion. There’s really not much chance to break free from the six degrees of separation. I could have just hyperlinked the keywords in the first sentence but then there’d still be all this space to fill.

Apparently, Kobe Bryant suffered a broken nose and a concussion in Sunday’s ASG. So says Mike Bresnahan from the L.A. Times, along with every other writer covering the Lakers.

Brian Kamenetzy from the Land O’Lakers spells out the league’s policy on concussions. There’s little doubt that the Mamba could perform the required agility tests for clearance. Whether he should be allowed to is another question.

As Mark Medina at the LA. Times reports, Devin Ebanks got called up from the D-league. Because of Kobe Bryant’s broken nose and all.

Andrew Bynum is good to go tonight, this from Ben Bolch and Mark Medina from the Times.

Ryan Ward at Lakers Nation writes about the Kirk Hinrich trade rumors.

Here’s the “75 percent certain” trade article by Sam Smith, now writing for the Chicago Bulls website.

There’s a comprehensive and very good theoretical piece about trade pieces and possibilities, by Ben R at Silver Screen and Roll.

The Timberwolves have their second half of a Staples back-to-back tonight. I haven’t seen any previews up yet but Jonah Steinmeyer at Howlin’ T-Wolf reports on the win against the Clippers.

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Tonight’s game won’t be any cakewalk, especially if Kobe’s out. But, it’s a return to game action and kicks off the second half of the season, which looks more like a stretch drive with the league’s shortened schedule. At least there’s no Jim Buss news today. Then again, maybe this is what “they” want. Just ask Craig Sager.

 

This is the question that drives every conversation about the Lakers right now. And it drives the conversation because it’s become as obvious as the nose on your face that the Lakers do, in fact, need to improve. They need it to make a deep playoff run; they may need it to make the playoffs at all in a tightly packed Western Conference that has them in 5th pace but only 3 games from 9th.

If you listen to the players talk, they certainly think improvement is possible. Heading into the all-star break, Derek Fisher spoke of where the team is now and what he hopes will happen as the season progresses:

We have done a decent job at times. But right now, essentially Kobe, Pau and Andrew are having to score 70-plus points, and then everyone else is pitching in here and there. I think if we can improve our execution and ball movement where we can actually utilize the full capabilities of everyone on the team, I think we can give ourselves a better chance.

The notion of better ball movement and better execution is one that you’d expect from the players. It shows an inherent confidence in the abilities of the guys on the floor and implies that with more time together, the results will improve.

That said, it’s not that simple either. While Andrew Bynum also thinks better ball movement and execution is needed, he also asks for more diversity and for the schemes to shift and for more adjustments to be made. From Sam Amick:

Offensively, we need to come up with some new tricks in the second half of the season … new sets, new plays, new actions. All I’m really talking about is how to play basketball together, figuring it out and putting ourselves in spots to win games, changing up cuts that we’re making. Teams are starting to adjust to me on the block, double-teaming me, triple-teaming me, so outlets should be a little bit different, should be more what I’m comfortable with.

Bynum’s not really wrong here. The Lakers’ sets are pretty predictable and when the defense starts to tighten up (for example, late in a close game), passing lanes vanish and precious seconds on the shot clock get eaten up. So, diversifying the offense and tweaking what’s already in place is certainly a way to get more out of the team. At least you’d think.

However, these types of changes on the fly aren’t always easy, especially for a team already in transition. The Lakers are already in the process of learning new sets (and unlearning some old ones) and it takes time to get comfortable. Making adjustments is the logical progression, of course, but doing so before everyone has mastered what they’re supposed to do could lead to more confusion and worse results.

Of course, better execution isn’t the only way to improve a team. There’s a sense of restlessness amongst the fanbase to make personnel changes, and for obvious reasons. The Laker roster, as implied by Fisher, is top heavy and overly dependent on their best players to produce nightly. If the Lakers could get better production from their point guards and their small forwards, improvement is sure to follow. Some, too, are looking for more drastic change than that, with upgrades to superstar players for both short and long-term growth.

All of this is quite logical and I can’t argue against it. The Lakers are in dire need of consistently good play from players not named Kobe, Pau, or Andrew Bynum, and getting people to provide it should be a priority. We’ve seen how productive nights from non-big three Lakers leads to victories, and getting that type of play consistently can only help this team.

All that said, I must also caution that simply uprgrading players doesn’t come without risk. The same arguments for how changing/adjusting the schemes has potential to disrupt the team can be applied to making roster changes. Chemistry amongst players and how quickly guys can make the needed adjustments to new roles, in a new city, and with new teammates are intangible variables that can’t accurately be measured before a trade is made. For every Pau to the Lakers that is seemless and successful, there can be an Odom to the Mavs that doesn’t go smoothly at all. Any potential roster move must be viewed through both prisms, and not just the one that reflects a positive light equating to better net results.

And so, the Lakers are in a bit of a bind here. There are only 32 games left in this season. With time being that short, the Lakers must start to prep themselves to not only make the playoffs, but to perform well once there. That means growing together as a team and improving as the rest of the season unfolds. However, the roster is (seemingly) deficient and unless certain players raise their level of play from what it’s been this season, the Lakers’ flaws are likely fatal.

It’s now on the entire organization (players, coaches, management) to get this team to take a step forward, but there’s no obvious way to do it. So I ask again, how much can the Lakers improve? The answer to that question will mirror how successful this season ends up being.

All-Star Game Preview & Chat

Darius Soriano —  February 26, 2012

It’s finally time for the main event of the weekend.

After a three point contest that saw Kevin Love take out two pure shooters (though, to be fair, both KD and James Jones looked off) and a dunk contest that should immediately be erased from our memories ala Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it will be nice to have an actual game to cheer for.

And really, that’s what today’s game should offer: a chance to cheer. While I want the West to win and would like to see good showings from Kobe and Bynum, this is more about enjoying the incredible amount of talent on the floor as a basketball fan. With all the best players in the league in one place, I don’t see how tonight could really be about anything else.

With that said, I won’t just be watching the action on the floor with an eye for good basketball. There are other things I’ll be watching for as the game unfolds:

  • How hard will Kobe go? Last year I wondered before the contest if Kobe would go after the MVP and my curiousness was well founded as Bean attacked from the opening tip and ended up winning the award for the 4th time. Tonight, though, will he go after it the same way? Last year’s game was in Los Angeles and one of the main backstories heading into the weekend was the Lakers poor play with Kobe’s play serving as a strong reminder that he, and his team, should not be dismissed. This game doesn’t offer the same environment or circumstances (though Kobe is close to becoming the ASG’s all time leading scorer) and I wonder if he’ll approach the game the same way.
  • How assertive will Bynum be? This is his first all-star game and there are often a heavy dose of nerves that come with that. Will he be consumed by the nerves or will he put them aside and show he belongs? He’ll be matched up with Dwight Howard at the start of the game but he’ll be sharing the floor with (arguably) the best 7 best players in the league when the game starts (LeBron, Wade, Kobe, Paul, Durant, Howard, and Rose in no particular order). With that level of talent on the floor, how Bynum fits in will be an interesting note on his first all-star experience.
  • Who will be the MVP? In year’s past, the home team guy has a leg up in chasing the MVP. His teammates look for him more and that guy has a bit extra in his tank to go after it. Will this trend hold for Dwight Howard tonight? His situation is complicated by his desire to be traded from the Magic (and thus the city of Orlando) and by the talent of his teammates (LeBron, Wade, Rose) who are all prime candidates to win the award themselves and put their stamps on this game. Personally, I think the MVP will come down to LeBron or Durant but I could also see Rose sneaking in there and taking it.
  • I wonder this every year, but who will take the shots down the stretch if the game is close? In year’s past, for the West, Kobe has been this guy but last year Durant hit a big shot in the closing minute as Kobe sort of faltered. Will KD be the main dog now or will Kobe still be the guy the West goes to? And what of the East? Will LeBron take the shot or play the set up role? Will Wade be that guy? Maybe Rose will carry over his role with the Bulls to the East team? I simply hope we get a close game so we can see how it all goes down.
  • What funky lineups will we see? I love the idea of a Paul, Durant, Dirk, Love, and Bynum super-sized line up for the West. I’d love to see a Nelly inspired Wade, LeBron, Melo, Iguodala, and Rondo lineup for the East where every player could handle the ball, create shots for himself or a teammate, and get out in the open floor and run a killer fast break. There are a million different ways to mix and match the best players in the world and I can’t wait to see what Brooks and Thibs do.
Obviously my list is incomplete, so what are you watching for? Is there a particular player you’ll be watching closely? A trend you hope to or hope not to see? Let me know in the comments and enjoy the game.

Welcome To The Big Show

Darius Soriano —  February 26, 2012

Making the all-star team is quite an honor. It may not be the same as making an all-NBA team (a distinction that shows a player is one of the best 15 or so players in the league), but making the mid-season classic is something to be proud of nonetheless. As Lakers fans, we’ve become quite used to seeing one (or more) of our guys suit up for the west squad. Kobe’s made the team 14 consecutive years as a starter. Way back in 1998 he made his first appearance and has been a mainstay ever since. For him, it’s become as much of a right as a privilege with fans voting him in for the better part of a decade and a half. This, though, isn’t the norm. Some players live on the cusp of making this team but never do.

I bring all this up because while we celebrate Kobe and his accomplishments it’s kind of easy to forget that another Laker was voted into the west’s starting lineup this year. Andrew Bynum is making his debut as the Center of choice later today and for him, it’s been a long time coming.

Long considered one of the up and coming big men in the league, the only thing that’s held big Drew back are injuries. Back in his break out year of 2008, Bynum was a surefire candidate to make this team before that horrid January night in Memphis that ended his season. The next year, the acquisition of Pau Gasol and another injury kept him from consideration. Last year his longer than anticipated recovery from off-season knee surgery kept him out of too many games and rustiness upon his return kept this honor out of his grasp.

Basically, Bynum has been the all-star big man that wasn’t an all-star. Everyone knew of his potential to reach this game and his production when healthy would have warranted a selection in several other seasons. The fact that it had not happened until this year was surely frustrating for him but also (likely) served as motivation for him to play well and stay healthy enough to show his worth.

Today, though, the goal will be reached. Bynum will jump tip against Dwight Howard in a game that features the guys the fans want to see flash their skills and the coaches believe to be the best players in the game. Today, the talk of Bynum being “an all-star caliber big man” goes from being a comment about what he could be to what he actually is. And for that, Lakers fans should be proud. Proud for Drew reaching his goal, but also for the fact that once again the Lakers have a young and up and coming behemoth manning the pivot for the team that represents the best the western conference has to offer.

And while this may be the first all-star game Drew plays in, it certainly won’t be the last. Because even though the age of the back to the basket big man is nearing its end, Bynum’s power game endures and will have staying power. Most of today’s bigs may flash games that stretch to 20 feet with face up moves off the dribble replacing the power back downs of a generation ago, but Bynum’s throwback style remains as effective today as it would have been in any other era. And with that style, he too should be a mainstay in this game (even if not  at the same frequency of his more celebrated Laker teammate).

So, take some time to appreciate how far Bynum has come. Seven years ago he was a pudgy out of high school kid that the Lakers’ brass took a chance on. The foundation of tools was there but needed molding before reaching this level. After countless hours of hard work and fighting through setbacks, he’s finally here. And, likely, here to stay.