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.