Records: Lakers 19-25 (10th in the West), Hornets 15-29 (14th in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 105.7 (6th in the NBA), Hornets 102.0 (14th in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 103.6 (20th in the NBA), Hornets 106.0 (27th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Earl Clark, Dwight Howard
Hornets: Greivis Vasquez, Eric Gordon, Al-Farouq Aminu, Anthony Davis, Robin Lopez
Injuries: Lakers: Jordan Hill (out for the season); Hornets: none
The Lakers Coming in: First things first, welcome back Steve Blake. Out since the 8th game of the season with an abdominal tear, Blake has been cleared to play even though he’s not yet 100%. Blake has said he’ll tough through it, however, and get on the floor to help the team. What that means in terms of minutes and role remains to be seen, but it will be nice to have another option in the back court for Mike D’Antoni to turn to. I say backcourt, because there’s still a chance Blake sees some minutes at SG in certain lineups (though, I’d hope that isn’t the case).
After the OKC win, Kobe said something that I found very interesting in his post game interview. In talking about his role as a set up man, he said something along the lines of originally wanting to be a finisher and for Nash to be the play maker. That that’s how he envisioned their roles. (As an aside, this goes hand in hand with quotes he made earlier this year about Nash and Pau being “distributors” and he and Dwight being “finishers.) But, Kobe said, he found that they’d gone too far in that direction and that he had to relieve Nash of some of that pressure of always being the man setting up the action. In that single quote, I feel like the reasons for the Lakers’ struggles was explained and it’s why I’m more and more hopeful a turnaround is actually possible.
The idea of the Lakers was that they had these complementary pieces who’s skills would mesh to form this great team. Nash’s passing would prop up the offense. Dwight’s defensive ability would do the same on the other end of the floor. With Kobe and Pau already having championship know-how, the team would play to their strengths things would go great. But that’s not worked. And, when you think about it, why would it?
The best part of having talented players is that they do multiple things well. Nash isn’t just a great playmaker, he’s a great shooter. Kobe isn’t just a fantastic scorer, he’s also a fantastic facilitator. Gasol isn’t just a set up man, he can also finish at a very high level. Kobe and Gasol are also capable defenders (with some real limitations) and it shouldn’t be solely on Howard to carry the load on that end of the floor. The point being, why tell super talented guys to only do one thing that they’re talented at? Why not push them to do more and, thus, compromise the defense even more? By opening up what each player is asked to do, you engage them and get more out of them. And when you’re talking about some of the best players in the world, what you’re going to get is world class production.
There will be more tweaks and adjustments down the road to be sure. But, if only one thing comes out of “facilitator Kobe”, I hope it’s getting back to the idea that great player can, and should, do it all, It’s what makes them great.
The Hornets Coming in: Or, maybe I should say “the Pelicans” coming in. The team finally revealed their new logo that they’ll use as a part of their name change/rebranding heading into next season. Nothing too ground shattering there, but a good logo nonetheless.
On the court, the Hornets (I’ll use Pelicans next season) have lost 3 of 5, but did score an impressive victory over the Grizzlies on Sunday. That victory, while somewhat flukey (the Hornets bench outscored the starters by 11 points) is also indicative of the fact that the Hornets have a nice assortment of talent now that they’re fully healthy. With Eric Gordon back in the lineup, this team has a more well rounded offensive attack as he, Vasquez, Anthony Davis, and Ryan Anderson are all capable of getting baskets in diverse ways that complement each other.
Defensively is where the Hornets continue to struggle, but that should only improve over time as well. Davis will learn how he can impact the game on that end as he gains more experience and when that happens he can anchor the backline of a top flight defense for years. Ultimately, if you’re a Hornets fan, I’d think you have to feel good about the direction of your team. It’s been a bumpy season to be sure (and there are serious questions about Austin Rivers’ development and ceiling) but they’re going to grow together, likely get another solid draft pick this upcoming draft and continue to build. If they can stay healthy, they’ll climb up from the depths of the standings in the coming seasons to be a solid playoff team, I’d imagine.
Keys to game: Both the Lakers and the Hornets are coming off one of their better wins of the year on Sunday. For the Hornets tonight is the 2nd game of a 5 game road trip and starting out with two wins would be huge for their confidence considering the opponents. For the Lakers, tonight is their last home game for some time as the Grammys are about to take over the Staples Center for a couple of weeks. So, with momentum and the hope to influence long road trips on the line, expect tonight to be a highly contested game.
For the Lakers, playing the way they have been in recent games will be interesting against this particular Hornets team. Kobe and Eric Gordon have a long history of battles from Gordon’s days as a Clipper. Back in those matchups, Gordon usually played good, hardnosed defense against Kobe by battling him for every inch of space all over the floor. And since those matchups took place when the Lakers ran the Triangle, Gordon is quite used to seeing Kobe operate from the mid-post and having to defend him when he’s both a scoring and passing threat.
Of course, Gordon’s familiarity isn’t the only variable. Will Monty William’s double? If so, will it be a hard double or a mix of feints and strong side zone looks that force Kobe into passing but without the benefit of clear passing angles? If he doesn’t double, will Kobe be able to score at a rate high enough that forces adjustments? How the Lakers’ offense flows over the course of the evening will certainly depend on the answers to these questions.
Also important to the Lakers offense is if Steve Nash can find the requisite daylight to operate well in the pick and roll. Greivis Vasquez does not have the fleetest feet and instead uses good size and length to defend. But when you add his slowish feet to those of Robin Lopez, the Lakers may have a defensive duo in the P&R that they can pick on to create openings. If Nash can successfully turn the corner or create separation at the top of the action, passing angles will open up and there will be chances to get baskets at the rim. The important defender to watch will be Anthony Davis as he will likely be the secondary help man charged with covering the paint and then recovering back to Earl Clark roaming around the break in the three point line. If Davis gambles wrong or can’t get in front of Dwight, dunks will ensue. But if the Lakers take too many chances, Davis’ once in a generation instincts and incredible athleticism can turn any pass into a turnover that will go the other way quickly for an easy basket.
Defensively, there are several individual matchups that intrigue me. First of all, with Gordon back in the fold, Kobe will have his hands full on that end of the floor. Gordon came back from his knee issues looking very much like the same do-it-all offensive player he was before he got hurt. Kobe will have to respect Gordon’s jumper and his ability to use the threat of that shot to get into the lane. Gordon averages almost 6 FTA’s a game so not allowing him to slip into the paint and draw fouls on Howard (or Pau) will be crucial.
Also crucial will be slowing the Hornets’ P&R attack with Vasquez. One of the most improved players over the past couple of seasons, Vasquez does good work in the P&R using his deceptive change of pace and excellent feel to create shots for himself and his teammates. His sense of timing is very good and that allows him to read plays a split second ahead of when they develop and that compensates for some of his physical limitations. The P&R is also a key action because of how it can open up shots for Ryan Anderson. Much like his role in Orlando, Anderson thrives as an off the ball worker who can work as a pick and pop player or as the first pass option when teams take away the dive man in the P&R (think of how Pau/Clark often get the ball when Dwight rolls). Anderson has already made 134 three pointers (no Laker has even made 100) and he will kill you if left open for even a half second. The Lakers’ rotations must be better than sharp whenever Anderson is in the game as he’s the option they want to go to in order to exploit defenses.
Where the Lakers can neutralize some of these options in the P&R is with Dwight’s ability to roam when he’s matched up with Lopez. Dwight can freely step away from Robin to hedge on off-ball screen actions (for Gordon) and can angle himself to limit Lopez’s rolls and Vasquez’s drives to the lane so that the perimeter players can stay closer to home when guarding their men. If Dwight can effectively control the entirety of the paint and not just the restricted area, the rest of the Lakers’ defense can lock in on the perimeter threats and on Davis’ activity working around the edges of the paint.
I’ve said it before, but it’s too early to get too excited about whatever supposed transformation the Lakers are going through now. It’s intriguing to think of the possibilities, but until we see more of the same, consistently, it could just be another false start. Tonight gives them a chance to take another positive step forward, however. Here’s hoping they take it.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start on TWC Sportsnet and NBA TV. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.