The Lakers have lost three consecutive games since Kobe came back – their longest losing steak of the season. They now sit two games below .500 and in an even more competitive West than many predicted (I don’t think a lot of people saw the Blazers at the top of the conference or the Suns over .500 through 24 games), their position is far from ideal right now.
Part of the team’s issues definitely relate back to Kobe and his return. He is definitely not 100% physically yet and still needs to find his game shape along with getting his “sea legs” back. Add to this the fact that he’s still trying to figure out what he can and can’t do on the floor against live competition, is finding that his most comfortable actions offensively aren’t necessarily those that have been used as pillars in the team’s attack to this point, and has to adjust to playing with this specific group of players and the reintegration of Kobe to the lineup is an obstacle that the team is working through.
But as much as adding Kobe to the lineup as been something that has affected the team, the bigger issue with this group right now relates to the combination of not having a single healthy point guard and the continued decline of their defense — issues that are somewhat related, by the way.
First off, not having healthy point guards is absolutely killing this team right now. Even when Blake was “healthy” (he was playing through a torn ligament in his elbow, after all) the team was sorely missing Jordan Farmar and his ability to be a shot creator and defensive pest on the 2nd unit. So even when Blake was playing, the minute he went out and the team had to slide Xavier Henry or Nick Young into the “PG” spot and rely on them to bring the ball up or initiate the offense, the team had issues getting their offense organized and executing consistently. But now that Blake is injured as well, the team is overly reliant on Kobe to create offense for others and be the primary ball handler in the P&R. And while he has shown flashes of being able to get his teammates good looks, his adjustment to game speed and in how defenses are playing him has led to too many turnovers.
Defensively, the team has seemingly regressed and while part of that is related to Kobe (he’s not yet even playing at last year’s reduced level of defensive effectiveness) missing Farmar (and Blake) has hurt here as well. Farmar’s quickness and ability to move laterally allowed him to stay with most point guards around the league. Farmar isn’t a “stopper” by any means, but he’s physically capable and was working hard on that end of the floor. The same could be said for Blake in many match ups. Now, however, the Lakers are relying on shooting guards and small forwards — Meeks, Henry, Wes Johnson — to guard point guards and it’s really not working very well. Combine that with the team’s season long issues with adequately protecting the rim (I’m looking at you, Pau Gasol) and what the Lakers have is a situation where they’re giving up more dribble penetration (and open court chances due to the turnovers) and the type of interior defense that allows easy baskets when the offensive players do get into the paint. This is a recipe for disaster.
All in all, then, it’s not difficult to see why the team is losing. And I haven’t even mentioned the brewing conflict between Pau Gasol and Mike D’Antoni.
What the Lakers need to do to get back in the win column sounds simple enough, but may still end up being a big challenge simply based off the circumstances they face and the personnel they have available to them. They face a Bobcats’ team that is in the top 5 of defensive efficiency and is coached by former Lakers’ assistant Steve Clifford (who probably has some inside knowledge into defensive strategies against holdover players like Kobe and Gasol). Considering the Lakers rely heavily on outscoring teams to gain victories, cracking the code the Bobcats use on that end of the floor becomes very important. Expect the Lakers to continue to try and get Gasol touches in the paint against Al Jefferson and spread the floor with the remaining shooters on their roster, but they will need to remain aggressive in going to the rim and in attempting to set each other up for easy baskets all while not turning the ball over. These keys are the same every night, but until they consistently show they can do them with this group of players, the question that they will be able to get this done remains.
In terms of defense, the ‘Cats sport one of the worst offenses in the league so the Lakers at least have that going for them. Their best players on that side of the ball are Kemba Walker, Jefferson, and Gerald Henderson, and while all three players have their strengths this is not a trio of world beaters. The Lakers, though, will have their challenges of keeping all three out of the paint and in keeping them away from their preferred scoring spots. Chasing Walker and Henderson around screens and forcing them into difficult jumpers is a must. If either get good looks — either via spot ups or when getting a clean dribble for a pull up — both can be dangerous. Ditto for Jefferson when he’s working in the post and able to get to his right hand or turn and face with too much room to simply shoot a set shot jumper. If the Lakers can do well in limiting one (and hopefully at least two) of these players, they’ll be on their way to a win.
Again, though, this won’t be easy. The Lakers are coming off a back to back last night and are already playing short handed without Farmar and Blake. Add in an already shortened rotation that sees little to no time for Kaman and Ryan Kelly and the Lakers are looking at a 9 man rotation of mostly shooting guards and centers. This is not an ideal mix to run D’Antoni’s spread pick and roll attack. But it will have to do. Especially since the Lakers would be well served to win the winnable games on their roster if they still hope to be competitive this season.
Where you can watch: 4pm start on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.