Five games ago Byron Scott made a change to his starting lineup, moving Jeremy Lin and Carlos Boozer to the bench in favor of Ronnie Price and Ed Davis. At the time, the move did not sit well with me as the changes did not seem to be based off any real statistical evidence and I said so going into their first game together. So far, my mind hasn’t really changed about this specific starting lineup being any better suited to compete against other team’s starters.

Per, the new starting group of Price, Kobe, Wes Johnson, Davis, and Jordan Hill are still posting a negative net efficiency with an offensive efficiency of 99.2 and a defensive efficiency of 109.0 since that game against the Pelicans. This isn’t quite the minus-15.0 efficiency rating the original starting group posted before the change and nowhere near the minus-23.5 efficiency rating this group was posting together before they became the starters, but it is still bad. They are struggling offensively and still not doing a very good job of stopping teams from scoring efficiently, consistently forcing the other units to make up the gap they create.

Fortunately for the Lakers, the shift in starters has created a bench unit that has shown it is able to make up the difference against other team’s reserve units. With Lin and Boozer anchoring the bench, a new unit of those two flanked by Wayne Ellington, Nick Young, and Robert Sacre has been playing extremely well since the change. That five has posted a net efficiency rating of plus-21.0, boasting a fantastic offensive efficiency of 110.9 with a very stingy defensive efficiency of 89.9.

While sample size and “noise” in the numbers are a real caveat — that defensive efficiency number, for example, will not hold — I am encouraged by what I have seen from this group. They offer a balanced attack offensively and have enough athleticism and size to deal with most opposing units on both ends of the floor.

Jeremy Lin has been especially important to this group ability to get into the paint and be a shot creator for himself and teammates. Beyond Lin, the scoring and shooting ability of Young and Ellington on each wing are stretching defenses out to the three point line and giving Boozer and Sacre more room in the mid and low-post to score. Further, with both Boozer and Sacre showing an ability to hit the mid-range jumper with some consistency, the driving lanes for Lin are more open which only reinforces the strengths of the other players.

The key to this unit, however, may simply be that they are mostly playing against other team’s benches. Lin and Young are typically the first subs into the game, replacing Price and Wes about halfway through the quarter. Boozer will replace Hill or Davis a bit later and then Sacre will replace the other big when Ellington replaces Kobe near the end of the first period. By the time the 2nd quarter starts, this group has had a couple of minutes together to find their stride and then are put up against mostly bench players from the other team. Against these units, the Lakers’ group typically has more talent and it is showing in their production.

It is hard to know if this was what Scott had in mind when he made a change to the starting group. When the change was made he only spoke about it in terms of that group needing what Price and Davis provide (defense) and not some bigger reorganization of his lineups in an attempt to maximize his bench. So far, however, the latter is what is occurring and it is helping the Lakers stay in games for longer and win a few additional contests (they are 3-2 since the change).

So while this change didn’t really fix the starting group, a true bench unit has been established and is flourishing early on. Hopefully it sticks. If it does, Scott’s change may indeed end up paying some dividends.

After winning their 3rd straight game last night in Minnesota — also this thing with Kobe happened, in case you missed it — the Lakers are back in action tonight against Indiana. Playing back to back under normal circumstances is already a difficult task in the NBA, but add in emotional element of last night’s game and tonight will be even more difficult.

The Pacers aren’t a particularly good team, having been dealt a serious blow by the injury to Paul George over the summer and the walking of Lance Stephenson via free agency left their wing rotation sorely lacking. Add to that an injury to George Hill, another to Ian Mahinmi, and the normal bumps and bruises and adjustments that come from having a roster turned over this much and there are bound to be issues.

In some ways, then, a 7-17 record for this group is not that bad. It is nowhere near the team who many thought could compete for a championship last season, but it’s also not as bad as teams like the 76ers or Timberwolves. Their record, more than anything, is reflective of talent available and circumstances thrust upon them by injury and attrition more than any deficiency in coaching or team culture.

Bringing us back to tonight, the Lakers will be in for a grinding battle from a well coached team that can still play strong defense — especially on the back line. In order to win this game, the Lakers will need to find ways to be efficient offensively against a team who wants to surrender the exact type of shots the Lakers have taken in bunches this year. Look for Indy to sag in the P&R and invite mid-range jumpers while also aggressively fighting through screens to run the Lakers wings off their preferred spots and into the teeth of the defense where Hibbert and David West will look to put a bruising on them.

In saying all that, I will be interested in seeing how the Lakers’ bigs match up with the Pacers while also closely monitoring if the Lakers’ wings can escape pressure outside to still create good perimeter looks. If Kobe, Young, Lin, and Ellington can shake free for some clean looks on the perimeter and hit some three point shots in the process, the Pacers’ defense will be spread out and there is a better chance for Jordan Hill, Ed Davis, and Carlos Boozer to do some damage 16 feet and in. But if the clamps get put on the those perimeter threats, the lane will only get more congested and the points will be hard to come by.

In terms of the Lakers’ defense, they really need to find a way to protect the paint and keep the Pacers a perimeter oriented team. While guys like West and Luis Scola can be threats out to 18-20 feet, they can do more damage working 10 feet and in. Keeping them off their spots and rotating to them quickly when they do spot up out of the P&R can keep the Pacers’ offense off balance and make Rodney Stuckey and CJ Watson take on a bigger load.

Tonight offers another winnable game, albeit under circumstances that will create challenges that go beyond dealing with the Pacers. We’ll see if the Lakers are up to it.

Where you can watch: 4:00pm start time on TWC Sportsnet and NBA TV. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.

Kobe Bryant and I are the same age (he also, coincidentally, shares a birthday with my older brother). Some 19 years ago when Kobe stood at a podium with his Oakley sunglasses propped up on his forehead to announce that he was taking his talents to the NBA, I too was transitioning to that next phase in my life and preparing to go away to college. After it was announced that this high school kid would be a Laker, I, naturally, took a great interest in his career.

In the nearly 19 years that Kobe has worn a Lakers’ jersey so much has occurred it’s nearly impossible to recount it all. Airballs in Utah, ridiculous shots in Portland on the last day of a season, a championship celebration in Orlando, a fractured hand, a hurt shoulder, a ruptured achilles…it all blends together like a desert landscape viewed through the window on a long car ride. I’d pick out one moment, but I don’t have a favorite uncle; my family is my family.

The new moments, though, act as a reminder. They jog the memory and turn history into today’s celebration, recreating the feeling from many years ago by rekindling the flames of past accomplishments. Especially when today’s acts truly are a culmination of what is, essentially, a life’s work.

We’ve known this moment was coming for some time. But actually watching it happen, for me at least, was still a tremendous moment. The combination of longevity and production needed to reach such heights astounds me. The fact that the guy who did it is that same guy who, as a kid, had those Oakley’s sitting on his forehead makes it that much more special.

Kobe will never quite be the player many want him to be. As his efficiency wanes, his personality shows more hard edges, and his team suffers more losses than wins another type of validation will come for that sect. And as the complexities of his game, leadership, and overall status as a player are pushed to the middle of the spotlight both sides of the argument will meet with loud voices and even louder arguments trying to get to the bottom of what it all means.

For me, though, there will be none of that. And there especially won’t be some long discussion about Michael Jordan, measuring sticks, and how achievements do or don’t stack up. Kobe is one of the greatest players I ever saw grace a basketball court. Where he falls in that discussion matters less to me than the fact that he is part of that conversation. Far from perfect, but a provider of more moments worth celebrating than not. And, really, what more could you ask for?

The man harnessed his skill through immeasurable work to achieve at a level I never would have expected. He did it his way, for better or for worse, and nearly two decades later is still out there giving it his all. And while many would have hoped for a different route, it’s hard to argue with the path traveled considering there really wasn’t a road map to follow.

This Lakers’ season represents the battle between two distinct lines of thought. The first is that the Lakers are a team, whether they admit it or not, in need of a rebuild. Rebuilding teams need young assets. Young assets are acquired through the draft. The Lakers owe a draft pick to the Suns and will give that pick this season if it falls outside the top 5 in the upcoming draft. This leads to a strong contingent of Lakers fans — even Magic Johnson — to say that the Lakers should lose as many games as they can in order to try and keep that pick to draft another young player who can be an asset towards the rebuild.

The second is that the Lakers have never really rebuilt before, typically foregoing building through the draft in favor of winning as many games as possible and either flipping assets for better players or signing key players in free agency who help propel the roster. The way you make assets desirable in trades or make the team seem ready for impact free agents to jump on and help the roster is to be a team that is not awful. The Lakers, then, might prefer to be as good as they can, winning as many games as they can, to promote an image to other teams and free agents that they are close to winning.

Neither of these lines of thought is wrong. And both are wrought with assumptions and difficulties that will be highly influenced by individuals making choices, some luck, and the growth and development of players striving to reach their potential. If rebuilding were easy, there would be much more parity in this league and there wouldn’t be teams that historically produce poor results year after year.

I bring all this up because the Lakers, after winning two consecutive games and with another winnable game on the docket tonight against the T’Wolves are slowly moving away from a record that would keep them in the top 5 picks in the draft and, thus, making the first path described above harder to venture down. All the while this team is still very unlikely to be able to travel down path number two very easily without a bigger influx of talent that is ready to win now. All of this will make for a very interesting run up to the trade deadline, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Back to today, then, the Lakers face a Wolves team who they already lost to earlier this year at Staples Center. And while there will be some focus on revenge and trying to get a third consecutive win for the first time this year, the fact is that the biggest story heading into tonight has nothing to do with any of those things. No, tonight is about Kobe Byrant and his bid to pass Michael Jordan on the all-time scoring list. With 9 points, Kobe will pass MJ for 3rd in career points. As I’ve said earlier this will be a major accomplishment and something that is worth tuning in for even if you’re not a Kobe or a Lakers’ fan. This is rarified air (no pun intended) and Kobe will further cement his name in the history books with this accomplishment.

In any event, tonight will likely provide a few different moments to ponder. Kobe’s pursuit of individual records are a reminder that even though this is a team game, the all-time greats are what this sport is built on. From Mikan to Wilt to the Big O to the Doctor to Magic and Bird to Jordan to Shaq and Duncan and Kobe and LeBron this game has always been about the titans of the sport. On the other hand, the Lakers, as a team are in the middle of a transition and, in a way, are riding out these final moments of Kobe’s career until the next great one will anchor their franchise. The path they take to get their will inspire much debate, but as long as they get there none of us will really care.

Where you can watch: 4:00pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.

I fire up the old computer to write about the Lakers and their opponents and, to be honest, I find myself staring at a blank screen for longer than I’d like. I type, erase, type and space down, type, erase, and on it goes until something resembling a post worth your time reveals itself. Some days are easier than others. Today is not one of those days.

I don’t write this for your sympathy or your pity. This is the process. And, in a way, this brings me closer to understanding what it might be like to play for the Lakers right now.

At 6-16, the Lakers have a record fully reflecting their ability to compete in the NBA on a nightly basis. They have some talent, but not a lot. They have a coach who sees the game a certain way and is working within his paradigm to best produce good results. They have an aged icon doing the same. And they’ve had some bad luck with injuries. The results have been what they’ve been, but we’ve said that already.

Every day, then, this team wakes up and goes to work trying to sort out a way to win a basketball game. Current experience says that what they try will not be successful, but they try anyway. In a game like Tuesday’s against the Kings they came out on top. Tonight, in San Antonio, they hope the same will occur. The likelihood of that happening is low, however.

Because that team, the Spurs, are the opposite of the Lakers. The Spurs are the league’s reigning champion and one of the best outfits in the association. When at full strength they are a bear that will maul you through technical expertise and master level execution. When not at full strength they will simply wear you down using similar technique and execution, only from lesser players who seem to raise their game at the most opportune times because they have been drilled repeatedly to do so. This team is a machine that inspires equal amounts of envy and awe (and, for opponents, frustration and dislike) in how they methodically do the thing they are told to do with a level of discipline befitting a team coached by a military man.

Continue Reading…