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Since rattling off three straight wins in early December against the Kings, Spurs, and Timberwolves, the Lakers have lost six of seven — their lone win coming against the Warriors with Kobe out of the lineup. They enter tonight’s game losers of three in a row, the latest being Sunday’s loss to the Suns — a close game throughout that had the superior Suns pull away in the 2nd half. All of this has the Lakers with only nine wins through their first 31 games, the fifth worst record in the association.

That number should mean something to Lakers’ fans due to the draft pick ramifications of what a poor record could mean come June. It’s been mentioned ad nauseum, but commenter RR had a nice summary of the Lakers’ picks owed and owed out to the Suns (and Magic) in the comments:

1. The 2015 pick they got from Houston with Lin is lottery-protected. But if it is 15 or later, a near-lock, they will get it.

2. Phoenix pick:
The PHX pick, the last one from the Nash trade, works as follows:
1-5 protected in 2015, as everyone knows.
1-3 protected in 2016.
1-3 protected in 2017.
Unprotected in 2018.

3. Orlando picks:
The 2015 2nd-round pick owed to Orlando is protected 31-40. If the Lakers keep it, they don’t owe another one.

If the Lakers have given a pick to PHX by 2017, then the whole thing starts over again, this time with Orlando. The first rounders in 2017 and 2018 are again Top-5 protected–but this time with Orlando. That pick is unprotected in 2019. If the Lakers have not given a pick to PHX by 2017, then the Lakers’ 2017 and 2018 2nd-rounders both go to Orlando, and recall that also in this case, the Lakers’ 2018 first-rounder is unprotected and goes to Phoenix.

Also important to note is that the Lakers are not guaranteed a top five pick simply by having one of the league’s worst five records. Due to the lottery, teams can jump up in the draft and if/when that happens the teams they leapfrog move down. The Lakers, then, have much better odds of retaining their pick with the third or fourth worst record in the league than if they sit in the fifth spot. If they fall outside the worst five records, they will need to be one of those teams with lottery luck and leapfrog others to get into the top five. If you’re wondering why some fans “root” for losses, this is the math that drives those interests.

Getting back on track to tonight’s game, the Lakers are in Denver facing a Nuggets team who is better than them, but not by so much that the game isn’t winnable. Yes, the Nuggets are only five games under .500 and have a nice roster of talented players who, even without Danilo Gallinari, Randy Foye, and JaVale McGee, are deeper than the Lakers. But the last time these two teams played the game went to overtime and that was with the Nuggets having their full complement of players available.

In other words, this game is quite winnable even though it is on the road and the Lakers are still likely adjusting to how they will need to play with Kobe on a reduced workload and playing a different style than he was before he took those three games off — at least if Sunday’s game was any indication. Yes, the Lakers will need to slow Ty Lawson, Aron Aflalo, and Wilson Chandler (who always seems to kill the Lakers). They will need to keep Timofey Mozgov from getting deep position in the paint, keep JJ Hickson off the boards, and try to keep Nate Robinson from getting hot. But these are things they are capable of doing should they remain focused and do work early on that side of the ball.

The question, of course, is if, based on the stuff I mentioned at the top of this post, whether or not fans actually want them to.

Where you can watch: 6:00 start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.

The Lakers play the Suns at home this evening, but all their moves aren’t on the court this Sunday. In a bit of a surprise, the Lakers have made two roster moves:

Releasing Henry is really the no-brainer move here as he’s done for the season after tearing his achilles tendon earlier this month. Henry’s contract was fully guaranteed so he will take his salary and rehab in the hopes of making a strong comeback next season. I wish Henry nothing but the best in his endeavors, though it will surely be an uphill climb for him. Last season under Mike D’Antoni, Henry showed that he has an NBA skill set, flashing an ability to hit the long ball while also getting to the basket regularly. If he can ever find a way to make a higher percentage at the foul line and not have so much tunnel vision once he beats the first defender off the dribble, he can take the next step as an offensive player. Of course, all that comes secondary to simply getting healthy — something that, sadly, has been an all to frequent theme for the former Jayhawk.

As for Black, the rookie big man was released by the Rockets who needed a roster spot to sign Josh Smith after the latter was released by the Pistons. This enabled the Lakers to pick him up for nothing but the commitment of paying his salary. The 6’11”, 250 pound Black has flashed some talent as a reserve big man, getting most of his minutes at center when Dwight Howard sat out due to knee problems. So far this season, he’s averaged four points and five rebounds on 54% shooting in 15 minutes a night.

Shotchart_1419807088927As you can see from his shot chart, Black is mostly a player who stays around the rim offensively and doesn’t seem to step outside of his comfort zone at all. Based on the Rockets’ offensive approach, Black likely gets most of his baskets off dump-offs or as the roll man out of the P&R as evidenced by the fact that nearly 69% of his shots are assisted. His hovering around the rim also contributes to his very good 16.7% offensive rebounding rate (for comparison, Ed Davis’ ORR is 13.3 this season).

Where Black fits into the rotation now remains to be seen. Right now Davis, Hill, and Boozer are the team’s best big men and Robert Sacre has earned the coach’s trust and plays solid minutes as the team’s 3rd Center. With Ryan Kelly reportedly nearing a return (he is targeting next Friday), the front court rotation is already set to get more crowded. So, Black will either displace a current rotation player (Sacre?) or languish on the bench. Unless, of course, a trade is made to remove one of the team’s big men.

I’m not one to speculate, but moving one of the team’s bigs would not be a surprise to me. While Black isn’t really the type of player you sign to throw into the lineup right away, he is a player who should probably play to see what you have in him and right now those minutes simply do not exist. We’ll see, however, what the team decides to do. In any event, they have added an interesting piece to the roster who should get a chance to show whether he is worth an investment beyond this season.

 

After losing to the Bulls on Christmas and the Mavericks a day later, the Lakers finish up their three game road trip today in Phoenix are back at home to play against the Suns. And when they do, a familiar face will be back in the lineup:

If you were wondering, though, don’t expect him to return to his normal workload — at least from a minutes perspective:

At this point, playing 30 minutes should be the ideal every night and not just because he’s coming off missing three games due to “general soreness”, but I’ll  take it anyway I can get it. Ideally, I’d like to see Kobe play six to eight minutes to start each half and another six to seven minutes in the 2nd and 4th quarters with Young and Ellington sliding in at SG when Kobe sits and Lin taking up a bigger workload in general. This would allow all the players on the win ample time in the lineup to find a rhythm without putting too much burden on any one of them to produce. If one of them is hot, you can ride them for longer or adjust accordingly, but overall this would offer a nice mix that allows each player a chance to play a reasonable amount of minutes. We’ll see what Byron Scott does, however.

As for the style in which Kobe plays, I hope that both he and Scott are ready to make some adjustments to that as well. Rather than have Kobe always playing ball side and occupying key real estate in the mid-post, I’d like to see him set up more on the weak side where he can work off the ball and make his catches against defenders who are rotating to him. This is especially true whenever he’s in the game with Lin and or Young as both of them are more than capable of creating shots for themselves on the strong side of the offense. Run Lin in P&R’s and Young off curls on the opposite side of the floor from Kobe and when the defense gets into their rotations to slow these actions the ball can be swung to Kobe and he can either be a spot up shooter or attack a defender closing out at him.

Combine these actions with Kobe’s normal mix of post ups, isolations, and ball handling duties up high out of the P&R and there should be enough diversity in the offense so nothing gets too stale for Kobe or the rest of the team. Over the three games that Kobe missed, the rest of the guys showed they could take up a bigger load and play at least somewhat effectively, so it’s time for them to carry that over to games in which Kobe does play. As long as they don’t just defer to him and as long as Kobe (on his own and via the coach’s instruction) doesn’t simply set up in his sweet spot and expect the offense to run through him, we should see a more fluid attack with him back in the lineup. Maybe that’s wishful thinking, but it should be the approach.

In the end, this may actually be the best game for Kobe to return in. This game will be their fourth game in a week and their third in four nights on the road. Kobe returning, even in limited minutes, could give them a shot in the arm and the energy they need to compete against a more than solid Suns team.

Where you can watch: 6:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio Los Angeles 710AM.

Personally, I am a game-time decision with flu-like symptoms so I will keep this short and to the point. After Kobe was a late scratch on Christmas day, the Lakers gave a nice effort against the Bulls but ultimately got handled in the 2nd half to lose by 20. Tonight, then, on the second night of a back to back and again without Kobe while facing a very talented Mavs team, you have to wonder if they will suffer the same fate.

The Mavs, while only boasting the 6th best record in the West still grab two wins out of every three games they play. They have a fantastically efficient offense and, in a stunner of a trade last week, added Rajon Rondo to help shore up their defense at the point of attack. That deal was a gamble due to the potential to disrupt their ball movement heavy attack on O, but Rondo will bring a nice element to their semi-transition game and even if he is only half the defender he was pre-ACL tear, he will be a major upgrade over Jameer Nelson on that end of the floor.

The move, ultimately, was made with a deep playoff run in mind and it will be months before we see if that will pay off. I have my doubts, but that is as much about the gauntlet of the Western Conference as it is about any talent deficiencies the Mavs have. When you consider that the Spurs are currently the 7th seed and the Thunder (due to injuries) aren’t yet even amongst the top 8 teams, the playoffs will be a bloodbath where matchups will rule and a team who could make the conference finals will find itself out after the first round due to a bad draw and some luck that goes against them.

In any event, this is hint at what the Lakers are up against and, to a certain extent, what they hope to be in a year or two. The Mavs reworked their roster on the fly, using cap space and some assets to get back into playoff contention. The Lakers are hoping to make a similar push next summer, but we’ll see if they have the chips to play to get them there. This game, then, will serve as a reminder of how far the Lakers still have to go. The Mavs will punish the Lakers on the perimeter and space them out via pick and rolls, drive and kicks, and quick passes that move the ball from side to side. The Lakers have shown they simply struggle against teams who can put the ball on the floor against closeouts and hit shots when the closeouts are late. The Mavs aren’t the best shooting team (and Rondo made them worse in this area), but they have enough ability to hurt a team that doesn’t recover well and/or doesn’t show the discipline to rotate well and help the helper consistently. The Lakers, of course, are one such team.

Offensively, the Lakers will try to give the Mavs some of their own medicine by moving the ball and quickly swinging the ball when the defense over-commits. When Lin, Young, and Ellington share the floor the team is especially adept at this and made the Warriors pay earlier this week by making smart passes and then hitting shots when the defense didn’t get there in time (and even some shots when they did). If the Lakers have any hope of being in this game tonight, they will need a similar effort and hope to steal this game at the end. Playing on the road and for the second time in two nights, I have my doubts they can do this. Then again, this is why they play the games.

Where you can watch: 5:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM Los Angeles.

After a great team win on Tuesday against the Warriors, the Lakers are back at it today against the Bulls. Of course, this game carries some extra significance since with today being Christmas and all that comes with that for both teams.

I’ve always thought the road team was at a bit of an advantage when it comes to playing on Christmas as they’re the ones who don’t have the family commitments that come with having a game on this day. I wouldn’t call it a “distraction” (as a person with a wonderful wife and two small children of my own, that word is a terrible disservice to what this time of year means), but there are certainly multiple responsibilities that come with playing a professional basketball on this specific day. For the Bulls, then, they are surely feeling some of that today while the Lakers, though definitely missing their family, aren’t necessarily going through those same things today. What that means towards the final result of this game remains to be seen, but it’s not something to be discounted out of hand.

As for the game, as mentioned above, the Lakers come in off a feel-good win and will look to ride some of the momentum they established on Tuesday. And while “incorporating Kobe” will likely be a storyline a lot of the pundits focus on, I’ll be more focused on how he looks physically and whether or not he has the ability to separate and knock down the shots he’s capable of hitting. While Kobe’s shot volume has been an issue this season, one of the reasons it’s really an issue is that he’s missing them at the rate he is while forcing the action too often. The key today, then, will be Kobe striking the right balance between playmaker and scorer but, more importantly, finding a way to actually hit a better percentage of the shots he does take. In other words, here’s hoping for a 50% shooting night rather than the 38% he’s been giving over the course of the season.

The other big story, of course, is that this is the first game that the Lakers will face Pau Gasol since he departed for Chicago in the offseason. I don’t need to get into how much I appreciated Pau’s contributions to the team while he was a Laker or how much I think of his game. Those who have followed me at all over the time he was on the team knows exactly how I feel about the Spaniard. In saying that, however, it will be great to see him and Kobe embrace before the game and then see how they compete against each other once the whistle blows. Knowing both of them, they will go at it all night doing whatever it takes to win.

Besides Kobe and Pau, there are other players and stories to monitor. Derrick Rose is looking more and more like the player he once was, flashing the speed, quickness, and athleticism that made him such a terror. There’s also the rise of Jimmy Butler, a player who is making the leap into stardom in his 4th season. Butler has increased his per-36 minute scoring by over 7 points a game and has remained productive on the glass and in dishing assists as well. Beyond those two there is also Joakim Noah — one of my favorite players in the league — and his combination of hustle, skill, and defense from the Center position.

After reading the paragraph above, it’s no wonder the Lakers will be heavy underdogs in this game. The Bulls are one of the better outfits in the league and the Lakers are, well, not. In saying that, though, the Lakers have also saved some of their best performances for teams just like these Bulls — top teams who should literally wipe the floor with them. So, in that respect, anything can happen tonight. I don’t expect the Lakers to win, but, then again, today is Christmas and maybe the team has one more gift for all their fans in this game.

Where you can watch: 5pm start time on TNT and TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio Los Angeles 710AM.