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The Lakers are heading into Salt Lake City without four guys who were expected to be in the top of the Lakers rotation this season with Pau Gasol out with upper respiratory inflammation. After three tough losses, the Lakers will see a Utah team that has struggled all season. Here we go 3-on-3 to preview tonight’s game.

1. The front court rotation has been in flux all season. With Pau out tonight, what guys should get minutes against this Jazz team?

Ryan Cole: I think that Robert Sacre should get the bulk of minutes in Pau’s place tonight. He’s played very well on defense this season, and has been a solid presence on the offensive end. He’s not going to go out there and score 20 points, but he’ll help in the other areas: rebounding, effort, intensity, and defense.

Andre Khatchaturian: After a 17-rebound performance at Golden State, Chris Kaman earned some playing time at Phoenix earlier this week. He went 0-for-2 from the field in 13 minutes, but did grab five rebounds and was a +1. Not making a bucket, though, was enough for Mike D’Antoni to fall into recency bias and not play him on Christmas. Instead, we saw Ryan Kelly who didn’t particularly play bad but Kaman could have been more effective against Miami’s biggest weakness – their front court. It would be nice to see Kaman get big boy playing time tonight against an awful Jazz team and show the staff what he can do.

Phillip Barnett: The starting lineup has Shawne Williams and Chris Kaman starting at the four and five, respectively. Even though he’s not back on the floor with the starting unit, I’d like to see Jordan Hill get somewhere between the 25-30 minutes if he can stay out of foul trouble. The Jazz are one of the few teams with a defensive rebounding rate as bad as the Lakers (Jazz ranked 28th, Lakers ranked 29th). This could be a night where we see Hill dominate on the boards and create some second chance opportunities for a team that will surely need it on the road and shorthanded.

2. Trey Burke has had games of 30, 20, and 18 points in his last five. He’s also had games of two and three during that same stretch. How do the Lakers ensure that Burke is closer to the latter?

Ryan Cole: They have to make a consistent effort to trap him in pick-and-roll situations. He’s yet to prove that he’s an amazing playmaker, so force him to make decisions rather than score. Scoring is easily his best asset as a player. Burke has the quickness and speed to penetrate effectively, and can stretch the floor from behind the arc with his shot. If the Lakers have any chance at winning, they must contain him in the pick-and-roll.

Andre Khatchaturian: The Lakers have been better at defending point guards this season than last year. Opposing PGs have a PER of 15.9 this year compared to 18.0 last season. Thank Jordan Farmar for that. Opposing PGs have a PER of just 6.5 with 4.1 turnovers per 48 minutes when Farmar is the counterpart PG. Farmar was rusty in his first game back from injury on Christmas, but the Lakers should still put him on Trey Burke and hope he shuts him down.

Phillip Barnett: Burke doesn’t do any one thing particularly well, but he’s been a decent shooter from deep (37.5 percent from three for a rookie is very promising) and has shown an ability to do some dangerous things in P&R sets. Rotations are going to have to be crisp to not allow him easy looks at the rim and Farmar is going to have to run him off the three point line in catch and shoot situations. Best case scenario is to have Burke shooting off the dribble out of the pick and roll.

3. Who gets the win tonight and why?

Ryan Cole: The Jazz. The Lakers simply don’t have enough offensive firepower sans Kobe and Pau. Maybe they can compete with Utah for a half, but eventually the size and athleticism of the Jazz is going to be too much for this team to handle.

Andre Khatchaturian:The Lakers have struggled at Salt Lake historically. They’re just 19-34 on the road against Utah since 1986-87. It’s a house of horrors. That being said, the Lakers need this one in order to stay in the playoff race. They played hard against the defending champions on Christmas and a similar effort will translate to a win against a terrible shooting team like Utah. Gasol will be out so it will be difficult, but expect Farmar to get his groove back and Jordan Hill to get big boy minutes with Pau out of the lineup. Prediction: Lakers win a close one. It also seems like Vegas may be overreacting a bit on the Gasol injury. The Lakers are 3.5 point underdogs. Take the bet.

Phillip Barnett: I think the Lakers win tonight. This is a team that seems like it’s frustrated with the recent losses and the Jazz could be the team they take their frustrations out on. Utah hasn’t been very good this season. They’re in the bottom five in offensive and defensive rating (dead last in defensive rating), and the Lakers have the youth, speed, and shooting to leave Energy Solutions Arena with another tally mark in the win column.

Tonight, the Lakers are on the second of a back-to-back against the New Orleans Pelicans following a huge, emotional win. This isn’t the first time that the Lakers have faced this situation as the Lakers won on Opening Night against the Clippers at Staples only to travel up north to Golden State, which resulted in a blowout loss.

The win over the Rockets may have been even more emotionally draining as they saw a huge lead in the first half dwindle in the second half, and even saw it eclipsed in the final minutes of the game, only to see Mike D’Antoni employ the Hack-A-Howard strategy to keep the team in the game. The game would then end in dramatic fashion as Steve Blake came off a screen and knocked down a game-winning three with Howard closing out.

Instead of having time to celebrate a huge win, the team was forced to re-focus their attention onto the newly named Pelicans of New Orleans, who enter tonight’s game with a 2-3 record. Despite their record, the Pelicans have a Top 10 offense and a defense right on the outside of the top third of the league, and a lot of that credit goes to young Anthony Davis, who is averaging over 21 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks on the young season. Jrue Holiday has provided defenses with some problems with his speed, but hasn’t been effective as many expected when the Hornets brought him in.

The same can be said for Tyreke Evans. After a phenomenal rookie year with the Kings, Evans hasn’t really lived up to the promise of his inaugural year in the NBA. Many assumed the change in scenery would get him to where many though he’d be at this point in his career, but that simply hasn’t been the case. Even with his struggles, the Lakers will have to keep him and the likes of Holiday and Eric Gordon out of the lane if they are to be successful tonight. Last night, the Lakers had issues containing James Harden — and while none of these guys are dynamic and crafty as Hardin, they can provide issues to the weary legs of the older guys and the inexperience of the youngsters.

Should the Lakers not keep the perimeter, that could open up things for Davis, who has been great in P&R sets and the benefactor of lobs from guards who are able to compromise the defense.

On the offensive end, the Lakers are going to need some better ball movement than they had last night. After a first half that saw the team shoot an outstanding 11-14 from three in the first half, the team kind of just stood around the perimeter for the whole second half and watched their lead dwindle. On a second of a back-to-back, this absolutely cannot happen.

Getting off to a hot start will also be huge tonight. Against the Warriors, they allowed Klay Thompson to get off to a hot start and never recovered. The Lakers have proven that they have the shooting that can get a team back in a game should they fall behind a few possessions, but they have yet to prove that they’re a team that has the mental toughness to come back from a huge deficit to get the stops they need and run the offense with enough trust in each other to get quality looks.

Tonight, the Lakers will stay with the bigger starting lineup with Kaman and Gasol sharing the frontcourt, with Jodie Meeks starting in the place of Nash. D’Antoni is still working on his lineups and rotations, and will have to find the right combinations tonight to provide the energy and chemistry needed to get another win on the road.

Where you can watch: 6:30pm start on TNT. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.

Tonight marks the end of the Lakers preseason campaign. They’ll be going into the season with a wee bit more momentum than they had last year as they failed to win a game before the start of the season. With three wins under their belts this year, tonight’s focus won’t be on adding another tally mark in the win column, but more to leave the Honda Center as healthy as possible, and for the coaching staff to evaluate the guys at the end of the roster to to see who will make the Opening Night roster, and who will be waived to look for work elsewhere.

Chris Kaman will be out tonight for the second consecutive game, and while Steve Nash will suit up for the Lakers tonight, an eye will be kept on him as he’s dealt with both ankle and neck injuries. Nash missed 32 games last year, and the Lakers really struggled to find an identity last season without their point guard on the floor for nearly half the season with a broken leg and hamstring issues. If Nash only plays a half in tonight’s preseason finale, but enters the season relatively healthy, the Lakers win regardless of tonight’s score.

The injury issues haven’t just been an issue for the Lakers older players as both Jordan Farmar and Wes Johnson have already missed a considerable amount of time with calf and foot issues, respectively. Mike D’Antoni has already showed that he’s willing to sit guys toward the end of preseason games if means that it increases the chances chances that his key rotation guys get to live to play another game.

With that in mind, there are a few guys who have been at the end of the bench and will get their last opportunity to show that they belong on this roster: Ryan Kelly, Elias Harris, Marcus Landry.

Kelly began a bit behind the rest of this group as he entered training camp recovering from a procedure on his foot, which also kept him out of the NBA’s Summer League. In his first game with the Lakers, he drilled two of his three 3-point attempts, but hasn’t really done much since. He’s a young guy with a solid enough skill set that the Lakers can maybe develop over the next year or two.

Harris is another guy who is young. He’s an undrafted forward out of Gonzaga who has a decent enough post game, but can become a legitimate NBA player if he can extend his game to the midrange and the perimeter.

Marcus Landry seemed like the odds-on guy to make the team heading into camp, but was quickly surpassed by Xavier Henry a couple games into the preseason. Harris hasn’t really showed the shooting stroke that Mike D’Antoni has raved about in camp. It’ll be interesting to see if Landry can even see the floor tonight as he was the only Laker to not see the floor in the Lakers win over the Jazz.

In terms of what the Lakers do on the floor tonight, we’d like to see the starting unit get off to a better start. The bench unit should come in and provide a similar energy as they did on Tuesday night. If the offense is run through Gasol with the first unit and if Farmar can come in and run the offense, the Lakers will put themselves in a possession to win their finale as the reserves come in to finish the night. But more than anything else, health will be the main concern.

 MG 2088This is going to be a fascinating Lakers season on various levels, but one is the narrative surrounding the myriad Lakers who are in contract years this season. Outside of Steve Nash, Robert Sacre and Elias Harris, there are no Lakers who have contracts that extend past the 2013-14 season. Nick Young has a player option for the 2014-15 season, but can opt out of his deal for greener pastures should he choose to do so.

Going into a season, we’d normally segregate the various contractual castes, but what the top and bottom of the notional salary totem pole have in common is the dynamic that everyone is playing for a new deal this season. Kobe Bryant playing to show that he’s still worth top dollar, in theory, isn’t any different than Jordan Hill or Steve Blake or Jodie Meeks wanting to have a great season to earn a bigger contract over longer years.

Guys going into a season knowing that they’re in a contract year isn’t a new phenomenon, but a team with this many players not knowing what their respective contract situation for the following season is unprecedented, and could potentially be problematic. One of the Lakers biggest issues last season was a lack of chemistry. From the coaching change to the clashing personalities to the plethora of injuries, the team never got on the same page. Now, with the majority of the team in a position to make more money in the following season, getting on the same page could prove to be difficult.

“It depends on you want personally, said Hill at the Lakers media day this past Saturday. “Do you want to win or do you want money? If you perform and win, you’re going to get the money anyway. I just want to focus on winning and playing hard.”

While it may be difficult to get everyone in a contract year zoned in on that singular focus, there is a possibility that the Lakers could see some pleasant surprises out of some players in the five through eight spots in the rotation. If you google search the worst contracts in NBA history, they’re guys who had phenomenal years proceeding large deals.

  • Rashard Lewis: Following a year that Rashard Lewis posterd a 20.7 PER with a 22.4/6.6/2.4 split per 36, the Orlando Magic gave Lewis a six-year, $118.2 million contract as an unrestricted free agent. Lewis’ win shares would decline for the next six seasons and he would never post a PER above 16.8 in his career.
  • Trevor Ariza: Trevor Ariza had a great 2008-09 year with the Lakers. Both his TS% and eFG% were norht of .500, his turnover percentage was the lowest of his career, he posted decent ORtg and DRtg numbers hand recorded the most win shares of his career. Things got better in the post season as he was instrumental in helping the Lakers get some late game stops to lead the franchis to it’s 15th title while shooting .476 from three. The Rockets would sign the unrestricted free agent to a five-year, $34 million deal and watched as those numbers decline. His win shares would be cut in half and his TS% and eFG haven’t shot back above of .500 since.
  • Amare Stoudemire: Amare Stoudemire has only played 82 games twice in his career, and one of those times he was in a contract year. His 2009-10 season with the Suns, Stoudemire posted a 24.1/9.3/1.0 per 36 split with a 22.6 PER and became an all star. Stoudemire parlayed that great season into a five-year 99.7 million contract. Since then, Stoudemire has only played in 66 percent of games for the Knicks and hasn’t really been able to find a fit into the Knicks system beside Carmelo Anthony.
The list of guys who have excelled in their contract years is limitless, and the possibility of a few Lakers having similar success is high, and performing well in Los Angeles will definitely get a guy like Xavier Henry some looks from teams around the league.

“I think competing takes care if itself,” said Henry on the opportunity to earn a bigger contract by playing well for the Lakers. “If everyone is going out there wanting to win, and we’re winning, everyone is going to get what they deserve at the end of the day. If everyone comes in here and competes, all of those things will work themselves out.

Right now, everyone is saying the right things. Wesley Johnson echoed a lot of what both Hill and Henry said on Saturday, while both Bryant and Pau Gasol don’t seem interested in bringing up their respective contract situations, and neither have began negotiations with the team. Only time will tell whether or not this team will be able to gel and put personal goals aside, but it’s going to be necessary for this team to do so if they’re going to be successful this season.

Last season, the Lakers had what may have been one of the worst Summer League teams in NBA history. They went through the summer league session without recording a win, and looked awful in all of their losses. For their first game of this year’s Summer League, the Lakers fell to the Cleveland Cavaliers 70-62, but there were some positives to take away from this game and some things to keep an eye on as the Summer League progresses.

One of the more glaring things that stood out in this game, especially in the first half, was the team’s willingness to share the ball. Guys were constantly looking to make the extra pass and find their teammates. There were a few times where a back side cutter was missed, and a few times where they were a bit over zealous with their passing, and it led to some turnovers. Even though it won’t show up in the assist numbers (only 11 on the game), I really enjoyed this team’s willingness to share the ball — especially in a situation where everyone is essentially competing with each other for an opportunity to get an invite to training camp.

The team defense was a bit suspect, especially in the second half. Once the Cavaliers started to finally make some jumpers, perimeter defenders started to close out a little harder, making it easier for shooters to get to the rim and compromise the rotations. As expected, the rotations weren’t sharp for the most part, and that led to a few easy buckets for the Cavs front court guys, things you’d expect from a team that hasn’t exactly spent a lot of time together.

Here are a few things that particularly stood out from individual players.

  • In the Lakers first Summer League game, Marcus Landry was the most impressive over the course of the game. Landry finished with 14 points on eight shots. He hit three-of-eight from three, and got in the lane to draw foul shots. He scored 10 of his 14 in the third quarter, and kept the Lakers in the game when the Cavs started finding their shot. Landry was also aggressive on the defensive end in stretches. He has some nice size at 6-7, 225 and used that to his advantage when defending smaller guys.
  • Robert Sacre, the only guy we know for sure who will actually suit up for the Lakers next season, had a fairly decent game. They ran a lot of HORNS, and Sacre was able to knock down the mid range jumper a couple times early in the first, which was a nice sign for the team. That’s one of the things Mike D’Antoni would like to see out of his young bigs. If Sacre can find a way to stretch the floor a bit, even if it’s just bringing his defender out to about 15-feet, will earn him some minutes this season. He still looked a bit raw on the defensive end of the floor, but he continues to work hard when he has minutes. Early on, he was really scrappy on the boards and created a couple of second chance opportunities.
  • Elias Harris had some really strong points in tonight’s opening game. Harris was most impressive when attacking the rim. There was a play early in the first where he took the ball strong to the rim, used his body well to fend off the defender and finished. Harris also wasn’t too bad off the ball, constantly moving without the rock in his hands and cutting when opportunities presented themselves. Harris was one of the backside cutters that was missed a few times, but was found on a gorgeous drive from Josh Selby and finished with a dunk in the third quarter.

Overall, the first game was pretty much what you would expect from an inaugural Summer League game. A lot of feeling out both teammates and the opponent in a sloppy first half. Things got a bit better in the second half, but it wasn’t exactly great basketball. Regardless of the results, this year’s Summer League team looks a bit better than last year’s rendition, and they’ll have opportunities to win some games this season. I don’t expect them to win this year’s new NCAA style tournament, but they’ll be competitive in some games, and we’ll get some good looks at some guys who can potentially get an invite to camp.