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Friday Forum

Darius Soriano —  April 25, 2014

The Lakers may not be playing, but I hope you are still tuning into the playoffs to check out the action. The games are fantastic and the road teams are showing that the value of home court only means something if, you know, you can win at home. The only favored team to win both games at home has been the Heat with every other team managing only a split — at best.

Those last two words needed adding because of the Rockets’ inability to win either of their home games against a very game Blazers’ team. Portland has cracked down defensively on James Harden while mixing up their coverages on Dwight just enough to keep him off-balance. On the other side of the ball LaMarcus Aldridge is dominating offensively, using his size advantage over Terrence Jones to score inside and work the glass while using his quickness and feathery jumper to torch Omer Asik and Dwight Howard when the Rockets try a bigger defender. Aldridge’s 89 points over the first two games have been the difference in the series to the this point and he has looked like the best player on the floor over the series’ first 96 minutes.

The Rockets aren’t alone as the only upper seed proving vulnerable, however. The top seeded Pacers trail the Hawks 2-1 and look to be in real danger through three games. Unable to establish their bully-ball offense in the paint with a struggling Roy Hibbert, their lack of wing creators outside of Paul George and (sometimes) Lance Stephenson are proving to be a big flaw. On the other side of the ball their defense continues to struggle, having difficulty containing Jeff Teague who is terrorizing the paint while his big men create alleys for him by spacing the floor to the 3-point line. The soundbites out of Indy are that adjustments are in order, but when a team has built its entire identity playing one way I wonder how easy it is to change gears and find success doing things so differently.

In the West, the Thunder also find themselves down 2-1 to the Grizzlies. Memphis has done an excellent job of getting OKC to play at a slower tempo, protecting the ball and running down the shot clock to limit the Thunder’s open court chances. Defensively they are showing a variety of different looks, but mostly are just playing hard nosed position D and capitalizing on the lack of creativity Scott Brooks is showing schematically and with his rotations. So many of the Thunder’s sets devolve into isolations or simple P&R’s with little movement on the weak side that the Grizz are able to anticipate where the ball is going and make crisp rotations to thwart those sets. Further, until guys like Fisher, Caron Butler, Thabo, and Perkins can prove capable offensively, Memphis will simply continue to crowd Durant and Westbrook to force them into tough situations. Much like in Indy, the Thunder (and head coach Scott Brooks) need to find some adjustments in either scheme, player rotations, or both to get this figured out or we may see an upset out West that few people (if any) saw coming.

This is just a sampling of the action, though. And while watching these games is a bit of a downer knowing that the Lakers are nowhere to be found, these games are still well worth your time. Not just because of the quality of play, but also because the fallout from these series may very well affect what the Lakers can do this summer in terms of coaching and free agency. Now, on to the links…

The other day I wrote about coaching changes and how Mike D’Antoni’s fate has yet to be decided (while adding it may be some time before it is). That is still the case, even though his brother Dan will leave his staff to coach at Marshall University. Dan, like Mike, went to school at Marshall.

I know many Lakers’ fans were hoping that it would be Mike who took that job, relieving himself of his duties and thus ensuring the Lakers would have a new coach next year. That didn’t happen, but it doesn’t mean a change still won’t come. If it does, here is a look at potential candidates from a list of next head coaching prospects.

Of the coaches on that list, one has a history with the Lakers and was, reportedly, thought of highly when with the team. Add those variables together and Quin Snyeder could make for an interesting candidate should the Lakers make a change.

One of the reasons the Lakers may make that change is because the players they have or want to keep essentially dictate it happen. And while folks usually point to Kobe Bryant as the key player in that discussion, #24 hasn’t officially gone on the record with anything stronger than a hint or innuendo speaking out against D’Antoni. The same cannot be said of Pau Gasol, however. The Big Spaniard said that in order to stay with the Lakers there would need to be “significant changes” while later openly discussing how he’s not the biggest fan of the style of play D’Antoni enjoys. I’m no expert in math, but I do know 2 + 2 = 4.

Pau also said that Kobe would be a main reason why, if he so chooses, would stay on with the Lakers by re-signing this summer. That’s not really surprising considering all that they have been through together as teammates for the past 6 seasons. That said, in practical terms, Pau saying that he’d stay on to play with Kobe also shows a lot of faith in the injured guard. Whether or not that is justified remains to be seen, but Kobe is reportedly back to work in his typical maniacal fashion to get back strong next season.

When Kobe does return how can he best be used on offense? Here is one take. (Thanks to friend of the site Dave Murphy for reaching out for some quotes on the subject.)

Last note on Kobe, here is a great commercial for the World Cup that he stars in.

And speaking of shooting guards, Nick Young’s future is at that position and not pitcher for the Dodgers.

The Lakers’ future is cloudy and there is still a lot to be determined. From what to do with their head coach to the draft to free agency, the potential for change is huge and there will be a lot of adjusting to do in the coming years. At the top I spoke about the playoffs and the hope is that the Lakers won’t just be back in that mix soon, but looked at as a favorite who can make some noise in their pursuit of another banner. Let’s just hope when that does happen, they look a little bit better than the Pacers do right now.

Wednesday Storylines

Darius Soriano —  April 9, 2014

It is almost over now. This season of injuries, losses, records of the wrong kind being broken, and, mostly, failure. That can sound harsh, but it isn’t meant to be.

This season started under the guise of hopes just to make the playoffs. Internally and in issuing sound bites, key figures spoke in the same grand terms they typically have — “contention” and “championship” were words tossed out as the goal, but we all really did know better. This team was built with cast-offs and rentals and asked to be a team. And for the first part of the season, they were that. But then it started to fall apart similar to the bodies of the players. Nerve roots and knee caps, hamstrings and groins, strains and fractures.

And through all that there was a coach searching for…something. A lineup that worked. A power forward to stretch the floor. A big man who played well on both sides of the ball. Rotations changed. One day you were in, the next you were out, and a week later you were back in.

It’s been 78 games of this, but it is almost over now.

Where the team goes is the question on everyone’s mind. Kobe has his contract extension, but has no team to surround him at this point. The Lakers will have some dough to spend, but last I checked cap space has never grabbed a rebound or hit the open man in stride for an easy bucket. That money must be used wisely and, probably not all on one player. After all, the Lakers aren’t one guy away. After all, even a prime Kobe and Shaq needed other dudes to help them get those rings.

Speaking of building a team, Mitch Kupchak is pretty good at that. In fact, he’s been so good and is so trusted the Lakers extended his contract. Next season was to Mitch’s last under his current deal, but the Lakers rectified that last night.

Last night Mitch, maybe after signing that deal, sat down with USA Today’s Sam Amick and spoke openly and honestly about the path ahead. He didn’t “give away his plan” but acknowledged the team has a lot of work to do and said he is not sure if it will be one, two, or even three years to get to where they want to be. He also said many other insightful things, so click away on the link.

One of the questions he answered was about Mike D’Antoni’s status for next season. Kupchak stated that no decision has been made to this point. However, Dave McMenamin is reporting that the Lakers are “leaning” towards not retaining their embattled head coach. This only a week after Kevin Ding said the opposite. If all of this makes your head spin, well, welcome to the club.

If the Lakers do make a change at coach, one writer thinks they should target UCONN head coach Kevin Ollie — and he thought that even before the Final Four.

Is Pau Gasol done for the year? It sounds like it. Is Steve Nash? It sounds like it too.

Another player who is out for the year is Kent Bazemore. The 2nd year pro tore a tendon in his foot and will soon have surgery. This, though, is just one more obstacle for him to overcome in what has been quite the journey to get to the NBA.

Much like Bazemore’s journey, the Lakers have an arduous path ahead. Building a winner takes time, it takes talent, and it takes a fair amount of luck. It takes a coach and a front office all on the same page. And even when all those things happen, a team still might not win it all. For all that the Thunder have done to build their contender, they still have yet to actually win it all. Their accomplishments have been many and should not be diminished in any way. But this is your gentle reminder that winning is hard and even the most prepared team with a boatload of talent may not break through.

The Lakers, actually, know this better than most. Because while fans love to talk about the 16 banners and the hall of famers, there are also the 15 defeats in the Finals. They have been oh-so-close more times than most teams could ever dream of and have felt the heartbreak that comes with it too. In a way, then, it’s good to remember the feeling you have now watching this team lose 50+ games. Because just as the team has broken through before, when you have been down in the dumps feeling awful, the turnaround is that much sweeter. Even if it does take years.

From C.A. Clark, Silver Screen & Roll: The Lakers did not choose to tank. And that’s why they are lucky, because they didn’t have to choose. Instead, the tank chose them. Despite the Lakers’ best intentions, they are one of the worst teams in the league right now. And with one of the league’s hardest schedules over the next month (ten of their next thirteen games are on the road), the Lakers could easily be in the bottom five, record wise, by the All-Star break. Strategically, there can be no arguing that this is the best position for them to be in. For some, that’s enough to approve of tanking as a strategy. For others, tanking is a dirty word, because it is cheating the system, challenging the integrity of the game. And the Lakers are too proud to choose tanking. “We don’t do that”, the Lakers say. And they haven’t. They’ve tried their absolute best to put an entertaining and competitive product on the court, and considering the limitations they were dealing with, they’ve done a great job. Only, none of it matters, because the team is being absolutely decimated by injuries. So the Lakers now get to shrug their shoulders and say “Well, we tried” all the way to the bottom of the standings. They get to have their cake, and draft it too.

From Andy Kamentzky, Land O’ Lakers: Whenever possible, teams look to avoid firing coaches midseason. It creates the appearance of instability, of a franchise spinning out of control. When that midseason firing comes directly on the heels of another midseason firing, and paired with the death of quite possibly the greatest owner in professional sports history, it’s an even worse look. This scenario should be avoided unless a high-end roster is being blatantly mismanaged or a bubbling sense of urgency leaves the front office with no outs. For the time being, it’s exceptionally difficult to argue the Lakers have reached this point on either count. To begin, what exactly has D’Antoni done to merit being fired right now? Really, truly, what? With all hands on deck, the Lakers are a fringe playoff team in a loaded Western Conference, and that’s being optimistic. Beyond Kobe Bryant and (on his best days) Pau Gasol, the roster at FULL STRENGTH is composed entirely of players best suited as players off the bench. Some might only play 10-15 minutes a night on a good team. Others might not even make a good team. On the Lakers, they’re being asked to start or make major contributions as reserves. Even more so now, since half the roster apparently shares the same disease as Samuel L. Jackson’s character in “Unbreakable.”

From D.J. Foster, ProBasketball Talk: No one was winning anything substantial with this roster – not even the great Phil Jackson, who surely would have a whale of a time coaching Nick Young. That’s part of the issue with evaluating D’Antoni’s performance this season. What standards should he be held up to? Those set by past coaches and teams far more talented, or ones more in line with reality? The Lakers have been entertaining, and not solely in just a trainwreck sort of way, as was originally anticipated. This is typically a fun brand of basketball to watch, but more importantly, it’s a style that’s hospitable to star players, Bryant included. The Lakers move the ball. They feel empowered to take open threes. For the most part, they play pretty unselfish basketball, which is pretty much unheard of considering that nearly everyone on the roster is on an expiring contract and playing for their next job. There are defensive failures, naturally, but what did anyone reasonably expect? From Lakers’ general manager Mitch Kupchak’s perspective, D’Antoni has probably met his expectations so far this year. The reclamation project of Kendall Marshall has been a huge success thus far. D’Antoni has a reputation as a point guard whisperer, and maybe it was Kupchak’s confidence in D’Antoni that made giving Marshall a two-year non-guaranteed deal a high-upside play that looks like it’s going to pan out. That may not seem significant, but it’s a big deal for the Lakers. Most of the players currently on the roster, including Gasol, will be long gone next year. Finding cheap options that can contribute to next year’s team has to be the top priority, so long as we’re going to ignore the white elephants of tanking and taxes.

From Dave McMenamin, ESPN Los Angeles: Hope springs eternal, right? That next win is just around the river bend? You don’t know until you try? “I would expect them to play hard, as hard as they can possibly play, no matter what our record is,” Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak told ESPNLosAngeles.com on Wednesday when asked to assess the state of the purple and gold these days. Longtime Lakers special assistant coach Tex Winter liked to say, “Everything turns on a trifle,” so maybe there is a bit of healthy belief going on here. The Lakers’ suddenly slumping season started with an opening-night victory over the favored Clippers after all, a 116-103 shellacking of their city cohabitants that was supposed to set the identity of this group as the overachieving underdogs with an all-for-one, one-for-all attitude as the Lakers won by playing five bench players for the entire fourth quarter. But these days, they’ve just looked like dogs. “Man,” Nick Young said, asked to think back to that Oct. 29 victory. “What, this is our 35th game or 36th game today? Man. So, time flies. But we should be ready.” It could be lip service, but the Lakers are at least trying to present the appearance that this season isn’t a wash already. They even scheduled a practice Thursday in L.A. after originally planning an off day coming off their back-to-back games on the road in Dallas and Houston. There’s some nobility in refusing to succumb to a bad hand. And failing to prepare is preparing to fail and all that. But is it also failing to recognize the reality of where their season is at as a 14-22 team? And what about knowing when to fold ‘em? “It’s still going to be exciting, of course,” said Young. “Because that’s the battle of L.A. still. That’s still one of the games that if we win, the fans will look past us losing [recently]. We need to go out there and just have fun and enjoy the moment and try to get the victory.”

From Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: Looking back now, on his re-vamped personal website, Fisher — who now plays for the Thunder — makes clear he felt he had some serious work to do to keep his job under the legendary new coach. Fisher couldn’t help his lack of height, but he could at least increase his value to Jackson by mastering the art of shooting…Fisher remembers clearly Jackson’s first regular season game as Laker coach. It was in Salt Lake City, it was on national TV and it was close down the stretch. The Jazz had traditionally manhandled those Lakers, Fisher remembers, writing: “They were just so physically strong and mentally tougher than we were at that time in our careers, and they would show it just about every time we matched up against them.” The Lakers led 84-82 with about 45 seconds left when Fisher caught a pass in the deep right corner and fired away. Nothing but net (as you can watch, in grainy YouTube, on Fisher’s site). The Lakers won that game 91-84. They also won 67 regular season games that season, and the NBA championship each of the following three years, and twice more besides. Hardly anyone has doubted Fisher’s place in that Laker dynasty.