Archives For Point Guards

Steve Nash couldn’t finish Sunday’s game against the Timberwolves after experiencing pain in his back. When the 2nd half started, Nash remained in the locker room and after the game he said he would see a back specialist to get more information.

Well, the news is back and it doesn’t sound promising:

As Dave McMenamin mentions, Nash treated his back issues with an epidural during last year’s playoffs and it really didn’t help. It relieved his pain in the short term, but did not allow him to get on the floor to play in the games.

The fact that Nash is still experiencing issues with his back is a major concern. The fact that it’s nerve “irritation” is even more concerning since the timeline given comes along with the caveat of “a minimum of” and “will be reevaluated in 10 days” rather than a standard timetable of “out X days/weeks” and that’s that. The fact is the Lakers went through a similar issue with Nash last season when he broke his leg only to have nerve irritation throw his recovery timeline into a permanent fog.

If you recall, after Nash broke his leg, he was listed as being out for roughly two weeks, then was listed as day to day, only to have that regress to out indefinitely as the nerve problems kept bothering him. When Nash finally was cleared to play he clearly was not 100% and seemed to only come back to try and help the team when they were making their push for the playoffs.

That strategy did little for his long term health, however, as the rest of his body started to cause him problems as he (likely) had to overcompensate for his bad leg. Hip and hamstring issues developed and ultimately that caused his back to flare up. Back issues that, apparently, remain today even after a summer of rest and then training to build up his strength.

At this point, I wouldn’t bet on Nash being back in two weeks. Kevin Ding tweeted that these nerve irritation issues can last up to two months and considering Nash’s age and the fact that these issues have been persisting for some time doesn’t make for an ideal healing situation. And while I don’t want to speculate, it wouldn’t surprise me if Nash is out for a long time or that he ends up coming back on a timeline that’s relatively short (say 2-4 weeks) only to end up having more issues that put him on the injured list later in the season for the same reason.

In any event, the Lakers must now move on without Nash and that will mean more time for Steve Blake at point guard, more time for Jodie Meeks at shooting guard, and more time for Jordan Farmar since he’ll move to the primary back up for Blake as the lead guard. In a normal year this would be seen as a disaster as Nash would be considered the best of those four players. This year, however, Nash has been the least productive of the foursome and his absence should allow the Lakers to find more stability in their backcourt while also putting the team’s most productive guards on the floor for longer stretches.

As an aside, typing that paragraph is probably one of the saddest things I’ve ever written. The Lakers traded for Nash two summers ago and saw him as a player who could elevate the point guard position while helping the team contend for a title. After all, Nash was (is, actually) a hall of fame player who was still putting up very good numbers in Phoenix. What’s transpired, though, is Nash dealing with injury after injury and falling to a level that is unrecognizable for any fan who’s watched his career to this point. You always want players to age gracefully and to be able to go out on their own terms. Instead, Nash seems to be falling apart before our eyes. And, really, there’s nothing sadder than that.

Records: Lakers 13-14 (11th in the West). Knicks 20-7 (2nd in the East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 106.3 (6th in NBA), Knicks 109.8 (2nd in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 102.2 (15th in NBA), Knicks 102.4 (16th in NBA)
Projected starting lineups: Lakers: Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Devin Ebanks, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard
Knicks: Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler, Ronnie Brewer, Jason Kidd, Raymond Felton
Injuries: Lakers: Steve Blake (out); Knicks: Amar’e Stoudemire, Iman Shumpert, Rasheed Wallace (all out)

Who knew having Steve Nash at the point is beneficial to winnings basketball games?

Through 36 minutes on Saturday night, however, the Lakers, who fell behind by as many 14 points in the second half and trailed the Warriors by 13 heading into the fourth quarter, tried valiantly to sully Nash’s return by adding yet another brick to the cathedral of disappointment that is the early days of the 2012-13 season. Dwight Howard was whistled for a pair of fouls in the game’s opening five minutes and had seen the floor for all of 12 minutes before picking up his fifth 12 seconds into the fourth quarter.

Called upon by Necessity (the dude manning the PA system in his head – little known fact), Kobe Bryant fired up the chuck wagon, delivering a staggering 41 attempts (and a lone, unsuccessful free throw) in 44 minutes in the vicinity of the bucket. Of the smorgasbord of heaves, 16 found paydirt, and Kobe wound up with 34 points (plus 10 rebounds, five assists and a steal).

Before we move on, a morsel of perspective: on January 22, 2006, Kobe took the floor for 42 minutes and attempted 46 shots. That night, he scored 81 points.

Another perhaps? Prior to Saturday night, in the 16+ seasons since Bean entered the NBA, 14 times (eight of them his own) had an NBAer attempted at least 40 shots in a game. On none of these occasions did said player fail to score at least 40, with just three efforts falling short of 45. So, yeah…


Despite it all, the largely-undeserved-until-it-was-in-their-grasp OT triumph over the Dubs is perhaps the ideal opening verse for this (at full strength) Laker squad. In addition to pulling the team to within a single victory of the comically elusive .500 mark, the Lakers’ most recent most significant victory of the season was accompanied by certain takeaways that augur well for the full-strength version of this team:

For a guy who has not played competitive ball since Halloween, Steve Nash was spectacular. Conditioning and reacclimation to the speed of the game are the primary focuses of many players’ returns to action following serious lower body injuries. Nash hit the hardwood running… and driving, probing and backpicking. 41 minutes, 12 points on eight shots, nine dimes, a pair of steals, a huge crunch time triple in the fourth quarter and a picture-perfect runner to ice the game in overtime.

And Kobe let him!

It’s been my contention since this team was assembled that from both a talent and personality perspective, Nash resides in the exclusive neighborhood of players in possession of Kobe’s unconditional respect. It was glorious to actually watch it unfold.

Metta. We joke about his idiosyncrasies – and he is certainly not without his flaws – MWP’s willingness to sacrifice for the good of the team with nary gripe nor lapse in effort is remarkable. And he’s only just begun to feel the Nash Effect. A monster inside and out on Saturday and the spark for the Lakers’ fourth quarter comeback, provided not only the effort that so personifies his game, but efficient productivity the Lakers have too often lacked. Whether the three threes and uber-efficient 20 make a cameo on Christmas Day remains to be seen, but his work rate and tenacity perfectly complement the style of the maestro now at the reins.

Speaking of which, let’s talk some Jesus’ birthday, huh?

At noon local time at Staples, in their latest attempt to claw back to break-even, the Lakers square off against the Eastern Conference powerhouse that has exceeded not only its own preseason expectations, but the Lakers’ lofty set as well. A third of their schedule in the books – and 12 days removed from a comfortable victory over a Nash-/Pau-less Laker team – the New York Knicks head west on a 60-win pace. Though their perimeter assault has been relegated to the slums of “top third in the league,” Carmelo and Company remain one of the revelations of this NBA season, with an Effective Field Goal Percentage ranking fifth in the league (51.8%; the Lakers rank sixth, at 50.9%) and an offense trailing only the Oklahoma City Thunder in terms of efficiency.

None of this, of course, is news to the Lakers, who on December 13 at MSG saw up close the swift and blinding manner in which the Knicks – namely, the aforementioned Mr. Anthony – are able to deploy their attack. That night, Carmelo buried a trio of triples inside of 150 seconds, and racked up 22 of the Knicks’ 41 first quarter points. The Knicks ultimately opened up a 26-point cushion and appeared to be cruising to a laugher until a left ankle injury brought Carmelo’s evening to untimely end, just five minutes into the second half, and opened the door for a Lakers comeback that trimmed the margin to just six points, though a combined 67 from Tyson Chandler, J.R. Smith, Ray Felton and Steve Novak was enough to preserve a Knick victory.

For all of the frustration that has permeated this campaign for the Lakers, this was the outing in which rock bottom was achieved. I used “achieved” because at that point in time everyone associated with the Lakers – players, management, coaches, fans – needed to stare into the abyss of abject mediocrity (at the time, a generous assessment) before refusing to go quietly into that Manhattan night and ultimately looking to a brighter day ahead. The Lakers are unbeaten in four games since, with road wins against the Wizards and 76ers, a comeback victory at home over the Bobcats and the aforementioned W over the Dubs.

This afternoon, the Lakers look to truly right the ship. Their full complement of talent (ex-Steve Blake) finally in tow, some momentum built and an opportunity to even their record against a premier foe on their home floor, the opportunity lies before them to notch their greatest signature victory of the season. For the first time in a long time, they enter the game favored at both backcourt spots. What will prove vital is the ability of the wing defenders (primarily Metta and Devin Ebanks) to sap the efficiency from Carmelo Anthony’s offensive game, while making the Knicks’ talisman expend some energy defensively, and hopefully offsetting some of his inevitably significant production.

Finally, we arrive at the middle, where Tyson Chandler is in the midst of one of his most prolific seasons. Averaging 12.8 and nearly 10 rebounds per game and shooting a goofy 70% from the field (13.6, 11.4 and 66.7 over his last five), more than anyone not named Carmelo, Chandler will set the tone for the Knicks. The Lakers can simply ill-afford a repeat of Saturday night from Dwight Howard, and, in addition, will need quality minutes – not only as a defensive rebounder and high post passer, but as a rim protector – from Pau Gasol, with Jordan Hill, seemingly no longer “out of the rotation” adding to the Lakers’ dilemma in the middle.

Knicks blogs: Both Knickerblogger and Posting and Toasting do a fantastic job of covering the Knicks. Give both a read. Additionally, P&T’s Seth Rosenthal and I got together on the I Go Hard Now podcast last week, where we talked all things Laker and Knick.

Where you can watch: This is a noon Pacific tip. Watch the national telecast on ABC. You can also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.


In closing, huge thanks to the gang here at FB&G for continuing to bang out some of the best Lakers coverage – and letting me do whatever it is that I do. Also, thanks to everyone swinging by to check out our analytical styling’s. Want to wish you all and your families a happy and healthy holiday. Everyone enjoy the game!

The Laker Way

Emile Avanessian —  August 21, 2012

I stand corrected. It appears the “new Laker fandom” will bear a striking resemblance to that which preceded it.

Ever since Andrew Bynum schooled J.J. Barea on the nuances of Newtonian physics in the spring of 2011, it was apparent that the Lakers — as then constituted — required a facelift. As that spring gave way to summer, and summer to lockout, lockout to, well, more lockout, and ultimately to the most frantic NBA silly season ever, the Lakers looked to have gone full Jerry Jones, swapping championship lynchpins Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom for the best possible solution to their long running point guard dilemma, Chris Paul. Upon learning from David Stern that their health insurance policy did not cover cosmetic overhauls of this magnitude — let’s see if this analogy has legs, huh? — the Lakers were forced to pull a page from the playbook of many a courtside patron and “just get a little work done.”

No sooner had he “returned” from New Orleans than a dejected Odom was rerouted to the defending champion Mavericks, in exchange for a draft pick that reimbursed the Lakers for the legislated theft of Chris Paul — a pick that might just have materialized in time to select Little CP — and an $8.9 million handful of magic beans. Hold this thought.

Almost (if not) universally panned at the time, the saga seemed an ugly manifestation of the new Jimmy Buss era. Ascribed to a desire to jettison an emotional landmine, presumably of equal importance was the resulting cut in payroll. Between the new CBA and Short Buss/Gob/[insert pet name of your choosing], the Lakers were (yeah, I’m irrational and entitled. whatever) falling back to the NBA pack.

In the months that followed, they went back under the knife, turning Luke Walton and a first round pick into the point guard upgrade Laker Nation pined for, and then sending talismanic on-court liability Derek Fisher to Houston, in exchange for Jordan Hill. Ramon Sessions immediately cleared the shin-high hurdle of expectation (inspiring more than a few $e$$ion$ tweets along the way), averaging 12.7 points and 6.2 assists per game and posting a True Shooting Percentage of 57% (thanks to 48.6% from beyond the arc), while Hill showed flashes of becoming a badly needed frontcourt spark plug.

In the aforementioned pair of trades, the Lakers claimed no better than one draw and one defeat. There is a case to be made that the two trades did nothing more than cost the Lakers an ever-so-scarce first rounder (seriously, are we sure Mitch Kupchak didn’t once cut a shady deal with Joe Smith?) to rent a lead guard whose performance waned with time — though not so much that he opted against opting out of his contract — and a lotto-bust-turned-glue-guy that might have priced himself out of their budget with seven 6 and 6’s.

Fair enough.

That said, however, there is also a case to be made that the value of addressing your most glaring weakness — with a possible long-term solution (didn’t happen, but still) — while simultaneously inspiring goodwill among fans likely trumps the yield of a mid-20s draft pick. Hell, keeping Jordan Hill probably accomplishes that on its own.

Sure, the acquisition of this generation’s original #PointGod is a rising tide that lifts many a personnel decision, but that itself is merely a product of a longtime philosophy — one built on an ideal combination of patience and decisiveness, with zero parts fear. For more than three decades Mitch Kupchak (and Jerry West before him) and Jimmy (and for the three decades prior, Jerry) Buss have continually taken to the tightrope — if not in pursuit of improving the roster, then forcibly, at the hands of a disgruntled star (be it Magic in 1982, Shaq in 2003-04, Kobe in 2007 or Odom last winter) — and continually resisted the temptation of simple self-preservation (y’know, the type that seeks the comfort of “winning every trade” en route to building Replacement Player Voltron) in the interest of delivering true difference makers.

It is understanding, in the summer of 2004, that the differences between Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant could no longer be worked around, and trading Shaq — perhaps a year or two early — in favor of the next decade of a purported franchise killer. It is, 11 months later with the Lakers clearly in decline and the remainder of Kobe’s prime hanging in the balance, selecting high schooler Andrew Bynum (while I begged for Danny Granger). Though Bynum was a project, his is twice- (perhaps three times) in-a-decade potential. It’s unlikely that in June 2005 the Lakers’ brass knew much more than we did regarding the path Bynum’s career would take, but they understood that should he realize even (arbitrarily) 60% of his potential, his value, on the floor and as an asset, would likely exceed that of an athletic wing, even one as talented as Granger. And given Bynum’s roles in both hanging another pair of banners in the rafters and the acquisition of the greatest center since Shaquille O’Neal, clearly they were correct.

In the weeks that followed, the second-best member of the 2004-05 Lakers and a future All-Star, Caron Butler – who is also a Kobe favorite and (in possibly related news) the rare member of the first post-Shaq Laker squad not openly starstruck in Bean’s presence – was shipped to the nation’s capital, in exchange for MJ-protégé-turned-ham-handed-cake-vandal Kwame Brown. In all likelihood the downgrade was not lost on Kupchak – though it must be said that Kwame Brown, a 22 year-old big man four years removed from being a #1 overall pick, presented an interesting value proposition — though neither was the realization that building the Western Conference’s version of the Gilbert Arenas-led Wizards offered little long term value.

Meanwhile, with Bynum developing at a pace one would expect from an 18 year-old big man, Kobe, fearing the remainder of his prime would be frittered away in NBA purgatory, (inadvertently) publicly lobbied for the front office to cut ties with Bynum, in favor of Jason Kidd. Upon the front office’s refusal to oblige his request, Kobe shifted his focus and, in the summer of 2007, demanded that he himself be traded, preferably to the Chicago Bulls, preferably in exchange for a less-than-optimal package. In this, the most terrifying time to be a Laker fan since November 1991, Kupchak stayed his course, recognizing that he was under no obligation to act in haste, and refused to become footnoted as the man that traded two of the top dozen players in the game’s history.

Banking on Kobe’s dedication to his craft (and his legacy) winning out, the Lakers tipped off the 2007-08 with their frustrated superstar in tow. And then a funny thing happened…

While Kobe brooded and plotted his exit from L.A. (though he still balled), a rare underdog Laker squad, behind double-double averages from Odom and Bynum (who was lost for the season after just 35 games) and 20.8 points and 5.6 assists in 48 combined minutes per game from Derek Fisher and Jordan Farmar, unexpectedly returned to the top of the Western Conference. Winners of 19 of their first 29 and 27 of their first 40, the Lakers were rewarding Kupchak’s steadfastness in not parting company with a transcendent talent. The extent to which they were true contenders was debatable, but the greenness of the grass elsewhere could no longer be a given for Kobe.

Having not only traded a future All-Star to acquire Kwame Brown, but also having given him a three-year/$24-million contract to stick around, the Lakers looked to be a bit of a bind with their bust-y big man. That winter, as he did again this summer, Mitch turned the tables on that pair of increasingly fruitless personnel decisions. As tends to be the case with the habitually successful, good fortune smiled upon the Lakers — in the form of a stalled counterparty desperate to cut costs and salvage value for a big money star. On February 1, 2008, in one of the great redemptive trades in recent history, Kupchak parlayed Kwame (along with Marc Gasol, who unexpectedly blossomed into a top-shelf center) into one of the world’s most unique, talented and uniquely talented big men, Pau Gasol.

The rest you are probably familiar with. Having significantly upgraded the frontcourt without creating new holes elsewhere (sound familiar?), the Lakers won 27 of their final 36 in the regular season, locked up the West’s top seed and coasted through the playoffs, dropping just three games en route to the Finals.

A lackluster Finals performance and a pair of postseason disappointments gave rise (and longevity) to more undeserved criticism than any team-first top-15 talent that’s helped anchor a pair of title teams should ever have to endure. In addition, they sparked endless speculation regarding Gasol’s future with the franchise. In the face of mounting pressure and dwindling rationality, thanks in large part to Pau’s incredible maturity and professionalism, rather than selling low on an all-world talent, Kupchak held tight. (Note: yes, in December 2011 he did in fact trade Pau, but in doing so he was procuring the services of Chris freaking Paul)


Crucified at the time (yeah, I did it too) for gifting Odom, a valued contributor to the defending champions, and again at the trade deadline for seemingly foregoing the opportunity to salvage value in exchange, Kupchak again conducted a clinic in opportunism. With the Lakers sliding further down the Western Conference totem pole, in classic Laker front office fashion, he masterfully capitalized on one of the assets at his disposal. Using the flexibility afforded by the $8.9 million trade exception, Kupchak facilitated the Phoenix Suns’ transition into transition, landed one of the great point guards of this generation and one of the best shooters of all time — Steve Nash.


On a different front, trade winds continued to swirl around Andrew Bynum. Ever since the Jason Kidd chatter of years past, he had been rumored… let’s just say that any rumor not involving Gasol (and even one that did) was constructed around ‘Drew.

As he had with Kobe and Gasol, Kupchak (probably with some input from Jimmy) took a measured approach, valuing Bynum (rightfully) as elite asset and refusing to swap a super-skilled 7-foot, 285-pound, 24 year-old (how is he still so young??) for whatever shiny object du jour happened to be dangled before him. Additionally, when it seemed the Dwight Howard saga (putting it mildly) might conclude with the Lakers stranded in the cold, Kupchak held his ground, refusing to package Bynum and Gasol in exchange for Howard, as Orlando was demanding. And in the end, with a Joe Johnson trade here and Brook Lopez max-out there, the urgency Orlando had attempted to instill in the Lakers not only subsided, but reversed field.

In thinking about the recent chain of events in Lakerland, I am reminded of a decade and a half ago. A once-in-a-lifetime big man and (though we didn’t know it at the time) wing within the Lakers’ grasp, then-GM (and Kupchak’s mentor and hoops Jedi) Jerry West, having resisted the urge to trade away Vlade Divac — around whom (if memory serves) rumors had swirled (as much as they could back then) — the season prior, parted ways with his starting center only when payoff was the payroll flexibility required to secure a transcendent big man like Shaquille O’Neal… and an 18 year-old Kobe Bryant.

Hate the Lakers for past success. Hate them for their inexhaustible resources. Hate them for residing in a top-tier market with perfect weather. Understand, however, that more than any of these, what’s set them apart is the ability to maintain composure when the stakes are highest. West understood in ’96 what Mitch Kupchak has since mastered. The skill lies not in knowing precisely who will come available and when, but in the knowledge that someone will hit the market, and that the flexibility to deal and willingness to pounce without fear are the ultimate difference makers.

During his eight-year run in Phoenix, Steve Nash led the NBA in assists six times, and five times in assists per game and Assist Rate, finishing in the top three in each category every year. He turned in a record four seasons in which he made 50% of his field goals, 40% of his 3-pointers and 90% of his free throws, missing narrowly on two other occasions –2006-07 (89.9% FT) and 2010-11 (39.5% from 3). Three times he quarterbacked the Suns to the conference finals, missing trips to the championship round consecutive years due to Joe Johnson’s face and Robert Horry’s ass.

For his trouble, Nash earned six All-star selections, three All-NBA First Team nods (and a pair of Seconds) and a pair of league MVP trophies. Additionally, he earned charter membership in the League Pass Hall of Fame, gained the inside track on entry into that other Hall and cemented his status as one of the great player representatives in NBA history. What… whah?

Yessir. We occupy a world in which Shawn Marion, Raja Bell, Jared Dudley, Leandro Barbosa, Channing Frye and Lou Amundson have pounded paychecks totaling more than $220 million. This figure will approach $250 mill by 2015. Tim Thomas has been paid nearly $25 million since 2006. Give kudos to the David Falks of the world if you must, but…

So three weeks ago, a Laker offseason soaked in questions and seemingly destined to hinge on an all-in play aimed at upgrading the always vital “occasional pain in the ass, sublimely gifted big man” spot took a dramatic turn with the acquisition of the aforementioned virtuoso. Nash’s arrival on the Lakers’ roster did little to quell the questions that swirl around this team.

In the weeks to come, we’ll continue to discuss Dwight Howard’s future home. We’ll question the ability of Kobe Bryant to coexist with an assertive, pure point guard (I say this ends extremely well. Nash is Kobe’s kind of player – tough, detail-oriented and a workaholic. Plus, fair or not, he could throw an MVP trophy on eBay and still match Bean’s tally). We’ll wonder aloud about Pau Gasol’s future with the Lakers (he was just gifted a playmaker for whom his game was seemingly custom made), as well as that of Andrew Bynum (who knows? I’m not comfortable handicapping his internal dialogue).

In due time, however. For me, since the announcement of Nash’s relocation to Staples, one recurring question has dominated… which completely average Laker will he Point God into national prominence and an eight-figure payday? A walk through Nash’s days in the desert reveals beneficiaries past, and provides a template for those to come…

Andrew Bynum/Amar’e Stoudemire (with a side of Tim Thomas) – Ok, so I tweaked this one. ‘Drew – like Amar’e before him – is already a star. Also like STAT, he’s got an injury record that’s too significant to ignore, but (in Stoudemire’s case, until the spring of 2011) has done little damage to his professional standing. That’s because, also like STAT, he has more talent than any reasonable person knows what to do with. So much in fact, that he occasionally becomes flummoxed, and does virtually nothing at all.

To extend the comparison, if Bynum is the Lakers’ starting center this season, Nash will extract more of his best than we’ve ever seen. Look for at least 20-12 from ‘Drew in 2012-13, along with a starting nod for the All-Star Game and (if you’d like to call me crazy, here is your first opportunity) a dalliance with MVP candidacy.

Unlike many former Suns for whom Nash has secured tens of millions of dollars, Andrew Bynum does not stand to benefit financially from Point God’s presence. Barring an unforeseen turn of events, Bynum is a virtual lock to be showered with max money, either by the Lakers or someone else. Thanks to Steve Nash, however, he’ll deserve those fat checks more than ever before.

Christian Eyenga/Leandro Barbosa (pipe dream: Shawn Marion) – Perhaps the biggest reach of the bunch. A 23 year-old whose career point tally (320) falls short of that any month churned out by Kobe Bryant in 2005-06, compared with a former Sixth Man of the Year who, at his best ranked among the game’s most incisive attackers, let alone a four-time All Star, who in six full seasons as the evolutionary James Worthy managed no worse than a 19.8 PER.

That said, since the start of 2009-10 (Barbosa’s last season as a Sun) and 2007-08 (the season in which Marion was dealt to the Miami Heat) neither has topped his worst True Shooting Percentage or PER mark of the “Seven Seconds or Less” era.

Though the comparisons are meant somewhat in jest, who’s to say that a super-athletic (again, 23 year-old) wing – albeit one desperately in need of on-court reps as well as a jump shot – is incapable of linking up with one of history’s great playmakers and developing into, say, two thirds of prime Barbosa?

Jordan Hill/Channing Frye – A pair of former Knicks’ #8 overall picks for whom the NBA transition proved tougher than originally expected. After an excellent rookie campaign in New York (12.3 points and 5.8 rebounds per game, 47.7% from the field), Frye fell off, leading to a trade to Portland following his second season. After a pair of increasingly lackluster seasons with Blazers, Frye found himself in free agency in the summer of 2009.

Fortunately for Channing, the Phoenix Suns – well, Steve Nash, really – were on hand with a lifeline. On essentially a one-year deal and presumably playing for his NBA future, he returned to the form that made him a prized prospect as a rookie, averaging 11.2 points and 5.3 rebounds per game, and connecting on a career-high 43.9% of his 4.8 3-point attempts per game… and scoring $30 million over the next five years.

Cut from a similar cloth, Hill took the floor a whopping 24 times for the Knicks (not terribly at that, averaging 14 and 8.7 per 36 minutes, with a 15 PER), before heading to Houston in a February 2010 trade. In 127 games between the trade and the spring of 2011, his (again) solid play (13 and 10.5 per 36; he averaged 15 minutes per game), and Hill was again sent packing, this time to L.A. In 19 games as a Laker, Hill provided a desperately needed spark, nearly pricing himself out of the budget in the process, with seven games of 6 and 6 or better (in just 11.7 minutes per game), averages of 14.6 points and 13.5 boards per 36 and an NBA best 18.9% Offensive Rebound Rate in 12 postseason games.

Metta World Peace/Raja Bell – Defensive stoppers with a propensity for, err, enthusiastically imposing their respective wills on the cranial region of opposing two guards, each with a headbutt of sorts with Kobe Bryant under his belt.

Having made at least 37% of his 3-pointers in nine of the last 10 seasons, compared with just two in 12 full seasons for Metta, Bell is pretty clearly the superior perimeter marksman. However, as the least potent member of a unit in which all remaining members command the attention of multiple defenders – but with a physical presence on defense that will keep him on the floor – Metta is in line for a steady stream of open looks, as both a spot-up man and a cutter.

Matt Barnes*/Matt Barnes – Though he suffered through his worst defensive season as a pro (per Basketball Reference, he allowed 111 points per 100 defensive possessions), Barnes’ 2008-09 campaign – his only one with with Nash and the Suns – was his best as a passer (3.7 assists/36 minutes; 14.5% Assist Rate), and his second best as a scorer (13.6 points/36), perimeter shooter (34.3% on 3-pointers) and defensive rebounder (18.5% DRR).

Whether it’s reasonable to expect a 38 year-old Nash to coax 28 year-old form out of a 32 year-old Barnes is debatable, but there few lead guards at any age I’d rather bet on to manage the feat.

Andrew Goudelock/Quentin Richardson – Ask the average fan about Q-Rich’s lone season with Nash and you’re likely to be regaled with anecdotal tales of knockdown shooting. The fact is, however, that while Richardson averaged eight attempts (freaking EIGHT), making 2.9, from beyond the arc in 2004-05, he connected at an above average (for a decent shooter) 35.8%, but shot just 38.9% overall from the field.

In 10 minutes per game as a rookie, despite connecting on just 39.1% of his field goals overall, Goudelock connected on nearly one (0.7) of 1.9 – or 37.3% – 3-point attempts per game. Per 36 minutes, that’s a Quentin-esque 2.4 of 6.4. Assuming nothing more than the normal growth in minutes than comes with a year of experience (to say, 15 minutes per) along with the benefit of spotting up for Steve Nash passes, off of Steve Nash penetration, and ‘Lock may in line for a payday that neither Derek Fisher, Ramon Sessions, Steve Blake nor his agent could have secured for him.

Josh McRoberts/Lou Amundson – A pair of unproductive but energetic “glue guys,” for whom an NBA paycheck will remain a thing longer than logic would dictate it should, thanks entirely (ok, in large part) to Steve Nash.

A season removed from having earned ~$210,000 playing for three different teams and failing to post a double digit PER in any stint with any of them, Amundson joined the Suns, where he enjoyed the only above average years of his career, earned another two years in the NBA and $4+ million.

A superior athlete of higher pedigree and spectacular finisher at rim, look for Nash’s lobability to not only turn McBobs into a highlight reel darling, but to bank the former Dukie seven, maybe eight figures he’d otherwise never see.

Devin Ebanks*/Jared Dudley – Dudley is an excellent Twitter follow and, by all accounts, a really nice guy. Running alongside Steve Nash, he’s established himself as a pretty above average player that can bury an open jumper.

However, in Nash’s absence, with faster, quicker, more athletic defenders no longer having to sag into the lane while protecting against picture perfect kickouts, it’s difficult to envision anything but a bruising fall to mediocrity.

Ebanks, on the other hand, while a decidedly inferior shooter (in far fewer opportunities), is precisely the type of young running mate that Nash raises to prominence. An atheltic 6’9″-215, Ebanks (who now, in his third year, should see the floor for 20-24 minutes per game) should present Nash with a excellent target on the break. Whether Devin’s got the all-around game to truly crack Nash’s stable of clients remains to be seen, but, again, if it’s going to happen with anyone…

*Assuming he remains a Laker


Records: Lakers: 30-18 (3rd in West), Grizzlies: 25-21 (6th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers: 104.7 (15th in NBA), Grizzlies: 102.8 (21st in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers: 101.8 (10th in NBA), Grizzlies: 101.5 (8th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Ramon Sessions, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Grizzlies: Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol
Injuries: Lakers: none; Grizzlies: Darrell Arthur (out)
The Lakers Coming In: Euphoric. A team that was already experiencing more success than the eyeball test would have suggested has addressed its most glaring deficiency and now looks not only like a lock for a top-3 playoff seed, but a legitimately nightmare matchup once the playoffs begin. As we’ll see momentarily, the Lakers have played some solid ball all season, but it’s rather quickly become obvious just how hamstrung this squad was by woeful point guard play in the season’s first three months. Thanks to wins in 16 of their last 22 games, including 7 of the last 10, the Lakers have bypassed the Clippers (loser of 10 of 17 since the All-Star break) for the top spot in the Pacific (now leading by 3 games) and tonight’s opponent as well (the resurgent Memphis Grizzlies), who now trail Kobe & Co. by 4 games.

Now, it would be crazy to suggest that Ramon Sessions will maintain the incredible 58%-shooting, 50%-from-3, near-26-PER form we’ve seen in his first five games as a Laker, but what fans are justified in banking on are the skills he’s brought to this team – namely top-shelf foot speed and quickness, along with an ability to pose a multi-dimensional threat coming off of a screen. It’s a bit early to get too deeply analytical about the long term impact of Sessions on these Lakers – extrapolating off this small sample might lead to a slightly premature Hall of Fame induction and the aggressive tempering of expectations is just no fun – so, as we’ve done in recent days, let’s revel in the fact that we’ve now got a lead guard, and enjoy our own irrational, Linsanity-esque ride for as long as it lasts, knowing full well that if the Ramon Sessions we get in the long haul is even 60% of this Ramon Sessions, the coming weeks are going to be a blast.

The Grizzlies Coming In: The Grizzlies, like the Lakers, had been playing some excellent ball of late. Since a 10-point home loss to the Jazz on February 12 dropped them to 14-14, the Grizz have prevailed in 11 of 18 and, until this week, appeared to be cementing their place in the middle of the West’s playoff seedings.

However, while Memphis, now back at full strength following the return of Zach Randolph, is still a safe bet to finish among the conference’s top eight, losses in each of their last three, including a convincing defeat at the hands of Clippers yesterday, has dropped them into the dogfight at the bottom half of the West bracket. Though currently sixth and just a game behind the Clippers and Mavericks for #’s 4 and 5, the Grizzlies are in a virtual tie with the hard-charging Jazz and and a half game up on the Nuggets in the final three playoff spots, with the Rockets and invigorated Suns breathing down their necks.

As can reasonably be said of many teams in similar situations, the Grizzlies simply cannot afford to allow this current slump to extend much further. The Lakers will need to approach this contest with a bit of caution, as evidenced by the absences of Rudy Gay for the entirety of the fourth quarter and Mike Conley for the final 19 minutes against the Clippers, rather than exhausting all of their resources in what likely would have been a futile comeback attempt, the team is likely to see the very best the Grizzlies have to offer.

Grizzlies Blogs: 3 Shades of Blue and Straight Outta Vancouver do an excellent job of covering the Grizz. Give these guys a read.

Keys to the Game: This game is a treasure trove of fascinating matchups. For starters, Ramon Sessions will face the toughest head-to-head matchup of his Laker tenure, when he squares off against a rested Mike Conley. On the wings, each squad’s top perimeter scorer will lock horns with the opponent’s top perimeter defender, as Tony Allen will check Kobe Bryant, while Matt Barnes/MWP attempt to keep Rudy Gay quiet. However, the determining factor in this one is likely to be the battle in the trenches.

While the Grizzlies limited (to some extent) Z-Bo’s minutes following his return from injury, he saw the floor for nearly 38 minutes against the Clippers. With the exception of his 25-minute, 25-point outburst off the bench in his first game back, Randolph’s game has yet to reach its max potential. With that said, he is beginning to look like his old self and is likely not far from a vintage, ground-bound Z-Bo 25-18. It will be vital that Pau Gasol check him aggressively and carry that aggression to the offensive end to make Randolph work on D, preferably out of prime rebounding position.

Meanwhile, the best big man battle in the Western Conference will be waged on the other side of the paint, as Andrew Bynum and Pau’s “little” brother, Marc (one of the only bigs in the NBA capable of matching Drew’s strength) square off. Again, aggression will be the order of the day, as Bynum, in what should be an excellent challenge, will be called on to bring max effort both at the defensive end and on the boards, while controlling his aggression to avoid foul trouble, as he will have to give the Lakers at least 20-12, and no fewer than 35 minutes.

On the heels of a potentially epic Heat-Thunder clash, this ought to be another must-watch. At the end of the day, the Lakers will probably have too much length up front and enough backcourt firepower to prevail, though a blowout would come as something of a surprise. 

Where you can watch: 7:30 PM start time on ESPN. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.

Box Score: Lakers 109, Mavericks 93
Offensive Efficiency: Lakers 123.9, Mavericks 105.7
True Shooting %: Lakers 68.2%, Mavericks 53.5%

On the heels of a brutal come-from-ahead loss in Houston on Tuesday night, the Lakers wrapped up their Texas two-step in Dallas, where the defending champs and administrators of last spring’s postseason humiliation awaited. More tough sledding ahead? Not so much.

The Good: Practically everything. For starters, you know how all season the “Bad” and “Ugly” sections of these reviews have lamented the Lakers’ inability to a) connect from the outside and b) generate any kind of meaningful production off of the bench? Well, on Wednesday night, the Lakers made a phenomenal 50% of their 18 3-point attempts, six of them by bench players. Speaking of which, the Lakers’ bench was outscored by its Mavs’ counterpart by just two points, 38-36, staggering given we’re talking about, y’know, the Lakers’ bench.

In the starting unit, deadly efficiency ruled the day, as Kobe Bryant, operating within the confines of the offense, scored 30 on 11-of-18 from the floor (and 7-of-7 FT), peppering the Mavs from mid-range all night. Meanwhile, Pau Gasol was absolutely masterful. Pau played one of, if not his best game of the season, connecting on 13 of his 16 shots en route to 27 points (to which he added 9 rebounds). Gasol was unstoppable on Wednesday night, not only making 6-of-7 in the paint, but doing significant damage from the outside as well, shooting 8-of-10 from outside the key, including a perfect 7-of-7 from 17-20 feet between the elbow and success on his only 3-point attempt.

Finally, we have Ramon Sessions. Much to the chagrin of the fans of Cleveland, Sessions has sent shockwaves through Lakerland, providing us with a glimpse into a life that heretofore might as well have existed in another galaxy. Not since the days of Nick Van Exel have Laker fans had a young and explosive point guard at the helm. On Wednesday night, Ramon Sessions played the point guard game that this fan base has desperately been waiting for. In 29 minutes, divided into two extended stretches, Ramon was a revelation, connecting on 7 of 8 shots, including 3-of-4 from beyond the arc for his 17 points, grabbing 5 rebounds and handing out 9 assists.

Every bit as impressive as his phenomenal stat line was his role in the Lakers’ offense, which only really came to life when he was on the floor. Sessions’ greatest assets are his quickness and speed off the dribble, which he utilized beautifully, starting almost immediately after entering the game with just under five minutes remaining in the first quarter, knifing into the lane and, with excellent decision-making, setting up open jump shots for teammates for each of his 9 assists, including four in a two-minute span late in the first quarter.

We’ve got a point guard!

The Bad: With the third member of their underperforming trio now spending his evenings trying to reign in Russell Westbrook, the “subpar stat line” onus was on Metta World Peace and Steve Blake. Now, truth be told neither of these guys was a complete disaster against the Mavs – MWP managed 4 rebounds, 3 assists and a blocked shot in 25 minutes, while Blake, Mike Brown’s starting point guard “for the foreseeable future,” had two pair, assists and steals, in 17 minutes on the floor – but a combined 7 points on 2-of-9 shooting, even with no turnovers, in 42 minutes is, how can I put this gently, kinda stinky.

The Ugly: Thanks to his averages of 23.7 points and 12.3 rebounds over the last 10 games, Andrew Bynum was obviously a focal point in the Mavericks’ defensive game plan. In the game’s opening minute Bynum grabbed a defensive rebound and converted a pretty reverse layup at the other end. However, rather than building on this dominating this contest the way he has so many of late, that play was the last one of consequence from the big man for some time.

Bynum was (understandably) the target of aggressive double and triple teams on every post touch from that point forward, and was unable to deliver the ball to the open man in a timely or effective manner. This strategy proved particularly effective for the Mavs in the first half, as the Lakers’ perimeter players frequently cut baseline after delivering the ball to Bynum down low. This tactic actually simplified the Mavs’ task, as they doubled aggressively off of the cutter, giving ‘Drew fits and preventing the Lakers from ever establishing him as an offensive threat.

However, the ugliness in Bynum’s performance on Wednesday night is not the result of Mavs’ defense pressuring him into an inefficient offensive game (he was 4-of-5 from the field) or sloppy effort passing out of the post (he didn’t turn the ball over once), but in Andrew’s generally lackadaisical effort. Far too often on Wednesday, Bynum was boxed out on both the offensive and defensive glass by smaller player that have no business doing so. Far too often he jogged back on offense, often not setting up inside the 3-point arc until 10+ seconds of the possession were gone. Perhaps the best example of this lackluster effort came in the first quarter, when, attempting to guard Dirk Nowitzki on the perimeter, Bynum not only failed to get into a defensive stance, but barely had a chance to turn around as the Mavs’ (by far) most potent offensive threat blew by him for a layup.

This is by no means a chronic issue and all’s well that ends well, but for a guy whose untimely ejection set the stage for crushing come-from-ahead loss the night before, Andrew Bynum spent far too much time on Wednesday play with little-to-no spark at all.

Play of the Game: With all of that said, Andrew Bynum linked up with fellow big Pau Gasol with about eight minutes left in the game – this time successfully passing out of a double team – firing a cross-court kick-out to the right corner, from which Pau buried a three-point dagger that put the Lakers ahead 90-76.

On its own this play would not be worthy of PoG, but the brazen, villainous confidence of ‘Drew made it truly memorable. In front of the crowd that is more eager than any other to see him fail (he did, after try to break their gelled-up midget 10 months ago), after making the pass to Gasol, Bynum made his way back down the floor with the ball still in the air, three fingers held aloft for all to see.


Unfortunately for the Laker bigs, however, the top spot belong to one Kobe Bean Bryant, who, midway through the third quarter, received a lob from Pau Gasol and finished in a manner that can only be described as sublime.

Records: Lakers: 26-16 (3rd in West), Hornets: 10-32 (15th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers: 104.1 (14th in NBA), Hornets: 99.1 (29th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers: 101.4 (9th in NBA), Hornets: 104.9 (17th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Hornets: Jarrett Jack, Marco Belinelli, Al-Farouq Aminu, Gustavo Ayon, Chris Kaman
Injuries: Lakers: none; Hornets: Eric Gordon (out), Emeka Okafor (out), Carl Landry (questionable)

The Lakers Coming In: On the eve of a trade deadline that is looks to be less eventful than originally expected, I imagine one question more than any other is ricocheting inside the heads of much of Laker Nation… how the hell is this season going so well?

Amid an unrelenting barrage of speculation and innuendo, the Lakers, on the heels of the season’s most impressive road victory, cruise into the Crescent City winners of three straight and seven of ten, two games clear of the Clippers for the Pacific Division’s top spot and two behind the Spurs for #2 in the West. Behind a monstrous effort from Andrew Bynum (37 points, on 15-of-18 from the field, and 16 rebounds), a strong showing by Steve Blake (9-5-5, with three 3-pointers) a 34-9-5 from Kobe Bryant, the Lakers successfully kicked off a vital 20-day stretch –12 games, all against Western Conference opposition, eight featuring opponents currently less than three games out of a playoff spot. This is one of the gimmes.

Unfortunately, Laker teams of the past (like, last week) have assembled an impressive legacy of stumbling in games exactly like this one…

The Hornets Coming In: On this night, however, the Lakers encounter an opponent with interests perfectly aligned with their own.

From the moment in December that Chris Paul was Western-bound, the Hornets sights were set squarely on the lottery. A seemingly foolproof plan to secure two of the first 10 selections in June’s draft fizzling further with each Timberwolves win, it is now more important than ever for these Hornet to maintain their focus and probe as deep into the standing as possible. Winners of less than a quarter of their 42 games, the Hornets – despite the best efforts of Jarrett Jack, surprise rookie Gustavo Ayon and, when allowed, Chris Kaman – ensconced in the Western Conference cellar, will have their sights set on the lofty depths currently inhabited by the Washington Wizards and Charlotte Bobcats, who, respectively, trail the Nola by one and four games.

Apologies for the flippancy, but there is precious little drama to be found in the story of a team whose primary objective over the next 20 hours will be to jettison a pair of NBA-caliber (good, even!) centers in exchange for as little as possible.

Hornets Blogs: Both At The Hive and Hornets247 do an excellent job covering the Hornets. Give these guys a read.

Keys to the Game: Show up. Sorry, there I go again.

The Hornets’ three biggest strengths – an immense body in the middle capable of making Andrew Bynum works for his touches, a physical point guard and a long and athletic wing defender – do happen to coincide with the to-do list for defeating the Lakers. Additionally, Wednesday night represents the trio’s final opportunity to showcase their respective abilities to potential saviors, err, acquirers, prior to the deadline.

But seriously, provided the Lakers are mentally present and focused on Wednesday night, there is no reason to expect anything other than an uneventful, businesslike victory.

Where You Can Watch: 5pm start time on KCAL. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.

Records: Lakers 20-13 (5th in West), Thunder 26-7 (1st in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 103.3 (15th in NBA), Thunder 108.9 (2nd in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 100.7 (11th in NBA), Thunder 102.4 (14th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Thunder: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Daequan Cook
Injuries: Lakers: none; Thunder: Nick Collison (questionable), Thabo Sefolosha (out), Eric Maynor (out for the season)

The Lakers Coming In: As Darius pointed out yesterday, on the floor the Lakers have fared pretty well of late, and will be looking to kick off All Star Weekend with what would be their biggest victory of the season.

Not coincidentally, the bigs are in great form, with Andrew Bynum averaging 16.1 (on 56.3%), 13.9 rebounds, 2.3 blocked shots and just two personal fouls per game in February, while Pau Gasol has averaged 17.9 and 13.1, while connecting on 47% of his field goal attempts. Kobe continues to be Kobe, delivering roughly 26- 5- 4 this month, though he’s struggled with his shot, as evidenced by field goal and free throw percentages of just 40.6% and 79% (compared with his season averages of 43.9% and 82.5%, respectively). And the bench – deservedly much-maligned all season – has been not-atrocious (small victories, people), led by Matt Barnes (8.5 points, 5.8 rebounds in his last 8 games) and Steve Blake, who’s recorded 3+ assists in 6 of his last 7, the lone exception being his 5-triple, 17-point outburst against Portland Monday night.

However, as Darius also pointed out yesterday, the Lakers’ recent run of solid form is not the main story swirling around this team. If it’s not one with this team, it’s sure to be another. Between The Veto, the charitable contribution of Lamar Odom to the Dallas Mavericks Repeat Fund, incessant Dwight chatter, Kobe’s divorce and Metta’s media squabbling with Mike Brown, there’s arguably been more to monitor off the floor with these guys than there has on it. And now we have the latest episode of The Adventures of Team Turmoil.

An ugly, remnant of December’s near-acquisition of Chris Paul (y’know, other than the lack of a point guard worthy of NBA starter status), the Lakers’ desire (or lack thereof) to part ways with Pau Gasol – and everyone’s thoughts on the matter –are the hot topic du jour. However, as speculation about the Lakers’ need (and preparedness) to make a major move have ramped up, a more troubling issue seems to be simmering just beneath the surface – the Lakers’ front office, once the NBA’s paragon of stability and leadership, has begun to more closely resemble Gob Bluth’s gaming ship, anchored to past greatness only by an increasingly embattled Mitch Kupchak.

We know for a fact that the Lakers are willing to surrender Pau Gasol in exchange for a young franchise cornerstone. We also know that Pau, one of the league’s top 15 players and arguably its most skilled big man, always the consummate professional, is at least slightly (I’d wager more) upset by this. Finally, Pau Gasol remains a Laker, and a damn good one at that. That’s about it.

Meanwhile, however, this episode has greased the tracks for Kobe, who – in both a show of support for Pau and a desire to maximize his chances at Ring #6 – has hinted at his growing frustration with the organization’s new regime. Since, we’ve gotten a “you do your job and let me do mine” rebuttal from Kupchak and a players-only meeting (usually good for a short-term boost), but nothing to suggest that calmer waters are imminent.

With all of that said, the Lakers have now won 6 of their last 8 outings (including 4 of the last 5), including wins over the Blazers and Mavericks in their last two, and at 20-13, sit a single game behind the greatest Clipper team ever for the West’s #3 seed. It’s conceivable (if not likely) that given the torrent of frustration and distraction that continually washes over this team, moments spent on the court are among their least stressful these days. With the All-Star break (and a few days to refuel) imminent, look for the Lakers, win or lose, to put forth maximum effort against the class of Western Conference.

The Thunder Coming In: I feel like there is an inordinate amount of chatter these days centered on the Thunder’s flaws and the “wide openness” of the West come playoff time.

It’s true. This is by no means a perfect team – they are turnover-prone (a league-high 15.9% of the time), mediocre on the boards (15th in Offensive Rebound Rate and 24th in Defensive Rebound Rate), lack a traditional low post scorer and have seen their second unit hamstrung by injury, but make no mistake, these guys are good. Really, really good.

For starters, only the Miami Heat are more efficient offensively (by one point/100 possessions) and boasts a higher True Shooting Percentage (57%, v. 56.9%) than the Thunder.

Next, and I feel like we are beginning to take this a bit for granted, OKC’s 1-2 punch is nothing short of devastating. In Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook (or, in the interest of staying neutral, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant), OKC features a top-two duo that is an absolute nightmare for perimeter defenders, getting to the rim at will (11.8 attempts per game), finishing once they get there (66.1%) and delivering from distance (47.4% on long 2s; Durant is 36.7% from 3).

Once you’ve got your brain wrapped around that pair of potential 40-pointers, it’s time to deal with the NBA’s best bench player, (I cannot remember where I saw this comp – apologies to whomever I am stealing this from) this era’s Manu Ginobili, James Harden. In addition an extremely impressive stat line (16.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game, 47/37/86 from FG/3-pt/FT and 21.1 PER), Harden is the ultimate glue guy, as Royce Young describes:

It’s really hard to explain to people how important Harden is to the team. He’s not just a great sixth man. He’s like the mediator between Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. What he provides is just so necessary to the flow of the team. It’s like he’s a pressure-release valve so that Durant and Westbrook don’t have to do everything. He scores, passes and operates a terrific two-man game with Nick Collison. He plays well with Durant and Westbrook and plays really well running the Thunder’s second unit by himself. It’s hard to say he’s more valuable than Durant or Westbrook, but it’s closer than you think.

And finally, while OKC does not rank among the NBA’s elite at the defensive end, the shortcomings of a susceptible perimeter defense (27.4 FGA at the rim – 2nd worst in the NBA) are masked effectively by Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and (when healthy) Nick Collison, a last line of defense that effectively defends the rim (7th lowest FG% allowed at the rim; #1 Block Rate) and does not give away points at the free throw line (a league-average .215 FT Rate allowed).

Flawed? Yes. But warts and all, this is the best team in the West.

Thunder Blogs: Daily Thunder consistently cranks out some really excellent work (check out some of Royce Young’s thoughts on tonight’s matchup here), as does Welcome To Loud City on SB Nation.

Keys to the game: It’s impossible (well, maybe not impossible, but pretty tough) to predict what the Lakers’ roster will look like following the trade deadline. What we do know, however, is that Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum are here now, while Dwight Howard, Deron Williams and Gilbert Arenas are not. All BS aside, let’s see where this Laker team is at. For all of the gaping holes on the roster and turmoil surrounding this team, the Lakers have managed to win more than 60% of their games thus far and remain well-positioned to finish in the top half of the West playoff picture.

OKC represents a brutal matchup for, well, anyone. While it would be silly to expect Thursday night to deviate much from that script, there are a couple of factors that could play out in the Lakers favor.

First and foremost, the Lakers must rely on their interior defense and rebounding, particularly at the offensive end, to control the tempo of the game (at 93.8 possessions per game, OKC plays at the third-highest pace in the league; at 89.9, the Lakers are 21st) and keep the West’s most potent offensive attack under control. This entails keeping Gasol and Bynum, both of whom are rebounding at an elite level and are playing excellent defensive ball this season, out of harm’s way, with harm in this represented by OKC’s pair of whistle-drawing projectiles.

To this end, the perimeter D will be called upon to challenge OKC’s perimeter scorers. In addition to providing the clamored-for offensive spark that too-often has been missing, this is an area in which the Laker bench, namely Matt Barnes (and, though not a bench player, MWP), must provide value. If MWP still possesses any of the elite defensive skill he exhibited in the 2010 playoffs against Durant, this would be an opportune time to conjure it up. Another defensive matchup that could loom large is Barnes on Westbrook, as RW’s speed, power and perpetual motion are too much for Kobe to deal with while also trying to offset OKC’s firepower at the offensive end, and Derek Fisher and Steve Blake… HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!!

Sorry. Moving on…

Provided the Lakers are able to keep Bynum and Gasol on the floor for big minutes, the massive duo in the middle will be vital to the team’s success on the offensive end as well. Bynum has a decided size advantage over any front line defense the Thunder can put forth, and the Lakers will do well to feed the beast in an attempt to control tempo, collect some easy buckets and use the aggressiveness of OKC’s bigs (particularly Ibaka) against them to lure them into foul trouble. This become double important with Nick Collison banged up – he will be limited by a biceps injury if he plays at all, as with AS break looming, and no worse than 26-8 in the bank, this may be a good opportunity to get him an extended period of rest.

In spite of all that’s gone (and continues to go) wrong, the Lakers still rank among the NBA’s better teams. These trying times, rather than tearing the team apart, appear to be having something of a galvanizing effect on this crew. Even so, it is admittedly a tall order ask any team to roll into OKC and down the Thunder. However, I would not put it past this frustrating, but talent, but oh so exasperatingly frustrating team to notch a signature road wins against a legitimately elite opponent when no one expects them to do so.

Where you can watch: 6:30pm start time on TNT and KCAL.