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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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It was the end of the game and Kobe was talking to Mike Trudell of Lakers.com and TWC Sportsnet. He was describing the team’s win, but also how sore his body was after games and some of what he would do to recover to play the next game.

Kobe had played nearly 36 minutes and led the Lakers down the stretch, scoring nine of his game high 32 points in the final period including two big free throws that pushed the lead to three in the closing seconds. Further, over the final six minutes of the game, Kobe had a hand in every point the Lakers scored tallying three assists on the only points not scored by him over that stretch.

Nights like this have been rare for Kobe. Not necessarily the numbers part, the winning part. The W’s have been few and far between, but the numbers have been there almost nightly. The good and the bad.

A simple scan of his season stats tells you a couple of things. First, Kobe is still a guy giving the Lakers his 25, 5 and 5. These are the numbers that will be engraved on his tombstone, a testament to the all around game that made him one of the league’s best for the better part of two decades. The second, however, is that those numbers are coming at the worst efficiency of his career. Kobe’s not even shooting 40% from the field, not even 30% from behind the arc, and has a True Shooting Percentage below 50%. And all of this on over 22 shots a game and a usage rate that is leading the league and the 2nd highest of his career. It all adds up to some troubling statistics that, when added up, tell a story of Kobe doing more harm than good when he’s on the floor.

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The Lakers’ season has fallen into a fairly consistent pattern through 21 games. They will lose four to five games in a row, then win one or two straight. This cycle has repeated itself three times already this year and is in the middle of the fourth. This is how you get to be 5-16 on the year and looking as if wining one of every four games you play is the standard you can realistically achieve.

Maybe this is what this season was always going to be. The talent is what it is; the coaching hire is what it is; the strength of the rest of the league — especially the West — is what it is. The Lakers are on the outside looking in at teams who can be classified as even mediocre and that really doesn’t look to be changing any time soon. Not even with Byron Scott’s shifting of his starting lineup or the dumbing-down (my words, not his) of his defensive scheme. For what it’s worth, maybe this isn’t such a bad thing. At least if you ask Magic Johnson.

Tonight, then, the Lakers continue down this path hosting the Sacramento Kings. Or should I say, the much improved Sacramento Kings. Before the season started, the Kings were one team thought to challenge the Lakers for one of the lesser records in the Western Conference. Instead the Kings have taken a nice step forward this year, mostly due to DeMarcus Cousins’ ascension as one of the best big men in the league, some personnel changes, and some subtle improvements from some of the other players on the roster.

While this development is somewhat surprising, the Kings’ improvement isn’t so different from what we have seen from other teams recently. The question with Cousins was never his talent, but whether it could be harnessed on a nightly basis to maximize. With Rudy Gay it wasn’t so much about how good a player he could be, but whether he would make the adjustments to his game needed to remove the elements that had past teams looking to dump him for more efficient options. Add in bounce back seasons by veterans Omri Casspi and Darren Collison, the return of Carl Landry from an injury plagued season, and young players Ben McLemore, Derrick Williams, and Nik Stauskas finding ways to contribute and the Kings have a nice mix of players who seem to be taking to the coaching of Michael Malone.

For the Lakers dealing with this group will be a challenge, though it will be somewhat lessened by the fact that Cousins will be out with a viral infection (meningitis). Missing their anchor will put more pressure on Gay, Collison, Landry, and McLemore to produce offensively to counter the points that the Lakers should be able to produce — at least that’s the hope from the Lakers’ end. If the Lakers can force Gay into an inefficient night (which may be difficult considering their defensive options) and bottle up Collison, it will go a long way towards getting this win.

Offensively, look for a heavy dose of Kobe to start the game but with Lin and the second unit being able to do some damage. Lin’s move to the bench paid some dividends in that units’ productivity, even if his individual numbers did not stand out. If Lin can continue to distribute while adding some points of his own, it will allow that unit to fully flourish and, potentially, put the Kings on their heels.

Add it all up — Cousins missing, Kobe finding a groove, and the 2nd unit getting buckets — and there is a template for a win tonight. Whether the Lakers get it…well, that depends on if they can break the cycle that’s been their norm this year.

Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet and NBA TV. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.

After the Lakers were handed a bad loss at the hands of the Celtics on Friday night, Byron Scott said there would be lineup changes in tonight’s game versus the Pelicans. True to his word, Scott has swapped out two members of his starting group:

Reasonable minds can disagree about this move, but Scott is clearly trying to inject some defense into his starting group by removing Boozer and Lin in favor of Davis and Price. As we have discussed all season, the Lakers’ defense is horrid ranking last in points allowed per 100 possessions and doing so by a fair margin. Without getting into all of the details, the Lakers don’t do anything particularly well on that side of the ball and injecting two of the players the coaches feel are better on that end is deemed as the logical move.

That said, the numbers don’t really support this particular change. Let’s dive in:

  • The lineup of Lin, Kobe, Johnson, Boozer, and Hill has posted an offensive efficiency of 102.7 and a defensive efficiency of 117.7 for an efficiency differential of minus-15.0.
  • The lineup of Price, Kobe, Johnson, Davis, and Hill has posted an offensive efficiency of 96.0 and a defensive efficiency of 119.5 for an efficiency differential of minus-23.5.
  • In terms of the big men pairing, when the Boozer/Hill tandem have shared the floor, the Lakers’ defensive efficiency has been 117.0.
  • When the Hill/Davis tandem have shared the floor, the Lakers’ defensive efficiency has been 119.3.
  • When Jeremy Lin shares the floor with Kobe Byrant, he is shooting 46.5% from the floor and has 94 assists to 42 turnovers.
  • When Jeremy Lin has not shared the floor with Kobe, he is shooting 33% and has 4 assists to 11 turnovers.

There are some caveats in these numbers — the Price, Kobe, Johnson, Davis, Hill lineup have only played 20 minutes together over the course of five games. The Hill/Davis numbers offer a larger sample — 134 minutes — but still not as large as the Boozer/Hill duo (394 minutes). As for the Lin numbers, they too offer a small sample as Scott has preferred to play Lin almost exclusively with Kobe to try and optimize his two best guards by playing them together. So, these numbers should be taken with a grain of salt as there are simply not big enough samples to say any of these trends are irreversible.

That said, these numbers are what they are and do make me raise an eyebrow. The Lakers are making changes that, per the numbers, make them worse on the floor than better. When the samples get larger maybe these trends will reverse. But, my guess is that even if they do improve, they won’t do so at a rate that makes any sort of dent in how well the team plays as a whole. At least not without other shifts in how the lineups are deployed and how many minutes specific groups play together. We’ll see if Scott makes any such changes or if he simply swaps Lin and Boozer’s roles with Price and Davis’. If that happens, I expect things to look just as bad as they have to this point.

In any event, there is a game to play tonight and these changes will be put into play with a chance to make some waves. The Pelicans aren’t a great team by any means, but they have one of the league’s best players in Anthony Davis and other useful players who can make an impact against the Lakers. Chief amongst them are Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans, and Ryan Anderson. Evans may be of particular issue since his ability to create off the dribble is a trait that the Lakers have struggled to contain all year. Maybe having Wes Johnson on him will slow him some, but unless Hill and Davis are there to help while still managing the stay with Anthony Davis on the glass and when slashing into open creases, it will all be for naught.

Further, when Anderson comes into the game the Lakers will need to find a way to defend the arc with a big man. With Boozer now coming off the bench, one has to wonder if defending Anderson will fall on his shoulders. If it does, watch out. Boozer is hesitant to defend out the three point line and that is exactly where Anderson will set up. If Boozer cannot get to the arc, Anderson will bomb away with quick releasing threes and hit more than his fair share if he’s open.

Offensively, we’ll see if the changes the Lakers make can at least spark their second unit. In theory, a unit of Lin, Ellington, Young, Boozer, and Sacre will be able to score some points and get up and down the court in the process. Lin, Ellington, and Young can all stretch the floor as well, so the space that they create should open up some post opportunities for Boozer and driving lanes for the guards should their men get too aggressive with closeouts. Hopefully, the bench can take advantage, especially against a Pelican’s bench that isn’t very strong in their own right.

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