Regardless of what changes the Lakers make, the losses continue. Friday was another example of this as the team battled the Grizzlies for 48 minutes and nearly pushed the game to overtime, only to fall short due to some late game clock management issues and a last second shot that did not fall. The team is now 1-2 since Kobe returned from missing three games which is pretty much the level of results the team achieved before he took the time off.

This is not to say the team does not look better, however. Since Kobe’s returned he’s taken a more balanced approach to his game, moving the ball much more freely after taking a more lead guard role as the primary offensive initiator. Taking this tack has created a more inclusive offense that has allowed the rest of the team to find a better rhythm when playing with Kobe and lessened the burden Kobe had been shouldering earlier in the year. After the game, Kobe spoke about this shift and elaborated on what necessitated it. Via the Kamenetzky brothers’ Facebook page:

“I don’t know if my body can take it. I don’t know if it can. I think in this situation, where teams just just double me all over the floor, it’s not like I’m passing up shots, I don’t have them. Because you stack up, you trap. Back in my younger days, I could go through that stuff and still have 30 or 40 points. Now, my body can’t take it. So I dominate the game in a different way.”

Kobe acknowledging that he may no longer be physically capable of simply overwhelming defenses is a level of self-awareness he’s typically not credited with. It will be interesting to see how he continues to adjust, however, when defenses start to play him more for the pass by playing him in single coverage and not converging on him with multiple defenders the way that defenses have been over the past 3 games.

Which is exactly what could happen in this game. The Pacers play a disciplined brand of defense where Roy Hibbert hangs back in the paint in order to try and keep the offense in the mid-range area. David West is another big body who would prefer to not defend too far from the painted area while muscling players as they get closer to the rim. This style should present an interesting challenge to Kobe and the rest of the Lakers as they likely shouldn’t see too many traps while also leaving open the type of mid-range shots the team has taken far too many of this season. If the Lakers fall into the trap of settling for too many of these 18 foot jumpers they may find themselves struggling to put up points in an ugly slugfest of a game.

Defensively, the Lakers will be facing a team down some firepower.

With Hill and Watson both out, the Pacers’ offense will become even more reliant on their big men to generate points and to draw enough defensive attention to open up shots for others. Look for the Pacers to play even more inside out offensively than normal with West and Hibbert looking to get deep post position where they can either score or kick the ball out to open shooters should the Lakers need to help. The onus, then, will be on Jordan Hill and Ed Davis to do their work early defensively, battling their counterparts for position and keeping both Hibbert and West from getting two feet in the paint before making a catch. This will require them fighting through cross-screens and not letting up physically when working off the ball.

This game represents one of the rare occasions when the Lakers enter the game favored. The Pacers are short handed, on the road, and are coming off a road game in Milwaukee on Friday. That said, Indy has won two straight games and are one of the better coached teams in the league and always seem to play the Lakers’ tough regardless of personnel or circumstance. If the Lakers think this game will be a win simply by showing up, they will lose. We’ll see early on how they approach this game.

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

The Lakers ended their 2014 on a high note, beating the Nuggets, in Denver, on Tuesday after a triple-double by Kobe and some very hot shooting from the other perimeter guys not named Nick Young or Jeremy Lin. The game actually reminded a lot of the win over the Warriors a week earlier — the ball moved, shots fell, and the other team looked sloppy and out of sorts for most of the night. The only difference, of course, is that Kobe was there to be part of the action.

He did more than participate, however. He mostly navigated the flow of the Lakers’ attack whenever he was on the floor, taking over point guard duties for most of the possessions regardless of who his backcourt partner was. Initiating the offense via the high P&R or by simply making the first pass to the wing to initiate some of the team’s motion sets, Kobe dictated the flow and did his part to ensure that the ball kept moving. As noted, the result was a triple-double for Kobe and a nice, balanced attack for the team.

After the game Kobe commented about the shifting of his game since his return from various ailments that sidelined him for three contests. Via Baxter Holmes of ESPN Los Angeles:

Bryant did admit that, after some reflection, his game is “evolving,” to some degree, but don’t mistake that to mean that he’s shedding his identity.

“I’m a natural scorer, but it doesn’t mean I can’t evolve,” he said. “I’ve played more the point guard role in our first three championships, so I’ve been taught very well how to do that. It’s not something that’s unfamiliar to me.”

Kobe also noted that all he’s really been doing is taking what the defense gives him, which the tape backs up. Against the Suns and the Nuggets, defenses tried to trap Kobe at the point of attack and it made his reads out of 1-4 sets pretty easy to discern. He did a good job of accepting double teams and then hitting the right man who could either shoot an open shot or move the ball onto an open teammate against the rotating defense. When Kobe did work off the ball he would try to back his man down and force the defense to commit extra attention and then make similar reads from the wing rather than the top of the floor.

By mixing in some shot attempts to this approach, Kobe struck a nice balance and the results were good from his own efficiency standpoint while the team played well overall.

Tonight, then, I expect to see more of the same approach, though much of that will be dictated on how the Grizzlies try to defend Kobe. Memphis typically does not trap at the point of attack, instead playing below the P&R with their big men to help contain dribble penetration while the on ball defender fights through picks. Tony Allen is quite adept at locking on and getting through screens while Marc Gasol is one of the best angle takers in the league when sitting below the screen. With that, we’ll see how Kobe tries to navigate the Grizzlies’ P&R defense and whether he can find the same creases that allow him to move the ball on quickly to teammates who are in a position to hurt the defense.

If he’s not, the onus will shift off Kobe and onto his teammates to create some good looks for themselves and that is where things can get dicey. Outside of a post move or two from Jordan Hill when isolated at the shallow wing, no other Lakers’ starter can really create a shot for himself. The team, then, will need to work hard off the ball to create the needed separation to get open shots if Kobe cannot draw the extra attention that relieves that burden. This will require strong screens, timely cuts, and an overall awareness level from the other guys that hasn’t always been there this year. That said, as the team adjusts to working with Kobe operating in the manner he has been and with Ryan Kelly (a high IQ player who can also space the floor and open up driving and cutting lanes) set to make his return from his hamstring injury tonight, the hope is to see continued growth in this area.

Defensively, the Lakers will have their hands full dealing with a balanced Grizzlies’ attack that can go in a variety of directions to hurt you. Mike Conley’s ability to score off jumpers or by getting into the lane sets this all up, but Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph also provide inside-out skill sets that are foundational to their attack. With Courtney Lee, Vince Carter, Jon Leurer, and Quincy Pondexter doing strong work off the ball as spot up players and slashers the entire team must be disciplined defensively and not get caught ball watching nor paying too much attention to only their own assignment.

Overall, the Grizzlies are a much superior team to the Lakers and even with Zach Randolph questionable they will be a load. I do not expect the Lakers to be victorious at the end, but continued progress in the areas they have been improving recently would be nice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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