Put yourself in the way back machine, and set it to October. You know, back before the season had started. Before we saw that Kobe would average around 9,000 points a game, McKie would be hurt, and Kwame doesn't really know how to catch. Back when we were all scrambling to figure out Smush Parker's given name.
It's William, by the way.
If I had told you then that the Lakers would hit the halfway point of their season at 22-19, holding down the 7th spot in the conference, would you have taken that? I know I would have. And short of the super die hards with the optimism to construct a 57 win season out of ifs- "If Kwame can _______*, if George can ________*, plus if Bynum can _________*, and Cook does ________*, the Lakers can easily win the Pacific." (* = insert totally unrealistic scenario here)- I think most of you would have, too. Yeah, they could be better, no question. But while I figured they'd win around 46-47 games (feel free to look it up and correct me), it wasn't hard to imagine scenarios in which the team would have, if not buried themselves by now, at least hit the Home Depot to buy shovels and picks. For the most part, they've been exactly what most of us expected. A marginally talented team with enough superstar power to hang in the playoff battle. Honestly, we should be thankful this group has managed to make the season as interesting as they have. There are very few just-above-.500 teams that can be as intriguing as this bunch. Of course, most teams don't have Kobe around, and no team is quite like the Lakers.
Here are some first half observations.
The Good: The team is trending up. Since December 1, the Lakers are 17-11, and and an even more robust 17-9 in games where Kobe wasn't suspended. Better still, after the seven game road swing that starts next week, the Lakers' schedule opens up considerably. Over their last 30 games, they play around 2/3 at Staples. Add to that the belief that guys like Parker, Odom and Kwame will become more comfortable in the offense, McKie and Turiaf should give them a little extra depth, and a general faith in the power of Phil Jackson it's not hard to see the Lakers actually improving on their first half record. Health permitting, of course. And the way the bottom of the west is looking, 48-49 wins could be enough for that coveted 6th "Yay, we get Denver/Utah, not Phoenix" spot.
But as the Sacramento game showed, things could swing the other way as well. A lot can happen over 41 games.
Kobe has been dominating. He's played MVP quality basketball, and the Lakers have needed every ounce of it. Plus, there have been the eye poppers. 62. 81. And on a personal level, I owe him a debt of gratitude for the endless supply of blog conversation his mere presence provides. I probably should send him a percentage of my check every two weeks (Note: there's no way in hell I'm doing that...).
You have to love the development of Smush Parker. Is he the answer at the point? That depends on the question. But the Lakers have found a very solid player who can help them now and down the road. As often happens in the NBA, his red hot start was tempered when the rest of the league realized they had to put a body on him (see Penberthy, Mike for another illustration of this principle), but he's responded well in the last 15 or so games. Those 10-13 point games with the occasional 18-22 are enough to keep teams honest. I'd love to see him assert himself more as games develop. But Parker has provided a number of first quarter boosts for the Lakers, and those points count, too.
Odom? All that bothers me is the consistency issue. As I've mentioned, he's not a true second option, so expecting 18 a night isn't realistic. But those 6 point efforts really hurt. As he continues to develop his post game in the triangle, hopefully he'll get better. I can't stand watching him hang out by the three point line. Yeah, he can hit those shots, and should take a couple a game to keep defenses honest, but he's unstoppable (except by the occasional set defender) driving to or posting up by the hoop.
Chris Mihm is probably one of the 10 best bargains in basketball. He's been a solid contributor. No complaints there (Well, one. See below.)
The team has shown improvement, which is all you can ask for. Yeah, they're going to struggle from time to time, as all young, marginally talented teams will, but if they had started hot and wilted in December and January, I'd be more concerned. And you have to be impressed with the overall improvement in the defense from last year to now.
Andrew Bynum looks like a keeper.
Von Wafer. Instant excitement anytime he enters a game. (Note I said "excitement," not "consistent quality minutes")
The Bad: Kobe has been dominating. Yes, he's a legit MVP candidate, but over the long haul, the team can't succeed when they're so dependent on one guy. As the playoffs (hopefully) approach, it gets harder and harder for one person to carry the load. Yes, he's got a weak supporting cast (more below) but he still has to make sure they stay involved. To carry an entire team to real success in this league is too much... even for Kobe. It's a question of patience. There are nights when he has it, and others when he doesn't. I don't think Kobe is a ball hog in the traditional sense of the word (always wants to shoot for himself, for personal glory, no matter what), but I believe he too quickly loses confidence in guys around him. It's the nights when he launches too many of those multiple head fake, fall away three pointers that really bother me. That said, if Kobe doesn't play at the level he has over the first 41, we wouldn't be talking playoffs at all. Ultimately, this team isn't talented enough to go anywhere big no matter what Kobe does.
Watching Kwame Brown is like swinging by The MGM Grand to play roulette. Hit a few numbers and everything is amazing. Miss, and you wonder why you didn't just scope for good looking women at the Hard Rock. At least he's been better since returning to the starting lineup, but it's still hard to tell if he'll ever be a top level, or even near-top level, player in the league. I'm leaning towards no. His basketball instincts are... not strong, and he's got hands like feet. To get a better perspective on Kwame, try to think of him as just a big guy with a moderately sized contract, and not a former #1 pick. Remove those expectations and the contributions he does make- good post defense and decent per 48 rebounding numbers (11.3, .1 behind L.O.) don't seem so bad. But lord, is he a train wreck right now on offense.
Luke Walton has disappointed me a great deal. When he came into the league, he showed those flashes of brilliant passing play and court awareness that made us overlook his inadequate points. After all, players improve, right? Well, not really. In his third year, he's the same guy he was as a newbie, more or less. Except now, we care about the mistakes. For a guy who is supposed to excel in the intangible basketball IQ areas, he makes some really bad choices. And until he can consistently knock down open shots, he's too much of a defensive liability to keep on the floor. Not that I expected him to develop into an All Star, but the level of play he's displayed this year has been distressing.
Remember when I mentioned the Lakers will spend a lot of time at Staples over the 2nd half? If they don't play better there, that might not be a good thing. 11-8 won't get it done. The good news is the purple and gold have ripped off a five game home winning streak. And their weak home record means they've been surprisingly good on the road for a middling team.
The Ugly: As much as the defense has improved, they still show a shocking tendency to break down at the wrong time, and against weak teams. Part of this is the roster itself. Not a lot of prime NBA athletes, especially on the bench. But this is not a team that can afford to let Toronto score 63 points in a half, as they did Sunday night. Most nights, that'll kill 'em.
Chris Mihm. Foul trouble.
Aaron McKie, health trouble. Not that he was helping much before the injury.
This team shows a remarkable ability to make questionable decisions, and it's cost them a couple of games. Mentally, I'm not sure they're always there. Take their 3rd quarter problems, for example. That's simply a question of not having focus. There's no reason the team should be as bad as they've been coming out of halftime.
Finally, I'm a little distressed by their tendency to play to the level of competition. When the Lakers had a championship roster, that wasn't a big deal, because you knew they'd win in the end. Needless to say, that's no longer the case. They can't afford to waste games against weak teams.
The Prediction: I'm going to add a win or two to my earlier Lakers forecast. Assuming the purple and gold can go Dorothy ("There's no place like home...") on the rest of the league, their cushy Staplescentric schedule should help. And since I figured on improvement as the season went along, I'm going to say they'll win 48. 50/50 if that'll be good enough to get them into the 6th spot. That really depends on if the Clippers can overcome the Maggette injury (there's worry he won't be back at all this year) and get back into the form they showed early in the year.