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8 After 8

November 14, 2006 |  3:41 pm

With Kobe now sporting new digits on his jersey, it's only natural that I'm getting a little nostalgic for the days when I was forced to type "8" (or at least some reference to his number) 100 times every post. Maybe I'm just a sentimental fool, but the lack of "8 opportunities" (aside from "Ocho times 3," which I refuse to call him) have left me jonesing for the days of yore. Or Kobe's number change has simply eliminated a simple, lazy, fall-back reference point (which is obviously the real tragedy). So in honor of "The New Jack Bauer's" old tag, It felt only appropriate to present an octet of observations after an octet of games. Obviously, at 5-3 in mid-November, everything we've witnessed up to this point is of a "grain of salt" variety, especially since several guys are just starting to get healthy or reenter the lineup. But everything I'm bringing up has presented itself on a fairly consistent basis, so I think it's worth the cyberspace equivalent of ink. Here goes.

1) Smush Parker is not himself right now. I'm aware that will strike some readers as comical, considering they didn't think much of him last season when he was theoretically "at the top of his game." But my statement remains true. I'm not even talking about his often suspect perimeter D. Frustrating as that element can be, we very well could be dicussing an "it is what is" scenario. You hope for the best and expect not the worst (Smush's ball hawking hands absolve him from true "dregs" status), just spotty results. Instead, I'm talking about his oft-indecisiveness while holding the rock (occasionally resulting in last minute passes to teammates forced to avoid a shot clock violation). His dwindling shooting percentage. An overall lack of aggressiveness, especially at the rack. I don't even remember the last time I saw Smush dunk. Lest we (or he) forget, dude's got some considerable hops.

Reasons for this funk? Not quite sure. Smush has talked lately about "lost mojo," which could be an offhanded admission of a simple "nothing to read into" slump or an Austin Powers-centric way of avoiding the question. It could be an adjustment to the extra weight he purposely (and perhaps misguidedly) put on. It could be the result of eschewing team oriented summer workouts for individualized fare. It could be him looking too much in the rear view mirror at Jordan Farmar, a big mistake since "Justin," while doing a nice job off the bench, still isn't ready. For that matter, nobody behind Smush has played well enough to threaten his job via merit. Therefore, a new starter would more likely be the result of Smush playing his way out of the gig than another guy actually swiping it. Or the problem is something else entirely. But whatever it is, Smush needs to figure it out... and fast.

For what it's worth, I think focus is the culprit. Smush has looked either overly dialed in (like during the Memphis game, where bad shooting was offset by some terrific passes and timely steals) or out to lunch. No in-between. Should Smush find a way to maintain the former mindset, I think he could bring himself back to (if not actually improve upon) last season's level of play.

2) Luke Walton's teammates should watch how he keeps cutting to the rack without the ball. And, um, I don't know... copy him. Because it's pretty freakin' effective. Obviously, Luke's increased production comes in part as the result of extra minutes, increased shot attempts, and a gaudy 70% clip from behind the arc. But he's only launching one trey per game and is certainly willing to give up the ball (at times to a fault), so it's not like he discovered his inner "ball hog." Luke's often succeeding because he's apparently running with the notion that an uncontested layup right under the basket with a defender trailing would qualify as a "high percentage shot." I'd like to think those without his "basketball I.Q." can also wrap their heads around said concept. This team's capable of setting up guys for baskets (even Bynum and Kwame pass pretty well for big men), so other Lakers would do well following the example set by Big Red's kid.

3) Luke Walton's teammates should be watching how he keeps cutting to the rack while playing with the second unit, all things being equal. "Things" mostly constitutes a return to form by Vladimir Radmanovic (and an increased comfort with the triangle). I feel for Vlad, because that hand is obviously aching, and while he's trying valiantly to compensate by making more trips to the rack, his bread and butter is being taken away. But should Vlad pick up the pace, I would love to see Walton helping run the second unit. I think he'd still find the same scoring opportunities and his passing ability would take some facilitating pressure off Jordan Farmar (which might cut down on the rook's turnovers). To clarify, I don't see this as demoting Walton, who's been playing like a legit starter and earned his elevated status. I just think it would be better for the overall team composition. Perhaps that sucks for Walton, but life often sucks without the added benefit of being a millionaire. He'll live. But the catalyst for change hinges more on Vlad than Luke anyway.

4) Chris Mihm's contributions are already missed. Now before at least one guy starts screaming at me, please note that I'm in no way implying that the team lives or dies by Mihm suiting up. Obviously, they've proved capable of winning without him. Nor am I implying Mihm is an All-Star in the making, irreplaceable, a complete player, better than Kwame Brown (or even comparing him to Kwame Brown), etc, etc. etc...

Ah, screw it. I sense a rant coming no matter what I say. Might as well get to the point.

Mihm's best asset might be his consistency. His good and bad points typically surface in a manner that's easily relied on. Steady low post scoring. Solid rebounding and shot blocking. Mediocre D. But you could set your watch by Mihm's game and plan accordingly. The Lakers may not have that luxury with their other true bigs. In our pre-season predictions, BK and I both warned that Andrew Bynum would be all over the place and Ronny Turiaf, while undoubtedly improved, might have trouble staying on the court for extended minutes because he's a foul magnet. Thus far, both have proved true, which limits the ability to bank on either past a certain point. Not a slam, just a simple fact of life for both at this juncture of their careers. And since Brian Cook and Vladimir Radmanovic don't exactly rule the paint (and Lamar Odom can't do everything down low), Mihm's steadiness would have been an asset. Which brings me to my next point.

5) It's more apparent now than ever that Kwame Brown NEEDS to be a consistent contributor. And more than just as one-on-one post defender. The team needs reliable results from Kwame. He's the lone vet presence among the true bigs and easily (or scarily, for those skeptical) their most seasoned. Therefore, stepping up is mandatory. I'm more than willing to assume last season's terrific ability to body up elite bigs will remain unchanged and Kwame definitely was looking more confident in camp before getting hurt. Hopefully, that momentum can be immediately regained, because the team needs him.

There's been a lot of blogging nation debate as to what numbers would qualify as "good" for Kwame. 12/8? 15/10? 18/12? 20/12? When I think about his potential stats, my bigger concern is the number on the right. Kwame needs to become a a less erratic glass eater. There were too many games last season where a double digit effort was followed by a series of games where he'd snag 3-6. That can't continue if the Lakers are going to be successful. As far as Kwame's scoring, I'm not really as concerned about the exact ppg as I am about the consistent threat of those points. Obviously, Kwame needs to become something of an offensive factor, just to keep defenders honest and his teammates from playing 4 on 5. But as long as he's providing reasonable help (8-11 pppg would qualify, in my mind) and doing it in steady fashion that requires him to be guarded, I'm not all that worried about him becoming a 15-20 point machine this season. If it happens, fantastic and more power to him. But as long as he becomes a dependable option, the actual points become less important. And as long as we're talking dependability...

6) Lamar Odom remains this team's "X-Factor," not Kobe. Take a look at LO's game log this season (and last season, should you so desire). When he's on, the Lakers generally win. When he's off, the Lakers generally struggle. It's really that simple. What isn't simple is figuring out how Odom can remain that dominant force on a regular basis (or where the roots for failing to do so begin). The subject has been rehashed a billion times without a hint of resolution, so I see no reason to do it for the 1,000,000,001th time. But Lamar is the biggest key to a great season, even more than Kobe, the one Laker you don't have to worry about coming through on a regular basis. When healthy, he's about as money as they come. Unless you think Mr. Bean can carry a team for an entire season by himself (which he can't), the squad will only go as far as their second best player allows. I don't think anybody doubts that's Lamar Odom.

7) The D kinda stinks. Obviously, this statement comes with a caveat, since two of their more dependable defenders (Kwame and Kobe) have either been sidelined or operating at less than 100%. Once they're back in the swing of things, item #7 could become a non-issue. But it still bears mentioning, since the overall defense has been Cottonelle soft.

8) Sasha Vujacic needs to take up smoking. OK, maybe not literally (although it did do wonders for Vlade Divac's career). But perhaps he should investigate a prescription drug habit. Hypnosis. The tender loving touch of a good woman. Whatever avenue pursued, the guy must find a means of relaxing while he's on the court. Ever since Sasha opened the season as an "oh-fer," he's seemed incredibly anxious to "make something happen" during his increasingly limited minutes. I understand the urge, but it's mostly resulted in forced shots often way too early in the shot clock. As a result, he's turned himself into sort of a Slovenian version of Von Wafer, but with two major differences.

A) While Sasha's flirting with Von's shockingly low shooting percentage last season, his "rate of chuck" doesn't even hold a candle to Von's. Sasha's also forcing shots in an ill-fated but earnest attempt to work his way out of a slump. Von forced shots because he's a compulsive gunner. And Sasha can't even carry Von's jock strap when it comes to the art of inexplicably poor decisions. The kind where you sit bug-eyed and think, "Wow. I genuinely did not see that one coming." Why is all this important? Because it means Sasha Vujacic playing poorly isn't nearly as unintentionally hilarious as Von Wafer playing poorly. Which means Sasha's slump brings nothing to the table.

B) Nothing was expected (nor received) from Von Wafer last season. BK and I figure the Lakers realized right around this time in 2005 that they completely bricked that draft pick, but found themselves enormously entertained by Wafer's antics, which balances everything out. Sasha, however, was a rotation player last season. It's one thing when increased depth costs a player his spot in the rotation. It's another thing when that guy plays his way out of the rotation. Sasha's case is decidedly the latter.

I admire how much it obviously matters to Sasha to work his way back into the rotation, and while I've questioned his talent many times, I've never questioned his effort. But this approach clearly ain't working out.

Your thoughts? Anything glaring that I should have mentioned instead?

AK


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