Fear factor, redux
The Lakers may have 58 wins but after two straight losses weighed down by an atypically popgun offensive attack, few in Lakerland are sitting comfortably. The coaches are edgy, the players are edgy, if the comments on this site are any indication, many of you are a few steps past edgy. Periodically, we've taken the opportunity to tap into larger concerns around the team, and try to put them on a fear scale.
Some of these concerns are no joke (an important point to clarify on April Fool's Day). How do they measure up on a scale of 1-10, 1 being fluffy bunnies, 10 sounding the doomsday whistle?
1) The Bench: After a promising start to the road trip for Jordan Farmar has regressed, with Tuesday night's performance basically wiping away the good will he'd started to build back up. And while both Phil Jackson and Sasha Vujacic will tell you that 18 is on the floor to do more than simply hit shots, a bucket here and there would still be nice. Over the first six games of the roadie, Sasha has a grand total of six field goals. On 27 tries. That's not good (22.2%). Josh Powell shot 42% in March, and finished 7 for his last 26. As it's been for a while, the Lakers can't generate any offense once the starters are off the floor.
How much this will matter in the playoffs is an open question, because the expected insertion of Andrew Bynum into the rotation changes the dynamics completely. Minutes for guys like Powell and DJ Mbenga go down considerably, Pau Gasol can spend a little more time at power forward if PJ chooses, and it becomes easier for Phil Jackson to leave Lamar Odom out with the reserves (something that should be happening more now as it is). Because the early rounds feature plenty of days off, it's easier to shorten rotations and squeeze out guys who aren't playing well.
Still the poor play from the reserves is a truly disturbing trend, because it limits the (theoretically) Swiss Army versatility of the Lakers roster, impacting matchups and coaching options. At the very least, the bench problems could have serious implications for how the roster is constructed next season.
Fear Factor: 8 now, 7 come playoff time if Bynum contributes.
2) Kobe's Slump: 5-15, 9-25, 10-25, 6-18, 10-18, 5-19, 7-19, 11-28. Those are Kobe's shooting figures beginning in the March 17th loss to Philly at Staples. One need not be a mathemagician to recognize the un-Kobe-like quality of those numbers. Bryant also looks like he's been run through a meat grinder of late. The burst isn't quite there, the jumper is flat. That he's played what seems like non-stop, high level hoop for about two years and is nursing nagging hand and leg injuries means none of this should be a total shock, even given that we're takin' Kobe, he of tall building in single bound leaps and the well documented propensity to play through sprains, flus, tears, shark bites, locusts, and whatever else the Basketball Gods throw at him.
Because they don't happen all that often, slumps are something 24 has trouble dealing with. He seems to get frustrated, and grow ever more determined to drill even the most difficult of shots, whether the timing is right or not. But rather than freak out, I'll chalk Kobe's problems up to physical maladies and fatigue, all of which can be cured by rest. It may come down to PJ asking Mbenga and Powell to strap Kobe to his seat at different points of a game, but I think Jackson will get Kobe a little more rest down the stretch, and with the aforementioned gaps between playoff games, things should get back to normal before anything bad happens.
Fear Factor: 4
Losing Home Court: I wrote the other day about this one. No doubt home court against Cleveland, should everyone get that far, would have been nice, not simply because it's better to have it in a 2-3-2 format or because it's always better to play at home, but because it would have robbed Cleveland of a huge boost to their collective confidence. But it's done, and now, assuming the Lakers don't give up their advantages over Boston and Orlando, the team can focus more on getting the squad healthy.
Could it come back to haunt the Lakers? Sure. Cross that bridge when you get there, and if they do it likely means the Lakers are playing pretty well.
Fear Factor: 6
4) (Offensive) Offensive Flow:
The Lakers have been so good on that end of the floor this year that it's jarring to see them struggle. But That they don't look like themselves shouldn't surprise, given that Kobe is off and the bench can't score. That, as they say, changes the equation. The Lakers aren't moving the ball or themselves particularly well right now. Too many jumpers, not enough activity in the lane. A more consistent diet of looks for Pau Gasol combined with an attacking Kobe would go a long way towards fixing these problems. What you don't want is to see five guys on the floor all trying to repair the damage themselves. Watch the passing, watch the cutting.
The Lakers are too talented to be contained for too long, and the good news is that their difficulties are, in my mind at least, due much more to their own execution than anything the other team is doing. Zones have proved effective, especially against the second unit, and Charlotte's ball pressure bothered LA last night. But those can be combated by doing what the Lakers do well- moving the ball, making the extra pass, making one more cut to the basket.
It'll come back.
Fear Factor: 5.5
5) The "Not Sharp, Not Enough Momentum" Thing: Writes Kurt over at FB and G:
I am not that worried about going into the playoffs with a ton of momentum... the playoffs are another season all together. They have their own ebb and flow, and teams will improve during them. Remember last year — the Celtics looked like crap in the first round. And much of the second. Nobody thought they looked like a champion, getting taken seven games twice. How did that end? The playoffs are another animal, all together.
That is not meant to say I think the Lakers need dramatic improvement, but rather a reminder that what is going on mid-April and in June are just simply different. And not easily predictable.
I agree. Obviously, it's better for a team to head into the playoffs with confidence, swagger, and precision, but a) there's no reason the Lakers won't have that before the real games start, and b) even if they still look off, the postseason, as noted above, is an entirely different kind of flying, altogether. The Spurs went 4-4 to end '05, and lost three straight to finish the '07 season before winning championships. Conversely, in '93, the Sonics lost twice in their final 19 games, then tanked out in the first round against the 8th seeded Nuggets.
It's easy to read a lot into late season games, but in the end I'm willing to bet that a Kobe Bryant led, Phil Jackson coached team will look as it should come mid-April.
Fear Factor: 5
6) The Matchups Factor: Given that Utah can't beat anyone on the road, it's looking like my concerns about their Giant Killer abilities have been overstated. A lot. And since it seems like the Blazers will rise high enough to avoid LA in the first round and that the Lakers probably won't see CP3 there either, I'm content with how things seem to be playing out. Dallas is still the likeliest first round opponent, with the Jazz harboring the potential to swap spots with the Mavs. Both work for LA.
Fear Factor: 3