Poll results reveal cautious optimism among Lakers fans
Whether it's good, bad, indifferent, overly critical, overly optimistic, completely on point, wildly speculative or just plain absurd, every comment posted on the L.A. Times Lakers blog reveals an interesting snap shot about a fan's perspective over the course of the season. I have noticed in amusement that the volume of comments seem to increase after a Lakers loss, a Kobe Bryant clutch performance or an issue involving Bryant that leaves fans split, such as his shot selection, his want to play through injuries, etc. Though the reactions can fluctuate through the ebb and flow over the course of an 82-game season, there are evolving storylines that remain consistent within that daily conversation.
Of course, that will always be the case during a long season, and coaches, players and fans alike, constantly provide reminders that it's way too long of a stretch to derive anything definitive off the latest snapshot. Nonetheless, most big picture assessments come after each month, after 41 games, after the All-Star break and heading into the playoffs.
There's no particular date right now that serves as that kind of benchmark. But I thought this week was a perfect time to provide a litany of polls highlighting various issues for three reasons. One, the Lakers just recently came off a three-game losing streak, a feat they kept intact ever since Feb. 2008 when they acquired Pau Gasol from Memphis. Two, the Lakers are in the middle of a road-heavy schedule, as eight of their remaining 10 games in March will be away from Staples Center, including tonight's game at Phoenix. And three, the Western Conference standings are tightening up with the Lakers (47-18) currently ahead by two-and-a-half games over Dallas (45-21), three-and-a-half games over Denver (43-21) and four-and-a-half games over Utah (42-22) for first place in the Western Conference standings. Meanwhile, the Lakers are three games behind Cleveland (50-15) for the league's best record.
And after parsing through the results this morning, it appears that Lakers fans who voted feel cautiously optimistic about the the rest of the season.
Lakers fans revealed their conflicted feelings about the team most noticeably in the following polls: While 51% of voters graded the Lakers' season thus far with a B and 37% gave them a C, the team's play this month has earned a C from 42% of voters and a D from 39% of voters. The effort so far has resulted in a 2-3 record. The Lakers' points per game average (103.8) this month are higher than in February (98.3) and January (102.9), but lower than in December (104.1) and November (105.9). But the team's averages in field-goal percentage (44.4%), three-point field goal percentage (28.1%) and rebounding (40.4) mark the worst performances in a month this season, not counting the two games the Lakers played in October.
With the team's drop in play, there is a majority opinion this expresses worrisome but not enough to think the problems would derail any championship hopes. For example, 52% of voters predicted the Lakers would win the title, 26% said they'd at least make the Finals and 86% said they'd be the top seed in the Western Conference. And though fans acknowledge many problems, most think they won't derail the Lakers from making a title run. Consider this: 51% of fans are worried about the Lakers' road record (17-13), 48% are worried about the team's recent three-game losing streak and 34% are worried that most of the Lakers' losses have come against .500 teams. But all of those leading votes were in some relation to the answer that said they're confident the Lakers can change those habits in the remaining 17 games in the regular season and in the playoffs. Only 24% of fans think the Lakers' road record will hurt them in the playoffs.
That long-term optimism doesn't mean fans are satisfied with how the Lakers are playing, however. And the reasons for it reveal something troublesome. Though 29% of voters pinned the inconsistent offense on teammates playing too passively with Kobe Bryant, 34% of voters think all the problems listed in the poll question have equally contributed to the Lakers' sluggish offense. Those issues include Bryant shooting too much, teammates forcing Bryant to take over games, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum playing inconsistently in the post, Ron Artest's poor shooting, the team's sluggish backcourt and bench as well as numerous injuries. Fans reached a similar assessment about the Lakers' defense. Though 28% of voters pin the Lakers' inconsistent D on the team's lack of urgency, 40% of voters allude the defensive breakdowns to all the variables listed. That includes a slow backcourt, poor interior D, Bryant playing too much at center field and the team's inability to defend the pick-and-roll.
It's both a positive and negative thing that the Lakers don't have a significantly weak link. That means there's not a player or facet of their game that overwhelmingly worsens the team. On that same note, it also suggests that it's going to be difficult and unpredictable to ensure improvement on all the aforementioned problems. It has appeared so far this season that each area of progress is never definitive or completely reflective of the team's play. For example, Artest, whom 35% of voters said is better than Trevor Ariza because of his physical toughness and tendency to neutralize the opponent's top scorers, has been lately praised for those qualities. But that presence hasn't really rubbed off on the rest of the team. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson recently praised Bynum's defense on pick-and-rolls after Tuesday's win against Toronto. But Jackson also has said the team's ability to do that has remained inconsistent.
With so many areas that need to sharpened, the Lakers' coaching staff is going to need to prioritize which areas are most important to address first. But the response from Lakers fans show that approach will be nuanced and complicated, given each problem seems small by itself, but magnifies in consequence when lumped with all the other problems. Case in point, 51% of voters graded Jackson's coaching a B, but only 10% said there's nothing Jackson should change in his approach. Meanwhile, there was no definitive answer on what problem to address first. 19% of voters want Shannon Brown or Jordan Farmar to replace Derek Fisher as the team's starting point guard. 17% of voters want Lamar Odom to start in place of Bynum, while the same percentage of voters hope Jackson will make more in-game adjustments. There's 12% of voters who say Jackson should get angrier at the team, 11% who think he needs to tell Bryant to stop shooting as much and 5% who think Jackson needs to tell Gasol to stop demanding touches. The wide-ranging opinions also serve as the latest case study that, for better or worse, every single scenario imaginable is heavily scrutinized.
While there lacks consensus on some of the day-to-day and game-to-game adjustments, most Lakers fans agree on the larger picture. There's 65% of voters who believe the Lakers simply lack motivation because of an attitude that implies they can just turn on the switch whenever they feel like it. There's 49% of voters who wouldn't label the Lakers as soft, but acknowledge the team doesn't play aggressively enough. In some respects, these two problems will be easier for the Lakers to address because the changes involve an attitude and an approach to the game that mostly applies to the entire team. But it is troubling that something so egregious is present late in the season.
In the end, these results show Lakers fans are aware of the team's potential, yet feel there's something lacking. Most feel confident the Lakers can defend their NBA title, yet are split on whether they'll do enough to secure it. And though most have a wide range of ideas to improve the team, they mostly agree that it's the team's attitude that will determine whether the Lakers head in a positive direction. It's fair to say most Lakers fans remain cautiously optimistic with 17 games remaining before postseason play. Even though uncertainty still lingers, it's without a doubt going to be one wild ride the rest of the way.
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Photo: Lamar Odom and Toronto's Amir Johnson battle for a loose ball during the Lakers' 109-107 victory Tuesday night at Staples Center. Credit: Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times.