Lakers approach on addressing long season will prove critical
One quote Lakers forward Lamar Odom strives to live by entails embracing the unpredictable.
"You want to make God laugh," he said, "tell him your plans."
That quote came in context to a question I asked about how the Lakers, including himself, psychologically prepare for a very long NBA season. They have a 3-0 record entering Tuesday's game against Memphis and have shown plenty of good signs they have the right attitude in store for the 2010-11 season, ranging from the team's effort to chemistry and the bench's development. Still, three games provide a small sample size considering there's 79 more regular-season games to go.
Case in point, Lakers Coach Phil Jacksonwouldn't feed the narrative that suggests the Lakers have surpassed expectations because Kobe Bryant isn't quite 100% with his surgically repaired right knee (even if he says he is) and the team won't have Andrew Bynum back from rehabbing his right knee until after Thanksgiving.
"I consider a fast start like 10-0, not 3-0," said Jackson, whose team last season started out 8-1 and went 7-0 to begin the 2008-09 season. "There's still another few days away before we talk about a fast start. But it's nice to get out of the blocks and get going."
That's why Odom's quote proves so valid. The Lakers have said the right things about just working on improving every day, avoiding complacency and trying to properly pace themselves through the marathon. But various factors such as human nature, injuries, fatigue and opponents' performances will indicate in the months ahead whether the Lakers can properly follow the blueprint they've outlined. Jackson conceded that point when The Times' Mark Heisler asked him whether it's hard not to feel overwhelmed knowing a long season awaits.
"When you're a player and you look up and say, 'Gee, it's not November yet and we're already in the season,' sometimes it really looks long," Jackson said.
So far, however, the Lakers have taken the right approach in their quest to three-peat, resulting in a tie with Portland and New Orleans for the top spot in the Western Conference and a league-leading 111 points-per-game average. Bryant has progressed each game in his shooting, movement and aggressiveness to show that his surgically repaired right knee is coming along. Forward Pau Gasol has embraced his increased responsibility in logging heavier minutes at center, becoming even more of a focal point in the offense and earning Western Conference player-of-the-week honors. And Odom has shown the same intensity and aggressiveness in the regular season and training camp as he did with Team USA this off-season in the world championships.
"I came in prepared to play," said Odom, who's averaged 16 points and a team-leading 13.7 rebounds. "Right now I'm having a lot of fun."
There are also other factors. Though Ron Artest's 10-for-40 clip thus far shows he needs to temper his shot selection and rhythm, he's made a genuine effort in showing more understanding in the triangle offense. He also dropped his weight to 250 pounds so he could become a more mobile and speedy defender. Lakers guard Derek Fisher has shown in his play that he's drawn motivation from Steve Blake playing behind him, while the two have mutually embraced each other's presence. And then there's the bench, with Blake demonstrating a strong understanding of the triangle, Shannon Brown showing an improved outside shot, Matt Barnes making an effort on hustle points and cutting effectively and Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter showing eagerness to correct their rookie mistakes as much as they can.
The Lakers thus far have displayed a determined and professional attitude when they very well could be resting on their success as two-time defending champions.
"It probably passes through your mind sometimes, but for the most part we're not really thinking like that," Artest said when asked if it's been a challenge knowing the marathon the Lakers are taking. "Maybe sometimes, but for the most part, we focus. But I don't think many on the team are thinking about that."
As The Times' Mike Bresnahan observed based on a recent conversation with assistant coach Brian Shaw, there are plenty of variables that will keep the Lakers engaged during the dog days of the NBA regular season. Some examples: The Miami Heat's so-called Super Team with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh; the Boston Celtics' acquiring Shaquille O'Neal; Jackson's supposed last season; the comparisons between Michael Jordan Bryant should he get a sixth ring, and the Lakers' new additions who have never tasted championship success.
"We're in a good state right now as far as basketball is concerned and what we need to do and how we need to do it," Odom said. "We know what to expect from each other. . . . This is the outcome of keeping the team together, the critical pieces together."
That doesn't mean the Lakers don't have room for improvement. Their defensive rotations still need to sharpen, but they jumped from allowing more than 100 points in their first two contests to limiting Golden State Sunday to 83. The reserves couldn't hold a double-digit second-quarter lead against th Warriors, but the bench corps with Blake and Brown proved largely instrumental in the team's season-opening win over Houston. And Odom quickly reminded everyone that not every Lakers game is going to be one-sided enough to let the starters rest and the entire team play.
That's why Odom's quote rings so powerfully, because it sums up the team's need to anticipate the unexpected. But in the meantime the Lakers can lay the groundwork so it's easier to handle such circumstances. If the Lakers maintain their work ethic, it won't be as hard trying to dial it up when the games become more consequential. If the team consistently dominates, starters can rest more and preserve themselves for the postseason. If the bench accelerates its learning curve, it'll afford the starters even more rest and help the team absorb unforseen injuries. And if the Lakers maintain a fluid pace and strive for improvement, however incremental, the task of winning a third consecutive championship won't appear so daunting and so far off in the distant future.
"Who knows, basically?" Odom said when I asked him what that quote meant to him. "Nothing is written. We don't know what's in front of us. We just have to roll with the punches."
Interestingly, a reporter soon relayed the news to Odom that the Minnesota Vikings had waived wide receiver Randy Moss, a symbolic example of how Odom's words of wisdom ring true.
He pointed his finger to me as if to illustrate his point: "You never know, right?"
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Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, top, goes up to make a shot while Golden State guard Monta Ellis, front and forward Reggie Williams defend during the Lakers' 107-83 victory Sunday. Credit: Barbara Davidson/Los Angeles Times