Assessing the Lakers at the 20-game mark
The Lakers' (14-6) offense appears unstoppable. It's easy to point to the Lakers' second-ranked 108.45 points per game as evidence that the team's offense remains in pretty good shape. But what appears most impressive isn't that they're scoring a lot of points, but it's how they're producing them.
All of the Lakers have truly bought into the importance of ball movement, including throwing in entry passes, making swing passes around the perimeter, finding open teammates through the lane and around the perimeter off double teams and firing outlet passes on the break. The result: a well-oiled offensive machine that's managed to play at a fast pace but with the discipline and deliberation that defines the triangle system.
The Lakers have the personnel to make this work, but it takes the right attitude to ensure that chemistry. With how many offensive options are in Kobe Bryant's dominance, Pau Gasol's efficiency, Lamar Odom's versatility and the backcourt's improved shooting, it's necessary that the Lakers continue sharing the offensive pie so they prove even more difficult to stop.
The bench has been a major upgrade from last season. Whether you want to credit Steve Blake's offensive playmaking abilities, Matt Barnes' efficiency or Shannon Brown's improved shooting stroke, "The Killer B's" definitely has a better ring than the "Bench Mob." While the "Bench Mob" appeared fixated on minutes, padding stats and appearing on the highlight reel, the Killer B's represent all the qualities you'd want in a reserve unit. They work hard, provide energy when the Lakers' starters need rest and seem eager to fit in with a veteran championship team.
The team has mostly maintained a workmanlike attitude. It's very rare for the Lakers to lack any drama. OK, there is Phil Jackson needling players and speculating on the Miami Heat's coaching future. There also is Ron Artest's funny antics. But those story lines are harmless, break up the daily grind and don't reveal any divisions within the team. This is hard to quantify considering much of it points to locker-room relationships, a factor that's rarely completely transparent to the general public.
But there are certainly some items that could've drawn a wedge into the team, but haven't. Gasol and Odom could have a fractured relationship with Andrew Bynum, considering that his absence has caused them to play heavy minutes. They've maintained a professional attitude about it and have never faulted Bynum for his long-term recovery time. In fact, they've been supportive of Bynum's rehab.
Artest could've taken offense at Barnes stealing away some of his playing time and potential productivity. But the two have set up a system in which one of them raises their hand up to the other if they feel too tired to keep playing. And, lastly, Derek Fisher could feel that Blake is stepping on his toes as the backup point guard, but the two maintain a professional attitude and don't worry about trying to outshine the other.
The four-game losing streak was a major buzz kill
This stretch marked the first time the Lakers had lost four consecutive games since in April 2007, and it was head-scratching in many ways. Beyond the results themselves, the Lakers demonstrated characteristics they hadn't displayed all season. They seemed to fall to complacency, an issue that's sparked varied reactions from the players, with some believing that it's been a problem and others not seeing it as an issue at all. Their offense became incredibly unbalanced with Bryant and Fisher taking a large number of shots, Gasol's fatigue causing him to be ineffective, the bench's outside shooting worsening and the late-game execution faltering.
The frontline has played too many minutes Jackson didn't feel comfortable giving Gasol and Odom their due rest. I'm frankly surprised that Gasol's stamina already has been an issue considering that he took the summer off to catch up on all the fatigue from three consecutive NBA Finals and a silver-medal appearance with his native Spain in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But there's no question that there's a connection between his heavy minutes, including a four-game stretch in which he played at least 40, and his strained left hamstring.
There seemed to be no easy answers considering the team's concern about shelling out at least $70,00 per week in salary and luxury taxes for a backup center, Derrick Caracter's inexperience, and reverting to a small lineup would completely change the Lakers' identity. If anything else, this confirms that the Lakers can't absorb Bynum's absence once the grind and the schedule becomes tougher. Whether Bynum can become fully healthy and remain that way remains to be seen, but a limited Bynum would at least eat up some of those minutes.
The defense needs to improve
This has been an ongoing problem all season. Though the Lakers made improvements in this area Friday against Sacramento, it's hard to really gauge if that means much, if anything at all, against a sub.-500 team. The Lakers have always had issues dealing with speedy point guards with Fisher at the helm, but the team's defensive lapses go beyond that. There still appears to be communication issues on defense, causing a delay in switches on screen-and-roll, defensive assignments and rotations. With the Lakers boasting defensive stalwarts in Artest and Barnes, there should be no reason why this isn't a defensive-minded team. Instead, the Lakers have become another version of the Phoenix Suns where they think outscoring opponents will be enough.
That's not a successful formula for a veteran team fixated on pacing itself and wanting to remain healthy for later on in the season.
There'd be little to complain about if not for the Lakers' four-game losing streak, an assessment all the Lakers endorsed when asked their assessment through 20 games. No one's over-analyzing six losses, but all acknowledge that they could be better than what they've shown. The most challenging part about this team is that there will be stronger tests to come, such as the upcoming six-game trip, it's matchups with Miami (Dec. 25), Oklahoma City (Jan. 17) and Boston (Jan. 30) as well as a seven-game trip in February. Aside from the Lakers' four-game losing streak, the team's generally had the right approach and has built plenty of sizable leads to rest starters and foster bench chemistry. But it's very difficult to measure once the schedule becomes tougher.
-- Mark Medina
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