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Jerry West's criticism leaving the Lakers defensive

January 24, 2011 |  7:56 pm

The words Jerry West spoke about the Lakers' defense and age four days ago reverberated around the team's practice facility Monday in El Segundo.

Kobe Bryant claimed ignorance about West's comments and Phil Jackson appeared indifferent. As the keynote speaker Thursday during the annual Orange County Automobile Dealers Assn. luncheon, West said: "If there’s a loose ball now, how often do they get it? The reason you ‘can’t play defense’ is because you can’t! ...I don’t think the Lakers will be good for much longer. You can keep a car running for a long time by changing the tires, etc. You can’t change a player’s tires."

Bryant nodded in agreement when informed of the substance of West's criticism and Derek Fisher offered the utmost respect for West, who drafted the veteran guard as a rookie in 1996.

"You probably won't get me to respond in any way to Jerry West," Fisher said. "I probably wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him."

But then each of them did comment. Bryant went at length explaining how the Lakers' defensive identity relies more on a collective effort, communication and mastering concepts than on athleticism or a lockdown defender. "We're ranked like what, third in the league in defense?" Bryant said. The Lakers are actually fourth in holding opponents to 43.8% shooting  from the field, but that mark was tied for third the previous day. Jackson, who agreed with West's assessment after Sunday's practice, said the second day of back-to-backs indicate whether a team's mileage has caught up to them. Considering the Lakers' 8-1 mark in the second game of contests played on successive nights, Jackson suggests it hasn't. And even if Fisher maintained respect for West, he did point out that the Lakers allowed a fifth-best 93.3 points per game and a fourth-leading 43.9% mark from the field in the last 10 games.

"I won't respond specifically to him," Fisher said of West. "But anybody else who has anything to say about how we've been playing defensively, it's just unfounded and not true."

Consider West's motivating tactic a success since the media happily carried the message. The substance of his criticism, however, reveals a misleading assessment on the state of the franchise.

Are the Lakers too old?

It's indisputable that the Lakers are old, considering the roster has 10 players who are at least 30. But it isn't so much the Lakers' mileage that could hurt their chances to three-peat as much as it is in how they manage their resources. In the last four NBA Finals, experience trumped youth and athleticism. And the San Antonio Spurs, Lakers and Boston Celtics are all considered favorites because their experience will help them pace through a long postseason.

The success or failure in navigating that terrain rests mostly on how healthy the teams' rosters remain. The Lakers have tried ensuring a positive outcome by constantly adjusting practice schedules, such as Jackson's giving the team a day off Saturday after playing 15 games in 25 days. It involves curtailing practice time, such as having Bryant sit out most practices and giving the starters days off after games. And it focuses on managing playing time, such as Jackson's lowering Pau Gasol's minutes or ensuring Fisher plays no more than 30 minutes a night. 

The Lakers' quest in staying healthy proves ongoing considering that Matt Barnes doesn't expect to fully recover from his surgery that removed torn meniscus from his right knee and that there's no definitive timetable for Theo Ratliff's return from arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. He's been out since mid-November. Considering contracts to the Lakers' veteran corps will expire fairly soon, including player and team options to Derek Fisher and Lamar Odom, respectively for the 2012-2013 season, expiring contracts to Bryant, Pau Gasol and Ron Artest after the 2013-2014 season, it's also not a stretch to say that the Lakers will soon have to focus on adding youth to their roster, an additional challenge considering the team's success equates to less-than-desireable draft picks and General Manager Mitch Kupchak's opting for veteran players who either have specific skills (Artest) or are willing to take reduced roles (Steve Blake, Matt Barnes) over keeping young players fixated on playing time (Jordan Farmar) or money (Trevor Ariza). 

"It's really about taking care of your body, making sure you're strong and making sure you're ready to go and compromising areas you might be weak at that were strong when you were 21 or 22," Bryant said. "You have to do a lot of self assessing. You have to be honest with yourself and where you are physically. Then from that standpoint, you can make adjustments."

How do the Lakers look on defense?

Jackson agreed with West's assessment that the defense needs work, but for different reasons. Statistically, the Lakers have fared well in several categories, including points allowed (an 11th best 96.4 points per game), opponent's field-goal percentage (43.8%, fourth in the league) and opponent's three-point field-goal percentage (33.9%, fifth overall). There's also been marked improvement partly thanks to a new defensive scheme in the last month that focuses on forcing players toward the baseline instead of into the center of the lane, closing out on shooters and keeping the post players close to the basket. But as indicated in the Lakers' 109-100 loss last week to Dallas and the team's struggles holding speedy young teams, such as the Clippers and Thunder, in the open court, the Lakers' discipline remains a work in progress.

This points more to Lakers playing to a deliberate pace, using the frontline's talent and height advantage in Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Odom. The Lakers' mileage from three consecutive NBA Finals appearances makes it not worth it for them to run and gun, a trend they initially set during an 8-0 start that boasted the league's highest-scoring offense. But even if the Lakers lack those parts, they have other qualities such as size, experience and talent that can offset those deficiencies.

"We're not a fastbreak team by any stretch of imagination," Bryant said. "But fastbreaks don't win championships anyway. If they did, Phoenix would've won a bunch."

--Mark Medina

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