Phil Jackson brings changes to practice sessions
Every few seconds, the shrill sound of a whistle reverberated throughout the Lakers' facility in El Segundo. Because the practice session was closed to the media, it remained unclear what prompted Coach Phil Jackson or perhaps his assistants Jim Cleamons, Brian Shaw, Frank Hamblen and Chuck Person to blow their whistles so frequently. But accounts from Jackson and his players make it presumably safe to conclude that the coaching staff's frequent use of the whistle served as an audio reminder that this practice would be different than others.
The Lakers' 2½-hour practice emphasized the re-teaching of defensive concepts because of the staff's displeasure with the team's poor communication on screen-and-rolls and help defense, poor rotations and poor transition defense. All those factors have contributed to the Lakers (23-11) entering Tuesday's game at Staples Center against the Detroit Pistons allowing 97.68 points per game, which ranks 15th overall out of 30 teams. "The message was we have to respond with better energy defensively," Jackson summed up.
The practice session involved, according to center Andrew Bynum, the team having to make 82 layups within a span of two minutes. It took the team six times before successfully completing the drill. Jackson remarked that the team trading Sasha Vujacic to the New Jersey Nets for Joe Smith, and Devin Ebank's recent departure to the Development League made the drill more difficult for team to complete than in training camp. But it's telling that conditioning remains an issue 34 games into the season. "Much more aggressive," Bynum described before saying he was going to recover by sitting in a hot tub. "Much more teaching going on as far as the defensive side of basketball, and we played 5-on-5 today."
But that's not all. There were more undisclosed running drills and more focus on sharpening fundamental concepts surrounding the triangle offense, a practice Lakers forward Lamar Odom described as "pretty hard" and "intense." "I don't know if we were doing that for conditioning or punishment," Odom said. "But hopefully it worked."
Jackson sure hopes so. He says the prolonged run-heavy practice doesn't point to the Lakers (23-11) losing four of their last six games so much as it was for the reasons why they lost. Even if Jackson's main objective served as a teaching tool, however, it still deviates from his original plan in limiting practice to ensure long-term health and energy. With the Lakers currently ranking fourth in the West, trailing San Antonio (29-4) by 6.5 games for the top spot in the Western Conference and also falling below Dallas (25-8) and Utah (24-11) by 2.5 games and a .5 game, respectively, Jackson reached a tipping point in wanting to rectify the damage before the Lakers fall too far in the standings.
"The idea is to get them through the season in the best possible shape in the best possible placing in the conference," Jackson said. "But we don't have a lot of room to make things up. We have a home schedule right now and we've lost games on our home floor. We have to make hay right now when we can. It's important for us to finish in a position where we at least have home court advantage ... in the first round of the playoffs, for sure. Those things are important for us and we understand that."
That certainly contrasts to Jackson's sentiments about training camp on why he was conducted only one two-a-day session. "We found them unproductive in the long run in the wear and tear of the guy's bodies," Jackson said as camp opened. "We've found with veteran players it's negative return," Jackson reiterated the following day on Sept. 27.
This doesn't mean Jackson took the wrong approach. The coach sat out Kobe Bryant for most practices because his track record showed he didn't need it much and that it'd help ensure a stronger recovery and longevity on his surgically repaired right knee. He also held out forward Pau Gasol and Odom for select sessions because they led the team in minutes to stave off Bynum's absence for the first 24 games while recovering from off-season surgery on his right knee. Jackson also granted the team days off before select games with mixed success, including double-digit victories against Golden State, a mail-it-in win against Minnesota, a loss to Denver and the recent loss to Memphis. That prompted Jackson to rethink whether he should change that strategy, showing that poor performances in December and January indeed create long-term implications.
It doesn't mean the Lakers' championship hopes are doomed. Bryant pointed out rather succinctly that the team's current struggles by no means compare to the team's three-peat years in 1999-2002, which featured plenty of Kobe-Shaq turmoil. "We had some deep-seated issues. That was a very dysfunctional group," Bryant said. "This is not that."
Guard Derek Fisher, who's won five rings with Bryant, said: "If there were things that were happening where we felt we could be better and we were playing as good as we could play and we were still getting beat up pretty good, then to me there is a reason to worry. But because there is so much room for improvement and doing things better, we don't feel like with our recent struggles this is what is going to define who we are."
Still, perhaps the biggest error in assessing the Lakers' current struggles involves the commentary that "They'll turn it around come playoff time." That very well might happen and the team's track record indicates that scenario could play out, but the Lakers have to begin a destination point that will take them to that level. Jackson's decision to hold more frequent and longer practices serves as one example of that effort.
But the players emphasized that this won't immediately erase all the problems. Fisher also pointed out preparation also takes place outside of practice. Jackson suggested that there are unnamed players distracted by what he called "outside activity." And strong practices last week before the Miami game and San Antonio game proved very little. But it's at least a step.
"It looks pretty grim right now," Bryant said. "But I like the way we're working. We really worked hard today."
-- Mark Medina
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