What the Lakers must address after the All-Star break
The Lakers need to stop addressing their priorities on a sliding scale. Credit the team for not taking the bait on whether it could surpass the Chicago Bulls' 72-win season, set during the '95-'96 campaign. Even when the Lakers began the season with an 8-0 start, they all understood that eight games provides a very small snapshot of what's in store, and that the early-season success would eventually hit a roadblock.
But what has been troubling is that when they started hitting those bumps, their priorities started to shift. After touting the importance of securing home-court advantage in the Western Conference, the Lakers (38-19) now appear like longshots to take that, with San Antonio (46-9) holding a nine-game advantage for the top spot and Dallas (39-16) maintaining a two-game cushion for the second spot. Lakers guard Derek Fisher has rightfully pointed out that the Spurs' record is rare for any team. But the admission that holding home-court advantage is no longer as important isn't just a change in rhetoric, it's a change in attitude that's reflected poorly on the Lakers' hunger level.
For better and for worse, very little of what has happened before the All-Star break will determine the playoff picture. In the end, the Lakers' success mostly hinges on their health, something that wasn't as much an issue as it was last season, though they had to absorb Andrew Bynum's 24-game absence, Matt Barnes' current injury from a lateral meniscus tear nearly six weeks ago and Theo Ratliff's seemingly never-ending rehab process on his surgically repaired left knee. But the shifting attitude on holding the top spot reflects their wrongful tendency to play as if they're protecting their championship as opposed to aggressively pursuing another one. The Lakers are way too consumed with the big picture and are overlooking the little things that help pave the way toward winning another title.
Integrate Barnes into the lineup as soon as possible
There's no question Barnes' return will help jump-start an inconsistent bench. His season-average of 7.4 points and 4.8 rebounds in 20.8 minutes off the bench through aggressive and efficient play and his hunger to get back on the court will surely invigorate what has been a largely listless bunch. While there will probably be an adjustment period on his return, as soon as he hits peak form it wouldn't hurt for Coach Phil Jackson to cut some of Ron Artest's playing time. As much as it's likely that Barnes' taking Artest's starting role would just spiral into more inconsistency, Barnes has frankly been a better player this year. There have been stretches in which Artest has flourished since Jackson has become more deferential to him after the reported confrontation he had with him during a late December practice over the player's frustration with Jackson's public criticisms. But Barnes has adjusted a lot better into finding his niche even when going through a learning curve. Granted, the Lakers need Artest for a lock-down defensive performance, but it just hasn't come consistently enough to make the Lakers comfortable they can bank on it.
The Lakers need to become a consistently better inside-out team
It's obvious that the team's strength rests in its post presence, with 7-footers Bynum and Pau Gasol as well as versatile wingman Lamar Odom. But the Lakers have not consistently utilized their size enough, and Bynum and Gasol haven't consistently made the Lakers inclined to use them. One defensive strategy opponents have routinely used entails leaving the perimeter open. More often than not, the Lakers have taken the bait with poor results. With exception to Kobe Bryant (46%), none of the Lakers' backcourt players are shooting at a high rate, ranging from Shannon Brown (43.8%), Derek Fisher (39%) and Steve Blake (37.2%) as well as Artest (39.7%). The pecking order in shots still falls in appropriate order with Bryant (1,110), Gasol (779) and Odom (619). But this problem points to the Lakers' backcourt presenting various problems with shot selection. Brown and Artest have rarely met a shot they haven't liked. Fisher forces the action in the lane. And Blake has remained hesitant to shoot.
If the backcourt players took two steps in on an open shot, their rhythm would come back quickly while forcing teams to take the Lakers' outside shooting more seriously. In turn, the Lakers' post presence would become a more consistent force and ensure better ball movement. It would also alleviate the Lakers' defensive problems. Ever since the Lakers installed their new defensive scheme that emphasized the post players staying close to the basket, the backcourt closing out on the perimeter and the team forcing drivers to the lane, the team's been relatively consistent in ensuring that through a half-court set. Where the Lakers get beat is on the open floor, with turnovers, rushed shots and poor rebounding contributing to opposing teams cashing in on transition, the Lakers acting confused on rotations and the frustration mounting.
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant splits the defense of Cavaliers guards Anthony Parker (18) and Ramon Sessions in the first half Wednesday night. Credit: Amy Sancetta / Associated Press /