Tackling the misperceptions of Lakers' flipping the switch mentality
It's a soap opera that seemingly repeats the same storyline.
The Lakers enter a season with an abundant amount of expectations and talent, go through adversarial struggles that tests the patience of the fans, media and team alike and then end up as champions.
The formula sounds so trite and simple I couldn't help but notice the glaring similarities between the commentary expressed on the 2002 and 2010 Laker championship DVDs. But please don't buy this narrative.
Yes, it's tempting to simplify the Lakers' inconsistent play as the team's deciding whether to flip the switch because there's so much data to support it. The Lakers under Coach Phil Jackson have won five NBA championships since 2000 after going through ups-and-downs of the regular season. There's a clear discrepancy in the regular season record before and after the All-Star break in four of those five championship teams, including 1999-2000 (37-11, 30-4), 2000-01 (31-16, 25-10), 2001-02 (33-13, 25-11) and 2008-09 (42-10, 23-7). And the Lakers have a strong postseason record in all five of those championship seasons: 2000 (15-8), 2001 (15-1), 2002 (15-4), 2009 (16-7) and 2010 (16-7).
But that doesn't mean anything.
"There's all sorts of things that go into it," Jackson said. "It's not just, 'OK, now we're back 100%.' We've done this before. We know the next game can be a game that we're not proud of if we don't play as well. It's about consistently building a game and having that ability to be purposeful in what we're trying to do."
That's not to discount that the Lakers have shown at times an unwillingness to show up for games against both sub.-500 opponents (Memphis, Milwaukee) and elite teams (Miami, San Antonio). That's not to overlook the fact the Lakers ratchet up their intensity when the postseason nears in work ethic, practice times and overall focus. And that's not to downplay the Lakers' ongoing arrogance that they can turn things around if they simply believe it's necessary.
It might be hard to say that in the land of Hollywood, but that script is not only cliched and boring, it's inaccurate. Below the jump are a few things that explain for better and worse how the Lakers' inconsistency has involved factors beyond flipping or not flipping a switch.
Andrew Bynum's injury set a spiral affect on the rotation
Whether you fault Bynum or not for delaying his offseason surgery to treat the torn cartilage in his right knee, it's indisputable that his 24-game absence provided a spiraling affect on the team's rotation. It appeared as if the Lakers would easily absorb his absence after an 8-0 start, with Kobe Bryant playing as if he didn't have knee issues, Pau Gasol earning Western Conference player of the month honors, Lamar Odom maintaining the same sharpness from the 2010 FIBA World Championships and the team's perimeter shooters shooting 41.6% from the field in November.
Then Pau Gasol became fatigued. This doesn't justify the Lakers' poor play. Gasol rested last summer after appearing in three consecutive NBA Finals and the 2008 Beijing Olympics and only averaged two more minutes than in the previous season. But once fatigue hit him, both his offensive production and overall aggressiveness on offense and defense plummeted. Although Theo Ratliff's role has been marginal at best, his absence only exacerbated matters for Gasol. And Gasol's problems didn't prove to be isolated. Without Gasol playing consistently, the Lakers left it up to Bryant to bail everyone out. That worked with varying degrees of success and it set up a prolonged co-dependency in which Bryant felt compelled to take over and teammates gladly watched him. "Kobedar," as Bynum once put it. With defenses able to focus more on Bryant, he didn't remain as effective as he did when Gasol produced, and neither did the Lakers' outside shooting.
Gasol has become more aggressive in the past month
The Lakers' 109-96 loss Jan. 31 to Boston brought up never-ending commentary on the team's continual woes, its inability to beat elite teams and, of course, on whether Bryant's 41-point performance proved warranted or not. No doubt, the Lakers are a better team when they're balanced. But when the front line remained passive, Bryant really had no other choice. In any case, that game at least opened up dialogue between Bryant and Gasol. Bryant told Gasol two days later that he needed to be more aggressive, a suggestion Gasol's followed through on with consistency. It's resulted in a clear improvement from January to February in points (16.8, 20.5), field goal percentage (50.8%, 57.8%) and rebounds (9.5, 10.5) per game.
As soon as the Lakers lost to Miami on Christmas Day, Bryant was the first to make it known that there were unnamed teammates who had become more preoccupied with off-court ventures than concentrating on the game itself. Bryant didn't name names and neither did Jackson. But it didn't take a rocket scientist to connect the dots. As well-intended as his efforts in promoting mental health charities, Artest at times acknowledged struggling balancing it with his basketball responsibilities. Though Shannon Brown declined to give specifics, he recently acknowledged to The Times' Broderick Turner that off-court issues contributed to his inconsistency. And it'd be tempting to worry about Lamar Odom's upcoming reality show, but he's maintained surprising consistency all season. This frankly illustrates the Lakers' complacent mentality, but to say this is an example of the team waiting to flip the switch is misguided. That's simply because this has affected only certain players while others continue try to concentrate on their craft.
Jackson changes his approach on coaching Artest
If there's one thing that positive that came out of the Lakers' on-court distractions, it's that it finally created a tipping point for Artest to feel compelled to tell Jackson he was tired of Jackson's needling him in the media. By no means is Artest absolved from blame. He should've shown more understanding of the triangle and concentrated on bolstering the team's defense on a more consistent basis. Jackson was also justified in criticizing Artest publicly because he wasn't playing well. But Jackson's continued deference to Artest since a report emerged in early January that Artest confronted Jackson about the criticism at a practice shows that it might be necessary so that Artest's inconsistent play doesn't hurt the team more. When Matt Barnes suffered a meniscus tear in his right knee in early January, Jackson expressed optimism that Artest could handle the increased responsibilities. Whenever Artest goes through his never-ending shooting and defensive struggles, Jackson keeps quiet about them. And whenever Artest has a good performance, Jackson makes sure to praise him. That doesn't change the fact that Artest still has career-lows in points (8.2) and minutes (28.3), but it could be a lot worse.
The Lakers change their defensive scheme
For the first month of the season, it appeared the Lakers were another version of the Phoenix Suns. Equate to early-season adrenaline because it would've been impossible for a veteran-laden team to sustain this type of production. They averaged a league-leading 108.7 points on 41.2% shooting from three-point range in November and then quickly dipped in December to 97.9 points on 31% shooting in December. The reasons point to the Lakers' overconfidence kicking in, believing they could simply outscore teams by will. But a typical game followed like this: The Lakers rushed their offense with forced shots and that resulted in teams beating them in transition. Add to that Artest's inconsistency on defense, the Lakers' ongoing problems with Derek Fisher and Steve Blake defending up top and the team's lack of communication, and suddenly the Lakers have litle defensive identity.
So in early January, Jackson and assistant coach Chuck Person designed a scheme that stressed the importance of the front line staying close to the basket, the guards closing out on the perimeter and the team forcing drivers to go baseline instead of through the direct center of the lane. It's no coincidence that increased defensive stops helped improve the Lakers' total offense in January to 102.7 points per game as deflections, steals and rebounds led to easy baskets.
Change of practice times
The Lakers' No. 1 concern always involves health. With such a veteran-laden team, this variable will prove the determining factor whether the Lakers' three-peat. Because of that concern, Jackson keeps most practices to an hour or 1 1/2 hours so that his team doesn't burn out. On the last day of a trip of when there's multiple days between games, he'll give his starters the day off so they can get the necessary treatment for their aching bodies. But there's been a few instances in which the Lakers deviated from that formula.
After the Lakers' Christmas Day loss, Bryant practiced with the team in hopes of jump-starting them. When the Lakers entered the New Year with the same inconsistency, Jackson lengthened the team's practice time to 2 1/2 hours to teach the new defensive scheme and to improve conditioning, hoping it would spur the Lakers to more wins so they don't fall too far behind the San Antonio Spurs. And after the Lakers entered the All-Star break with a three-game losing streak, including a loss to the league's worst team in Cleveland, Jackson held a 3 1/2 hour practice on Monday as a reminder that the Lakers needed to start dialing up the intensity. The Lakers have responded with a two-game winning streak.
What this means
The above examples illustrate that Bryant is correct when he says there is no such thing as the Lakers' turning on a switch.
"I think it's gradual improvement," Bryant said. "It's an evolution as the season goes on, and some seasons are different than others, just because of the fatigue we've been through for the last three years. It's different. It's a gradual process. All of a sudden, you look up and we're playing extremely well now. We must have 'flipped the switch.' That's not it. It's been a process of steps. Some steps are bigger than others. Some steps are more noticeable than others. But they're there."
That doesn't mean the Lakers problems are suddenly solved. All of their progress has come in spurts, showing that improvement often happens gradually and that problems persist even through the improvement. That's why Jackson, Bryant and Fisher have continuously had to remind the team that this process takes time.
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Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (24) is congratulated by forward Ron Artest after hitting two free throws in overtime to help clinch a victory over the Blazers on Wednesday night. Credit: Don Ryan / Associated Press
Photo: Lakers center Andrew Bynum and Portland center Joel Pryzbilla do some hand-to-hand combat as they fight for rebounding position in the first half Wednesday night. Credit: Don Ryan / Associated Press
Photo: Ron Artest had 21 points against the Trail Blazers last February, when the Lakers broke a nine-game losing streak in Portland. Credit: Rick Bowmer / Associated Press