Beast or Burden: Inauspicious Beginnings

Stephen Dunn

With the Lakers starting 0-3, there is hardly a whole lot of positives that can be taken from their play, but we will attempt to do so nevertheless, while haranguing the usual suspects at the same time.

Needless to say, this was not the start we were all expecting. To a certain extent, it was understandable to expect the team to struggle with the things they have been struggling with -- turnovers, defensive rotations, and getting used to a new offense -- but the sheer lifelessness and lack of joy that has characterized the Lakers' play has made watching them a drain on the soul. More disconcerting than this has been the tangible lack of improvement seen over multiple games, as the same exact culprits were at fault for each of the Lakers' losses. All of these issues are fixable, particularly since the turnover problem bleeds into everything else by giving teams free points on the other end, something a team already struggling in straight-up halfcourt defense cannot afford. That noted, it is incumbent on the coaching staff to have a plan for the early season that allows them to, well, actually make progress towards putting numbers in the win column while implementing a new system. These two things are not mutually exclusive and it bespeaks to the problems in the team's leadership that are increasingly coming to the forefront.

Beast

  • Kobe Bryant -- We can safely say that doesn't apply to Kobe, however, as his sharp rejoinders to concerns about the Lakers' start have been matched by the tremendous efficiency of his early play. As opposed to last year in which he fought for tough midrange shots on curls and post-ups, he is getting a huge portion of his offense at the rim on easy cuts created by the Princeton, and more than anyone else on the team, appears to be taking to the new offense with gusto. The tendency to slip back into old habits aside as the games go on and he feels the necessity to run old-fashioned triangle sets to get to his spots, Kobe has been saying all the right things about what the team needs to be doing on the floor and he has been backing it up with his play. All this noted, Kobe as a playmaker has left a lot to be desired, as his live ball turnovers have killed the Lakers every game. Now, quite a few of those miscues were genuine attempts to make passes within the scope of the offense and those should be applauded, but too often Kobe rounds the pick and finds himself beset by a hard double that he refuses to pass out of. It is a lot to ask of a guy already going gangbusters on offense to do more, but his efficiency in scoring has to extend to his ability to take care of the ball.
  • Steve Blake -- It is far too early to say whether this is fool's gold or not, but Blake has played exceedingly well considering our painfully low expectations of him. He has managed the offense well, made his passes decisively, and displayed a surprising amount of defensive chops. Whatever you can say about last night's game, Blake was stupendous guarding Chris Paul, and he and Kobe gave the appearance of a very comfortable backcourt pairing. Perhaps this is Blake dusting off his previous experience with Eddie Jordan when the two were in Washington, but in his third year in a Laker uniform and third offensive system -- Alex Smith comparisons, anyone? -- Blake has seemingly found a home in the Princeton offense and deserves kudos for his play to start the year.
  • Dwight Howard -- Whether Dwight is even at 70% right now or not, the common myths about his game have been put to rest fairly decisively. Granted, it was only the most shallow of fans and occasional watchers of the league who believed that he had no post game or utility outside of that area, but he has fully displayed why he deserves his title as the league's best center. He simply can't be stopped in the interior against a single defender, his inability to elevate and make free throws notwithstanding. We have talked at length about his physical limitations causing difficulties with defensive rotations -- nearly always a step or two slow or an inch not high enough on his contests -- but the mere fact that he's trying out there is the biggest gap between him and Andrew Bynum on the defensive end. His return to full strength and the fixing of the turnover problem should alleviate a metric ton of the team's current issues, but at the moment, it is hard to be upset with his play.
  • Honorable mention goes to Darius Morris, who acquitted himself last night far better than we thought he would given his recent struggles at adapting to the pro game. As with last year when he replaced Blake in a game against the Clippers, his biggest impact is on defense, where his quick feet (!) and huge size for the point guard position make him fairly effective at deterring ballhandlers. Given the team's woes on the perimeter, to have someone like this is frankly a shock. On the other end, Morris was actually somewhat competent, a stark departure from his tendency to play at a hundred miles an hour and dribble the clock away. He made decent reads and despite his failure to take the ball right at the rim to draw a foul in some sequences, he appeared much more comfortable on the floor than he has in the past. Even his mistakes were fair attempts to make the right pass -- an intercepted pass in transition and one that Pau fumbled at the rim after Morris penetrated. Whether he can continue this play is another matter, but by all appearances, he has won the battle over Chris Duhon for the third point guard slot.

Burden

  • Metta World Peace -- There has to be a serious discussion in management and the coaching staff as to whether Metta's minutes need to be severely curtailed. For all the praise we heaped upon him during preseason for being in excellent shape and apparent return to form, he has looked positively awful during the start of the year and his defense is nowhere near the level it needs to be to justify the walking disaster he is on offense. The turnovers are the most obvious issue, but his sheer unwillingness to play within the offense is just unacceptable. It is one thing for Kobe or Nash to wave off an entry pass to Dwight and decide to run something else. They have the cache and ability to be granted that privilege. MWP explicitly does not and yours truly lost count of the number of times last night MWP failed to make an entry pass to a wide open Dwight and then put up a terrible shot in isolation. This problem extends to the rest of the offense, in which MWP has missed scores of open cutters running right in front of him and then either passed the ball out or proceeded to do his own thing on offense. Seeing as Devin Ebanks and Jodie Meeks are both languishing on the bench every other game, it is especially incomprehensible that Metta continues to get minutes.
  • Steve Nash -- How Nash and the Princeton offense appear to be at odds with one another has been discussion topic number one in Laker Land for quite a while now. Part of the blame has to go on Nash, however, as one could argue that he needs to buck the traditional point guard tendency to get everyone in the offense and just start running what works best for him. To his credit, Nash has been as much of a proponent of the "It's a process" line as anyone, but the easiest thing for the team to run while getting on the same page with the offense is him getting off a pick into the lane, where he has made a career out of making the right read in that situation. Will the team incorporate him in a different manner as the year goes on? Absolutely. But in the meantime, Nash accepting that he needs to be Nash is an important facet of what the team needs to succeed right now.
  • Mike Brown -- We can explain away mostly everything in regards to the problems the team is encountering right now, whether it is the offense and turnovers (new system and personnel) or defense (Howard not at 100%), but the rotations are beyond reproach. It is one thing to push your starters in an effort to get a win. It is another thing to tax them in order to shave off a fifteen point deficit into something more respectable. The bizarre benching of Jodie Meeks or Devin Ebanks, refusal to stagger the minutes of the starters with the bench to maximize their effectiveness, and aforementioned working off the starters are all fireable offenses at this juncture. Really, these are elementary issues that Brown is failing at. Over the course of the season, we can reasonably expect the team to grow acclimated to the offense and for that to accordingly help with the defensive execution as the turnovers are decreased. The rotations continuing to be an issue, especially with a team as old as this, is unacceptable.
  • Dishonorable mention goes to Jordan Hill, who has been painfully ineffective since a solid opening night performance. This could be attributed to his bad back, which would explain the number of times he has been blocked around the rim, but regardless, he is not putting up the production we expected him to do so as the bench's best player. I expect him to make this placement in this spot look silly in the near future, but as of right now, his play has not been endearing.
Follow this author on Twitter @brosales12.
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