As the Lakers fall in another ignominious defeat to the Utah Jazz, we cover some of the (many) things that are going wrong and the seeming magnitude of what it takes for the Lakers to get a win nowadays.
Three years ago during the Lakers' championship seasons -- good heavens, that seems like a long time ago -- we were treated to a consistent phrase about how the Lakers handled the regular season: "margin of error." In other words, it was a measure how many things could go wrong in any single contest with the Lakers prevailing regardless. The greater your team's talent, comfort in the coach's system, and so forth, the bigger your margin of error was. From a more cynical point of view, it was the degree to which the Lakers could coast and still win regardless, with the '08-'09 season the pinnacle of this phenomenon. Missing Andrew Bynum for half the year, not having consistent three-point shooters, and the bench regressing were all mostly papered over by the fact that Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and whomever else decided to have a good night were awesome and most teams simply couldn't compete with that. Against opponents that actually required a more thorough application of effort such as Boston or Cleveland, the Lakers responded appropriately.
This is all relevant since a few years, several coaches, and a huge turnover of players later, the Lakers still are deep in this mentality despite the fact that the only player on the floor right now who was part of that team is Kobe. If the Lakers showed up with the same effort they put forth against OKC in the Utah game, it is not a great stretch to say that it could have made a considerable difference. And yet the Lakers lost, despite an epic performance from behind the arc, precisely because they aren't good enough without Steve Nash and Pau Gasol to win against a more or less average opponent when not giving their full and undivided attention. The defensive rotations were miserable, the offense honestly good have been better despite the aforementioned shooting, and it appeared that half of the team couldn't be bothered to show up. Just as with the previous two years, this team is still carrying that championship team mentality that it can coast through the regular season, and needless to say, that doesn't work with their current circumstances.
- Chris Duhon -- Unless Steve Blake comes back and really is the ideal fit for this offense as Mike D'Antoni claims he is, it is really, really hard to see how Duhon doesn't get the primary backup spot at this juncture. He put up a 12/5/11 line in 31 minutes, only turned the ball over twice, and while he got scorched by Mo Williams, the defensive rotations behind him were not exactly conducive to his success, or anyone's for that matter. Duhon now boasts a 11.57 PER, which is still somewhat mediocre, but light years ahead of what has been considered the standard at the point guard position for the Lakers the last couple years. Just as he did in his previous time with D'Antoni in New York, Duhon is a competent game manager and knows what reads to make within the scope of the offense. For someone who came into the year with absolutely zero expectations of contributing, he has surpassed essentially all of them, with the possible exception of Drew, who was Duhon's advocate from the start.
- Jodie Meeks -- The Lakers need to add an incentive clause to Meeks' contract for any midrange shots he takes in lieu of trying to attack the rim, as he is absolutely hopeless at the latter. It's not the end of the world if he's chased off the line and has to dribble inside the arc for a shot, but that means that he goes up from midrange, not attempting to create something with his nonexistent hops and handle. Otherwise, he's becoming a pretty consistent source of offense for the Lakers, and while he sports an unusually high usage rate for a supposed catch-and-shoot specialist (20.1), this is likely a consequence of there being no decent ballhandlers on the floor with him besides Kobe or perhaps Duhon.
- Jordan Hill -- The enduring image from the Utah game will be Hill getting obliterated by Enes Kanter on the interior, as he simply doesn't have the size to deal with a legitimate center. Granted, Utah is one of the few teams in the league who actually have someone to take advantage of this and D'Antoni didn't exactly have a whole lot of choice with Pau out other than putting in Robert Sacre, which was never a consideration. This notwithstanding, Hill was simply one of the few players who cared about the fact there was a game going on and that defense was actually a consideration. With Dwight Howard seemingly limited every other night, Hill might be the team's best help defender at this juncture, as he covers a lot of ground -- see his four blocks -- and does a reasonable job against the pick-and-roll. Even though Kanter was killing him, credit D'Antoni for keeping Hill in the game, especially on a night in which Antawn Jamison was struggling.
- Honorable mention to Metta World Peace, who had a fairly forgettable game even though he was shooting well, as his lack of peripheral statistics can attest to. On nights with no isolation matchup to deter -- hard to use "shut down" or any variation given MWP's decreased ability nowadays -- MWP's utility is pretty limited, and he occasionally looks as bad as Kobe in terms of his off ball defense, as seen with him losing Marvin Williams on the weak side. Seeing as Devin Ebanks hasn't exactly done anything to show that he deserves additional rotation minutes, MWP losing time in the rotation in favor to Meeks is a completely justifiable decision.
- Dwight Howard -- It is hard to process that the Dwight who utterly dominated a good portion of the OKC game and owned the offensive boards is the same player who gave such a lifeless effort against Utah, as he looked hugely passive and uncaring on both ends. On a night on which the Lakers' perimeter shooters were hitting as well as they did, him passing out is more understandable, but rare is the night when you can accept Dwight only getting two free throws. His defensive effort was also generally poor, as his sixteen rebound night obscures the fact that he was beat on the boards an awful lot. We might be holding Dwight to a high standard here, but for a guy who is arguably the league's third best player or so at his peak, expecting superhuman results is the norm. The Lakers' defensive woes are certainly not on Howard's head, but he does an awful lot to paper them up on nights when he resembles his normal DPOY self.
- Antawn Jamison -- Jamison was really awful against Utah, making the aforementioned decision to sub him out in favor of Hill an easy one for D'Antoni. This has only been a minor two game slump after a number of solid offensive performances for Jamison, so there is no reason to panic in this regard, but it displays the lack of value Jamison provides when his shots aren't falling. At best, his defense is average -- the surprisingly competent defense he played against Memphis and Dallas appears to have all but disappeared -- so he really needs to punish teams from behind the arc, on cuts, or both, and did none of those things against Utah.
- Darius Morris -- Another game with Morris, another display that makes us recall the Morris of last year than the one who was fairly competent for a five game stretch in November. We do get some glimpses -- he had a nice dime to Dwight, for instance -- but his downsides are much more visible. Also, it's becoming a bit ridiculous that a big point guard with acceptable athleticism only shoots 47.2% around the rim, an amazingly poor mark. He simply doesn't have good finishing ability despite being able to get to the rim on a fairly consistent basis if he so chooses. Given that his three-point stroke is passable, this is one of the biggest obstacles between him and a consistent rotation spot that seemed all but assured a few weeks ago.
- (Dis)honorable mention to Kobe Bryant, who gave a lot of the brilliance of Kobe but also a good deal of the flaws. His defensive problems have been documented for some time now, but at a certain point, there's a difference between "coasting" and "being an embarrassing defensive liability." This was in full force against Utah, as a team that loves to have its wings cut to the rim abused Kobe again and again as he either decided to ball watch and not move or make a terrible attempt at gambling for the steal. Yes, he needs to conserve energy for offense -- or in the case of this game, trying to toss in a bunch of long twos; his efficiency was only saved by hitting a high percentage of his threes -- and all that, but we can accept Kobe putting some more energy into defense on a night on which the Lakers were red hot from the perimeter. The effort can't just come against a premier team with a national audience present; it is difficult to say that Dwight's frustration with Kobe's defense isn't justified.