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Writer's Roundtable: With the New Year here, are the Lakers still contenders?
The Lakers begin 2013 in an unlikely place: one game under.
At 15-16, Los Angeles needs to go 35-16 the rest of the way to win just 50 games, whereas many predicted a team with four future Hall of Famers to win as many as 65. While the Lakers aren't strangers to melodrama and turmoil, this season has lived up to a Lohan-esque level of turbulence. It's hard to believe that this season is only nine weeks old. It feels like nine years.
With 2013 here and the Lakers back to their constantly vacillating ways, Silver Screen & Roll thought it'd be a good time to check to pulse of a team we had such incredible expectations for.
Winners of six out of the past eight games, what do you feel has been the most noticeable difference for this team as of late?
I think the most noticeable difference has been the subtle move of playing MWP at the PF position. It was seven games ago that D'Antoni switched MWP to being the starting power forward and moving Jamison to the bench. The difference offensively for MWP at the four is night and day. According to 82games.com, he has posted a PER of 20.1 at the power forward position but only 13.3 while at the small forward spot. When Gasol returned from injury, MWP moved to the bench as the back-up four with no slippage whatsoever. Making this change and shifting Kobe to the three allows the Lakers more floor spacing and a slightly quicker perimeter defense. Credit D'Antoni for continuing to figure out his personnel and making adjustments.
The obvious answer is the return of Steve Nash. The Lakers have been better (at times) on both sides of the ball since Nash and Pau Gasol have returned. Steve is responsible for the uptick in offense, as anybody who has watched the backup point guard options play for more than two minutes could tell you would be the case. But I also think that he is responsible for the defensive uptick as well. More appropriately, he has provided the rest of the team with the motivation, and the belief, to put in the necessary energy to improve defensively.
The Great Mambino
Without a doubt, it's the lack of turnovers. November and half of December was riddled with some of the sloppiest Lakers basketball in recent memory. The team consistently fumbled the ball around the court, zipping passes that seemed intentionally aimed for the opposition and careless lobs with a teammate's back turned the other way. Quite simply, the Lakers looked like a bunch of strangers on the court, playing as if they had met each other that afternoon and had agreed to a game of high stakes pick-up ball. Over the past seven games, the team has averaged just under 13 turnovers per contest, down from their second to last peak they presided over until mid-December. It seems that the team has become more comfortable with the playbook, confident in the coaching staff and has learned the tendencies of their own teammates.
Even with their recent run of success, it hasn't been all pretty. Which team do you feel is more indicative of who the 2012-2013 Los Angeles Lakers are - the squad that dominated the Trailblazers, or the hapless team that got blown out in Denver?
As the year continues, I think that team that showed up against Portland will become a more common occurrence. This team has had its up and downs but they have been dealing with health issues and coaching and system changes. Everyone is starting to get healthy. D'Antoni is starting to figure out which combinations and players work in which positions. This team has too much talent to look like the team that showed up in Denver.
I definitely think the Lakers have more domination than disappointment in their future (at least on a game-to-game basis, who knows whether they can dig out of the hole they've dug themselves), but I think that both games are perfectly indicative of what the Lakers can accomplish, and what they can fail to. And, while both performances were about more than one person, I think both the success and failure the Lakers might see in the coming year belong to one man: Dwight Howard. More than anybody else, it was Dwight's lackadaisical play that was responsible for the stinker in Denver, with the ejection the symbolic culmination of what was already a terrible outing for him. He was much better against Portland, and surprise, surprise, so were the Lakers.
The Great Mambino
Ever the optimist, I believe that the team that dominated the Blazers is more indicative of who they are. That Lakers team on Friday night threw their collective weight around on the court, bullying Portland with their size and strength. On both sides of the floor, the Lakers abused the Blazers in the paint and defensively forced them into poor shots. With Dwight Howard, Darius Morris and Metta World Peace, LA has potentially one of the best and most savvy half court defenses in the league. To win games, the Lakers are going to have to control pace, whether it means running quick, efficient breaks with Nash at the helm or dissecting oppositions in set schemes with their numerous offensive weapons. In some ways, the Denver game is also exemplary of who the Lakers are--they're a team that can get outhustled on any particular night and is thus extremely susceptible to getting thrashed on transition defense. Contrary to popular belief, the Lakers will get more athletic as Dwight Howard rounds into game shape, so perhaps their stunningly bad defense on the run won't be as awful. However, it will remain at the very least a moderate weakness going forward.
So, at 15-16, are the Lakers still title contenders? Could you see them winning it all this year?
Every statistic says the Lakers are much better than the 15-16 record they currently have. They have outscored their opponents by 2.8 points per game, the 7th highest margin of victory in the league. History shows that margin of victory is a better predictor of future performance than simple Win-Loss record. To be the 7th best team in the league, despite not having Nash for the majority of the season so far, Gasol missing considerable time, going through three coaches and two new systems is about as good of results as could be expected. You just can't lay out those types of hurdles and expect this team to be 10 games above .500 at this point. The good news is that the Lakers can now improve upon their standing as they are healthy and getting more familiar with each other every day. When April rolls around, if this team is healthy they will be viewed as contenders.
Will they win the title? Right now my gut says they will fall short. Teams need lots of breaks to go their way to win a title. Right now the odds are stacking against them. A top 4 seed looks most likely out of reach. Having to go through 4 rounds against 55+ win teams with every series on the road is probably too much for even this team to handle.
If the last answer didn't clue you in, this one should spell out my thoughts very clearly. Can the Lakers still win a title? Are the Lakers still title contenders? The answer to both questions, in my opinion, is entirely up to Dwight Howard. Dwight was always going to be the most important player on the whole team, more important even than Kobe, because Dwight in top form is a terror defensively that can magically mitigate a lot of the Lakers' defensive problems, but his top form has been rare this season. If we saw more regular progression from Dwight, I could totally talk myself into his slow recovery from a serious back injury. To a certain extent, I still can. However, that Dwight's strong performances seem to be getting rarer instead of more frequent is of great concern to me, because it either means that his issues aren't entirely physical, or that his early return might be slowing down his overall recovery.
All that said, the season is a long one, and there is still plenty of time for the Lakers. I don't think there's much doubt that the team is going to figure stuff out offensively. Nash is too good in this system, and the Lakers have given him more fancy toys to play with than he ever had in Phoenix. The greatest offensive concern at the initial hiring of MDA was a lack of outside shooting, but MWP, Kobe and Meeks are all providing enough that the Lakers are currently a top 10 3-pt outfit (and that is mostly without the benefit of the wide open shots Nash is sure to provide). So if the Lakers can get the offense into the truly elite category (top 2 or 3), the only question is can the Lakers patch together enough of a defense (say around the top 10, but not top 5) to compete with the elite teams, then yeah, I think the Lakers can still win the title. I don't know that I think it's particularly likely, but I definitely think we can't write them off.
The Great Mambino
Yes. Even throughout all their struggles, a not even fully healthy Lakers team is still capable of beating the best the league has to offer, as shown in their gutty win on Christmas. The bench is much better than anyone gives them credit for, and the starting five could very well be the NBA's best. There's too much talent to deny them the chance to win four out of seven games every time, even without home court advantage. The Lakers aren't a great road team right now, at a poor 5-9. However, the veteran confidence of Nash, Kobe and Gasol, as well as the team's fully armed road win against a good team in Oakland has emboldened me to proclaim that winning in hostile environments won't be a problem going forward. There's so much time left in the season, but as Nash has said, the Lakers need to be a "desperate" team. They need to extract this sentiment and play for at least a four seed in the West, or better. Without it, I'm not sure the Lakers will be able to win the title this year.