In a normal Lakers season, this game could be processed and moved to the back of our minds after a day of disappointment. A panoply of factors -- horrific shooting from behind the arc, two huge no-shows from the Lakers' starting frontcourt, ten missed free throws not all at the feet of Dwight Howard, and impeccable accuracy from midrange on isolations from Philly -- all worked against the Lakers this contest and honestly made the fact that they were remotely close at the end an accomplishment in and of itself. The Lakers' didn't just shoot themselves in the foot this game. They blew it off with a shotgun and still nearly made it to the finish line before bleeding to death at the doorstep. They make their season average from three, they would have won by nine. They get any semblance of production from Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard and this game is a laughter. But it wasn't and while all these concerns are absolutely valid, the context in which this defeat occurs offers cause for concern.
To put it simply, the Lakers are quickly running out of time to put things together before games like this move from the "eh, whatever" column to the "sunk the season" one. This isn't the Eastern Conference in which the Lakers could coast with a .500 record for most of the year, blow apart their competition in the last month, and ride their momentum into the playoffs. They have to right the ship immediately and at least become consistent enough to put away mediocre teams at home. It might be unfair to pin this on a team that just got all of their starters back five games ago and is starting to develop chemistry under Mike D'Antoni's system, but that is the reality that they have to deal with. We know that they are capable of doing so since a mediocre team doesn't beat what looks like a very good Golden State team on the road and a solid Knicks team on a national stage in the course of a week, and this no doubt makes the current state of affairs frustrating.
As we discussed earlier in the season, a consistent theme of the Lakers' championship team was the enormous margin of error they had to work with. Andrew Bynum missed half the season? Big deal: slot Pau Gasol at center, start Lamar Odom, and act like nothing happened. Inconsistent three-point shooting or bench production? Mitch Kupchak pulls what nominally looks like a salary dump but nets a significant contributor in the process. The latter item might what ultimately is necessary to help the Lakers get out of their slump, as with Chris Duhon out with back spasms, D'Antoni went with an eight man rotation, except half of them were either painfully mediocre or outright terrible. It would be foolhardy to count on both Howard and Gasol both playing as badly as they did last night, but at the same time, these are the things that championship teams overcome against mediocre squads and end up winning anyways.
The solution, as it usually is with these problems, is depth. Throw more good players at the problem until it goes away and a viable rotation can be found that offers consistency and continuity. This would be splendid, except for the fact that this Laker roster has a pair of holes at backup point guard and the currently nonexistent backup three that jeopardize the entire rotation. The Lakers sport eight players with a double-digit PER, but this is muted because five of them play in the frontcourt, so this excises Antawn Jamison from the rotation, limits the minutes of the highly productive Jordan Hill, and creates instability with the rest of the rotation because Metta World Peace is being used as a combo forward. This instability is further compounded by the fact that the Lakers essentially have one viable wing reserve in Jodie Meeks and a wasteland behind him in Darius Morris, Devin Ebanks, and Earl Clark. So in sum, the Lakers can't find enough minutes for their third most productive per minute player (Hill), have benched their seventh most productive player (Jamison), and are giving heavy minutes to sub-10 PER players in Morris and Duhon, which should remind everyone of the Derek Fisher and Steve Blake show the past few years.
Morris might be the lesser of all evils among the available wing players because of his generally solid defense, but he was a non-entity on both ends in the Philly game, as the rather glaring problem that the Lakers have precisely one consistent wing defender on the roster in MWP raised its head yet again. Ideally, you'd have Morris play to his strengths defensively and cover Jrue Holiday, but the need to play Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant means that Morris is forced to the wing. In that situation, if you have Morris cover the point guard, you are putting Nash on a bigger player or forcing Kobe to actually play defense. The matchup shenanigins this has engendered could be fixed if the Lakers start a proper small forward in lieu of Morris and make him a situational reserve, as befits his current talent level, but Devin Ebanks not panning out in the slightest -- made all the worse by the Lakers letting the highly productive Matt Barnes leave -- has made this impossible. Ergo, we get Nash getting smoked by Holiday and Morris and Meeks getting posted up at will by Evan Turner, the main culprits in the Lakers' defeat.
As a result, the Lakers are left in a rather dire situation. They are counting on Blake returning in order to salvage the backup point guard spot, but he hasn't put up a double digit PER in nearly three years. They don't have minor trade assets to swing for a three man since they used all their draft picks in the summer to get Nash and Howard, Hill might be more valuable to the Lakers than he is to another team, and dealing Pau just to fix the bench problem "might" -- we are rapidly approaching the point at which this qualification ceases to exist -- be overreaching. The first apparent move in Delonte West, although solid from the standpoint that West is a very serviceable player, only solves the first problem but not the second, and the former pales in comparison to the latter in terms of importance. How Kupchak deals with these issues in the upcoming weeks may very well determine the course of the season since extricating the Lakers from their current rut is of paramount importance.
Of course, this is all largely moot if the Lakers stars play at a level commensurate with their talent. As previously noted, if Dwight Howard plays like Dwight Howard, this game is a ten or fifteen point win. If Pau Gasol more resembled the multifaceted player the past few games who was hitting jumpers from distance, driving to the rim, pulling moves around the basket, and controlling the flow of the offense while on the floor, the same thing applies. Structural issues can be overcome through the application of sheer talent, which is what this Laker team was designed to do. This noted, it makes the impetus on the Lakers' stars to play well all the time very high and reduces the available margin of error. Fixing an unbalanced rotation that is actively hurting the Lakers on the floor against several teams will go a long way towards rectifying this issue.
- Kobe Bryant -- With the exception of some painfully familiar attempts at late game heroics from Kobe, he was generally solid the entire night and especially so at attacking the rim over and over again. His first step and suddenness appear to be back in all their glory, so we get moments like him blasting past the defense on the wing and going up for a reverse slam. His improved handle has also allowed him to take a leaf out of Nash's book and constantly probe a defense that oftentimes can't cover him for that long. That all of the above are the case makes it especially irksome that he persists in his isolation frenzy of difficult shots or that this was probably his worst game as a playmaker all season. You can't really complain about Kobe given his outrageous efficiency lately and especially so on a night on which most members of the team couldn't hit the broad side of a barn, but he needs to find that proper balance between scoring and playmaking as always.
- Jordan Hill -- Hello, inexorable offensive rebound machine. On a night on which there was a metric ton of available missed shots to corral, you wish that D'Antoni could have gotten Hill more minutes, as he was a key actor in turning an early Lakers deficit into something much more manageable. The only downside to Hill is that his accuracy from range appears to be deserting him this season as normally a 40% shooter from 16-23 feet is nailing that shot only 30% of the time. Perhaps his trigger finger is too quick on these plays and he should try to limit it to designated pick-and-pop sequences or use his athleticism to drive the ball towards the rim, but this is something that will have to be fixed to get more minutes in the rotation.
- Steve Nash -- On a night on which the Lakers seemed determine to miss every bunny around the rim, it should be borderline miraculous that Nash still eked out ten dimes regardless. These are also the nights, however, on which Nash might want to take it upon himself to get the Lakers some buckets. It is great that he looks for everyone for the first three quarters, but when the bigs' sole utility has been getting him space off screens, it is time to take advantage of them. As noted, Nash was roasted by Holiday in isolation, and while he did hot a bunch of tough shots against respectable defense from time to time, we are reminded of how Nash's deficiencies can come to haunt the team on the other end. On a side note, Nash's three-point accuracy has dipped this season in an admittedly very small sample size (5-15), but him being unable to connect on three wide open treys was rather damaging for the Lakers in the long-run this contest.
- Honorable mention to Jodie Meeks, who decided to troll all of us by driving from the wing and uncorking a rather nice dunk in a game in which he wasn't hitting the long ball well. It is hard on one hand to consider this a positive given that he is shooting a positively pathetic 47.4% around the rim -- for the sake of comparison, the league average is roughly 62-63%, so Meeks is beyond terrible in this regard -- but credit him for finding a way to be effective offensively in a game in which almost no one else was. The aforementioned lineup issues meant that he was matched up against Turner on some possessions and Meeks' rather short stature for a wing hurt himself in that department, as he could do little to deter Turner on his post-ups.
- Pau Gasol -- The biggest problem for Pau is that his utility ultimately comes back to the fine point that he needs to put the ball in the basket at an efficient rate. This was a game in which he did all of the peripheral things well: he made his customary deft high post passes, played decent post defense, and had a respectable showing on the boards. That's great for a glue guy, an appropriate label for Pau given that his status as the fourth option and the role he plays in bridging the gap between the Lakers' perimeter and inside players. The issue is that due to the Lakers' depth problems and the players that are being sat on the bench in Hill and Jamison so he can play, he needs to do much more than that. A 2-12 line isn't acceptable from wherever he's shooting from and however many good non-scoring plays he makes on the court.
- Darius Morris -- Morris' three-point accuracy has deserted him at the worst time, as what was supposed to be an ideal place for a three-and-D specialist has not turned out that way for him. The lineup problems caused by him starting have been documented, but he could fix a lot of them if he was contributing in a meaningful way on offense, which has not been the case. On the other end, matching him up against Turner wasn't going to end up well regardless, but he didn't do a good job limiting Holiday as he has with some other solid point guards this year. It might be somewhat unreasonable to set expectations high for Morris given that this would be his senior year in college -- and thus making the fact that he can possibly be an acceptable part of the rotation at his age quite the accomplishment -- but the lack of options behind him in the rotation make such concerns about his play valid.
- Metta World Peace -- As with the above two players, MWP can be great at whatever spot he's playing at so long as he's making shots, which was not forthcoming against Philly. Perhaps we can chalk it up to a (very) bad shooting game, but that's the reality MWP has to live up to as a four man. It works because he stretches the defense, can take bigger and slower defenders off the dribble, and defends competently on the other end. MWP's greatest success in the Philly game was mostly taking smaller defenders in the post with his awkward post shots, but that's not the role he has to be effective in to help this offense tick.
- (Dis)honorable mention to Dwight Howard, whose inability to nail a shot at point blank range has grown rather tiresome. To some degree, it is explainable since he doesn't have the height of say Andrew Bynum and can use a massive frame to nudge defenders out of the way on the way to the rim. Howard depends on his otherworldly athleticism and quickness to explode towards the rim before defenders can recover and on nights on which his back isn't right, he can't do this. The flip side is that bad back or no, he can't be missing so many of the easy bunnies he gets around the rim. Dwight has a pretty easy offensive role: get passes from the Lakers' other stars and finish around the rim. If he can't fulfill that, he has pretty limited offensive utility. He did make a fair showing on defense for at least the first half and it is hard to scoff at fifteen rebounds and four blocks, so he had a lot more value on the court than the above three, but he is the engine that makes the Lakers go. A superstar Howard playing well on both ends covers up a host of problems and the Lakers haven't seen that Howard enough this year.