The answer is still a pretty definitive 'no'. However, we can, and should, be very concerned for the way the Lakers are playing this season. Yesterday's game was a prime example.
Part of losing the game was Billups getting insanely hot, posting a career high 9 threes (on only 13 attempts!) and 39 points, before J.R. decided to take his turn, and a lot of those shots were out of our control. To most of them, the Lakers actually got good contests up. Defensively, asides from two or three of those shots, there was nothing L.A. could have done. Our offense is, as usual, where the problem primarily lies. There are several issues that I believe it has come time to seriously discuss and not sweep under the rug, as our record against good teams is poison lying in wait. These issues have been briefly outlined after the jump.
This post shall be curt and blunt yet long. There shall be no humour in this, no lightheartedness. This is serious. This is business. If you are at least somewhat worried about the Lakers' struggles of late, I highly recommend you read on. If not, and I doubt C.A. will like me saying this, but it must be said; this post isn't for you and I recommend you don't waste your time.
Pau Gasol: I think by now it's very fair to say Pau Gasol is in, to put it kindly, a slump. He had a 17/17 line last night, which was nice; but shot under 50%, and was very hesitant on offense to start the game. Also, the official stat-sheet shows him to have two turnovers, but I remember at least four other possessions where he pretty much turned the ball over, only for another teammate to recover it for L.A. Also, I'm starting to feel nervous every time he attempts to catch the ball, as seemingly every single time he fumbles it somewhat; quite often leading to him losing easy shot opportunities. The only explanation for it is that its an issue of confidence, as a player as great as Pau does not simply forget how to catch the ball. I did, however, see a flash of the aggressiveness there when he went up for a bunny lay-up, missed, muscled the rebound, before going up and putting in a hard dunk before screaming. Unfortunately, by then it was far too late. One can only hope he breaks out of his slump soon.
Though, what I've always seemed to notice with him, is that while he's crazily efficient when having very few possessions; when the Triangle is run straight through him in the low post it can get ugly. He seems to definitely operate better from the high-post / foul line area, facing up; as there it is impossible to send a strong double his way (which seems the most effective way to take him out of the game).
The Point Guard Conundrum: This is made up of two parts, Derek and then the reserve guards.
I do hate to say it, but DFish simply doesn't cut it any more. His defense this game was not particularly bad, he managed to stay with Chauncey and contest near every shot Chauncey took, it's just that Chauncey made them (though it should be noted that Chauncey cooling down near direct coincided with Artest switching on to him and forcing him to give up the ball). What's the problem, however, is his offense. He's shooting under 40% from the field this season, and only 35% from three; not good enough for a spot-up shooter. This game was no exception, going 2/7 from the floor and 0-2 from three. L.A. do NOT need a ball-dominant point guard like Harris, however they do need a solid point guard who can hit open shots, find the open man, play satisfactory defense, and be a bit of a playmaker when necessary.
One would naturally look to the bench to find this solution, but there are problems there, too. Jordan Farmar is an extremely talented player, and I have always been a big fan of his. His decision-making and defense haves also improved dramatically this season. He's probably the best asides from Kobe at creating his own shot off the dribble, and is undoubtedly the best dribble-penetrator on the team. However, the unavoidable conclusion when looking at his game style is that he is not a Triangle point guard. He needs the ball in his hands to operate, simply put, and the Triangle is not entirely accomodating to that. Last season, Shannon Brown's game was such an unexpected bonus many of us viewed him as the solution to the point guard problem and the heir apparent to Derek Fisher. That has, sadly, proven to be far from the case. Brown seems to have taken a step back on defense, rarely runs the offense properly, and has proven to be a substandard ball-handler at the point, and thus has been relegated to primarily the off-guard role. In this role, he has shown a penchant for being able to hit tough fadeaway shots, which would be great except for the fact that they're terrible shots to take and he takes them far more often than his percentage justifies, often ignoring other far better options. He's turned into a chucker, simply put.
Offensive Fluidity: As I'm sure most of you know, the Lakers' offense was our primary source of success last season. It was one of the top in the League and when clicking on all cylinders, unstoppable. This season, not so much, they only just barely qualify as one of the top 10 teams in offensive efficiency for the season. There are a couple of reasons for this.
Firstly, the Triangle isn't run enough, discarded in favour of terrible isolation plays and bad shots; and everyone is a culprit to this. Pau isn't demanding enough for the ball, and not aggressive enough when he gets it. Odom is settling for far too many threes and long twos, instead of getting into the paint. Drew undoubtedly wants his shots, but often if the Lakers go away from him for a while he just stops trying, and plus he needs to be able to stay out of foul trouble and stay on the court to be able to take shots. Kobe seems to be trying to do far too much this season, considering the level of talent on his team; and Fisher is just plain atrocious. Pardon the language, but f--- Chris Duhon, Derek Fisher is the worst starting point guard in the League this year. Problem is, his shot selection often suggests he doesn't seem to realise it. The only starter who is playing within his role in the offense to some extent is Artest, and much kudos to him for that. Despite not being particularly athletic, he is slashing with a purpose and energy; he is learning his positioning; and not once has he held on to the ball for too long.
The Bench is a whole nother can of worms. While putting one or two of them out there with the starters doesn't lead to too much of a drop, putting them out there as a unit is just asking to lose. Shannon chucks up shots like he thinks he's Kobe Bryant, Jordan needs the ball in his hands just a bit too much to be able to function in the Triangle to his full potential, Luke is a nonfactor this season, Sasha is atrocious, and even Lamar Odom is having a quite down year offensively - primarily due to a terrible distribution of shots from him - way too many long jumpers.
They simply don't seem to have gelled as a team, they don't have that offensive chemistry.
Another problem is that all the starters play in essentially the same way. They are large and not exceptionally athletic (not even Kobe, any more); and every single one of them operates best out of the post. I do believe this team would be perfect for the 90s, with their size, physicality and post focus; but in the modern era it just doesn't work like that. There isn't enough paint to hold all of them. They also lack a floor-spreading presence, whether starting or off the bench. Sasha and Artest are both at around 37% for the season, which is decent, but not deadly - plus Sasha doesn't play enough to count. In addition to this, they lack a true slasher to run the cuts of the Triangle. In last year's Playoffs, Ariza filled BOTH of these roles, which is why we now miss him so much. We can win it all without filling this void, but our chances are greatly improved if we make a trade to somehow do so.
And, the final point, the Coaching.
Really, I don't know what's going on with Phil Jackson this season. He's always been one to experiment, and to not put too much value on regular season games; but his coaching this season has been simply bizarre.
A particular area this sticks out is in his substitutions, the craziest stuff I've ever seen. The simplest way to illustrate this would be to link to the box score that recorded Vujacic as having played 11 minutes last game. Is there any possible way anyone can explain that, basketball-wise? Powell also received minutes; a sin, Bynum foul trouble or no. Also, his demonstrative need to rest Kobe at the most inopportune times is positively baffling. Kobe can play 40 minutes in blowouts, and Phil has no problem with it. However, playing Kobe the whole fourth against Cleveland? Phil would rather he get nearly 7 minutes of rest to start the fourth, leaving him ice cold after a hot streak.
Last game was another example. Kobe had been hot, then Phil put him on the bench for the second half of the third. There was somewhat of a reason behind this, in that 1. Kobe was on four fouls and 2. He was frustrated due to a series of no-calls. With any other star, that may be a legitimate reason to keep them out until the fourth. Kobe? Are you kidding me? The man is one of the most disciplined at playing on a high number of fouls in the League. As for the frustration - is there anywhere here who does not think that Kobe using that frustration as motivation to go into Mamba mode would have been more likely to win us the game than to rely on our seemingly half-asleep supporting cast?
Sasha's been getting relevant minutes, only to prove he doesn't deserve them. Artest is being kept out of the crunch time rotation in favour of jacker Shannon Brown. Kobe's being rested ridiculously long in important/close games, and playing long minutes in pointless/blowout games.
Really, some comments Fisher implied after the second Cleveland game may be the best theory to provide some explanation of this, that Phil doesn't particularly care about winning regular season games at all, 100% trusts the team to win on the road (with their road record? That's not gonna work); and even possibly believes that these losses are highly beneficial and that they will give his team extra motivation to beat these teams come Playoffs, simply to prove they can.
Well, this is Phil Jackson, the Phil Jackson of the 10 rings, 534 Lakers Franchise wins, at around .70 winning percentage for his career. We really have no choice but to trust him to know when to actually try to win games; but for the sake of my mental state, I hope it's soon.
That applies for everything outlined in this post. Really, all we can do is hope. Maybe Mitch has a trade up his sleeve, but 99% most likely we won't hear about it till it happens. Maybe this team is just waiting to flip the switch, and can do it as soon as Phil lets them, but we won't know until they do it. Maybe Pau is just conserving energy for the Playoffs, we won't know till they come round.
Important to note is that we still CAN win it all, we just haven't done anything to indicate us as favourites.
All we can do is hope, and pray, and be thankful we're not Boston fans.