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The 2011-2012 Los Angeles Lakers: Same same, but different

Over the offseason much ado was made, rightly so, of the Lakers' attempts to completely blow up their core in an attempt to remake the team on the fly, and upon the failure of that of their decision to donate Lamar Odom to the defending champion Mavericks and attempt to replace his production with Troy Murphy and Josh McRoberts. Ultimately, the offseason left Lakers fans feeling as if the team was unfinished, that they were in the middle of a transition phase that still required one big move. With this move being yet to come, if indeed it ever does, nonetheless the feeling was one of change, that the Lakers, now Odom-less and Jackson-less, were a truly different team; whether for better or worse.

The Christmas Day season opener was reason for hope for Laker fans, with their vigour, effort, tough defense and solid contributions from fresh faces suggesting an altogether improved team, one that could once again compete, and indeed entertain whilst doing so. The youth and hustle were particularly refreshing, perhaps harking back to the days of the famed Bench Mob of '08. Then last night happened, and such optimistic assumptions needed revision; with lackluster effort, poor execution, terrible defense and general helplessness leading to an embarrassing loss to a simply inferior team. After the loss, Chris understandably made the assertion that the Lakers were indeed worse than last season, and that a championship was thus unlikely. I disagree. It seems to me that the Lakers are almost the same as last season.

Perhaps it's simply a matter of adjustment, that Coach Mike Brown's new offensive iand defensive systems are yet to be fully understood, and thus Brown is still holding onto much of the Triangle until full acclimatisation is successful, or perhaps it's the Laker vets being unused to their new team mates and thus not making full use of them, or perhaps it's simply that Brown's San Antonio-based system cannot work without Bynum joining Pau; but overall, despite blatant differences such as previously rarely-seen sophomore Devin Ebanks starting, I can't help but shake the feeling that the Lakers haven't changed much at all.

Inconsistent as hell? Check. Lackluster effort? The Lakers know no other kind. No hope against quick guards? Marcus Thornton serves as the perfect spokesman. Kobe perhaps doing too much? Yep. Pau disappearing for large stretches? Of course. Hell, we even got more than our fair share of Derek Fisher PUJITs and other assorted fails. And there was a Luke Walton sighting! It was at the point where I was actually surprised at seeing Mike Brown on the bench, and it's not due to missing Phil.

Despite the Laker FO's pressing for change deliberately and aggressively both through attempts at player movement and personnel movement, there was very little that made this Laker game look any different from any Laker game from the Lakers' poor stretches last season. Murphy and McRoberts were rarely seen making any impact, Goudelock played the same amount as Walton, and Ebanks, though efficient, was a fringe player. Thus, the majority of Laker contributions came through their vets, and the results were as much of a mixed bag as they were last season. Ron had one of his rare, but logical, good games courtesy of his efficient postwork and hustle on the boards and defense, Kobe was cold early but kept attacking until he bullied his way into decent efficiency; Pau disappeared for much of the game, finally started playing only to get in foul trouble and sit, came back alright before making the most boneheaded procession of fouls I have ever seen from a veteran All Star in his pathetic attempts to box out DeMarcus Cousins (as I predicted, Bynum was sorely missed); Blake was back to his 2010-2011 level of fail; and Fisher and Walton committed the basketball equivalent of war crimes. Welcome back, 2010-2011 Lakers; I can't say I missed you.

Now for a little rant: there is absolutely no reason for Derek Fisher to be getting any more than spot minutes. His defensive woes are already well-known, his shot selection is nearly as bad as Kobe's despite not possessing one tenth of the requisite skill, and it's rare that he even hits open threes any more. So what, exactly, is he doing on the floor? I can't think of many, if any, point guards in this League getting regular minutes as he does who are worse. Morris might be a second-round rookie, but hell, we have nothing to lose when it comes to point guard. Moves need to be made at this position for the Lakers to have a shot at the championship this season. Luke Walton should simply retire already; and Pau Gasol's foul trouble was little reason to play him as a Power Forward when Metta World Peace had been playing so well. As for Pau, the guy needs to man the hell up, that's already well known. His shooting touch is coming and going, but I think there's more to Pau now. He was never an elite athlete by NBA standards, but in his more effective years when he did play Center he did have a definite speed advantage over his opponents at the 5. I don't see that any more. He seems to have gotten noticeably slower; and his lack of vertical can't simply be a matter of will - I honestly think his vertical is as bad as Ron's, even if he tried. It seems Pau, on the wrong side of 30 and having played pretty heavy minutes during much of his stint with the Lakers, is gaining all the negative aspects of the tweener mould as he ages - he is too physically soft to play as a full-time Center, yet he is also significantly slower than a high-calibre Power Forward. His only hope to regain his lost effectiveness is to develop into a dead-eye shooter, and that requires a confidence exceedingly rarely exhibited by Pau. If I were in the position to do so, I'd hope to trade him whilst his stock was high.

All is not lost, though. Whilst this team seems to have maintained the vast majority of the traits of last seasons'; the changes still show their potential, if utilised well. Some more motion in 4-5 sets would be nice, perhaps Pau's passing ability could be put to use in hitting McRoberts for his habitual feed of dunks and layups. Goudelock has a jump shot, and I'd like to see him in more of the corner catch-and-shoot situations Steve Blake and Derek Fisher (and, for some bizarre reason, Luke Walton) often find themselves in, as opposed to handling the basketball. Ebanks is all good so far, and shall continue to grow with minutes. Barnes seems healed, and Artest may hopefully be settling into his new role. We're also yet to see how Bynum has grown over the offseason. The youth infusion the Lakers ordered is ready and waiting, and Murphy's shown he can still play but first some of the scrap of the Lakers of old must be trimmed off.

This optimism aside, I think the Lakers' championship hopes for this season rely not on a big-for-big swap to get Dwight Howard, but on getting another dribble penetrator, the one thing Lamar provided that hasn't been replaced. Whether this player be a wing or guard is irrelevant (particularly considering the Lakers can still amnesty Walton if they must), but they must be able to create shots for themselves as well as others off the dribble - youth wouldn't hurt. If a point guard, our only truly glaring personnel issue is solved, however if this player is a wing, a solid defensive point guard would also be needed. Perhaps this is wishful thinking, however, and if a trade does come to fill such a need, most likely it'll be one nobody expected, thus it does no good to dwell over such things.

Ultimately, as currently constructed, the Lakers have made enough changes that their potential is recognisable, but they're still sticking to old ways, which may prove to be their doom. The Lakers cannot simply involve new players, they must adapt a new mindset: they're no longer the defending champs, complacency and lack of execution and effort are inexcusable, the team simply cannot afford losses like last night's this season, and they would do well to comprehend this completely and rapidly; they are no longer the best team in the League on paper and cannot simply out-talent all their opponents. There is no more safety net.

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