The Los Angeles Lakers, winners of the back-to-back NBA championships, head into the home stretch of their regular season bearing little resemblance to a team which should be threatening to launch the NBA's newest mini-dynasty. Multiple strings of bad defeats, a poor record vs elite competition, and a core that qualifies for the NBA's version of the AARP program are just a few of the signs that indicate the team's stretch of NBA domination might be coming to a close.
We know better than to believe in those signs 100%. Yes, this team is struggling. Yes, they do not have the "look" of a champion. But they pulled a variation of this same trick last season, and it did not stop them from winning four playoff series and capturing another Larry O'Brien trophy. Some of the problems facing this squad are real, but much as it was last year, some of the problems that face the Lakers are likely to go away when the games start to carry a bit more importance. Now's as good a time as any to sort through them and determine what's what.
Real Problem: Home Court Advantage (or lack thereof)
The Lakers will not have home court advantage throughout the playoffs. At this point, it looks like they might not have it in the second round. It's not an issue the team is incapable of coping with, as they have proven over the years to be quite capable of winning on the road at the highest level when they need to. But, while it may be misleading that they have not won a playoff series without home court advantage since the Shaq years, what that also means is that they haven't had to win a playoff series without home court advantage in both of their past championship campaigns. Now, if they have to do it twice, or even three times, that might just be asking too much. After all, based on how game 7 of last year's Finals played out, do you really think the result of the game would have been the same had it taken place at a New England address?
Fake Problem: The play of Pau Gasol
For 5 weeks, Pau Gasol looked like an MVP candidate. At the start of the season, he was clearly the Lakers' best player. Seemingly every shot he took found the net, every pass he made found a cutter, every carom available found his hands. Then, he disappeared off the face of the Laker earth. The shots stopped falling, the rebounds stopped coming, and the passes decreased in value whlie increasing in abundance. His aggressiveness, or lack thereof, recently caused Kobe Bryant to deem him "the White Swan". And yet, despite the "terrible" period outlasting the
"amazing" period by a fair margin, I think we mostly all agree that Pau Gasol will be there when he is needed.
With Pau, the mental aspect of his game is extremely important. He is not what you would call a strong man, and that lack of strength leaves him prone to bullying. However, as his play in the last two championship runs has indicated, the man is in possession of a resolve that is capable of compensating for his weakness. That steely resolve doesn't make an appearance all the time, even in the playoffs, but his play against Dwight Howard two years ago, and the Boston Celtics last year, should tell you all you need to know about how real of a problem Pau's play is. Besides, in the past couple weeks, Pau has already shown signs of picking things up.
Real Problem: Ron Artest
Ron Artest is a hot mess right now. He is an offensive liability of the sort that makes Derek Fisher look like the poster child for the Triangle role player. The shots he takes are often terrible looks, he doesn't hit the open shots the offense generates for him, and his main avenue of success seems to be layups for which he doesn't even jump. And none of this is the problem.
The problem is his defense. It is not there at the level it was last year, at the level it has been for most of his career. He is getting beat off the dribble more and more routinely, his man is more consistently having big scoring nights, and the worst indication of his reduced effectiveness is that the Lakers are statistically a better defensive team with Artest off the court. If you don't believe me, ask Phil Jackson, or, since you don't actually have access to Phil, interpret Phil Jackson's actions. PJ has Artest playing 28 minutes a game, nearly 6 less than he did last year, and a lot of those minutes being taken away are coming at the end of close games. There have been multiple times in which Artest has been conspicuously missing from the Lakers crunch time lineup. It is true that his physicality makes him the best candidate for defending important wings the Lakers will have to face en route to another title, guys like Paul Pierce and LeBron James. However, his play against everyone else confirms that, if anybody on this team has lost a step due to age, it's probably him.
I have heard in the comments that some people think it's foolish to worry about Ron Artest. They say his defensive importance will show itself in the playoffs, that he will pick things up when it matters. Personally, I think that's crap. Ron Artest is the one guy on this team who isn't supposed to have a switch. He doesn't flip the effort on or off. His play can be as dumb as a bag of rocks from time to time, he can make decisions that make you scratch your head, but effort has never been a major issue with the man. His passion for the game is supposed to be the redeeming quality that makes up for all the other problems.
Fake Problem: Team Defense
The Lakers have fallen off on defense quite significantly as compared to last season, giving up roughly 3 points more per 100 possessions than they did in 2010. This problem has been present all season long, and yet, it's not something that worries me too much. Outside of the previously mentioned factor that Artest is not the defensive force he was last season, the Lakers overall D is based on the concept that we have a bunch of tall trees guarding the paint, and that interior defense has been a big part of the problem so far this season. I fully expect the Lakers to improve defensively once the team as a whole engages, and we've seen some very strong defensive performances against good teams lately that helps to confirm my belief. Furthermore, if you were to chart the Lakers overall defensive performance vs. their overall offensive performance, you would see a strong inverse relationship between the two. Point being, the Lakers aren't defending very well because they are scoring very well, and therefore don't feel the need to defend. But, as their scoring has suffered, their defense has increased, an indication that they know D is in their back pocket when they want it.
Real Problem: 3 point shooting
The Lakers are actually much improved in the three point shooting category as compared to last season. In 09-10, the Lakers shot only 34.1% from deep, and they have improved to 35.5% this year. However, that gain is based entirely on a very hot shooting start to the season. In November, the Lakers averaged over 40% 3 pt shooting. Since then, they've posted monthly splits of 31% for December, 36% for January, and 29% for February. Three point shooting was a problem last year, and the guy who was brought in to help fix it is going to be addressed later.
It is at this point that I must point out that Real Problem is not equivalent to Guaranteed Problem. Last year, the Lakers sucked it up from deep all regular season, before displaying much improved shooting touch during the playoffs. As we said multple times last year, shooting performance is not usually controlled by effort. The Lakers can not become better shooters just because they want to. However, that does not mean the Lakers won't improve during the playoffs anyways. That is exactly what happened last year, and it can happen again.
Fake Problem: Derek Fisher
No explanation necessary.
Real Problem: Steve Blake's Passivity
I want Steve Blake to shoot the ball every time it hits his hands. Not because he's open every time, and not because he has shown to be a particularly good shooter so far this year (he's shooting the ball worse than he has in 4 years). No, I want him to shoot the ball every time he touches it to counteract the past few monhts in which HE NEVER SHOOTS THE DAMN BALL!! I get that the guy was in a slump for a long time, and I get that he may not know exactly where his shots are coming from in the offense, but the guy is getting paid four million dollars and he's attempting four shots a game. This is simply not good enough. He passes up open shots, and while his motivation may be admirable, or desirable in other players who don't have his (theoretical) shooting talent, he needs to be considerably more selfish and decisive in looking for his own shot. My guess is that if he were to shoot more aggressively and decisively, his performance would improve dramatically.
Fake Problem: Team Chemistry
Anybody trying to tell you that chemistry is a big problem with this team is barking up the wrong tree. This might not even be deemed a fake problem so much as a non-existent one. The team chemistry is fine. Kobe Bryant's a competitor the likes of which the world has rarely seen, and he's always going to be unpleasant to be around when his team isn't doing so great, but overall, these guys know each other pretty well, and their chemistry is just fine.
Real Problem: Lamar Odom
Hear me out on this. Lamar Odom has been the Lakers most consistent player this entire season. He is having the best year of his career, something which would bear out statistically if he weren't third on his team's big man depth chart. His aggressiveness has been tremendous, and he is shooting the ball better than ever. His play is one of the main reasons why the Lakers' "plight" isn't far worse than it actually is. And he still scares the crap out of me.
Because Lamar's history is one rife with inconsistency. He has always been this sometimes dominant, sometimes absent player, a guy who can go for 20 and 15 one night, and 3 and 4 the next. That has been his MO his entire career, a career that is over a decade old. And its hard for me to believe, no matter how much I might like to, that LO has just suddenly and finally changed his spots. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of reasons for Lamar to suddenly become a new player. Maybe the Team USA experience really did change his perspective. Maybe his maturity has finally kicked in. Maybe his marriage has changed him. Maybe the spotlight said marriage puts on him is motivation for him to play well at all times. These are all perfectly valid explanations for the transformation LO has undergone. But it is also extremely rare for a guy like LO to change at all, much less to do so this far into a successful, if still slightly disappointing based on his massive potential, NBA career. Let's just say that I'm extremely apprehensive, because I'm scared that the other shoe will drop.
There could be more, but those are the main issues facing the team right now. Some of them can be discounted, fixed with the push of an internal button. Others are real, honest to God issues that need to be worked on and hopefully fixed, or else they stand a chance to derail the Lakers title hopes.