Losing against Miami on the road? Alright. The next day in Orlando on a back-to-back? Explainable. At home after a day of rest and starting off with a 27-14 first quarter lead against the Pacers? Yikes. The loss was disturbing not only for the continued lack of offensive flow outside of certain stretches, but the rather alarming lack of defensive intensity, given that it is supposed to be a hallmark of a Mike Brown-led team. The Pacers shot 55.6% from behind the arc with nary a defender near them in most cases, and to compound these problems, Roy Hibbert outplayed Andrew Bynum in the paint and scored on nice hook after hook on the block. Fatigue, obviously, is a culprit in some of these problems -- the team finally had its first full contact practice since training camp today, a testament to how unforgiving the schedule has been for the Lakers thus far -- and we still have a long while for the ship to be turned around, but the Lakers have certainly been digging quite a hole for themselves. For that reason, picking positive contributors was remarkably difficult this time around -- in an atmosphere growing more and more ripe with disappointment, even modest improvement looks appealing.
- Metta World Peace -- He finally broke out of his funk, shooting better than 50% for the first time in nearly a month against the team whose championship aspirations he brutally crushed in 2004. How did he do it? He finally decided that his painfully futile attempt to shoot jumpers from the perimeter wasn't working and went back down into the post to bully smaller players, just as he did to start the season. It still boggles the mind that a career 34.2% three-point shooter could decline so dramatically from behind the arc, and one would think that he would improve at some juncture, but at least for this game, MWP embraced his limitations and worked to his strengths, his one attempt and make from behind the line notwithstanding. The more punishing the Laker attack is against the interior is, the better, and he adds a well-needed post presence to an otherwise painfully moribund bench unit. Like Derek Fisher, this could be his one good game for the next few weeks, but at least for today, we extend our kudos to MWP.
- Kobe Bryant -- I am beginning to sense that his inclusion in these columns will be about as regular as him being stuck into wondah's Player of the Week ones, as the only player with any remote sense of continuing excellence this season has been Kobe. With the offense humming through Gasol against Indiana, Kobe maximized this advantage by going off the ball on cuts through the lane, as he did against Orlando, and needless to say, Kobe Bryant in motion demands attention from opposing defenses and open opportunities for the rest of the players on the floor. That the rest of the perimeter players on the team couldn't hit the side of a barn is another story entirely, but between his greater use of the pick-and-roll as a means to create for himself and others and his work off curls, he is adapting, as the Kobe System dictates, to the circumstances around him.
- Darius Morris -- This might be faint praise, given that the improvement went from "hard on the eyes" to "somewhat tolerable," but Morris put in a better performance against Indy, choosing his spots better and knowing where and how to attack the defense. He still needs to be far less hesitant about going up for a shot in the lane or off a kickout to the perimeter, as it will eventually open up space for him in the passing lanes to other players or for himself to get to the rim, but that will come eventually. His ability to get through screens remains pretty poor, especially insofar as it stands out against his otherwise fairly decent man-to-man defense. For a guy who really should be getting D-League reps right now and have the freedom to make mistakes, he's getting there.
- Honorable mention goes to Pau Gasol's superb passing, including the insane no-look touch pass to Bynum, who criminally didn't convert it. That he was so effective at distributing from the high post makes it interesting that he wants more touches on the low block -- especially given that his array of hook shots have been absent from his arsenal for about a year now -- but he could see it as a way to get him into a better rhythm creating for himself. Moreover, one of the founding principles of the Duncan/Robinson San Antonio offense was that both of the bigs were interchangeable: either Duncan or Robinson could score on the block, step out to 15 feet to nail a jumper, and put pressure on the defense in both places. Bynum doesn't have the same range as Pau, the number of reports in training camp concerning Bynum's new midrange jumper aside, but if he can get comfortable there as he is in the low block, it would definitely aid the overall offensive flow.
- Andrew Bynum -- That transition might be a bit steep for Bynum though, given that he has been rather quiet since he exploded onto the scene with a number of 20/10 games. He takes way too much time to get into his moves on offense, his hook shots don't have the same fluidity as they had to start the year, and he doesn't look as if he's trying as hard for good post position. His struggles with double teams are still a problem, and he needs to utilize the ability to pass out, gain more position, and re-post much more than he is currently doing. On defense, he especially looks like a victim of fatigue, as his rebounding is down as was his overall effort, as Roy Hibbert had no difficulty in securing deep post position and scoring effortlessly over him time and time again. Hopefully the time off allows him to bring more of a bounce in his step, or that starting gig at the All-Star game in Orlando will begin to look somewhat unearned. A final notable tidbit is that alone among the Laker bigs, Bynum seems to have been given the green light by Mike Brown to stay near the free throw line against opposing pick-and-rolls as he did last year when Chuck Person redesigned the Laker defense mid-season. Whether it is a recognition of Bynum's difficulty in recovering from the perimeter or an acknowledgment of how central he is to guarding the paint, it probably is overall a fairly astute decision by Mike Brown and co.
- Defensive intensity -- Even with Hibbert scoring over Bynum, there was no excuse to let a team like Indiana fire away uncontested from the perimeter time and time again, as it ultimately stymied any attempts the Lakers made to create separation after the first quarter. The guards' self-perceived need to help on each and every post-up or penetration was a problem that extended to last season, and it ultimately lost the Lakers the game. Whether it is Kobe Bryant cheating off his man per usual, Derek Fisher believing that bringing a post double team every single freaking time is smart basketball, or similar, it's a maddening habit of a bunch of supposed veteran players. Overall, however, the Lakers lacked a sense of fire at the defensive end that locked down opponents earlier in the season, and while we can again look to fatigue, it certainly wasn't encouraging to see their performance against Indy.
- Offensive flow -- Even with more ball movement and man movement than ever, the offense is still prone into falling into complete stagnation. Yes, the Pacers flooded the lane to deny Kobe his spots and make life difficult on the Lakers post players because hitting perimeter shots was downright impossible, but the lack of decisiveness on the part of the Lakers in running their offense continues to plague them. Whether it is the ball sticking in Kobe Bryant's hands as it is wont to do, or Pau Gasol anxiously waiting for someone to move so he can give them the ball from the high post -- although to be fair, this happened far less than in previous games and it mostly was the Lakers' cutters continuing to miss easy bunnies near the rim -- it still doesn't look like all the Lakers' players are on the same page. Per above, the lack of shooting and spacing is obviously a big culprit, as is the fact that until today, the Lakers didn't have a real contact practice to actually go over their sets, but you expect more from a team with three elite offensive options, and save for Kobe, they aren't producing as they should.
- (Dis)honorable mention goes to Jason Kapono. On a team with a massive shooting problem, for the best career shooter to be borderline pathetic is unacceptable. He can't defend, is poor at passing, doesn't dribble well, but has a beautiful stroke that simply isn't producing three points for his own team. It's absolutely inexplicable. Moreover, the fact that he can't play sustained minutes is a contributing factor to Kobe being forced to stay on the court more often since Kapono can't be considered a real backup. Yours truly suggested the other night cutting Kapono and signing Elijah Millsap, who was in the Lakers' training camp and is dominating the D-League to the tune of 21.9 points per game on 48% shooting and best of all, 43.2% from downtown. Add in the seven rebounds per game he averages and his ox strong 6'6'', 215 pound frame, and you have to wonder whether he isn't a better option than Kapono. He certainly couldn't be worse.