Training camp is just about finished and we're mere days away from opening tip-off. We've spent weeks here on Silver Screen & Roll prepping for the 2013-2014 season, examining every angle of these newly born and freshly worn Los Angeles Lakers...and it doesn't look pretty.
There's been a ton of negativity from all sides in regards to the team's futile looking defense, aging core and highly scrutinized coach, some of which is richly deserved and some of which is grotesque overreaction. But let's take a turn away from Frowntown into Positivityville.
With nearly four weeks of training camp in the books, what's the most encouraging sign you've taken away from the Lakers preseason?
With a roster filled with players of average talent at best, the most positive sign in this year's training camp has been the effort on the defensive end. We knew coming into the season that the offense would be dictated by pace and ball movement; defensively, however, there was not a clue in the world what this team would be capable of. So far though, the defense has been much less porous than I had expected it to be a month ago. Each five-man unit on the floor has been fairly solid when it comes to rotating properly and limiting easy buckets around the paint.
In the game vs the Utah Jazz (Oct. 22, 108-94 win), there was a play in the first half that almost made me forget how worried I've been for Nick Young on defense. I don't remember exactly which of the Jazz players were involved in the play, but it involved the PG and C in for them at the time. After breaking down the defense, the guard got the ball to the big man in the paint for what seemed like an easy lay-up. Young, who was on the left wing while the ball was initially on the right wing, rotated remarkably well down to the paint to foul the big man. The Jazz were forced to earn the two points at the free-throw line. Last year, these types of plays more often than not resulted in a missed rotation followed by two or three Lakers complaining immediately about said rotation. For us fans, it became a collective shoulder shrug by mid-season; this season, however, there is already more discipline in the individual roles on defense.
What clearly still needs improvement is the team's transition defense. Even with younger, more athletic players on the roster, other teams get up and down the floor way too easily. I'm counting on the transition D improving as the season moves forward; there seems to be a sense of comradery amongst the players already, and if ball movement becomes contagious, the effort on defense will trend upwards.
When the expectations are low, the smallest bit of success will excite a fan base. Maybe that's exactly what's happening here; either way, the roster's intention of not completely folding on defense has been encouraging.
The Great Mambino
Though I've been generally bullish on the Lakers prospects for the upcoming season, I've been emboldened by the general energy on the court, but specifically the play of two LA basketball veterans--two-time NBA Champion Jordan Farmar and former Clipper Chris Kaman.
Though hounded by a calf injury throughout camp, Farmar has shown more than just flashes of what made him a quality NBA guard; it's been a full on lightning storm. In just 25 minutes in three preseason contests, Jordan has scored an average of 13.6 points with a combined 13 assists. He's shown an ability to get to the rack (18 FTA), as well as a solid looking stroke from long that made him into a real three-point threat in his two years with the Nets. With Kobe's rehab stalling a bit (and his return date still unknown), as well as the 30-somethings riding alongside him in the backcourt, Farmar's preseason proficiency is a gigantic plus for the Lakers.
The second half of this equation is Kaman, who's been most impressive playing alongside Pau Gasol. The Kaveman's midrange shooting has been a thing of beauty, as he cannily shakes defenders and gets loose for 10-footers while Gasol is ready to operate down low. Their chemistry has been tangible, which is something one could rarely say about the 2012-2013 Lakers front court.
Their energy has been apparent as they dig into prominent roles on this Lakers team, an extension of an effort I've witnessed from the entire squad at large. Whether it's Mike D'Antoni given an entire training camp to himself, or a bunch of players in contract years, the team has been playing extremely hard thus far. While they might not have the right personnel to defend on a nightly basis, I get the feeling that they will at least work hard night after night.
There are two encouraging signs that I'll take solace in through 82 games and what would be a pretty crazy playoff run if they flip the script on the black cloud over my head.
First, Jordan Farmar. I was excited when his name came up when free agency officially began and his name was one of the first to trickle down as a possible new Laker. I was excited when it finally became official down the road a bit and the Lakers worked out his buyout overseas. I was excited when I took some time to look over his film when he was last in the NBA and saw promising signs pointing to a great fit under Mike D'Antoni. Now, I'm excited because we've seen it in action. It's enjoyable watching an athletic point guard attack the rim and look for his own shot. It's great seeing him blow by his defender (poor Scott Machado) and draw fouls. I'll enjoy watching Farmar continue to grow into his role, which he should get plenty time to do with the lingering old man-itis of Steve Nash.
Second, offensive execution. D'Antoni isn't playing go-fish with the offensive sets he's been running through preseason. There's some great, creative sets being used that will highlight the skillsets of players. And, as C.A. mentioned yesterday in his "catch the '08 magic" article, the ball is moving. Or, as the man said himself, "ball finds energy."
I may be down on the team's championship chances, but I'll enjoy the ride for whatever it ends up being.
For the second straight week, I find myself hoisted by the petard of previous musings. The most encouraging sign I've taken away from preseason is the potential for team ball movement, reminiscent of the incredibly fun 2008 team, an ode to which I penned just yesterday.
However, this being a question of the more open-ended variety, I will not phone in a response for the second straight week, but press on to another encouraging sign from the preseason ... Shawne Williams. A month and a half ago when Williams was first signed, there was no guarantee he would even make the team. Now, after a strong preseason in which he's shown an ability to stretch the floor and play passable defense at the 4, there is some talk that Mike D'Antoni might even consider starting him over Jordan Hill. I have no idea whether it would be good for the team for Williams to start over Hill (though it would provide Jordan further opportunity to participate in the "Two Jordans" pick and roll game with Jordan Farmar off the bench ... AND YOU CAN'T STOP TWO JORDANS!!), but just that Williams has advanced so far into the minutes conversation for this team is definitely an encouraging sign and an indication that the Lakers really did unearth quite a few possible gems off the scrap heap in filling out their roster this season.
The play of Xavier Henry. One could point to Jordan Farmar's fit in this system or the good offensive flow that a training camp under Mike D'Antoni's auspices seems to have engendered, but those are things that we expected to come about in the offseason. While they are things that fans should be more encouraged about from an absolute standpoint insofar as the impact on the team this season, the make or break factor is going to be how much the Lakers can extract from the lottery busts and other discarded journeymen that were the main focus of the offseason. At the time Henry was acquired, he was dismissed as just another reclamation project that the Lakers were picking up on the cheap; in fact, it wasn't even a sure thing that he was going to make it through training camp. Henry had previously shown very little of the talent that got him selected in the lottery after a solid freshman year at Kansas, where he was an elite shooter with an NBA body that seemed destined for at least role player status. In the past three years, the only inkling of optimism that one has garnered from Henry's play is his proclivity for getting to the line -- something undermined by his poor free throw shooting -- and not much else.
And to be sure, that's still mostly what we're drawing optimism from, only Henry has seemingly gotten much better at honing that talent into a tangible NBA skill. He attacks the rim like a battering ram, hunting contact and knowing that his strong frame will allow him to finish through most contact. His handle is a bit shaky, but he has been decent at turning the corner on the pick-and-roll and taking a straight line to the rim, a valuable skill in an offense that features the high pick-and-roll as a central aspect. Henry has complemented this with flashes of his collegiate shooting ability, as displayed in the hard dribbles he takes before going up from midrange and a respectable percentage from three, albeit in a very limited sample size. On the other end, Henry is hardly a world-beater, although given the athleticism or lack thereof of the perimeter defenders the Lakers have trotted out in recent years, he looks pretty serviceable. Now, all of this could be preseason optimism and a bit of fourth quarter stat padding, but for the moment, Henry has not only earned his way onto the roster but into a rotation spot on the wing. There's even a fair argument he should displace everyone's favorite slasher, ball-handler, and transition beast Jodie Meeks for minutes.
Ultimately, this was what the Lakers were hunting for when they went bargain hunting in the offseason after the Chris Kaman signing. One could say that it's not even really about Henry specifically. Wesley Johnson would be the player discussed here if he had shown half of the performance he put up against Utah all preseason. The important thing is that the Lakers are managing to wring results out of the players they acquired for their youth, talent, and athleticism, even if their past history did not support a kind projection for their future play. If you wanted to see a glimpse of what the front office envisioned if everyone panned out properly, look at the unit that got the Lakers back into the game against Utah: Jordan Farmar, Xavier Henry, Nick Young, Wesley Johnson, and Jordan Hill. There probably hasn't been a lineup in the past five years that has resembled the bench mob from 2008 more closely than these guys, as seen when they turned nearly every mistake Utah made offensively -- and although we can point to the fact it's preseason for some of the offensive issues on their part, the fact that these five were flying around on defense did have an impact -- into a transition bucket, did damage off the high pick-and-roll, and completely changed the tempo of the game.
As mentioned, this is perhaps diminishing Henry's singular impact a bit within the larger context of the Lakers roster building, but until Johnson shows that last game wasn't a fluke, Henry is the poster child for the Lakers' offseason strategy possibly looking much better than we thought a few weeks ago. To be sure, the Lakers are so incredibly shallow on the wing that Henry is a godsend in that regard; the clearest need in the offseason was the three spot and Kobe Bryant's absence accentuates the lack of wing production in general. Henry panning out may be enough for the Lakers to have a functioning rotation when Kobe comes back, as D'Antoni's preference for two point guard lineups and the glut in the frontcourt have structured the rotation in such a way that they really only needed one more wing to patch everything up. Still, what will get the Lakers over the hump and into some state of relevance is everyone else shedding the bust label, and although that's still a pretty distant hope, it is one far closer to realization than it was at the start of training camp.