Before the season began, I was one of those Laker-fans who believed that this would be a very special season. As I went through their schedule predicting each game one-by-one, I concluded that they would go 70-12 while going 38-3 at home and 32-9 on the road. Before you skip the rest of my article and go straight to the comments to express how ridiculous that may sound, hear me out: last season, Lakers had the best home-record in the West (36-5) and second-best overall; on the road, the Lakers went 29-12 — good enough for best road-record in the NBA.
I watched every single game last season, and off the top of my head, I can think of about six games that were decided either at the buzzer or within the last few minutes of the game (for those who do not remember, @MIA, @ORL, @SA, vs. ORL, vs. CHA, and vs. PHI). Although 65-17 is a very impressive record, it could have been better. And yes, I acknowledge that this could happen this year as well as any – because there are always games that are that close — but that doesn’t take away the fact that it is still very possible for this squad, especially after the Artest-upgrade. In fact, some analysts, including Reggie Miller, believe that this squad can even surpass the ‘95-’96 Bulls as having the best regular-season record in NBA history.
HOWEVER, my prediction (and everybody else’s, for that matter) also included a disclaimer: barring significant injuries.
After a long summer of anticipation for the start of this season, fall finally came around and I was ecstatic to see Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum finally take the floor together. I could not wait to see how well they played with each other and how much they were going to dominate the other teams.
However, seemingly right on cue, Pau goes down with the hamstring injury, and the defending-champs are suddenly man-down.
My consolation for this was that we had big-man insurance in Lamar Odom, and, not to mention, the schedule started out pretty easy for the Lakers. Out of the first 21 games scheduled, three were on the road and there were only two back-to-back games. Also, as I had expected, Bynum came into training camp with his post-moves polished and he was ready to be an efficient contributor for the entirety of this season. So I figured Lakers should be able to manage without Pau to start the season.
And here we are, on 11/9/09 and seven games into the season, the Lakers have managed to attain a 6-1 record. Although the 6-1 is, for the most part, not exactly a dominant or smooth 6-1, it is still good enough for being tied for first-best record in the Western Conference.
During the course of these seven games, five things stood out to me as much as a Celtics fan would at the Staples Center…
1. Kobe Bryant’s Mindset -
I was intrigued to see how Kobe was going to play this season, especially since it was the first time he was defending a Championship since 2003. Without any extracurricular obligations this past summer — such as Team USA — he would be able to finally fully recuperate from the past couple of years of non-stop basketball. Personally, I thought that Kobe would have a better season statistically this year than last year; I also thought that he would win his second regular-season MVP award.
Through these first seven games, Kobe is averaging 33.6 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 2.6 apg, and 2.57 spg. Kobe’s offensive mindset has been reminiscent of the ’05-’06 and ’06-’07 Kobe, as he has scored 40+ points in three games already — a feat he did not accomplish until the epic 61-point-game of last season (beginning of February ’09). However, unlike the old Kobe where most of his points were scored by jump-shots or attacking the basket, he now is scoring mostly in the post.
After having worked with The Dream this past offseason, his post moves have been looking sharp and precise, and his footwork has improved as well (even though it was near-perfect already).
Of course, Kobe’s recent offensive explosion has come because the Lakers are short-handed. And with Bynum sustaining an injury in Houston, look for Kobe to continue the offensive onslaught until the Lakers starting five is back and relatively healthy. Once this happens, Kobe’s scoring will probably dip down to upper-20s or maybe around 30 ppg, but his assists-per-game should definitely rise again to the usual five or six-a-game.
2. Andrew Bynum’s Play -
As I hoped, Bynum worked hard in the offseason to regain fluidity in his offense, and it was very evident in the preseason and the first five games of the regular season that he played in. He’s averaging 20 ppg and 10.6 rpg, and in Pau’s absence, is proving to be a dominating force in the paint.
Unfortunately, he injured his elbow while getting fouled in the game against Houston, and he was noticeably in pain as he sunk the go-ahead free-throw that sealed the game. Once the Lakers have their starting-five back, Bynum’s ppg may drop a bit. Since the Lakers have so many offensive weapons, all we really need from Bynum is around 16-18 ppg and, more importantly, double digit rebounds.
If he continues to play at this level, he will undoubtedly be guaranteed a roster-spot on this season’s All-Star squad.
3. Ron Artest is Focused -
After all of the propaganda and skepticism that entailed with the signing of Ron Artest, he has proven that he does not want to be a distraction on this team. He has been a great complimentary player for the Lakers thus far, and he has played unselfishly while evaluating his strengths within the Triangle Offense. His averages of 12-5-5 are solid, and they should only go up from here as he becomes more comfortable in the offense. In fact, in the three games before the Hornet’s game, he averaged 18 ppg, 5 rpg, and 4.6 apg to go along with that clutch three he hit in Houston.
Although he only had five points in the game against the Hornets (while taking only six shots), he did grab eight rebounds and dish-out seven assists (for the second consecutive game). It seems that he’s growing more confident in this offense as each game goes by.
While some analysts have dubbed Artest as a catalyst to this team, I firmly believe that his desire to win a Championship will supersede anything else that may be detrimental to the team’s chemistry and/or success. Not to mention, his lock-down defense has already been very beneficial to this team, and that is something we can count on each and every night as long as he’s healthy (I’m anxious to see what he has in store for LeBron).
Overall, I have been very pleased with Ron’s play so far.
4. Bench Needs to Play Consistent -
This was the year that I believed the Lakers’ Bench Mob (not including Lamar Odom) would finally become consistent contributors and factors. As we all know, Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar did not produce adequately last season on a consistent basis, and now both are looking to replicate or improve on what they did in the ’07-’08 season. I expected both to come back after the offseason determined to be productive; I also expected Shannon Brown, Josh Powell, and Adam Morrison all to have improved as well.
So far this season, their play has been generally inconsistent and unproductive. Before Sunday’s game, only Shannon Brown and Josh Powell reached double-figures in scoring (one time each), and the bench even had a combined total of only six points in the game against the Thunder. Farmar, Walton, and D.J. Mbenga are all shooting under 43%, and Powell is leading the bench in scoring with only 6.1 ppg.
However, in the last two games, the bench did combine for 81 points. Although that production is exactly what the Lakers need, that was just two games. In a few games prior to the Memphis game, the bench had squandered leads that were established by the starters, thus making them catalysts rather than contributors in those games. On the flip-side and not by coincidence, in the last two productive games for the bench (vs. Grizzlies and Hornets), the Lakers destroyed their opposition by an average of 16 points.
If the bench can produce around 35-40 points per game on a consistent basis, then the Lakers can rest their starters more and they will be even more unstoppable.
Granted, so far, the bench has been missing an integral member of their squad and an instrumental piece to their production: Lamar Odom. When Odom can be utilized as a sixth man, he automatically effectuates points, rebounds, and assists to go along with some steals and blocks.
His versatility is irreplaceable, and to be able to bring him off the bench is an invaluable luxury for the Lakers, which brings me to my next point….
5. Straight-up, We Need Pau -
Pau Gasol is one of the intangibles that separate this team from being good and being great. A perfect secondary-option in the Triangle, Pau possesses All-Star caliber skills that work in conjunction with his high Basketball IQ. I could go on all day about Pau’s skills and attributes, but we all know what he can do and what he is about after watching him these past couple of years. But his value to this team does not stop with his ability to put stats on the board.
When Pau, Artest, and Bynum are all starting together, they complete the best front-court the NBA has to offer; Phil Jackson then can bring Odom off the bench to solidify one of the deepest, most talented, and most versatile bench-unit in the NBA.
All in all, the Lakers are looking pretty solid so far this season. We just have to hope that Gasol and Bynum make full-recoveries soon so that the Lakers can begin their dominance (I can’t wait until we play the Mavericks again). Until then, we know that Kobe will continue to aid the Lakers in weathering the storm and, hopefully, the bench starts playing more consistent.
Time will tell if these early injuries will have negative affects on the Lakers’ season and disrupt what could-have-been, but as long as they are the last one standing come mid-June, everything else can be easily forgotten.