Is it time to panic? No. Is it time for concern?
Having lost the first two games of the season, the new-look Lakers have certainly struggled to get off the ground. The last tally in the Lakers’ wins column came over 6 months ago back in the playoffs on May 18th.
Beyond the Lakers’ duly noted difficulties with the Princeton offense, slow defensive rotations, and a multitude of turnovers, they have also struggled to find an identity. A major issue has been their opponents dictating the Lakers’ play on both ends of the floor.
In both the Dallas game as well as the Portland game, their opponents have controlled the tempo from the tip. The Lakers are simply getting out-worked. Not only are they getting out-worked, but they are also failing to match the intensity and energy of the opposition. Allowing their opponent to control the tempo in this manner will never yield positive results.
Sure, the turnover numbers are bad, the points against are high, but these are certain things that can be improved with more time on the floor together. The real concern for the Lakers is their play style. For much of the past two games, they have essentially been playing on their heels. Direct evidence of this came on one play against Portland when Pau Gasol grabbed a defensive rebound but then was stripped of the ball by JJ Hickson, who immediately converted a three-point play for the Blazers. These types of mental lapses, along with the following shortcomings, are unacceptable for a championship-aspiring team.
Offensive aggression and execution:
Another example of not dictating the tempo, especially on the offensive end, is the poor play of the second unit. On numerous occasions, the Lakers’ bench players have started the offense around the 28-foot mark (the hash mark on the sidelines). Starting any offense that far from the basket, regardless of whether it’s the Princeton or not, makes it difficult to play effectively.
As a result of this pressure, the ball movement of the bench unit has been choppy. Forced to set up this far from the hoop is counter productive because it widens passing lanes and pulls the Laker big men further away from the paint. Even as far back as the preseason, opponents have come to realize that putting pressure on the Lakers’ ball-handling guards is successful because it makes them uncomfortable and leads to turnovers.
For the Lakers, the pressure they are facing has led to wasted possessions and poor clock management. Some of the offensive sets do not even begin until around 10 seconds left on the shot clock. To counteract this pressure, the Lakers’ backup guards, and even Steve Nash at times, need to be more assertive and attack the pressure instead of backing away from it and throwing errant passes. When opponents apply pressure in this manner, the Lakers offense must see it as an opportunity, since the back line defenders will then be vulnerable.
All of the Lakers, not just the point guards, must be more aggressive and more physical on both ends. Allowing the opposition to push first as the aggressor gives their opponents confidence and makes them comfortable. The physicality of the Lakers needs to improve or else they will continue to be bullied around the perimeter, which has evidently led to many of their turnovers. Allowing this physical play to affect them both physically and emotionally (Kobe Bryant picked up his first technical foul in the loss against Portland) will spell trouble down the road, especially if the referees choose to swallow their whistles.
On the defensive end, the Lakers again lack an identity. Unimpeded drives into the lane and wide open three pointers by opposing guards are unacceptable, especially for a team built around the NBA’s three-time defensive player of the year, Dwight Howard. Granted, the Lakers are slower and older than most teams these days, but not one Laker has yet to step up into another player’s jersey and disrupt their rhythm.
Against the Blazers, Nicolas Batum (26 points on 9/16 shooting) was able to move comfortably around the court without anyone bumping or forcing him a certain way. Metta World Peace, Howard and Bryant must increase their intensity and set a tone defensively to be successful as a unit. Once the Lakers’ defensive leaders start playing with a chip on their shoulders, their teammates will follow their lead.
The Dwight Howard effect:
While Howard had a decent first game and a solid second game, he needs to dominate much more in the post. This dominance will most likely come as he improves his game shape. At the moment, however, he needs to establish himself deeper in the post. There are very few defenders in the NBA who can stop Howard one-on-one in the post and by establishing himself deeper in the paint, especially in early offense opportunities, it will put more pressure on the opponent’s weak side defense. When the weak side defender releases and rotates over to help, guys like Gasol and World Peace will find open jump shots.
Hopefully in a few months though, this will all be forgotten and the Lakers will be clicking on all cylinders. As long as the Lakers start coming out aggressive, looking to demoralize their opponents rather than allowing them to be comfortable, they will be fine. The Lakers still have a steep learning curve ahead but they certainly have the talent to do it. As long as their effort and sense of urgency improves by playoff time, they will start to live up to their lofty expectations.
In the meantime, one thing we know for sure: Kobe will never lose confidence…