Are the real Los Angeles Lakers finally here? Well, they might just be.
Despite a slow start, with losses to Chicago and Memphis, the Lakers finished the week winning two straight games against Utah and Oklahoma City, both in promising fashion.
‘Shooting guard-turned-point guard’ Kobe Bryant led the Lakers to two straight wins over legitimate Western Conference playoff teams. Bryant’s back-to-back games of 14 assists were key in sparking the Lakers’ success and salvaging a 2-2 record for the week.
With Bryant now assuming a facilitator role within the Lakers’ offense, and Dwight Howard taking on more responsibility on the defensive end, the Lakers seem to have found a winning combination as a team. The Lakers remain 6 games under .500 at 19-25, but they may finally be on the road to recovery.
Take a look back at the changes in the Lakers’ stock values and the impact the players should have going forward:
Kobe Bryant (SG / PG) : Bryant may have found his all-important niche on this Lakers team. After continuing to struggle against Chicago and Memphis, Bryant significantly changed his plan of attack.
Against Utah and Oklahoma City, Bryant came up only one rebound short of a triple-double, in both games. Bryant registered 14 points, 14 assists, 9 rebounds in the Lakers’ definitive 102-84 win over the Utah Jazz. Bryant then followed up that near triple-double performance with yet another near triple-double vs. Oklahoma City.
Bryant again registered 14 assists, along with 21 points and 9 rebounds, in the Lakers’ 105-96 win over the Thunder for arguably the Lakers’ best win of the season. Bryant also had a hand in limiting opposing All-Star PG Russell Westbrook to 17 points on just 6-22 shooting from the field.
Despite the Lakers’ miserable start to the season, and the mistake of hiring head coach Mike D’Antoni, it seems that the Lakers’ captain, Kobe Bryant, has figured things out in Laker Land. The Lakers have reportedly scrapped D’Antoni’s offense and are now playing with more freedom, and more flow, on both ends of the floor. The Lakers’ chemistry and communication have also seemed to improve on a collective basis.
Bryant’s new role in the Lakers’ offense has been that of a full-time facilitator; he is now facilitating in a way that gets all of his teammates going early and significantly improves the overall ball movement. Apparently, Bryant is “happy as hell” in the new role as the Lakers’ playmaker because he values winning over scoring.
Bryant’s playmaking has also led to a more balanced scoring distribution for the Lakers’ offense. In the Lakers’ win over the Thunder, for instance, six different players scored in double figures.
The team’s improved ball movement has led to a higher offensive efficiency, as seen by the Lakers’ back-to-back 100+ point games. The improved efficiency, in less offensive possessions, has also translated to better team defense. Opposing teams in the past two games have had less transition opportunities and Bryant has been able to exert more energy on the defensive end, mainly as a result of his reduced scoring role on offense.
Bryant has also learned that slowing down the offense, while utilizing all of the Lakers’ strengths (especially inside), and capitalizing more on easy offensive opportunities, are the main keys to the Lakers’ success going forward.
Bryant’s facilitation and rededication to team-basketball have also energized his teammates. When players, especially those that are used to being ‘go-to scorers’ for their careers, receive more consistent touches on the offensive end, it translates to a more engaged team on the defensive end.
Bryant, along with Dwight Howard and Metta World Peace, have collectively improved the Lakers’ defense, as evident by the 84 points given up to Utah and the 96 points allowed to Oklahoma City. With those three defenders leading the defense, the Lakers’ communication and rotations have significantly improved on that end.
The primary reason for the Lakers’ recent turnaround has been Bryant’s willingness to become an effective facilitator for the team. The change, or scrapping, of the Lakers offense, along with Bryant’s realization that his reduced scoring role leads to a more successful team, have set the standard for the Lakers. The new offense in which everyone “eats more often” seems to be a rallying point for the team and has significantly increased their chemistry on the court.
Players now seem to actually “buy-in” to team concepts and enjoy playing in this new, free system. Bryant’s reduced role also looks to be contagious, as his teammates, especially Pau Gasol and Howard, have accepted and thrived in the Lakers’ new “team-first” mantra.
Expect the Lakers to continue their success and salvage this season as long as Bryant continues to lead the offensive attack through his superb facilitation on the offensive end.
Pau Gasol (C / PF) : Gasol is now the Lakers’ permanent sixth man and has been doing a solid job in that role. Despite scoffing at the idea initially, Gasol began cherishing the sixth man role last week. Gasol remains unhappy with his bench role, but is content enough to accept it for the remainder of the season and not request a trade.
Moving Gasol to the bench as the primary backup center to Howard has created balance between the starters and reserves. With Gasol on the bench, Earl Clark has added athleticism and versatility to the starting lineup, along with allowing Howard to get going inside, early and often.
Once Gasol enters the game, usually for Howard, he has continued the Lakers’ dominance inside and there is little drop-off in production from Howard to Gasol.
Most importantly, Gasol is now able to punish the opposing team’s second unit in his natural center position. This was certainly evident in the Lakers’ two wins where he posted 15 points and 7 rebounds vs. Utah then 16 points and 4 rebounds vs. OKC. Gasol’s contributions were the main reason the Lakers were able to outscore both benches of the Jazz and Thunder.
If Gasol continues to play big minutes off the bench, and finish games at the PF position effectively alongside Howard, the Lakers will be a much stronger team, top to bottom.
Earl Clark (PF) : The Lakers have officially found another “diamond in the rough” in Earl Clark. Clark’s continued emergence has been an important part of this recent turnaround. His versatility at the power forward position, starting alongside Howard, has given the Lakers a more balanced attack on both ends of the floor.
Clark has cooled off offensively of late, but his intangible contributions such as effort, energy and athleticism have been there consistently. Clark also adds a different element defensively as he can guard multiple positions on that end.
Clarks’ ability to defend multiple positions helps with rotations and allows the Lakers to switch matchups more often. With Jordan Hill out for the season, Clark has also added much-needed frontcourt depth that will pay dividends in keeping Howard and Gasol fresh.
Clark’s ability as an offensive “slasher” should also not go unnoticed either, especially with Bryant’s dedication to facilitating. Clark’s speed and superior athleticism have also contributed to a faster pace for the Lakers and led to more fast break opportunities from the start of games.
Over the Lakers’ past two wins, Clark has only averaged 9 points and 5 rebounds, but his energy and defensive presence have helped the Lakers start games quickly. Expect Clark to produce even more with Bryant continuing to facilitate effectively, and as Clark becomes more comfortable in his starting role.
Metta World Peace (SF / PF) : Like many of the Lakers, World Peace has also benefited from Bryant’s control of the offense. World Peace has gotten many easy looks from three-point range, which has translated to a higher shooting percentage.
World Peace consequently made five three-pointers and poured in 17 points vs. Utah. He then followed that up by making three three-pointers and 15 points with 10 rebounds against Oklahoma City.
With World Peace receiving easier scoring opportunities on offense, he has been able to rededicate himself more on the defensive end. World Peace, along with Howard, has started to lead the Lakers’ defense on the perimeter. This was clearly evident by Kevin Durant’s 10-26 shooting performance against World Peace’s tenacious defense.
If Bryant keeps up his stellar play and the Lakers’ ball movement continues to flow, World Peace should shoot the ball even more efficiently going forward. His efficient shooting and easier opportunities should also translate into increased energy on the defensive end. Hopefully, if the recent trend continues, World Peace can return to being a “lockdown defender” once again.
Steve Nash (PG / SG) : Steve Nash as a shooting guard? Well, with Bryant’s focus on facilitating the offense, Nash has effectively become a ‘combo’ point/shooting guard. Bryant is now handling the ball more than Nash is, which makes Nash much more of a scoring threat.
Nash has adjusted well to Bryant, however. Nash was the recipient of multiple Bryant assists in the past two games, which contributed to his back-to-back 15 and 17 points performances.
Regulating Nash to more of a spot-up shooter on offense certainly restricts his biggest strength as a facilitating point guard, but it is not a bad idea when Nash is a five-time member of the 40 / 50 / 90 club*.
Since the Lakers are no longer running D’Antoni’s offense, Nash’s importance as the offensive captain is reduced. Nash can essentially become the Lakers’ second point guard when Bryant goes to the bench and continue effectively executing Bryant’s plan of attack. Nash should continue to be an effective offensive weapon for the Lakers, especially as a shooter and scorer, but his role as the primary ball-handler seems to have permanently changed.
* The ’40 / 50 / 90’ club includes players who shoot at least 40% from three-point range, 50% from the field and 90% from the free throw line. Nash has accomplished that feat five times in his career.
Dwight Howard (C) : Along with Bryant, Howard finally seems to “get it”. Howard now looks like he understands that he will not always be the first option offensively. Howard also seems to understand he will not always get the ball where he wants it, when he wants it.
This realization and acceptance has been a major key to the Lakers’ recent surge. Howard now seems content on winning, rather than getting 15+ shot attempts per game.
Howard has also started to apply himself more on the defensive end by contesting shots more consistently. He has even started to communicate and rotate more often and more effectively as the last line of defense.
Howard had a disappointing offensive game against Oklahoma City, as he was in foul trouble and only scored 8 points on 3-7 shooting, but he did not allow those struggles to impact his defensive presence. Despite his struggles, Howard remained upbeat and made his presence felt on the defensive end for the entire 29 minutes he played.
Howard was recently quoted as saying that he and Bryant are “two big dogs and [they] bump heads.” Howard continued by explaining that, “Instead of bumping heads, [they] can both do things to lead this team.”
Those things involve Bryant controlling the offense and Howard leading the defense. If Howard remains focused on leading the Lakers’ team defense and returns to being a defensive enforcer, he could return to that three-time Defensive Player of the Year he was in Orlando.
Now, if that actually happens, it could spell real trouble for the rest of the league.
Antawn Jamison (PF) : Gasol’s demotion to the bench has had an indirect effect on the play of Antawn Jamison. With Gasol coming off the bench, Jamison now has an effective passing big man that can find him cutting or spotting up for threes.
Jamison certainly has struggled with consistency this season for the Lakers off the bench. If his 4-6 for 12 points in 14 minutes performance vs. the Thunder is any indication, he can still be a potent player off the bench for Los Angeles.
Bryant’s focus on facilitating and Gasol’s presence inside will significantly help Jamison’s stock going forward. If Gasol, Jamison and Meeks can find some consistency between each other, it could make the Lakers’ bench a strength, where it has been a weakness for so many years.
Jodie Meeks (SG) : Meeks continued to receive sporadic playing time as the Lakers’ “pure shooter” this past week. Meeks has played solid the past two games, however, filling in for Bryant when he went to the bench.
Meeks scored 8 points on 3-6 shooting against the Jazz and scored 5 points on 2-3 shooting against the Thunder. Not only was his timely offensive production a spark off the bench, but also his energy on the defensive end, were keys in the Lakers’ victories.
If Meeks returns to being a consistent three-point threat, while playing solid defense, he can become a legitimate backup to Kobe Bryant.
Chris Duhon (PG) : Duhon continues to do little to help the Lakers’ cause. As the Lakers primary backup point guard, he brings little scoring or facilitating production to the table.
Hopefully with Steve Blake returning from injury this Tuesday, and Bryant taking on more of the point guard duties, Duhon will be relegated to the end of the bench.
Darius Morris (PG) : The fluctuation of minutes for Morris and Meeks continued this week. Before this week, Morris was getting more minutes than Meeks off the bench as the primary backup shooting guard.
Now, Morris has barely seen the court in the past four games. If Meeks becomes a consistent backup to Bryant, Morris could be glued to the bench, yet again.
Morris’s athleticism and up-tempo style of play can be advantageous for the Lakers, but it seems D’Antoni will roll with Meeks over Morris this upcoming week.
Robert Sacre (C) : As Gasol settles into his sixth man role as the Lakers’ backup center, Robert Sacre has resumed his role as an ‘emergency big man.’
Barring any type of injury to the Lakers’ frontline or major foul trouble, Sacre will continue his “Sacre-dance” on the bench.
Steve Blake (PG) : Blake has finally been medically cleared to return to the court and will make his return to the lineup this Tuesday vs. New Orleans. Blake has not fully healed from his groin injury, which stemmed from the lower abdominal strain back in November, but he will attempt to play through it for the time being.
Coach D’Antoni recently expressed his excitement for Blake’s return at practice:
Expect to see Blake come off the bench against the Hornets (or Pelicans) on Tuesday night in limited minutes.
Notes: Jordan Hill had successful hip surgery this past week on his injured left hip. The surgery included the removal of loose fragments, repair of a torn labrum and a microfracture procedure to repair damaged cartilage. Hill is expected to be out approximately six months. Also, reserve SF Devin Ebanks continues his DNP-CD streak.
Stay tuned for next weeks’ Lakers Stock Watch as the Lakers begin their ‘Grammy Trip’ battling New Orleans, Phoenix, Minnesota and Detroit over the next week.