Sports Opinion & Analysis

Why the Los Angeles Lakers Will (Possibly) Probably Be Alright (Eventually)

In NBA on December 6, 2012 at 10:48 am

By Jeff Weyant

Pretty much how the season has gone so far.

The Purple and Gold Army of Expensive and Supposedly Useful Basketball Players isn’t doing so hot. After running away from New Orleans last night, they’re 9-10. General consensus, though, says the season is over, they’re dead in the water, and one even hears whispers that they should just scoop ‘em up and forfeit the season outright to avoid any more massacres 4th-quarter collapses. Plus, you know things are bad when Kobe Bryant is communicating with teammates, and by “communicating with teammates” I mean “telling the media something inflammatory about a teammate so that the media will carry it back to that teammates which is the best Kobe Bryant can do because he’s incapable of having normal, human-type conversations with anybody except the Mechanized Kobe he hand-constructed in his probably large and spacious garage.”

All that said, the hopes of most of the denizens of La-La Land are not entirely cooked. After everyone else has put them through the meat grinder, here’s an attempt to reconstitute those smashed driblets of gooey red stuff into a delicious hamburger patty of success:

1. Point Guards Are Still a Thing in the NBA

The only way to tell when watching Lakers games that “point guard” is still a position in American professional basketball is by observing the other team’s offensive possessions. This is because second-year Laker Darius Morris is technically a point guard but he spends most of his time playing gritty defense and turning the ball over. Occasionally he has stretches where he looks like an NBA ball-handler (see: 4th-quarter against the Pelicans Hornets) but usually he’s making the kind of mistakes that second-year players make when they didn’t really play a lot during their rookie seasons. Chris Duhon, the other Laker with “PG” next to his name, has gotten some run with the ball in his hands but more often plays off-ball while Bryant initiates the offense.

The real point guards you’re used to hearing about are sidelined with injuries. Steve Blake played seven games before he tore holes in the side of his body. Steve Nash made it through a game and a half before he fractured everything in  his body able to be fractured. Before the bruises and tears and breaks, lineups featuring Blake and just about anybody else were destroying opposing teams. With Nash the jury is still out because he’s played so little. But history says that when he un-fractures various bones he’ll high-five everybody which will confer upon his teammates the magical power of Hitting Open Shots. Beyond the floor-spacing and passing marvels, the return of Nash and/or Blake will allow D’Antoni to use effective rotations for the first time since he took the job. In addition to whatever the two point guards can and will do with the starting lineup, in the 2nd and 3rd quarters you’ll see stuff like Nash/Duhon/Meeks/Jamison/Howard, which will incinerate opposing teams with impossible-to-defend pick-and-rolls leading to dunks and open threes. Which speaks to something Jalen Rose often says (and it’s about the only thing he says that makes any sense): when good point guards run the show, everybody’s happy. And when everybody’s happy, everybody plays better. So the injuries to Blake and Nash (and now Gasol) means that guys like Meeks, who needs a setup man, and Bryant, who needs to not play 40 minutes as a combo guard, are either being underutilized (Meeks) or overutilized (Bryant).

2. A Tale of Several Tendons

If you believe the Lakers organization, Pau Gasol has been playing with tendinitis in his knees. The subtext here is that this is why he’s looked ten years older from the preseason to the present. Which raises an interesting question: If the freakishly-talented Spaniard is fully healthy when training camp starts, do the Lakers start 1-4? Does Mike Brown lose his job? It’s fair to ask considering he’s one of the two big men in the league who’s capable of putting up a near-triple-double (something like 18-11-7) every night, the other one being his brother Marc. (Minor Tangent: Remember when everybody said that was the worst trade ever for Memphis, a chorus lead by Gregg Popovich, the man who watched from the sidelines two years ago when Marc Gasol destroyed his artfully-crafted defensive schemes with deft interior passing?) Even if the Gasol-Howard frontcourt tandem continues to struggle when Gasol’s tendons stop itis-ing, a savvy coach can pull the Spaniard at the five-minute mark of the first quarter and then play him the entire second quarter, giving him lots of time with the second unit. Lineups aside, however, the point is that when a healthy Pau Gasol plays, no matter who’s on the court with him, the Lakers tend to win. So his ill-health only adds to the Lakers’ mounting problems.

Also, pretty much how the season has gone so far.

3. Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes!

Mike Brown gets unceremoniously canned, Bernie Bickerstaff guides the wayward ship for a week, and the Lakers’ front office publicaly flirts with Phil Jackson (to the immense satisfaction of Lakers fans) before hiring Mike D’Antoni (to the immense dissatisfaction of Lakers fans). D’Antoni, meanwhile, tears out the Princeton Offense entirely and installs the Anti-Princeton Offense. One imagines all this has to have some sort of adverse effect on the team. Practices, schemes, and rotations are executed three different ways in less than a month. So if the Lakers spent most of the fourth quarter Sunday night against the Orlando Magic wondering why in the hell the help defense never came, it’s not entirely the fault of multiple front-office upheavals but they certainly played a part.

Remember how gruesome NBA games were last year after the lockout ended? “Unbearable” probably comes closest to accurately describing the pile of hairballs teams vomited onto the court that first month. Which is some strong anecdotal evidence that training camp matters. That practice matters. That, above all, consistency matters. If you play an instrument or a sport or you’re a painter or one of those people who operates a large machine in a dusty warehouse doing the work that keeps the country reasonably insolvent (as opposed to disastrously insolvent), then you know the benefits of consistency. Remember how awful you were the first time you drove a car? Remember how awesome you were three years later? It’s like that. Practice is brutal but once the system is perfected you start to see results.

4. Numerology

The Lakers have the 5th-best point differential in the West and the 7th-best overall (and it only got better after last night’s win over New Orleans). They’re also one of five teams in the top ten of both offensive (5th) and defensive (8th) efficiency (and for what it’s worth, those teams, the Spurs, Clippers, Thunder, and Knicks, are a combined 55-18). As others have pointed out the Lakers’ point differential before the Hornets win (+3.4), while not championship-caliber, was nothing to scoff at. It’s now up to +4.1. Last year that would have been 3rd in the West and 6th overall and as any sports stat-head will tell you, point differential is one of the best predictors of future outcomes. And while their current differential probably won’t make it to the trophy presentation (Conference Finalists tend to have a number higher than +6.0) it’s a sign that all is not yet lost. Those drubbings of Detroit and Dallas (and to some extent of New Orleans and Sacramento) weren’t outliers. They were forecasts of what’s to come if the Lakers ever figure out how to play basketball together.

Of course it’s not easy getting to Maximum Stage: Well-Oiled Juggernaut. It takes, as I preached earlier, practice. It takes consistency. It takes the silence of notoriously loud-mouthed superstars (looking at you, Mr. Bryant). I’m not saying it’s going to happen overnight or this year or even at all (too many variables, particularly injuries). But it could happen and if it does, oh boy. The way it shakes out could put Los Angeles at the bottom of the playoff seeding come April, riding a ten-game winning streak, and you’ll see San Antonio, Memphis, and Oklahoma City resting starters and punting games in hopes of getting out of the way.

But that’s about forty-seven What-Ifs that have to swing in the right direction. Which means come April the Lakers could be hanging onto the 8th seed, waiting patiently to get bounced out of the playoffs so they can go fishing and clear their heads. In any case, there are very few certainties in the NBA. One of them is that teams will struggle on the second night of back-to-backs. Another is that the season is very much a marathon. It goes on and on and on. In January, this moment in time, at 9-10, might be laughably far away. But it might also be laughably prophetic. We’ll know when we get there, right?

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