Kamenetzky on the Lakers’ recent struggles

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Sad Kobe.

Brian Kamenetzky, of ESPN LA’s Land O’Lakers blog, and I exchanged questions about tonight’s Lakers at Spurs tilt. Brian answers my questions below, and I wax poetic about the Spurs’ title hopes over at his house.  Pay Land O’Lakers a visit; it boasts  two super smart bloggers and a full digital library of Phil Jackson trying to sound smart. (And, while we’re at it, don’t miss Scott Sereday’s pregame scouting report or Andrew McNeill’s Lakers-themed podcast with Phillip Barnett of Forum Blue and Gold.)

Varner: Very simply, what’s up with the Lakers? Are they on cruise control or is something genuinely amiss?

Kamenetzky: Do I have to choose?

Certainly complacency was the theme following Saturday’s embarrassing loss to the Heat. Kobe Bryant took the opportunity to take his teammates to the woodshed, saying they know how good they can be… which is the problem. Odom said the team has a problem with cockiness.

To what degree their problems can be blamed on boredom is an open question. The complacency discussion to me is less about trying while on the floor- I think most nights they, at the very least, think they’re playing hard- but problems paying attention to detail. Maintaining the mental edge to make the extra pass, cut, and rotation. That sort of thing. Certainly giving a damn wouldn’t hurt, but there are other things going on.

Ron Artest hasn’t played well. He’s had a few strong defensive games, but overall hasn’t been a positive factor, and it hurts. Because he’s not anything more than an afterthought offensively, if he’s not making a difference at the other end (Saturday against LeBron James and the Heat, for example) he’s more a liability than asset. Pau Gasol has slumped, relatively speaking, after an MVP caliber start. He’s been less aggressive and as his production has slipped, so have the Lakers. While some of that was fatigue thanks to Andrew Bynum’s absence, but it needs to change. They’ve fallen into some of the bad habits hurting them throughout ’09-‘10, when they weren’t a great offensive team. And obviously the D hasn’t been great.

I suspect Gasol will improve again- he’s too good not to- and increased focus and effort will help the D. Or at least that’s the plan.

Varner: Coming into the season, nearly every pundit earmarked the Lakers as the team to beat in the Western Conference. Do you think that still holds?

Kamenetzky: Hey, thanks for asking! I just wrote about this Monday afternoon.

If the Lakers lose Tuesday night, it’ll likely take some sort of backslide from the Spurs for the Lakers to catch them. Having enjoyed the easiest schedule in the league this year, things turn ugly for L.A. the rest of the way. Over their final 52 games, the Lakers play about 35 playoff or playoff-adjacent teams (it depends on how you define your terms, but regardless the remaining slate is brutally tough). They haven’t played you guys, Dallas, Oklahoma City, Orlando, Boston, New York, Atlanta, or New Orleans, and have seen Denver, Utah, and Miami only once.

Drop another game Tuesday, and given the way the Spurs (and Mavs, for that matter) are playing, I just don’t see how the Lakers can be seven games better over the final 50-ish games without San Antonio suffering some sort of injury or just hitting the skids. Even if the Lakers play better, which I absolutely believe they will.

So to get back to your question… if they lose Tuesday night, they can’t be called the favorites to earn that top seed. It could still happen, but they won’t be, as my wife likes to say, “In the driver’s seat.”

Varner: The Lakers’ defense seems mediocre to me, or just above mediocre. Is that too harsh an assessment?

Kamenetzky: Overall, they’ve been about 1.5 points worse from an efficiency standpoint this year compared to last. Not a total collapse, but it isn’t ideal, either. They started poorly, allowing tons of points over the first 10 or so games of the year, but it didn’t really matter because the Lakers were playing video game offense. Plus, some of those early games were misleading. In the very early going, the Lakers played almost only high scoring and/or running teams.

Since, they’ve actually been trending upward, the last two games notwithstanding. Still, as a team the failures have been in some of their highest profile games. Saturday, the Heat reached 109.1 points per 100 trips, a tick above Miami’s season average (using HoopData’s numbers). In Utah and Houston, the Lakers saw the home teams score too much. In Denver, the Lakers allowed almost 1.16 points per possession. They haven’t played many good teams, so it’s a disturbing trend.

Certainly Miami exposed L.A.’s problems defending the pick and roll, and while every team in the league suffers similarly at different points of the year, the Lakers haven’t been as tight this year as last or the season before. Their rotations just aren’t sharp.

But don’t forget the offense. Before backsliding over the last three games, the team defense (holding teams under a point per possession in 11 of their previous 16) was improving, but the O slipped. Only five times over the last 16 games have the Lakers exceeded their season average for efficiency, and on some nights it’s been brutal. Not enough ball or player movement, generally poor perimeter shooting, and so on.

When the Lakers don’t score, they suffer defensively, generally thanks to bad shots, turnovers, and run out chances. To fix the D, they’ll have to tackle the other end of the court, too.

  • Spurholic in Mumbai

    An interesting piece. Given the awesome trackrecord of the team in the playoffs, it would be foolish to write them off – Celtics last year did not set the regular season on fire, and we know har far they went in the play offs.

    Not only the lakers have enough fire power, they also have a great “mind games playing” coach, with is a critical tipping factor in a playoff season. He could easily tilt the balance in Lakers favour by just making a few dry comments on key opposition players, esp sensitive one’s like Nowitizki. Tilting the balance in LA’s favour.

    12 hours to go, wish Spurs fan come out smiling.

  • andy

    Yeah, I’d agree that LA needs to win to be considered favorites. Even at this point, you have to consider the Spurs and Mavs the odds on faces for the 1 seed in the west. A loss might nudge that south a little, but it still wouldn’t be out of the question.

    @Mumbai
    I disagree with you on the mind games from Jackson. I’ve always felt they were overhyped, especially against a veteran, system-oriented, and well-coached team like the spurs. That’s journo bait and fodder for more casual fans.

    Go spurs!

  • http://www.bpifanconnect.com Alix Babaie

    I think that a huge problem with the Lakers, which has not reared its ugly head with the Spurs is simply fatigue.

    The Lakers most key players not only took part in the full 82 games and playoffs up through the Finals last season but they all played competitively most of the summer. In addition, every player they added was an NBA Vet, so no new blood flowing into that team.

    The Spurs “Big Three”, got plenty of rest thanks to that sweep by the Suns. None of them took part in the games this summer, they got healthy and rested for this season. The players the Spurs injected into their roster are all young and athletic. Even Jefferson, who had an awful year, is just now 30 and has always been an athletic wing.

    To me, this is really a “shoe on the other foot” type of season. The Lakers are battered, bruised and showing some age while the Spurs are rested, healthy and have some youth on their side.

    This Spurs team is the best 1-13 constructed yet, their confidence is at an all-time high and should they happen to whip LA’s ass tonight after Kobe’s “come to Jesus” meeting with his team, the Spurs will officially be rolling!

  • Manny Calavera

    I don’t buy this ‘summer fatiuge’ nonsense. Who on the Lakers played games this summer? Kobe sat out from the World Championships, as did Pau Gasol.

    The only guy was Lamar Odom, who is having a great year for the Lakers. In fact, the Team USA players who participated this summer are having great years (Westbrook, Rose, Gordon, Love, they’re killing it out there for their NBA squads; only Durant is slightly down and he’s still leading the league in scoring).

    You might be able to convince me that playing into the Finals the past 3 years has taken somewhat of a toll, but with Kobe and Pau not playing in the World Championships, I’d argue they both got plenty of rest.

    The REAL problem is that their supporting cast is extremely uneven, leading to the Lakers relying far too much on Kobe-Pau in the first third of the season (much more than Pop has to rely on the Spurs’ stars). Look past Kobe-Pau-Odom, and you see an injury-plagued Bynum, an aging Fisher and Artest, a streaky Shannon Brown (although more on than off this year), an athletically challenged Steve Blake, and an erratic Matt Barnes. We’re talking about a team that recently brought in Joe Smith because they actually needed Joe Smith. Contemplate that for a moment. They miss DJ Mbenga more than anyone realizes.

    On the other hand, the Spurs boast role players who, while perhaps not necessarily more talented overall, fit perfectly into their roles. George Hill as a third guard, RJ as a wing scorer, Bonner/Neal as designated gunners, and McDyess/Blair/Splitter as bangers.

  • mikrobass3

    re: fatigue…i notice the lakers have played only 2 games in the last 8 days, both losses. i suppose they will be well rested for tonight with such a slow schedule.

    re: jackson’s playoff mind games…i always thought jackson sought mostly to tweak the refs.

  • betsyduncan

    As long as our boys come out with focus, it should go well. I’m looking for Gary and Matt to have great contributions. And Manu and Tony in the 4th? Can’t wait!

  • ITGuy

    Go Spurs Go!!

  • Ravi

    Great to see another Spurs fanatic in Mumbai….

    Big game tomorrow..I think its going to be a playoff-type, low scoring game…

    I’m predicting Lakers get out to fast start, but the Spurs win a close one in the end 92-89 :)

    How does that sound?

    Go Spurs Go!!

  • irongiantkc

    I am really looking forward to this game. I think our bigs are going to do alot better than has been feared. Finally, the outside shooters will make the Lakers pay for collapsing on Timmy. Remember when they used to do that with Horry and Bowen? They could hardly stop it and that was the only thing Bowen could do on the offense. “Bowen from the corner. His spot, his shot!”

    The thing that scares me for the near future is that few are talking about how many home games the Spurs have played. I know in the past, the Spurs have actually come out of the Rodeo trip in pretty good shape, but still I think we’ll know alot more what the Spurs are made of by Mar. 1. That said, I think the Spurs have a realistic chance of going 8-4 in Feb. If that happens, they will be in prime position for the top spot in the West.

  • sj_papi

    @Calavera.. good insight. couldn’t agree more.

    Don’t be fooled you guys. There’s nothing like an old rivalry with familiar faces to get Champions out of a funk. We can expect a good game out of L.A… lets just hope it’s not a great one.

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  • td4life

    I just hope that the Spurs play well, if they do that and hit their free throws, I am happy. A loss for either team shouldn’t mean that much in a four game series which neither can be expected to sweep. However, 3 losses for LA will have to bother them. And, in a year in which there are only three teams in each conference which can be considered contenders, the Spurs are currently 0-2 against those rivals.

    If the Spurs do lose, they won’t have the excuses they had versus Orlando. And if they manage to win while playing poorly (against a weak showing from LA, which would be surprising after their two losses) then the win is somewhat overrated as a confidence booster. If both teams play well, the winner will have accomplished something in that regard. A road win for LA is a real boost as they head into the meat of their schedule… and the same can be said for an SA home win, with the added value of doing A LOT to secure a higher playoff seeding.

    I am sure the AT&T center will be loud, hopefully it stays that way throughout the game!

  • Sriram

    Go Spurs! Hope to see some championship defense today! My 16 year old son loves the lakers and I am a die hard spurs fan (with the signed Manu shirt to boot). Tonight there will be some fireworks in our house :-|

  • Czernobog

    @td4life: If you’re considering Orlando contenders (they’re not) than the Spurs are actually 1:2 against other contenders. Myself, I think they’re 0:1.

  • ITGuy

    I think this game is more of a must-win for the lakers than it is for the Spurs.

    The Spurs will win a tough game and hopefuly get some respect from the national media.

    Go Spurs Go!!

  • jwalt

    Manny — an athletically challenged Steve Blake? Blake is their fastest player baseline to baseline. He is the most lateral quick guard they have. He hasn’t played well (due to the triangle in my opinion) but he is not slow in any manner. When he went thru the rookie camps he graded as the most athletic guard in that year’s draft.

  • Tyler

    @jwalt

    You’re making Steve Blake blush. I think you’re confusing him with Shannon Brown….

  • Easy B

    I hope the spurs play their game tonight…..though I really think the lakers will employ measures to take us out of our game – meaning Matt Bonner and Neal will be challenged to hit shots, and Parker and Hill will have to be catalysts against a bigger LA backcourt. Perhaps Jefferson is our X factor….if he can force Kobe/Artest to chase him around, it could wear LA down. Overall, this is a game to see if our guard rotation can assert itself over LA with a myriad of different attacks – i just hope we don’t end up relying on alot of Neal 10ft runners over guys like Odom and Gasol, or rushed 3pt shots from Bonner.

  • rob

    This wouldn’t be the first time a Laker team went possum for a while only to bring it all together by season’s end.

    The Spurs have much as done the same in years past only to rebound and come together when it counted most.

    I expect a competitive game tonight. Both teams playing basketball better than they have the past few games.

  • TD = BEST EVER

    @ td4life

    I agree – the most important thing here is to simply show up and play well on BOTH ends – This SUNS/KNICKS offense that we are running is driving me nuts…… It’s leading to run outs and more fast breaks for the other team…… we really need to be a little more selective on Offense to allow our D to get back and get set

  • http://searchingforslava.blogspot.com Dave M

    The Land O’Lakers Q&A was terrific, shed lots of light for us (infiltrators) Lakers fans… right about now getting ready to ride out one nasty storm.

  • Mano E Manu

    WHOOOOOOOOO!

    Parker and Blair were on godmode tonight.

  • senorglory

    “He could easily tilt the balance in Lakers favour by just making a few dry comments on key opposition players, esp sensitive one’s like Nowitizki. Tilting the balance in LA’s favour.”

    Can anyone think of an example of this actually having happened in the past?

    Nowitzki is sensitive?

  • hemisfair89

    I concur with Manny. This Laker team is kinda starting to look….vulnerable? They do seem to have some ill-fitting pieces and coupled with another years’ worth of mileage, well that adds up. At least for now, well see how they look in May.