Kamenetzky on the Lakers’ recent struggles
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.Â Pay Land O’Lakers a visit; it boastsÂ 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 Saturdayâ€™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 beâ€¦ 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 theyâ€™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 hasnâ€™t played well. Heâ€™s had a few strong defensive games, but overall hasnâ€™t been a positive factor, and it hurts. Because heâ€™s not anything more than an afterthought offensively, if heâ€™s not making a difference at the other end (Saturday against LeBron James and the Heat, for example) heâ€™s more a liability than asset. Pau Gasol has slumped, relatively speaking, after an MVP caliber start. Heâ€™s been less aggressive and as his production has slipped, so have the Lakers. While some of that was fatigue thanks to Andrew Bynumâ€™s absence, but it needs to change. Theyâ€™ve fallen into some of the bad habits hurting them throughout â€™09-â€˜10, when they werenâ€™t a great offensive team. And obviously the D hasnâ€™t been great.
I suspect Gasol will improve again- heâ€™s too good not to- and increased focus and effort will help the D. Or at least thatâ€™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, itâ€™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 havenâ€™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 donâ€™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 questionâ€¦ if they lose Tuesday night, they canâ€™t be called the favorites to earn that top seed. It could still happen, but they wonâ€™t be, as my wife likes to say, â€œIn the driverâ€™s seat.â€
Varner: The Lakers’ defense seems mediocre to me, or just above mediocre. Is that too harsh an assessment?
Kamenetzky: Overall, theyâ€™ve been about 1.5 points worse from an efficiency standpoint this year compared to last. Not a total collapse, but it isnâ€™t ideal, either. They started poorly, allowing tons of points over the first 10 or so games of the year, but it didnâ€™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, theyâ€™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 Miamiâ€™s season average (using HoopDataâ€™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 havenâ€™t played many good teams, so itâ€™s a disturbing trend.
Certainly Miami exposed L.A.â€™s problems defending the pick and roll, and while every team in the league suffers similarly at different points of the year, the Lakers havenâ€™t been as tight this year as last or the season before. Their rotations just arenâ€™t sharp.
But donâ€™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 itâ€™s been brutal. Not enough ball or player movement, generally poor perimeter shooting, and so on.
When the Lakers donâ€™t score, they suffer defensively, generally thanks to bad shots, turnovers, and run out chances. To fix the D, theyâ€™ll have to tackle the other end of the court, too.