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Making Sense of the Los Angeles Lakers' Recent Struggles
"What's wrong with the Lakers?"
It's a question you are likely to come across just about everywhere you go. Whether you are at the water cooler, watching ESPN, browsing the internet, or talking to your friends and family, you are likely to come across this question ad nauseam.
After losing all eight preseason games, and then losing the first two games of the regular season, the Los Angeles Lakers have yet to taste success. So, what gives?
Well, as odd as it may seem to some, what's truly plaguing the Lakers is inexperience. I don't mean NBA experience — the Lakers average age of 28.3 trails just the Knicks, Heat, and Clippers as the oldest team in the NBA. I mean team experience.
With seven new players on the squad, a new offensive philosophy, and a noticeable lack of familiarity, the Lakers are struggling to get on track and find a nice rhythm offensively and defensively. Many squads are able to work out these types of kinks in the preseason, but the core of this Lakers team rarely had time to gel on the court — Bryant missed a couple games, Howard missed multiple games, Nash and Gasol mostly played limited minutes. In fact, the Big Four played together in just one preseason game (Oct 21 vs the Kings). The random, shifting lineups of the preseason did nothing to help prepare for the season, and after the first two games of the regular season, it's evident.
Now that we know that the core lineup of Nash, Bryant, Gasol, and Howard have just three games under their belt as a unit, let's give this Lakers team a break. Patience everybody, patience. Over time, this team will be just fine.
Once this team has more games under its belt, the offense will run much more smoothly, and the defense will begin to rotate with anticipation rather than constantly being a step late (Pau!). Time played together will allow the guys to understand their teammates' tendencies while instilling a more fluid grasp on team concepts and responsibilities.
More playing time and familiarity should also lead to a significant decrease in the amount of mental errors that have so far plagued the Lakers.
While playing against the Dallas Mavericks in the season opener, the Lakers shot a pathetic 12-31 from the free throw line. Free throws are purely mental, there's no defense, it's just about staying focused and sticking with your routine. The Lakers also committed 14 turnovers that led to 17 Mavericks points. That's a 36 point swing in an eight point loss (99-91).
Howard led the free throw woes by shooting 3-14, and Jordan Hill followed his lead with a 1-6 performance. Even worse, the two best free throw shooters on the team didn't get to the line once — Nash and Bryant were unable to draw a single shooting foul. Then factor in the amount of turnovers that stemmed from running a new offense and failing to understand its intricacies, and it's not a surprise that the Mavericks got the win. 14 turnovers isn't a lot, but many of the turnovers came from late reads and forced passes.
Following the Mavericks game, the "Fire Mike Brown!" chatter started, but seriously, just give it some time. Many want to see a more uptempo offense, with Nash on the ball more often rather than setting up the offense and sitting in the corner — Nash gave a pedestrian stat line of 7 points, 4 assists, 2 rebounds, 1 block, and 1 turnover on 3-9 shooting and 1-4 from deep in 34 minutes of play. This performance marked Nash's least productive game while playing over 30 minutes in his entire NBA career.
Nash obviously struggled, but I am fully confident that he will run the show just fine. Those claiming that Nash needs to be on the ball and running the pick and roll more often are correct, and Mike Brown is actually one of them — Brown has stated that Nash has the authority to run the pick and roll whenever he wants. Following the game, Nash stated, "Maybe I need to assert myself more in pick and roll situations. I'm caught trying to get the ball moving in the Princeton, and get us into different sets and opportunities. [...] It's growing pains and it's a struggle, and we're out of sync, and we're going to probably have more." So there it is, Nash understands what he has to do, and he knows that it will take a bit of time to become great at it. This isn't going to be the Suns' Steve Nash, this is an entire new process, this is the Lakers' Steve Nash. With that in mind, understand that he is going to be a different player. His excellent shooting and distributing will transfer to this squad, but anyone expecting the Lakers to consistently shoot with 14 seconds left on the shot clock are going to be disappointed.
Despite the offensive struggles, at times it looked solid. Bryant and Howard combing for 41 points on 19-26 shooting, so there's plenty of potential. Gasol actually led the team with 19 shot attempts. Although he only hit eight of them for 23 points, it's a great sign to see Gasol this involved.
Fast forward to the second game in as many nights against the fifth youngest team in the NBA, the Portland Trail Blazers. Once again, mental errors cost the Lakers as they lost 116-106.
Although the offense put up a lot of points, it still struggled mightily. The Lakers committed 24 turnovers, which led to 28 points for the Blazers. Many of those 28 points came off of the fast break, where the Blazers scored 19 points. The Lakers were able to focus at the line, as they nailed 26-32 and Howard hit 15-19, but their ball security took a hit. Bryant led the way with seven turnovers, and World Peace flanked him with six. Howard had three, and Nash, Gasol, Ebanks, and Hill each had two. Many of Bryant's turnovers came when he would drive the lane. With spacing still getting worked out, Bryant often drove into a wall and lost the ball whether on the dribble or attempting to kick out. Bryant's worst sequence involved an uncharacteristic mental lapse as he dropped a swing pass and fumbled it out of bounds at the far wing.
Despite the ball security woes, the offense actually looked a lot better. Bryant and Howard dominated with 63 combined points on 19-35 shooting and Gasol chipped in with 16 points on 7-14 shooting. The Lakers scored a bunch of easy buckets off of back cuts, and good spacing allowed Howard to dominate on the block. Howard routinely faced up and attacked the basket with aggression, and when the double came, he did a decent job of kicking out and finding the open man.
What truly hurt the team ball security wise was an injury to Nash late in the second quarter. Attempting to pick up his man in the backcourt as the Blazers grabbed a rebound and initiated their run up the floor, Nash bumped knees with Damian Lillard and suffered a contusion on his lower left leg. Nash immediately went to the locker room and when he returned to open the second half, he hobbled his way down the court for one possession before calling it a night. These are the types of moments that truly scare me. This Lakers team is old, and it lacks depth. An injury to any of the Big Four will severely hurt this team. Luckily, Nash didn't suffer any structural damage, but on live time, I sure was worried when his left knee seemed to cave in at an awkward angle.
On the other side of the ball, the Lakers were just awful. The defensive rotations were seemingly a step late just about every time, and the Blazers capitalized by scoring 30, 32, and 30 points in the first three quarters. With the amount of size the Lakers have in the lane, they shouldn't allow any team to hit the 30 point mark in a quarter, let alone three times.
In the third quarter, things truly fell apart as the Blazers went on a 13-0 run in the final three minutes to push the score to 92-76. Rookie point guard Damian Lillard burned the Lakers by becoming just the fourth player in NBA history to top 20 points and 10 assists in his NBA debut (joining LeBron James, Isiah Thomas, and Oscar Robertson). Lillard finished the game with 23 points and 11 assists, and he torched the Lakers in the pick and roll all game long. The Blazers routinely exposed Gasol on the pick and roll, and he failed to contain with a strong hedge almost on command — the guard would easily get around Gasol and then have a multitude of options with just Howard in the lane attempting to defend anywhere up to three players (guard, big man in lane, rolling big man).
To round out the Lakers problems, there seems to be a trend of failure at end of quarter situations. Against the Mavericks, the Lakers were outscored 8-0 with 50 seconds or less remaining in the first three quarters. And against the Blazers, the Lakers were outscored 10-0 with 40 seconds or less remaining in the first three quarters. These end of quarter situations are key momentum builders, and it's critical that the Lakers begin capitalizing on them rather than coming up empty handed while giving up buckets.
Overall, the Mavericks and Blazers highlighted many facets of the game that the Lakers still need to work on as a unit. The Lakers need to work on their schemes and execution until it becomes almost second nature. If the Lakers can shoot 49.6% from the field after such little amount of time played together, imagine what they will do once they truly start clicking. Spacing, decisiveness, and ball movement are critical for the offense, and moving together as a string is critical for the defense. Until then, the Lakers will struggle. Remember, the Miami Heat started off their first season as a Big Three with a 9-8 record. While I hope the Lakers won't take that same path, I wouldn't necessarily be surprised if they stood at around .500 in opening games of the season. That Heat squad finished the season 58-24 and reached the Finals.
Clearly, early success is desirable, but struggles are to be expected with this unit, and eventually, talent wins out. By January, this team will be rolling. Until then, expect a bumpy ride.
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