Lakers Not Quite Measuring Up
The Los Angeles Lakers stand at 31-20, sixth best in the NBA. On Thursday they took a 12-point first-quarter lead at STAPLES Center over the Oklahoma City Thunder only to lose 102-93 to the team with the best record in the Western Conference.
The Thunder, at 39-12, are just a game and half behind the Chicago Bulls. They have a unique combination of speed, youth, experience, continuity and straight-up talent.
Despite their impressive first quarter, the Lakers looked over-matched.
“They’re younger and have more [energy] than we do,” said Kobe Bryant after the game. “Tonight the offensive rebounds killed us, the transition killed us, those 50-50 balls killed us.”
It was no surprise LA gave up their early lead. That’s been a staple most of the year, win or lose. At best, the Lakers have been an incomplete team this season.
After their second-round sweep by the Dallas Mavericks in last year’s playoffs, Laker management made sweeping organizational changes. Instead of opting to stay the course and bolster the core (with Phil Jackson understudy Brian Shaw), the team severed ties with the triangle offense. Pau Gasol was almost dealt for Chris Paul. Lamar Odom was sent to the Dallas Mavericks.
At the deadline, long-term starter Derek Fisher was traded to the Houston Rockets (now with the Thunder).
The Lakers chose to retool on the fly, with almost no practice through the lockout-shortened season with brand new concepts on both offense and defense, instead of the reinvesting in the status quo.
The team knew there would be a lockout and that the season was likely to be shortened. It’s not like the compressed schedule was a surprise.
“We went from basically completely unprepared, even though we were prepared to get going, but you really couldn’t do anything to hitting the ground on the run and it’s been that way the whole season,” said General Manager Mitch Kupchak. “Right into the season on December 25th and since then we’ve playing almost four games a week to try and get through a 66-game schedule. It’s been really, really taxing to the players, to the coaches, the people in the office, our staff.”
The path the Lakers have taken may have its short-term price but given that no other modern NBA coach has implemented the triangle offense successfully outside of Phil Jackson, it may have been the move of necessity.
Nonetheless, it’s a lot to ask of Coach Mike Brown who brought in a tremendous record with the Cleveland Cavaliers but also a number of questions regarding his ability to manage stars (notably LeBron James) and fashion a creative offense.
To be fair, James was unable to win a title this past year with Miami. The block in Cleveland may have had more to with LeBron than Brown. In LA, Mike has been asked to do more with less time than he (or maybe any other coach) probably can.
The short season and roster turnover/makeup makes it difficult to objectively judge if Brown’s the right man for the job.
The Lakers look better defensively than they were a year ago but then that’s slipped since the acquisition of point guard Ramon Sessions at the deadline. Offensively the team has been unimpressive although it has taken a step forward over recent weeks.
Since the Sessions trade, the Lakers have won just four of eight. He joined the starting lineup for the last four and LA has split those as well.
“I’m playing off the ball a little bit more than usual,” said Sessions. “It’s one of those things where you just got to just continue to get familiar with the guys.”
Ramon is at his best in the open court or running the pick and roll. Given the Lakers have two low-post threats in Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, along with ball-dominant Kobe Bryant, it’s been an adjustment for Ramon.
“I’m kind of used to having the ball but it’s definitely something I need to adjust to and something that will work eventually,” said Sessions.
Kupchak is optimistic that Ramon will find a long-term home in Los Angeles.
“He’s still a young, developing player. We think he can get better. The things he brings to our team immediately are speed, quickness and athleticism – in addition to being a true point guard,” said Kupchak. “We think he’s going to be a good player for a long time.”
It’s worth noting that Ramon has had a positive plus/minus in every game he’s played so far for the Lakers. The unit with Steve Blake, be it starting or reserve, has struggled.
Initially against the Thunder, Sessions was controlling the offense and the Lakers flourished. Later, with Gasol in foul trouble and Oklahoma City raising their intensity, LA just fell apart.
Fisher, as a Laker, was considered by many to be a defensively liability but clearly he wasn’t the problem in its entirety. Westbrook scored 36 points on Thursday and was the primary driver of the Thunder attack.
“You’ve got to give a guy like Russell Westbrook credit,” said Coach Brown. “In the third quarter, he just came out, put his head down and went one on four and either got scored or got fouled every time he came down the floor in that third quarter.”
The Lakers suffer from a general lack of depth, especially athletically. Brown, who can’t change the personnel, didn’t want to consider that as an issue against the Thunder.
“If you think about transition, how many times did they outrun us and get a clean layup? I don’t think they did it a ton,” said Brown. “What I saw is we had three or four guys back and Westbrook just put his head down and had more will and got to the rim or got fouled. I think it’s as simple as that.”
Mike blamed the Laker loss on execution, acknowledging that the team is still working to integrate Sessions.
“When we got beat, we got beat in the pick and roll coverage because we weren’t doing what were supposed to as a team which allowed them to have an advantage,” said Brown. “Again, there wasn’t anything tricky that they did. They just screened and re-screened and then screened again sometimes. They put their head down, turned the corner and shot pull-up jump shots and if they missed it, they got rebounds.”
The Lakers have struggled to find balance between Kobe’s offense (his shooting percentage has dropped considerably lately), Bynum’s post-ups, Gasol’s high/low game and Sessions speed/pick and roll attack.
“Those guys are down there, so when they are down there, feed them the ball,” said Sessions. “I’ve worked on my three-pointer this summer. It’s one of those things that I’m shooting it pretty good right now. Gotta make the defense honest, they play the passing lanes just stay at the three – or if they’re going to come out, just keep penetrating.”
Sessions spoke about adjusting to playing without the ball more than he ever has in his career but Bryant said he’s deferring to Ramon.
“I’m off the ball. I’m rarely, rarely on the ball,” said Kobe. “If I get a rebound most of the time I’m looking for him. I give it to him and run away.”
So who exactly has the basketball?
It was almost easier for Sessions off the bench.
“He’s in search mode a little bit. He’s with a different group now,” said Brown. “Before coming in with the second unit, he had a little bit of freedom . . . to just go out and play the game and not worry about taking too many shots or not getting the guys enough touches or in the right spot. It’s just going to take a little bit of time for him to figure out how to help us.”
Additionally Bynum’s rise as the team’s primary inside option has come with its learning curve as teams begin to skew their defenses towards Andrew with double and even triple teams.
On more than one occasion recently he’d implored his teammates to cut/move instead of standing still in what can stagnate into a motionless offense.
“It’s just spacing,” said Bynum. “If I catch it in the post and there’s a guy who’s just standing right in front of me or right next to me, then just move in either direction and you’ll have a wide-open shot.”
Brown said the system is there, it’s just a matter of his players getting more comfortable with their reads.
“Sometimes if you’re a post player and you’re not sure what the sure what the [second defender] that’s closest to you is doing and you don’t feel comfortable putting the ball down – so you may need for somebody to cut and he may tell them to get out at times,” said Brown. “We have all different types of ways that we space the floor when the ball is in the post. We just have to try and continue trying to get better reacting that way. There’s some things that we can continue to try to help Sessions have a better feel too when he’s on the floor with Drew.”
The Lakers aren’t playing instinctively and that’s part of the problem that goes to the changes management put in when they moved away from the triangle offense and changed the roster.
When Gasol got into foul trouble against the Thunder, Lamar Odom would have been a helpful substitute to have on the bench (last year’s Sixth Man of the Year) over Josh McRoberts or Troy Murphy.
The changes implemented by the Lakers weren’t necessarily the “wrong” moves but when it comes to giving the team the best chance to win today, to a certain extent the short-term has been sacrificed for the long-term.
Recently Brown benched Bynum after an ill-advised, somewhat petulant, three-point attempt.
“I’m just going to coach the team the way I need to coach it,” said Brown flatly. “If I need to make a decision like that, then I’ll make a decision if I don’t feel I like need to make a decision like that then I won’t.”
Clearly there’s some tension between Brown and Bynum but working with personalities can be the most difficult aspect of coaching. Even Bryant was benched in a fourth-quarter stretch recently but that was more of a logistical/clock-management misstep than a coaching lesson.
Time will tell if Brown is providing the proper leadership for the Lakers. Naturally in the NBA a coach is often the lightning rod for criticism.
The Lakers are hoping they’ve made the right choices with Brown, with Odom, with Fisher, with Sessions. Can they pull it together over the next month in time for the postseason?
They actually might but while currently the Lakers look like one of the better teams in the league . . . they look far from the best.
Derek Fisher Honored
Before the game, the Lakers showed the STAPLES crowd a video on the scoreboard in honor of Derek Fisher.
“Thanks for all you have done Fish,” was the tag and the home crowd stood in ovation for over a minute and a half. When Fisher actually checked into the game he got a second ovation (about 30-seconds worth).
“I hope we’re not up by one and the ball ends up in Derek’s hand with about three seconds left because I know what’s going to happen if it does,” said Kupchak.’
It was a difficult move for the Laker front office to move Derek but one they believed was necessary.
“It was just something that we knew we had to do and it was in the best interest of the coach, the new players we brought onto the team and believe it not for Derek too,” said Kupchak. “Derek wants to play and my guess is he didn’t want to end up on the end of a bench for the next year or two. He wanted to play and make a contribution. We feel it’s the best thing for everybody and we’ll look at it in a couple of years and we’ll see. You just don’t know.”
Fisher took exception to the notion that he wouldn’t have put team first.
“Team sports raised me in a sense, outside of my mom and dad and my family,” said Derek. “It always stood for sharing and sacrifice and giving of yourself to improve as a team.”
Fisher felt betrayed and didn’t like how it all happened.
“I’m in a good place right now. Initially it was more shock and just pure disappointment,” said Derek. “I’ve been in this business a long time. I’ve always thought there are different ways to handle trades and waiver-type situations. There can be some more communication, not necessarily far in advance but enough to not have to find out from your mailman at the post office that you’re leaving.”
Given the propensity for players, their agents and other parties to “share” information, it’s become increasingly difficult in the modern era for teams to make transactions in complete secrecy. Sometimes deals can be scuttled simply because they went public too quickly.
“When we started thinking about it several weeks ago, was hard to get past and even discuss,” said Kupchak. “We discussed it several weeks and when I say us I mean Dr. Buss, myself and Jim Buss, we went back and forth on it. Could we do it? What if we did it? It was something that we got through mentally but you really don’t know that it’s something that you might have to do until you approach the trade deadline.”
“Up until last … two days before the trade deadline,” continued Kupchak, “When we started feel we could make a couple of deals, at that point it became a reality but fortunately we had talked our way through it and at that point it was full steam ahead.”
Now Derek has a chance to add to his postseason legacy, just in a Thunder uniform.
“I think the door was shut pretty hard in terms of how it happened. Obviously the team felt that they needed to move on; I have as well,” said Fisher. “It’s a game. I play for the other team now.”
Meanwhile the Thunder are happy to have him.
“Fish has been in the league for a while,” said Westbrook. “He knows the game. I definitely can learn a few things from him.”
Coach Brooks loves the experience that Fisher brings to the locker room.
“That’s every players dream, playing in June and how many has he had? Seven of them?” asked Brooks. “The thing I like about him is that he can still play. We don’t need another coach. We have a good staff already, but he has to be able to play. I think the players will see how he takes care of his body, takes care of his mental mindset every night, he’s a pros-pro, and he’s a special player. He still has some game left and he’s going to help us.”
The Thunder will host the Chicago Bulls on Sunday in what could be a preview of the NBA Finals . . .