NBA PM: Lakers Searching for Identity
The Los Angeles Lakers bounced back from a three-game losing streak with a tight 96-91 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday night.
The Lakers improve to 11-8, after a pair of anemic performances in Miami and Orlando, followed by a loss at STAPLES Center to the Indiana Pacers.
Earlier in the year, LA rode a streak of 40-point games from Kobe Bryant but when the team looked to find a more balanced offensive attack, the output just wasn’t there.
The heavy workload of 18 games in 29 days wore down the team’s bigs and aging players.
Just about every franchise is dealing with a heavy workload with the lockout-shortened season but not many played as many games as the Lakers – not many are as old and/or slow, and not many have a new head coach and system to implement on the fly.
The organization knew they were taking a step backwards, one they hoped would be short-term, when Coach Phil Jackson moved on and the team opted against promoting Brian Shaw and sticking with the triangle offense.
Continuity would have best maximized the remaining years on Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol’s contracts.
Instead the team looked to move Gasol for Chris Paul (albeit scuttled by the league), dumped Lamar Odom for future considerations, completely scrubbed the triangle for Coach Mike Brown and his defensive-minded but simpler offensive system and committed to change.
The immediate return has been mixed. The Lakers are a better defensive team, perhaps even ahead of schedule.
Offensively it’s been very spotty, awful even at times.
Prior to the Clipper game, the Lakers held their first true, full-contact practice of the season on Tuesday – one day short of a full month into the season.
“It was definitely needed. I thought we had a good practice,” said Coach Brown. “I thought that we took some steps forward and hopefully we’ll be able to show that tonight.”
“The first practice in a month, a month in a half so it felt good to get that,” agreed Bryant. “It helped a lot – helped a lot. We really challenged each other in practice, got the trash talk going again and the competitive spirit going again so it feels good to get down.”
The Lakers’ most recent offensive dip happens to coincide with a rib injury to reserve point guard Steve Blake. Brown has been forced to use rookie Darius Morris more often than he intended.
“It’s not always pretty,” said Brown. “Our backup point guard is a guy that probably should be a sophomore or junior in college right now, so he’s got a learning curve that he has to get through to help the rest of the guys when he’s out there”
On Wednesday, Brown benched Morris instead for fellow rookie Andrew Goudelock, a combo guard. Essentially LA played without a point, which can work in stretches with Bryant on the floor, but isn’t ideal.
Point guard in general is a weak spot for the Lakers, which is why they were willing to give up players like Gasol and Odom for Paul.
“We don’t have a guy that’s going to push the ball up the floor and guys who are really going to run with them on every possession,” said Brown. “That’s why I’m saying we have to execute well in the half court with our spacing and ball movement and setting screens and all that other stuff.”
Of course that spacing just isn’t there as the Lakers are one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the league.
Additionally, center Andrew Bynum’s torrid start has been slowed by regular double-teams, the first he’s faced consistently in his career.
“I think he’s doing a nice job but that process takes a while, it doesn’t happen overnight,” said Brown. “I think he’s ahead of the curve.”
The Laker coach also warned that it took Tim Duncan and Dwight Howard over a year to learn how to play against constant doubles.
Of course LA has to monitor the Howard situation, but the Orlando Magic insist they won’t deal Dwight until after the All-Star Break or at all. The center has a trade request in but may stay with the Magic until free agency this summer, leaving them with nothing, going out in a sign in trade . . . or if Orlando gambles and wins, staying with the team for $28 million more than he’d get anywhere else (primarily because of a fifth year).
If the New Jersey Nets, one of the primary suitors for Howard, don’t land their target, there’s a good chance Deron Williams walks away as a free agent this summer as well.
The Nets would rather lose Williams than take in a deal they don’t believe in, just to save face.
There’s a chance the Lakers could land Howard or Deron, a slimmer chance both, but more likely than not they get neither.
Another idea might be to revisiting a Houston Rockets deal (Could Lakers & Rockets Reignite Trade Talks?), but the Lakers would probably have eyes for breakout point guard Kyle Lowry . . . which could be a non-starter for Houston.
The team also has the Odom trade exception which can bring up to $9 million in contracts without LA having to send out matching salary. LA has two 2012 first-round picks (their own and a heavily protected one from Dallas).
What path the Lakers take from here is unclear but that can’t be a concern for Coach Brown who has to get the roster he currently has through the schedule ahead.
LA may tinker. They may not make a major move. Instead, it may be more likely they wait for the Howard and/or Williams situations to resolve before they give up any flexibility in other deals.
If that means the window during the Kobe Bryant era loses a year, perhaps instead the team should have stuck with the triangle and what they knew worked. Then again, the Lakers were swept out of the playoffs by Dallas in the second round, so there’s no early answer to whether or not the team made the right decisions . . . or if there was any other path that would quickly return them to the top given the Chris Paul fiasco.
Kobe Wants This Pau, This Metta
Some of the Laker veterans have played tentatively this season. Pau Gasol has deferred to the emerging Andrew Bynum in the post. Metta World Peace has struggled off the bench.
Both Gasol and Peace had big games on Wednesday against the Clippers. Afterwards, Bryant let the players know that he wants them to bottle their performances and bring them every night.
Recently Gasol has complained about lack of touches in the post, but Bryant believes that’s more on Pau than his teammates.
“I think the difference tonight was him, his energy he played with, the physicality that he played with yielded some good things for us which in turn . . . we rewarded him with giving him the ball more,” said Bryant. “Pau’s extremely skillful. It’s just a matter of attitude, what he wants to do. It really depends on him. Sometimes he’s very passive, sometimes he’s very aggressive and tonight he was being aggressive and it looked familiar for you guys. That’s the difference between a Pau from Indiana [on Sunday] and a Pau from tonight. That’s two championships right there.”
Kobe doesn’t feel his own shot volume impacts Gasol negatively or that Pau’s willingness to pass (10 assists against the Pacers) is why he hasn’t put up as many points.
“I facilitate too but I still shoot the ball twenty times. You are who your game dictates that way. If you’re aggressive, by nature, you’re going to get touches, you’re going to get scoring opportunities, but if you’re not aggressive and you’re just kind of floating around out there, the game’s going to disappear from you,” said Bryant. “You’ve got to go, you’ve got to go and tonight he went and he was aggressive and the ball found him and we found him and you got a rhythm.”
Bryant continued, referring to the team’s loss to the Magic on Friday.
“If he’s more aggressive, the ball’s going to find him. Orlando, under the basket, he got more touches but he wasn’t aggressive with them, he caught them, he looked to pass the ball, or he settled for a twenty footer or whatever,” said Kobe. “He’s got to go and we’ve talked about that. You have to go, when I get double teamed and I kick it to you, you’re looking to pass the ball to other people. Put your head down, go to the basket, be aggressive.”
As far as World Peace, Bryant loved the burliness he displayed against the Clippers.
“Metta found Ron Artest, the Auburn Palace Ron Artest,” said Kobe. “I talked to him after the game in the locker room and said ‘That’s what we need, and that’s who you are. You’re a nice person, you’re a great guy. Everybody knows you’re a great guy but when you get in between those lines you’ve got to be the person that you were in Indiana, the person we brought here and play with that type of attitude.’”
Peace was a major factor in the game but didn’t score a point until late in the fourth, with about 3 1/2 minutes left he hit a crucial three-point shot that silenced (briefly) a STAPLES Center crowd united in voice screaming, “Noooo,” at an attempt many clearly thought would miss the mark.
On the season, Metta has shot just 15.8% from three but always the wild card (like in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals), Artest/World Peace once again delivered when least expected.
When Steve Blake went down, Coach Brown was clear that he didn’t view Andrew Goudelock as a point guard option behind Derek Fisher and Darius Morris.
Morris, a pass-first point, has as many assists as turnovers (11 apiece) in his very young career.
The Lakers offense in reserve was sputtering so Brown reversed course and gave Goudelock the reserve-one minutes against the Clippers.
The rookie hit his first four shots and finished a career high of 14 points in just 20 1/2 minutes. Andrew didn’t record an assist but the Lakers got 13 combined from Kobe Bryant (six) and Metta World Peace (seven).
It’s an imperfect formula, at least in a traditional offense, but Goudelock provided what the team had been lacking . . . an offensive spark off the bench.
“I feel pretty good, but one thing they tell me is not to get too high or get too low so I want to try and build from this,” said Goudelock. “I’m going to have something that I can think about and can use going forward as I try to make my way on this team but I felt pretty well with my performance. I was really aggressive and luckily we got the win which is the biggest thing.”
Brown explained his change of plans at the one.
“Searching. You have rookies as your backup point guards, you search. You search and search and search until you get something done. Darius is more of a natural point guard than Goudelock,” said Brown. “[Andrew's] a guy that can go get it off the dribble. He’s got the floater game as we saw tonight. He can shoot the ball but he doesn’t have the point guard skills that Darius has. It’s kind of a flip of the coin.”
Coming into to camp, Goudelock was confident in his ability as a player. He was always a scoring guard but felt he’d be able to contribute in either backcourt position.
Of course feeling that way and applying it at game-time is a different issue.
“If you’re not confident, you’re going to come out,” said Goudelock. “There’s been a few games earlier in the season and I wasn’t as confident and it showed and I was out and when you’re a rookie and you don’t play well, you might not play for four or five games so when you get out there you’ve got to make the most of your minutes whether it be defensively or offensively. You just want to make an impact.”
Brown kind of had him boxed in at the two, but sometimes coaches have to overcome their own rigidity.
“I probably didn’t give him enough of an opportunity early on,” said the Laker coach. “I thought he could be that spark off the bench for us to get it off the dribble.”
Goudelock was never told by Brown of the change. Instead, he was just asked to play point in the second unit during shootaround.
“When you’re a rookie, they don’t say much to you,” said Andrew. “You’ve got to be ready. That’s really what they say to you. Be ready, be ready, be ready – so when we call you you’re going to get your opportunity. Once you get in there, you better make the most of your opportunity . . .”
He had a feeling that he’d get the chance for minutes against the Clippers so he told his parents in Georgia to look for him, then he took a nap.
“I went to sleep. I didn’t want to think about it. I didn’t want to get ahead of myself,” said Goudelock. “I didn’t want to think about anything too much. It was like, I went home, I called my parents, told them I might play tonight, and I went to sleep and I woke up for the game and came here with my mind right ready to play.”
Goudelock praised his veteran teammates for helping to guide him early in his career. Kobe Bryant gave the rookie some words of encouragement before the game Wednesday.
“Andrew, we expected him to have a good game,” said Bryant. “He got the nod this morning that he would be playing big minutes and I told him ‘Just gotta do what you do. Don’t come in here and try to be somebody you’re not. You’re a scorer, come out here and do what you normally do.’”
The Laker rookie said he’s just happy to have been able to contribute to a win, especially after waiting on the sidelines so much for the opportunity.
“I feel pretty good, just to play for the Lakers is a big honor for anybody and for me to just be on this team with all these great guys is a privilege for me,” said Goudelock. “That being said, no basketball player’s satisfied with sitting on the bench and not being able to contribute especially when you’ve been playing basketball, you’ve been a focal point your whole life . . . so I’m feeling okay right now.”
Coach Brown speaks highly of both Goudelock and Morris, both players who have been asked to do more than the Laker coach ever anticipated.
“Those guys are great kids, and they listen and they try and that’s all you can ask for,” said Brown.
The Lakers play eight of their next nine games outside of Los Angeles, a concern for a team that is 10-2 at home but just 1-6 on the road. After a couple of days off they play next on Saturday in Milwaukee against the Bucks.