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Breaking down the first look of the 2012-13 Lakers

SUPERMAN comes to town, and joins forces with the sorcerous Steve Nash and the indomitable and irrepressible Kobe Bryant. The off-season was an unimaginable surreal adventure that warded off any doubts about the Lakers future and intent on starting another reign of dominance. References were made to the famed “Showtime Lakers” and even at a …

SUPERMAN comes to town, and joins forces with the sorcerous Steve Nash and the indomitable and irrepressible Kobe Bryant. The off-season was an unimaginable, surreal adventure that warded off any doubts about the Lakers future and intent on starting another reign of dominance. References were made to the famed “Showtime Lakers” and even at a more hypnagogic level to the “Avengers”, with Kobe being “Iron man”, MWP being “Hulk”, Nash being “Captain America,” etc. Marvel Comics might have gone sour, but the hype and the exhilaration had for sure reached borbdinganian levels.

As a Laker fan, I pinched myself several times, felt the goose-bumps and did the ‘hurrays’ and the ‘yay-yays’. The Lakers had just assembled the Super-Team of Super-Teams, and the entire franchise was enveloped in a frenzy and euphoric cloud. However, between all the histrionics, the ludicrous impersonations and the asinine and fatuous references to the “Gangnam Style”, the importance given to the game seemed extremely diminished.

But, nobody was complaining because it is not often that you assemble a team that is destined to have at least four players walk in as first ballot NBA hall-of-famers. Still the glamour and the glitz can hardly over-ride and nullify the disappointments of the last two play-off campaigns. Despite boasting of a star-studded roster, the Lakers have been shut out, shambled and routed in two consecutive Western Conference Semi-Finals by the Mavericks and the Thunder. After their loss against the Thunder, Bryant said that he envisaged changes to be made to the roster and the Lakers sure did match up to his expectations. The new additions are expected to make-up for all the deficiencies of the last campaign. But, these are mere speculations and expectations.

And with the pre-season and the beginning of the regular season, the Lakers had to come to terms with a reality that was much harsher. The matches indeed aren’t played on paper and all those who believed that all the Lakers needed to win was to drag their feet to the court, were in for a huge shock. The Lakers lost all their pre-season games and were comfortably beaten by the Mavericks and the Trailblazers in their two regular season games played so far.  To add to their woes, Mike Brown hasn’t been much effective or decisive in his strategies and contrivances.

Brown famously said that he is indifferent as to how the Lakers fared in the pre-season and he would use it to try out the offensive strategies and figuring the players who would make the cut for the Lakers roster. The Lakers didn’t play their starters heavy minutes and with their less than impressive bench running the show, a woeful performance wasn’t exactly a surprise. The Lakers went through the pre-season 0-8, but the entire media attention was mostly directed on the reception that Nash and Howard received, the media day, the photo-shoots, the Twitter comments and the Facebook posts. The pundits raved about the possibility, disdainfully brushing aside the calamitous and deplorable performance of the team. What should have been used as an opportunity to develop team chemistry and synchronization was spent mostly on galvanizing the stars and trying to figure out the rotation of players.

And come regular season the glaring flaws are in front of everyone to notice. The Mavs beat the Lakers comfortably, even though they were devoid of the services of Dirk Nowitzki. The Princeton Offense wasn’t clearly working for the Lakers and they added further misery to their woes by shooting a harrowing 38% from the charity stripe. The major offender in that match was their debutant all-star Center Dwight Howard, who had a debut to forget, missing 11 of his 14 free-throws, and fouling out with 2:04 left in the game.

A similar story was repeated less than 24 hours later, when the Lakers fell short against a Trailblazer team that can hardly be considered Championship worthy. However, this time around the Princeton didn’t cause their downfall because they did amass 106 points, but their defense let them down, as the Trailblazers scored a total of 116 points against them.

If one takes a closer look at the Lakers matches so far, some glaring paucities and deficiencies come to the fore:-

1. Is the Princeton Offence the right way to go

2. Getting the D to work

3. Getting the bench to score and take the load off the starters

THE PRINCETON OFFENSE

Charles Barkley famously said” I wish my economists to come from Princeton, and that is about it.” The Lakers new-fangled fad to employ the hugely successful collegiate strategy in the league has seen its fair share of detractors. The Kings and the Wizards used it, and neither team had a very successful time operating the offense.

In 10 games so far, the Lakers have yet to figure out the offense perfectly and regardless of what Eddie Jordan might be doing to help them, it simply isn’t working. The Lakers haven’t got good enough looks and have turned the ball over a staggering 38 points on offense in their two regular season games so far. Now, if you have Steve Nash running the show, 38 turnovers in two games is appalling and a serious disrespect to the basketball wizardry of Nash.

And that is where the grave frailty of the Princeton is exposed. It is an offense that is based on ceaseless perpetual motion around the perimeter, with the role of the 5 being very vital as he defines the flow of the offense with his screens and making way for the backdoor cuts. Now, on a collegiate level wish is based on players ever ready to move and looking for a direct way to navigate to the paint, this makes a lot of sense. However, on the pro level and mostly among veteran players like Bryant, MWP and Gasol it seems a lot of effort when there are easier options available. The Princeton Offense demands an optimum and almost telephonic understanding from every player involved. For a team whose starting five has hardly had the time to play together, the chemistry and understanding to execute the Princeton offense is a fairly tough ask. It is maybe no surprise that the Lakers actually conceded the no. of turnovers that they did. More importantly it doesn’t allow Nash to handle the ball and dictate the offense or Gasol to post up or even Bryant to take on his defender in an isolation situation. Nash is the best orchestrator of the pick and roll since maybe Oscar and Stockton. In his time with the Suns, he made the erroneous Amare Stoudemire look like the best big man in the league. Imagine what he could do with Gasol and Howard.

Yes, he is still running the pick and roll, but he isn’t doing it often enough to the dismay of most of the Laker fans. Coach Brown had the following to say about the situation, “”The first thing is, with our offense, every time down the floor — and if they want to, they can call up Steve Nash and ask him — Steve Nash has the right to play pick-and-roll if he wants to. (Nash) doesn’t feel like he’s as burdened because he doesn’t have to make every play for everybody all the time with what we’re trying to do. He can give it up and still have a chance to get it back. So, he said that he feels as fresh as he ever felt in his career because he doesn’t feel the pressure of making every single play.”

Two days into the season and Coach Brown is talking about Nash being fresher. Well, however he does see the offense running with Nash and Brown would be foolish not to encourage Nash to play pick and roll more often. Nash running the pick and roll is too simple to be corrupted and too effective to be dismissed. As about allowing Nash to remain fresh and effective all throughout the campaign, Brown can learn a thing or two from Greg Popovich about managing minutes for his veteran stars.

An ideal Laker team should line up something like this.

- The offense should be directed by Nash and he gets the call on which set to run. The go-to move should be the high pick and roll with Gasol, opening up a possible penetration for Nash, or a scoring opportunity for the rolling Gasol.

- If the defense does converge on the two, they always have the option of throwing an alley-oop to Howard, or the cross-court to the waiting Bryant or the much simpler pass to the spot-up corner shooter in MWP.

- If this doesn’t work they can rotate the ball out to the perimeter and allow Bryant and Howard to play the pick and roll on one-side of the floor, and considering Bryant’s ability to finish and score in traffic, it could be their go-to move deeper into the shot-clock.

And if nothing else works, just give Bryant the ball and let him bail you out.

Thus, for now the smarter strategy would be to concentrate on the above mentioned sets. The Princeton offense can be tried off as a variation, but can’t be seen as a go-to move, at least for now. When the play-offs do come it can be a vital weapon in their arsenal and it is scary to imagine a team that can hurt you in so many ways. And of course, if nothing works you always have Kobe to bail you out. Give him the ball in a mid-range isolation set and let him create his own shot. The perennial clutch shooter!

GETTING THE D TO WORK

Well, if you have four “defensive player of the year” titles within your team, then giving up 116 points against a less than impressive Trailblazers team is absolutely unacceptable. To add to this, Mike Brown is considered among the best defensive strategist in the league, and the Lakers were among the better defensive teams in the league in the last campaign.

In both of the games the Lakers inability to prevent dribble penetration and defend the pick and roll effectively has cost them dear. The combination of Nash/Blake/Duhon is easily the worst defensive trio in the league. Not surprisingly, the two players who hurt the Lakers most still now are Damian Lillard, the rookie 6th draft pick of the Trailblazers who burned the Lakers for 23 points and 11 assists, and Darren Collison who was the top scorer for the Mavericks with 17 points. The problem isn’t something that can be easily neglected as the league today is pretty heavily stacked and top heavy at the Point Guard position. With the likes of Westbrook, Lawson, Rose, Rondo, Paul, Williams and Parker running the show, the Lakers inability to guard the opposition Point Guards and defend the pick and roll effectively is sure to cost them dear.

The only possible solution to this problem maybe lies with the Lakers leader himself. A 9-time All NBA Defensive First team selection, he is more than an adept defender. In previous Lakers team under the enigmatic Phil Jackson, Bryant had to essay the role of a scorer and thus Jackson avoided taxing him much on the defensive end of the floor. But with this unit, the onus isn’t on Bryant to shoulder the offensive duties all by himself and thus it would be a wiser move to allow him to guard the better of the opposition guards. Bryant even at the age of 34, still has the quickness and agility to keep up with the better guards in the league, and with Howard guarding the paint and ever-ready to come up for the weak-side help, the league’s best PG’s can be easily kept at bay.

Another issue that the Lakers have struggled with is the inefficient and ineffective defensive rotation. The Lakers are a veteran team and don’t have the foot speed to play the stifling defense of a Miami Heat. Thus they have to rely on making better decisions on the defensive end, get into more double teams to force the ball out of the opposition’s best player and also use their instinct and basketball intelligence to anticipate the other team’s offensive moves and force turnovers. In short, it is all about percentages and the Lakers have to ensure that the opposition team puts up low percentage shots, rather than getting the easy two at the ring.

And for this to happen, it is vital that Howard is at the top of his defensive game and holds down the paint securely. He is still trying to get back into 100%fitness and once he gets into his prime physical condition one can easily expect the Lakers to lead the league in points allowed in the paint. Howard’s presence is like a free insurance and security cover that can allow the Lakers to be far more aggressive, play the passing lanes better and try to get some steals and force turnovers. This way they can afford to over-play on defense, take some chances and try to close-down the perimeter more quickly. Howard as the pivot on the defensive end should enforce himself more, calling out the cuts and dictating the defensive rotations. Most importantly his energy and unremitting attitude will brush onto the other team-mates and get them to play defense harder, run that extra yard, close-out that extra second quicker, jump that one inch higher.


THE SUPPORTING CAST

In the last campaign, the Lakers were among the worst teams in the league in terms of production off the bench. With the acquisition of Antawn Jamison, Jodie Meeks and Chris Duhon it was widely expected that the additions would see a prominent change in their fortunes. 10 games gone and the best story from the bench has been the energy of the rookie 60th draft pick from Gonzaga, Robert Sacre. Jamison has struggled to get his shot going, Duhon hasn’t played enough to impress and Meeks has been too inconsistent with his performance. In this scenario the likes of Ebanks and Hill are a slight ray of hope, with both players having added some impressive moves to their skill-set. Ebanks who failed to score a single basket from beyond the arc in the last campaign, has developed immensely and has evolved into a potent perimeter scorer. Hill on the other hand has added some effective post moves and has shown a desire to shoot the elbow jumper.

However, on an overall scale the Lakers still continue to struggle with their options off the bench. In the match against the Trailblazers, the bench could only contribute a paltry 15 points on 6-15 shooting. Further on they fail to add any energy and defensive intensity into the game and in most stretches allowed the opposition to run away with the game and build sizeable point differentials. The worst part is that with no prominent players on the bench, the Laker starting five were burdened with heavy minutes. In the last game, Bryant played 38:29 minutes, Gasol played 39:51 and Howard played 41:21 minutes. With the veteran stars being forced to play such heavy minutes and a less than 100% Howard going for over 40 minutes in a game, the Lakers might be in serious threat of fading away and to get overtly burdened with fatigue.  If the Lakers are to have a successful play-off campaign, it is essential that after 82 games the players are still in their prime physical condition and fresh, so that they invest all their energies into the business end of the season. If the Laker veterans continue playing such heavy minutes, a humiliating play-off loss might very well be in order.

Yes, it is still too early in the season to be passing judgements, but the initial signs definitely seem worrying. The Lakers might still be unruffled and are playing the patient game. As Howard aptly put, “We didn’t expect to just come together and be awesome. It’s always a process. We’ve got to stick with it so that at the end of the year we can have a trophy.”

However, the doubts have surfaced and it is very important that the new look Lakers quickly find a way to make the most of their insuperable collective talents. The Miami Heat took their fair share of time, but the veteran Lakers might not have that luxury on their hands. It may be the last chance for Nash to win the ring, maybe the only thing missing on his resume. Kobe plans to retire within the next two years and is aware that he doesn’t have much time to win the elusive 6th ring. Howard also needs to get a dynasty going, and script a legend of his own similar to the great Laker Cener’s like Mikan, Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal.

The opportunity is immense and the time is ripe. But, it may be that the Lakers might be riding on a false sense of confidence, assuming that the transition will be effective and smooth. The potential may not necessarily translate into results, something that the 2003-04 Lakers can easily vindicate. The Black mamba was a part of the team of 2003-04, which boasted of the likes of Payton, Bryant, Shaq and Malone playing at the same time. A similar team in terms of talent and legacies to the 2012-13 Lakers. The team of 2003-04 also had a legendary Point Guard and a famed Power Forward joining forces with the three-time champions with hope to find a crowning spangle to commemorate the twilight of their careers. The campaign went on pretty much as they expected until the Finals where they were easily gouged by the Pistons.

Bryant would definitely be wary of the same, the reason why he has called onto his teammates to better their effort and get a result in the next outing. He said, “It’s going to be a little edgy because I’m not a very happy camper walking around here right now. There are some things we have to shore up. We have to make sure we keep a sense of urgency.”

While the Black Mamba might foresee the warning signs, the newest addition of the Laker seemed to see the lighter side of the moment. Dwight Howard had a pretty impressive outing against the Trailblazers, scoring 33 points but most importantly knocking down 15 of his 19 attempted Free-Throws. He joked, “Do I get my Halloween candy? I made my free throws”. I am sorry Sir, we are way too bitter for that. And maybe the Black Mamba would agree.

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