Roundtable: Assessing the damage in Laker Land
Lakers Roundtable (cont.)
The Lakers' problems continue to mount. They entered Friday's game against the Thunder with a five-game losing streak, leaving them 11th in the Western Conference and five games behind the No. 8 seed. Dwight Howard is out indefinitely with a shoulder injury, and Pau Gasol remains sidelined after a concussion. At 15-20, can they turn it around and make the playoffs? Can they do anything to shake up the team during the season? Our NBA analysts examine those questions and more.
Ben Golliver: Continuity. That's probably the cleanest way to sum up the tumult of a coaching change, the constantly evolving lineups because of injuries and the lack of cohesion on defense. There are a good 10 playoff teams around the league that have settled into their respective identities and will likely keep their current trajectories unless ransacked by major injuries. The Lakers, on the other hand, are about as far from regular success as possible. Kobe Bryant has been the only consistent player and he's been far better on offense than defense. Howard and Gasol, both currently sidelined with injuries, have looked uncomfortable, less than 100 percent healthy and not totally sure what is expected from them on offense. Steve Nash has sat more than he has played. None of the role players have proved useful on a night-to-night basis. On the whole, this team looks like it was woken up in the middle of the night and asked to run on a treadmill that's set to four notches too fast.
Lee Jenkins: Defense. The Lakers are old, slow and don't work hard. All of those deficiencies are most evident on the defensive end, where they rank 21st in points allowed per possession. They've been a mediocre defense for a couple of years now, but Howard was supposed to erase a lot of their problems, especially dribble penetration. Whether he's not able or not willing, Howard hasn't been the stopper the Lakers expected, and when he jumps out for blocks his teammates are constantly late to rotate and help.
Rob Mahoney: Poor health. Problems abound, but they all fit into something of a web with injuries at the true center. If Howard were completely healthy, then perhaps L.A.'s defense wouldn't be so abysmal. Had Nash not fractured his leg, then maybe Mike Brown would still have a job or Gasol would be more comfortable on the floor. Even Steve Blake's presence throughout the season could've helped, as every bad break and torn muscle seemed to exponentially increase the speed of the Lakers' downward spiral.
Chris Mannix: Health is easy, defense and depth are obvious. But I firmly believe this team would be a lot better if it had a coach who emphasized its strengths. This is not a read-and-react team. This is not an up-tempo team. This is a team with two elite low-post players that should be pounding the ball inside at every opportunity. Howard has not cracked double digits in attempts in four of his last six games. Gasol is attempting the fewest shots of his career and, according to Hoopdata, is taking fewer shots at the rim (3.3 per game) and from between 3-9 feet (2.0) than at any point in his career. The coach is responsible for that.
Ian Thomsen: Health. They haven't been able to realize their potential because Nash was out for weeks and because Howard has been limited in his recovery from back surgery last season and sidelined by a recent shoulder injury. They haven't been able to establish Gasol in the low post. The lone healthy star has been Bryant, who came into the season expecting to share the ball and has emerged as the NBA's leading scorer. Nothing has gone to plan.
Golliver: I still like the D'Antoni hire because there's no question he's the right man to get the most from Nash, he has a good relationship with Bryant and his offense will look a lot better once those two and a fully healthy Howard settle in together. Phil Jackson, as great as he is, wasn't going to solve all of these problems by himself, at least not overnight, and he definitely wasn't going to be pulling wins out of the likes of Robert Sacre and Earl Clark. As for D'Antoni, I don't see any way the Lakers fire him before this season is out. He simply doesn't have the same burden of monstrous expectations that engulfed Brown. Ownership, management and the fan base have surely come to the conclusion that, regardless of who is coaching, there's not enough depth and cohesion on this roster to make a playoff push unless all four stars are healthy and clicking. Could D'Antoni get axed in an offseason housecleaning? I suppose, but Lakers ownership should resist that temptation and spend this trade deadline and offseason reshaping the roster with role players who will be of more use in his system.
Jenkins: I thought he was a good choice, but I also thought the Lakers would win the championship, so I'm terribly wrong on two counts. D'Antoni's offense demands accurate outside shooters who can space the floor and the Lakers are not a great shooting team. I assumed D'Antoni would tweak his system to maximize his two big men, but so far he's done the opposite, marginalizing Gasol. D'Antoni will probably make it to the end of the season, but not much longer.
Mahoney: I don't know that he was the definitive choice for the gig, but I do think he was one of several solid options. His relationships with Nash and Bryant alone make him a worthy manager of this group, and if management was indeed displeased with Brown's offense, then D'Antoni seemed a fair selection. He's tweaked his trademark system as needed, and though the execution isn't infallibly consistent or precise, the Lakers' offense generally churns on (L.A. ranks sixth in points per possession). D'Antoni's teams have historically been merely average defensively, and though this particular squad is riddled with defensive problems, the scheme is hardly to blame.
Mannix: D'Antoni is a good coach, but this is not the roster he should be coaching. He is inflexible; we saw that in New York. It broke down there because D'Antoni could not get Carmelo Anthony to buy into his pass-first philosophy. In Los Angeles, as I mentioned above, he has two players -- three, if you count Kobe -- who don't mesh with that style, either. The Lakers went after a big name, and they got one. But they didn't get the right one.
Thomsen: Well, I've been on record since Brown's dismissal that D'Antoni was the right coach. I wonder if he'll have the opportunity to prove it this season. If this team isn't able to play together for an extended period of health -- and I'm talking months -- then I don't see how the Lakers could blame D'Antoni unless they were to decide that they want to bring back Jackson after all (and he decides he wants to coach again). The easiest way to gauge D'Antoni's success will be whether he is able to engage Gasol in the offense. If their four stars are healthy and playing together, Gasol should be a valuable complementary star.
Golliver: The lesson from the last few years for the Lakers should be that there are bigger issues than merely "saving the season." Band-Aid solutions, taking on bad contracts and signing veterans to overpriced deals have put the Lakers behind the salary-cap eight ball until July 2014, when their books are on pace to be extraordinarily clean and clear. Until then, their contract commitments are huge and their flexibility is limited. That's fine for a championship contender, but it's death for a non-contender. GM Mitch Kupchak needs to start thinking and planning now for the next era of Lakers basketball. Who are the best, most attainable players to surround Bryant (who looks to have plenty of basketball left in his tank), Howard and Nash? What is the best method for creating the flexibility necessary to obtain those types of players? As has been the case for some time now, that process likely starts with Gasol's being moved. Using the amnesty clause on Metta World Peace this summer would make a lot of sense as it would reduce the Lakers' payroll and luxury-tax obligations. Tearing this down isn't going to happen overnight, but beginning the process of accumulating better assets needs to start as soon as possible.
Jenkins: There's not a lot they can do, beyond trading Gasol, and his value is at the floor. They need a tough perimeter defender and a stretch power forward. Gasol might be able to net a player who fills one of those needs, but not both. Unless the right deal presents itself, the Lakers are better off holding on to Gasol than dumping him for 50 cents on the dollar, because he can still be an excellent insurance policy if Howard leaves or if his shoulder injury is worse than believed.
Mahoney: There is no deal that is going to save the Lakers. Not one. I'm normally not a proponent of "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" rhetoric, but this team's problems are far too deeply rooted in effort and focus to be remedied by, say, dealing Gasol. Howard and Bryant aren't going anywhere this season, and defensively they fail to maintain any kind of accountability. At some point, the Lakers will have to come to terms with the defensive shortcuts they take (gambling, swiping at the ball without moving their feet, etc.) and how easily they veer from their game plan, and only then will they start to make legitimate progress.
Mannix: If you are not going to make a coaching change -- and I've received no indication from Lakers sources that they are considering one -- then you have to make a deal. Gasol, despite his recent spate of injuries and fat contract, remains the most likely to go. L.A. won't get max value for Gasol, not now. But maybe you look to Toronto and Andrea Bargnani. Maybe it's Boston and Jeff Green. Neither player is Gasol, but one (Bargnani) is a stretch 4 and the other (Green) is athletic, can run the floor and shoot the three, too.
Thomsen: There is nothing they can do. Kobe isn't going anywhere. Howard is their hope for the next era. Nash is too valuable, and Gasol's value is currently too low (in relation to his $19 million salary) to benefit from trading him. They can't fire the coach for the second time in three months. All they can do is try to develop some kind of faith in one another and hope for better health over the second half of the season.
Golliver: Through Thursday, Basketball-Reference put their playoff odds at 26 percent and John Hollinger's system had them at 27.4 percent. Both see seven teams (Spurs, Clippers, Thunder, Grizzlies, Nuggets, Rockets and Warriors) as virtual playoff locks. Even if we account for the fact that the Rockets and/or Warriors could collapse from their current standing, the Lakers are fighting with them plus the Jazz, Timberwolves and Blazers for one of -- at most -- three available spots. For context, the West's No. 8 seed won 50 games in 2010, 46 games in 2011 and 45 games in 2012 (if you adjust to a full 82-game schedule from the lockout-shortened 66-game schedule). The Lakers are 15-20, meaning they would need to finish 30-17 to get to 45 victories. That's not impossible by any stretch, but it sure sounds like a tall order in the middle of a five-game losing streak. In sum, I'd say the computer models are underestimating the Lakers a bit because there's always the possibility that everyone gets healthy and they string together a lengthy winning streak. If I were forced to bet money on this one, I'd pick against them (but I'd be shaky about it). Betting hard against the Lakers' winning a playoff series in the West would be a much, much more comfortable proposition.
Jenkins: The math says no, but I'll still say yes. As long as they remain engaged in D'Antoni's system, and avoid utter mutiny, they should be prolific enough offensively to dig out of this hole and squeeze into the No. 8 seed. But they will have to play far better in the second half than they did in the first, avoid the injuries that have hounded them and win a race in April against teams like Minnesota, Utah and Portland. It's just incredible that we're having this conversation, but it's very feasible that they miss the playoffs.
Mahoney: I think so, though it says plenty about the Lakers' season that it's even an open question. Frankly, there's little empirical reason to believe in L.A. at this point; the team's performance certainly isn't playoff worthy, and its current injuries will only make things harder as the schedule amps up. I'm just not quite prepared to concede their place in the postseason with Utah and Minnesota also dealing with injuries, not to mention Portland poised for a schedule-induced drop.
Mannix: I remain optimistic that L.A. will find a way to sneak in. Call it blind faith, but as Howard gets healthier and as the team starts to adjust to Nash and D'Antoni, the Lakers will start playing better. It's almost impossible for the Lakers to crack the top four, but they will barely get there and be the team that no one really wants to play in the first round.
Thomsen: The only way they'll miss the playoffs is if their health further crashes and burns. If Nash goes down again, they won't be good enough to recover. But if Nash stays healthy and they're able to get production out of Howard or Gasol in addition to Bryant, they'll be too talented to stay below the poverty line; they'll develop a rhythm and go on a winning streak in the second half of the season.
Golliver: Trying to predict what the flaky Howard will do is an exercise in self-inflicting pain. If he's able to think big picture, the Lakers -- and the city of Los Angeles -- represent all sorts of opportunities that he can't find in a vast majority of NBA cities. If he is truly impatient with a lack of meaningful playoff success and anxious to play for a ready-made contender, waiting the years (plural) it will take for things to develop in Los Angeles might be a tough sell. I tend to think this question will come down to two factors. First: How well does he actually get along with Bryant and do both of them believe they can win a title together? Second: Does L.A. wind up being irresistible from a marketing and exposure standpoint or can he find another situation where he can get enough attention and have a better shot at winning? I'm fine with calling this a coin flip.
Jenkins: Yes, but I am wavering on that more by the day. He'd have to hate this system -- and hate playing with Bryant -- so much that he is willing to forfeit $25 million and many more millions in endorsements. If Howard takes the long view, he'll see that Bryant is only under contract for one more year, and then the team will be his. But if his relationship with Bryant deteriorates further, and the team crumbles, it may be worth $25 million to escape.
Mahoney: Given that Howard spent the better part of two years in indecision, flirting with this team and that, being swayed by candy and opting in only to want out, I don't think there's any way to know. There are few forces in the universe more fickle than Howard's wants, and even if we could peg his preference as of today, his choice will likely have changed dozens of times by season's end.
Mannix: Barring a sign-and-trade, Howard would be leaving some serious money on the table if he walked at the end of the season. But if L.A. gets smacked in the first round or, worse, misses the playoffs, I think Howard bolts. Dallas -- with an appealing owner in Mark Cuban and a coach in Rick Carlise who likes to play in the half court -- would be my bet. But don't discount another team's emerging as a possibility this offseason. Howard's "list" of teams for which he'd play could always expand if things go south in L.A.
Thomsen: Where else is he going to go? The Lakers aren't going to participate in a sign-and-trade with him; if he insists on leaving, I'm sure they'd rather let him walk in order to take their chances with the gobs of cap space they'll have in 2014. The only team with cap space from his original list of destinations will be the Mavericks, and they haven't been sounding like the most optimistic organization either. I think Howard is going to stay.