Everyone seems to have an opinion as to why the Los Angeles Lakers haven’t enjoyed the Earth-shattering start to their season many of us may had anticipated. Considering all of the hype and hoopla that surrounded this team once they were able to put together what (at one point) looked like the best roster in over a decade, the level of outrage and uproar over the (now) 12-14 (W/L) start shouldn’t come as any surprise. Fox Sports’ Jason Whitlock believes the team has struggled due to Kobe Bryant’s ego. ESPN’s NBA analyst Chris Broussard has chimed in with his own “unnamed sources” from around the NBA that also placed the blame at the feet of the 17-year veteran, coincidentally in the midst of one of his most efficient seasons to date. Plenty of others have added everything from head coach Mike D’Antoni’s questionable player rotation (sound familiar?) to the team’s free throw struggles to the growing list of this team’s greatest concerns.
For the record, I actually have a great deal of respect for each of them (Whitlock/Broussard) as professionals, just as I saw where Lakers Nation’s own Daniel Buerge was coming from with his take on the subject. The truth is, while there is a certain level of validity to each of their claims, the Lakers’ problems go much deeper than any of that. To be quite honest, while even Bryant isn’t (nor should he be) beyond criticism, I humbly disagree that his play has been anywhere near the biggest concern for these Lakers. In fact, while certain statistics may point to the contrary, I don’t think the Lakers would be anywhere near the .500 mark without Bryant’s insatiable will to win.
That said, in agreement with all three of those writers, I also believe the Lakers’ best shot of winning an NBA title is developing a formula where Bryant isn’t needed to carry so much of the load. While some players have shown flashes and signs of life here and there, the Lakers are going to need a consistent level of assertiveness/aggression from each player on a nightly basis. Bryant, to his credit, understands the necessity to be able to rely upon his teammates more than any of us. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have been in favor of the additions of Nash/Howard in the first place. Trouble is, for a man as decorated and dedicated to winning as Bryant, at times it can be difficult to immediately believe in those that simply haven’t done enough to earn that trust. Whether we agree with it, this way of doing things has led Bryant’s Lakers to five NBA titles. Just for perspective, I remind you the man has played in the Finals for nearly half (7) of his NBA life. Again, Bryant is far from beyond reproach, but it is somewhat understandable that he finds it difficult to ‘learn new tricks’ at this point.
All of that said, I tend to agree most with ESPNLA’s Mark Willard’s take on the Lakers when he said, “This is not a ‘he‘ problem, this is a we problem.” As a team, the Lakers are 20th in the league in Opponents’ PPG. Even though they have the 6th best offense (102 PPG), they are just 23rd in assists (20.3 APG), which means they are working much harder than they should have to in order to score all of those points. Nash’s return would certainly address much of that, but the Lakers are still left with the quandary of figuring out how to properly utilize their players.
I’m not sure that I understand how benching Metta World Peace will somehow make it easier for Pau Gasol to play the stretch-4 position of the D’Antoni system, but I am also willing to acknowledge the fact that Mike D’Antoni has probably forgotten more about basketball than most of us ever known. If we’re being honest about things, that looks more like an attempt to place additional pressure on GM Mitch Kupchak to deal with the his concerns over the roster simply not fitting his system than anything else. Especially, when you consider the bounce-back year MWP is in the middle of, and the fact that outside of a few obvious players, MWP is one of the only ones that brings a consistent level of intensity and effort.
Reportedly, the team is actively shopping recently re-signed PF Jordan Hill, which makes even less sense to me, given his propensity to generate intensity and energy as well. I’ll hold off speculating or questioning the moves any further (for now), but I’m also hoping the return of PG Steve Nash can prove to be the remedy everyone surrounding the Lakers’ organization has been so emphatically reminding us of. I’m optimistic, as I could see the offense being as exciting as we all once envisioned with a few weeks to develop cohesiveness. The natural ‘Devil’s Advocate’ in me still has concerns over the issues with transition defense, but I will admit the overall half court defense is slowly showing signs of improvement.
The most vital aspect of Nash’s return, in my opinion, will be the team’s ability to finally develop a familiarity with each other. At times, while prematurely celebrating a 17th banner, we forget the reality that this team is working on its 3rd full-time head coach (sorry Bernie), 4th system (good riddance, Princeton), and 2nd massive roster overhaul in just the last three seasons. Not to mention, the injuries and added pressure of Bryant’s (eventual) impending retirement. Those are certainly not excuses, but anyone within their right frame of mind would be able to look at those circumstances and determine a serious necessity for some continuity.
Whether Nash is able to return tomorrow at Golden State or Christmas Day vs the New York Knicks, let’s hope he can be just the spark this team has needed.