I’m not certain about each of you, but even though there was disappointment following last night’s road loss at the hands of the Denver Nuggets, I wasn’t left with that overwhelming sense of discouragement that seemed to follow a majority of the other losses this season. Part of that, admittedly, is because it came on the heels of the first 5-game winning streak of the season. Part of it, obviously, is because the additions of a healthy Steve Nash and Pau Gasol has led to a better brand of basketball out of the Purple and Gold.
There should be no disillusion, the Los Angeles Lakers still have plenty of room to grow and develop. Trouble is, the pressure remains, as they don’t have much time to do so. As has been oft-discussed, this team must find a way to improve while on the fly. Not only must they find an immediate understanding of D’Antoni’s offense, but they have to develop the type of chemistry, trust, and accountability this team simply hasn’t been able to cultivate over the past two-plus seasons.
Prior to the return of Nash, I was cautiously optimistic, but concerned whether the organization (and fans alike) were placing too many high hopes upon the services of one guy. Admittedly, seeing him in action is enough to truly believe, but the risks of depending upon a 38-year-old point guard returning from a broken leg remain in tact. Even with the reports of the organization no longer being interested in obtaining/signing additional back court help, I still think this team is a competent ball-handling (and defending) guard away from being complete. Darius Morris and Chris Duhon have each shown flashes, but it may be too much to expect either of them to run the system remotely close to how Nash does.
Prior to critiquing Dwight Howard, I’d like to praise him for battling through physical limitations in an obvious struggle to return from his back surgery. That said, while some of his frustration is understandable, Howard is going to have to find a way to express his disappointment without repeatedly getting himself into foul trouble or out of favor with the NBA officials. Quite frankly, on top of the physical limitations, Howard is a player that is probably fouled on nearly every possession. Having seen that in the past, with a player that shall remain nameless, I completely understand how compounded with the physical limitations that would be a great deal to endure. That said, the Lakers have to be hoping Nash can find a way to make life easier for Howard as he works his way back to full strength.
A healthy Pau Gasol, while no longer dominant, has been a welcomed addition over the past week. Coach D’Antoni has yet to fully establish the best method to utilize Gasol, but his steady productivity can still help a team struggling to locate an identity. In all honesty, while I love the way Nash orchestrates the offense, I’d actually like to see him utilize his own offensive skill set (more) at times. One of the perks of having one of the deadliest shooters in league history is being able to balance the court while using his near 50/40/90 (career shooting percentages) as a weapon. If the Lakers can remain relatively healthy, balance and comfort should be the first to develop. Once everyone is comfortable within a role/rotation, then familiarity and confidence are sure to rise.
I don’t envy the position, but Coach D’Antoni is going to have to find a way to balance out the minutes of players like Jordan Hill and Antawn Jamison. While each are limited by their individual skill sets, they can both provide precise elements of the game the Lakers need at times. Hill, a former 1st-round (#8) pick in the draft, is exactly the rim-defending energy guy you need in stretches throughout the game. Jamison, while older and far less mobile than he once was, can still stretch the floor and provide an additional scoring option off the bench alongside Metta World Peace.
Looking ahead at the schedule, these Lakers don’t have any time to sit around licking their wounds. Even with the new found optimism, the next two-week stretch could be a major determining factor to where these Lakers will ultimately land in the standings. A rematch with the still Bynum-less Philadelphia 76ers is sandwiched by huge meetings with several of the Western Conference opponents they are actively vying for playoff position with. Not to worry Lakers Nation, but the next couple weeks only become that much more important when you realize they are followed by a stretch of 10-13 games on the road, including the annual ‘Grammy’ road trip.
Nash and the Lakers get their first opportunity to exact revenge against rookie PG Damian Lillard and his Portland Trail Blazers on Friday night at Staples. In case the myriad of highs/lows of this season caused you to forget, not only did Lillard and the Blazers hand the Lakers a surprising double-digit loss on Halloween, but that was also the game where Nash suffered the unfortunate leg (Fibula) fracture that led to him missing the first trimester of the season.
If the first couple games of his comeback are any indication, the Lakers should return to Staples ready to compete and with a greater sense of purpose. As much as I wanted to hesitate in placing such a burden on one player, Nash seems like exactly the type of player that can galvanize an entire organization. For the sake of these Lakers, we can only hope his body and (remaining) time permits this team to turn things around.