March 08, 2010
Times are not nearly as troubling as a three-game losing streak would have some suggest, but the Los Angeles Lakers are in need of a significant philosophy adjustment if they are to glide to consecutive NBA titles.
That last bit is important. As presently constructed, playing as we saw over the course of this three-game losing streak and as we've seen them play before, the Lakers can topple the Magic, Cavaliers, Celtics and any number of Western secondary options that might be thrown their way. As is now, they are the champs, and they are playing well enough to win the championship in June.
So once again, I'm in the uneasy position of telling you why things aren't as bad as you think they are, or for some of you, why things aren't going as well as you think they should. It's that middle ground that I can't live with myself for at least attempting to smartly occupy, and it's probably why you've never seen me on TV. So it goes.
The streak, to start. Los Angeles has lost three in a row, for the first time in more than two years. The first time since Pau Gasol(notes) became a Laker. The first time since, really, a three-game losing streak would mean anything to this team since Shaquille O'Neal(notes) was a Laker.
But they also lost to the Heat by three in overtime. That's a swing-either-way game. They were thumped again by the Bobcats, but that marks the seventh time in nine attempts that Charlotte has beaten the Lakers. The Bobcats have their number. It's over. They also won't see them again until sometime next December.
Then on Sunday, the Lakers lost to the Magic by three. Another either/or game, because as much as I credit the Magic for this win, these close games can go either way. It's usually your rooting interest that deludes you into believing otherwise.
So, clearly, this is the three-game losing streak that isn't. Or, probably, it's the three-game losing streak that really doesn't mean a whole hell of a lot. There wasn't anything the Lakers were doing in this streak that they haven't been doing all season.
For better and for worse.
That's the "for worse," and I must remind that Los Angeles can win a championship playing exactly this way. Why they would want to, I have no idea.
Well, I know why they would want to. And it hurts to even talk about it.
It involves Kobe Bryant needlessly trying to dominate games offensively. It involves him playing the hero late, which he's done to great acclaim this season, but sometimes to the detriment of his team offensively.
Like on Sunday. He scored 18 points in the fourth quarter, but if you take 16 shots in the quarter (as Kobe did), you sure as hell better score 18 points. At least 18 points. How would Lakers fans like it if Jordan Farmar(notes) had a game that saw him take 16 shots to score 18 points? They'd ride him out of town, chanting something rude about "volume shooting" the whole trip out.
Early in the season, it didn't appear he would. In fact, watching Trevor Ariza(notes) head down to Houston and promptly shoot the Rockets out of game after game (or, at least, "comfortable win after comfortable win"), we'd almost call Artest's terrible shot selection in Houston "a product of the system," had we not seen him pull the same crap in Indiana and Sacramento.
Overall, he hasn't been great offensively. He's shot 41 percent this season, a little lower than his career averages, but nothing to get too worried about as long as he keeps bringing the defense. And he was worse in January (39 percent) than last month, so it's not as if he's trending.
But this is a crucial moment. Ron played great defense on Sunday, but he also was too aggressive at times, needlessly overplaying on screen and rolls, caring only about his man, taking himself out of position. Worse, he's missed 16 of 19 shots the past two games. And as Phil Jackson will tell you, a bit of pay-attention-to-me/don't-pay-attention-to-me attitude like his recent hair-style change and refusal to talk about it is often a sign of cabin fever. Jackson, after coaching Dennis Rodman for three seasons, knows.
There's no shame in that, it's just what happens. It's a long season, we all react in different ways.
So this is why it has to end now. Missing 16 of 19 shots in just two games needs to be a fluke. A blip. Something harmless to look back upon in June. Kobe, Jackson, Derek Fisher(notes) - they need to stop it.
In more ways than one.
Kobe, as we've warned all season, needs to take it easy. He is to be lauded to no end for his clutch play this season, for his overall season and for playing through injuries. But he is not to be lauded nor tolerated for playing at times in a style and with a level of intelligence that is beneath him.
There is no reason a player like Bryant, on a team this good, should be averaging 22.2 shots per game. That's over a shot more per game than last season, and while you may think that insignificant, it isn't. Not with this roster, this relative health and Kobe's own injuries. To say nothing of the fact that his shooting percentages are down across the board.
Not significantly, mind you, but enough. The minutes are up, too, but Kobe has to back off. He has to. For a team like the Lakers - even with that bench, even with Derek Fisher around - to be 11th in offense? That's ridiculous. There's no excuse for that, and it comes down to execution and decision-making.
Decision-making needs to be Fisher's forte, and if he's going to be getting burned on defense as much as he does, he has to stop calling his own number for long two-pointers early in the shot clock.
It's one thing to see Kobe wave off Andrew Bynum(notes) (having already sealed Dwight Howard(notes) five feet from the hoop) to try and post up Jameer Nelson(notes) 21 feet from the hoop (actually happened Sunday, terrible possession, ending in a missed Artest 3-pointer as the shot clock ran down). It's another to see Fisher call his own number time and again. He made four of his 12 shots Sunday, which was one fewer attempt than Pau Gasol. And Fisher has made only 38 percent of his attempts this season.
The execution? I put part of this on Jackson. This team comes out of timeouts and runs a screen-and-roll set instead of the triple post, the ultimate teach-a-man-to-fish/give-a-man-a-fish situation.
I know the screen-and-roll elements come within the triple post, but Jackson's been giving his team the fish all year, and I'm nervous about how it's paying off. Kobe's hit a series of game-winners, I know, but lost among all those game-winners is the fact that a few of those games shouldn't have been close enough for Kobe to have to bail out Los Angeles, and that's solely the fault of the offense.
And the flip side to that, and the Kobe-centric stuff late, is as you saw in the overtime loss to Miami or in the loss to Orlando Sunday. It's all Kobe late. And while he's Kobe and he's awesome and you think they're going in, these aren't great shots that he's taking and, sometimes, making.
The team element, the five-man offense that offers myriad options and is designed to topple any defense you throw at it? It's gone, replaced with orthodoxy. Screen-and-roll. Kobe isolated. That's not the Lakers. They're greater than the sum of their parts. Or, at least, they should be.
And they should be champs, mind you. Even playing like this, I'd have to prefer them. But they are making life way, way harder than it has to be. They're not playing lazy, they're not playing down to the competition and they're not "switching it on." They're not taking possessions off, unless you count making stupid, overly aggressive decisions time and again "taking possessions off."
They're just not playing as well as they should on offense, for reasons that are entirely correctable.
This isn't a rip job. I'm telling you that everything's going to be fine. It's just, as it is in anything this prominent and this significant, there are major issues that even a team as great as the Lakers needs to work on. And the Lakers know this.
Whether they decide to do anything about this is up to them.