Los Angeles Lakers: Practice report
The funniest thing was probably watching Darius Morris watch Steve Nash put in his time on the elliptical machine as the Lakers' starting point guard recovers from a small fracture in his left fibula. Morris couldn't get over how smiley Nash looked, as if he could just be "some guy at 24 Hour Fitness." Shows his ID card on the way in, grabs a towel, and goes.
Morris is young and grew up in L.A., so he probably hasn't met that many Canadians. A jovial people, they are.
The most entertaining?
How about Darius Johnson-Odom, standing well beyond the 3-point line, throwing the ball against the back wall of the gym with a hard underhand toss, then grabbing the rebound and rising to dunk with a right-handed windmill. On the first try. Then, just for fun, DJO jumped and put his head up at the rim. Not bad for 6 feet 2. For those wondering why the Lakers chose to keep him around with their 15th roster spot, that sort of athleticism provides a strong clue.
- At his introductory news conference, D'Antoni said if the Lakers weren't consistently up around 110 points a night, something wasn't working correctly. Obviously that means the Lakers are hoping to add more possessions to game, meaning the opposition will get more trips, too. That makes points allowed a bad measurement of defense. D'Antoni, therefore, spends his time looking at efficiency. "The whole thing is the number of points you score for every possessions," he said. "That's the only thing you can do. ... That's the only metric that's even worth anything." I asked if he had a number in mind. "Less than we get," he joked, before saying he definitely believed opponents should be held under a point per possession -- I got the impression he might have a more specific figure in mind -- while the offense should be over.
- For the record, via ESPN's calculations the Lakers currently average 1.049 points per play, and allow .976.*
- The Lakers aren't a team generating many turnovers. They were last in defensive turnover percentage last season, and this year are 27th. If a team doesn't generate turnovers, a treasure trove of easy points, it's that much more important not to give away points at the free throw line. "We don't foul as a team. That's huge. We're number one in not fouling." (Technically, the Lakers are second in opponent's FT/FGA to New Orleans, but led the league by a fair margin last year.) If the Lakers are going to improve defensively over the course of the year defensively, this can't change.
"It wasn't a sigh of relief for me," Brown said of the win. "It was a thing to help us continue to believe. Our guys were determined. I told them going into this that it wouldn't be easy and that it's a process. I told them we'll get bumped in the head a few times. I told them they had to handle the adversity they face the right way and it'll make us stronger later. It might make it tough what we go through now. But it will make us stronger in a seven-game series and we drop two in a row.
“Our resolve was great to see. More than anything else, it helps this group continue to believe that what we're doing is right for us."
Speaking of adversity, for the immediate future the Lakers will have to find ways to win without Steve Nash at the helm. Steve Blake and Darius Morris obviously can't hold a candle to the two-time MVP at peak efficiency, but the two have held down the fort reasonably well with Canada's favorite son sidelined. Brown expressed plenty of confidence in the duo, particularly since he wants to keep the goals simple.
"The guys we're playing now, in Blake and Morris, have some of the best feet in the league at that spot," Brown said. "They're going to have to get up and work the ball. Not to get steals but to take time off the clock and try to disjoint our opponent a little bit. Those guys did that perfectly last night. They brought the ball up the floor and didn't turn it over and did their job defensively.
"Offensively, the biggest thing is to keep us organized. If at all possible, we need low turnover numbers from those guys. We need them to be able to keep us organized. Both Blake and Morris did a fantastic job with that. Morris being a young guy and not playing much, he had a possession out there where he pushed the ball and the floor balance wasn't there. He brought the ball back out and put his hand out, like this, to calm everyone down. He got us into our offense and got a great look after moving the ball. Stuff like that has to be a big thing for the point guards."
No question, some nerves were settled by the debut of Dwight Howard, whose mere presence provided glimpses of the high ceiling possessed by these Lakers. But as with any player returning from injury, there's always fear of setbacks. And in a game in which Steve Nash and Metta World Peace also suffered injuries (a sore ankle and a dislocated right middle finger, respectively), those concerns are compounded.
Well, so far so good.
Howard told reporters of notable soreness, but those aches are a part of the process. The center was told his body would react this way, and treatment was part of today's agenda. In other words, nothing out of the ordinary. For that matter, Nash and MWP practiced -- albeit in a session with no heavy contact -- and neither is expected to miss any games. The same can be said for Kobe Bryant, who skipped today's workout with a strained right foot. The injury took place during Sunday’s loss to the Sacramento Kings, but nobody seemed particularly nervous about an extended absence. Mike Brown confirmed that Jordan Hill is close to a return.
The benefits to having all hands on deck extend beyond just the roster's collective strength. It allows Brown to finally develop an informed opinion for a desired rotation. Between the third-stringers he's been forced to give obligatory looks and some key players being absent, the coach hasn't been able to utilize players as envisioned. And the results have been obvious, especially with the reserves on the floor.
Tuesday against the Portland Trail Blazers, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace each logged approximately 30 minutes, Jamison was on the court for just under 28 and Steve Nash played a little more than 25. To some degree, this was the byproduct of Kobe Bryant (who should play on Saturday against Utah), Dwight Howard and Jordan Hill all donning street clothes. But as he explained the next day, it was also part of coach Mike Brown's master plan to get his core players properly conditioned.
"I was just trying to increase some of the guys, let them get some work on their conditioning," Brown said. "Basically, it was a bump up in their minutes from the first game, and it'll probably stay like that for a couple of games."
After Tuesday's game, Brown noted that Gasol in particular was "working into game shape," so I asked if the forward's conditioning to this point was beneath expectations. As Brown explained, the issue wasn't Gasol being out of shape, but actually worn down a bit from too much exertion. Last season featured heavy minutes, Gasol played this summer with Spain's national team and training camp has already featured some tough practices. That wear and tear may be catching up to him, but the only way to get through it is ultimately by forcing Gasol to push through.
"You gotta understand that a guy like Pau, a guy like Kobe, those guys have played some heavy minutes this summer and they've practiced quite a bit," Brown said. "So it's gonna take them a little while to get back to form, even though they're in great shape. Not only that, I've been practicing these guys pretty long and pretty hard, so these guys have to continue to try to get minutes to slowly to build up to where they would be again.
"If I make it uncomfortable for them now, hopefully, later in the year, that uncomfortable feeling that they're getting from me right now won't ever come up again because they've been through stuff like that."
"I just don't want to make an excuse. At this point, for the Laker fans, I should really say what's on my mind. I should say what's on my mind for the Laker fans. But I don't want to make any excuses. There's only two things that matter. One thing that matters is winning. In basketball, there's just wins and losses. So there's no time for excuses.
"If I start talking about that, I'm going to open myself up for excuses and I'm not one to give excuses. So, it's hard for me to speak about the (amount of) games (I was suspended)."
Like I said, you do the math. Or read MWP's Tweets sent -- and later deleted -- that afternoon. Whichever is easiest.
Beyond that, Mike Brown expressed some concern about Matt Barnes being available for Game 1 of the playoffs. Barnes sprained his right ankle Sunday against the Thunder and won't be making the trip to Sacramento for the final game of the season. "My guess is as good as yours, because I haven't asked Gary [Vitti]," admitted Brown. I think so, but really, I'm just taking a coin and flipping a coin. I don't know."
In the meantime, Brown plans to rest some starters, considering the third seed is now a stone cold lock. Who'll sit and who'll play hasn't been decided yet, and the players themselves will get a vote. (For what it's worth, Andrew Bynum is fine both playing or taking the night off.) Either way, expect a healthy dose of Andrew Goudelock, Darius Morris and Christian Eyenga(!), who was activated today from the D-Fenders. Brown admittedly knows very little about the Congolese product's game, but in an odd bit of coincidence, coached the kid as a teenager during a Basketball Without Borders camp in Africa.
Holy full circle, Batman!
Metta World Peace on his suspension
Brown told reporters at shootaround Friday in preparation for L.A.'s game against the Houston Rockets that the Lakers have reached out to the league seeking clarification as to why both of Griffin's dunks on Gasol -- a putback in the first quarter and the poster-worthy jam in the third -- weren't called as fouls against Griffin.
"I’m waiting to see an interpretation on the call because it’s a heck of a play [but] I thought if you led with your forearm, I thought that’s an offensive foul," Brown said. "But maybe I don’t know the rules that well. It will be interesting to make sure that I have an explanation or understanding of what the rules are."
Brown said Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak has reached out to the league office on behalf of the team, searching for answers.
Gasol took umbrage with Griffin's Mozgov-like dunk after the game Wednesday.
"You don't really see what happened," Gasol said. "It was quick, a hit-and-run kind of thing, right? The ball went in, I was on my ass, I woke up, I stood up and told the referee I had a f---ing forearm on my face, on my throat, and that's something that needs to be looked at."
Brown said Griffin's first-quarter dunk on Gasol also should have been an infraction.
Last season, even with eventual 6MOY Lamar Odom leading the way, the most reliable element offered by the Lakers' bench was unreliability. With LO in Dallas, the bench predictably floundered most of this season, but slowly experienced an uptick in effectiveness (if not raw numbers) as the trade deadline approached. Enter Ramon Sessions and his instant chemistry with Matt Barnes and Josh McRoberts, and the reserves suddenly resembled a credible unit. When Sessions inevitably was tabbed to start, I was optimistic Steve Blake, who looked stiff as a cadaver among the starters as a transparent place-holder, would regain his comfort level quarterbacking the reserves. Assuming that theory was correct, the second unit might suffer a dip losing the more talented player in Sessions, but would play well enough to avoid being a liability.
As it turns out, we're back to square one. The reserves have regressed to their collectively non-scoring ways. Any lead is jeopardized every time the Lakers roll largely with substitutes. And Blake is way out of sorts, which to me is the single-biggest reason this group is floundering. I asked Mike Brown what he has seen in the point guard that could explain his struggles.
"I haven't specifically asked him about it," Brown said. "I just want him to keep trying to be aggressive and keep trying to run the team in the same breath. The one thing I told him is I'm OK with you being aggressive more than anything else. I thought he played well at the beginning of the season and then he got hurt. And then he came back in basically the same role and there was a stretch where he didn't play as well and he really hasn't consistently gotten back to where he was in the beginning of the year.
"More than anything else, I think it's just him being confident and aggressive is going to play a huge role in that. The last couple of games, I thought he tried to be aggressive. Now, he hadn't made shots yet, but some of the things that he's doing out on the floor have helped a lot in my opinion."
With the playoffs beginning in just about a month, talk of postseason seeding is picking up and the Lakers find themselves in the unique situation of a schedule that could either help them catch the Spurs quickly or, in a sense, double the separation between the two teams. From April 11-20, three of the six games the Lakers will play are against San Antonio, with two of the three coming on the road.
L.A. has yet to play the Spurs this season, but Lakers coach Mike Brown says he believes it's possible to track down his mentor, Gregg Popovich, and the boys in black and silver.
"It could happen," Brown said after the Lakers' film session and light practice Saturday.
As long as the Lakers keep the Clippers and Phoenix Suns at bay and win the Pacific Division, the worst they'll be seeded is No. 3. Brown isn't putting any pressure on the San Antonio pursuit.
"I never really put any goals like that on our team in terms of how many games we need to win or where we need to finish," Brown said. "Obviously it would be great to finish first if that happens, but I don’t think that was of the utmost importance for us because I felt the season was going to be wacky and I just wanted to be at our best at the end, wherever that was [in terms of seeding]. If we were at our best at the end, I really don’t care if we play at home or on somebody’s court, we’ll go get it done."
Still, the three games in 10 days against the Spurs should provide a mini playoff feel for both the Lakers players and coaching staff as the two teams make adjustments to each other from game to game.
"[It will be] a test, meaning that they’re a good basketball team and it will be fun to compete against them and they give you a feel based on how they defend and based on how they play offense of some things that you need to adjust to," Brown said. "But, in terms of us winning three games or them winning all three games, to me, that doesn’t mean much."
As far as that cushion in the standings the Lakers have been able to build by winning seven of their last nine games, it doesn't do much for Brown.
"There’s still a ways to go," Brown said. "I think there’s starting to be some separation, but I think in the loss column it’s like two or three games. I think it’s still within shouting distance for everybody. I think when you start talking 6-7 games, maybe that’s a little bit different, but I still consider us all close."
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Of course, we're a few years -- and a few guns -- removed from Gilbert Arenas' days as a premiere scorer. The injury-prone, famously flaky guard hasn't resembled the dude making him one of the NBA's best for quite some time. A good workout is promising, but it's quite another thing for that showing to translate into NBA usefulness on a game-in, game-out basis. Until demonstrated otherwise, Arenas is a big name in name-only.
Brian has expressed apprehension about Arenas, and among the reasons he cited was the time spent trying to integrate the guard. The most recent evidence suggests Arenas isn't very good anymore, and there's no guarantee he'll be a good fit. Thus, he could end up an exercise in square pegs and round holes. That time spent getting Gilbert up to speed might not just be a waste, but could also potentially disrupt whatever progress the Lakers might make moving forward. A few weeks ago, I actually agreed with my brother, largely because I was willing to believe more practice and rest could yield signs of improvement.
But with the Grammy Trip in the books and signs of genuine forward progress few and far between, I'm reminded of a classic 'Seinfeld' scene. The gang's at a cock fight to watch Kramer's rooster "Little Jerry Seinfeld" do battle. In the meantime, Elaine informs Jerry she's mulling over a marriage proposal from her latest boyfriend, and the following exchange takes place:
Jerry: Marriage is a big step, Elaine. Your life will totally change.
Elaine: Jerry, it's three-thirty in the morning. I'm at a cock fight. What am I clinging to?
That's kind of how I feel about Arenas at this point. As presently constructed, the Lakers roster doesn't have the weapons to run an efficient offense, or Mike Brown simply can't figure out how to use what's in front of them. Either way, I anticipate a lot of limbo. Some games the Lakers will catch fire. Others, they'll crash and burn. But you get a sense things are largely what they are. Arenas theoretically provides a few skills this team could use. If he's 60-70 percent of what he once was, that's probably enough to offer at least some utility. If not, the Lakers really are no worse off, because staying the course leaves no margin for error to begin with. Another two months spent walking a razor's edge and this team will undoubtedly slip.
Again, what are they clinging to?
Hakuna matata, says Kobe Bryant, who suggested Wednesday following practice in El Segundo the team might be better than the road record suggests.
"I'm not really worried about it. I'm excited to get on the road and play. I'm extremely confident that we'll play much better."
For that to happen, the Lakers need to improve in a few key areas, Bryant pointing specifically to the defensive glass. Despite romping over a wretched Charlotte squad Tuesday night at Staples, the Lakers gifted the Bobcats 10 second-chance points in the first half (of the 36 Paul Silas' crew scratched out), one game after allowing the Timberwolves to grab 24 offensive rebounds, leading to 32 second-chance points. Facing the Clippers last week, the Lakers allowed 17 ORB's.
Obviously it's something requiring more attention, Bryant said.
"[We just need to] play with a sense of urgency. Be fundamentally sound on the glass. Put bodies on bodies. We're not gonna jump over people, so you can't just turn around and watch the ball. You gotta box people out, so you can be fundamentally sound."
Mike Brown echoed concerns about the boards, adding their general level of execution has to get better. The Lakers have been plagued by inconsistency, particularly on the road, where papering over mistakes is a tall order and periodic breakdowns can quickly cascade into total operational failure.
"The biggest thing is our execution, especially down the stretch and throughout the course of the game, because that’s where teams get separation. You’re in somebody else’s building, and if you’re not familiar with one another, if I’m constantly changing rotations and lineups and stuff like that, that affects that area," he noted. "Now you’re in a loud building and your execution isn’t good, and you waste three or four possessions offensively and the other team scores. The momentum goes to the other team, and the next thing (you know) you’re in a hole, and you’re fighting your way out of the hole, and it’s tough."
Brown said he'd try to build more consistency in the rotation, particularly in the second unit, using the two previous games as a blueprint. Andrew Bynum as an anchor, together with floor-stretching big Troy Murphy in the frontcourt and Andrew Goudelock running the point. "Hopefully," he said, "I can stick to it."
The bench scored 48 points against Charlotte, so at the very least, they're a group playing with a little confidence as the road trip starts. Ultimately it may not help, but it certainly can't hurt.
"It's been one of those tough back-to-backs that I think multiple teams have faced throughout the years," said Derek Fisher. "It's similar to, over the years, you have a Dallas-San Antonio back-to-back. You have to play those back-to-backs within regions. They're just tough. They're two of the better teams, not just in the Eastern Conference, but in the NBA as a whole. And when you combine that with our struggles on the road, it presents two good tests for us."
No argument from Andrew Bynum, who labeled the games "good measuring tools for us."
"We can definitely see where we're at," added the center. "Hopefully, we can get two wins ... We need to get at least one.
Interestingly, when I asked Mike Brown about the measuring stick potential for this Floridian jaunt, he downplayed the possibility.
“I don’t know. No matter who we play, I’m always gonna try to use that game to determine where we are. So, yeah, we’re playing Miami and then Orlando, but we played Dallas [Monday], but because we beat them that doesn’t mean we’re the best team in the West or anything. I think we did some good things and it shows we have a chance to be real good because we were able to execute and do some things positively against the NBA champions. But we still have a ways to go.
“We could lose and do a lot of things right and play well but it just wasn’t our night or something like that. We could win and we could get lucky winning. We could hit shots out of our behind all over the place the whole time, and they could just be off. And I’d be just as hard on our guys if we win a game like that and we didn’t do things the right way on both ends of the floor. I’d be just as tough on them as if we lost.”
Truth be told, Brown's exactly right. The way the team plays is much more important than the actual score in either direction. This squad being a work in progress, progress is in fact the most critical element moving forward, and that's the bottom line, win or lose. Still, it would feel nice to touch down in L.A. with another W or two in the ol' back pocket.
Plus, Kobe Bryant's wrist is currently being held together by skin, tape and the caressing fingers of physical therapist Judy Seto.
With all that in mind, when asked to grade the team, the consensus was fairly forgiving.
“Right now, I think a ‘B’ is a good grade,” said Pau Gasol. “At this point, a fair grade. I think it's a good grade because I think that's where we are right now at this point in the season and the situation that we have. I think it's a work in progress to get to a higher grade, which is by working and getting deeper into the season."
If El Spaniard is among the "students" being graded in this scenario, then his coach would be the teacher doling out marks. But "Professor" Brown, meticulous and studied as he may be, wasn't so specific in addressing the same question.
"I don't know. I haven't really thought of it [that way]. Definitely a passing grade. But I'm not sure what that is just quite yet."
Derek Fisher, asked to break the tie, echoed Brown's assessment.
"We're 6-4, you can try and analyze the reasons why, but it's a results based business. Out of 10 games, only winning six, that means we have quite some way to go. So that's passing, like Coach said, [but] it's 60 percent."
In other words, it's like those "pass/no pass" classes we all took in college.
"We're doing not necessarily the best that we can do, but we're working our way through a lot of changes," said a matter-of-fact Fisher. "Different circumstances. Different personnel on and off the court in terms of coaches as well as players. We're just figuring it out, but I think we're committed to one another and we're committed to the process. And even with some of these early struggles that we face so far and probably will continue to face for weeks to come, it's not shaking our confidence in what our end goal is, and that's to still be a championship caliber team."
"Suspensions are definitely weird," shrugged Bynum. "You're not hurt. There's nothing wrong with you, so you're kinda just sitting out, watching all the games on television. That's all I did... Even in practice, you can't really practice, because they have to simulate game situations and you won't be out there. So you gotta your work in before they get to the arena, and all that. It's almost like you're trying out again."
In terms of getting up to speed with the game plan, Drew said he feels pretty good defensively, since very little has changed for him beyond showing hard on pick and rolls. The offense remains a trickier work in progress with "things I still need to get accustomed to," but he's scouring the playbook. The biggest concern, truth be told, is actually conditioning.
"I won't be able to play major minutes at this point," Bynum said. "I'll be a little bit winded, probably. So, I'm going to be out there working on my game."
For free agent signee Josh McRoberts, who left his home in Indianapolis to join the team halfway through camp, it was a much-needed break to get his life together.
Prior to Wednesday, the 6-10, 240-pound McRoberts had been driving around town in a Toyota Prius that he borrowed from the director of public relations from the agency that represents him, BDA Sports.
Instead of cramming in the playbook, McRoberts and a couple teammates crammed into the Prius.
Murphy said that he drove his new teammates, the 6-11, 245-pound Troy Murphy as well as rookie guard Andrew Goudelock, to the Lakers’ preseason games at Staples Center in the Prius.
“It wasn’t that bad,” McRoberts said with a smile. “It was a smooth ride.”
The scene sounds like something straight out of a “Curb Your Enthusiam” plot, as Larry David has become an unofficial endorser of the hybrid car by driving it on the popular HBO sitcom.
Murphy has since found a rental car of his own and McRoberts is now driving a SUV, which he is renting as well.
McRoberts was also able to use the day to look for a place to stay in the South Bay after shacking up in a hotel that was walking distance from the Lakers’ practice facility in El Segundo, Calif. during his first several weeks with the team.
“It was absolute time,” Brown said before the Lakers played the New York Knicks on Thursday when asked about the off day. “I probably should have given them the day off before [that].
“Somebody told me it’s better to have guys that are fresh and ready to go out on the floor and perform and maybe not know as much, than you think you need to give them everything you know and have them mentally and physically fatigued.”
The Lakers play the Denver Nuggets in a home-road back-to-back on Saturday and Sunday to complete their initial stretch of six games in eight days to start the season.
"I should be fine," said Kobe when asked about his availability for the Christmas Day season opener against the Bulls.
Of course, "fine" isn't necessarily quite sunshine and lollipops. Kobe described his wrist as "swollen and painful," and I'm guessing that won't change by the time Sunday rolls around. The Mamba has a famously absurd tolerance for pain, but I have a hard time believing lacing 'em up on Sunday won't entail enduring an exceptional amount of discomfort.
There's also the question of the effects the injury will have on Bryant as a player. After all, right-handed players tend to use their right wrists a decent amount of time over the course of a basketball game. Plus, that wrist is connected to a hand with some jacked up fingers. Kobe's handle occasionally suffers due to those digits. With the wrist now a factor, it's fair to wonder how Bryant's shot, or ability to create for himself or others could suffer. Even as one of the best athletes I've ever seen playing through injuries, there are limits, especially as you get older.
Predictably, Bryant downplayed the issue.
"If you can play through the pain and you can catch a ball, pass a ball, you should be fine," he said.
For those concerned playing through the injury will stymie the healing process, that's a valid fear. Why? Because Kobe said so himself. However, this is just being viewed as a fact of life, rather than a sticking point to consider.
"It's not really going to heal," Bryant conceded. "I mean, it's gone. The ligament is gone. So there's nothing I can do about it. But I've dealt with so many hand injuries. It should be all right."
The ligament is "gone?" Wowza, that's dark. I'm not even disagreeing with him. I've just never heard an injury framed in such "dust in the wind" terms. Kobe always claims he's not very sentimental. Clearly, he's not kidding.