Los Angeles Lakers: What to watch

Lakers-Bobcats What to watch

December, 18, 2012
12/18/12
10:10
AM PT
Kamenetzky By Andy Kamenetzky
ESPNLosAngeles.com
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Life hasn’t been much fun of late for the Charlotte Bobcats. Just seven victories were notched last season, setting a record for the lowest winning percentage in league history. With a 25 percent chance for the first pick in the 2012 draft, they watched helplessly as the New Orleans Hornets -- with a 13.7 percent chance -- hit the lottery six weeks after David Stern secured a new owner in Tom Benson (#ConspiracyTheoryGold). Then came this season’s tease. The first 12 games got off to a surprising 7-5 record, prompting some to wonder if this perennially downtrodden franchise had discovered the right coach in Mike Dunlap and unexpectedly turned a corner toward respectability.

Cue an 11-game losing streak still alive as the Bobcats take the Staples Center floor.

Winless since Nov. 24, whatever tinge of momentum felt nearly one month ago has since evaporated. Meanwhile, the Lakers come home having earned one of their most convincing wins of the season, and excitement is growing at the prospect of Steve Nash and Pau Gasol soon in uni. (The latter perhaps tonight, fingers crossed.) It would appear the Lakers are playing with the wind at their backs. Here are three things to be mindful of once the ball is jumped.

1. Defending without fouling

By nearly every measurement, the Bobcats aren’t very good at this whole “putting the ball in the basket” thing. They average just 96 points a night and have racked 100-plus just six times, with three(!) of those benchmark moments requiring overtime. Their overall shooting percentage (42.2) ranks 27th in the NBA, while the clip from behind the arc (34.0) is a slightly improved 21st. Their offensive efficiency (98.2) makes them a bottom-five team.

However, the Bobcats do possess one (relative) strength offensively, and that’s getting to the line. With 25.3 nightly trips, the Bobcats are fifth in the league for attempts, matching their free-throw rate (30.5). They also shoot nearly 77 percent as a team, which makes preventing free throws a worthwhile plan. In particular, damage is being done by Ramon Sessions, Kemba Walker and Gerald Henderson, all of whom average at least four charity stripe appearances while converting at least 80 percent of those tries. (Sessions’ 5.8 free throws off the bench, tied for 10th highest with Russell Westbrook, are a fairly amazing feat.)

On the season, the Lakers have done a decent enough job at keeping opponents off the line, but cranking up that effectiveness would essentially put out what little light Charlotte possesses. This quest begins with perimeter defense. Sessions and Walker both take about half of their shots at the rim, and if allowed to run roughshod toward the basket, it’s likely only a matter of (quick) time before Dwight Howard finds himself in foul trouble. From there, everyone needs to communicate and avoid picking up cheap fouls as the result of preventable breakdowns.

2. And speaking of defense ...


The Bobcats play very little of it. They allow 103.9 points per game, and that’s as one of the slowest teams in the league, which naturally reduces the number of possessions in a game. As a moderately paced squad, the damage wrought by allowing opponents to hit 45.9 percent from the field (sixth worst), and 37.7 percent from behind the arc would be stupefying. The inability to defend is compounded by a wretched job keeping opponents off the offensive glass and few turnovers induced.

In other words, the Lakers offense may not yet represent the beacon of consistency, but there’s absolutely no reason to believe any theoretical hiccups Tuesday would come as the result of Charlotte’s prowess. Frankly, L.A. could generate decent looks if the offense were run through Earl Clark, assuming everyone’s on the same page and playing with a common purpose. Which brings me to my next point.

3. Focus

Despite staring up at the .500 mark for the majority of this season, the Lakers have a startling -- and inexplicable -- tendency to play down to the level of competition. Opponents with similarly losing records are seemingly viewed as wholly inferior, rather than an unpleasant look in the mirror. Maybe it’s reflective of this team’s video game starting five (when intact). Or the eight rings owned between Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace. Or how this franchise’s glorious history makes title contention feel like a right of passage.

Well, as this season has made crystal clear, tradition and star power don’t guarantee automatic success. There’s no question that the Lakers are the superior team. But at present, these Lakers haven’t developed enough chemistry or pedigree to assume victory can be achieved through sleepwalking. A blowout win is certainly possible, but only if the Lakers are willing to put in the same work necessary to beat the Thunders and Heats of the world. The choice is theirs.

Lakers at Wizards: What to watch

December, 14, 2012
12/14/12
1:15
PM PT
Kamenetzky By Andy Kamenetzky
ESPNLosAngeles.com
Archive
As Brian mentioned in Thursday’s Rapid Reaction, math is not on the Lakers’ side at the moment. Even if you believe the eventual return of Pau Gasol and especially Steve Nash can help this team round into quality form (and for what it’s worth, I do), what’s troubling is how that may not even matter come April. With the Lakers now five games below .500, they’re looking at a tough uphill climb just to make the playoffs. The West isn’t getting less competitive anytime soon, and frankly, the Lakers are lucky teams like the Mavericks and Timberwolves have negotiated injuries of their own, while the Nuggets haven’t jelled as quickly as expected. These developments have left the door open for the Lakers, and I still believe they’re going to make the playoffs.

However, they can’t screw around. Any and all legitimate opportunities must be cashed in, which makes tonight’s game against the Wizards “must win” stuff. That’s not hyperbole, by the way. After such a wretched start, the Lakers no longer have the luxury of shrugging off an egg laid against a crappy team. And make no mistake, the Wizards aren’t very good at full strength, much less without John Wall, Trevor Ariza, Nene and Wall’s backup A.J. Price.

Thus, I don’t care if Nash, Gasol and Steve Blake are out. I don’t care if it’s the second leg of a back-to-back, and the backs of Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard are likely ailing. I don’t care if Mike D’Antoni still hasn’t discovered a rotation to his liking. Too bad. Figure it out. Bank a win. It’s really that simple, because the Lakers have no wiggle room for anything else.

For more perspective on the Wizards, I sent some questions to Kyle Weidie, who covers the team for the True Hoop network’s Truth About It blog. Below are his responses.

Andy Kamenetzky: The Wizards have won three of their last seven games, and the losses have been reasonably close. Are there any signs of this team (relatively speaking) turning a corner?

Kyle Weidie: If “turning a corner,” means the young players slowly figuring out how not to blow games down the stretch, then yes. And I’m sure that some of the Wiz Kids will improve as the miserable season so far progresses. But they won’t even be capable of turning the corner until John Wall returns. (Editor’s note: Sound familiar, Lakers fans?) When will that happen? Who knows? The original team release in late September said “approximately eight weeks,” but when that ran out, timetables quickly disappeared. Wall has a crucial doctor check-up today that will determine the fate of his 2012-13 season, and there is a slight chance the team could declare that he will miss significantly more time.

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Lakers at Knicks: What to watch, with Knickerblogger.net

December, 13, 2012
12/13/12
11:18
AM PT
Kamenetzky By Brian Kamenetzky
ESPNLosAngeles.com
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If there's an award out there for the NBA's anti-Lakers squad -- i.e. a team exceeding expectations and exciting its fan base rather than driving those loyalists towards self-medicating -- the New York Knicks would make a strong candidate. Expected by most to be a second-tier playoff team in the Eastern Conference, Mike Woodson's squad instead has a 16-5 record, is tops in the conference and has twice knocked off the world champion Miami Heat. Carmelo Anthony is making an early play for the MVP, Tyson Chandler a push for a second straight defensive player of the year award, and Raymond Felton, averaging 16.6 points and 6.8 assists after a tremendously bad year in Portland, would be a great candidate for comeback player of the year had it not been re-branded as the most improved player award (which tends to go to breakout guys, not to once-effective players busting out of slumps in part because they're no longer so plump).

The Lakers, meanwhile, are 9-13, limping into Thursday's game at Madison Square Garden having lost 8 of 11 since Mike D'Antoni's successful debut against Brooklyn at Staples back on Nov. 20. They haven't simply lost touch with the Clippers at the top of the Pacific, but are now six games behind Golden State as well.

This is a classic "nothing's got to give" type game. Nothing about the direction of either team says the Lakers should win, but having now dropped too many games to the NBA's bottom-feeders, the Lakers no longer have the luxury of allowing themselves reasonable losses to high-end teams. They need to start winning. Now.

Can they do it tonight against one of the hottest groups in the Association? To learn more about the Knicks we hit up Jim Cavan, from the always outstanding Knickerblogger.net blog to learn more about what's percolating at MSG this year...

1) What stands out most in your mind to explain why the Knicks have been so good this season?

Cavan: It has to be the offense. Credit general manager Glen Grunwald with heeding the template of the last two champions -- surround your sweet-shooting star with two-way players capable of hitting an open jumper -- and assembling a pretty formidable “win-now” squad. The offense still starts and runs through Melo first, second and last, but there are enough wrinkles in the system and enough operative spacing to give other guys -- Felton, Smith, Novak, whomever -- ample opportunities.

Even Woodson has displayed some pretty nimble play calling, particularly out of timeouts. For a guy who made his bread as a defensive guru, Woody’s flipped the script pretty violently, to a point where most fans are concerned about the defense ultimately hindering whatever delicate title prospects the Knicks might have.

Oh, and J.R.’s not going out as much anymore!

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Lakers at Thunder: What to watch

December, 7, 2012
12/07/12
9:22
AM PT
Kamenetzky By Andy Kamenetzky
ESPNLosAngeles.com
Archive
When the Oklahoma City Thunder shocked the world by trading James Harden just days before the season opener, many wondered whether the franchise was prioritizing the bottom line ahead of winning. On and off the court, Harden's been a critical factor in the Thunder's steady rise since 2010, and his do-it-all skill set was often the grease for the dual engines of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Kevin Martin may be a talented scorer, but he's not the same player, and a shorter financial commitment doesn't change that. Clearly, OKC couldn't be written off without Harden, but last season's Western Conference champions appeared poised for a slow start while adjusting to a new dynamic.

That lull lasted precisely three games.

After a 1-2 start, the 15-4 Thunder have lost just two games. They're riding a six-game winning streak, and have put up 100-plus in 10 consecutive contests. Fourth quarters still present times when the reigning sixth man of the year might come in handy, but overall, OKC has moved forward in strong fashion. A game in Oklahoma City always represents a tough challenge, and this one doesn't figure to buck any trends.

For more perspective on OKC, I conducted an IM conversation with Royce Young, who covers the team for the True Hoop network's Daily Thunder blog. Below is the transcript.

Andy Kamenetzky: On the surface, it appears the post-Harden era has commenced without a hitch. Has it been that smooth?

Royce Young: Honestly, it has. I recently looked over the schedule and the only game I thought the Thunder probably would've won with Harden around was the opener against the Spurs. They clearly hadn't adjusted to not having him -- that was only about four days after the trade -- and they didn't close well. Otherwise, by pretty much any metric, not only are the Thunder winning, they're winning better this season. Bigger margin of victory. Better offensive efficiency. Better assist rate. Better defensive efficiency. I guess that's not all that difficult when Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are still on your team.

AK: We've seen Harden serve as an important bridge between Durant and Westbrook in the fourth quarter. How do they operate down the stretch of close games without him?

RY: Basically it's all Westbrook and Durant, all the time. Like you said, Harden was an extremely valuable late-game player. When "Bad Russell" was in the building and playing wild and reckless, the Thunder could just take the ball away from him and let Harden run point and create. And don't get me wrong. There's still a very real fear about crunch-time situations in the postseason. Kevin Martin has fit in extremely well, except during late-game situations. Serge Ibaka is a bit more involved, but it's mostly all Durant and Westbrook. So far, it's worked pretty well. But that doesn't mean it's a lock to work smoothly in May.

This is off the wall, but I'd love to hear your thoughts. In OKC recently, there's been a discussion over who's better: Serge Ibaka or Pau Gasol. Who would you rather have?

AK: Ibaka. He's got two good knees (to the best of my knowledge) which makes him more immediately valuable than Pau. He's also nearly 10 years younger, a huge plus for the long term. And while Ibaka may not be as versatile, he seems like an incredibly hard worker intent on improving weaknesses. (Witness the improved jumper.) Plus, he and Howard would form an absolute wrecking-crew defensive frontcourt. Pau certainly has a better understanding of the game, and is light-years ahead at running an offense. But were Sam Presti to offer a straight swap, I'd say yes in a heartbeat.

You mentioned Martin's snug fit with the second unit, but how has Eric Maynor performed since returning from injury? I thought his absence flew under the radar last season.

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Lakers at Hornets: What to watch

December, 5, 2012
12/05/12
11:52
AM PT
Kamenetzky By Andy Kamenetzky
ESPNLosAngeles.com
Archive
For 24 minutes Tuesday night in Houston, it appeared the Lakers were on the verge of bouncing back from a mortifying loss to Orlando with a blowout win over a Rockets squad with consecutive home wins under its belt. After 36 minutes, it seemed the Lakers would simply have to settle for a comfortable win. After 43 minutes, a respectable, if less impressive, single-digit victory. After 47 minutes, a dogfight squeaker W.

And after 48 minutes, they settled instead for an 8-10 record and heads shaken in disbelief.

On the plus side, the Lakers have an immediate opportunity to get back on a winning track against a Hornets squad missing key players and fairly thin even at full strength. On the minus side, a win over a 5-11 squad can't even remotely be taken for granted. Either way, they'll lace up the sneaks and give it a run.

For more perspective on the Hornets, I sent some questions to Joe Gerrity, who covers the team for the TrueHoop Network's Hornets 247 blog.

Andy Kamenetzky: I realize this question could ask you to cover a lot of ground, but what are the main reasons the Hornets are struggling to win games?

Joe Gerrity: Well, they're paying about $36 million of their $63 million in total salary this season to Eric Gordon, Anthony Davis, Rashard Lewis and Matt Carroll. Lewis and Carroll -- both waived after arriving via trade -- have never and will never touch the floor for the Hornets. Gordon is rehabbing in L.A. and continues to have his estimated return date pushed back. Davis has played only six games so far. They're struggling to win because the team they're fielding is less talented and less experienced than the vast majority of opponents. On Monday night, for example, Brian Roberts, Austin Rivers, Xavier Henry, Lance Thomas and Jason Smith were all in the game at the same time for the Hornets.

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Lakers at Rockets: What to watch

December, 4, 2012
12/04/12
9:16
AM PT
Kamenetzky By Andy Kamenetzky
ESPNLosAngeles.com
Archive
Under the best of circumstances, conventional wisdom dictated the Lakers would require some time to jell. With so many new faces (and at the time, a new offense, which eventually sparked the decision for a new coach), instant chemistry would be a tall order. However, the opening 17 games on the schedule were, in theory, a reprieve of sorts. Home-heavy with few games against contenders from either conference, this slate of contests was made to be exploited ... or frittered away through poor execution, inconsistent play, injuries and periodically middling energy, whichever makes the most sense.

The Lakers are now 8-9 and staring down nine December road games. The first comes against the Houston Rockets, a similarly rebuilt team tasked with coming together on the fly. After a slow start, they're seemingly in better sync these days, having won four of their past five games. Not that the Lakers have earned the right to take any team lightly -- just ask the Orlando Magic -- but Houston may offer a tougher contest than I certainly figured a month ago.

For more perspective on the Rockets, I sent some questions to Rahat Huq, who covers the team for the TrueHoop network's Red94 blog. Below are his responses.

Andy Kamenetzky: When these teams met at Staples Center on Nov. 17 for an eventual Rockets loss, Houston was 3-6 heading into the game. They're now 8-8. What's happened to explain this?

Rahat Huq: Offensively, the Rockets have been playing out of their minds, averaging 113 ppg on 49 percent shooting overall (46 percent from deep) during their current five-game home winning streak. They’ve also gotten consistent contributions across the board, with all five starters in double figures in each of their past three home games. In the most recent outing against Utah, seven Rockets finished with at least 13.

Plus, third-year forward Patrick Patterson has been a revelation. The Kentucky product has put in at least 20 points in four of Houston’s past five games, scoring from an assortment of spots, including the corner 3. In his past 10 games, Patterson has averaged 17 ppg on 55 percent shooting from the field and 43 percent from behind the arc.

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Lakers vs. Nuggets: What to watch

November, 30, 2012
11/30/12
9:20
AM PT
Kamenetzky By Andy Kamenetzky
ESPNLosAngeles.com
Archive
If the Lakers have been the most underwhelming team relative to expectations so far this season, the Denver Nuggets may run a close second. After pushing L.A. to the limits in a tough, seven-game first round series during the 2012 playoffs, the ingredients appeared in place to build on that momentum. Andre Iguodala was brought into the fold. JaVale McGee and Andre Miller were retained. And with (Coloradan fingers crossed) improved team-wide health, roster continuity would allow George Karl to guide his deep team to the next level. Instead, the Nuggets stumbled out of the gate, and have spent November hovering around the .500 mark. Like the Lakers, the search for fluidity and consistency remains a frustrating exercise in trial and error for the Nuggets.

For more knowledge about tonight's guests, I sent five questions to Joel Rush, who covers the Nuggets for the True Hoop network's Roundball Mining Company. Below are his responses, and here is a link to my thoughts on five Lakers questions from Joel.

Andy Kamenetzky: The Nuggets haven't gotten off to the start that many (certainly myself) expected. Why have they struggled and what, if anything, has improved?

Joel Rush: Nuggets fans have also been surprised and disappointed by the sluggish start, and there's been a lot of head-scratching as to why. In reality, it was a combination of factors. It has taken Iguodala longer than many expected to mesh with his new team. Danilo Gallinari started off the season in a horrible slump stemming in part from a bad ankle. Wilson Chandler has effectively sat out the season due to his hip injury. After signing a four-year, $48 million extension, Ty Lawson came out of the gate stumbling with subpar effort and a lack of the aggression that's so critical in driving Denver's offense. JaVale McGee's potential was showcased in Games 3 and 5 of last season's L.A.-Denver playoff series, so Lakers Nation will understand why Nuggets fans were cautiously optimistic he was poised to make positive strides. But that hasn't yet happened.

The Nuggets have struggled in finding consistent, lasting solutions. Steps back repeatedly follow steps forward. Until they can find some answers that stick, the Nuggets may at times have winning stretches, but they'll have their share of setbacks as well.

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Lakers vs. Pacers: What to watch

November, 27, 2012
11/27/12
8:53
AM PT
Kamenetzky By Andy Kamenetzky
ESPNLosAngeles.com
Archive
The Lakers aren't the only team with high expectations that has struggled out of the gate.

After providing the Miami Heat with a credible 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals challenge, the Indiana Pacers were expected to be one of the most dangerous teams in the East. Instead, their follow-up campaign has thus far been brutal. All-Star swingman Danny Granger has yet to suit up because of a knee injury, and the squad has regressed while he's been in street clothes. Things have picked up a bit of late, with three wins in their last five games. But the bottom line is that the Pacers (6-8) have yet to beat an above-.500 team at the time of their meeting -- two victories came against the winless Wizards -- and the Lakers should rise above .500 at Indiana's expense.

For more insight on the Pacers, I conducted an IM conversation with Jared Wade of the True Hoop network's Eight Points, Nine Seconds blog. Below is the transcript.

Andy Kamenetzky: Things clearly haven't progressed as expected for the Pacers. What's gone wrong, beyond Granger's absence?

Jared Wade: That's a big part of it. The team relied a lot more on Granger offensively than I think anyone realized. We've really seen the lack of movement, spacing and reliable individual play with him out. But it also goes deeper. Roy Hibbert and Paul George were disastrous early in the season; they were turnover machines and ball-stoppers who sucked much of the fluidity out of the offense. Things are improving with both, however, and the team has looked at least passable while trying to score, a huge improvement from the first six or seven games.

AK: Why do you think Hibbert has struggled?

JW: Some of it was pressure put on himself. He is a legitimately nice, responsible guy who feels a burden to live up to his new, $58 million contract. He has also simply struggled in areas that have long been a problem: establishing and holding low position, finishing with power, footwork in the paint, not making his moves quick enough. And the Pacers don't have many players who are good at feeding the post. Granger isn't exactly John Stockton, but he just has a higher basketball IQ than some others mopping up minutes (Gerald Green, Sam Young), so he has a better understanding of when to get Roy the ball and how to get out of his way to give him space.

Why are Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol struggling? I imagine it has little to do with confidence or being melancholy that they aren't "earning" their money.

AK: Like everyone, they've been hurt by a chaotic training camp and early season. There have been signs of stability, but they come in fits, and nothing comes easier with Nash on the shelf.

For Dwight specifically, conditioning is a factor. He was expected by most to return in January, which means he's ahead of schedule, but not truly up to speed. His timing and lift aren't quite there yet, but I think the issues will work themselves out in time.

Pau's problems are a little trickier. His conditioning also isn't up to snuff, and he recently revealed a monthlong battle with tendinitis, which compounds the problem. Plus, like last season, he's in the high post more than he'd like or what's truly ideal. But some blame also lies with Pau. He's often too willing to settle for an elbow jumper -- which hasn't been falling with regularity -- rather than put the ball on the floor, attack and force a defender to actually guard him. Even with tendinitis, he needs to pick more spots to take a defender off the dribble. Ultimately, I think coach Mike D'Antoni will find a way to maximize his versatility, but it'll take some tweaking.

Has David West asserted himself as the Pacers' primary scorer?

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Lakers at Grizzlies: What to watch

November, 23, 2012
11/23/12
11:24
AM PT
Kamenetzky By Andy Kamenetzky
ESPNLosAngeles.com
Archive
The Lakers haven't played many high-end opponents this young season, much less many outside the cozy confines of Staples Center. Tonight, they'll get a serious taste of both. The Memphis Grizzlies are playing as well as any team in the NBA. At 8-2, they boast the Western Conference's best winning percentage, along with its top point differential (+7.6). On both sides of the ball, the Griz are putting in quality work. If the Lakers want to redeem themselves for Wednesday's "Muppet Time" fiasco in Sacramento and keep alive the chance of a winning three-game roadie, they'll need to sharpen their efforts.

For more perspective on the Grizzlies, I sent some questions to Chip Crain, among the hosts of the True Hoop Network's 3 Shades of Blue blog. Below are his responses.

Andy Kamenetzky: Memphis is off to a seriously hot start. They were obviously very good last season as well, but what accounts for the seemingly upgraded play this year?

Chip Crain: The Grizzlies have developed the team chemistry missing from last season. Rudy Gay is more focused. Zach Randolph is healthy. And the bench is stronger despite the loss of O.J. Mayo. Jerryd Bayless, Wayne Ellington, Quincy Pondexter and Marresse Speights all working together with a full training camp has allowed the team to build on the past two seasons. With Mike Conley and Marc Gasol both hitting their prime years, the team is suddenly deep and on the same page. The results speak for themselves.

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Lakers at Kings: What to watch

November, 21, 2012
11/21/12
9:47
AM PT
Kamenetzky By Andy Kamenetzky
ESPNLosAngeles.com
Archive
With the Lakers now north of the .500 mark, the early-season chaos has increasingly given way to an atmosphere of normalcy. However, the skeptic would note how, Tuesday's win over Brooklyn the noted exception, each win has come at the expense of nobody terribly impressive. However, the Lakers' early schedule ease is an element they can't control. They can only control the results, and an opponent like Sacramento is a gift horse than can't be looked in the mouth, especially given how the team is still playing catch up from a 1-4 start. It's important the Lakers capitalize on this momentum, because games will soon consistently offer more legitimate challenges.

With that in mind, here are a few items to be mindful of once the ball is jumped.

1) The DeMarcus effect
In the first meeting of these teams, the Lakers controlled what eventually became a 13-point victory from start to finish. However, the Kings were also competing without the services of DeMarcus Cousins, who'd been suspended for a post-game confrontation with Spurs analyst Sean Elliott. (Is it even possible for an infraction to feel more "DeMarcus?") That's not to say Sacto would have won with Cousins available, but he certainly changes the complexion of the game. Easily the best player on the Kings, he's their most reliable source of inside scoring, not to mention the most intimidating interior defender. (As our friend James Ham noted in our first preview, Cousins is still prone to lapses, but his effort and effectiveness have notably picked up this season.)

With Cousins on hand, the lives of Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard, who combined for 41, instantly turn more difficult. That's hardly the same thing as insurmountable, of course. Both represent quite a handful for Cousins as well, and over the many battles between he and Gasol, the Spaniard has typically come out on top. (On a side note, a seemingly mutual disdain between Gasol and Cousins creates a fun battle within the battle. I'll set the over-under for the amount of times they get tangled up, exchange dirty looks, and generally tussle at "10," then bet the over.) The Kings lose more often than not with Cousins against anybody, much less a squad with the Lakers' absurdly talented frontline.

Still, the task at hand for Gasol and Howard is considerably loftier when Cousins, rather than James Johnson, flanks Jason Thompson.

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Lakers vs. Nets: What to watch

November, 20, 2012
11/20/12
10:09
AM PT
Kamenetzky By Andy Kamenetzky
ESPNLosAngeles.com
Archive
A historical footnote is in the making, as tonight marks the first meeting between the Los Angeles Lakers and the newly face-lifted Brooklyn Nets. These ain't your daddy's Nets anymore, with the presence of Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov and rap icon/multi-hyphenate Jay-Z, the Barclays Center and a hipster locale to call home. Oh, and the roster isn't half bad, either. Maybe not worth the price tag, but certainly formidable, and definitive proof of the commitment to make the Knicks paranoid about a sea change in New York.

It remains to be seen who'll be on the sideline coaching the Lakers tonight, but whether its Mike D'Antoni or Bernie Bickerstaff, the Lakers will look to maintain their momentum and tighten up the execution on both sides of the ball. Here are three things to be mindful of once the ball is jumped.

1. Will the Lakers' high-octane offense continue to explode?
Take a cursory glance at the numbers and you'll see 92.5 points a night surrendered by Brooklyn, the sixth-lowest in the NBA. On the surface, they would appear quite the defensive juggernaut. However, a little more digging shows an opponent field goal percentage of 45.3 percent, tumbling the Nets well into the bottom third of the league when it comes to protecting the basket. How are these intertwined, yet polar opposite findings possible? Well, tonight's visitors play like their offense is being quarterbacked by a snail. The NBA's fourth-slowest pace means fewer possessions, which means fewer opportunities for the enemy to score. In other words, the Nets are plodding their way to smaller point totals for the opposition, rather than achieving through maximum lockdown.

Looking at the Nets' roster, this isn't surprising. Save Gerald Wallace, no member of the starting five will likely gun for any Defensive Player of the Year votes. Joe Johnson's best days sticking a wing scorer are behind him. Deron Williams and Kris Humphries are somewhere between "average" and "decent enough not to kill you." And Brook Lopez has been a train wreck defensively his entire career. Off the bench, rebounding savant Reggie Evans is more of an energetic defender than a truly effective one, MarShon Brooks is inexperienced and Andray Blatche's indifference to lockdown is in part what prompted the Wizards' decision to use the amnesty clause on him.

Thus, the Nets' best approach for keeping points low is manufacturing a crawl, and for the first time in eons, the Lakers won't play along. During this D'Bickerstaff era, the Lakers haven't necessarily become a fast-break factory, but they're no longer the methodically slow squad Brooklyn would prefer to face. Removed from a comfort zone, I don't expect the Nets to keep an opponent in the low 90s. For that matter, it'll be interesting to see if they can simply remain effective at keeping the Lakers off the line, a spot where Kobe and Company have taken frequent residence this season.

2. Who defends Deron Williams?
By his standards, the Nets' franchise face is off to a slow start. Whether gauged through points, field goal percentages from the field or the arc, assists or rebounds, D-Will is putting up numbers below his career clips, figures that aren't necessarily indicative of playing for a team with more talent and more statistical wealth spread about. However, he's still Deron Freakin' Williams, meaning the odds favor him remaining a handful even if he's still in the process of feeling out a new roster. With that in mind, it'll be interesting to see who spends the majority of minutes checking the three-time All-Star.

As I noted in Sunday's Rapid Reaction, Darius Morris' rapid improvement hasn't just been notable while running the offense. The kid's demonstrating fine defensive instincts, in particular his understanding of how to use his big body. But Williams is the rare point guard who doesn't surrender size to Morris and has a vast edge in veteran smarts. If Morris struggles, could Chris Duhon, who's played solid-if-unspectacular minutes with the Steves out, handle extended minutes against D-Will? And can the Lakers handle Duhon in extended minutes? He may be a credible enough defender, but his presence limits the overall dynamism of the offense. Does the answer perhaps lie within the starting lineup? Metta World Peace can certainly bully Williams physically, and those vice-grip hands can induce turnovers from even the most elite point guards. But will his feet cooperate? If he's not fast enough to stay with Williams, the challenge could fall on Kobe.

In the past, the Lakers have looked to avoid extended periods latching Kobe to such a difficult assignment, given the scoring burden additionally shouldered. But given how judiciously Kobe's letting shots fly this season, that energy may not require as much preservation. Maybe we'll see the Mamba go at Williams throughout the closing minutes, which would obviously be fun.

3. Dwight Howard vs. Brook Lopez
Yeah, that Brook Lopez. The one Shaquille O'Neal famously/ridiculously presented as better than Howard. The Diesel's analysis clearly wasn't appreciated by Dwight, but he responded by reminding Shaq that he's currently out to pasture, rather than taking any shots at Lopez. No need to drag the twin any further into this mess. Still, Howard's willingness to take the verbal high road needn't necessarily bleed onto the hardwood. I wouldn't be surprised if Howard looks to prove the inanity of O'Neal's comments by launching a full-blown assault at Lopez's expense.

Lakers vs. Suns: What to watch

November, 16, 2012
11/16/12
12:24
PM PT
Kamenetzky By Andy Kamenetzky
ESPNLosAngeles.com
Archive
Well, the coach is in place, but Mike D'Antoni and his crutches won't make their debut until Sunday, meaning the Bernie Bickerstaff era will continue for one more day. And it's pretty important the interim coach go out on a high note. Given the early hole dug by the Lakers, every opportunity to make up lost ground must be seized. The Suns represent nothing if not a beatable opponent. Phoenix may boast a superior record (4-5) than the Lakers, but the Suns have beaten nobody above .500 and don't have a single player who would definitely crack the starting lineup for the purple and gold. Every winnable game L.A. cashes in is another step toward stabilizing the season.

For more insight on the Suns, we sent five questions to Michael Schwartz from the True Hoop network's Valley of the Suns blog. Below are his responses.

Land O' Lakers: Stylistically, what does the post-Steve Nash era look like? What are the primary differences and do any similarities remain?

Michael Schwartz: This season the Suns are running aspects of the “Corner” offense that Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman popularized, as Fox Sports Arizona’s Randy Hill described in further depth. That has been an easy adjustment for Suns like Goran Dragic, Luis Scola, Michael Beasley and Wesley Johnson, who played for Adelman in recent years. Dragic has been getting everybody involved with dribble penetration and probing for opportunities, and the Suns have run some offense through Scola and Beasley at times in the high post. The Suns still want to play fast, and rank fourth in pace, the highest since 2009-10.

A major difference is the lack of pick-and-roll opportunities. The Suns will still run it at times with Dragic and Gortat, but it’s not the staple it used to be. Jared Dudley used to get open looks when defenses collapsed on the Nash pick-and-roll, so this could be one reason his numbers are down to start the year.

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Lakers vs. Spurs: What to watch

November, 13, 2012
11/13/12
10:58
AM PT
Kamenetzky By Andy Kamenetzky
ESPNLosAngeles.com
Archive
Well, the Lakers have a new coach in place, but the Bernie Bickerstaff era will not yet go quietly into the night. Happily for those (like me) who enjoy pressers with a hilariously grumpy coach who doesn't hide any disdain for the comical situation he's been put in, Bickerstaff will remain the interim coach for this contest. And while life under Bickerstaff has been fruitful, his double-digit wins have come against the Warriors and Kings, mediocre teams missing several notable names (Andrew Bogut, Brandon Rush, DeMarcus Cousins). The Spurs are far more talented and their roster is fully loaded, which poses a threat to Staples Center's sudden party atmosphere.

For more insight on the Spurs, I conducted an IM conversation with Andrew McNeill from the True Hoop network's 48 Minutes of Hell blog. Below is the transcript.

Andy Kamenetzky: So far, the Spurs have remained, like the Terminator and cockroaches, impossible to kill. How are they making it happen this time around?

Andrew McNeill: A number of things. Good health (so far, fingers crossed). They've got a deep roster that has a number of players who can step up any night. Gary Neal had a career high in scoring against the Blazers on Saturday night, for example. Also, magic.

AK: Just like Gob in "Arrested Development," which reminds me of a brilliant Photoshop sight gag involving Tim Duncan! Speaking of The Big Fundamental, he's putting up some of his best numbers in recent years, and without much of an uptick in minutes. Could this be shaping into a memorable season for Timmy?

AM: It could. I believe pretty strongly his numbers are going to drop off soon, closer to those of last season, mainly because his minutes should drop. But his per-36 minute numbers never change because of Duncan's consistency (and the aforementioned magic). Some have suggested that instead of playing Duncan fewer minutes per game, Gregg Popovich should instead play Duncan heavier minutes and sit him out of more games completely. It's definitely more extreme, but the biggest problem against the Thunder last season was that Duncan couldn't play 40-plus minutes on defense. Once Duncan was out of the game, the Spurs lost their best interior defender.

AK: How do you expect San Antonio's front line to deal with Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard?

AM: There's no question the Spurs have had trouble with Andrew Bynum in the past, and now Howard. Amazingly, though, I think they're a little better equipped with Boris Diaw alongside Duncan. Matt Bonner and DeJuan Blair really struggle with bigger players, but Diaw uses his -- ahem -- frame well. The more minutes Duncan, Diaw and Tiago Splitter occupy at the two big positions, the better the Spurs will be. Pop has played Duncan and Splitter together some in this early season, which isn't something he's done a lot of the past two seasons. He'll never admit it, but it could be with the idea of playing them together against bigger front lines like the Lakers.

So the Lakers now have Mike D'Antoni. Are they really equipped to be playing his style of ball, outside of Steve Nash?

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Lakers vs. Kings: What to watch

November, 11, 2012
11/11/12
4:36
PM PT
Kamenetzky By Andy Kamenetzky
ESPNLosAngeles.com
Archive
With so much tension swirling around the Los Angeles Lakers since their poor start, it wasn't shocking to see a lot of energy channeled into a walloping Friday win over Golden State.

This was a team clearly in need of a cathartic release, and Mike Brown's dismissal, whether consciously or not, provided the outlet. Collectively, the roster exhaled.

But with those circumstances no longer providing fresh adrenaline, it will be interesting to see how the Lakers conduct themselves.

The Kings are dealing with their own struggles, but they have enough talented -- if likely mismatched -- players to potentially keep their hosts busy. With a serious test against San Antonio looming on Tuesday, it would be great if the Lakers capitalized on the chance to continue building momentum.

For perspective on Sacto, I conducted an IM exchange with James Ham from the TrueHoop network's Cowbell Kingdom. (It should also be noted our conversation took place before the NBA suspended DeMarcus Cousins two games for a confrontation Friday with Spurs commentator Sean Elliott.) Below is the transcript.

Andy Kamenetzky: Like the Lakers, the Kings have come out of the gate 2-4. What's been your general impression of the team?

James Ham: The Kings are a young team and while they are much improved, they still make a lot of mistakes. Like the Lakers, they have a lot of new rotational pieces and they are still searching for the right mix on the floor. At 2-4, the Kings shouldn't be down on themselves. They very well could be 3-3 or even 4-2. They have been extremely competitive in almost every game so far.

AK: Sacto's defensive numbers have been pretty good, despite coming off a season in which they were among the league's worst in most categories. Byproduct of a sample size, or has this team legitimately improved the lockdown?

JH: They have improved greatly on the defensive and it's only going to get better as they continue to build chemistry, especially on rotations. DeMarcus Cousins is developing into a very high-quality post defender, but he has had issues with foul trouble. The addition of James Johnson was huge, but the biggest difference so far this season has been the effort of Tyreke Evans. He is developing into an elite perimeter defender in the mold of Andre Iguodala.

AK: The Lakers have trouble hanging onto the ball and aren't the world's greatest team defending in transition. The Kings have done a good job inducing steals this season, but how successful are they at converting turnovers into points?

JH: The Kings should eat the Lakers alive in transition. Both Evans and Marcus Thornton are great finishers on the break. Isaiah Thomas and Aaron Brooks are lightning quick, and Jason Thompson is a very underrated big who can really get up and down the floor. The Kings like to push the tempo. They are much better in transition than they are in the half court. Defense and rebounding sets up the transition, so they need the defense to work to make the offense work in many cases.

Who will be coaching the Lakers tomorrow against the Kings? It sounds like Phil Jackson is ready to come back into the fold.

AK: Save an unexpectedly fast resolution, it will Bernie Bickerstaff ... who, by the way, boasts the greatest winning percentage in franchise history!

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Lakers vs. Warriors: What to watch

November, 9, 2012
11/09/12
1:27
PM PT
Kamenetzky By Andy Kamenetzky
ESPNLosAngeles.com
Archive
After the early upheaval today, there’s still a game to be played tonight.

For more insight on the Warriors, I sent some questions to J.M. Poulard, who covers the team for the True Hoop network's Warrior's World. Below are his responses.

Andy Kamenetzky: Five games into the season, how would you describe the Warriors' style of play? What type of matchup do you think they present for the Lakers?

J.M. Poulard: The 20-minute cap on Andrew Bogut’s minutes coupled with Stephen Curry’s struggles to effectively run the offense make it as such that the Warriors have a small identity crisis. They have been surprisingly good with Jarrett Jack on the court -- even when paired with Curry in the backcourt -- which would have you think that they are a good small-ball team. But they actually stick to traditional positions for the most part. That’s essentially a long-winded way of saying they are a selective, fast-breaking team that tries to masquerade itself as a good half-court team … for now.

As for the matchup, it stands to reason the Warriors will attack the trapping Pau Gasol in the pick-and-roll, then try to generate shots from 3-point range as a result of the action. They'll also progressively attack the interior to take advantage of a backpedaling Dwight Howard.

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SPONSORED HEADLINES

TEAM LEADERS

POINTS
Nick Young
PTS AST STL MIN
17.9 1.5 0.7 28.3
OTHER LEADERS
ReboundsP. Gasol 9.7
AssistsK. Marshall 8.8
StealsJ. Meeks 1.4
BlocksP. Gasol 1.5