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Wednesday, October 31, 2012
Lakers at Blazers: What to watch

By Andy Kamenetzky

No rest for the winless. Upon wrapping up a disappointing debut against the Dallas Mavericks, the Lakers hopped a plane to the great Northwest for a date with the Portland Trail Blazers. For the past decade or so, the Rose Garden has served as purple-and-gold Kryptonite. Blame it on the energy from a rabid fan base, a typically solid roster or the rain, but whatever the reason, Portland's been a tough place to score a road victory, even during championship seasons. However, the Blazers are in the midst of a post-Brandon Roy/Greg Oden/Nate McMillan facelift, and the results aren't expected by most to be immediately pretty.

Will this developmental stage equal an easier road in the Rose City and the first Lakers' win of the season? For more perspective, I conducted an IM discussion with Andrew Tonry of the True Hoop network's Portland Roundball Society. Below is the transcript:

Andy Kamenetzky: Like the Lakers, the Blazers have undergone a lot of roster changes. What's your general impression of this team?

Andrew Tonry: I hate to say it, but the forecast for the season looks a lot like the Portland weather: cold, dark and grey. The team is rebuilding. (As a Laker follower, you may forget how that works.) While there are pieces to be excited about -- rookie point guard Damian Lillard, for example -- Portland simply lacks talent. Perhaps half of their roster is true NBA-level players, and the top -- LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum -- have yet to prove themselves as guys truly capable of leading a playoff-bound squad.

AK: What are Portland's strengths and weaknesses so far?

AT: New Blazers coach Terry Stotts gets a lot of credit for Dallas' offensive schemes over the last few seasons. He's come to Portland with a plan to open things up with more movement and dynamism. The Blazers leaders -- Aldridge and Batum -- are guys who've shown the most promise on the offensive end. Defense, however, will be the sticking point. Nobody on Portland's roster is particularly known for defense, especially around the rim, where the Blazers will start J.J. Hickson, a natural power-forward, at center.

Even more than defensive deficiencies, the Blazers will be hurt by a wafer-thin bench. As I mentioned earlier, most of the guys in the second unit are players who lucked their way onto the roster because bodies were needed.

AK: As a natural forward playing center, how do you anticipate Hickson handling the matchup against Howard?

AT: I anticipate Hickson getting manhandled. I also anticipate rookie Meyers Leonard getting some minutes, and for what it's worth, he's a true 7-footer, one of the few players in the NBA with the size, strength and quickness to match Howard's. But it's too early to expect much. Leonard has a lot to learn, including how to stay out of foul trouble.

The Lakers starters haven't had much time together. How long do you expect it'll be until they become a cohesive unit? And until their potential is reached?

AK: I'm guessing a month or so for the cohesion, and then maybe March for their true potential. Over the first 20-ish games, I would expect bumped heads and confusion between Nash, Kobe, MWP, Gasol and Howard. That's not to say they can't win games in the process. This starting five is a video-game lineup, and talent can mask issues. But lack of familiarity (exacerbated by a training camp with several key players missing games) will cause problems as well. That's just the nature of meshing new faces and a new offense.

However, I do think the pieces fit exceptionally well together, and once synchronicity is second nature, this group will be REALLY good.

AT: Behind that starting unit, however, the Lakers' bench (not unlike Portland's) is pretty thin. How much is that going to factor in, especially since four of L.A.'s starting five are older and play 40 minutes a game?

AK: Acknowledging the bar last season was set so low it was practically underground, I think this bench is legitimately improved. Antawn Jamison had a horrible preseason, but I trust his track record, and a proven scorer makes life easier for everyone else. Jordan Hill is unproven, but still a major upgrade over Josh McRoberts and Troy Murphy. Although I fear he'll remain glued to bench yet again, Devin Ebanks has looked very good in October. Jodie Meeks has been hitting outside shots. Steve Blake may be the potential weak link, but with fewer scoring responsibilities, I actually think he'll be much better than the first two seasons. Plus, they'll likely always have Howard or Pau as an anchor, which is a major plus.

I don't see this group forging a collective as impressive as, say, the Spurs' bench. But even if they're just middle of the road, that would represent a major upgrade.

AT: With that starting lineup, guys will have to sacrifice. Of all of them, it appears Kobe will have to make do with a lot less than in previous years. Does that seem right? And if so, can the notoriously petulant face of the franchise handle a reduced role?

AK: Define "reduced." He may take fewer shots, and certainly will play off ball more, but we've got a way to go before Bryant reaches "bystander" status. The guy will still be a focal point, if not the necessarily unquestioned No. 1 on every possession. And that's a good thing. It eases Kobe's responsibilities and makes the offense far less predictable. Obviously, Kobe's mercurial by nature, and patience has never been his long suit, which could make things interesting in the event of a slow start. But he seems very dedicated to the process so far.

But the onus to adjust extends beyond just Kobe. Nash, for example, has never played in a motion offense, and will have the ball out of his hands more than he's used to. And even when it's in his hands, there will be fewer pick-and-roll sets. (As with Kobe, this is all designed to help lessen his burden.) The point guard has been quite tentative throughout the preseason and looked uncomfortable against Dallas, so the same learning curve applies to him as well.

So what's your prediction for tonight?

AT: I feel pretty confident that the Lakers' struggles in Portland, at least for the moment, are over.

AK: Well, I'm a little concerned about the effect of consecutive games on Howard's back and Kobe's foot, especially against a rested Blazers squad. Guys clearly aren't on the same page. Plus, as we all know, there's something weird in that Portland water. However, I'll give the benefit of the doubt to the superior team, which certainly is the Lakers, but the score will be close.