Los Angeles Lakers: Philadelphia 76ers
When the Los Angeles Lakers head out this week on a three-game road trip, they could be coming face-to-face with the future of the franchise.
And boy, could that future go in wildly varying directions.
Behind Door No. 1, there is the potential route of acquiring a top-10 NBA talent, like the Minnesota Timberwolves have in Kevin Love. The Lakers play the Wolves on Tuesday.
Behind Door No. 2, there is the notion of building through the draft and making some poor choices, like the Cleveland Cavaliers have done in their post-LeBron James era. L.A. plays the Cavs on Wednesday.
Behind Door No. 3, there’s the possibility of having a youth movement actually work out, like the Philadelphia 76ers are proving so far with Rookie of the Year candidate Michael Carter-Williams, plus with a potential defensive lynchpin in Nerlens Noel waiting to be unleashed on the league after he recovers from a torn ACL. The Lakers close out the trip Friday against the Sixers.
Bringing in Love would seemingly be the quickest solution to getting the Lakers back to a championship level before Kobe Bryant's contract expires after the 2015-16 season. While the Lakers have stockpiled cap space for this summer, Love cannot opt out of his contract with the Wolves until the summer of 2015.
“He’s one of the better players in the league,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni, who also coached Love when he averaged 11.6 points and 7.6 rebounds for the 2012 U.S. Olympic team in London, said Monday. “He’s just a threat everywhere and then he’s always a presence on the boards, offensively rebounding. He can shoot 3s, he can post up, he puts the ball on the floor. He’s one of the better players.”
D’Antoni was then asked if Love could be the type of player a team could build around, and he shot the reporter a knowing smile, knowing full well the speculation that Love desperately wants to become a Laker.
“I mean, he’s an All-Star-caliber player,” D’Antoni said. “Yeah.”
While the Love scenario would require certain pieces to fall into place, one the Lakers can definitely look forward to is their first-round selection in the upcoming draft.
The possibility of securing the top pick might be remote -- L.A.’s 16-31 record would give it a 2.8 percent chance at the No. 1 selection if the season ended today, according to ESPN.com’s Chad Ford -- but this draft class looks to boast a handful of impact players, if not more.
But even with all the talent that could become available come June 26, all the scouting in the world won’t guarantee that a player will pan out for you at the next level.
Just look at Cleveland, which has had six first-round picks in the past three drafts, with four of those being in the top five.
Sure, choosing Kyrie Irving with the No. 1 pick in 2011 despite the point guard playing just 11 games in his lone season at Duke paid off with a Rookie of the Year campaign for Irving and averages of 21.7 points and 6.2 assists this season.
But what about those other five picks? Tristan Thompson, selected No. 4 in 2011, has pedestrian career averages of 10.7 points and 8.5 rebounds on 46.7 percent shooting. Dion Waiters, plucked No. 4 the following year, has proved he can score -- averaging 14.6 points in his two NBA seasons -- but has shot just 41.4 percent from the field in the process. Jared Cunningham, selected No. 24 by Cleveland in 2012, was used to facilitate a trade and can’t get off the bench in Atlanta this season. Sergey Karasev, selected No. 19 in 2013, is currently averaging 1.9 points and 0.9 rebounds as a rookie. And Anthony Bennett, taken No. 1 last June, is threatening to be the biggest bust in the history of the game, putting up just 3.0 points and 2.4 rebounds while shooting 28.1 percent from the field.
On the other hand, there’s Philadelphia.
Carter-Williams, selected No. 11 last year, is averaging 17.3 points, 6.6 assists, 5.4 rebounds and 2.3 steals. Noel hasn’t played a game yet, but was considered the top prospect last June by many pundits. And the 15-34 Sixers are set to add more young assets in a few months, as they hold two more first-round picks.
So there’s hope right around the corner for the Lakers -- a top-tier free agent; a can’t-miss draftee. Perhaps both.
Then again, maybe there isn’t -- a miscalculation on the free-agent market; an incorrect evaluation of a teenager’s potential. Perhaps both.
It all depends on which door the Lakers opt for.
Erving, speaking in Philadelphia before the premiere of "The Doctor," a documentary on his life, said teams always have to be wary when dealing with teams such as the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics, who rarely get the short end of trades.
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LOS ANGELES -- It had the feeling of a letdown game when you saw it on the schedule. What was going to wake up the Lakers for a game on New Year's Day against a sub-.500, Andrew Bynum-less Philadelphia 76ers team that L.A. just beat in Philly about two weeks ago with relative ease?
"It’s always a tricky game on a holiday," Pau Gasol warned at practice Monday. "So it’s a game that we need, and then we’ll think about the next one when we get to it."
Turns out that road win against the Sixers was a bit misleading, because UCLA product Jrue Holiday wasn't playing. With Holiday's 26 points and 10 assists, Philadelphia was a whole different animal on Tuesday.
How it happened: After falling behind by 11 early, the Lakers let a four-point halftime deficit swell to eight headed into the fourth quarter. Kobe Bryant and Metta World Peace tried to shoot the Lakers back into the game in the fourth quarter, but the closest L.A. would come was within two points after a Bryant 3-pointer, which was immediately followed by a Spencer Hawes jumper to bump it back to four points.
What it means: Consistent energy and effort have been elusive mistresses for the Lakers this season. As 2013 begins, they'll have to try to find that six-of-seven-wins momentum they had at the end of 2012.
Hits: Kobe Bryant got back on the 30-point train with 36 points on 14-for-29 shooting to lead all scorers.
Jordan Hill had 10 points and eight rebounds in 19 minutes, but eight of those points and six of those boards came in the eight minutes he played in the first quarter.
Misses: It took Dwight Howard until 6:15 remained in the third quarter before he scored his first field goal after starting the game 0-for-5. He managed to chip in 14 rebounds and five blocks, but his mobility didn't seem to be there as he finished with just seven points (1-for-7 from the field and 5-for-10 from the line). Gasol had 11 points and nine rebounds, but his accuracy wasn't much better (2-for-12 overall, 0-for-2 from 3).
The Lakers shot just 3-for-22 as a team from 3-point range (13.6 percent).
Notes: Antawn Jamison received a DNP-CD for the sixth straight game. … Chris Duhon did not play because of back spasms. He said he will "definitely" be ready for the Lakers' next game Friday against the Los Angeles Clippers.
Stat of the night: Don't blame this one on turnovers. The Lakers had just seven of them, leading to six Philly points.
What's next: The Lakers-Clippers rivalry has certainly picked up in recent seasons, with Blake Griffin making the Lakers' Staples Center cohabitants relevant again and the Chris Paul trade fiasco adding fuel to the fire. The Clippers won't be coming into Friday's game riding a long winning streak (it ended at 17 with a loss in Denver on Tuesday), but it should be a great test for the Lakers regardless. The schedule also gives the Lakers a break -- two days without a game before the Clippers matchup. The Lakers have an off day Wednesday and get a practice in Thursday before the game.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Among other deficiencies last season, the Lakers lacked a legitimate backup shooting guard behind Kobe Bryant, reliable outside shooting, reliable bench bench scoring and young legs attached to a reasonably NBA-seasoned player. By agreeing to terms with Jodie Meeks, the Lakers have simultaneously addressed all four areas. Obviously, his presence pales by comparison to that of fellow newbies Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, and Antawn Jamison, but as Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers and Mike Miller demonstrated during the 2012 Finals, the players around the edges of a roster often push a championship quest over the top. Hopefully, Meeks can follow suit for the Lakers.
The show can be heard by clicking on the module, and below is a breakdown of talking points.
- (:55): Meeks explains why he chose the Lakers over other options. For many young players still establishing themselves, starting for a lesser team would feel more practical than coming off the bench in a title chase, but in this case, it wasn't a sticking point.
- (2:40): Having spent the first four seasons of his career guarding Kobe, Meeks now looks forward to learning from The Mamba as a teammate.
- (4:28): Meeks believes he's a better defender than his reputation. For that matter, he considers himself a more generally well-rounded player than his image as primarily a spot-up shooter.
- (8:50): The Lakers are a fairly brainy crew, which means Meeks, a former SEC All-American at Kentucky, should fit right in. The guard places a high value on keeping his brain active, but draws the line at Sudoko puzzles.
- (10:15): Seriously, Jodie. It's time to update your personal website.
-(10: 48): Meeks has a "shoe fetish." His words, not ours.
- (12:15): With Meeks gone, we break down his potential effect on the Lakers.
Final score, 95-90.
There was much to discuss on tonight's episode of Lakers Late Night, and discuss much we did. Including...
- Bryant passing Shaq on the all-time scoring list.
- Bryant's game against Philly. Red hot to start, ice cold to finish. What was the impact not just of the final numbers but how Kobe got there?
- The Lakers have myriad problems, but their Big Three aren't high on the list.
- Looking ahead to the Boston game Thursday evening.
All that, plus some interesting shootaround comments from Bryant.
Signs certainly pointed to Philly as a potential team on the rise, and this year they've definitely made a major leap. While the Sixers lack a definitive go-to scorer, coach Doug Collins has plenty of effective offensive weapons at his disposal. Not that it matters all that much, since Philadelphia is the league's best defensive team through the first third (give or take) of the year.
And, as Kobe Bryant pointed out after the loss in Utah on Saturday, the Sixers are young and fast, representing a major challenge for the "old, slow" Lakers. To gain a little more insight into the surging Sixers, we hit up Carey Smith of Philadunkia, part of ESPN.com's TrueHoop network, with some questions:
Land O'Lakers: By nearly every metric, the Sixers are the league's stingiest defense. What accounts for their success?
Smith: First and foremost, it’s the 76ers' commitment to playing defense that is the key. Doug Collins has gotten these guys to buy in to the idea that you have to play solid team defense to win in the league, and given the results when compared to the brief-but-disastrous Eddie Jordan era, Collins is 100 percent correct. The other factor is that the Sixers have some phenomenal perimeter defenders in Andre Iguodala, Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner. Add in Thad Young (another solid defender), and you have a nice collection of players who can make it really difficult for the opposing team’s guards and wings to score the ball.
Land O'Lakers: The team's leading scorer is Lou Williams, who comes off the bench, but nine players average more than nine points a game. Is this a reflection more of a great team-first ethic or the lack of a true go-to scorer?
Smith: Great question. Honestly my answer is it is a chicken-or-the-egg situation. Collins preaches team, team, team, and then still more team, and the Sixers have played that way very successfully over the last two seasons. They do a great job with the little things that make balanced scoring work -- making the extra pass or setting screens for each other or rotating the ball quickly or finding the hot hand. But if Collins had a superstar like he did, say, in Chicago with that guy named Jordan, I wonder if the offense would flow the same way.
He talks about how Philadelphia defended him, and more:
Click below for additional postgame reaction, including videos and quotes from Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom, Phil Jackson, and more.
Maybe the Lakers hoped to kick off their 2011 before finishing all the business of 2010?
In the end, the Staples faithful got their free tacos ... but they won't taste as good as free tacos should. Here's how it broke down:
Whether it was the power dunk or mid-range fadeaway, Kobe Bryant was able to find any shot he wanted against what was generally single coverage from the Sixers.
I realize Charles Barkley keeps saying Bryant isn't the same guy he used to be, but he's not exactly geriatric. Gotta stop the ball, people!
In the second half, when the Sixers made the game much closer than it should have been, Bryant was able to continue getting good shots from places he likes to shoot. Mid-range jumpers, working the pull up. Bryant did have a few moments in the first half when his game got a little showy -- an ill-advised three and some unnecessarily fancy ballhandling, and a fourth quarter TO with 1:30 to play helped the Sixers tie the score, but he more than made up for it on the next trip with a strong drive on Turner, pulling up for a big baseline jumper, then icing the game with two late free throws. The final line was a very controlled 33 points on 13-of-24 from the field.
I asked Kobe if he was surprised the Sixers played him so straight. "Different teams have different principles," he said. "Some come all out and double, some try to zone up. Tonight, they had guys there. They were waiting on penetration, or kind of just playing a zone. But when my mid-range jumper is going, you've gotta come get me." I get the pick-your-poison dilemma teams face against the Lakers, particularly one like Philly, undersized and particularly vulnerable when they sell out on one player... but how on earth do you leave Evan Turner alone on Kobe Bryant on a critical trip in the final minute?
That's just not fair to the kid.
When the Lakers went to Philly, Andrew Bynum was still on the bench. Now he's back in the starting lineup, for the second time this season.
Here's what to watch...
1. Philadelphia isn't a 13-19 team.
Technically, of course, they are. Keep in mind, though, they started 3-13, so the Sixers arrive at Staples a vastly improved team winning 10 of their last 16, in important news relative to Friday's game, are no longer pushovers on the road. Over the first six games of what will become an eight game trip, the Sixers have a respectable three wins, including games in Orlando, Denver and Phoenix, and a very narrow loss last week in Boston.
The Lakers are definitely the better team, but as it was a couple weeks ago when the Lakers played the Sixers in Philly, this isn't a team to be trifled with.
One reason is balance. Without anyone posting more than Jrue Holiday's 14.8, Philly sports seven guys averaging 8.9 points or better during December. By contrast, the Lakers have four. While it means Philly could be short a defined go-to guy should the game come down to the final seconds (I'd still put a body on Andre Iguodala, just to be safe), it also makes it tough to key on any one player. The Sixers don't exactly pile up points, but will force the Lakers to be honest defensively.
Again, probably a good thing.
2. Andrew Bynum Starts, Part Deux.
Wednesday in New Orleans, the Lakers managed something rarely seen in this day of ubiquitous media, athlete Twitter feeds, and nearly instant dissemination of information: They took everyone by surprise. With the team on the skids, Phil Jackson pulled the cord on the Andrew Bynum chute, sticking him back in the starting lineup earlier than most expected, especially based on Bynum's own forecasts. "We knew we were gonna have to make this move eventually, getting Drew out there on the floor," Jackson said Thursday. Nothing like three straight 15-plus point losses to jimmy a timetable, right? Jackson said he expected a "getting to know you" period, but was pleased at how well Bynum played, and the response of the team generally. As well he should have been, since Bynum had a great game, scoring 18 points on eight-of-12 from the floor, and the Lakers torched the Hornets.
Game of the Week
Tuesday at San Antonio, 5:30 p.m. PT
Some might argue Phil Jackson, one step removed from a doctor's note excusing his team from the Christmas game, did little to motivate a group already in cruise control. Still, PJ was correct in downplaying the importance of the Heat matchup compared to the back-to-back roadies around the corner, games within the conference and holding playoff seeding in the balance.
In particular, Tuesday's game has some marbles at stake.
Are these guys too much to handle in a road
playoff series? The Lakers don't want to find out.
You know how certain apartments are listed as "Beverly Hills adjacent," because that sounds more glamorous? Well, this game may not truly be "must win" for the Lakers, but it is certainly "must win adjacent" in the grand scheme of locking up the best seed possible.
Lamar Odom scored 28 points and added eight rebounds in a dominating performance against the Sixers Friday night.
Given the Medusa-like quality of the night's proceedings, I suspect many of you weren't able to look directly at the game. And since watching television in the reflection of a highly polished bronze shield is hardly practical, it might be necessary to fill in some gaps. With that in mind, here's how it broke down ...
1. Lamar Odom: On a night when Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol combined to shoot nine-of-25 from the floor for a fully pedestrian 28 points (many of which came for Gasol late, when the game was already decided), Odom flat out rescued the Lakers. He was 11-of-18 from the field for 28 points, plus eight rebounds, three assists, a steal and -- this is important, as you'll see below -- only one turnover in a game-high 42 minutes of play. In the second (nine points) and fourth (13) he was the engine driving L.A.'s attack. No shock the Lakers as a team scored 61 points in those two quarters, and 32 in the first and third. Best of all, Odom did his damage primarily by attacking the rim, either off the dribble or with good post position.
"Lamar really kind of settled us in," coach Phil Jackson told reporters after the game. To say the least.
Particularly encouraging was how well Odom played with the second unit. It's with those guys where, quite soon, he'll be getting even more run than he does now.
Still, there's work to be done in the here and now, starting tonight in Philadelphia, known first as the hometown of ESPNLA's own Dave McMenamin, but also cheese steaks, the Liberty Bell, and Kobe Bryant.
Oh, and the Sixers, too. Philly carries an underwhelming 10-15 record into tonight's game, but like many of these road tussles through the Eastern Conference, the apparent badness of the opponent is at least somewhat misleading. The Sixers have been wretched on the road (2-10), but are 8-5 at home including wins in seven of their last eight at Wells Fargo Center*, the only blemish being a last second, one point loss to the highly credible Boston Celtics. All seven of the wins were by nine points or more.
Local lad Jrue Holiday has elevated his game for the Sixers this season, a point I emphasize symbolically with this photo.
The moral of the story: Don't screw around with these guys. To get a little more insight into how tonight's game might play out, I hit up Carey Smith over at Philadunkia to answer a few questions about his hometown squad:
1) Jrue Holiday is obviously a player of interest around these parts, and seems to have made some strides this season. Do the numbers tell the story? Where has he improved, and where does he still need work?
The numbers tell part of the story as his stats have certainly improved, but the big thing in my opinion for Holiday is that adapting to the system Doug Collins has installed has made him a better player. There was no system under Eddie Jordan and when he finally got in the lineup last year, Holiday just went out and played every night. Some times with spectacular results, other nights not so great. It took about 10 games or so and at times it’s still a work in progress, but Holiday is so much better this year because he has some direction from a good coach and he has bought in to what Collins wants done offensively.
While he has taken great strides forward across the board in 2010-11, the one thing I would say that Holiday needs to improve on is his decision making on the fast break. On the break he still has a tendency make mistakes -- getting caught in between moves or driving the ball too deep or simply throwing the ball away. Most nights the Sixers want to get out and run on opponents, so these issues can be costly. Once he gets this ironed out, he’s going to be scary good.
These are not normal circumstances.
The Lakers have been positively ordinary since charging through the first eight games like a Real Housewife of Beverly Hills at Saks Fifth Avenue. Their 9-7 record since the hot start is at best underwhelming, especially considering the nonet includes a grand total of one win against a squad with a winning record (Nov. 23 vs. Chicago), and totally uninspired efforts like their squeaker against the Clippers and the tougher-than-required win over a poor New Jersey team Sunday afternoon.
The giddiness of early November, when some wondered if maybe this whole 70 win thing might actuallyhappen, has given way to questions about whether the Lakers will equal last year's 57. Sunday's victory puts them on pace for 58 -- basically a wash -- and as we've all noted, their schedule has been almost absurdly easy. Only four games (Denver, Utah, and two vs. Chicago) against teams opening Monday's action with a plus-.500 record. For the record, they lost three of those four. It adds up to the the league's easiest slate of games. The Lakers haven't played 20-3 San Antonio or 19-4 Dallas. Or Oklahoma City, New Orleans, Boston, Miami, Orlando or Atlanta.
This week, Andrew Bynum should become more than a rubber band man.
Big picture, the challenge in front of them is stiff. All sorts of things are in question, not simply the NBA's best record and home court advantage throughout the playoffs. The idea that the Lakers would finish the regular season with the top seed in the Western Conference has since this summer generally been treated like a foregone conclusion. Given their current level of play and, more importantly, the brutality of their schedule over the final 58 games, it shouldn't be. In a very competitive league, the Lakers are in danger of letting a great many things slip away, or at the very least, making the process of holding on to said things a whole lot more difficult.
They can't afford to lose much more ground, particularly when matched up against the Association's weak sisters. A nice dovetail to this week's . . .
. . . Little picture, the challenge in front of them is stiff. All sorts of things are in question, most revolving around the team's ability to play with relative consistency for 48 minutes, whether against good, mediocre, or poor competition. "We're not finishing games," Phil Jackson said Sunday. "We're not finishing quarters."
Said Lamar Odom, ""That’s the story of our last 10 or 15 games – having leads and losing it, not playing up to our potential . . . We can play a lot better than what we did today. We got to get through this lackadaisical spell that we’re in right now."
He'll find trouble finding anyone who disagrees. Here's how the next seven days shake out:
GAME OF THE WEEK
Whatever Game In Which Andrew Bynum Finally Makes His Season Debut
In theory, it's supposed to be Tuesday in Washington. Unfortunately, Bynum, who last week expressed a desire to get a few more practices under his belt before engaging in the real thing, made the projection based on schedule including a full court run Saturday afternoon, one the Lakers canceled thanks to bad New York City traffic. A pain-and-complication free workout with his teammates would have removed much of the lingering doubt about the safety of his return. Now, his participation in Tuesday's game seems contingent on how he comes through Monday's practice. Hopefully, the scheduling snafu won't change the timetable, but it wont be totally clear until he's put on the active roster Tuesday night.
Obviously, the first defeat in 12 postseason tries is nothing to panic over, but the prospect of falling 0-2 to the 76ers might have prompted some panic-button hovering. But any hint of Philly momentum was squashed by Shaquille O'Neal.
Andrew D. Bernstein / NBAE via Getty Images
This possession was considerably more enjoyable for Shaquille O'Neal than Jumaine Jones.
The eventual Finals MVP did more than just put his stamp on series-tying contest. He turned in a stat line of gargantuan proportions: 28 points on 12-for-19 shooting, 20 rebounds, nine assists, eight blocks. Even more impressive was the timeliness displayed as he accumulated numbers.
Shaq may have spent a career rationalizing an "I make them when they count" attitude on free throws, but during a 16-6 third-quarter run, he sank three free of four attempts. (He made just four of 10 in all.) Shaq's final assist was converted from downtown by Derek Fisher to create some breathing room after the Sixers cut the Lakers' lead to three with 2:08 remaining. And with Kobe Bryant the only other Laker scoring above 15, Shaq's dominance on both sides of the ball came at precisely the right time.
More on the "lack of urgency" theme below the jump.