To get a read on Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, as they take on the Knicks tonight at the Garden, I spoke with Andy and Brian Kamenetzky, who cover the team for ESPN Los Angeles. Here are their responses to five burning questions I had:
Zwerling: Jeremy Lin's last three opponents, the Nets, Jazz and Wizards, are three of the worst defensive teams in the league. How do you think he'll do going up against the formidable frontline of Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum?
Brian Kamenetzky: It'll be tougher, that's for sure. The issue playing the Lakers isn't so much the one-on-one defense at the perimeter. Derek Fisher is almost helpless in the open floor, and while Steve Blake is more mobile, he won't be confused with Gary Payton, either. Once players get inside, though, finding space to operate over the long arms of Bynum and Gasol is tough sledding. To the point ESPN.com's J.A. Adande has started keeping a S.O.B.O.A stat (Shots Over Bynum's Outstretched Arms). The Lakers have generally been a good team defending at the rim, and those arms a big reason why. Add in the general step up in team defense from those teams to the Lakers, and it becomes a stronger challenge for Lin. If he can post big numbers tonight, particularly in the paint, he'll open a lot more eyes.
Zwerling: Do you think Kobe Bryant can keep up his torrid start, even with the torn ligament in his right wrist and his chronically bothersome right knee?
Andy Kamenetzky: No, and there's already evidence of a downward trend. Thursday in Boston was the first February game where Kobe shot over 40 percent, and the dip really started about mid-January, even if the box scores don't reflect this. Bryant will go ballistic during a first half, then grow cold as the game continues. Health could be an issue, although his legs appear great and according to Kobe, the wrist is healing. But honestly, the central issue is the logical impossibility of being asked to do this much at any age, much less 33 with a lot of NBA mileage. A lack of perimeter playmakers and team-wide scoring has placed a lot on Kobe's shoulders, and he's been admirably up to the challenge. However, even Mambas have limits. Unless Bryant gets some consistent help soon beyond Bynum and Gasol, I'd be pretty surprised if he didn't burn out.
Zwerling: This is the Lakers' second game in a back-to-back. How have Bryant and the team looked in those situations so far this season?
Andy Kamenetzky: Statistically speaking, Kobe's been pretty good. If you check his splits, he's averaging 31.4 points on zero days rest, the highest mark of any breakdown. His field goal percentage is slightly lower than the mean (43.0 vs. 44.5), but his 3-point percentage is 37.4, well above his 29.5 average. Dude's getting his buckets. If the trends hold, he's also slightly less of a playmaker. He's averaging 4.6 assists against 5.3 on the season, and seven on two days rest. (Of course, 4.6 isn't exactly chopped liver to begin with.) I'm guessing the numbers reflect how the overwhelming majority of these second-end games have come on the road, where the Lakers haven't been very good. Situations like these are when Kobe often looks to takes matters in his own hands. As for the Lakers, they're 2-5 in this back-to-back scenario, but again, most games have been outside Staples, and against some pretty good teams (Orlando, Denver, Clippers, Sacto, who are tough in Arco). The schedule in general hasn't done the Lakers many favors.
Zwerling: Backup point guard Steve Blake made his return last night against the Celtics, after missing about a month with a rib injury. What does he add to the team that the Knicks should be cautious about?
Andy Kamenetzky: Individually, Blake shouldn't terrify the Knicks. He's competent, but not spectacular, by virtually all standards on both sides of the ball. His presence, however, could perhaps bolster the bench and Lakers as a whole. Blake is an upgrade at backup point guard over rookie Andrew Goudelock, which means the second unit might collectively function better. Goudelock, in the meantime, can now operate as a pure scorer, which is more within his comfort zone. Blake can hopefully provide a little scoring punch himself, and with these reserves, every bit counts. He's also a good enough outside threat to space the floor and allow Bynum, who plays a lot with the bench crew, more room down low. Plus, Blake available can help reduce Fisher's minutes, which is a big plus. Even when Fish is playing well, less tends to be more. Every option at coach Mike Brown's disposal can help offset the inherent limitations of the Laker roster.
Zwerling: The Lakers seem like they can't generate enough consistency. They win one, then lose one. They lose two, then win one. Why do you think that's been the case, and is there any frustration building in Tinseltown where a trade could happen to bolster their bench, which is the worst in the league (20.1 points per game)?
Brian Kamenetzky: The problem is certainly with the bench, the least productive in the league and down about nine points a game since the departures of Lamar Odom and Shannon Brown. The guys available aren't necessarily awful, but they are limited and need more skilled players around them to best bring out their respective skill sets. Jason Kapono and Troy Murphy, for example, need guys who can create off the dribble and kick out for open perimeter shots. Josh McRoberts and Matt Barnes don't create their own offense, but they are great filling in the gaps opened up when another player breaks down a defense. Unfortunately, the Lakers don't have many of those guys. Kobe, obviously, and Blake can beat the initial defender but can't finish inside, mitigating the threat. So the bench is a huge problem, one people are definitely frustrated with, particularly given the Odom giveaway following the CP3 debacle. Add in horrendous production at the point guard and small forward spots generally, and you see why the Lakers struggle. It's not that the Big Three isn't good enough, but their roster spots 4-14 are very weak.
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