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Wednesday, January 25, 2012
For Lakers, time to right ship is now

By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com

Kobe Bryant
Will there be a way to give Kobe Bryant a hand and get the Lakers on the right track?
This is the biggest week of the season for the Los Angeles Lakers, not because of who they play but because of who they don't play. They don't play anybody Monday, Tuesday, Thursday or Friday, the only week with a pair of back-to-back off days on the schedule. For a team that's constantly lamenting the need for more practice time to integrate new players and adjust to a new offense, here it is.

It could be their last chance to get right. They've been at it a month now, with only a 10-8 record to show for it, and the hard part is about to begin. After Wednesday's designated home game at Staples Center against the Clippers, the Lakers will play eight of their next nine games on the road -- where they are 1-6 so far.

The "need more time" argument is almost out of time. It's not that the point is invalid. The six teams that started the season with a new head coach, as is the case for the Lakers, were a combined 40-63 entering Tuesday night's games. Fifteen days of training camp and only two exhibition games were not enough time to implement new systems.

By the end of the week, that can no longer be an excuse for the Lakers. They'll have had their time. They'll be more than a fourth of the way through the season. They will be seven weeks removed from the nixed trade for Chris Paul and seven weeks from the trade deadline -- enough time for emotions and nerves to settle. The Orlando Magic are in no rush to move Dwight Howard, and it wouldn't make sense for the New Jersey Nets to trade Deron Williams for either of the Lakers' big men before they see how Brook Lopez recovers from his foot injury. If he's back to normal, then a center would be the last thing the Nets need in exchange for Williams.

So instead of daydreaming about adding another superstar, the Lakers need to assess what they have. It's not looking good. The Lakers have struggled to score when anyone besides Kobe Bryant has the ball. Their 3-point shooting is the worst in the league, and it's not as if they make up for it with easy baskets in transition; they are one of six teams producing single-digit fast-break points per game.

All the problems manifested at the worst possible time Sunday, when the Indiana Pacers forced the ball out of Bryant's hands with late double-teams, no one else could convert, and the Lakers scored only 18 points in the fourth quarter of their loss. Fortunately for them, Lakers fans don't drown the team in boos; rather, they voice their complaints into their iPhones, as one courtside regular did on her way out of the building: "I'm glad you weren't here. It was awful."

The Lakers aren't just average, they're boring. Both are considered sins in L.A. Their fans pay the highest average ticket price in the league, so they expect entertainment. Lakers fans think differently than new coach Mike Brown, who has called some of the low-scoring affairs "fun to watch." To him, watching his team force the opponent into a bad shot and then grabbing the defensive rebound constitutes a good time. That's the mindset that comes from being part of the successful formula of the San Antonio Spurs (Brown was a Spurs assistant for three seasons).

I asked a Western Conference scout what's wrong with the Lakers.

"I would say the inconsistency in point guard play and ... I still believe that Kobe takes too many shots," the scout said.

Bryant is averaging just under 25 shots per game, the second-most in his career. He's averaging 30 points per game, and the Lakers never reached the Finals in any of the three previous seasons in which he scored that much.

I was in the "Kobe's shooting too much" camp until the game against the Dallas Mavericks last week, when Kobe dialed back the shots and the Lakers wound up with one of their worst scoring nights in the shot-clock era. That game screamed: "Fire away." Bryant's accuracy is up; he has made about half of his shots in 10 of the past 12 games. And how many other Lakers can create their own shots?

And getting easy shots from close range is the Lakers' biggest problem. Double-team Andrew Bynum on the block or Kobe on the wing and they're left with another player taking (and usually missing) a long jumper. Pau Gasol isn't getting close shots because, to his chagrin, he's been asked to set up near the top of the key, something that fell under Lamar Odom's job description before he was traded.

Transition baskets? Don't count on it. While the Lakers are a top-six team when it comes to opponents' shooting and scoring, they are in the middle of the pack in steals, which cuts down their fast-break opportunities.

They need to find solutions for the half-court offense. Perhaps add some wrinkles to get Gasol to places on the floor where he feels comfortable. Work on quick reversals to get the ball to Bynum without a second defender nearby. They need something to show for their work in the gym.

By the end of this week, the players might be clamoring to put their game uniforms on again, no matter where the location, just to escape the rigors of Brown's practices. He enrolled them in Ball So Hard University from the first day of training camp, causing the players to quickly dub him "All Day, Every Day." Whether that's the best solution for a roster with nine players in their 30s, we'll see.

Days off also mean days older, something the Lakers don't need to be reminded of. Two years ago, the Lakers and Boston Celtics met in the NBA Finals. At the moment, they're a combined 17-17. Age might be their greatest adversary. That means it might not be a matter of the caliber of opponent. It might not be a matter of more drills or scrimmaging. It might be a case of what the scout observed: "They just don't have it."