NBA Basketball Column: Free Throws
The Lakers - Down, not Out
They won't be the superteam they were hyped to be coming into the season. Though still putting up solid numbers - 17.3 points and 12.4 rebounds per game - Dwight Howard's athleticism has been stunted by offseason back surgery. He's laying balls in instead of dunking them. Defensively he's blocking and changing less shots, and players aren't afraid to enter the lane like they were when he was protecting the rim in Orlando. Pau Gasol's knees are shaky, and he's recently been concussed. Steve Nash has also missed significant time due to injury, and he's always been a defensive liability.
But there are more reasons to believe the Lakers will turn things around to make the postseason.
For one, Kobe Bryant is having his best shooting season in 10 years, putting up almost 30 points per game off 47% shooting, 36% from behind the arc. He's actually scoring too much, and he knows it. The last few games he's done a nice job distributing to Howard for some easy baskets, and I suspect he'll continue to improve his deference.
Second - remember how long it took the Heat to gel during their first season together. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh needed time to get used to each other's tendencies, and they were all healthy for the entire season. Though none of LA's "Big 4" are completely healthy, they've only played together a handful of times so it's understandable why they often look disjointed. Nash and Gasol are fantastic passers, so I expect the fluidity on offense to come soon.
Analysts point to the average number of wins a Western Conference team has needed to snag the eighth and final playoff spot in recent years - 45 - and concluded that the Lakers won't get there, as they'd need to go 28-14 the rest of the way. But this season is different. The Houston Rockets hold the eight seed with a record of 21-21, so right now a .500 record would be good enough to make it. Also, take a look at the other teams ahead of LA - 1) the Portland Trailblazers - young, inexperienced, with no depth. 2) The Minnesota Timberwolves - missing Kevin Love for an extended period with his second broken hand of the season. 3) The Dallas Mavericks - playing better with Dirk Nowitzki back from injury, but without most of its pieces from its 2011 championship team. And the Rockets have lost seven straight. The Lakers may not be elite, but I would take them over any of those squads in a seven game series.
To get back to respectability LA also must pick it up defensively, as they give up the fifth most points in the NBA. In an effort to mask Nash's defensive impotence, Coach Mike D'Antoni puts him on the opposing team's worst offensive perimeter player. This has left Bryant to cover smaller and faster point guards, which is too much to ask. Kobe cannot be expected to score 30 a night and guard guys like Chris Paul and Russel Westbrook. There isn't a perfect adjustment to make, but D'Antoni should at least put another perimeter defender on the opposing PG. Though it won't stop dribble penetration, it should be enough to allow Howard to offer effective help defense when guards get into the lane.
It's not going to be easy. Aside from the issues listed above, the "Big 4" don't seem to like each other, especially Bryant and Howard. But neither did Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe, and they managed to put winning ahead of personal gripes.
They don't have to be great. They have to be great at home, decent on the road, and finish the season around 24 and 18 to crack the eighth spot. Though they won't contend for the championship, LA will climb over four teams and secure a post season berth.
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