Sitting at a comfortable 2-1 record coming out of the gate, the Denver Nuggets is about to face its toughest test of the season with back-to-back bouts against the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday and Sunday. To better prepare for this all-too familiar foe, ESPNLA’s Brian Kamenetzky graciously offered up his insight on this year’s Lakers team in exchange for Roundball’s take on the 2011-12 Denver Nuggets. Be sure and check in with ESPNLA’s Land O’ Lakers blog tomorrow for our analysis on the Nuggets upcoming back-to-back series against the Lakers, but before you do, first read world-class journalist, Brian Kamenetzky’s exclusive interview with Roundball Mining Company regarding his thoughts on the current Lakers squad and its chances of contending for a title this season.
1. Much has been made of the departure from the triangle offense. Has there been a significant change in how the Lakers play on offense so far this year?
Absolutely. While the Lakers didn’t run the triangle exclusively while Phil Jackson coached the team, they certainly were in it a lot and as a result were among the least pick and roll heavy teams in the league. They ran it, but most came in the fourth quarter with Pau Gasol setting the screen and Kobe Bryant as the ball handler. Now, like most teams they run far more P’n’R sets, and involve the PG to a much greater extent. There are more designed calls and set plays. Still, you’ll recognize a lot of the action, from Pau Gasol operating out of the high post to Kobe running off ball from weak to strong, catching at the free throw line or along the wing.
The biggest adjustment hasn’t just come in trying to learn Mike Brown’s playbook, but in unlearning the triangle. It’s a very specific system with a specific way to read the floor, make cuts, and construct shot opportunities. For someone like Andrew Bynum, who has never played in another offense, the un-learning curve is steep. There are places he’s asked to go now as a center he never went before, which means new angles, new looks, and so on. Kobe, another guy who, for all practical purposes is a triangle lifer, talked early in camp about how guys still gravitate towards certain places on the floor, and that he’s made passes to spots expecting teammates to be there. And they would have, last December, but not now.
They’re a high I.Q bunch with versatile skill sets so it’s reasonable to believe the Lakers will pick things up relatively quickly. It won’t be easy, though.
2. Even with Kobe Bryant directing most offensive possessions, point guard play remains a question mark. How will the Lakers handle facing the better point guards of the league on a nightly basis?
I get in trouble for this line of thinking with our readers, but still steadfastly maintain the Lakers are hurt far more offensively by their point guards than on the other end. At the NBA level, defending the pick and roll is a team effort. Everyone has to be on the same page. When they are, things go well. When they’re not, they don’t. The Lakers have won titles with Derek Fisher at the point, and functionally he’s really no different as a defender now as he was three seasons ago (because he wasn’t very agile then, either). Outside of the pick and roll, no point guard can guard another one-on-one. Derrick Rose isn’t quick enough to guard Derrick Rose.
Meanwhile, the near complete lack of production from their PG’s over the last few seasons has been a real problem, not only because it puts big pressure on their stars to pick up the slack but because L.A.’s PG’s do almost nothing to offset what the opposition does from that spot.
The Lakers could obviously use an upgrade at the point guard spot, even if Steve Blake rebounds from a bad first season in L.A. (as I believe he will, and he’s done well in the early going). There’s no question about it. I just tend to think the weakness hurts them more offensively than defensively. A good scheme can protect lesser defenders, but in a conventional offense, the Lakers lack of firepower and explosiveness at the 1 will appear more acute.
3. Lamar Odom was a staple of the Lakers bench that routinely scorched the smaller Nuggets reserves. What’s the identity of the bench now and how will it create offense?
It’s hard to say, because the bench hasn’t really been the bench yet. With Bynum out, Josh McRoberts has started at power forward while Troy Murphy has played heavy minutes as a third big. With Bynum back, those guys both come off the bench, and how they’ll be deployed remains to be seen.
A few things do seem to be coming together. Metta World Peace (still getting used to that) has embraced his role as sixth man much in the same way Lamar Odom eventually did when Phil Jackson moved him to the bench. MWP enjoys the responsibility of leading the second unit, and Mike Brown has done whatever he can to empower him, designing plays to get Metta into the post and play a large role offensively. It’s a big chance from what he did with the starters, namely wait around for scraps.
An engaged World Peace is a more productive World Peace.
While the Lakers are definitely short a ball handlers and anyone who can create his own shot, in total the bench this season could have a lot more balance. While Odom is gone, Murphy and McRoberts represent a massive upgrade over Joe Smith and Theo Ratliff. Jason Kapono gives them a legitimate shooter along the arc. Murphy can step out, as well. The emergence of Devin Ebanks as a potential rotation player essentially amounts to an extra signing or trade acquisition, and with Matt Barnes around means the Lakers actually have some depth on the wing.
If Blake plays more like the guy the Lakers expected when they signed him (no world beater, but a far cry from the completely useless player he was last season), they’ll be that much better off.
4. Bynum’s intimated that he hasn’t been thrilled with his role in L.A. Can Mike Brown change this and help him overcome his inconsistency?
We’ll find out. For what it’s worth, Bynum says he wants to stay in L.A., denying whispers he’s looking to lead his own team (which would obviously necessitate a trade). At the same time, he also made it pretty clear at the end of last season he wants more. More responsibility, more of a role, just more. How he gets it is an open question, but there’s no question Brown wants to use the Bynum/Gasol combination extensively. Pau will likely cede a few shots, particularly if it means more of the offense is run through him as a facilitator.
The bigger question is whether or not Kobe would do the same on a regular basis. And as for Bynum’s consistency, it’s an issue of health more than anything. If he can stay in the lineup, Bynum will put up numbers.
5. Are the Lakers a championship contender as presently constituted?
Yes, but the margin for error is slim. A lot needs to go right. Bynum needs to stay healthy, as does Kobe (a tall order, since his wrist already looks like someone stuffed a balloon inside), World Peace has to perform as a sixth man, the backup bigs need to be the guys they’ve appeared to be in the first four games, Blake has to be better, Fisher can’t be a big liability, and so on.
The biggest reason to be confident is that the Lakers have been very strong defensively in the early going, save some real breakdowns against Sacramento. They held the Bulls in the low 30’s in the second half on Christmas Day, then did the same over four quarters to the Jazz and Knicks. While it may never be perfect, the offense should improve with time. There’s a lot of growth available there. But on the other end, the Lakers are already showing improved interest over last season, and haven’t played with their defensive anchor yet.
So if everything goes well, the Lakers really do have a chance. It’s just easier to see the downside than the upside.