The Nuggets have started their 3-game road trip with frustrating losses to Utah and Golden State in which they failed to close out games they had led by 15 or more points. The final leg of the trip doesn’t get any easier as they wind it up in Los Angeles to meet the Lakers for the first time since being eliminated in game seven of the first round of the playoffs last May. While much of the recent news regarding the Lakers has revolved around their struggles with injuries, chemistry and coaching, they remain a dangerous team loaded with All-Star talent.
To get a better informed insight about what to expect from the Lakers, Roundball Mining Company has exchanged questions and answers with Andy Kamenetzky (follow the Kamenetzky Brothers here on twitter) of the ESPN Los Angeles Lakers Index. If you’d like to see my replies to Andy’s questions, you can read them here. And without further ado, the following are his answers to our questions about the Lakers.
1. Nobody would have predicted, even taking Steve Nash’s injury into acount, that after acquiring Dwight Howard the Lakers would have a losing record 15 games into the season. Is this slow start something that will shake itself out after they adjust to Mike D’Antoni’s system, or do the problems run deeper than that?
Andy Kamenetzky: A little of both, I think. There’s no question the Lakers have flaws. The starting five is out of a video game, but is collectively old and in the case of Nash and Howard, dealing with the effects of recent injuries. The bench hasn’t rounded into reliable form. It wouldn’t kill them to add another shooter. But there’s also no question these struggles are also due in rather sizable part to the early season chaos (training camp injuries, the coaching carousel), a myriad of new faces, and Nash’s absence. It’s been extremely difficult for the Lakers to consistently form a cohesive unit on either side of the ball. Obviously, they’re not the first team in NBA history to deal with injuries and/or drama. There’s an onus on the Lakers to figure it out as best they can with the cards they’ve been dealt. Still, I figured it would take this process would take a couple of months under the best possible circumstances, and these have flirted with “worst possible” status.
2. Pau Gasol took a lot of heat after his performance in the Lakers’ loss to the Pacers, but D’Antoni came to his defense saying ” he’s a big part of what [the Lakers are] going to do.” How realistic is the prospect that he’ll be able to run in D’Antoni’s system and establish good chemistry with Dwight?
Andy Kamenetzky: I think it’s possible. Gasol isn’t a Utopian fit for D’Antoni — the coach has admitted as much — but we’re talking about one of the most creative offensive minds in basketball joining forces with one of the most multi-skilled players of his generation. I’d like to think the two can develop a positive, productive working relationship. I’ve often wondered if the template might be Boris Diaw’s role in Phoenix: A play-making big man who can create for others, work mismatches off the dribble, run the break off a rebound, etc. It’s not a true apples-to-apples comparison, as Diaw is a better outside shooter and was younger, but I do think there are legitimate commonalities. Plus, Howard is mobile enough to begin sequences in the high post, which will allow Gasol to at least begin some possessions in the mid or low post.
Then again, it’s not a perfect setup, which means Pau bears the responsibility to aggressively seek out a comfort zone, rather than wait for his coach to create it for him. Unfortunately, that kind of assertiveness isn’t Gasol’s strong suit. There’s also always a chance that with Kobe, Howard and eventually Nash alongside him, Pau simply won’t be given enough to do to truly flourish. But for the time being, I’m remaining positive that time, plus Nash’s presence, will eventually create a niche for Pau.
3. After landing three-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard, the Lakers are surprisingly just 18th in defensive efficiency. What do they need to do to improve defensively in general, and what approach should we expect to see them taking in defending the Nuggets in this game?
Andy Kamenetzky: Mostly, cohesion. It’s been a nutty two months, which has impeded the team’s ability to get on the same page defensively. This problem is only heightened by Dwight remaining a step or two slow. By his own admission, Howard’s not fully recovered from the back surgery, which prevents him from being the ultimate last line of defense we’ve grown accustomed to seeing. In the latest loss to Indiana, George Hill floated a game-winner off the backboard over Howard, who’d arrived a hair late to either successfully alter the shot or block it. Before the back injury, I’d have bet the house on Howard in that situation. He’s slowly rounding into form, but not yet “Dwight Howard” as we’ve come to know him.
As for the strategy against Denver, I think the first key is containing Ty Lawson as much as possible, which begins with the defense on ball (Darius Morris or Chris Duhon, unless D’Antoni opts for a defensive cross-match involving Kobe or Metta World Peace over stretches) and ends with Gasol and Howard protecting the rim against inevitable penetration from the speedster. The Lakers will also need to be diligent about getting back in transition, especially as a team that now looks to increase tempo. From there, I think it’s all about keeping Denver, and in particular, Kenneth Faried off the glass to prevent garbage buckets and second chance opportunities. JaVale McGee and Kosta Koufos are no slouches on the offensive glass, but Faried is just plain ridiculous (and very entertaining to watch play.) Gasol has struggled at times to keep a body on the Manimal, but needs to find a way to prevent the kid from running roughshod in the paint.
4. Steve Nash’s injury has obviously been a major disappointment and setback for the Lakers after assembling their four future Hall of Famers lineup. How big of an impact will he have in improving the team once he returns from injury?
Andy Kamenetzky: Assuming there aren’t any noticeable effects from the injury, I think Nash will have a pretty big impact. He knows D’Antoni’s system as well as the coach, and no player has ever run it more successfully. With Nash in the fold, the Lakers gain a true floor general, an outside shooting threat, and a player with an unbelievable ability to find teammates in the right spot in the right time. That can only help matters. He’s obviously not a magic bullet, and work will remain at hand after his return. Everyone, Nash included, will have to adjust for the umpeenth time this season. But I do think Nash can make a serious difference. Remember, he was imported from Phoenix well before D’Antoni was in the picture. There were holes to fix, regardless of the coach, and Nash theoretically addresses a lot of those gaps.
5. It seems that many in Lakers Nation are calling for a Gasol trade. But even if — contrary to D’Antoni’s statement — the Lakers did decide to put him on the block, could they get enough talent back in return that on the balance it would improve the team’s chances for a championship?
Andy Kamenetzky: Maybe. Even if Gasol’s trade value has plummeted to the point where he won’t fetch a player close to his caliber of talent — and unless Pau picks up his play, I suspect that will be the case — it’s debatable whether the Lakers even need another A-Lister. One could reasonably argue “Star Player X” swapped for Pau would in turn find himself similarly lacking opportunities, and therefore would be an equally uncomfortable fit. Thus, two or three role players (at least one of which can shoot) to bolster the bench and add depth might actually benefit the Lakers in a more tangible way. And that may be a realistic haul for Pau, even during a down season. The guy’s still a very good player, and we’re not far removed from the London games where he flourished as “el hombre” for Spain.
Update: Check out the 5-on-5 previewing the game on ESPN.com.