Lakers Discover Correct FormulaThe L.A. Lakers have stumbled and bumbled through most of this season but they have gone 11-4 in their past 15 games and they seem to have discovered the correct formula for success. When I praised the series of moves that essentially swapped Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom for Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, I envisioned a team whose defense would be anchored by Howard's mobile, agile presence in the paint and whose offense would attack in multiple ways: screen/roll actions with Howard/Nash, high-low play with Howard and Pau Gasol, isolation sets featuring Kobe Bryant and open corner three pointers for Metta World Peace, Jodie Meeks, Steve Blake and other shooters as a result of defenses scrambling to contain Bryant, Howard, Gasol and Nash. On paper, a healthy Lakers' squad matches up well with any team in the league. Of course, we all know that the season has not turned out that way at all: Howard is still not 100% physically, Nash broke his leg in the second game, Gasol has missed 21 games due to injury (and is out of action indefinitely due to a torn platar fascia) and Bryant has been asked to do everything from scoring 30 points on .500-plus shooting to posting double digit assists to guarding faster, younger guards to trying to convince Howard to take a more serious approach. The Lakers fired Coach Mike Brown after just five games, went 4-1 under interim Coach Bernie Bickerstaff and then struggled to adjust to Coach Mike D'Antoni's system, which does not quite mesh with the skill set strengths and weaknesses of the Lakers' key players.
The injuries that have limited Howard, Gasol and Nash are by far the biggest reason that the Lakers have failed to meet expectations but it is also undeniable that the Lakers did not play correctly until very recently: they lacked energy, effort and organization defensively, while their high turnover rate offensively negated their solid field goal shooting and wasted arguably the most efficient season of Bryant's career (despite a January slump, Bryant is still shooting a career-high .469 from the field). What has changed in the past 15 games? Howard has regained a lot--but not all--of his former bounce physically and as his athletic prowess has returned his attitude and energy level have improved: Howard is shutting down the paint on defense and his active screen-setting on offense has made the Lakers difficult to guard even without Gasol. Bryant won the Western Conference Player of the Week award for February 19-24 after averaging 31.3 ppg, 7.7 rpg and 6.0 apg as the Lakers went 3-0, beating Boston, Portland and Dallas. Earl Clark has performed solidly as a "stretch four" in place of Gasol; the Lakers are not better without Gasol than they are with him (their improvement has more to do with Howard's rise than Gasol's absence) but Gasol is a declining player and the Lakers would have been well served if they could have traded Gasol for a young, athletic small forward, enabling D'Antoni to surround Howard with four active, small players. Nash returned to his .500/.400/.900 shooting ways in January and he is again shooting better than .500 from the field and better than .400 from the three point line in February (his February free throw percentage is .846).
If the Lakers avoid any more injuries and if Bryant, Howard and Nash continue to play the way that they have in the past 15 games or so then the Lakers are capable of winning at least 18 of their final 25 games, which should be enough to squeeze into the playoffs as the eighth seed. It is still difficult to picture the Lakers winning a seven game series against an elite team but if the Lakers make the playoffs then they will be a team that actually fits the overused cliche about being a squad that no one wants to face: dealing with the Bryant-Howard-Nash trio in a playoff series could be a formidable task even for San Antonio or Oklahoma City and if Gasol is able to contribute anything then the Lakers will present some serious matchup problems. Role players Metta World Peace, Earl Clark and Antawn Jamison will have to be productive for the Lakers to salvage their season and possibly make some noise in the playoffs. The 1995 Rockets won the championship as a sixth seed with Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler leading the way while role players made key contributions; it will be interesting to see if Bryant and Howard can rally the Lakers in similar fashion. I would not bet on it at this point--but that scenario looks more plausible today than it did even two weeks ago.
posted by David Friedman @ 7:14 PM