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How they can win it all: The Los Angeles Lakers

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As the two-time defending champions, the Lakers rightfully began the regular season as the favorites to win a third straight title. Despite the team’s predictable ups and downs that come with having a veteran-heavy club that’s been to the Finals three straight years, they remain the favorites in most people’s eyes as the playoffs are set to begin on Saturday.

Just how heavily the Lakers are favored, however, is open to serious debate. The Bulls and the Spurs both finished with win totals north of 60, and even though L.A. put it together brilliantly for a stretch after the All-Star break in which the team went 17-1, they limped to the finish line, dropping five in a row before barely beating San Antonio’s reserves, and giving back all of a 20-point lead in Sacramento before winning in overtime to secure the two-seed in the last game of the regular season.

So, while L.A. might still be the favorites, the team has definitely given the league’s other top contenders reason to believe that they’ll have more than a fighting chance when they get their shot at the champs. Here’s how the Lakers can remove all doubt and engineer yet another NBA title:

1. Use your tremendous size advantage to make things easy offensively

There’s a reason that the league and its fans collectively held their breath while awaiting the result of Andrew Bynum’s MRI exam, after he left Tuesday night’s game with a knee injury. Without him, the Lakers would immediately turn from favorites into long shots to repeat (yet again) as champions.

It’s no secret that the combination of Bynum and Pau Gasol in the Lakers starting lineup is a huge advantage over most, if not all of the teams in the playoffs, and L.A. needs to use them more than occasionally in order to be consistently successful. That means getting both bigs more touches offensively, which also means that the likes of Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, and Derek Fisher need to be more judicious with their shot selection, and let the offense flow through the post more often.

As the playoff pace slows and the games become more half-court oriented, avoiding quick launches from long range early in the shot clock will help the Lakers be a more efficient unit offensively, as well as limit the transition opportunities for their opponents. It’s not as easy as it sounds, however, and will take some discipline — even from guys who have the veteran experience to know better.

2. Get Kobe Bryant to play within himself

If you’ve watched any nationally televised Celtics games over the past few seasons, when they put the microphone in the timeout huddle at crucial points in the game, you always hear Doc Rivers remind his team not to play “hero ball.”

Kobe Bryant would be wise to at least consider this advice, at least for his team’s run through the playoffs.

It’s a little bit different for the Lakers, of course, because it’s not exactly an offensive democracy in L.A. the way it is for other teams. Bryant is a superstar of the highest order, and demands a high volume of touches, and an unhealthy-at-times amount of shots — especially considering the amount of talent on that roster. And yet, there are times when the Lakers simply need his spectacular ability to score in a variety of situations.

But they don’t need “hero ball,” and they don’t need Bryant to play offensively like he’s the only person on the team who can score. Everyone needs to be involved and engaged for this Lakers team to play at its highest level; Bryant needs to recognize that, and measure his play accordingly.

3. Give consistent and sustained maximum effort for the entire postseason

This might be the tallest of orders for the Lakers. It is an extremely long grind just to get to the playoffs, especially for a team that is looking to play well into June for the fourth straight season. The occasional lapse on that road is to be expected for a championship group of veterans, but now that the postseason has arrived, the focus needs to be there for every single game.

It’s important for L.A. to bring it every night now that the regular season is through, and not only because closing out the weaker, early-round opponents as quickly as possible gets the team some added rest for the tougher series that lie ahead. The Lakers have shown this year that once they drift and lose that focus, it’s not so easy for them to get it back.

When the Lakers have lapsed mentally and lost games that on paper they should have won, they haven’t shown any consistent ability to bounce back the next game and blow somebody out. The focus has taken far too long to return, as evidenced by losing streaks of four and five games that the team has uncharacteristically suffered over the course of the year.

Any losing streak in the playoffs obviously puts an end to a team’s season, so the Lakers must avoid their lengthy lapses at all costs if they are to once again take home the title.

Steven Adams and Andre Roberson passionately sing Backstreet Boys (video)

GREENBURGH, NY - AUGUST 06:  Grant Jerrett #47, Andre Roberson #21, and Steven Adams #12, of the Oklahoma City Thunder pose for a portrait during the 2013 NBA rookie photo shoot at the MSG Training Center on August 6, 2013 in Greenburgh, New York.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
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Steven Adams and Andre Roberson are just like the rest of us.

The Thunder players sit around and belt out the Backstreet Boys’ “I want it that way.”

John Salley: If I smoked marijuana during career, I’d probably still be playing.

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 01:  Former NBA player John Salley attends the TipTalk App Launch Party at  a private residence on June 1, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for TipTalk)
Charley Gallay/Getty Images for TipTalk
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John Salley has said becoming a vegan sooner would’ve enhanced his NBA career.

Now, the former Piston has another idea for improving player health.

Salley, via TMZ:

I am a proponent and I believe in the advocacy of medical marijuana. We see football players in Alabama getting busted. We see – we need to get it out. We need to move it and realize that is something that can help the human body.

It helps athletes. I didn’t start smoking until my last two months before I was a pro. And I believe if I would’ve smoked while I was playing, I probably still would be playing.

Marijuana is already legal in Colorado (where the Nuggets play), Oregon (where the Trail Blazers play), Washington and Alaska. Medical marijuana is legal in numerous other states. The nation is definitely trending toward legalization.

If that continues, why shouldn’t NBA players be permitted to use the drug? It can be an effective method for treating pain – which is quite common in a profession that requires such intensive physical labor.

The 52-year-old Salley is obviously exaggerating about still played today if he smoked weed, but maybe his career would’ve lasted longer. Shouldn’t players determine for themselves what legal methods they can follow to manage injuries?

Perhaps, they’re already taking Salley’s advice.

Former NBA player Paul Shirley: ‘Of course’ John Wall and Bradley Beal dislike each other.

ATLANTA, GA - MARCH 21:  John Wall #2 and Bradley Beal #3 of the Washington Wizards react in the final seconds of their 117-102 win over the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on March 21, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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John Wall and Bradley Beal admitted they clash on the court.

That caused controversy as the outside world expressed dismay at the Wizards guards’ attitudes.

Paul Shirley – who played for the Hawks, Bulls and Suns from 2003-05 – shrugged.

Paul Shirley on NBA.com:

What I learned, when I got to the NBA, was that my dreams of fraternity were naïve ones. I sat in locker rooms where players barely spoke to one another. I endured team plane rides where one guy stared daggers at the next because of a contract dispute.

Consequently, I barely batted an eye at the recent “revelation” that Bradley Beal and John Wall don’t much like one another.

Of course they don’t like each other, I thought. That’s just the way it is.

This is a secret of the NBA: Not all teammates get along. Some are friends, but many are just coworkers – and consider your relationship with your coworkers. Frequent travel for work and the closed-off nature of locker rooms can push players toward forging bonds – but those conditions can also magnify any rifts.

In theory, Wall (a slashing passer) and Beal (an outside shooter) should complement each other well. But it’d be hard to find a team where each of the top two scorers doesn’t believe he should get more shots.

The successful teams manage that tension productively. They can convince each player to accept a role, sacrifice and contain his displeasures.

Maybe the Wizards can get there.

But that – not a fantasy friendship between Wall and Beal – should be the goal.

Report: Lance Stephenson to work out for Pelicans

NEW ORLEANS, LA - OCTOBER 30:  Anthony Davis #23 of the New Orleans Pelicans looks to pass the ball around Lance Stephenson #1 of the Indiana Pacers at the New Orleans Arena on October 30, 2013 in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
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Two years ago, Lance Stephenson was 23 years old and nearly an All-Star.

Now, he’s stuck trying out for a team without an open regular-season roster spot.

Brett Dawson of The Advocate:

The Pelicans have 15 players – the regular-season roster limit – with guaranteed salaries plus Chris Copeland, Robert Sacre and Shawn Dawson on unguaranteed deals.

In other words, Stephenson is trying out just to enter a competition for a roster vacancy that doesn’t even exist.

New Orleans has taken major steps to add perimeter help this summer, drafting Buddy Hield and signing E’Twaun Moore, Langston Galloway and Solomon Hill. If he somehow makes the team, Stephenson likely wouldn’t make the rotation, even with Tyreke Evans injured.

Still, Stephenson is just 25, and he showed major talent with the Pacers just two years ago. He made positive contributions to the Grizzlies last season, too.

But a disastrous stint with the Hornets and an underwhelming run with the Clippers weigh down his résumé.

Stephenson probably did enough in Memphis to prove he still has NBA-caliber ability. More than anything, he’ll have to convince the Pelicans – and other potential suitors – he has the right attitude to work in the league.