Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash

The Lakers are right on schedule, but is it too late?

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Picture this: Steve Nash dribbles up court, surveying the floor. As he crosses half court, he maneuvers towards the three point line. Once there, Dwight Howard comes and sets a pick and rolls hard to the basket but doesn’t get the ball. Nash probes the defense, dribbling into the paint and underneath the hoop, spotting Kobe Bryant open on the wing. Kobe raises to shoot a jumper but instead rifles a pass to a wide open Howard under the hoop who catches the pass for a dunk.

Or picture this: Kobe is hounding the opposing point guard full court. Before the ball handler gets to the timeline, he’s been turned multiple times, his pattern up the floor an inefficient zig-zag. With the shot clock winding down, the ball goes to the wing. That player, feeling pressure from Metta World Peace, tries to drive and get a shot off before the help arrives. But Howard swoops in, alters the shot, and then secures the rebound.

Or this: Nash is pushing the ball up court, looking to improvise. Defenders are retreating and recovering to the paint while still trying to find their men in semi-transition. On one wing is Kobe. On the other is Antawn Jamison and Earl Clark. Howard is trailing the action but running well, looking for the ball should the action slow. Nash veers left towards Kobe, but instead fires a pass to Clark. As a defender chases the ball, Clark instantly passes to Jamison in the corner who shoots, and sinks, an uncontested three pointer.

Actually, you don’t have to just picture them — these are sequences from the last three Lakers’ games. It’s the middle of January and they’re finally starting to get it. This is good news, right?

Before the season started, this was the timeline many thought the Lakers would be operating on. With a team of players turned over by half — including some big name acquisitions — they’d need time to find their collective stride. With Howard still recovering from his back surgery, the expectations were that the team would start somewhat slowly. Give them time to heal, to jell, to build up that familiarity that all teams need to reach their peak. Once that happened, they’d start to string together good performances and become a terror that teams would want to avoid.

The Lakers are getting closer to being that team. The defense is improving. The offense, though efficient for the entire season, is staring to show more fluidity. Players are communicating better and seem to be on the same page. And while there are still hurdles to clear — What to do with Pau Gasol? How to mix their lineups effectively? Do they sure up their bench?  — the list of positives with this team is finally starting to outweigh the negatives. They are making progress. Lots of it.

The only problem is the hole they’ve dug themselves in the process of getting to this point. The moral victories are piling up, but the Lakers need real victories to sustain them. They currently sit 5 games below .500 with 17 wins and 22 losses. They’re the 11th seed in the West with only a half a season left to play. So as much as D’Antoni would love to hit the reset button on this season, the Lakers’ season did not, in fact, start this past Sunday.

The time to turn their season around was weeks ago, but is only starting to happen now. Do the Lakers have enough time left?

Over the past 4 seasons, the 8th seed in the Western Conference has averaged 48 wins. For the Lakers to get to that mark, they would need to close with the season with a 31-12 push. Possible? Yes. Plausible? The friendliest response would say maybe. A neutral observer would say it’s pretty unlikely.

There is a formula for the Lakers to reach their goal of making the post-season. If they can get above the .500 mark by the all-star break they’d put themselves in position to make one last push to sneak in as the 8th seed. In Phil Jackson’s last year with the team, the Lakers came out of the all-star break winning 19 of 20 games before injuries saw them sputter into the playoffs. Is this team capable of making that type of push from the middle of February into March?

The way the team is playing now does make it seem anything is possible. If observed in a vacuum, their improvement on offense and recommitment to defense is the foundation of a team that can rattle off a bunch of wins in a short amount of time. Of course, this season isn’t taking place in a vacuum.

Funny how things work. The Lakers are starting to play well, right on the schedule we thought they would. But because of how bad they were to start the year, it may still be too late.

Larry Sanders considering making NBA comeback soon

Larry Sanders
Associated Press
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It was one year ago that Larry Sanders came to terms for a mutual parting of the ways with the Bucks, a buyout of his contract that let him get away from basketball. He had personal demons to deal with. Sanders had played just 50 games the previous two seasons for the Bucks, had been a nightclub brawl left him with an injured thumb in need of surgery, been charged with animal cruelty, had been suspended a couple of times by the league for marijuana use, and the list went on. It was best for both sides to walk away.

Sanders checked himself into a hospital program for anxiety, depression, and mood disorders. At the time, he wrote he still loved basketball, but he needed better coping skills to handle the pressure and lifestyle.

“If I get to a point where I feel I’m capable of playing basketball again, I will.”

We may be reaching that time. From Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports:

After accepting a buyout from the Milwaukee Bucks to step away from the NBA last season, Larry Sanders told The Vertical he plans to pursue a return to the NBA once his off-court ventures stabilize.

“Once my art, music and passions off the court feel stable, I will look into coming back,” Sanders told The Vertical. “I still love basketball. I want stability around me, and part of my mindset to leave was not to put all my eggs in one basket.

“I feel highly valuable on any team. There aren’t a lot of people who can bring my game to a team. I still play basketball all the time, staying in shape. I will need to make sure the situation is right for me.”

Sanders would draw interest from teams (he already has this season), there aren’t a lot of athletic 6’11” defenders in the league. In the 2013 season, before he signed his contract extension, Sanders averaged 9.8 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.8 blocks a game. Teams would be willing to roll the dice.

Sanders is now working on his music, plus running a management company for artists. His buyout from the Bucks will give him $1.9 million a season until 2022, so a return to the league is not necessarily about the cash.

If he does come back, I hope for his sake his head is in the right space and can handle it. He needs to take care of himself first.

Will Phil Jackson ultimately leave Knicks to run Lakers?

Phil Jackson Jeanie Buss
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Phil Jackson has been thrust back into the New York spotlight with the firing of Derek Fisher for not being ready to be an NBA coach — who could have seen that coming? — and speculation about what moves he’ll make next. While you can point to misfires as the guy with the hammer in the Knicks organization, he nailed the Kristaps Porzingis pick and no doubt this Knicks roster is in far better shape than the one he took over. Plus, he’s kept owner James Dolan out of the basketball decision-making process, which is a huge step forward.

But if/when he gets the chance, will he bolt New York to team up with fiancée Jeanie Buss and run the Lakers?

Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports writes there is a “strong belief” in some quarters that it will happen.

Golden State assistant Luke Walton is closest to a legitimately coveted candidate with ties to Jackson and the triangle – and he’s still largely unproven, too. Walton intrigues Jackson, but truth be told: Why would Walton come East without an assurance Jackson is committed to the long run in New York? There’s still a strong belief Jackson will eventually find his way to his fiancée Jeanie Buss and the Los Angeles Lakers. Walton will be competing with Thibodeau for the Lakers job in the spring, and who knows: Jackson and Walton could be reunited there.

Would Jackson leave the Knicks? The better question is, did anyone think he would stay the entire five years of his contract? Not many around the league did. Knicks fans should be legitimately concerned about who is next.

Lakers fans would welcome Jackson’s return because it means no Jim Buss. Fairly or not, Buss has become a scapegoat for a healthy segment of the fan base.

But this would be far from simple.

Jim Buss is in charge of the basketball side of the Lakers’ operation as empowered by the complex trust his father Jerry Buss used to leave the team to his six children. They all have roles, they all have pieces of the team, and truth be told they all have big aspirations. It sets up like a Shakespearean drama. Jeanie Buss is the ultimate power and the person the league recognizes as the owner for official votes of the board of governors, but this is not like other ownership situations where she has ultimate power and can fire whomever she wants and replace them — she can’t just ax family members and sideline them. Again, it’s a complex trust with shared power and responsibilities.

Jim has said if the Lakers are not a contender by 2017 he would step aside, although how he defines that time (the end of the summer of 2017, at the earliest) and how Jeanie defines it (more like early 2017, before that loaded free agency summer) differ. Nothing that happens with the Lakers will be clean and bloodless.

But if Jim steps aside and lets Jeanie bring in her own basketball people, Phil Jackson could well return to L.A.

Then we can have a discussion if that’s really best for the Lakers’ brand.

Add Kobe Bryant to don’t change hack-a-player crowd

Los Angeles Lakers forward Kobe Bryant gestures after hitting a three point shot during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Houston Rockets, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Associated Press
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LeBron James is already there. So is Kevin Durant. Same with a lot of other old-school GMs and coaches around the league.

Their response to the rapid rise in hack-a-player (shouldn’t it always be hack-a-Shaq?) instances is “tell the guy to hit the free throws.”

Add Kobe Bryant to their ranks, reports Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report.

Personally, I hate the “won’t somebody please think of the children” argument — plenty of people have said emulating Kobe’s penchant for isolation basketball and contested jumpers was bad for children growing up playing the game.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is starting to feel differently. He realizes he runs an entertainment business and a parade of guys to the free throw line because of a non-basketball play — you can’t begin to tell me fouling a guy 50 feet from the ball is a basketball play in the spirit of the rules — is bad for business. It is unwatchable. And while every coach in the NBA  says “I hate to do it” they all do it with increasing frequency. There will be more than twice as many instances this season of hack-a-player fouls as there were a year ago, with more and more players involved. Because it works, and because those coaches are paid to win, not play beautiful basketball.

Change is coming. Old-school types always bemoan change, and that’s not just a basketball thing. But the rest of the world has rules in place to stop this because they realize it’s not basketball, it’s gaming the system. And it needs to change.

Timofey Mozgov with maybe “best” missed dunk of the season (VIDEO)

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On this play the Sacramento Kings played defense like only they can — and you wonder why George Karl’s job is in danger — and gave Cleveland’s Timofey Mozgov a wide-open lane right down the middle for an easy dunk.

Ooof.

LeBron James had a triple-double (the 40th of his career) and the Cavaliers got a needed easy win, but this is the play you’ll remember.