NBA season preview: L.A. Lakers

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Last Season: Failure. For a team that measures success in terms of championships, especially when it has enough talent on paper to compete at that level, 2012 just wasn’t good enough.

The Lakers struggled with depth and exited the playoffs in the second round for the second straight year, this time to a younger, more athletic, and more explosive Oklahoma City Thunder squad. This came after going a longer-than-planned seven games in the first round against a talented, yet inexperienced Nuggets team that shouldn’t have been able to push L.A. that far.

Key Departures: There were departures, though not many close observers of this Lakers team would choose the word “key” to describe them. Ramon Sessions departed for a bigger role in Charlotte, Matt Barnes switched to the less glamorous locker room down the Staples Center hallway, Josh McRoberts is now in Orlando, and Troy Murphy is just gone.

The Lakers did, of course, lose their All-Star center from a season ago in Andrew Bynum, but they acquired a replacement whom they hope will be one of the keys to returning to championship relevance.

Key Additions: Here’s where things start to get interesting. L.A. helped end our long national Dwightmare by trading for one of the game’s top-five players in Dwight Howard, giving up Bynum in the process. Howard for Bynum on its own is an improvement on paper, but not one large enough to tilt the championship odds immediately in the Lakers’ favor. The acquisition of Steve Nash, however — a two-time MVP, a master conductor of the offense and one of the game’s best shooters — might have done exactly that.

Antawn Jamison was added for some scoring assistance off the bench, and backup two-guard Jodie Meeks should provide some productivity when Kobe Bryant is getting some rest.

Three keys to the Lakers season:

1) Kobe thriving without the ball in his hands: Nash is one of the best point guards in the game, but to do what he does best, he’ll need the ball to open possessions. With Howard and Pau Gasol on the floor at the same time, there should be a number of successful offensive possessions where Bryant doesn’t even see the basketball. Obviously, this will be a major adjustment. Will Bryant choose to adapt to the new offense — one that, much like the Triangle, features motion and multiple options at every turn — or will he resist and revert to old habits of forcing isolation situations with the shot clock winding down, while his teammates stand around and watch? There’s a time for that, certainly, but with all of the weapons on this year’s roster, those situations should be the exception to the rule, rather than the rule itself.

2) Will the bench be enough? A starting five featuring Bryant, Howard, Nash, Gasol, and Metta World Peace should provide plenty of punch on both sides of the ball to win on most nights. But regular season achievements are not why this core was assembled, nor will finishing the regular season with the league’s best record mean anything if the starters are gassed for the playoffs. Bryant and Nash need to save themselves somewhat for the postseason, and limiting their minutes will only be possible if the bench doesn’t blow huge leads which force the team’s veteran stars to sub back in early in the fourth quarters of games which should have already been decided.

3) The correct utilization of Pau Gasol: From a numbers standpoint, Gasol appeared to be every bit as effective as he’d been in his seasons in L.A. that resulted in championships. But to those who watched the majority of the team’s contests, Gasol seemed uncomfortable, under-utilized, and out of place in head coach Mike Brown’s attempt at an offense.

The Lakers need to find a way to maximize Gasol’s talents, and the new Princeton offense that the team is implementing this season should go a long way in doing so. Gasol has great court awareness and is able to make the smart pass, but is also a deft scorer — both on the low block, and from mid-range distance on the perimeter. The team needs to recognize this, and perhaps watch some film of the gold medal game of this past summer’s Olympics to truly see what a force Gasol can be when given the right opportunities.

What Lakers fans should fear: Two words: Mike Brown. L.A.’s head coach used the lockout-shortened season as a constant excuse last year, lamenting the lack of practice time available for him to get his new systems installed. Well, no such excuse will be available this season, as Brown has had all summer and a full training camp to design and implement sets which will maximize his team’s talents.

The team added former NBA head coaches in Eddie Jordan and Bernie Bickerstaff to assist Brown, who has always been described as a defense-first coach. If the defense is top-five in the league, that’s great. But last year’s Lakers were middle-of-the-pack defensively, and the offense never gained the necessary cohesion to contend deep into the postseason. With all of the talent assembled for the 2012-13 run, the blame will undoubtedly fall on Brown’s shoulders if he’s unable to bring this group to the level of champions.

Prediction: Dwight Howard is an upgrade over Andrew Bynum, but the basketball IQ and shooting prowess of Steve Nash is what pushes this team over the top. Anyone predicting anything other than a trip to the Finals for this stacked Lakers squad is being delusional at worst, or contrarian at best. The Thunder return essentially all of their important pieces, and LeBron James and Dwyane Wade will be waiting in the East. But the amount of talent in the Lakers’ starting lineup is too much to dismiss, and they should ultimately take home the title if things go anywhere near as planned.

PBT Extra: Can Rockets take Game 2 energy, execution on the road?

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Houston found its blueprint to beating Golden State in Game 2: Strong defensive pressure on the ball, quick switches and communication on defense, getting out in transition when possible, and starting sets earlier in the shot clock and attacking downhill with James Harden and Chris Paul.

Now can they do that on the road? Against a more focused and sharper Warriors’ team?

That will be the question in the next two games of the Western Conference Finals, and it’s what I discuss in this latest PBT Extra.

Cavaliers cruise past Celtics in Game 3, change complexion of Eastern Conference finals

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The Cavaliers were heavy favorites over the Celtics entering the Eastern Conference finals. LeBron James has dominated the East for years, and Cleveland appeared to hit its stride in a sweep of the Raptors last round. Boston was shorthanded and inexperienced.

Were the Celtics’ two wins to open the series, as impressive as they were, really enough to override everything else we knew about these teams?

The Cavs walloped Boston in Game 3, 116-86, Saturday. Cleveland now has four of the NBA’s last five 30-point playoff wins – two against the Celtics last year, one over Toronto last round and tonight. (The Cavaliers lost the league’s only other 30-point game between, to the Pacers in the first round.)

Boston still leads the series 2-1, and teams up 2-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 80% of the time.

But the team up 2-1 is usually the one seen as better entering the series. That isn’t the case here, not with LeBron on the other side. And the leading team usually isn’t so woeful on the road, which will remain a major storyline entering Game 4 Monday in Cleveland.

The Celtics bought themselves margin for error, but they blew a lot of it tonight.

It’d be an oversimplification to say the Cavs just played harder, but they did, and it went along way. They chased loose balls, tightened their defense and moved more off the ball offensively. Cleveland jumped to a 20-4 lead, led by double digits the rest of the way and spent most of the game up by at least 20.

LeBron (27 points, 12 assists, two blocks and two steals) dazzled as a passer and locked in as a defender. He received help from several players:

In a low-resistance effort, Boston didn’t goon up the game at all.

The Cavaliers still have plenty of work ahead to reach their fourth straight NBA Finals, but tonight, they showed a path to advancing. Climbing out of their early series deficit now looks far less intimidating.

Luka Doncic named EuroLeague MVP at age 19

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Luka Doncic, the likely top two pick in the upcoming NBA draft, has led his Real Madrid team to the EuroLeague finals at age 19.

Now he has been named the youngest player ever win the EuroLeague MVP.

For those unfamiliar, EuroLeague is the equivalent of the Champions League in soccer — the very best club teams from around the continent face off against each other. On this biggest of European stages, Doncic has been a force. He is a gifted passer with great court vision. He can take his man off the dribble. He can hit threes. And he knows how to be a floor general and run a game. Did we mention he’s just 19?

Doncic said before the start of EuroLeague that he hasn’t decided what he is going to do about coming to the NBA or going back to Real Madrid. Don’t buy it. This is like asking a major college basketball star right before the NCAA Tournament if he is coming back to “State U” next year, they don’t want to say “no” right before the tourney so they give a non-committal answer. Same here. He’s not leaving millions on the table, he’ll be in the NBA next season.

And he’ll bee good.

Playoff losses wearing on LeBron James: ‘I lose sleep’

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Last season, the Cleveland Cavaliers lost one game before reaching the NBA Finals. The season before that, two. The season before that also two. In Miami before that, the last couple of years they went to the Finals the Heat lost three and four games before reaching the Finals.

This year, the Cavaliers have lost five games already and find themselves down 0-2 to the Boston Celtics heading into Game 3 Saturday night in Cleveland.

The losses do weigh on LeBron, as reported by Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“I mean, I lose sleep,” James said after shootaround Saturday morning. “I mean, at the end of the day, when you lose any game in the postseason, [you lose sleep], so it’s never comfort. Playoffs is never comfort. There’s nothing about the playoffs that’s comfortable until you either win it all or you lose and go into the summer.

“So, for me, it’s always [a] day-to-day grind to figure out ways that you can be better.”

Cleveland has a lot to figure out to win the next two games because if they don’t and go down 3-1 in this series, it’s hard to envision how LeBron can drag this roster back to the Finals (what would be his eighth straight trip).

Offensively Cleveland has to get consistent play from guys other than LeBron (and to a lesser extent, Kevin Love) — J.R. Smith has been awful and needs to find a rhythm at home, George Hill needs to make some plays, Kyle Korver needs to get open and knock down some looks, and some help from the bench is needed.

But that’s not even the end of the floor that is the Cavs real problem. Defensively the Cavaliers recognition and communication has been dreadful, and the passing and player movement of the Celtics has carved them up. Cleveland has outscored teams and not defended all that well for a long time now — that’s how they made the Finals a season ago — but it’s not enough now. The offense and LeBron can’t carry them all the way.

We’ll see after Game 3 if LeBron is going to be able to get any sleep Saturday night.