Never in NBA history have I had a chance to see a team get singed for 408 points in three games, only to turn around and knock off their conference’s toughest opponent.
The Los Angeles Lakers put a slight halt to their laughing stock of a season on Sunday afternoon, defeating an Oklahoma City Thunder team that is still adjusting their game plan with Russell Westbrook back in uniform.
Jodie Meeks, who has been the hardest worker of the current group on both ends, set a career-high by scoring 42 points and getting to the line 14 times to knock all of them down.
First, there’s something to be said about one of the Western Conference elites.
Scott Brooks‘ techniques and needs moving forward are for a separate story, but there’s something worth saying to all the Thunder naysayers. Rough patches occur with teams that are expected to win every single night (see San Antonio Spurs during injury plague). Winning them all is impossible, and freaking out over Westbrook attempting more looks than Kevin Durant is asinine. When a series is on the line or the stakes are much higher than the Lakers, Westbrook will minimize the late mistakes he made in Sunday’s 114-110 loss at Staples Center. This team is still trying to figure out how to improve their defense with the younger members of the roster, while also searching for offensive answers instead of settling for an abundance of jumpers. At the end of the day, if you believe Durant and Brooks have a better shot at a Larry O’Brien trophy without Westbrook, I’d love nothing more than to see him sit out for another playoff series and hear the whimpers afterwards.
The theme of Los Angeles’ 2013-14 season can be accurately depicted as “unpredictability.” Everything seems to fall within that category.
Beginning with the injury depletion, every result — positive or negative — the Lakers encountered this season tended to be out of the blue, for better or worse.
Quite possibly, the only predictable aspect of this season has been that the Lakers weren’t making the postseason after Kobe Bryant went down with the left tibial plateau fracture. From that point forward, it’s been a roller coaster that manages to go straight down, with a handful of individual thrills along the way.
After the opening night home shocker of handing the rival Clippers a 13-point loss, the fans had no idea what to expect for the remaining 81 games. Everyone was given the impression that Xavier Henry would be the savior to keep the ship afloat while Bryant rehabbed the surgically repaired Achilles. A bone bruise and 28 missed games later, and Henry became the one most Lakers fans completely forgot about. It’s not their fault …. this team has laced up 19 different players this season.
Or how about the second week of the season, which consisted of another win against a Western Conference powerhouse. Punishing Dwight Howard and the Houston Rockets at the buzzer in front of his new loving fans gave the Lakers another indication that they could compete with the NBA’s title favorites if only they played hard. What is even more amazing about that win on Nov. 7 (in retrospect) is that Steve Blake was the one playing Bryant’s role as the late-game hero, and Steve Nash was producing on the court for nearly 30 minutes. What would you say that night if I told you Blake would be shipped to Golden State and Nash would miss 72 games for the year?
Above anything else, the unpredictable qualities for the 2013-14 Lakers have been: 1) Who will catch fire and propel the team to one of the rare victories? 2) Who will Mike D’Antoni even award minutes?
From a viewer’s perspective, these Lakers have been a tad bit more exciting than the rosters of recent years. Yes, those past five seasons did result in a vast amount of celebrations, but we always knew what was coming. Bryant would exemplify the second generation Michael Jordan that he is, and be the team’s anchor to get them through the swamp. Now, with the Black Mamba still grinding to reload the venom, it’s been a toss up when looking for someone to step in and take over the scoring load on certain nights.
We’ve seen Jordan Farmar return to Los Angeles to satisfy that need on occasion, breaking the 20-point mark in five games this season, including the scorching hot 30 points he laid on Sacramento two weeks ago. Before hitting the sidelines with a left knee injury, Nick Young did an adequate job of filling the scoring void. Young’s been the highest scoring guard/forward for the Lakers this season, averaging 16.8 points per game in 49 contests. All through December, Young was in the front-running for Sixth Man of the Year, averaging 19.3 points in 15 games — four wins — and not being afraid to be the gunslinger down the stretch of a fourth quarter.
Even those moments seem far, deep into the past …. because the team has drastically changed in just three months.
Chris Kaman, who averaged 18 points per game in a memorable seven game stretch in February, hasn’t seen the hardwood in five games. Jordan Hill (sore knee), who played 15.9 minutes per game throughout all 12 games in February, hasn’t been on the court during March. Between trainer Gary Vitti working his tail off with medical issues and D’Antoni changing rotation schemes just to satisfy his playing style, it’s been nothing but an inconsistent train wreck, derailing at 15th place in the hardest conference in basketball.
How about the questionable lineup changes D’Antoni continues to implement?
Granted, most of the decisions have been based on guys getting bit by the plague, but the changes in the starting lineup haven’t allowed for the easiest time to get everyone acclimated and on the same page.
In the Lakers’ 64 games thus far, D’Antoni has had to throw 29 different starting lineups into the mix. That’s a higher total than any other team in the league, which doesn’t sound too surprising anymore.
What We Did Expect Before The Season
Defensive strategies go a long way in developing a title contender (Indiana) or, at the very least, a team that can inch into the playoffs and give other teams a scare (Chicago and Memphis).
D’Antoni has never been a proponent of defensive strategies, except for instructing his guys to give it their all and quickly return to push the pace on offense. As a result of not instituting a defensive culture since being hired, he has been the suspect behind those 30 and 40-point blowouts, and we’ve witnessed multiple instances of poor communication by the players on defense.
Allowing 107.9 points per game, the Lakers have remained just behind the Philadelphia 76ers in terms of having the NBA’s weakest defense, and that’s rather embarrassing considering Philadelphia may have one of the worst five defenses in history this season. Los Angeles’ defensive rating rests at 109.7 (26th overall) and it’s becoming a commonality for teams to drop 30 or 40 on the Lakers in a quarter — and even 70 in a half.
We expected a team without a true defensive big to be forced into soul searching, and those that expected a Gasol/Kaman rotation to lock up opposing front courts are your biggest Lakers’ homers …. that’s the only logical explanation.
Uncertainty on the Sidelines
ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith went on record Monday by stating that D’Antoni would not last as head coach through this upcoming offseason. Smith sounded quite positive that the worst hiring decision of 2012-13 would be ousted at the season’s end, and it only raises more questions about what’s to come for Los Angeles in the summer.
Those questions, however, could spark something the Lakers desperately need: hope.
There are a handful of experienced NBA coaches on the market, but only one is deemed for a solid fit for the Lakers of the future.
Phil Jackson is set to take his basketball brains to New York, so that’s out of the question.
Lionel Hollins, who coached the Memphis Grizzlies from 2009-2013, would create an atmosphere that Hollywood can appreciate. While Hollins doesn’t necessarily have a championship pedigree as a head coach, he does understand the need for defensive standards if you aspire to be a formidable option in the West. Last season, he guided Memphis to the Western Conference Finals in the midst of scoring just 93.4 points per game throughout the 2012-13 season (27th overall) and ranking last in pace, which determines how fast the flow of your offense is per 48 minutes.
In the past three seasons, Hollins’ group has accumulated defensive ratings of 105.1, 101.8, and 100.3. With the Lakers having no honest idea themselves just who will be on the roster next season, it can’t hurt having a disciplined coach ready for whoever is ready to sign.
Los Angeles’ last two championship banners (2009 & 2010) were won by a top six defensive team both years. As Bryant is nearing the final two runs of his career, with Kevin Love on deck for Summer 2015, it’s time to start laying the groundwork.
Actually, it was time for that in 2012. It just goes to show how much goes down the drain when management makes one appalling hire.