The Miami Heat versus the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center—it was a game that NBA fans and pundits circled on their calendars before the start of the 2012-13 season—the reigning champions versus a reloaded Lakers team with center Dwight Howard and point guard Steve Nash. Despite the Lakers’ slow start to the season, the game still garnered much intrigue given the star-laden rosters of both teams.
The Lakers went stride for stride with the champions, but fell 99-90 on Thursday night thanks in part to Heat forward Lebron James and his game-high 39 points.
After consecutive wins against the Cleveland Cavaliers and Milwaukee Bucks, it appeared as though the Lakers had a sliver of semblance to the championship contender the franchise purportedly assembled in the offseason. Sure, they were wins against a 10-31 Cavaliers and a fringe playoff contender in the Bucks, but it gave the Lakers confidence heading into the showdown with the Heat.
Unfortunately, what appeared to be a spark that would light up the rest of the Lakers’ season turned out to be more of a flash in the pan. Yes, a team that is still rife with on-court chemistry stood toe-to-toe with the champions.
However, a franchise predicated on hoisting championship banners can’t settle for moral victories. As a result, the loss still left some questions regarding the team unanswered.
There are the obvious ones like how can they minimize turnovers? This issue resurfaced against the Heat—20 turnovers—16 of them in the first half alone. Addressing ball protection will be paramount and with only 43 games left in the season, they need to come up with answers fast.
“We need to take care of the ball, make the easier passes, and get better,” said Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni.
Then, of course, there’s the defense. Same story against the Heat—though the Lakers held the Heat under their 102 points per game average, they still gave up 21 fast break points and 68 in the paint.
It appeared in the last few games that Lakers guard Kobe Bryant has made a mental shift in philosophy to incorporate more defensive-mindedness. It paid dividends in the wins against Cleveland and Milwaukee—talented guards like Kyrie Irving, Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis had subpar games under Bryant’s defensive duress.
His defensive intensity appears to be having a trickle down effect on the rest of the team, but can the 34-year-old Bryant maintain this type of energy locking up the opposing team’s best guard? Can he continue to be the defensive crutch in the backcourt for a prolonged duration?
Will he have enough octane in the tank to be the sixth gear that propels the Lakers’ point total upward when the offense appears to be languishing, particularly in the fourth quarter? He did score 13 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter against the Heat, but can he maintain these performances on a nightly basis?
“That’s going to be tough for me to guard the top guy and come down the other end and have to go one-on-one every play,” said Bryant.
You can’t discount Bryant’s mental fortitude and the will to win, but energy preservation favors those with younger, fresher legs.
Another issue that looms is what action to take now that forward Pau Gasol is back from a concussion he suffered on January 6 against the Denver Nuggets. Do the Lakers reinsert Gasol back into the starting lineup and risk hindering the growth of a budding Earl Clark?
Furthermore, will Gasol’s inclusion back to the starting lineup simply be a continuation of his disconnect with Coach D’Antoni’s system? Thus far, Gasol has been more lost in space than the Robinson Family since the arrival of D’Antoni.
Classic science fiction sitcoms aside, should they trade Gasol to acquire more youth and athleticism? The four-time All-Star certainly won’t command the trade value that he once had given his reduced stat line this season, including a career-low 12.2 points per game. The Lakers can’t always count on general manager Mitch Kupchak pulling rabbits out of the hat during the trade deadline.
One solution I heard was letting Pau Gasol ride the pine for the rest of the season to shore up the bench and spell minutes for Howard at the center position. This would allow Gasol to use more of his back-to-the-basket prowess to get a high percentage shot in the post rather than settle for an ill-advised three-pointer.
Against the Heat, Gasol came off the bench with 12 points and four rebounds—a pedestrian performance given his career numbers of 18.5 points and 9.2 rebounds per game. Can he reinvent himself coming off the bench?
Coming off the bench worked for former Lakers forward Lamar Odom, who initially balked at the proposal, but went on to win two championships and a Sixth Man of the Year Award. While it’s difficult to imagine a $19 million dollar All-Star as a reserve, if the move bears fruit in the form of a championship ring, then that certainly trumps the notion of dollars and cents.
The 2012-13 season has just about reached the halfway mark. If the Lakers can answer these looming questions in the second half and take the appropriate action, the season that should’ve been could turn into the season that is.
Right now, it still is what it is—the Lakers are 17-22 and a few spots short of postseason qualification.