Here’s the surprising thing about the Los Angeles Lakers: They are a surprisingly weak team. And yet, in a Western Conference that was tipped to be far more exciting and talent-filled than the Miami-dominated East, they were still in the running, up until their elimination from round two by the Oklahoma City Thunder.
So how do they do it, surrounded as they were in the semi-finals by the patient Spurs, energetic Thunder, and high-flying Clippers?
The answer is simple, and unchanged: The Kobe Factor.
Imagine, if you will, that you and your friend Bob are comparing wallets. Bob has $15, 000 cash, while you have $0.50 and a blank cheque. Who wins? You do, obviously, since you have access to an unlimited amount of cash.
In this scenario, Kobe would be the blank cheque, but, to be honest, he is so often analyzed, that we’ll focus on the $0.50.
Now, please don’t misunderstand; this is not to say that the rest of the Lakers are only worth that amount of money. They are worth a rather lot, if used correctly.
Let’s start, as most people do, with the bigs.
Aside from Kobe Bryant, the tandem of Andrew Bynum and (one of my personal favourites) Pau Gasol is meant to do a lot of the heavy lifting for the team. And they do, to a certain degree. Bynum has been known to go off for 30 points in a game, while Gasol has averaged almost 19 points per game over his career. Unfortunately, the pair seems oddly lethargic all too often, content to watch the guards shoot until later in the game when it’s almost too late.
As a coach, one of my sticking points for my teams, and something that has followed me as a spectator of the NBA, is rebounding. Offensive rebounding, to be specific. No team will ever succeed if it allows itself one shot per possession. It’s frustrating when the average team has a hard time rebounding; it is downright humiliating for a team as ‘post’-heavy as the Lakers to not be more dominant on the offensive glass.
For Bynum’s part, a cheer applied to my competitive girls team seems fairly apt: You’ve gotta want it, to win it. And unfortunately, for the most part, it doesn’t seem like Bynum wants it. He’s got the positioning down, and he does what he’s supposed to do, but that’s about it. When he gets the ball low, he tends to hesitate a little, maybe a habit he picked up from Kobe Bryan (who does the hesitation well), but under the basket, there’s no time or space to be unsure. At this point in his career, he needs to know how to play his position.
Now, to play a little bit to the technical aspect of his game, because I know that some readers are looking for that, please note that in the Lakers 90-119 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Bynum shot only six free throws. In their Game 3 win, he shot twelve. His hustle and focus translates directly to wins for his team.
I’m not going to sit here and pretend to be a Lakers expert. I’ve only really paid much serious attention to them in the past two years, and to be honest, I’ve taken quite a liking to Pau Gasol. And with good reason, I think. He’s experienced; he’s a good sport; he’s involved in his community; and he’s a decent athlete.
What’s particularly interesting about Gasol is not so much what he contributes on the scoring end, but rather, the void that he fills. The Lakers don’t have a true point guard; they make do with Ramon Sessions and Steve Blake, but they don’t have a real show-runner, like Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo or Steve Nash. So in that gap, they have Gasol as their most efficient distributor, from the key. He receives an entry pass, or rebound, then redistributes to a guard for the shot, or to Bynum for the post-up.
Just a quick technical view of Gasol’s performance: In their 96-113 loss to Denver, he only posted three rebounds, compared to 17 in their next game, a 96-87 win against the same team. His assist rate also tends to double, going from three to six, between losses and wins.
Something that I have seen time and again in my coaching career is that a player is only as good as they think they are. For example, I just finished my second season with an elementary school boys team. This season, eleven of the boys wanted to be our point guard, #7. For his part, #7 wanted to be Kobe Bryant. And when they forgot who they actually were, and started playing at the level they were aiming for, they were edging greatness. Which brings me to my next point: Steve Blake.
It is impossible to truly predict how a player might develop with a different group, a different coach, or in a different city. Already in this post-season, Steve Blake has surprised some people with his bouts of scoring late in the game. And while some of his passes are still a little odd (read: bad) and he did miss that big three the other night (and was thoroughly punished for it), he still comes out when it counts.
What’s most interesting about this particular player, if you’re watching for development rather than immediate results (an unfortunate curse when one watches as a coach rather than spectator), is how he plays when he forgets who he is. A couple of times, he started to run off with the ball, then stopped, hesitated, and checked himself. Blake makes fantastic and well-timed shots when he doesn’t overthink it, when he plays like a true player, and not one of Kobe’s lackies.
All in all, the Lakers do have all the ingredients to dominate, but unfortunately, everyone has relied on Bryant for so long to do everything that they’ve stunted their own growth. Bringing in Mike Brown as a head coach and losing Lamar Odom as a staple in the offense have moved this team back a few levels as well, not to mention a lack of trust between Kobe and everyone else, although that seems to be resolving itself by virtue of everyone double-teaming the Black Mamba.
Much as I enjoy watching the Lakers, I knew far enough in advance that they wouldn’t make it past round two, and even if they had, the San Antonio Spurs would have beaten them pretty handily. But if they, as a team, can find a way to motivate their key players to perform above their comfort level, and coax Bryant into trusting the group, next season should be much more consistent and impressive.
And for myself, I’m excited to see that happen.