Halfway to History: Preview of the 2010-11 Los Angeles Lakers Season
18. 4. 7.
Whether it’s franchise titles, consecutive championships, or getting one more ring than the legend that’s shadowed your career, the potential accomplishments of 2012 await. It’s up to the 2010-11 Los Angeles Lakers to set the stage, and that will be no easy task.
Entering the 09-10 season, the only difference from the previous title team was the much-discussed Ron Artest for Trevor Ariza swap. This year is different, with 5 new players joining the squad, 4 others departing, and the re-signings of Phil Jackson, Derek Fisher, & Shannon Brown.
Here’s what I expect from the new guys.
Steve Blake, PG
The second unit’s inability to sustain leads over the last two seasons has been a nagging problem, often forcing the starting 5 back into games when they should be icing their knees. The primary culprit has been the lack of a shot creator, with the ball often swinging around the perimeter until they’re up against the 24 second clock.
Blake should help with this issue, but only to an extent. He excels at organizing an offensive unit, which was a weakness of Farmar’s, so there should be more open shots within the context of the triangle. Blake isn’t much of a dribble penetrator or finisher around the rim, so the importance of him grasping the offense sooner rather than later is magnified. On a positive note, his lack of athleticism belies his ability to effectively run a fast break, and I expect several Blake/Brown highlights over the course of the season. He’s solid in transition.
He should see a lot of time with the first unit as well, where his responsibilities will be different. On paper he seems like an exceptional fit next to Kobe & Gasol, as he was one of the better spot up 3 point shooters in the league last year, at just over 43% in that particular situation. He’s also a solid post entry passer and decision maker, which should help Gasol, Kobe, & Bynum get the ball in their sweet spots. He’s been amongst the leaders in assist to turnover ratio in each of the last 4 years.
On the defensive end, he has limited quickness, which means that he has a hard time keeping the waterbugs of the league in front of him. He isn’t terrible, but below average. He uses his intelligence well and is rarely caught out of position, but that only gets him so far.
Ideally, Blake is the heir apparent to Fisher, and I believe that’s how management sees him as well. He’s done well in previous situations where he’s been off of the ball and next to high usage wings. (Roy, Iverson) I think his contribution will be similar to BJ Armstrong’s in his time with the Bulls of the early 90’s.
Matt Barnes, SF
Months after their confrontation on national TV, Kobe sent Barnes the following text message. “Anyone crazy enough to f**k with me is crazy enough to play with me.”
With that (along with a contract snafu in Toronto), Barnes was a Laker. We all know Barnes’ off the court issues this summer, so I’m going to stick to basketball.
He should resolve a couple of nagging issues that the Lakers have had over the years. First and foremost, we should see less of Kobe at the 3, which was often necessary due to Luke Walton’s injuries and ineffectiveness. Between Artest & Barnes, there should be 48 minutes of adequate SF play without adding unnecessary wear and tear to Bryant.
Barnes’ best attribute is his rebounding, as evidenced the fact that he’s been amongst the Top 5 rebounding Small Forwards per 48 minutes in each of the last 4 years
, despite playing for 4 different teams. On a team that already boasts one of the better rebounding margins in the league, this solidifies an existing strength.
His on the ball defense is a bit overrated, but Barnes is still one of the better perimeter defenders in the league. He’s very physical and angular, and is at his best when guarding guys that are a bit smaller than him. He has less success against the LeBron’s and Pierce’s of the world, who aren’t bothered by his physicality.
Cutting is an important part of any offense, but even more so in the triangle. This is a strength of his, which should improve the spacing of the offense. I expect his movement and Blake’s aforementioned ability to organize an offense to result in a more efficient second unit.
His weaknesses include ball handling, finishing around the rim, and shot selection. He generally plays within himself, which limits the first two weaknesses, but he has a tendency to fancy himself a better three point shooter than he actually is.
Come playoff time, Barnes should end up competing with Shannon Brown for minutes in the playoff rotation.
It’s pretty unusual for the 58th pick to be a viable contender for some playing time with the defending champions, but that’s the position that Derrick Caracter finds himself in. And his path to get to this point was just as unusual.
Caracter was on the cover of SLAM Magazine at the age of 13. No joke. He was supposed to be a star, but immaturity and the bad decisions led to him being a bust by the age of 20, after Louisville coach Rick Pitino asked him to transfer elsewhere. Caracter redshirted in 08-09 and had his only productive collegiatge season in 09-10, despite hovering around 320lbs for most of the year. This, and his…ahem…”character” issues lead to him falling to the Lakers at #58 this past summer.
But the talent is definitely there. We’re talking about a big with excellent hands, a well-polished post game, nose for rebounding, the ability to score with both hands, surprising quickness for his size, and a general level of coordination that’s suited to a man that’s much smaller than him. He put all of these skills on display in the NBA Summer League, and scouts both here and abroad took notice. When you watch him, think Glenn “Big Baby” Davis.
As for his role on this team, he has a chance at limited playing time. Phil Jackson’s always had an affinity for big men who can pass out of the high post, and Caracter fits the bill here. His back to the basket abilities would provide the second unit with a threat that they didn’t have in DJ Mbenga or Josh Powell. That being said, Phil’s never been one to invest too much trust in a rookie, and he’ll have to pry the playing time away from Theo Ratliff.
The Lakers guaranteed his contract if he met a weight requirement of 275, which he did. That doesn’t happen very often, and it’s indicative of the Lakers’ opinion of him.
Ariza’s doppelganger is caught in a bit of a numbers game. He’s a lanky perimeter defender that excels on the break and has an improving jump shot, but it’s hard to envision him getting much time on a team with Artest, Barnes, and possibly Walton (if healthy) ahead of him. He also looked good in summer league and should make the roster, but we won’t see much of him this year.
Ratliff is running on fumes at this point, but can still block some shots and is well regarded as a locker room presence. With Bynum’s injury history and uncertain status entering the year, it’s pretty likely that we’ll be seeing Ratliff more than we’d like to.
What can we expect to see during the 2010-11 season?
It ended with a ring, but the 09-10 season was hardly a thing of beauty, especially before the postseason. Gasol missed the first part of the year, Bynum the last, and a barrage of nagging injuries to Kobe were sandwiched in between as the Lakers limped into the postseason after a hot start. Only a fortunate Eastern Conference draw gave them home court advantage throughout the playoffs.
When I think about Game 7, I can’t picture them winning it in Boston. I hope they feel the same way, and put a premium on finishing this season with the best record in the league. They have two factors working in their favor this year.
With the acquisitions of Blake and Barnes, the bench looks to be much improved, which was the cause of many a lost lead in the past two seasons. The team will be satisfied if the bench could merely hold the leads that the starters establish, but this unit has the potential to extend them. This should lessen the load for both Kobe & Gasol, whose minutes would ideally be scaled back to 35mpg, after seasons of 38.8 & 37.0, respectively.
Secondly, the schedule this season is much more balanced and forgiving. Last year, 17 of their first 21 games were at home, (when you don’t need them) and only a few were interspersed throughout February and March. (when you do) The Lakers won’t be out on the road for an inordinate amount of time while grinding through the dog days of the schedule.
Ultimately, it’s a matter of whether or not they make it a priority. Phil always coaches toward June, with incomparable results, yet he does value home court advantage. How fervently the 10-11 Lakers pursue this will be directly tied to how healthy they are.
So who are the threats in the playoffs?
This offseason was the most memorable of my lifetime, with the NBA landscape changing considerably. The biggest impact has been on the Western Conference, where some key pieces (Amare, Boozer, and possibly Melo) have headed East, leaving question marks in their wake.
Let’s take a look at the biggest threats, starting in the West.
America’s basketball sweethearts seem poised to make the next step after giving the champs their money’s worth in the first round last year, and Kevin Durant’s remarkable performance in the FIBA World Championships did nothing to silence the hype. This is going to be an interesting year for the Thunder, as they won’t be sneaking up on anyone, and for the first time in many of their young careers, they’re faced with expectations.
I believe that they are ready to meet that challenge and claim a Top 4 seed in the West. Russell Westbrook’s development corresponded directly to the Thunder’s rise to the 50 win plateau, and their ascension to the next level will hinge on the improvement of another talented young player…Serge Ibaka. This 20 year old big man gave the Lakers fits last year with his length, spearheading a 17 block performance in Game 2 that the Lakers barely survived. He also showed a decent mid range jumper and general understanding of what OKC needs from him. If he can continue on the arc that he’s on, he’ll provide OKC with a shot blocking presence to go along with their stellar perimeter D. When that’s paired with a scorer of Durant’s caliber, almost any team can be beaten.
I’m of the opinion that the Thunder are one player away, specifically a big man who can score from the low post. They’re essentially just a jump shooting team whose only source of penetration is Westbrook and the occasional drive from Durant, and it’s hard to win a 7 game series against an elite team on jump shots alone. They’re very fast and athletic though, which is a combination that gives the Lakers fits.
Despite missing the playoffs last year, Houston’s quietly built a nice team, and one that’s historically posed problems for the Lakers. Of course Yao’s health is the wild card here, but they quietly picked up a nice insurance policy in Brad Miller. The Rockets now have a nice combination that can exploit Laker weaknesses. A quick PG that Fisher/Blake can’t keep up with (Brooks), a perimeter big man that can stretch the floor (Miller, and Yao to an extent), a shooter that Kobe or Artest have to chase around screens (Martin), someone that can guard Kobe (Battier…although he’s lost a step), and enough size to counter the Lakers’ usual physical advantage. Perhaps most importantly, the Rockets believe that they can beat the Lakers. Of all the teams out West, they scare me the most.
The Rose Garden has been a house of horrors for the Lakers over the last decade, regardless of Portland’s roster. To go along with this psychological edge, they may be the only team in the league with as much size as the Lakers (Camby, Oden, Aldridge, Pryzbilla). They also have a superb wing defender (Batum), and perhaps the most underrated star in the league, Brandon Roy. Ultimately, I think the Lakers would have an easier time with them in a 7 game series than they do during the regular season, but they’re always tough nonetheless.
And now for the two big dogs out East…
Not much needs to be said here, as we generally know how these teams match up. However, Boston added size this summer with the O’Neal boys, after giving up 23 offensive rebounds in the biggest game of the year. This puts Bynum’s health at a premium, as Boston didn’t have an answer for him in the first part of the series, before his knee really went downhill. I’m especially curious to see how they integrate Shaq. He’s one of the worst pick and roll defenders of all time, and he’s joining a team that’s the best I’ve ever seen in this regard. Something has to give.
A new rival. I love it.
Despite Laker fans (and the basketball world) minimizing the prospects of immediate success in South Beach, this team should be a force to reckoned with from day one. First and foremost, they have arguably the three fastest players in the league at the SG, SF, & PF positions, and their transition game will be a nightmare to contend with. Spoelstra may have an almost completely different roster, but his emphasis on defense should carry through, which will ignite their fast break and put opponents on their heels. I also expect to see a lineup of Wade/James/Miller/Bosh/Haslem on a regular basis, with LeBron handling the offensive PG duties, with either he or Wade picking up the opposing PG on the other end. This is an especially interesting lineup because everyone is around the same size, meaning that they’d switch a lot of screens.
Their ability to match up with the Lakers is a bit of a paradox. LA is vulnerable against fast and athletic teams, and that’s exactly what Miami will be. On the other hand, LA has historically chewed up teams that don’t have comparable size, and Miami has a significant deficit here. They’re either too short (Joel Anthony, Udonis Haslem, Juwan Howard), or too slow and broken down (Jamaal Magloire, Zydrunas Ilgauskas). Therefore, a seven game series would largely be determined by who controls the pace, which in turn is largely determined by the rebounding advantage. The Lakers should enjoy an edge here, and would consequently control the series. It’d be a lot of fun to watch though.
The Bottom Line
If there’s one thing that I learned in the playoffs last year, it’s the value of mettle. Between Bryant & Bynum’s injuries, Fisher rising from the dead, and a Game 7 that was more of a testament to their will than their skill, the Lakers showed their resolve. It’s been said that teams take on the personalities of their leaders, and these Lakers have been no exception. They will keep grinding and fighting, no matter what. If you want to beat them, you’ll need to take it from them, because they won’t give it to you.
So while there’s always a concern about complacency, I take comfort in the knowledge that Kobe Bryant & Derek Fisher led teams generally don’t underachieve. The historic numbers of 2012 await.
Facts & Notes
-If the Lakers make the Finals this year, it will be their 4th consecutive appearance. The only other team to accomplish this feat is Bill Russell’s Celtics.
-If they win the title, it will be their 3rd consecutive trophy, which has only been accomplished by Mikan’s Lakers, Russell’s Celtics, Jordan’s Bulls, and the Shaq/Kobe Lakers.
-Kobe would have to average 25ppg over the next 6 ½ seasons, playing 75 games per year, in order to catch Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for #1 on the all time scoring list. He would be 38 years old.
-If Kobe keeps the current pace that he’s established over the last few seasons, he will have played almost exactly 40,000 regular season minutes by the end of the year, which would be the 23rd most in league history.
-Pau Gasol went on a humanitarian mission to Ethiopia this summer, to help raise awareness about hunger and health issues.
-In Derek Fisher (36) and Theo Ratliff (37), the Lakers have two of the ten oldest players in the NBA.