The dust has now settled on the first round of the 2012 Playoffs, and our beloved Los Angeles Lakers have survived a tougher-than-expected challenge by the Denver Nuggets.
Lakers fans are rejoicing, and that has me concerned.
Perhaps instead of celebrating this (expected) series victory, the Lakers and their fans should be asking themselves whom really was the more difficult first round opponent? Denver? Or ourselves?
To me, it’s actually the later. And that’s why I am making the following prediction:
This season is over for the 2011/12 edition of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Below, I offer you five reasons why:
• The Lakers guards simply don’t guard. While I still believe in what Ramon Sessions might mean to the Lakers long term (if he stays in L.A., see below), it is abundantly clear that none of the Lakers back court (individually or combined) puts fear in the hearts of opposing guards. Athletically, the Lakers begin at a distinct disadvantage to athletics guards such as Russell Westbrook. Still, can we count the number of times our backcourt players have appeared more Matador than defender, as players slower of foot deftly pass en-route to the basket? Too many to count, in my estimation. And while Westbrook might be well controlled by the likes of Metta World Peace (or on occasion, Kobe), this results in the Lakers watching in amazement as;
• James Harden single-handedly destroys the Lakers bench. The only counter the Lakers have to Hardens energy is MWP (although MWP reportedly will not be shaking Hardens hand). The trade-off is that with World-Peace riding Hardens hip (and hopefully not his cranium) Westbrook is left with a significant advantage over the Lakers non-guarding guards. And when left unchecked, Westbrook will be free to survey the floor and help as;
• Kevin Durant runs the Lakers wing players ragged. We all know how proficient Durant is as a scorer and playmaker. Kobe (and Matt Barnes) will exert significant energy trying to keep Durant out of the stratosphere – literally and figuratively. This is the biggest no-brainer Mike Brown has as a coach – to not let KD beat you. Which leads us to how;
• Scott Brooks will substantially out-coach Mike Brown. Brooks is hardly a top-tier coach (yet), but Brooks is fearless when it comes to making adjustments and will look like Mike Fratello when compared to Brown’s simplified game management style. I fear that in most situations, Brown’s game plan will appear straight out of Coach Klein’s notebook (or worse, Coaching for Dummies - gratuitous Waterboy reference). Nowhere else is this more evident than the serial malpractice Brown demonstrates in handling the rotation – turning otherwise competent players into Luke Walton look-alikes. Coach Browns hesitation to make (or oblivious nature to) heady in-game adjustments – as well as failure to show much creativity in search of solutions to problems 1, 2, or 3 - will not only leave the Lakers at a competitive disadvantage in most games, but will continue to contribute to the Lakers greatest deficiency which simply stated is;
• The Lakers’ lack focus, lack belief and lack heart. Give credit to Kobe and MWP for effort most every night (sometimes, to a fault). After these two, each and every Lakers player has drifted aimlessly upon the waves of apathy this season. Some, such as Andrew Bynum, have their travails well documented. Others have demonstrated a more insidious lack of competitive compass. As an example, how many times this season has a Lakers player passed the ball to Kobe on the wing, only to then stand still – as if nailed to the floor - admiring the design of Kobes shoes?
Now, in fairness I acknowledge that everyone (sports or not) has off days. My issue is with the large number of ABSENT days which Lakers players have displayed this season. This diminished level player engagement has been amplified by the lock-out, abbreviated training camp and a condensed schedule. To me, repeated player truancy points to deeper, more profound organizational issues such as lack of faith in the coaching staff, the front office and lack of faith in each other.
An unceremonious second-round departure in two consecutive seasons will not sit well with Lakers fans or the front office. Should this come to pass, do not be surprised to witness a substantial turnover during the off-season. Expect MWP and Pau to be shopped extensively, with MWP quite possibly becoming an amnesty case. Ramon Sessions may choose not to say if the Lakers appear to be entering rebuilding mode – he has signaled his desire to win a championship and may well head elsewhere if a better opportunity presents itself. Other unsigned players will likely not be tendered contracts. The Lakers might even reconsider shipping Bynum, complete with his incredible upside and occasionally petulant attitude, off to make way for Dwight Howard. But rest assured, another second round exit will trigger bloodletting and gnashing of teeth in Lakerland.
The light at the end of the tunnel from the L.A./Denver game 7 could be a reviewed commitment to playing tough, smart and within a system. On the off-chance this Lakers team embraces that performance as a crucible moment, and plays every remaining game with the tenacity of Game 7, they retain a punchers chance to come out of the West and play for the NBA title.
This would, of course, prove me and many other Lakers lovers (and haters) wrong. And I so want to be proven wrong… MM