With more than a quarter of the season complete the Lakers are 14-9 and the sixth seed in the west. The rapid development of Andrew Bynum and Jordan Farmar has keyed the hot start. The next stage of maturity for each will be to respond when the league better understands what works for them and tries to take it away. The games shift from wins by energy in the first 20 to wins by execution in the next 20.
Breaking down the schedule, the next seven games include some challenges, a four game eastern road trip is followed by three very tough home games against Phoenix on Christmas, then Utah and the big one vs. Boston.
The following seven is an easy stretch where only a road back-to-back at New Orleans would appear to pose a threat. The final six games of the second period of the season include critical matchups in the west: Phoenix and Denver at home, San Antonio and Dallas on the road, along with the second games against Cleveland and New York.
The potential is clearly there to take the record to 10 games above .500 during this stretch, but here’s the key - they’ll need to. The third period of the season is the buzz saw, a nine-game road trip from January 31 through February 13. That’s part of a brutal span of 13 games with only one at home and five road back-to-backs. The Lakers play 15 games in February 12 on the road. LA will need to create a cushion over the next 20 games to survive that February gauntlet.
Applying that context, a big theme for the Lakers over the next six weeks will be mental stamina, the ability to maintain focus and execution. A need to play at their level and not down to the competition, winning the games they should, role players delivering on the road not just at home. A loss of focus would reduce the cushion, and reduce the margin of error in February.
Another theme for the next 20 is building the confidence on the road they will need for February. That begins with the upcoming road trip, four very winnable games, but the last two have curveballs, a back to back in Philly and a 12 noon Sunday start in New York in the final game of the trip. Ok enough on the schedule, point is February is a nightmare so they cannot afford to drift in December and January. They need every game they should win. Every single one.
So if teams are going to try to take things away that the Lakers are doing well, or looking to attack where they are weak, what might opponents be looking to do?
Kobe Bryant. With all due credit to my friend AVH the ultimate Kobe zealot, he points out two key weaknesses. Bryant is setting up high wing too often rather than middle and teams are using the limited space to crowd him. Kobe needs to set up middle more often to have the whole court to work with, doesn’t do that often enough and he’s also underutilized in the post. On defense, Kobe is not fighting over screens and recovering well. This isn’t a function of the recent injuries, it’s been a problem all year. Send pick and roll at Bryant and he is not at his past standard in recovery.
Lamar Odom. Teams are already doing this one. They’re leaving Lamar wide open at the arc. “Fire at will Commander.” The Lakers have plenty of three shooters; Odom is not one of them. Play within your limits is advice Odom (3’s) and Derek Fisher (dribble penetration layups) should both heed.
Andrew Bynum. Is not being doubled, fronted or crowded much. As he becomes a larger part of the offense teams are going to have to start taking him away. That can begin with traffic discouraging the pass. The Lakers are not a team of sharp post entry passers; they can also be impatient at times and swing the ball away just as Bynum locks down position. Fronting and crowding the post will lead the Lakers to keep moving the ball perimeter and thereby reduce Bynum’s touches. The counter involving Bynum is lobs over the top or quickly swinging to opposite block. The team counter is to hit cutters at the elbow or spot up 3 shooters to stop the defense from sinking.
Defensively teams are taking the ball straight at Bynum and then watch as the ball is swatted into next week. They aren’t forcing Bynum to anticipate and rotate and protect the whole court. Look for more penetrate and create where guards take the ball at Bynum and dish, or clubs setting up more back door attacks.
Jordan Farmar. His energy is the spark of the second unit. Teams are picking him up too late and allowing Farmar to get the ball on the move to set up transition or early offense opportunities. The transition defense played against the Laker second unit has been lax. More pressure on the ball higher will slow down the rhythm of the second unit.
One last thing to look for is more zones. As the season develops teams start turning to zones more frequently. Again with a poor post entry team that can get into turnover trouble, zones can put the Lakers off balance and make it harder to get Bynum involved.
Just as a game is one of adjustments so is the season. In the transition from energy to execution over the next 20 keep an eye on what teams are trying to do to take away Laker strengths, and if LA can counter. The counters can lead to breakthroughs where a player takes the next step in his development. Bynum did this in the first 20 defensively as he became more adept at position and picking up penetration and that led to the resulting spike in swats. What will the next 20 bring? Hopefully a Laker record of at least ten wins over .500 heading into the start of the gauntlet on January 31st.