Can the Lakers weather the coming storm?
It’s strange to live in Southern California and not be a Laker fan. Sure, there are a ton of transplants here, but if there is one team that’s easy to adopt, it’s the Lakers. Everyone loves a winner and the Los Angeles Lakers have won more than anyone.
I, however, root against the Lakers every chance I get. It started with my distaste for Shaq’s brute force game and grew as Kobe’s me-first persona developed. But the front-running Laker fans are the worst thing about the franchise. You know, the type that have the purple and gold flags flying on their cars when the team is doing well, but they’re nowhere to be found when the team is struggling. There are front-running fans everywhere, but Laker fans are a special breed. They even boo in the waning moments of a victory just because they don’t get free tacos when the Lakers allow too many points to an opponent.
So I’m not claiming to be unbiased. I’m hoping the Lakers will implode, just so their fans can get a taste of prolonged failure. Sure, they’ve had a season or two of poor play, but on the whole, it’s been great being a Laker fan for the last 30 years. I’d love to see the Lakers struggle for a decade while the Clippers taste some serious playoff success, just to see what would happen. Would those front-running fans defect or would they stay true to their team?
Theories and postulates aside, I think the Lakers are in trouble. It isn’t time to hit the panic button but if they don’t watch the road, they could veer off into the ditch pretty easily.
I don’t think too many fans would agree. The Lakers are 27-12, which puts them near the top of the Western Conference. The team has been clicking all season both offensively and defensively and they have one of the best benches in the league.
But Andrew Bynum is going to miss at least eight weeks with a dislocated kneecap. If this were last season, it wouldn’t be a big deal. But Bynum’s game has improved so much that his prolonged absence is going to hurt more than losing any other player, save for (maybe) Kobe. Just take a look at Bynum’s month-by-month numbers compared to his career stats:
That’s some serious production. In fact, in Efficiency Per Minute (explained here), Bynum (right) trails only Amare Stoudemire and Dwight Howard. That’s right, on a per-minute basis, Bynum has been more productive than Tim Duncan and Yao Ming this season. And the guy doesn’t even have much of a post-up game. He can shoot a jump hook with either hand, but most of his points come on lob dunks and put backs. He’s going to be scary when he hones his face-up game. (Remember, the kid is only 20 years old.)
So he’s out of the lineup for two months and the Lakers intend to replace him with Kwame Brown. One problem -- Laker fans hate Kwame. Against the Suns last Thursday, he was playing a decent game until he turned the ball over and missed a dunk in the second half. Then the fans started to boo every mistake he made. He turned the ball over a few more times. Then the fans started to boo every time he touched the ball. The booing didn’t stop until Kwame went to the bench. He finished with eight points, six rebounds, zero blocks and an eye-popping seven turnovers.
It was so bad, Bill Plaschke of the LA Times wrote an article about it.
When asked whether he had ever heard such continuous abuse heaped on a player, Phil Jackson said, "None on a team I coached."
The truth is that Lakers fans have gone through this before with Kwame. They’re tired of his small hands and propensity to turn the ball over. They’re tired of his inflated contract, which expires this season. But mostly, Laker fans are tired of the lingering reminder of a trade gone bad. The team acquired Brown in 2005 by sending Caron Butler and Chucky Atkins to the Wizards. Butler’s game has since improved to an All-Star level and he deserves to start for the East this season. The better Butler plays, the worse Kwame looks. His presence and mediocre play is a constant reminder of what could have been. Along with Jordan Farmar (who continues to play better and better), Kobe, Lamar Odom and Bynum, Butler would give the Lakers a formidable fivesome that could contend in the West for the next several years. Instead, they overpaid to have Luke Walton starting at small forward and are counting on Kwame to fill Bynum’s considerable shoes.
But jeering doesn’t help. Those fans that boo Kwame don’t understand that the Lakers need Kwame. He has to play good defense and provide decent scoring if the team hopes to survive the coming storm. The Lakers have a brutal schedule over the next month. They play the Spurs on Wednesday, the Mavs on Friday and the Cavs on Sunday. Then, after a home game against the Knicks, 12 of the next 13 games are on the road. The one good thing about having such a long road trip is that Kwame won’t have to hear the boos, so maybe he can get his head straight and help the Lakers get a few wins during that span.
Then there’s Kobe. He responds to the news about Bynum’s knee by taking 44 shots against the Supersonics. Jackson has always wanted Kobe to be more judicious about when he tries to take over games, and he said as much in the LA Times’ recap of the game.
Jackson wasn't surprised Bryant found a rhythm in overtime.
"When you take 44 shots in a ball game, you're going to get back in rhythm some time," he said. "It's like taking a lot of golf strokes -- you're going to hit a few of them good, right?"
Kobe and Phil have clashed about his shot attempts before, and when criticized, Kobe has a tendency to try to prove his point on the court. He’ll overcompensate in the next game, and be passive to the point of frustration. Phil wants Kobe to find a middle ground, but his superstar seems more intent on proving that he’s always right -- that he’s beyond reproach. This may or may not be Kobe’s actual mentality, but that’s the perception.
And then there’s the issue of that trade demand this summer. If the Lakers’ upcoming schedule results in a string of losses, it’s possible that Bryant will grow frustrated and reiterate his wish to be traded. Kobe has come around on Bynum and thinks the Lakers are a championship-caliber team with him in the lineup. I think that’s a stretch, but if Bynum and Farmar continue to develop, the team is a player or two away from seriously contending in the West.
The next month will be an interesting one in LaLa Land. There’s the upcoming road trip, Kwame’s play and the mystery surrounding Kobe’s next move. There is even talk of adding a free agent (Chris Webber, P.J. Brown) to shore up the front line. If Webber is in shape, he would be a good addition, though I don’t know if he’s willing to play for the veteran’s minimum (~$1.2 million), which is all that the Lakers can offer.
Keep an eye on L.A. Even with the writers on strike, there’s always plenty of compelling drama in Hollywood.
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