The Lakers have been one of the biggest stories to this point of the NBA season, for all the wrong reasons. They’ve seen a horrible start that still has them under .500 in January, a coaching change, an injury that kept new addition Steve Nash out for 20+ games, and now Kobe Bryant’s headline-grabbing comments about the Lakers’ advanced age. And while it’s easy to write off his comments as the frustrations of a tough competitor not used to losing, there may be more than a little truth in what Kobe said.
It seems odd to hear the league’s leading scorer talk about age negatively impacting his team, but a quick view of the Lakers’ roster confirms the obvious – this team is old. Kobe is only 34, but he’s got 17 years on those legs. Nash is destined for a place in Springfield, but he’s also 38 with lingering back issues. Two other major contributors to the Lakers’ recent successes, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace, are in their early 30s and key bench contributor Antwan Jamison is 36. Having a core of older players does not prevent an NBA team from winning as the Boston Celtics showed in the 2008 Playoffs, but the system has to be one that fits. It’s here that problems arise with the current Lakers team.
Mike D’Antoni had some success with the Suns, using the “Seven Seconds or Less” style, but that run-and-gun approach was done with a young team. During the Suns’ most successful season of 2004-05, floor general Nash was 30, running the court with young athletes like Amare Stoudemire (22), Shawn Marion (26), Joe Johnson (23) and Quentin Richardson (24). That group possessed the ability to simply outscore opponents by outrunning them. It’s notable that in D’Antoni’s tenure the Suns never ranked higher than 23rd in points allowed, and during that Conference Finals run in 2004-05 they were dead last. Unfortunately for the current Lakers team, they just don’t have the legs and energy to have the same success as the Suns using that style. This Lakers group is fifth in scoring, but they’re also 26th in points allowed. So if they can’t replicate the Suns’ success, can they win in some other way? The answer is yes, but it will require their coach to change his approach.
The Lakers have an incredible amount of talent, even if several of their key contributors are likely on the downside of their careers. Kobe can still score as well as any player in the world, Dwight Howard is the best defensive center in the NBA, and Steve Nash can still be an elite point guard if healthy. More than anything, the Lakers need to play effective team defense. D’Antoni has a great weapon on the defensive end with Howard, but the team has simply looked disaffected and disorganized in their own end. The other area where they need improvement is secondary scoring, taking some of the load off Kobe. In games where he has scored 35 or more points, the Lakers are 0-8, contrasted with a 9-3 record when he scores under 30. The fact is that nobody has stepped up to provide support behind Kobe and Howard. Maybe that will change as Nash gets healthy, but another option may be finding a way to get Gasol more involved. His average is down from 17.4 to 12.7 this season, and D’Antoni doesn’t seem to be comfortable with Pau’s role. World Peace is contributing but it’s tough to expect more from him.
Any success for the Lakers this season will come down to finding a system that works for their talent. Some of that may come with a healthy Steve Nash controlling the pace, but much of it will have to come from D’Antoni finding an approach that makes the team effective on both ends of the court. Kobe is a warrior and one of the best to ever play this game, but he can’t carry this team far without help. The Lakers need to have offense from more than just Kobe, and they need to start holding teams under 100 points, if they want any chance to compete in the spring. If the Lakers can manage that, they’re still a threat in the Western Conference. If they can’t, then the only playoff action at the Staples Center this spring will involve the Clippers. The good news is that the talent is there for the Lakers, even if those providing it need to work harder for the results.