Welcome to the 2012-13 Regular Season!
The first game of the new year pits the Portland Trail Blazers against their long-time nemesis, the most hated team ever in the Rose City, the Los Angeles Lakers. As some might know, the Lakers got their hats handed to them by the Dirk-less Dallas Mavericks last night. This was actually a relief to me as your resident previewer, as it's hard to give appropriate credit to the raw talent on this team while still cautioning people about cohesiveness and the importance of defined and meshing roles. As it turns out, I don't have to. The Lakers made my point for me, showing everybody exactly where they are (and aren't) in their opening-night loss.
Let's start with that raw talent. Kobe Bryant is the kingpin, as always. He may not be the Kobe of four years ago in terms of stamina and efficiency but he's still right atop the league with LeBron James as an MVP candidate. Amazing doesn't begin to describe him, but you already know this. You also know that the Lakers added Steve Nash and Dwight Howard in the off-season while retaining Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace and salting in Antawn Jamison for good measure. Holy Moly.
So what happened against Dallas? Is this just a new lineup getting used to each other, a rough shakedown cruise?
Sort of. The Lakers face a couple of problems that aren't just going away.
First of all, this is, and needs to be, Kobe's team. Whether Bryant is capable of delivering a championship--or even near-championship--by himself anymore is up for debate. (I vote no.) But precedence, talent, and cohesiveness all demand that he remain the biggest fish in the pond. But Bryant is, at heart, an isolation player. He has an all-around game, to be sure. He can pass. He sees the floor with the best of them. But when you envision Kobe at his best he's neither dishing nor receiving an assist. Instead he's breaking down and tearing apart hapless opponents through individual talent and indomitable will.
But now you add Steve Nash to the mix. He's the consummate assist man, the archetypal point guard of this generation. Keep in mind, though, that his best moments come with the ball in his hands and a great screen being set for him. You'd never call Nash an iso player in the Kobe style, but he's just as much of a floor captain and just as ball-intensive as the Lakers' flagship superstar.
Then you have Dwight Howard. He should be the yin to Nash's yang, forming the most devastating pick and roll duo ever seen. But here's a dirty little not-so-secret of the modern NBA: mobile big men make the classic pick and roll difficult. This is why the pick and pop has come into style. Howard doesn't have much versatility while catching on the move. Get him the ball iso'ed and let him work a little and he can show you something. Get him the ball when he's already near the rim and you're dead. Put it in his hands off the roll, though, and he ends up with a lot of distance to cover in a fairly straight line. He's still going to hit most of his attempts. It'll be a brutally efficient set if you just look at field goal attempts. But he's also going to get fouled and commit turnovers when his straight line gets interrupted.
Granted, most teams would love to be working the kinks out of a Nash-Howard pick-and-roll duo. But these are the Lakers. In the immediate picture every missed free throw and turnover highlights the fact that Kobe is not getting the ball in the situations he likes best. In the bigger picture the Lakers don't just expect to be good, but all-world. At this level of marquee talent and these prices, they will neither tolerate nor deal well with any kinks at all. In the overarching theoretical picture you have to wonder about one superstar who thrives on ball-stalling isos, a second whose effectiveness plummets in that kind of offense, and a third who swings either way but needs the freedom and touches to make all kinds of mistakes in order to prosper.
Then you have to consider Gasol (and to a lesser extent, World Peace). Pau was forever in a duel with Andrew Bynum for touches and field goal attempts. For all Bynum's promise, Gasol usually won that tug-of-war, thus remaining relevant. Now Gasol may end up fourth in the pecking order, if not in attempts at least in time spent with the ball in his hands. You could tell Bynum he was expected to get half of his touches from offensive rebounds and hustle. You can't tell Gasol that and still have him be Gasol. The Lakers are better with him than without him, to be sure, but you're probably not getting 100% of what Pau has to offer in this lineup. You may not be getting 100% out of anyone who doesn't stand up and demand his prerogatives, which realistically only Bryant and Howard can do.
(Disclaimer: Gasol took 19 shots last night, by far the most of any Laker. He hit 8 of those and the Lakers lost. Despite his 13 rebounds, 6 assists, and 3 blocks, how long do you suppose that kind of shot distribution will last? And will you see the same Pau if he's taking 8 shots instead of 19? On the other hand, will Howard be happy if the situation remains the same and he ends up with only 12 shots and 10 rebounds to Gasol's 19 and 13?)
So here's what it comes down to. The Lakers will be in contention and will be quite good by the end of the season. But their issues aren't any less real for being hidden in the penumbra of the spotlight. Their success will depend on questions few have bothered to ask yet. Who's going to set screens? Who will sacrifice their game to be the non-shooting glue guy? How does everybody else adjust when Kobe needs the ball? What happens when the team gets under pressure and has to determine go-to players and plays? They've got every talent question answered in spades. They don't have a clue as to any of these yet. Until they do, expect rocky performances. They'll have to hold it together emotionally and professionally through those performances, shrugging off the weight of their own expectations and frustrations, in order to make it through the desert and end up at the promised land.
That said, none of that is likely to make a difference tonight. The Blazers are so outclassed in talent and experience that they'll have to rely on truisms and luck to see them through.
- The Blazers will depend on the long ball this season to an extent not seen around these parts...well...ever. Falling jumpers are the key to opening the floor for cuts, offensive rebounds, any and all easy points that don't come off the break proper. Though well-mated to the skill sets of the players, it's an inefficient strategy. Most nights those jumpers won't fall. On magical nights when they do, however, the Blazers should be able to hang with anyone, as defenses will have a hard time covering the entire spread floor. The positive-spin interpretation: the Blazers always have a chance, even in matchups like this.
- The Blazers have played well against the Lakers in the Rose Garden no matter what the status of the two teams.
- L.A. is on the second night of a back-to-back and Bryant may not be in the best of health, suffering from a foot condition.
Those three factors weigh against the prowess, power, and prestige of L.A.'s lineup. The Blazers might be able to cover Bryant by committing extra mobile defenders to him. Almost every player the Blazers field is fleet of foot. This should make double-teaming easier. You might also argue that the matchup between Nash and Damian Lillard could end up a wash on a given night, as either should be able to score on the other. Outside of 18-24 fouls to commit, though, it's hard to see how the Blazers have any answer for Howard. Populated by players untested, out of position, or both, Portland's center position is a weakness even against the likes of Phoenix and Denver. If the Lakers are smart they'll feed Howard early and endlessly tonight, with or without the Nash screen combo. It remains to be seen whether they have the emotional fortitude to do that, to work around Kobe and stick with the big man no matter the early results from the field or foul line. But if they feed Howard for 40 minutes, it's hard to envision the Blazers finding a solution.
What's more, improbable Portland victories in this series have generally involved a combination of fast break buckets and dominant offensive performances from individual Blazers. Portland will try to fast break tonight, assuming they can keep Howard, Gasol, and World Peace off of the offensive boards while double-teaming or playing zone. But even if that succeeds, from whence come the dominant offensive performances? In the old days you'd see Roy and/or Aldridge bust open games with the second following whoever went first. Where's the second thrust now?
This isn't just a matter of bald point-scoring. Portland's offense bent entire games their way. Scoring with the Lakers and putting them down early inevitably made the L.A. offense more Kobe-centric. Bryant would try to take over games, often lofting shots over double-teams. He'd score 30 but most of those shots would miss, leading to more run-out attempts. Plus his teammates, now disenfranchised, would play defense less stridently. That led to even more points, putting even more pressure on Bryant, lather-rinse-repeat until the Blazers won.
It's hard to see Aldridge triggering this effect on his own, both because of the style of his offense and because he'll have the bullseye on him from moment one of this game. Unless the aforementioned long shots fall in droves for his teammates I'm not sure any other Blazer is capable of taking the pressure off of LaMarcus and putting in on Kobe the way Roy often did (or Aldridge did for Roy). Lillard might have a shot, but he's a rookie. Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum might get started, but World Peace has a nasty habit of clubbing anybody who gets hot for Portland and it's hard to see either Blazer wing surviving hefty blows and still maintaining their desire to penetrate and keep the fire hot.
Finally, and most tellingly, the Blazers themselves face nearly every single question we just posed about the Lakers. Screen setting, glue guys, shot distribution, go-to players under pressure, adapting to new guys and new plays...it's all up in the air for Portland too. With no clear answers for either team, this will likely come down to a battle of experience and talent. That bodes ill for the Blazers.
Nevertheless, this is still Blazers-Lakers and there's still hope for excitement here. The Lakers aren't a sure thing. The Blazers are even less of a sure thing, but maybe there's enough of a crack open in there to surprise folks. Seeing the Lakers go 0-2 to start the season wouldn't be the most shocking thing in the world. Sadly, though, it'd just mean that the Blazers got hot for a night, not that they were ready to take on this season.
Ah, but what a night it would be! The Blazers need to keep L.A. off the offensive glass, run hard against a team that would prefer a slower game, and hope those shots start falling.
You can read the opposing viewpoint at Silver Screen and Roll.
Come on over before tip-off to participate in our GameDay Open Thread and stay tuned after the game for complete coverage and analysis.
P.S. For those wondering, the Jersey Contest will start in November this year. We can't add one October game to the November standings without doing the math manually for each entry, which is a pain. Look for the contest to begin Friday!