When the Lakers closed out the regular season last year by losing 6 of their last 10 games, people pointed to them as being bored and saving themselves for the playoffs. But on their current 4-game skid, they are described as a team playing fatigued, playing short, with no focus, with no consistency and with no energy. But what most people fail to realize is the Lakers hardly ever plays at the level of the competition and that both Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol are still not in mid-season form.
Every elite team in the NBA goes through these kinds of stretches. The Lakers happened to get there earlier than usual. In all of their losses and some of their wins, the one constant problem for them is their defense. Whether it's their troubles with penetrating guards or being one step too slow on their rotations, the Lakers have been allowing a disheartening amount of uncontested shots from half to half and recently from quarter to quarter. What's interesting about this is you can never isolate one area of their defense to pinpoint where their difficulties are coming from. It's been all over from behind the arc all the way to their interior defense.
But what's causing all of these setbacks? A couple of things.
The Laker defense is predicated on funneling the guards towards their bigs whether it's forcing them from the top towards either sideline or taking away their dominant hand side to go the opposite way. It's a design to minimize the energy they put out defensively, to compensate for their lack of quickness on the backcourt, to discourage the other team from going to the hoop consistently and to help keep the pace of the game in the Lakers' advantage.
The problem there right now is Gasol is really the only last line of defense for the Lakers. But, Pau isn't really known to be the type of defender that challenges shots more times than not. So, guards aren't as concerned about getting their layups sent back with him in there versus Andrew Bynum. In this league, your defense better have at least one bonafide shot blocker or someone who can intimidate the other team inside to keep the other team from scoring a lot of points because most teams are taught two things: (1) break down the defense with dribble penetration and (2) take high-percentage shots before going to their perimeter offense. At this point, the Lakers are having trouble keeping the other team from doing both. So in effect, their frustrations defensively is carrying over to the way they do business on offense.
What's adding salt to the wound is Gasol is starting to breakdown both physically and mentally because of his consistent 40+ minutes per game. He's currently 6th in most minutes played in the NBA averaging 39.4 minutes per game leading all starting centers. Pau has played at least 40 minutes in 11 of their first 18 games already. In fact, he's only played less than 30 minutes once in their win against Memphis earlier in the season. He may be averaging just 3 more minutes this season compared to his career average, but those minutes are coming from an off position without a true backup. Considering that he's not built to take that much punishment from often bigger guys in the middle and being relied upon to be the offensive punch in the paint and be a defensive presence, it shouldn't come as a surprise that he's now suffered a strained hamstring and is listed as day-to-day. Without a healthy Pau, Bynum, Theo Ratliff and no gap stop free agent bigman, every game for the Lakers will be a test.
To top it off, Kobe isn't really his usual self yet. Remember, he's never participated in any team practice let alone their scrimmages. Both he and Phil Jackson are trying to reduce the wear and tear of his surgically repaired knee for the rigors of the long season. So, Bryant's basketball conditioning and rhythm rely on the minutes he gets in actual games. When Bryant's knee got strong enough, he started games with aggression on offense. And when his conditioning got better, he became more active defensively. Kobe made us all think that he's finally back to his old "Mamba" form when in truth his knee isn't at 100% just yet. That came clear during this losing streak when Bryant became the only cornerstone healthy enough to carry the team. To the best of his limitations, Kobe tried to will the Lakers to victory but obviously to no avail.
Until more guys step up to the challenge on both ends of the floor, the Lakers will have all the troubles in the world of keeping themselves above .500 let alone in contention for the top spot in the west when the rest of the league is bringing their "A" game to them each and every time. With Gasol's hamstring threatening to put him on the shelf alongside Bynum and Ratliff for a number of games, the Lakers don't have much of a choice.
Personally, I think the Lakers will be just fine once they get their 14th win. They just need to feel the positive energy a win brings to get their mojo back. But that won't necessarily mean they'll starting winning games in long streaks again. Well, at least not until they get everybody back and get themselves playing together as one unit. What's good about this losing streak is that it's happening two full months before the All-Star game and not in March or April.
So let's keep it together Laker fans! This is just a bad weather that's about to pass through. GO LAKERS!