Are The Los Angeles Lakers Really All That?

The Los Angeles Lakers finally got on the board last night with an easy win over the Detroit Pistons. After an offseason of hype, centered on the acquisitions of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, then the belief of many that key rival Oklahoma City weakened themselves by trading James Harden, all was right in Lakerland. Until they had to play games and a 1-3 start has followed.

TheSportsNotebook isn’t going to overreact to what amounts to less than 5 percent of the regular season schedule, but we will take this opportunity to expand on what was written about the Lakers in last week’s Western Conference preview.

I’m not sold on how dominant the Lakers are going to be, regardless of how the season has started. This is a team with some significant age issues—Nash, Kobe Bryant and key reserve Antwan Jamison are all going to have to pace themselves, as is Pau Gasol. I suppose in that light, the fact Nash may miss up to four weeks with a shin injury might be seen as a blessing in disguise. There won’t be any danger of wearing him down before what the franchise hopes will be an extended playoff run in the spring.

There’s no denying how good this team is up front, with Howard manning the post and Gasol at the power forward slot. Although the gain of Howard over Andrew Bynum, traded to Philadelphia to make room, is debatable. The Lakers were second in the NBA in rebounding a year ago. How much more can Howard realistically bring to the table—and as long as we’re on the subject of durability, let’s not forget he has back problems.

Jamison is the key reserve in the post, but he’s more of a finesse player who likes to step out and shoot the three-ball. Which does segueway nicely into a discussion of this team’s biggest weakness and it’s the lack of consistent three-point shooting. Kobe only shot 30 percent from behind the arc last year. Nash shoots 32 percent. Metta World Peace at the small forward slot is also at 30 percent and is also so erratic inside the arc that one wonders why they don’t take the ball away from him and insist he just focus on defense. Steve Blake, the key backup guard who will take on more minutes while Nash is out, only shoots 34 percent.

There’s absolutely nothing to prevent defenses from sagging back into the post, taking away a healthy Nash’s dribble penetration and blocking entry passes into the post. Of course Kobe cures a lot of ills and he’s coming off a season where he averaged 28 ppg and showed no signs of aging, still shooting 43 percent from the floor and doing it on what can be charitably called a high volume of shots (another way of saying he can be kind of a ballhog).

The Lakers will get things figured out offensively, especially as Nash gets back. In spite of my concerns over long-range shooting, they still rank 4th in the NBA in offensive efficiency after four games, a stat they ranked a solid 10th in a year ago. The issue will be how that compares to Oklahoma City, perhaps San Antonio and maybe even Denver.

Head coach Mike Brown also has to get his defense figured out. The defensive side of the floor has long been a Brown trademark, going back to his days in Cleveland and it’s this area that’s the reason for the slow start. The Lakers are 22nd in defensive efficiency after being 13th a year ago. For all of Nash’s offensive gifts, he’s a terrible defender. Kobe leaves much to be desired. I know Howard’s shotblocking and rebounding will cure a lot of these problems, but that still leaves your center exposed to fouling situations more often than you’d like and it also leaves you unable to create scoring opportunities through backcourt defense.

My guess is that Brown, so long as Kobe keeps playing for him, will at least get this defense to respectability, but the head coach isn’t a magician, who can magically make Nash and Bryant morph into Michael Cooper when they have to guard someone.

Los Angeles might address the long-range shooting problem through a trade during the season—they’d only need a specialized three-point gunner and it’s easy to see the team finding someone to fill the niche. But they can’t make themselves get younger and they are who they are defensively. That’s why, whether they were 3-1 or 1-3 after four games, I think they ought to cool the championship talk in Hollywood. This is a city that just saw the Kings win a Stanley Cup because they played defense. In a rare departure from the norm, the most popular basketball team could stand to take a lesson.