(Just before tip-off): Aaaannnd, I’m depressed. Good golly is this Lakers starting lineup sad. Granted, I’m one of the few remaining members of the Pau-Gasol-is-an-elite-level-big-man fan club, but even he’s not a franchise player by any stretch of the imagination at this point in his career. And the other four starters? Yeesh. Steve Blake has been a decent backup point guard for the last few years, which doesn’t say much for the fact that he’s the starting shooting guard on this team. He’s never played the 2! Even in college! Xavier Henry has had some nice moments in the preseason and early days of the regular season, but he’s been a completely inconsequential player his first few years in the league, and one can’t help but wonder if his impressive scoring games thus far have something to do with the fact that, you know, somebody has to score on this team. As for Steve Nash - he looks like the shadow of Steve Nash. He moves around and has the same basic form of Steve Nash, but he can’t really do the things that Steve Nash does. He’ll make a play here and there that looks great, but for long stretches of time he seems to be laboring up and down and around the court. His defense was sub-par when he was in his prime; now it is downright pitiful. It hurts to say, but at this point, Nash is what he is: an old man.
And then, of course, there’s Shawne Williams. In the starting lineup. This feels like an appropriate time to point out the fact that Shawne Williams was not in the league last year. The year before? He was shooting 28% from the floor and struggling to get off the Nets’ bench. (Cue Charles Barkley: “James Worthy is rolling over in his grave.”)
In spite of all this, I kind of like this team. Some reasons (in addition to a total lack of rationality):
· The bench is pretty solid: It’s strange to have such a below-average starting five and a bench that seems - on paper and after some early-season returns - to be a pretty dang competent bunch, at least offensively. Maybe if the bench players were made the starters, they’d struggle just as much as or more than the starters do against opposing starting talent, but it still feels odd to have bench players who are better at their jobs than the starters are.
· I still believe Pau can have a big year: It’s a contract year for him. He has a lot to prove after such an up-and-down year last season, when he battled multiple injuries and struggled to fit in D’Antoni’s system (READ: when D’Antoni stupidly tried to make him a stretch 4). He will get the ball a ton until Kobe returns, and will be the unquestioned second option even after Kobe returns. He had a few games late in the season last year in which he looked like his old, skillful, gracefully dominant self. And hey, we’re still only a year and change removed from the 2012 Olympics, when Pau pretty much ran roughshod over the US in the gold medal game. I believe in Pau, baby!
· This team has more athleticism and scoring from the wing than in the past several years. Even if the past few versions of the Lakers were better teams, it has been so infuriating the last several years watching the utter dearth of scoring from the perimeter and/or athleticism on the wings (aside from Kobe, obviously). Oh how I’ve grown accustomed to shouting “Nnnnoooooo!” every time Ron Artest/Metta World Peace lines up a triple - it's Pavlovian, to say the least. I wonder if I will still do this even though he now plays for the Knicks. This year, with guys like Henry, Wesley Johnson and Nick Young, I might lose most of the rest of my hair before the season’s over on account of some terrible decision-making and shot selection, but at least these guys look like NBA athletes. **UPDATE: I wrote this paragraph in all seriousness last night as the game was starting. Only today do I realize how horribly depressing it is. But I feel like I have to include it here in spite of this. Or maybe because of it. Perhaps this should be the Lakers’ slogan for the 2013-14 campaign: “Ladies and gentlemen, at least these guys look like NBA athletes… your LOS ANGELES LAKERS!!!”
· Lastly: it’s the Lakers. And it’s the NBA season. Whatever happens, I’m here for the ride, and happy to be.
(6:36 to go in the 1st quarter): Chris Kaman enters the game. This somehow comes as a total surprise to me. I think I want to forget he’s on the team, even if he’s been one of the few effective players early in the season. He can still score a bit and take up space, but he’s a minus defender, and one of the ugliest basketball players to ever don a jersey. His decision to shave his head in the age of HD television must have been some sort of sick joke. Seriously, Chris, you’re scaring children. Also, me.
(4:10 to go in the 1st): Mavs ball out of bounds underneath the basket. The inbounds pass goes to an Israeli rookie named Gal Mekel at the top of the key. Mekel takes two dribbles to his right with Lakers reserve Jordan Farmar guarding him, slowly spins back to his left, puts his head down and drives past Farmar straight down the middle of the lane for a barely-contested layup.
I rewound and watched this play four or five times. I still don’t know how it was possible. The Lakers might not have a top-10 defense this year.
(About 0:55 to go in the 1st): Indulge some basketball nerdery. What happens at this juncture of the game could pretty much serve as the epitaph for the Lakers this year. (And yes, I realize we’re one week into the season here.)
Dallas brings the ball up the court in a semi-transition opportunity. Four Lakers are in good defensive position - Kaman guarding DaJuan Blair in the middle of the paint; Farmar guarding Mekel with the ball on the right wing; Nick Young sloughing off Vince Carter on the weak side; Wesley Johnson trailing down the middle of the court before retreating above the top of the key to pick up Dirk early. Jodie Meeks, however, is aimlessly shuffling down the court between Johnson and Young, not in position to help should Mekel attack the middle from the wing, and really nowhere close to picking up his man (Jae Crowder).
Blair darts out from the middle of the paint to set a screen for Mekel. When Farmar is overly aggressive in attempting to jump the screen before it is set (lunging to his right, the side from whence the screen is coming), Mekel instinctively eschews the coming screen and dribbles towards the baseline, leaving Farmar chasing behind him.
This forces Kaman to step up and cut Mekel off from taking the baseline, only Kaman is so slow-footed, and his hedge is so over-zealous, he has no chance to recover to his man, Blair.
As Kaman is hedging on Mekel, Blair is immediately slipping the screen he intended to set and darting for the basket.
With Farmar behind him and Kaman frozen in concrete, Mekel sees Blair cutting and neatly whips a one-hand bounce pass to him for an uncontested layup. Meanwhile, Jodie Meeks is still meandering in the middle of the court, half-interested in what’s going on with the ball, and then at the worst possible moment turning his head completely away from the ball and the action to maybe try and find his man. By the time Meeks turns back towards the strong side where the action is being played out, Blair is effortlessly tossing in the layup for two (essentially free) points.
Aside from the initial positioning in transition, everything about this defensive play is atrocious on the part of the Lakers. It involves basketball players that aren’t naturally good defenders playing for a team that has not studied, worked on or talked about how to play basic transition or pick-and-roll defense. This does not bode well for the season.
(Moments later): Meeks puts up an ugly elbow jumper that yields a long rebound and then a runout by Jae Crowder, who scores a layup with Meeks comically stepping aside to allow the layup, rather than contesting the shot or forcing Crowder to shoot free throws. I guess Jodie was trying to stay out of foul trouble. (Total PF for the game: 0. Yeah, but still.)
(About 8:30 to go in the 2nd): Another complete breakdown on defense against a simple side pick-and-roll occurs - this time brought about by a stupidly over-aggressive attempt at a double-team by Jordan Hill. The Lakers appear to have no game plan for guarding the pick-and-roll. Supposedly - and I’ve read this from basketball insiders including opposing scouts and executives - Mike D’Antoni simply does not discuss defense. Ever. When your best player is 35 and currently rehabbing a torn Achilles, and your second-best offensive player on the active roster is Nick Young, and your starting point guard is 40 years old, and you’re starting guys at positions they’ve never played in a 10+ year career, AND your coach does not so much as discuss the topic of defense… Well, um, this, this might be a long season.
(Sidenote): As much as I want to believe in the Pau resurgence year, he has really looks off in this game. He doesn’t seem able to assert himself physically in the post. His baby jump hooks and sweeping shots around the rim appear to be off, as if he isn’t used to releasing the ball from the distance at which he’s shooting. He just seems out of sorts.
(First play of the second half): Another pathetically defended pick-and-roll on the right wing, with Gasol making a herky-jerky, half-hearted attempt to seal off a Jose Calderon drive before recovering to Nowitzki at the top of the key, only Pau’s poor footwork leads to him essentially setting a second pick on Nash (who is guarding Calderon). Calderon therefore comes off the screen (and unintentional second screen) to find about three square miles of open space between the right wing and the hoop. He attacks the basket and the entire defense collapses on the paint, although Jordan Hill stepping up to stop Calderon just outside the paint, with the other players rotating accordingly, would have been the appropriate response. Calderon whips the ball out to Shawn Marion on the left wing, who then skips a pass to Monta Ellis in the corner where, after his man (Steve Blake) has lunged helplessly at Marion, Monta is “wide, bless-ed open,” as my middle school coach would say. Ellis drains a deep two to put the Mavs up 21.
(7-minute mark of the 3rd quarter): The Mavs announcers are wondering aloud if a) the Mavs will get to 100 points by the end of the third quarter, and/or b) every single Maverick will score 20 points tonight. The second question is posed half-jokingly. But only half.
(Last few minutes of the 3rd): The Lakers spring to life a bit, trapping and getting into passing lanes on defense, getting a couple of steals, converting on several transition and semi-transition buckets, and closing the quarter down 17 after being down 90-60 at one point in the quarter. This mini-run was probably as much about the Mavs (inevitably) easing off the gas a tad as much as it was about the Lakers making a legitimate comeback. But still.
(First play of the 4th quarter): Nick Young starts the fourth with a jumper to cut that once-30-point lead in half. Could this get interesting?
(SPOILER ALERT): No.
(10:00 left in the 4th): The Lakers bench is outscoring the starting lineup, 57-25. This seems worth mentioning.
(4:44 to go in the 4th): With the score now at 120-95, I find myself doing something I expect to make a habit of this year: falling asleep as the game winds down.
(I don’t remember the time): A Ryan Kelley sighting! Oh goodness. Please help us.
As garbage time winds down, the Mavs play-by-play guy states that Kobe’s return will “turn the light back on” for the Lakers. No it will not. Not as far as I can see. This team cannot defend, and apparently the coaching staff is not interested in addressing this issue. Sure, they can run some nice stuff offensively, even putting on an impressive performance on that end from time to time. (Note: I’m assuming everyone on the Clippers roster was drunk or stoned on Opening Night). But a team that doesn’t play defense in this league is a team that doesn’t win in this league. Maybe they get better when Kobe gets back. But as far as I can tell, Kobe will not be a remedy for what ails the Lakers. It’s going to be a long season.
BONUS PREDICTION: Steve Nash will retire from basketball before the All-Star break. He still has moments, but overall, he just can’t play at this level anymore. Too slow, too old. It’s one thing to give up a half-step to your opponent, which Nash has been doing for years (and making up for with his superior court vision, instincts, basketball IQ, etc.), but the game seems to have passed Steve by. He doesn’t even look right shooting wide-open jumpers this year, as if he’s startled when he finds himself open and isn’t quite sure how to react. He’s an all-time great, and of course it’s early, but man, it looks like the game is too fast for him now. I legitimately felt sorry for him watching this game. I don’t see how Nash ignores the degree to which he’s fallen off over the last several years, and I don’t think he has too much pride to admit it’s time to hang it up. So yeah, I think my favorite team’s starting point guard is going to freaking retire before the season’s over. If you’ll excuse me now, I’m going to gulp down a bottle of Drano.