Two days into the 2012-13 NBA season, the favorites to win the Western Conference are 0-2 with a pair of losses to teams SCHOENE projected in the lottery. It's much too early to panic about the Los Angeles Lakers, but it's not too soon to start asking some hard questions about the weaknesses that have cropped up in those two games. In order of likelihood to be fixed, here are four early Lakers problems.
1. Turnovers have plagued the Lakers
On Wednesday night, the Lakers actually outshot the Portland Trail Blazers in terms of effective field-goal percentage and True Shooting Percentage. The Lakers also had more offensive rebounds and got to the free throw line more frequently. So the 10-point Portland advantage can be traced entirely to the last of the Four Factors: turnovers. The Lakers coughed it up 25 times in 111 plays, a monstrous rate even for an early-season game. The turnover woes reared their ugly head long before Steve Nash was forced out of the game following knee-on-knee contact just before halftime. (Nash tried to return after the break, but managed only a couple of plays before having to leave the court for good.)
The turnovers were largely a symptom of the same problems that plagued the Lakers offensively in their opener against Dallas. Players simply don't look comfortable with each other or in the simplified version of the Princeton offense Mike Brown and his offensive coordinator, newcomer Eddie Jordan, are attempting to install. The Lakers got good looks out of the offense in Portland and showed more variety, working in the post-ups, pick-and-rolls and Kobe Bryant isolations we expected. Some of the turnovers, like Ron Artest dribbling into steals, were preventable. Others are nothing more than players not knowing where to expect their teammates to be. That's why I consider this the least concerning of the Lakers' issues. Time should take care of it sooner rather than later.
2. The bench is a disaster
Amazingly, three of the five Lakers starters posted positive plus-minus figures against the Blazers. Against Dallas, Pau Gasol (+3) was positive and only Dwight Howard (-13) saw the team outscored by more than five points while on the court. So the Lakers' problems thus far can be traced largely to their second unit, which was badly exploited during the team's 0-8 preseason. Back then, I dismissed concerns because Brown would never play all five reserves together during the regular season. Indeed, that group has taken the court for a total of 49 seconds, all at the end of the third quarter Wednesday.
However, Brown has used four reserves for extended periods, and those groups have struggled badly despite the presence of either Gasol or Howard in the middle. During Wednesday's game, the Lakers were outscored by at least 20 points with both reserve big men (Jordan Hill and Antawn Jamison) on the floor. It would be one thing if the Lakers were getting beaten by deep teams like Denver. However, Portland's second unit could be one of the league's worst. Aside from a brief Sasha Pavlovic hot streak, the Blazers got few contributions from their bench players. They were able to survive entirely because Terry Stotts made sure at least two quality starters were in alongside the reserves at any given time. Brown needs to adopt a similar mentality, alternating minutes for Bryant and Nash rather than resting them together. That plays to the strengths of both guards and would help out the overmatched bench. Brown needs to figure out the rest of his rotation, since Jamison has played both forward position and he's used both Devin Ebanks and Jodie Meeks as backup wings, but everything should fall into place after the star domino falls.
3. The help defense has hurt
So far, we've buried the lede as far as the issues on display at the Rose Garden. Despite their turnovers, the Lakers scored at a perfectly acceptable rate, especially for the second game of the season. Their problem was getting stops at the other end. Portland shot better than 50 percent from the field, made nine three-pointers and committed just 12 turnovers.
As against Dallas, the Lakers' defense really broke down against dribble penetration. When Howard was forced to step up to help, that got the Lakers in rotations that weren't as crisp as they need to be. That produced open looks beyond the arc and opportunities on the offensive glass for the Blazers. A fully healthy Howard may clean up a lot of those plays. Despite his dominant stat line Wednesday (33 points, 14 rebounds, five steals), Howard wasn't his usual Defensive Player of the Year self. He was beaten at times for second chances and conceded opportunities at the rim teams won't get in a few short weeks. So part of this issue, like chemistry on offense, will fix itself with time. I still consider it a concern because of the last issue.
4. Structural defensive defects at point guard and power forward
The fundamental proposition of the Lakers' frontcourt is that no team will be able to defend both Gasol and Howard, two of the league's top post players. At the same time, as the league gets smaller, quicker and more perimeter-minded at power forward, Gasol in particular has to be able to match up at the other end. Against teams like Dallas that go small, it's a question of which side wins the tradeoff. Portland never played small, but was still able to exploit Gasol because of LaMarcus Aldridge's ability as a midrange shooter. Five of Aldridge's nine shot attempts came from 19 feet or beyond, and none were contested. Elton Brand got similar looks the night before, though he made just one of four. Teams that can both defend Gasol and stretch the floor at the other end will give the Lakers problems as long as they pair Gasol and Howard.
Point guard defense is another long-running Laker issue, and adding Nash has hardly helped. After Darren Collison went for 17 points on 8-of-12 shooting Tuesday, rookie Damian Lillard destroyed the Lakers with dribble penetration throughout Wednesday's game. Lillard had 23 points and 11 assists, controlling the game with his ability to create. There are things the Lakers can do to gameplan around their defensive weaknesses, but they are never going to go away entirely. That's why I consider this the biggest of the concerns that have emerged about this Lakers team during its first two games. It's not insurmountable, but it could prove an Achilles heel.
For a comprehensive preview of the 2012-13 season, check out Pro Basketball Prospectus 2011-12, now available in .PDF and paperback formats.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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