Finally, a chance to breathe. Since the NBA fired the Christmas Day starting gun on its 66-game schedule, the Lakers have been on the court seemingly nonstop. Monday night's win over the Mavericks was the Lake Show's 15th game in 23 days. At the moment they're enjoying their first two-day rest of the season, or as much as one can enjoy the rest when an appointment with LeBron James and the Miami Heat is next on the calendar. Those old Laker legs need the time off, and we need the time to assess how the prototype version of the Mike Brown Lakers is coming along.
Whether they've lived up to expectations through 15 games is hard to say because expectations surrounding the team have been so unstable. After the failed trade for Chris Paul and the "Take My Sixth Man, Please" departure of Lamar Odom, few people knew what to make of the purple and gold. Mike Brown was only the most visible of the many new faces who'd be called on to get the Lakers back into championship form. Throw in the added weirdness of Andrew Bynum's four-game suspension, Derek Fisher's needing to play himself into shape after a summer of labor negotiations and the breakneck early-season schedule, and preseason expectations scattered along a continuum with "not making the playoffs" at one end and "they'll be a contender when all the pieces mesh" at the other.
First, the good news: at 10-5, the Lakers are in the top four of the Western Conference. They've avoided the sinking-ship fate of the Boston Celtics and aren't about to miss the playoffs this year. Two of their losses came with Bynum suspended. They're top five in the NBA in defensive efficiency, lending credibility to Mike Brown's reputation for shaping elite units at that end of the floor. And the opposition has been tougher than you might think. Collectively the Lakers' opponents have a 0.548 winning percentage so far. There are two wins over a Utah Jazz team that's 8-2 against the rest of the league and a split against the 8-5 Nuggets. The Mavs are a diminished force these days, but taking down the defending champs is never easy unless Tim Floyd is involved.
That's the cheerful spin. The counterspin starts by drawing your attention to the Lakers' offense, which ranks 18th in the league and often looks worse than that. It's not getting better, either. Just in the past couple weeks it's had mad ugly nights against the Warriors, Grizzlies, Jazz and Mavs. Let's just say no one's forgetting the years-long criticisms of Mike Brown and his Cleveland Cavaliers offenses.
And even though they've taken down a lot of decent teams, there's no headline win over an A-list opponent. The Lakers have lost the only two games they've played against teams above them in the standings (the Bulls and Clippers). They've yet to face the Thunder, Heat, 76ers, Hawks, Magic or Spurs. Though to be fair, they haven't played bottom-feeders Washington, Toronto, New Jersey, Charlotte, Detroit or New Orleans, either.
Offensive improvement could come from a few different places. Start with Kobe Bryant, who's been using an insane 40 percent of the Lakers' offensive plays. That Kobe's carried a towering offensive burden with only a slight decrease in scoring efficiency and a slight increase in turnovers is magnificent, but it seems increasingly clear that he can no longer shoot threes well. His three-point accuracy hit a post-Shaq peak at 36 percent in 2007-08, dropped in each of the next three season and has now plunged off a bridge. He's made less than 25 percent of his threes this year, which is bad enough, but he's attempting more than four a game, which is unacceptable. Passing on a couple of those longballs each game would help rebalance the Laker attack and shave off some of opponents' fast-break opportunities.
Still, Kobe is far more solution than problem. For the offense to rock or approximate rocking, Pau Gasol needs to become the devastating matchup problem he was little more than a year ago. Pau's been fine for the most part but remains just a little off. He's stopping the ball during Laker sets and still appears to be settling into his role as the third option.
What Mike Brown really needs is quality point-guard play and some floor-spacing shooters. Both problems are large and possibly insoluble given the current roster. His Monday night heroics notwithstanding, Derek Fisher should not be a starter in the NBA. Steve Blake was a little better before he got injured. He's out a couple weeks. Rookie Darius Morris has some nice tools but has a long way to go to develop pro-caliber instincts and decision-making.
And nothing will matter if teamwide three-point shooting stays so impressively grim. The Lakers are last in the NBA when it comes to making threes. Stone cold last. If you've been under the assumption that you can't compete for a championship if you're the worst three-point shooting team in the league, please go on thinking that because yeah, obviously. The only regular with a respectable mark is Steve Blake. Metta World Peace has missed 25 of 27 of his attempts, which seems literally impossible for a guy who's made 34 percent in his career. Jason Kapono will improve on his 4 for 13 mark, right? He has to. It would also help if Josh McRoberts dusted off his long-distance game and became a bigger part of the offense overall. He's one of the Lakers' most effective shooters but he rarely pulls the trigger except off putbacks and alley-oops. It's time for McBob City to expand.
Perhaps we can put our hopes in schedule effects. As the games start to space themselves out a bit, guys should have more juice and get better arc on their jumpers. They'll also have more time to practice Brown's sets, a rare luxury to date. Looming over everything, of course, is the possibility of a Dwight Howard trade. No one should think it's likely to happen, as franchise-shaking trades are knotty things to pull off. If it does, it'll change everything in Lakerdom in both the near and distant futures. For the time being, the question is whether Mike Brown can coax enough pointage out of his existing roster to complement the fine defensive squad he's crafted. Miami's as good a place to start as any.