Los Angeles Lakers opponent analysis

I traded emails with Brian Kamenetzky from ESPN Los Angeles’ Land O’ Lakers blog to set the table for tonight’s showdown between the Suns and Lakers. Below Brian provides the latest on the Lakers as well as his analysis on tonight’s game. I answered his questions on the Suns over at ESPN LA.

Michael Schwartz: Andrew Bynum has been unstoppable to start the season. Do you see him making “The Leap” to NBA stardom this year?

Brian Kamenetzky: Well, Bynum got off to a monster start, averaging over 22 points and 17 boards in his first three games returning to the court following his suspension. Dude was a beast. In the fourth against Portland, Bynum hit all seven of his first half shots before tiring out in the third and fourth. Over his last two games, though, at least from a scoring standpoint Bynum has slowed down. Both the Warriors and Grizzlies double teamed him aggressively; something Bynum hasn’t seen much of over the course of his career.

There was definitely an impact.

In those games, he shot a combined 8-for-23, with nine turnovers. Talking with the coaching staff yesterday, they acknowledged the learning curve Bynum now faces as a feared offensive option. Teams just aren’t going to stand around and allow themselves to be obliterated. He’s a good passer, but still hasn’t learned the nuances of reading the double, or of ball positioning to avoid turnovers while he surveys the landscape.

The good news for the Lakers is, unlike years past, getting stuck offensively hasn’t hurt Bynum’s efforts on the glass. He averaged 15.5 rebounds against Golden State and Memphis. Overall, it’s a sign of growth and maturity in his game. I suspect once he learns to adjust to double teams and/or Mike Brown and company devise better ways to punish the opposition for sending them, his numbers will be impressive across the board.

There’s a reason he’s the only big widely viewed as good enough to build around in a Dwight Howard deal.

Of course, more than anything Bynum needs to stay healthy, which he’s never proven he can do.

MS: Kobe Bryant recently said there’s been a change in the Lakers’ pecking order with Bynum taking over Pau Gasol’s No. 2 role. Do you see that being the case? How has Pau handled the aftereffects of the failed Chris Paul trade?

BK: I do, in the sense that Gasol will likely see his shot totals go down as Bynum’s increase, because Kobe isn’t going to give any up. (Not that he won’t pass, because he does. He just won’t make a conscious effort to keep Gasol’s FGA’s around 15 or so.) Pau is the guy in that threesome most willing to give Bynum the space to become a scorer. It’s not an easy adjustment. Not that he’ll say it, but I don’t think he likes moving down in the pecking order, or Kobe’s recent inference he’s not a “natural scorer.” But something that has to be done or L.A.’s Big Three won’t be able to function.

He’ll still be used extensively as a facilitator, and without his intelligence and ball skills an already choppy offense might grind to a halt. In terms of scoring, it looks like Bynum will get more opportunities until opposing defenses force something else.

As for the post-trade attitude, basically take everything you’ve read about Lamar Odom and flip it on its head. Gasol has been steadfast in his desire to stay in L.A., and put the deal behind him. He didn’t want to go to Houston, so staying in Los Angeles, where he’s very happy and has built a life, is a nice deal.

MS: What has Mike Brown done to put his imprint on this team? What’s different compared to Phil Jackson’s Lakers?

BK: First, they’re more normal. Brown has none of Phil Jackson’s flash, and doesn’t pull the same types of strings with the media. Everything there now is far more conventional, from the offense to postgame media sessions. Brown has made a very positive impression on his players. Kobe admitted he expected Brown, based on what he’d heard, would amount to a pushover. That, he said, isn’t the case. Even better, Brown is an incredibly hard worker and completely prepared, both essential criteria for gaining Kobe’s respect.

Bryant has said he and the team want to win badly for Brown, because they can see the effort their coach puts in, and any concerns about how those two would mesh have been quickly set aside. Not to say they couldn’t come true, but for now it’s a non-issue.

From there, changes are more mundane. The triangle is gone, replaced by a more typical offense heavier in pick-and-roll sets (and probably would be more so if the Lakers were more adept at running it). They’re calling plays instead of making reads, and overall the aesthetics aren’t quite as appealing. They could be in time, but probably not until next season.

MS: How does this Lakers team best attack the Suns?

BK: Same way as always, I would think. Size. Lamar Odom isn’t around anymore to cause matchup problems, but even though it seems like the size quotient has improved with the Suns, if I’m the Lakers I still make Phoenix show it can guard Bynum, Gasol, and Kobe on the block. I think they might be able to account for one or two at a time, but not all three.

MS: Do the Lakers need to make another big move to win a championship?

BK: Yes and no.

This question gets to perhaps the largest dilemma currently facing the Lakers from a  personnel standpoint. There is all at once a great push to win now, while Kobe is still Kobe, but also to acquire the big pieces for the future. It’s a tough needle to thread in the NBA, where generally teams have to deconstruct from era to era. For the Lakers to win now, they need another ball handling player who can create his own shot, plus an upgrade at point guard. Chris Paul would have solved both problems, and given the Lakers their next superstar, but we saw how that went.

Now the obsession is Dwight Howard, and while he’d definitely improve the Lakers if acquired for Bynum, if it costs Bynum and Gasol, something the Lakers say they won’t do (for now), I’m not at all convinced they’re a better team this season. Down the road, they’d have the league’s premier big man, a robot who never gets hurt and alters games defensively. Short term, it could be very costly.

The best path to a title now would be smaller, less dramatic moves aimed at building depth and patching holes in the roster. Doing that, though, likely takes them out of the Howard derby, given how little the Lakers have to work with in terms of trade chips.

Without some help, the Lakers can still reclaim the title, but the margin for error is incredibly thin, and they’d need a little luck. They’re still very good, but not OKC or Miami good.

On the Phoenix side, Shannon Brown will be making his first trip back to Los Angeles, where he won two championships, since signing as a free agent with the Suns this offseason. Here’s video of Kobe discussing the return of his “little brother” to Staples Center:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oOUmPc2BgJA]

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