55 down, 27 to go. The Lakers kicked off the official second half of the '09-'10 season Tuesday night at Staples against the Warriors, beginning the stretch drive towards what fans hope becomes a second straight title. It won't be easy. There will be sweat and toil. There will be moments when foam fingers are pointed in anger, others when they're pointed in celebration.
You will need a comprehensive guide. We're here to help, from A to Z.
A is for... Avulsion. It's also for ankle (apple, aardvark, and artichoke, among other things), and while the latter forced Kobe Bryant to miss three games before the break and Tuesday's tussle against Golden State, the avulsion fracture to Kobe's index finger is more likely to play havoc with the Lakers over the stretch run. It's become reasonably clear the offending digit won't completely heal until the offseason, though hopefully the 10-day ankle induced layoff helped a little. Still, the fracture has the potential to be a factor game-to-game, quarter-to-quarter, shot-to-shot.
26 letters. That's a lot of second half, people.
B is for... Bynum. Three faboo games without the big center left some questioning his spot in the starting lineup (or perhaps on the team, given the proximity to the trade deadline). But for all the hand-wringing over how he plays with Pau Gasol or if he's reaching his potential, Andrew Bynum is averaging 15.2 points and 8.2 rebounds in just over 31 minutes a night, sports a healthy PER of 20 and, at least relative to last year's team, still has more transformative power over the roster than any of his teammates.
C is for... Chase. As in, chasing down Cleveland for the NBA's best record and home court advantage throughout the playoffs. L.A. currently sits two games behind the Cavs, and since Cleveland owns the tiebreaker thanks to a sweep of the regular season series, the Lakers will have to pass them to gain the advantage.
It could happen, but the Lakers don't have much margin for error.
D is for...Denver. The Mavericks made the first big move, but assuming good health, George Karl's gang is and will be the main competition in the Western Conference. Denver is a monster offensively, and play enough D these days to get the job done. Last season's loss to the Lakers in the W.C.F. made the Nuggets hungry, two big blowout wins over the Lakers this season added confidence. Thus the final two meetings this regular season (Feb. 28 at Staples, April 8 in Denver) are officially affairs of high importance.
E is for... Eleven. Both the top level for the amps in Spinal Tap and the number of titles I believe Phil Jackson will have by the end of the playoffs.
F is for... Farmar. It's still too early (and a little unfair) to write off Derek Fisher, but even when playing well Fish isn't a guy coaches want running 35 minutes a night. Shannon Brown is improved, but isn't a point guard. Averaging 10.5 points a night in February, Jordan Farmar has gained patience in the offense and improved his output as the season has progressed.
A consistent spring from the former Bruin mitigates the problem of backcourt depth.
G is for... Gift horses. As in the cheap points offered by trips to the free throw line. Even last year when the offense was a model of efficiency and grace the Lakers didn't live at the stripe, averaging a middling 29.9 free throws per 100 field goals. This season, the figure has dropped to 27.8, fifth worst in the NBA. Those looking for indications the offense is finding last season's superior rhythm can start by measuring any improvement here, since free throws are at least one measure of how much pressure is being applied to an opposing defense.
H is for Haywood. Former Laker/All-Star Caron Butler was the high profile name in Dallas’ big trade with Washington this weekend, but Brendan Haywood was the most important piece when it comes to Big D's playoff hopes. The Mavs, playing with a center rotation of Erick Dampier and Drew Gooden, had serious size issues in the paint. Adding Haywood gives them a second legitimate center and an underrated presence on both sides of the ball.
Should L.A. see the Mavs in the postseason, the trade makes them a much tougher draw.
I is for… iTunes, one way to download and the Kamenetzky Brothers Land O’ Lakers PodKast. Those of you who thought we’d get through 26 letters without a shameless plug…
...really? You thought that?
J is for… Jumpers. Take away Ron Artest, who has nudged his 3-point percentage to a hair under 40%, and the Lakers tend to fire from downtown like blind men at a dart board. Sometimes they hit pay dirt, sometimes an unsuspecting bar patron gets stuck in the neck. This spring, teams will almost surely work to force as many jumpers from L.A. as possible. The Lakers don't have to become a bunch of Reggie Millers in response, but must be good enough to keep teams honest.
K is for… Kardashian. Really, I'm just trying to write about Lamar Odom but already came up with stuff for L and O. This will have to do. Over the last two seasons, Odom has made strong second half pushes, including some great moments en route to a title last year. Those, though, came with Bynum (more or less) sidelined. The trick for LO this season will be leaving his imprint on games while 17 is active and able-bodied (more or less).
Can Odom continue the trend?
L is for… Less lugging of luggage. In the first 50-plus games it seemed the Lakers were given only back-to-backs by the NBA's scheduling overlords. But while they still have four more remaining, the brutality level is reasonably low. Take away a tough Dallas-to-Memphis (Feb. 23-24) sequence, and the Lakers are left with two bits of easy travel (Golden State-to-Sacramento, March 15-16 and Sacramento-to-LA Clippers, April 13-14) plus a soft backside after a tough front end (Denver-to-Minnesota, April 13-14).
M is for… Morrison. Currently more important as an expiring contract/trade chip, if Adam Morrisonis still a Laker after Thursday's trade deadline, he might get a chance to contribute. With Luke Walton's back again forcing him to the sidelines, Morrison moves that much closer to minutes. Generally speaking, I believe everyone on an NBA roster is afforded at least one moment to contribute, whether because of injury, foul trouble, or other circumstances. It's been a while since Morrison has played anything approaching meaningful minutes.
If necessity becomes the mother of invention, will he respond?
N is for…Northwest. With the acquisition of Marcus Camby on Tuesday, the Blazers brought badly needed help to their front court. If by chance they can get healthy in time for the playoffs, Portland has a chance to be more the springtime threat I predicted they'd be. Add the Nuggets, a hot Jazz team, and the up-and-coming Thunder (winners of six straight into the break), and the Northwest seems likely to represent four of the Western Conference's eight playoff teams.
It's very possible the Lakers could face three of the four en route to the Finals. Study those scouting reports.
O is for… Others. The Lakers will play six more regular season games on Tuesday nights, right up against episodes of the final season of "Lost." Nothing is more distracting than realizing after it's too late the DVR wasn't set. Mine requires a juggling act of recording and deleting games along with my favorite shows (and anything the wife records, of course), and I figure at least a few players have similar setups. It is of the utmost importance they make sure all i's are dotted and t's crossed. Moreover, one of Jackson's great challenges over the next few months will be enforcing a strict "no spoilers" policy. Fans don't want a player's performance impacted because he learned the fate of Jack and Kate before having a chance to see it himself.
As a side note, if my coverage of Tuesday games occasionally seems... substandard, you know why.
P is for… Point guard. It’s the largest relative weakness on the team, meaning any available point guard is tossed into the giant hopper of purple and gold trade rumors. But as I note here, the perceived needs at that position aren't as pressing as some think.
Q is for… Q*Bert. Most of the Lakers probably don't remember the heyday of this arcade classic, but I do. It required skill, strategy, cunning, and guile. It required improvisation, and the ability to read an opponent. There were seemingly endless ways to reach a goal. And while the titular character jumped from cube to cube, the board itself was a pyramid, which looks strikingly like... a triangle. Add in all that other stuff I mentioned, and it looks a lot like L.A.'s offense when run well. Over the final 28 games, the Lakers will work to embrace their collective Q*Bert.
(A reach? Perhaps. But it's also "Q" and I'm running out of ideas.)
R is for… Road trip. The Lakers still have a couple tricky Staples-free swings left on the docket, none tougher than a five-game stretch starting March 24 in San Antonio and continuing through Oklahoma City, Houston, New Orleans, and Atlanta.
S is for… Stoudemire. Rumors have Amar'e Stoudemire heading to Cleveland, which would undoubtedly make the Cavs- already the league’s winningest team- the hot choice to win a title. Certainly it’s hard to add a 20/10 guy and not be seen as improved, but you just never know. Sometimes the biggest splash isn’t always the best. Still, should Stoudamire jump to a legitimate title contender, whether Cleveland or "other," the complexion of the postseason race could change dramatically.
T is for… Timing. A hallmark of Phil Jackson teams is the ability to measure the season and perform at their highest level when it matters most. The first half was plagued with questions of inconsistency and complacency. Those issues should fade as the intensity and importance of games increase. Look for the number of good minutes the Lakers play each night to rise.
U is for… Underwhelming. As in the options available to make a splash before Thursday's deadline. Outside of Morrison and Farmar (the latter of whom they need), the Lakers don't have appealing pieces to offer. (U could also be for "untouchable," as in Luke Walton'scontract in the eyes of other teams.) Financially, they're very reluctant to add payroll for next season, so taking on someone else's long term deal (i.e. Hinrich, with two more years and $17 mil on his contract) isn't much of a choice, either.
Perhaps the Lakers make a subtle move to improve depth around the margins, but anyone looking for a "Wow!" moment is almost surely going to be disappointed.
V is for… Vacation, and the times you shouldn't go on one. The playoffs begin on April 17. Make substantive travel plans between then and mid-June and you'll risk having your credentials as a true fan called into question.
W is for… "Win!" and "What are we waitin' fer?"
X is for… X-rays, MRI's, CT's, and other examinations the Lakers have had too many of this season. Don't expect them to get completely healthy, either. Kobe's ankle and finger will likely be lingering problems (see "A" above), Gasol acknowledged Monday afternoon his hamstrings still cause some discomfort, Bynum says he's only about 80% thanks to the hip bruise suffered before the break, Walton is shelved, and Odom has dealt with an injury to his right (non-shooting) hand for much of the year. And so on. With good luck, the Lakers can successfully meter playing time, avoid anything fluky, and have guys feeling better than they do now heading into the playoffs. A little bad luck means more time missed from a major piece of the puzzle.
In the end, if things stay as they've been on the injury front- imperfect but not disastrous- fans should consider it a victory.
Y is for… YouTube. Or as he's otherwise known, Shannon Brown. Despite a poor showing at the dunk contest, the first half was very much a success for L.A.'s backup shooting guard. Having reached the point where a mistake or two won't land him on the bench, Brown now must learn to make better decisions in the face of freedom. As the saying goes, just because you can doesn't mean you should. It's an interesting moment for a young player still working to establish a career in the NBA, and how Brown responds could determine the kind of bench with which the Lakers will enter the postseason. And obviously his play while Kobe heals is important, too.
Z is for… Zero. The tolerance level locally for anything less than a Finals appearance... and perhaps another title.