On its face, a four-game road trip seems like the last thing the struggling Lakers need at this moment. However, among their myriad issues are recurring bouts with complacency, and time away from Staples Center could theoretically alleviate that ... unless opening the trip against 4-17 Cleveland offsets any urgency created by leaving L.A. In that respect, perhaps the earlier-than-expected return of point guard Kyrie Irving from a broken finger potentially becomes a blessing in disguise. Given this 9-12 team's inexplicable proclivity for seemingly treating any game as an automatic win, his presence can only help keep them engaged.
Plus, the Cavs are 2-8 with Irving and 2-9 without him, so practically speaking, the Dukie's talents haven't translated to much winning, anyway. Hopefully, it's the best of both worlds for the Lakers. Here are three things to be mindful of once the ball is jumped.
1. A defensive tone set by Kobe Bryant
Some of the Lakers' defensive issues are caused by elements beyond their control. Say what you will about Pau Gasol's defense, but he's an upgrade over Antawn Jamsion. Say what you will about Steve Nash's defense, but with the two-time MVP quarterbacking the offense, quality shots should increase while turnovers decrease, both of which should cut down on possessions in which the Lakers find themselves defensively in transition. And until the Lakers are at full strength for an extended time, continuity remains elusive. As Dwight Howard and Jodie Meeks noted after the Utah loss, this group is still learning each other, and defensive synchronicity takes time.
However, it also takes effort, particularly when short-handed, and consistent willingness has been in short supply. And to be blunt, chief among those guilty of fluctuating effort has been Kobe Bryant. Darius Soriano at Forum Blue and Gold wrote a terrific breakdown of The Mamba's recent issues, which include ball watching, gambling and poor rotations, all points discussed by Brian or I at various points this or the past few seasons. Kobe has also maintained his habit of reacting to perceived non-calls (in his mind, more or less whenever he shoots) by demonstratively arguing with referees in lieu of getting back. As I noted in Sunday's "Rapid Reaction," Bryant didn't even bother crossing halfcourt on one possession while his teammates defended four-on-five. In the past, Bryant's teams were good enough to stop opponents while he jawed with officials. This season, not so much.
But beyond how Bryant's inconsistent defense creates practical on-court issues, it sets a troubling tone. Howard is the Lakers' defensive anchor, and his credentials on that side of the ball best any teammate's, but Kobe rightfully remains the unquestioned leader whose cues are taken foremost. Thus, when he's not attentive or devoted defensively, it's easier for others to take possessions off. Or, for those actually consistently trying, foster resentment over what they perceive as unmatched effort. Either way, it's a problem.
Obviously, all of the Lakers' defensive problems shouldn't be laid at Kobe's doorstep. He's hardly the only one guilty of sloppiness, and these guys are all professionals obligated to perform as such. However, until Bryant makes a point of investing himself defensively, I believe there's a ceiling to any potential improvement. This is the burden that comes with being a franchise player and a Hall of Fame first-ballot lock. Inevitably, it all starts with you.
And for those who claim Bryant is too taxed by his offensive responsibilities to be a two-way player, I would submit he scale back what he's doing, anyway. The Lakers are 1-9 when he scores 30-plus, 5-3 when he scores between 20-29, and 3-0 when he scores less than 20. Moreover, a look at Kobe's splits reveals that in wins, Bryant's taking 15.9 shots while averaging a shade under seven assists. In losses, his assists drop by nearly half as the shot total climbs by nearly seven. Taking things a step further, to a man, Howard, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace are averaging more shots in wins than losses.
This can't all be coincidence.
History has generally dictated that the more judicious Bryant is in seeking his shot (especially those created off-ball, where he never seems to work anymore), and the more conscientious he is toward creating for others, the better the Lakers perform. During this period down key playmakers in Nash and Gasol, even more so. This issue isn't really about Kobe taking "too many" shots, but the overall dynamic of a game as he tries to do too much. Kobe is not "the reason" for the losses, but I do think an altered approach would result in more wins.
2. Chris Duhon versus Kyrie Irving
As mentioned earlier, Irving returns to action today, which turns Duhon's life considerably more interesting. The second-year point guard is a proficient scorer around the rim and near the 3-point arc, making it a pickle to limit the young man's buckets. It'll be interesting to see how Duhon fares as the first line of defense. For that matter, I'm curious to see if Duhon periodically looks to attack the kid. The elder Dukie isn't the most aggressive scorer, and rarely does damage off the dribble, but Irving remains a work in progress defensively, so Duhon might be able to earn a cheap whistle or two at his expense. Sometimes, the most effective ways to defend a quality scorer is gluing him to the bench.
3. Anderson Varejao and the offensive glass
Among many achievements for the Brazilian center during an All-Star-worthy campaign, the guy is crushing on the glass. Beyond simply leading the league in rebounds per game (15.2), he's doing serious work on the offensive glass. He leads the league in offensive rebounds per game (6.0), offensive rebounding rate for players logging 25-plus minutes (18.6) and is generally pulling down any Cleveland miss within reasonable reach. He's also not the only Cav creating second chances. Tristan Thompson ranks 11th in offensive rebounding rate among players logging 25-plus minutes. Between their efforts, plus rookie center Tyler Zeller's two cents, it's no surprise the Cavs are the NBA's second-best offensive rebounding team. For an offensively inefficient team that struggles to put up points, those extra possessions represent what little lifeblood Cleveland has. Keeping a body on Varejao and the gang goes a long way toward preventing the home team from chalking up its fifth win.
Generally speaking, Howard and Jordan Hill could have their hands full checking Varejao. The center is putting up a career-high 14.5 points per game, and isn't limiting his shots to those around the rim. He's putting up a shade over three shots a night from 16-23 feet, easily the highest tally of his career, and canning a respectable 42 percent. Thus, the Lakers' 5s will need to step up.