After the Lakers' 19-point loss at home to Memphis Sunday (their fourth double-digit loss in their past six games), we asked our panel of experts five questions to assess the damage.
1. What one thing most concerns you in what you see in the Lakers' play right now?
J.A. Adande (ESPN.com): The lack of pride. They've let bad teams come into Staples Center and crush them, they've been humbled by Miami and San Antonio in showdown games. You'd think dignity, a title defense, ego ... something would kick in and prevent them from going down like that.
Chris Broussard (ESPN.com): I'd say the Lakers' lack of great athleticism, which shows most on the defensive end, concerns me the most. An older Ron Artest isn't the defender he once was; neither is Kobe. Pau Gasol's never been a great defender and Derek Fisher is being broken down by opposing point guards at the point of attack. On top of that, newcomers Steve Blake and Matt Barnes haven't bolstered the bench as they were expected to.
John Hollinger (ESPN.com): The noncontributions of late from Pau Gasol. One has to wonder if there's an undisclosed injury limiting him right now.
Andy Kamenetzky (Land O' Lakers): The lack of cohesion. It's beyond not being on the same page. They're not even reading the same book at the moment.
Arash Markazi (ESPNLA.com): A complete and total lack of pride for their profession. Kobe Bryant brought it up after the Christmas Day blowout and Derek Fisher talked about it after a blowout earlier in the season; the players in the Lakers' locker room need to be accountable every time they step onto the court, regardless if it's January or May. This is simply a team that doesn't care at the moment.
John Ireland (710 ESPN Radio): It's the defense. They can't come up with any stops on a consistent basis. Other teams pick-and-roll the Lakers to death, and they've yet to prove they can stop it.
Brian Kamenetzky (Land O' Lakers): Lethargy. The Lakers are costing themselves the opportunity right now to be as good a team as they can be come playoff time. The longer it takes them to commit to their principles on both ends of the floor, the less likely they are to maximize their potential when it really matters.
Dave Miller (710 ESPN Radio): The Lakers are 34 games into the regular season and the one adjective that describes both the offense and defense is inconsistent. The most alarming thing to me is the lack of competitive nature defending their home court.
Dave McMenamin (ESPNLA.com): It's tough to choose one because poor shot selection leads to long defensive rebounds which lead to run-outs by the opposition, etc. So you could say that the Lakers' transition defense is struggling right now, but the genesis behind that is how their offense is performing. So, rather than point to an aspect of the game, I'll just say their focus is lacking. If everybody on the team gets their heads in the right place, their play will sync up on the court and mistakes will be eliminated.
Marc Stein (ESPN.com): It's not just that they're bored or complacent. It's that they all seem so unhappy and irritated with each other. They just don't give you the vibe of a group that's going to band together and turn this thing around. You never get that vibe from the Celtics. The Lakers look like they could use one of San Antonio's trademark Rodeo Road Trips where they hit the road for three weeks and try win a mess of games to get back on course.
2. If you were coaching this team, what would you do to jump-start it at this point?
Adande: The obvious move seems to be swapping Matt Barnes for Ron Artest in the starting lineup, but then you risk having Artest disconnect completely. Phil Jackson's method of letting the players work their way out of a funk has worked 11 times before, so I'd trust his patient ways.
Broussard: I would make them run more of a balanced offensive, and in particular, I would push, push, push them to play inside-out and get Pau Gasol more touches. The Lakers have too much talent for Kobe to shoot 23-27 shots. Pau's averaged 8.5 shots over the last four games. He should be getting about 15 shots a night, if not more. And Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum need get double-figure shots up as well. It's no coincidence that their best game recently was a win over New Orleans in which Odom took 15 shots, Kobe 14 and Bynum 12. Don't get me wrong: this is Kobe's team and always will be, and he can take the most shots. But they need more balance in terms of shot distribution.
Hollinger: This isn't Phil Jackson's style but he might want to consider changes at point guard or small forward. Shannon Brown is a stretch as a full-time 1 but he has badly outplayed the Flaksher combo, while Matt Barnes has similarly outperformed Ron Artest.
A. Kamenetzky: Hold people accountable. Whether that means cutting PT over mistakes (as Phil Jackson said might happen after the Memphis loss), a lineup switch or more difficult practices, a wake-up call of sorts is in order. Phil often allows his players to rise and shine on their own clock (an approach I generally endorse) but a more aggressive tack is now in order.
Markazi: It really comes down to motivating each player individually and somehow inspiring them to play up to their potential. Sure, I could say get Ron Artest more involved or run the offense through Pau Gasol or any number of theories that have been floated recently, but until all the Lakers get on the same page and play as one it doesn't really matter.
Ireland: They need more athleticism. They've become a slow, plodding, half-court team. I would play less of Ron Artest and more of both Lamar Odom and Shannon Brown -- just to jump-start the fast break. When Kobe, Fisher, Bynum, Gasol and Artest are on the court together, they get run off the floor. In the Memphis loss, the Grizzlies outscored the Lakers 28-5 in fast-break points.
B. Kamenetzky: Honestly, I'm not sure. It's not a question of benching Player A to send a message. Right now, they have some serious performance problems. Artest, for example, has been very, very poor. The point guard situation hasn't been elevated with the arrival of Blake. Pau is out of sorts, and so on.
Miller: Offensively, unless in a transition situation, I would demand that the ball goes into the post before a jump shot is taken. If that rule is broken, I would take the person shooting the jumper out of the game. While that may sound crazy, this team is built to play inside-out. Bynum's length creates easy scoring opportunities and Pau is a skilled and willing passer. Executing the offense will also help the Lakers' poor transition defense by having the proper floor balance.
McMenamin: I'd go back and show them tape from how they were playing to close out last season -- when they went 4-7 over their last 11 games heading into the postseason -- and then show them footage of how they played in the postseason against Oklahoma City, Utah, Phoenix and Boston when they played high-intensity ball for two straight months. They need to remember what they did to turn it around.
Stein: I'd start every film session with an oversized image of the standings on the screen. The Lakers, as much as any title contender, have to prioritize being healthy at season's end over playoff seeding or anything else. But it should give these guys a jolt to see that they're headed for having homecourt advantage in zero rounds of the playoffs if they don't pick it up. The distressing/confusing part is that they actually started with sharpness -- going 8-0 without Andrew Bynum -- before this backslide. Looks like that great start was the worst thing for their focus.
3. Does Kobe Bryant need to do more, or does he need to do something differently? Explain.
Adande: He actually needs to do less. The Lakers were at their best this season when he let Pau Gasol lead the way, and when Kobe tried to take over against San Antonio and Memphis the Lakers still lost. Kobe needs to conserve his energy for the playoffs.
Broussard: Kobe needs to stop forcing shots and play within the offense. He's going to get his 20-plus points because he's such a great player, but he needs to make sure everyone else gets off as well. The Lakers are better when Pau, Bynum and Odom in particular are getting up their share of shots.
Hollinger: Probably needs to do a bit less, actually. But really, the problem hasn't been Kobe.
A. Kamenetzky: Kobe definitely doesn't need to do "more," as that's never the route toward sustainable success. Overall, I think he needs to exercise patience on the court while cranking up the urgency off it. Make it clear the time to save themselves is now, but also that he's not the savior.
Markazi: He certainly doesn't need to do more. Bryant and the Lakers are at their best when he isn't forcing up shots and trying to take on four or five players in the paint. So Bryant needs to be more of a facilitator at times. This isn't 2006; the Lakers have players capable of scoring points. It might not look like it right now, but they do.
Ireland: He may need to dial it back a little offensively. When Phil Jackson said, "Kobe messed up the game," he also could have said "nobody else was doing anything so Kobe tried to take over." If he facilitates more -- draws the defense and kicks out -- I think the shot attempts go way up for his teammates. Gasol, Odom and Bynum all need to shoot more. But if the other guys won't be more aggressive, Kobe won't just stand there. It's a two-way street.
B. Kamenetzky: This year relative to last, I think his "takeover radar" isn't quite as sharp as it has been over the past two. He got it right against Memphis, but not against the Spurs, and it's a very difficult thing to rebound from as a team once he pulls that rip cord. But fundamentally, I don't see this as a Kobe problem.
Miller: Kobe is a ruthless finisher with a very high basketball IQ but can get one-dimensional at times when putting the team on his back. He is who he is, but as a leader, he first must realize this team needs balance. Trust the offense, trust your teammates, the cupboard isn't bare. When the ball moves and players move this offense will manufacture shots, very good shots.
McMenamin: If "more" means having more games like he did in San Antonio, and against Memphis, when he tried to put the offense on his back, then of course not. He could be a more willing passer and as a five-time champion, he could share some of that experience with his new ringless teammates more often to get them on board with what this three-peat is going to take.
Stein: Trying to do more offensively isn't a good idea because we've already seen those results and know it doesn't work. And he has too many miles on those legs to practice more than he does. Kobe is so much more intense than everyone else that it obviously sends him into a fury when the team's collective focus fades, but this is honestly Phil Jackson's territory. He's the one who has to try to get everyone on the same page, get Ron Artest re-engaged and get the offense operating like it's designed to operate.
4. Which team is the most formidable threat to the Lakers in the West and why?
Adande: The Spurs. In addition to their trio of championship veterans they have a nice group of youthful players such as DeJuan Blair, George Hill and Gary Neal in the mix. The Lakers weren't that much better than the hobbling Spurs in 2008, and if the Spurs are healthy and hold home court this year they could end the Lakers' run.
Broussard: San Antonio because it has championship experience and guys who have beaten the Lakers before. They know what it takes to win it all, and they have enough depth to keep Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili rested and fresh come playoff time.
Hollinger: San Antonio, because it'll have home court in a playoff matchup and the Lakers can't cover Tony Parker.
A. Kamenetzky: San Antonio. The Spurs have the best combination of talent, experience and coaching. They've also been remarkably fortunate on the injury front, which has allowed them to jell with everybody accounted for.
Markazi: If I have to pick one I'll go with the Spurs. San Antonio is 29-4 and clearly the class of the league at the moment and the Spurs are doing it with Tim Duncan playing just 28 minutes per game and essentially serving as the team's fourth option behind Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Richard Jefferson.
Ireland: In the West, San Antonio and Dallas could both knock the Lakers out. The Spurs have become younger and faster, and Dallas is playing the best team defense in the league right now. Both teams also take care of the ball, which the Lakers haven't been doing. If LA finishes as the third seed, it would have to beat both as the road team -- which would be a huge challenge.
B. Kamenetzky: San Antonio. The Spurs have great depth at multiple positions, veterans with championship experience, and are playing at a phenomenal level right now. Plus, it hasn't come at the expense of guys like Duncan, whose minutes are still being kept down.
Miller: The Spurs. They are healthy. They are playing like a young team with veterans; a lot of players are contributing on both sides of the ball. Richard Jefferson has been the X factor.
McMenamin: The Mavericks. They can match the Lakers' size with Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood and they have hungry veterans like Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd and Jason Terry who realize this could be their last best shot at a ring.
Stein: Flip a coin. Provided that the Mavs can weather the loss of Caron Butler, Dallas has legit size to throw at the Lakers. San Antonio, meanwhile, is as hard to guard as the Spurs have ever been while still capable of the lockdown D of yesteryear ... as Kobe would tell you after last week's post-Christmas reunion. Both teams are far more dangerous than we thought back in October. A first-round series with Oklahoma City, as the teams were lined up as of Monday morning, wouldn't be much fun, either.
5. If you were forced to decide right now, will the Lakers win a third straight championship?
Adande: No. Usually championship teams show some indication of their worthiness by now. The Lakers haven't.
Hollinger: Unlikely. I'm sure they'll play better and can probably get back to the conference finals, but unlike the past three years they may not be favored once they get there ... let alone in the Finals.
A. Kamenetzky: Yes. There is enough time (albeit not enough to waste) to right the ship and when they are playing at their best I don't think this team needs home court to win it all.
Markazi: No and it's not just because of their current struggles. They'll right the ship at some point but I just don't think they'll go far in the playoffs as the No. 3 seed in the West behind San Antonio and Dallas. The Lakers haven't won a playoff series without home-court advantage since 2004 (remember how they fared against the Celtics in the 2008 NBA Finals without home court) and I'm not sure if they're strong enough to win a Game 7 on the road.
Ireland: I certainly think they are still among the favorites, but no longer at the top of the list. They haven't won a road playoff series since 2004, and the way they're playing now, they would have home court only in Round 1. Unless their position improves, my answer would be no. Having said that, I do think they have plenty of time to improve, and it's too early to panic.
B. Kamenetzky: I picked them to win, and it's too early to come off that prediction. But right now I think I'm going to be wrong. They simply haven't shown themselves to be the best team. Until they build to something better, I'll say no parade.
Miller: Yes, when you add up the coach, the roster and the experience, these factors beat youthfulness any day of the week.
McMenamin: Tough one, but yes. There is a lot of basketball to play between now and June.
Stein: Right now? The only reason I would say yes is because I picked them to win it all before the season started and feel it's morally wrong to change picks midstream. The biggest problem L.A. has, above everything else out there, is that the competition is so much tougher than anticipated. The Spurs are reborn and, to a degree, so are the Mavs with Tyson Chandler in the middle. Boston and Miami look as dangerous as feared and Orlando is a wild card no one quite knows how to peg after the Magic's big trades. Three-peats are tough enough, but this one is going to be way tougher than the Lakers thought because of the competition.