By Andy Roth
New York, NY (Sports Network) -
The Lakers won a second straight championship in spite of their flaws last season, but with the team a year older, and maybe more importantly the competition being tougher, those flaws could very well get in the way of a three-peat.
Former Lakers greats Jerry West and Magic Johnson have been critical of the team, with both saying age is hurting LA's defense, while Magic also thinks a trade is in order.
I think age is a contributing factor in the Lakers' problems, but it's more a lack of athleticism and speed, which Magic was quick to point out. "We're not responding to the more athletic teams and the quicker teams. So we must change something. I think we have to now look at this team and maybe say we're not good enough."
Both Ron Artest and Derek Fisher struggled defensively last season when matched up against very athletic players. Phil Jackson recognized Fisher's deficiencies in the playoffs last year when he switched Kobe Bryant onto Russell Westbrook for the final four games against the Thunder. The only reason he was able to make that move was because Oklahoma City's two shooting guards, Thabo Sefolosha and James Harden aren't very talented off the dribble.
And the Lakers' problems with defense at the point guard position go beyond Fisher. Steve Blake is a major liability and LA definitely misses Jordan Farmar, and to some extent, even Sasha Vujacic. I thought at the time, the signing of Blake (four years, $16 million) was a bad one, and he's done nothing to dissuade me of that opinion.
Meanwhile, the head coach is aware of his team's defensive flaws but thinks they can play around it. "We're trying to make up for a lack of team speed. We have to do a lot of things right to be able play defense the way we want to, and most of it is controlling the tempo of the game," said Jackson. "There's something about just speed, outright speed. We're not the fastest team on the boards here in the NBA, but we can do it if we control things in the right way."
General Manager Mitch Kupchak is considering pulling off a trade to upgrade the roster, but didn't exactly come out and say he's exploring a deal. "Yes...I may have to look into a trade, but I'm not saying we have" talked to other teams yet, said Kupchak, according to the Los Angeles Times. "We have not been playing up to our level and I don't know why. Maybe it's complacency. I'm not sure."
Even if Kupchak actively pursues a trade, it may be difficult to pull one off since the Lakers don't really have any players beyond their big four (Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and Andrew Bynum) that might interest other teams. If a trade isn't an option, I believe the only way this team can improve is if Jackson is creative in the way he uses his current roster. I suggested in an earlier column that he pairs Odom with Bryant in the back court at times and reduce Blake's playing time. Odom has the skills to play guard, and if my memory serves me correctly, the Lakers had a pretty good 6- foot-9 point guard at one time. A Bryant-Odom back court would create major mismatches, and it's hard to believe the Lakers wouldn't be a better team by getting more minutes for Odom and less for Blake. And to take that theory one step further, I would let Shannon Brown play some minutes at the point in addition to backing up Kobe at the two.
If the Lakers do stand pat and Jackson doesn't make any adjustments to his lineups, then I think there's a good chance we won't see a third straight championship.
Derrick Rose is my MVP right now. The combination of his production and the team's success despite losing two key players for long stretches is why he gets my vote. The Bulls are tied with the Heat for the second best record in the Eastern Conference at 34-14, despite Joakim Noah missing 24 games and Carlos Boozer 19. Chicago is 18-6 since Noah went down in mid-December with a torn ligament in his left thumb, which includes three games in which Boozer was out of the lineup too.
And a Bulls player who doesn't grab a whole lot of headlines but has also played a significant role this season is Luol Deng (17.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg). The 25-year old small forward has been a work horse, averaging 39.2 minutes per game, while playing all 48 games. NBA TV analyst Greg Anthony recognizes how much Deng has meant to the Bulls. "The guys who's kind of the unsung for me is Luol Deng. He's been so efficient all season long," said Anthony. "He's really that one guy people don't talk enough about in terms of their overall effectiveness as a team, but Luol plays a big role on this basketball team."
Brook Lopez is third among NBA centers in scoring, averaging 19.6 points per game. But as much as he contributes on the offensive end, it's more than negated by his atrocious rebounding and less than stellar defense. Lopez is averaging just 5.7 rebounds per game and managed to pull down just one in the Nets' loss to the Pacers last Friday.
Jason Kidd apparently doesn't have a license to drive anymore -- to the hoop that is. The 37-year old point guard has attempted just 41 free throws this season, magnifying his inability to drive the ball to the basket.
Andy Roth covered the Knicks for NBC Radio and AP Radio for eleven years and
was an NBA Columnist for Celtics Pride Magazine for two years. He's covered
many of the major sporting events, including the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA
Finals, U.S. Open Tennis and Golf.