The Los Angeles Lakers just can't catch a break. Not only is the team in third place in the Pacific Division and on a two-game losing streak, but point guard Steve Nash's injury woes don't seem to be getting any better.
According to Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com, as told to him by Lakers head coach Mike D'Antoni, Nash will not play on the team's upcoming four-game road trip, one that includes a game against the rival New York Knicks on Thursday.
Granted, Nash's absence with a leg injury has played a great role in Los Angeles' struggles, but his not being there to run D'Antoni's offense is just the tip of the iceberg. The Lakers' problems run much deeper than the mere lack of their point guard, and they have greater issues to fix. If the players and fans think that everything will be back to normal once Nash is back, they will be in for a rude awakening.
The team has many problems, each of which must be addressed before Nash returns.
No Reliability at the Point
The Lakers' most obvious issue is the lack of a solid point guard. Backup Steve Blake's abdominal surgery leaves the team with two men to run the point: the inconsistent Chris Duhon and inexperienced second-year man Darius Morris.
This is a problem for the Lakers for two reasons. First, Duhon is not much more than a shooter, and he doesn't have the same court vision as Nash.
Morris, on the other hand, has decent, developing court vision and the potential to be a fine NBA point guard. His only problem is that he has not received the necessary playing time as a backup, nor the right tutelage. Nash could certainly provide this, but his being sidelined and unable to be a full participant in practice doesn't help Morris' development.
As a result, Kobe Bryant has often been the man running the point, with varying results. This leads to the Lakers' next problem.
The Two Faces of Kobe Bryant
Ever since Nash's injury, Kobe Bryant has been two different types of player. He'll either be an incredible playmaker, playing unselfish basketball and getting all of his teammates involved, or he'll completely disregard the talent around him and try to do it all.
Look at it this way. Against the Houston Rockets on November 18, Bryant was the definition of a team player. He had a triple-double and only scored 22 points, compared to teammate Dwight Howard, who led the way with 28 that night en route to a 119-108 victory.
Other times, however, Bryant appears completely unwilling to share the ball. Fast forward to December 4, when the Lakers visited the Rockets in Houston. Bryant scored 39 points and registered just two assists, shooting 14-of-31 from the field.
Next on the team in field goals attempted was Antawn Jamison, who took 12 attempts, followed by Howard with just nine.
Yes, Bryant is the star of the Lakers, but that is not an excuse for him to play selfishly. He has so much talent surrounding him, and Los Angeles' problem the past couple of years has been the offense revolving too much around him.
Now that he is out of the triangle offense and into the run-and-gun, Bryant simply needs to be willing to delegate the scoring duties. He is already one of the best scorers in NBA history, and he should trust his teammates to be able to make their shots just how they trust him to make his when they are unable to do so.
If anything, it may be those very types of struggles that are the reason for Bryant's seeming need to be the absolute alpha dog on offense.
The Never-Ending Funk of Pau Gasol
The Lakers need Pau Gasol to be effective in Mike D'Antoni's fast-paced offense, but that has yet to happen. The 7'0" Spaniard has missed the team's past four games with knee tendinitis, and he was averaging a career-low 12.6 points per game on 42-percent shooting prior to that.
Gasol's knee issues could very well be the reason behind his troubles, but he has already had some complaints about D'Antoni's system. He has stated a desire for more playing time in the low post, but the offense calls for him to be more of a mid-range guy on offense.
One of two things needs to happen. Gasol either needs to buck up and adjust to D'Antoni's system, or D'Antoni needs to adjust his offense so as to get the best out of his power forward.
Unfortunately, the latter option is easier said than done.
Mike D'Antoni's Commitment to His Offense
As much success as Mike D'Antoni has had with his offense, he is also its greatest flaw. Over the past few years, during his tenure with the New York Knicks and current one with the Lakers, D'Antoni has developed a reputation for being very stubborn with his system.
His refusal to incorporate Carmelo Anthony's ability to create off the dribble and thus create his own shot led to his resigning from the Knicks last season, and his refusal to try to do the same with Gasol's skills in the paint is no different.
The fact of the matter is that basketball is a game of adjustments, making as many as necessary in order to build a winning formula. D'Antoni has not done much of this since coming to Los Angeles, save for a lineup tweak here and there, and the results are starting to show.
His over-reliance on the pick-and-roll is clearly hurting the Lakers on top of Bryant's refusal to give up the ball, and he needs to make some changes so that this season doesn't get closer and closer to becoming a waste.
Subterranean Defensive Blues
All offensive woes aside, the Lakers' greatest problem in recent games has been their defense. They have lost four of five, and just look lost when trying to stop other teams from scoring.
Now, on paper, the Lakers are not the worst defensive team in the league by any means. They are second in the NBA in rebounding, but are below average in that they rank 18th in points allowed per game, at 98.7.
Worst of all is that the Lakers have been playing below that level over their last five games. Over that stretch, they have allowed 107.6 points per contest. The Lakers only average 101.8 points scored, so this is clearly a problem.
The team's defensive struggles can be partly attributed to the lack of Gasol's size for four of those five games, but he is only one man. As a whole, the team seems to be relying more on scoring more points than the opposition rather than balancing that out with solid man to man defense, and this is no way to play the game.
Howard can take care of himself in the paint, but Antawn Jamison simply needs to step up on the defensive end and not just be a scorer/shooter in Gasol's absence. He is only 6'9" compared to the 7'0" Gasol, but has averaged 7.8 boards per game for his career. Even if he is 36 years old, he has always been able to balance his scoring with his rebounding, and playing in D'Antoni's offense should not stop him from doing that.
Offense may win games, but defense wins championships. If the Lakers are to get out of their funk and make a run at a title, then it's time for both Jamison and the entire team to step up in that department, both in rebounding and overall defense, before and after Nash is back in the lineup.
As many problems as the Lakers do have, they are still going to show a great deal of improvement once Nash is back in the lineup. The man knows D'Antoni's offense inside and out, and his natural leadership skills combined with deadly accurate three-point shooting will receive a grand welcome by the fans.
Despite that, the Lakers still have a lot to learn about playing together as a team. Bryant, Gasol and Howard are all used to being stars and deified by their fans, and D'Antoni's system calls for everyone to share the ball and put in a joint effort toward bringing home the win. As a result, the Lakers' game on the court seems utterly chaotic.
What needs to happen is that everyone—both the players and the coach—must check their egos at the door and find a way to work together. D'Antoni must be willing to adjust his system as necessary, and players struggling in it must be willing to put in a greater effort to adapt to a faster pace and accept their new roles to at least some degree. Basketball is a team game, and the Lakers' struggles are proof that such a philosophy isn't reserved exclusively to the court.
Once progress is made in each of the aforementioned areas, be it before or after Steve Nash returns to the lineup, the Lakers will finally be on the road to reaching their full potential and becoming an even greater force in the Western Conference than in years past.