Monday, January 14, 2008

Opposing View: 1/14 vs. L.A. Lakers

All season long, Sonics Beat will be consulting an expert on the opposing team as part our gameday preview. Today, Ty Nowell of talks about a Lakers team that has been rolling lately. I also answered a few questions on the Sonics for the excellent Basketblog. Don't forget to give a look to Lakers blog Forum Blue and Gold.

What's been the difference for the Lakers during this recent hot stretch?
The easiest answer is Andrew Bynum, but more than anything the Lakers have won 16 out of 19 by playing great team basketball. That might sound crazy to the casual NBA observer that has gotten used to a “Kobe and four other guys” style of play the past couple of years, but it’s true. Kobe still gets his, but if you look at the score sheet you’ll usually see four to six guys scoring double digits. Making the extra pass seems like a small thing, but has made a big difference for the Purple & Gold and shows a level of trust that wasn’t there last season.

The team concept has also carried over to the defensive end where the Lakers are currently 7th in defensive efficiency after finishing last season 21st. The combo of Derek Fisher & Jordan Farmar at point guard has solidified a position that has been an albatross for LA since (coincidently) Fish left. While neither is known as a great defender, they’ve got the job done night in and night out.

Where is Andrew Bynum in his development?
Andrew Bynum has made great strides, but really he’s still just scratching the surface of what he can be. Last year he made a significant jump from his rookie year, but faded down the stretch due to poor conditioning. This year he’s made another big jump mostly due to a great work ethic that included him hiring his own personal trainer and daily work over the summer with Kurt Rambis and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

He’s physique has gone from one of an oversized boy to a chiseled young man. More than anything, he’s just figuring it out. He’s starting to realize the importance of position down low, how he can use his length to gain an advantage, and how to be a force on the defensive end without getting in foul trouble.

Expectations continue to rise, but Bynum just turned 20 before the season started so we’re a long way from seeing his best. That’s a scary thought. A collective holding of the breath occurred last night as Bynum went down last night. Results of his MRI are pending.

For more on Drew, check out our feature story on him.

How has Trevor Ariza helped the Lakers since coming over in a trade?
When the Trevor Ariza for Brian Cook & Mo Evans deal was made most people thought it was just a way for the Lakers to shed some money down the line, but now it’s being viewed as a full -lown steal on LA’s side. Fans have fallen in love with Trevor’s vast athleticism and willingness to finish strong around the rim. He also brings an ability to guard athletic wing players, freeing up Kobe to do the other things he’s so good at. While the triangle offense is notorious for taking a substantial amount of time to learn, Ariza has fit in with little problem. Phil has started rotating him and Luke Walton at the starting small forward spot depending on the matchups.

How much noise can this team make in the postseason?
As constructed the Lakers have a shot at making a lot of noise in the playoffs (assuming Bynum’s injury isn’t too bad), but everyone remains optimistically cautious being that we’ve still got 3+ months left in the regular season. The first-round losses to Phoenix the past two years have taught this group a lot about the difference between the regular season and the postseason. The depth of the team becomes somewhat nullified in the playoffs when the rotations tighten up, but the Lakers will have someone on the bench for just about situation. Derek Fisher has been great for this team already and I expect him to have an even bigger impact in the playoffs as a guy that’s seen everything the post-season has to offer. Plus, you’ve always got Kobe Bryant, so anything is possible.

What don't we know about the Lakers but should?
The Lakers had almost an identical record at this time last season, but that was aided by an easy schedule featuring a large number of home games. Because of the Grammys being held at STAPLES Center, the Lakers will embark on a nine-game, 16-day road trip starting January 31 and lasting all the way till the All-Star break. How they emerge from that trip will tell us a lot about where this Lakers team really is. Also, after the Ariza trade the Lakers are the second youngest team in the league, so optimism in the present and for the future and the present is pretty high in Lakers land.