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Is It Time For the Lakers and Their Fans to Panic?

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Everyone has heard of the Sports Illustrated cover jinx, but could a Sports Illustrated Kids jinx be in the works too? After we dubbed the Los Angeles Lakers the NBA’s “New Super Team,” they promptly went out and lost their first two games of the season. There’s some panic in LA, to the delight of Lakers haters everywhere. But while the Lakers certainly doesn’t resemble showtime right now, let’s not bury the West favorites yet. Yet.

Basketball is a fluid and dynamic game, and you can’t just force a team together and expect to know each other’s tendencies and play well immediately. Miami found that out two years ago. So the phrase you’ll hear around LA all week is, “Hey, the Heat started 9-8 when LeBron got there…” And that’s true, it takes time for players to learn their roles. For the longest time the Heat didn’t know who would command the ball at the end of games. They also didn’t know where on the court LeBron should operate. Those problems have been sorted out and the Lakers should be given time to fit their pieces together before we press a panic button.

However, there are some structural problems that could keep them from becoming the Super Team we expect them to be around playoff time. The focal point of much of the criticism has been Laker coach, Mike Brown. He’s never been much of an offensive guru—instead cutting his teeth in the league by shepherding solid defenses as LeBron’s coach on the Cavs. His idea of calling an offensive play when LeBron was his star was rolling the ball out onto the court and telling LeBron to just figure it out.

When you only have LeBron and not much else, maybe there isn’t much reason to call any other play, but now he has four of the top players in the league in Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, PauGasol and Kobe Bryant. The offense has to have a structure that maximizes their best attributes, which a slowdown style doesn’t do for Nash and Howard. And the ragged nature of the offense shows when you see that the team’s whopping 25 turnovers against the Blazers on Wednesday was their third-highest total in a game in the last five seasons.

Sports Illustrated’s excellent b-ball writer, Lee Jenkins, sharply pointed out that the Lakers’ offense handcuffed Steve Nash in the first game. The veteran point guard only notched seven points and four assists, a horrible total for him. Nash is used to commanding the ball, creating space for teammates with drives and pick-and-rolls and pushing the tempo to get easy fast break points. Under Brown’s offense, he wasn’t able to do any of those things and the team suffered.

Another structural factor is that when you’re creating a “Super Team,” one with a collection of top NBA talent, that doesn’t leave much room in the salary cap to go fill out the rest of the roster. Kevin Pelton at Basketball Prospectus says the Lakers’ thin bench of Jordan Hill, Jodie Meeks, Devin Ebanks Steve Blake and Antawn Jamison deserve some blame for the performance. Jamison’s +/- of -29 means that he’s a liability out there on the court so far this season and the others of the pine weren't much better. Pelton diagnoses the problem by saying that the bench ills could be cured if Brown changed his rotation to keep at least two of his marquee starters on the court at all times. Don’t rest Nash and Kobe simultaneously, let them each get a turn at running the offense alone. Really, it just makes sense.

Tonight, the Lakers play the Clippers and they could start 0-3. But it doesn’t change the fact that this team is filled with immense talent who complement each other well. Jeff Van Gundy once told me that “people undervalue the impact of greatness.” There is greatness on this team, which 20 or more teams in the NBA can’t say. Right now it’s about making greatness work together and they’ve got 80 more games to do so.

Lakers as Superheroes

WHOA! Award of the Week
Damian Lillard. While Anthony Davis is the consensus favorite to win “Rookie of the Year,” Portland’s first-year point guard from Weber State had a pro debut that should put him in the conversation too. With his 23 points and 11 assists, he became only the third player in NBA history to score 20 and dish out 10 assists in his first game, joining NBA greats Oscar Robertson and Isiah Thomas. Yes, he notched those totals against the notoriously bad defender Steve Nash, but his passing and ability to drive stilled looked pretty on point.

Dunk of the Week
Lebron James ran out on a one-man fast break, sliced through the lane and threw down a ferocious slam in the Heat’s season-opener against the Celtics.

Interview of the Week
As we said above, Damian Lillard looks legit. Our Kid Reporter Jack Murphy spoke to the point guard before the season started.

Sneaker of the Week
Remember the D-Rose shoes we showed you last week? Well, they’ve got a crazy new color scheme that we think you’ll enjoy.

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