Answering your NBA questions

What makes a team with as much talent as the Lakers have lose so many games against “inferior” teams? These guys are not rookies. And why can’t Kobe learn to take what the defense gives him on a consistent basis? – Bill Stuart, Philadelphia

The Lakers are a textbook case on why it’s so difficult to repeat. Since they are the reigning champs, they firmly believe they can turn on their individual and collective A-games at will. So they simply don’t start out with the requisite concentration, respect for their “inferior” opponents and level of intensity.

However, it’s impossible to la-dee-dah through a season and then get their chops up in the playoffs. Playing hard from tip to buzzer is a mind-set that can only exist if it’s practiced on a regular basis.

The Lakers do have something of an excuse for their most recent woes.

With Kobe on the shelf, they recently won four of five, losing only to the Celtics by two points, and got comfortable playing without him. The ball moved, the bodies moved and everybody was willing to take the big shots. Now that Kobe’s back in action, there’s a tendency for his teammates to stand around and watch him do his thing.

The same scenario occurred when Michael Jordan returned to the Bulls’ lineup late in the 1994-95 regular season after having a go at baseball. For the Bulls then, and the Lakers now, it’s a question of readjusting to the overwhelming brilliance of their respective superstars.

Moreover, these are the dog days of the season when virtually all of the best teams are just about locked into their playoff slots, and not every game is vitally important.

Why doesn’t Kobe take what the defense gives him?

That’s a good question. He will do this only when he’s double-teamed on a wing. Otherwise, he seems to make up his mind to either shoot or to throw a touchdown pass.

The whole essence of the triangle is to avoid pressure and move the ball and the players until there’s sufficient space and time for an acceptable shot. One reason why MJ played until he was 40 (and averaged 20.0 ppg at that) was because of the three-plus seasons he was “retired.” But his longevity was also attributed to his adherence to the principles of the triangle, and only rarely did Jordan put himself in a position where a big man could slam him.

On the other hand, Kobe routinely challenges the bigs, endures much more disadvantageous contact that Jordan did — and has subsequently suffered more injuries.

Put it down to Kobe’s stubbornness.

When I first started reading your stuff years ago, you predicted that LeBron would never be more than an average NBA player. This left a bad first impression on me and I thought you were just another writer who said ridiculous things in the hope of being right 1 in 10 and looking like a genius. Since then, the more I read your columns the more I realize you are very objective and are good at breaking down every part of the game. So, what did you see in LeBron as a high school player that made you think he wasn’t as good as people thought? And what did you miss or what has he improved on that has proved you so wrong? –
Hamish van den Jssel, Australia

The first time I saw LeBron was in early December 2002 during a highly publicized telecast of a game in which his St. Vincent-St. Mary High School squad beat the No. 1-ranked team in the country, Oak Hill Academy. Despite LeBron’s incredible stats — 31 points, 13 rebounds, and six assists — I wasn’t particularly impressed by the 17-year-old’s game plan.

Here’s why:

• His shot release was too low and he faded backward when the ball left his hand. As a result, he held on to the ball too long and too many of his shots were short. Also, he didn’t make a jumper until late in the third quarter, and then banged his chest as though he’d accomplished some next-to-impossible feat.

• I didn’t see him celebrate later on when he waved his teammates out of the way and shot an airball.

• Midway through the first quarter, he made absolutely no effort to get back on defense, and when a teammate made a steal and a pass downcourt, James was all by his lonesome, then executed a dramatic dunk and posed for a few counts. Meanwhile, the crowd and the announcers went wild.

• Another dunk ensued when an offensive rebound dropped into his hands without a defender in sight. Prompting another explosion of verbal superlatives.

• His left hand was barely adequate.

• His behind-the-back dribble going left to right was extremely shaky.

• His basic defensive stance was much too upright, and he seemed totally indifferent to moving his feet at that end of the court.

• When his team went into a full-court press, one of Oak Hill’s guards left him in the dust — nor did LeBron attempt to catch up with the play.

• He always looked for the easy way out on defense, making perfunctory swipes at the ball, and gambling on every entry pass. Throughout the game, LeBron never took a stand on defense.

• His transition from offense to defense was shameful. Instead of hustling downcourt, he lingered near the ball, hoping for a steal.

• Even against much smaller opponents, his post-up defense offered less resistance than a soft summer’s breeze.

• At 6-8, 235, he was clearly a man among boys.

I was, nevertheless, impressed by his passwork, his court vision, his quickness, and his power.

I thought that he’d have much more trouble getting to the hoop and finishing in the NBA, but I was mistaken. I also believed that his jumper was not NBA-ready, and I was correct — although over the course of the ensuing seasons he has greatly improved his shooting mechanics. And it took him about four NBA seasons to decide to play hard on defense.

Here’s how I ended my scouting report:

“ … [H]e might very well develop into a franchise player. But let’s not reserve a wing in the Hall of Fame for LeBron James just yet.”

With March upon us, I keep hearing analysts say some variation of "feed the big man" followed by "get him involved in the game," "get him playing hard," "keep him running the floor," etc. Are these not negative stereotypes of the tallest players? How true is the stereotype?– Marko, Albany, NY

Consider the duties of an average NBA big man: Unlike guards and wings, most bigs have to run from baseline to baseline on virtually every change of possession. Except for fast breaks, smalls mostly run between the foul lines.

What with rebounding, setting screens and playing post-up defense, the bigs are necessarily involved in much more physical confrontations than the guys who play other positions. Because of all these factors, their levels of aggression always have to be sky high. Plus, they mainly have to depend on their teammates to get them the ball so they can get makeable shots.

No wonder it’s sometimes difficult for big men to put on their snarling game faces from the get-go.

That’s why many coaches will call their center’s number on the team’s initial possession. And that’s why their teammates are instructed to always pass to any big man who exerts himself to run on fast breaks or in early offense.

When the monster growls, it’s always a good idea to feed him.

Do you think Yi Jianlian is as good as he will ever be, or has a chance to develop like Nowitzki, Bosh or Garnett (thin and tall power forwards who mostly shoot outside jumpers)? – Dan

If Yi can stay relatively healthy, he’s bound to improve. But his thin physique is one reason he’s perpetually injured. Also, since he lacks the versatility of Nowitzki, Bosh and Garnett, Yi’s game is extremely predictable: catch and shoot, run and dunk, fake left but always spin right for a turnaround jumper. All of which subjects him to to much more contact than he can absorb.

Yes, he can lift in the offseason, but more mass will probably slow him down and make him even more hittable.

Moreover, his cultural milieu has made it difficult for Yi to play with the kind of red-eyed aggression that’s necessary to excel in the NBA. Until last season, even Yao Ming was hampered by this same background. The difference being that Yao has the mass and the strength to match bump-for-bang, and Yi doesn’t and probably never will.

What would happen to the league and its players if the rules were set back to what they were 15-20 years ago? — Nico Fernandez

Scoring would diminish. Superstars would whine. Flagrant fouls would revert to being hard fouls, so there’d be fewer layups. Cross-cutters would have to battle their way through the paint. With hand-checking permitted, point guards would have to work harder just to carry the ball safely across the time-line. Post-up players would receive entry passes a full step farther out than they do now. Finesse players would be reduced to being perimeter shooters. Games would have to be interrupted five or six times to staunch the flow of blood.

Ratings would nose-dive. And David Stern would cry himself to sleep every night.

If you have a question or comment for Charley Rosen, please email and he may respond in a future column.