Kiki's Keys to the Game: Lakers vs. Heat/Magic

Kiki's Keys to the Game: Lakers vs. Heat/Magic

Published Jan. 18, 2012 8:25 p.m. ET

LeBron James one night, Dwight Howard the next. Good luck,
Los Angeles Lakers. You’re going to need it.

All back-to-back games are a challenge, especially on the road,
but they’re more problematic when you have older players and aren’t
getting good production from the bench. That means Kobe Bryant and
Pau Gasol have to play a lot of minutes. While Kobe’s been
great, I think the Lakers are relying too much on his greatness.

Against these teams, he’ll need more help. On Thursday the Lakers play the
Miami Heat, who are 9-4 after Tuesday’s rout of the Spurs. Then LA
heads to Orlando for a Friday date with the Magic, who are
10-4 after San Antonio snapped their five-game winning streak
Wednesday. Miami and Orlando are a combined 9-3 at home; the Lakers are
1-4 on the road.

In other words, this won’t be easy.

For LA, the good news is when you have Kobe, you always have a
chance. People thought he’d be slowing down this season, especially after
he hurt his wrist. But my goodness, look what he’s doing. He scored 40 in four consecutive
games. That 10- to 20-foot shot is dropping. He’s the best mid-range
player in the game today and still the most skilled player in the league.

Kobe and LeBron are both playing at such a high level right now. They’re
the two leading scorers in the league, and LeBron is doing everything for
Miami: rebounding, passing, defense. People always argue about who’s the better
player, but they’re so different. Kobe’s a born scorer; he’s a scoring machine.
LeBron doesn’t have that mentality.

I remember when I was a GM with the Nets and LeBron was getting drafted, most
of us viewed him as a point guard or a point forward. He has that mentality of
being a playmaker and getting his teammates involved. Kind of a Magic Johnson
type with his size, but I’d go all the way back to Oscar Robertson. I thought
LeBron had the potential to average a triple-double.

By necessity, he’s had to evolve into more of a scorer. If he didn’t score in
Cleveland, that team lost. Really, it’s the same in Miami, even
with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh there. LeBron has to score or the
Heat lose, like they did in the Finals last year. It’s not his natural role or
his highest calling, but it’s what the team needs, especially when Wade is
injured like he is now.

If LeBron was on teams like the 1980s Lakers with Kareem and Worthy, he could
be more like Magic. But I think the Heat are best when they post up James
and run more of a triangle offense around him. When they do that, opponents
have to double-team him or he’ll score. But he’d rather draw the double
and get easy looks for his teammates. That’s why it’s called the pivot
position — because he’s the pivotal player on the offense.

You saw the Heat doing that more early in the season, but not as
much recently. When they lost three in a row last week, they were
struggling with the same things they always struggle with. Without a
post presence, you can’t play an inside-out game. They were taking too
many perimeter shots, either too early in the shot clock or too late. That’s
the downside of having so much talent. You can always get your shot off, but
what’s a good shot? They’ve struggled with offensive flow.

I think they need to get LeBron back in the post and let him make those
decisions. Metta World Peace has the size and strength to keep LeBron
from backing him down, but MWP can’t really guard LeBron. I think the Lakers
won’t always double LeBron, but they’ll have the center hedge over and make
LeBron take a tougher shot. Or they’ll use some zone principles. The
Heat have struggled against zones.

Defensively, LeBron also has to take on a bigger role with Wade out.
You’ll see Shane Battier try to defend Kobe, but I think you’ll also see LeBron
on Kobe at times. That will be a fun matchup and Kobe seems to bring out the
best in LeBron. The last 11 times they’ve played, LeBron’s team has won nine.
That includes Lakers-Cavs two seasons ago and Lakers-Heat last
year.  It’s a shame they’ve never met in the Finals with everything
on the line.

Against Miami, the advantage the Lakers have is inside with Gasol and
Andrew Bynum. The Heat can’t match that size. If LA can keep the pace slow and
not let Miami run off turnovers, those big guys will get a lot of easy baskets
in a halfcourt game.

Bynum is also the key the next night, when the Lakers face Orlando. I’m
really looking forward to that matchup. Honestly, I think Dwight Howard is,

Bynum has played so well this year, people keep saying
he’s the best offensive center in the league and Howard’s heir apparent as the
league’s best center. That’s going to motivate Dwight. I think you’re going to
see something special out of him Friday.

I’m sure Bynum also wants to prove something. With all the rumors that the
Lakers want to trade him for Howard, his attitude has to be, “Hey,
don’t trade me for that guy. He’s not better than me.”

I think it’s a tough call. I’m a big Bynum fan. He has great potential. He
keeps getting better and better, but what he’s shown so far is just the tip of
the iceberg. Howard is already an established superstar. He’s the best big man
in the game. When you can get a superstar, you should go for it. The Buss
family and Mitch Kupchak always go for it when it comes to getting
great players.

Still, I tell you what I wouldn’t do. I would definitely not trade
Bynum and Gasol for Howard. Having those two 7-footers is the
big advantage for the Lakers. Without Lamar Odom around anymore, you can’t give
up all your size for one player, no matter how great he is.

At this point, I don’t think the Magic are looking to trade Howard anyway. They
want to keep him. But there are two big questions. One, as
constituted, are they good enough to contend for a championship? And
two, are they good enough to keep Dwight Howard?

Those are related questions. Dwight seems to feel they’re not in that category.
He wants to leave. But if I was GM of the Magic, I’d be doing everything in my
power to convince him otherwise up to the last possible moment. Because no
matter what trade you make, true superstars aren’t replaceable in the NBA.
They say two role players equals a starter, and two good starters
equals an All-Star, but nothing equals a true superstar.

So I think Orlando is going to try to show Howard he doesn’t need to go
anywhere in order to win. So far, they’re doing a great job.

Ryan Anderson is the perfect complement to Howard at power forward. He’s a
great 3-point shooter who makes defenses pay for doubling Dwight, but
Anderson also rebounds and gets garbage
baskets. Hedo Turkoglu is playing better than he did last year;
I think he needed time to readjust to Orlando. And they have some very good
shooters in J.J. Redick and Jason Richardson to spread the floor
around Howard. When they shoot well, they’re a tough team to beat.

The Magic have the All-Star Game next month and I think
they’ll want to let Howard be the host for the city that weekend.
Then if they keep winning, I think they’ll keep him all season and take their
chances. If they start losing and it’s obvious they can’t contend, they
may be more willing to make a deal.

So if the Lakers really want Dwight Howard, the best thing they can
do is beat him.