Suns, Lakers on divergent paths
By Randy Hill
At the end of their last formal meeting, the Los Angeles Lakers waved bye-bye to the Phoenix Suns and prepared to keep a date with the Boston Celtics.
That was five months ago. In case you hadn't noticed, the NBA is where upheaval happens ... especially in as little as five months. For example, LeBron James can go from king to top-ranked pariah to Nike-anointed victim in that length of time. It also took less than five months for a new Chosen One to rise in (drum roll) Oklahoma City, while a few months were all that was required for Commissioner David Stern to decide his refs weren't going to take it anymore. It probably will take another month or so before he changes his mind on that one ... again.
During the last five months in Phoenix, the Suns have gone from Western Conference finalist to a team with identity issues. Their exhibition season was so nightmarish that Tuesday's opening-night loss at Portland -- low-lighted by a stupendous fourth-quarter collapse -- has been classified (by many) as a baby step in the right direction (hey, they proved they could still make 3-pointers).
On Friday night, they make their home debut against the two-time defending champion Lakers, a team almost scaled back to a leaguewide afterthought based on the runaway swagger emanating from Miami.
With that on the table, please note that the prevailing contrast between the franchises in L.A. and Phoenix is not unlike what we've seen for many years.
Less than a year after Magic Johnson's HIV announcement, the Suns acquired Charles Barkley and moved into a new arena. They reached the NBA Finals the following spring.
When the Suns were riding (relatively) high during the halcyon days of Mike D'Antoni's Seven Seconds Or Less approach to basketball, the Lakers were attempting to reconcile Kobe Bryant's mission to make a go of it without Shaquille O'Neal. And once the Lakers woke up and found Pau Gasol on their doorstep, D'Antoni was looking into an exit strategy from Phoenix.
After a truly competitive showdown between these teams last May, this season threatens another move toward disparate measures.
Now working to present coach Phil Jackson with his fourth career three-peat, the Lakers have reloaded for a run into June by fortifying their bench. With deadly wing players joining forces back East, the Lakers hired crusty Matt Barnes to help lead a bench that also added crafty point guard Steve Blake and defensive-oriented center Theo Ratliff. Once Andrew Bynum makes his annual recovery from pain and suffering, L.A.'s sub fleet will include superstar handyman Lamar Odom and returning guard Shannon Brown, who saved them in the fourth quarter of the season opener against Houston.
Although the odometer continues spinning, we also expect Kobe to rally from offseason body work and lead the Lakers into the early summer.
This seemingly organized organization will provide an interesting and timely third-game-of-the-season litmus test for the Suns, who waved goodbye to Amar'e Stoudemire almost five months ago. Shortly after Amar'e became the toast of Broadway, the Suns added three potentially solid employees and began hoping coach Alvin Gentry and point guard Steve Nash could figure out how to keep the product viable in the standings -- and at the box office.
The demonstration in Portland revealed that the rebounding was (for one night, at least) worse than expected. The hopefully feisty Suns, who were sixth in total rebounds last season, were minus-18 on the glass against the Trail Blazers. We also noticed that the sloppy ballhandling from the preseason was still in vogue, with Nash racking up an unsightly nine of the team's 19 turnovers.
We can attribute some of his Blazer-directed largesse on what happens when unfamiliarity with the pick-and-roll machine is matched by a point guard's frustration. The simple explanation: the Blazers were showing extremely hard (to the point of trapping on the sideline) against Nash on ball screens, and the Suns' screeners didn't slip (more of a straight dive instead of a traditional rolling pivot) early enough. If the screener waits or hesitates just a tick, the two defenders can converge quickly enough to prevent even Nash from making that pocket pass through the temporary crease.
But some of the miscues were just bad decisions.
Anyway, unless Jackson (through video story of the Portland game) is motivated to change, the Lakers figure to attack ball screens with less vigor and Nash will have more room to maneuver.
And while we're sort of picking on Nash, the Lakers do not possess a point guard capable of slaughtering the Suns' tri-captain off the dribble, a dilemma that can provoke Gentry into making a drastic defensive assignment switch. Against the Blazers in Round 1 of the 2010 playoffs, Andre Miller's Game 1 eruption led to a lockdown from small forward Grant Hill, while Nash monitored the whereabouts of young Portland three-man Nicolas Batum.
Miller didn't make much more than a peep thereafter and Phoenix rolled.
Several months later, Batum seems to have noticed that Nash doesn't spend much time blocking out, so the kid had five offensive boards on Tuesday.
Speaking of blocking out, it sort of explains why Gentry went with Channing Frye in the fourth quarter at Portland while starting center Robin Lopez (one of the team's big hopes to remain relevant) spent crunch time as a spectator.
In about the same minutes, Frye actually blocked out enough to secure a humble six defensive boards. Lopez had five total rebounds, but only three on the defensive end. His work against Portland certainly looked a lot like a 7-footer assuming his height doesn't require blocking or hunting the ball.
Even with Bynum in street clothes Friday, this blocking-out upgrade will be tested by the Lakers, who still subscribe to the large-and-in-charge theory of basketball. Credit for that goes to Jackson, even though none of his championship rings were seized without enormous contributions from either Bryant or Michael Jordan. Yeah, having all-time-great shooting guards has its rewards. But Phil never underestimates the importance of tall guys with talent.
The Suns probably agree wholeheartedly; unfortunately, they have chosen to rebuild around an aging point guard even though superstar point guards haven't been frequently associated with the O'Brien Trophy since the glory days of the 6-foot-9 Magic.
So, before Phoenix fans encourage their point guard and his playmates with cries of "Beat L.A.!", let's take a moment to see what it took to "Be L.A."
According to draft lore, Kobe became a Laker in 1996 thanks to intimidation tactics by his agent and a trade with the Charlotte Hornets, who had selected him at No. 13. O'Neal arrived when then-Vancouver Grizzlies GM Stu Jackson took on the contracts of Anthony Peeler and George Lynch, enabling Lakers GM Jerry West to have sufficient Shaq-hiring cap room.
Three rings and one colossal family feud later, the soul-searching Kobe eventually was delivered when the accommodating Memphis Grizzlies (Stu was long gone) sent Gasol to L.A. for Javaris Crittendon, Aaron McKie, Marc Gasol (Pau's brother) and the expiring contract of Kwame Brown.
What's our takeaway?
Well, while the Suns (who once lost a coin flip that awarded them Neal Walk instead of Lew Alcindor) prepare to take a big swing at the Lakers, we can rest assured that franchise glory requires sharp planning ... in addition to considerable good fortune.