With the All-Star break on the not-so distant horizon, three of California’s teams are in various stages of a positive identity forge, while a fourth remains the stuck in “Fugitive-esque train wreck” mode. (Spoiler alert! The odd team out is the Sacramento Kings!) With that in mind, here’s a look at what’s brewing on the left coast.
LOS ANGELES LAKERS (20-25)
After 42 games spent inching a $100 million Titanic closer to the proverbial iceberg, the Lakers appear perhaps poised for a breakthrough. The storyline has largely centered around Kobe Bryant’s unexpected turn as a basketball socialist. And there’s no question his consecutive 14-dime performances jump-started a pair of huge wins over the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder last weekend. (Tuesday’s win over the New Orleans Hornets wasn’t quite as commanding, albeit equally needed.) The tactic has created a better, smoother, more enjoyable offense, which has in turn energized the defense. But Bryant’s stylistic shift is really a microcosm of what has sparked cautious hope and optimism.
A willingness to compromise for the sake of the bigger picture.
Whether it’s Bryant facilitating, Pau Gasol playing off the bench, Dwight Howard accepting fewer touches, Steve Nash ceding ball control, or Mike D’Antoni slowing his offense, the Lakers have become collectively less stubborn while putting the team’s needs first. The role players have reacted positively to seeing stars sacrifice, and everyone is falling in line.
I’ll need to see more evidence of this attitude shift during the upcoming seven-game road trip before truly buying in. In particular, I need to see them react well to inevitable adversity. But if this disastrous season actually is destined for a turnaround, it’s almost certain the wins over Utah and OKC will be seen as the turning point.
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS (33-13)
On Tuesday, the Clips hopped a plane to Minneapolis, with Wednesday night’s contest against the Timberwolves marking the first of eight straight away from Staples. The Raptors, Celtics, Wizards, Magic, Heat, Knicks and Sixers all play host during the “Grammy Trip,” and the slate offers a serious chance to test this team’s mettle.
Yes, save the Heat and Knicks, the competition remains south of the .500 mark. But so are the Clippers in the four preceding games played without point guard Chris Paul, who remains out indefinitely with a bruised right kneecap. For that matter, Chauncey Billups (foot) also is sidelined. Coach Vinny Del Negro said after Tuesday’s practice both are making progress – Mr. Big Shot actually participated in a contact workout – and could be activated during the roadie.
But for the time being, third year point guard Eric Bledsoe will be tasked with running the show. As he joked, several of his veteran teammates could have “kids my age,” so ordering them around feels strange.
“Yelling at older guys, veterans that’s way more experienced than me, it’s definitely a hard thing to do,” Bledsoe sheepishly admitted. “They tell me all the time, ‘Speak up.’”
For what it’s worth, Del Negro thinks the 22 year-old is up to the challenge.
“Guys respect him enough and have played long enough with him now that he needs to demand more from them in terms of telling them where to go and how to do it,” the coach said. “That’s what the point guard has to do. I think he’s trying to do that. At times, you’ll see him taking more command of the game, which is a good learning curve for him. Nothing he can’t handle, just a matter of learning that.”