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Stronger Opponents, Weak Defense Plague Lakers


When the Lakers lost to the Phoenix Suns Tuesday at Staples Center Coach Mike D’Antoni began the evening with his ninth different starting lineup in 21 games.

The great Laker teams I covered in the past usually had set lineups and set substitution rotations. The players knew their roles.

With roles changing game by game the defense suffers. It can take several years for teammates to learn where each other will be.

This season the Lakers brought in a batch of good shooters who’d been cut by other teams –- Wesley Johnson, Shawne Williams, Xavier Henry, etc.

They’re D’Antoni’s kind of player. They can make shots but they aren’t outstanding on defense.

They had developed some chemistry and they won as many games as they lost – not up to expectations fans have for a Laker team but pretty competitive.

Now the Lakers add Kobe Bryant to the mix and there have been two home losses to non-elite teams, Toronto and Phoenix.

Roles change, minutes are diminished for some, Bryant plays guard the first night and forward the second night.

D’Antoni favors a smaller, quicker lineup to keep up with the smaller, swifter Suns but, repeatedly, the Lakers don’t get back fast enough to stop fast breaks.

So The Lakers are 10-11 as they begin a four-game road trip Friday in Oklahoma City against one of the NBA’s best teams.

Where do we go from here?

Bryant, coming back after an eight-month absence due to a torn Achilles tendon, should steadily gain confidence and improve.

He scored nine points in his first game and 20 in the second one. We’ll see how good he can be, but for sure he improves the offense.

The problem is he isn’t likely to make a big difference on defense.

The NBA has changed in recent years. The weak teams have gotten better. There are very few pushovers anymore, so teams like Toronto, Phoenix, Charlotte and Cleveland can win if you take them lightly.

When does Kobe rest? Does he skip the second night of back-to-back play? Does he play through fatigue and risk being injured again? Does he listen when D’Antoni suggests rest or ignore the warnings like he did last season when he averaged 45 minutes a game down the stretch?

Does D’Antoni joke as he did last April when he said if he took Bryant out Kobe would merely put himself back in?

Maybe things aren’t as bad as I’m suggesting, but plainly the Lakers are currently no better than the teams merely trying to sneak into the playoffs in the No. 6, 7 or 8 spots.

Forget Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Portland and Houston. Can the Lakers catch Golden State or the Clippers? Denver or Dallas? Even Memphis, Minnesota or Phoenix?

It’s a bigger challenge than last season When Kobe led a comeback that resulted in a No. 7 playoff seed.

At Sunday’s game fans were booing Pau Gasol, who was playing with a sore ankle. Laker fans have a low tolerance if they’re not being entertained.


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