Many observers have attributed the Lakers' recent slump (they've lost 11 of their last 15 games) to the absence of do-it-all forward Luke Walton, and they're partially right. Walton's versatile play and ability to think on his feet in the triangle offense usually make life easy for both superstar and role player alike. The offense has taken a dive with Walton out -- the spacing isn't the same, the open looks aren't there as much and Walton's own long-range shooting touch (40 percent on threes this year) has been missed -- but these issues will likely resolve themselves once Walton returns sometime this month.
Even with sharpshooter Vladimir Radmanovic out for two months with a separated shoulder, the offense (currently seventh in the NBA in overall efficiency) should perk back up. It's the other end of the court that should have Lakers fans worried.
Los Angeles' defense is among the league's worst, with perimeter stops a mere pipe dream at this point, and no real interior threat to scare penetrating guards or forwards out of the paint. The team is 23rd in defensive efficiency, giving up 109.5 points per 100 possessions, just a percentage point ahead of Don Nelson's Golden State team. And Walton's return doesn't figure to change things all that much: The Lakers have stunk from the outset of the season getting stops, and though Walton has his moments defensively, there are some personnel issues that just aren't going to right themselves until this roster is shaken up.
Which is another reason why the Lakers are going after Jason Kidd. Smush Parker has all the tools to be a fine defensive guard (long arms, quick feet and a headband in place in case he perspires), but he's among the league's worst at his position, continually putting the Lakers' defense on its heels after letting his own man get by him. Kidd had a horrible start to the season defensively, but he's come on like gangbusters as of late -- to these eyes, he's gone from one of the worst (or, at least, most passive) defensive guards in the game to one of the best in just a few months. Really, Kidd's offense is only part of what the Lakers are after.
And yet, this is a trade that may have to wait until summer. Involving a third team this close to the trade deadline is pretty complicated, and there just aren't that many expiring deals resting with trading partners that would be willing to do either team a favor. That Portland rumor may have legs, but the Nets have no interest in Jamaal Magloire as a player or as a locker-room participant -- he'd be on board only for his expiring contract. Chicago and Orlando also have large expiring deals that would help things go smoother, but it's hard to fathom what Lakers or Nets (two teams with limited depth beyond the well-paid superstars) could send them to grease the wheels. And what's the point, no pun intended, for the Lakers to send Lamar Odom to New Jersey? Kidd has had a better year, but you make those talent-for-talent deals only if you're close to a championship.
Trade or not, coach Phil Jackson has a real issue on his hands defensively, and he's got to be hoping that his team's nadir came when it let the Cleveland Cavaliers (who average 96.4 points per game) throw up 114 points in the last game before the All-Star break. Big men like Chris Mihm, Kwame Brown and Radmanovic may not be sterling defenders, but their injuries hurt (OK, Radmanovic's probably helps), with only second-year bigs Ronny Turiaf and Andrew Bynum left to patrol the paint.
If Kobe Bryant truly wants to wrest the league's MVP trophy away from Dirk Nowitzki or Steve Nash (Him? Again?), this is his chance. Playing through a balky knee, Bryant could truly push his team to among the league's elite by offering a superhuman effort on the defensive end. After years of taking in All-Defensive honors that were hardly earned, I figure Kobe's about due for some make-up D.
• With David Lee (14-of-14 shooting) looking like a man among, well, rookies in last Friday's Rookie Challenge, the seasonlong question about why this second-year forward hasn't earned a starting nod took to the national airwaves. Lee has been New York's best player all season (Eddy Curry scores quite well, doesn't rebound, hurts the team defensively, can't pass out of a double team to save his life -- save your e-mails), averaging 11.2 points and 10.6 rebounds in just 30.8 minutes per game.
The Knicks have won six of eight when Lee plays more than 40 minutes, and though that record may be clouded by a few overtime wins, it's been obvious since November that this kid needs more playing time. And the fact that Knick coach Isiah Thomas has been starting the sloth-like stylings of Jerome James at power forward over the last five games ... it's like he's just trying to find ways to tick us off at this point.
For one, James' ascension to the starting lineup came in the game following a 17-point loss Charlotte, a thrashing that saw Bobcats small forward Gerald Wallace start at power forward and score 42 points. So the answer to that is to start a 7-1 center who is usually too slow to guard centers?
Thomas was brilliant in plucking Lee with the last pick of the first round in 2005, but the fact that he continually has to sit behind wasted free-agent acquisitions like James and Jared Jeffries is infuriating. I mean, there's a reason New York has all these comeback wins, and it isn't the sterling play of Jared Jeffries.
(What does Jeffries do, by the way? That whole "defensive stopper" thing is bunk; anyone who watched more than two Washington games a year would tell you that the former Wizards forward was hardly a defensive standout. He's averaging 4.2 points in 21 minutes with the Knicks, hitting 40 percent of his free throws ... and with James and Jeffries on board, it's possible that nobody in NBA history has done a worse job with the mid-level exception than Thomas.)
You have to like the potential of Channing Frye, who can score and board and has a future in this league. But it isn't with New York, because he seems incapable of playing alongside Curry, which is odd because you would seem to want to pair Curry with a perimeter power forward. Curry isn't going anywhere, not with that heart ailment or contract, and not after what Isiah gave up for him, so it makes the most sense for Knicks owner James Dolan to loosen the reigns and (I can't believe I'm saying this) allow Thomas to make a deal involving Frye, so as to free up minutes for Lee. Although I quickly concede that any such deal will probably bring back someone like Darius Miles, John Long or Ricky Davis.
• If Andre Miller is a Philadelphia 76er at the end of this week, this adds more fuel to the fire that's been burning for nearly a half-decade now, the one that tells us that GM Billy King has no idea what he's doing. Trading Miller now wouldn't put the Sixers under the salary cap this summer, especially with all those rookie salaries they'll have to pay next year, but the soon-to-be 31-year-old is only going to see his play decline, and he's owed nearly $20 million over the next two seasons. His play (13.2 points, 7.5 assists) has kept the 76ers competitive, but Miller's trade value won't get any higher for the rest of his career, and you don't start rebuilding projects with a 31-year-old running the point.
• The Denver Nuggets have said and done all the right things since the melee in Madison Square Garden two months ago and they play hard and appear to want to move the ball, but the right attitude only goes so far. These guys need a supporting cast that can shoot straight.
Even if the Nuggets improve a bit, it's hard to see a long playoff run in their future. The Nuggets are seventh in the West, 2½ games behind the Lakers entering Tuesday's play, but it isn't likely that they'll be able to move up past the sixth spot, and even overtaking the Lakers looks like a tall task. Houston (currently fifth) is only going to get better when Yao Ming returns, and Denver already has 6½ games to make up between the two teams.
What Denver needs to do is get its collective head on straight, which means not getting too lost in the frustration inherent in trying to find its way in a tough, tough conference. It can't afford to end the year on a sour note, which could affect the team's confidence as it heads into 2007-08. Not what Nuggets fans want to hear, but the team has dug too big a hole this season to worm its way into the West's elite.
This is a solid defensive team (its heightened pace clouds the squad's defensive acumen) with obvious star potential on the offensive end; and while a surprising playoff run (does anyone think this team is getting past Phoenix or Utah?) may not be in the cards, it can use these last 31 games (plus the truncated playoff run) to determine just what exactly GM Mark Warkentien needs to do this summer to push the Nuggets over the top.