The Lakers' old dogs weren't happy late Monday night.
A neophyte small forward who couldn't find his way onto the floor in the good old days, Devin Ebanks, had post position on the smaller Marcus Thornton and called for the ball in the first quarter against Sacramento. The move would have been just fine except that the play called by new coach Mike Brown -- "five" -- required him to do something different. So an impatient Derek Fisher waved Ebanks to the other side of the floor, and Kobe Bryant didn't look too happy as the play was broken before it had even started.
Only time will tell if this team is broken, too.
"We've got a lot of games left," Metta World Peace, the small forward formerly known as Ron Artest, said after the surprising loss to the Kings. "Everybody's feeling each other out. We had two games in the preseason, and coach is trying to figure out who he wants to start, so it was a new look. We had Andrew [Bynum] in the preseason, then we started Matt [Barnes] and then started Devin. So everybody is testing a whole new look.
"It's normal to have a letdown right now, especially given the circumstances that we're under, but we'll come right back."
They did just that on Tuesday, but a 96-71 blowout win over the Jazz was hardly enough to quell the fears in L.A. It isn't really about the losses to the Bulls or Kings, either, but more about the challenging of to-do list that sits on Brown's desk.
To review the tasks at hand: acclimate his players to a new system while following the guy who won a record 11 championships (Phil Jackson); compete in the first four games without Bynum due to his suspension for elbowing Dallas' J.J. Barea last May in their embarrassing sweep to the Mavericks; monitor Bryant as he plays through yet another painful injury, this one a torn ligament in his right wrist that he suffered in the first preseason game; and finally, deal with the rancorous ripple effect of the Lakers' ill-fated three-team trade for Chris Paul.
Orlando's Dwight Howard doesn't appear to be coming any time soon, and Lakers executive and son of owner Jerry Buss, Jim Buss, made it clear in a recent interview with the
Bryant cited the adjustment to Brown's defensive system as the most daunting task, with the shortened training camp and preseason making matters worse when it comes to absorbing the new material. Specifically, the big men are being asked to do much more under Brown. Bynum and Gasol are no longer anchored down low, since Brown wants them to show on pick-and-rolls and cover far more territory than before.
"You kind of revert back to old tactics [defensively]," Bryant said. "Sometimes you catch yourself ... just naturally doing something we were doing. You've still got to make those corrections and get our bodies used to doing what we're supposed to be doing now. ... It'll kick in. But I'm not sure when."
The vaunted triangle offense is gone, with Brown implementing a system from his days as a San Antonio assistant in which the big men run far more high pick-and-rolls than before. The early returns weren't promising, as Bryant dominated the ball much like he did in his younger years and the Lakers scored just 87 and 91 points against the Bulls and Kings before their win over the Jazz.
Ebanks is a starter because of what happened Dec. 9, when reigning Sixth Man of the Year, Lamar Odom, was so incensed by the trade talks that he asked to be dealt and was subsequently sent to Dallas in a salary dump. Brown had already decided to bring World Peace in off the bench, and losing Odom meant he would turn to a 22-year-old with 20 games of experience who looks like former Laker Trevor Ariza but doesn't play like him just yet.
The decision to bring World Peace in as a reserve has been Brown's most significant to date in terms of reshuffling the rotation. It has worked in the last two games, when World Peace scored 19 and 14 points, respectively, while hitting 14 of 23 shots.
"I coached Metta in Indiana (as an assistant from 2003-05), and we were able to play through him quite often -- on the post, pick-and-roll," Brown said. "He's a very good basketball player with great patience and understanding of the game, and I just felt like with this starting unit here there wasn't enough basketball for him to be in the starting lineup.
"He had turned into a catch-and-shoot jump shooter, and that's not what he is. And so we can get him some touches on the low post and some other areas, and so that's why I thought moving him back to the bench would bolster our bench and also it would allow me to play through him some to get him some touches."
Brown made the decision upon arrival, then phoned his former player to get his feedback.
"I'm old (32)," World Peace said. "I couldn't be in a better situation than coming off the bench. Once he called me, I said, 'Yeah, let's do it.'"
Gasol's ability to stay focused and fierce will be key as always, but even more so after he was nearly traded to Houston.
"I'm trying to put that away, put that behind me," he said. "It might linger a little bit because it was a possibility and it was close to happening, but I try not to think about it.
"I try to play and do my best and perform my best. That's what I can control. That's what I keep telling myself, when any thought crosses my mind going towards a different direction."
The next few months will reveal whether Gasol and the Lakers are heading toward happier times.
"We're going to do our best to get the ship to go in the right direction," said Gasol, who is playing with a sprained right shoulder while taking over center during Bynum's absence. "We're sticking together. We know it's hard, we're facing some challenges. But it takes character to be able to overcome that, and that's what this team is willing to do."