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Roundtable: Are Lakers focused?

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kobe-bryant.jpg NBA writers analyze the latest news and address hot topics from around the league each week.

1. The Lakers made a habit of blowing big leads late in their first-round series with the Jazz. Is this cause for concern or merely a talented team growing bored with an opponent?

Ian Thomsen: Neither! The standard now isn't holding on to big leads; all that matters is winning the night regardless of how it's done. A five-game win is a series blowout, and a strong opening step for the Lakers. Kobe Bryant came up big when they needed him and they began the slog of working Andrew Bynum back into the lineup, with the goal of having him fully operational by the NBA Finals.

Jack McCallum: Can I be wishy-washy here and say a little bit of both? The Lakers' identity is not that of a lockdown defensive team, like, say, the Spurs of yesteryear or even the Celtics of last season. So they don't pride themselves on 48 minutes of D. I think they understand that they are not so far ahead of the rest of the league (like, say, the three-peat Lakers of the beginning of the century), that they can take a lot of time off during games. But they are somewhat vulnerable to that mind-set for two reasons: Phil Jackson has been known to take his foot off the accelerator, and the thought that Kobe will always bail them out of every jam is on everyone's collective back burner. When the Lakers reach the Finals, they will be ready to step it up.

Chris Mannix: I don't think the Lakers should be overly concerned about blowing those late leads to Utah because the culprit was more the bench than the starters. Of greater concern is the health and abilities of Bynum. He had an awful series against Utah and probably needs to be a big factor against the imposing front lines of either Portland or Houston if the Lakers hope to have the same type of success in the second round.

Steve Aschburner: Blowing big leads at least is a lesser problem than allowing big leads. So, nah, it's not a cause for worry, not until you start losing games. Right now, it's a matter of focus and follow-through, because it isn't as if the Lakers' second unit has some fatal flaw. I expect that they will get better at preserving leads as the stakes get higher, the opponents get tougher, the rotation gets tighter and the Larry O'Brien trophy gets closer. Big leads get harder to come by, too, so your opportunities to blow them go down.

Scott Howard-Cooper: It is cause for concern because it's not just about the series against the Jazz. The Lakers' inability to show the mental toughness of a champion has been a prominent issue since the 2008 Finals loss to the Celtics. The first round of '09 merely pointed out, again, the difference between being the most-talented team and the most-dominant team.

The Lakers had no reason to be bored with the opponent after the third quarter of Game 1, the first of what became a series of Jazz comebacks to turn one-time blowouts into tense victories. That second half should have been the alarm clock going off in their ear. It wasn't. There should be a concern. Still.


2. The Pistons enter their offseason with a lot of salary-cap space and a big rebuilding job to do. What do you expect president Joe Dumars to do in the months ahead?

Ian Thomsen: The outcome of this season guarantees that Dumars will move ASAP to remodel his team. You'd never know it from the way they played this year, but the Pistons will be working from a position of strength. They can use their payroll space to fill in around Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Rodney Stuckey, or even include one of them to pull off a blockbuster. While other teams will be looking to reduce budgets, the Pistons will be ambitious spenders. When that cash is spent, they'll go into next season as one of the league's most interesting teams while attempting to launch a new era.

Jack McCallum: Get rid of Rasheed Wallace, Allen Iverson and Kwame Brown. Build the team around point guard Stuckey, which is what they should've done this season, and convey to Hamilton in no uncertain terms that that is the direction. Tell Prince to get more involved on offense. There will be enough money for a major move, which means they should go after Carlos Boozer or Lamar Odom. But wait a minute: Isn't it in Dumars' aggressive character to go after Odom's teammate, that better-known Laker? Sure, Kobe will probably stay in L.A., but Dumars will be making that phone call.

Chris Mannix: I don't expect Dumars to blow all of his cap space this summer, if that's what you are asking. Certainly the Pistons are in a position to be buyers in a market with only a few of them. But word around the league is that Dumars might have cooled a little on Boozer, and at this point, there is no guarantee Boozer will opt out at all. I'd expect Dumars to try to swing a deal with a team looking to slash an established star off the payroll without taking back much in return -- a Marcus Camby-type of deal. If I'm Bryan Colangelo in Toronto, I would count on seeing that Detroit area code pop up frequently.

Steve Aschburner: First thing we'll get is the beep-beep-beep of the truck being backed up to The Palace. Dumars might wish he were in a neighborhood poker game right now, where he could discard five and draw a whole new hand. The Pistons really were a half-empty, half-full team, heading south with old heroes while trying to head north with young hopefuls. Seeing the future gets easier when you move out the clutter. Gotta figure both Iverson and Wallace are gone, and Prince and Hamilton seem like tradable pieces (Prince has the more movable contract). McDyess, meanwhile, needs a better place for his next last-chance-to-win push, like, hmm, Denver? Boozer seems like a natural free-agent fit -- all his fans from Cleveland can drive back up to Auburn Hills to cheer him on -- and a wing player able to create scoring would fill a real need.

Scott Howard-Cooper: He will be very aggressive, because that's Dumars. Just not necessarily this offseason. The Pistons can be major players in the '10 free-agent bonanza and will have a legitimate shot at adding two stars, but that means being patient in the summer of '09. If there's a chance to swing a blockbuster in the next few months, even if it hurts Detroit's chances a year later, Dumars does it. But he's not going to make a move just to make a move. As unhappy as Dumars may be with a lot of his players, he is not going blow the long term for the appearance of doing something to address the backslide.

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3. The Spurs struggled without Manu Ginobili in the playoffs. Once he returns to health, do you expect them to return to championship contention or do they have deeper issues that need addressing?

Ian Thomsen: I can't believe I'm going to say this, because they're one of my favorite teams in the way they play and their reliability year after year. But I think this may be it for them as a title contender. Their three stars carry inordinate responsibility and two of them -- Ginobili and Tim Duncan -- are now breaking down in their 30s after years of playoff mileage. The only hope is that they somehow bring in two or more key players in relief of Ginobili and Duncan. But this has the look of an unalterable trend we've seen too many times, of great players who wear down in their 30s. If they're going to win again, they're going to need assistance in a major way.

Jack McCallum: Good question. With a healthy Big Three of Ginobili, Duncan and Tony Parker they are still a force, though not a Lakers force, and perhaps not even a Rockets/Nuggets force. But San Antonio may have to face the reality that Ginobili -- one of my favorite all-time players -- will have to go, that he is just too injury-prone to rely on in the long run. The Spurs will also probably jettison Bruce Bowen, who will latch on somewhere as a lockdown defender and reliable off-the-bench contributor. That will enable San Antonio to stick one toe into the free-agent market this summer. Hmm, how good could Rasheed Wallace be in Alamo Land if he would buy into the Duncan-Popovich culture?

Chris Mannix: The issues the Spurs have are cosmetic. Yes, Duncan is 33, but he is coming off an All-NBA type of season and he did it on one good knee. With a year away from international competition Ginobili should be healthy, and Parker -- who is only 26, by the way -- is among the top four or five point guards in the league. I expect some housecleaning -- Bowen, Kurt Thomas and Michael Finley might be wearing new uniforms next season -- but I also expect an attractive veteran (hello, Rasheed Wallace) to take a paycut for the chance to win a title in the black and white next season.

Steve Aschburner: The regular season is just too long for the Spurs' approach -- survive 82, thrive for 20 or so -- now that Duncan is 33, Ginobili will reach 32 this summer and Parker lugs a bigger load while still fearlessly driving the lane. The cast around those three is full of golden oldies and not-ready-for-prime-time players. It has worked well, but now San Antonio needs help from guys in their sweet spots. And let's be honest, the Spurs took just enough lumps to get remarkably lucky -- twice -- in the draft lottery, landing David Robinson and Duncan as major balm for the minor pain of rare lousy seasons. There's more hurt coming before they earn that sort of help again.

Scott Howard-Cooper: Just pull an answer off the loop. The Spurs are not going away ... The Spurs are not going away ... The Spurs are not going away.

If they have a healthy Duncan, Parker and Ginobili, they're in championship contention. Too smart, too experienced, too good on defense, three weapons who can turn a series with offense. They won't be the team to beat in the West next season, but if Ginobili is healthy, and I've already stated that's not a given in the wake of two serious ankle injuries, San Antonio remains a factor.

Every team has issues that need addressing. I'll give the benefit of the doubt to the organization that knows how to solve problems and the roster of winners. You know, the one where the old guy, Duncan, just logged 19.3 points and 10.7 rebounds in the regular season. Some breaking down.


4. Kendrick Perkins recently said the referees don't like the Celtics. While officials are a convenient scapegoat at any time of year, players and coaches often try their hardest to influence them. What sort of tactics work in this regard and who does it best?

Ian Thomsen: If the referees don't like the Celtics, then how could Boston possibly have won the title last year while playing their physical defensive style? One coach who knows how to deal with referees is Gregg Popovich. During dead-ball situations you often see him and the rest of the Spurs' staff lobbying the officials. The Spurs are relentless in these hands-on attempts to steer calls their way, and I have a feeling this face-to-face approach is more effective than trying to lobby officials via the press, as other coaches often do.

Jack McCallum: In answer to the question, not guys like Perkins. He's a young player who already has a rep as a complaining pain in the butt. I like his game but he needs to stay focused and stop complaining after every call.

There are two ways to influence the game. The first is to play with relentless and resolute defensive toughness from the opening whistle, like the Celtics did last season. They didn't get calls because Perkins says they should; they got calls because they set a consistently aggressive tone from the outset.

And, second, subtle complaints from veterans can work, too. Refs don't like players and coaches who show them up during games. They remember that. Better to take the approach of Phil Jackson, who's not an inveterate griper between the lines, but always finds some way to get his point across after or between games. And one word from a quiet and respected professional like Ray Allen would go a lot further than a bunch of words from Perkins.

Chris Mannix: There are two types of player NBA officials don't like: players calling them 'ref' and ones who argue every single call. Now, the Knicks' David Lee is the poster boy for the former, but Perkins is among the princes of the latter. Perkins is demonstrative every time the whistle blows. I'm not saying he's wrong, but you can't show up referees like that and expect them to give you the benefit of the doubt the next time. You have to be respectful. When a tough call goes against you and you know it's the right one, maybe you make eye contact with the official and acknowledge it. I saw Kobe Bryant do it in the fourth quarter against Utah on Monday. Veteran official Steve Javie had just whistled an offensive foul on him and on his way back down the floor Bryant nodded to Javie and mouthed, "Good call." Kobe didn't need to do that. But in some way he probably earned a little credit with Javie. And that's smart.

Steve Aschburner: I liked what I saw from Philadelphia's Tony DiLeo when he planted seeds about Dwight Howard's taking more than three-second leases in the lane at both ends. That's the way the best coaches do it -- don't overwhelm a guy with six or seven things to correct, just give him one or two specifics. It works with players and it can work with refs. It's a lock that one of the officials working Howard's next game will be watching him more closely, to the point of either calling the violation or seeing to it that the Orlando center more obviously clears the paint. The best? I'll say Popovich, because I think Jackson has done it so often (and publicly) that the refs are a little numbed to his message.

Scott Howard-Cooper: Perkins thinks it's only referees who don't like the Celtics? But on to your question.

This has become such a tired topic. It was a tired topic when Jackson and Pat Riley were spinning the media in the days of Bulls-Knicks playoffs -- egos at 40 paces. Jackson is a master, then and now. His comments can stir emotions among fans and players, both of which are good things, but if you're dismissing a lot of what he says, don't you think the refs are as well?

They know what Jackson is doing. They know what DiLeo is doing. They know players speak from emotion and, as the question noted, never waste the opportunity to find a good scapegoat. Referees make good calls, referees make bad calls. None of them are because of anything Perkins says.

I'm not saying patronizing is going to automatically earn you a freebie the next time. But no player, past or present, will tell you antagonizing officials is a sound strategy.