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James Worthy: Miami Heat still has the edge over the Lakers

With Lakers training camp only eight days away, I talked with former Laker James Worthy for insight into this year’s team. Worthy is also an analyst with Time Warner Cable SportsNet. 

You mentioned the other day that the Lakers “look really good on paper.” So does a counterfeit $100 bill until you try to spend it. Is there anything specific that leaves you tentative about this year’s team?

There’s nothing in particular that leaves me tentative. It’s just from my experience, it’s there anytime you bring in new aspects of the team. Steve Nash is the most important key to this team. He’s the point guard and the coach of the floor. But anytime you bring in new parts, it’s going to take some time for it to mix up. These guys have never played together and have never played under this new [Princeton offense] system. We’re also not sure when Dwight Howard will be in the lineup. All of that makes it look good on paper. Anytime you have Dwight Howard on your team, it’s going to look on paper. But it still has to gel. When he was in Orlando, they looked good on paper from time to time. ... We also can’t forget the Clippers are improving, Oklahoma City is still great. You can’t just give it to the Lakers. They have to go out and earn it. It looks good on paper, but [Coach] Mike Brown still has to make it work.

Do they have enough to beat Oklahoma City?

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Oklahoma City is younger. But with Dwight in at the same time with Pau, with Steve Nash, that makes a big difference. Last year, Ramon Sessions was young. Before Howard, the Lakers were second or third in the West. But with getting a 38-year-old point guard that still has some left and bringing in a franchise player, that puts them right back at the top. I don’t think too many people will bet against the Lakers against anybody in the West, assuming they’re a healthy team. But they still have to make it happen.

What about the Miami Heat?

I would have to say Miami still has a little edge simply because they won last year. It will be so much easier for them to win again because they know how to do it. With them adding Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, they have tremendous scorers and three-point shooters off the bench. Then they also have the greatest player in the game with LeBron James. I give them the edge because they’re defending champions.

Given that dynamic you outlined and the talent the Lakers have, how quickly would you expect everything to come together?

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It’s highly expected from the fans and I’m sure from [General Manager] Mitch Kupchak, people upstairs and the coaching staff. When you look at a guy like Pau Gasol, who’s a skilled player. He’s still here. Kobe is seeking his sixth championship. That’s high on his list. But to get that, he’s going to have to defer to Steve a little bit and let him run the show. Kobe can’t be the one that always takes the shot. I don’t think that’s part of his dominance anymore. When you look at the bench, they were in last place in production last year. I see interesting parts with Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks. We expect them to blend [quickly]. They’re not like rookies. It should work out fairly easily.

How early are you expecting? Training camp? Early in the season?

I don’t know if it can be done in training camp because you’re playing against each other a lot. Once the exhibition games start and teams have their actual rosters, it should be ironed out at the beginning of the season in November and December. But Dwight Howard is also going to have to play. We’re not really sure when exactly he’s going to be available. All of that is going to make a difference. They’ll get some practice time and have games against different teams. They’re still a fairly older team, but they have a good core of experience.

What do the Lakers need to do to fully maximize the talent they have?

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The ball has to be in Steve Nash’s hands. We haven’t had a point guard like that since Magic Johnson. Steve Nash can make Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder look good on a basketball floor. Steve knows how to play the game with angles. A lot of that comes from his early soccer games. He knows how to get inside, deliver and you just have to put it in. I don’t think they’re going to have a major running game. But I think Steve Nash’s ability to pass the ball can lead to some fast breaks. It’s going to be based on pick-and-rolls and maybe some isolation plays with Steve and Kobe.

Last year, they ran some pick-and-roll with Andrew [Bynum] and Pau, but they ran a lot of isos with Kobe. I think that should change. I don’t think we should have the defense looking straight at Kobe all the time. I’m assuming there will be more picks to make it easier for everyone.

What’s the key for them to stay healthy?

That’s a coaching decision. Coach Brown will have to figure out how to use his bench. It looks like they can contribute more minutes. So he’s going to have to figure out how long he can play Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant. ... Then he’ll have to figure out the practice time because it’s a veteran team. It’s going to be key to monitor that. With injuries, the older you get, the more they come.

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How was that handled during your playing career?

Pat Riley didn’t really manage minutes (laughs). That’s why we had shorter careers, I’m assuming. He only did that once we got into the playoffs. If we wanted rest, we had to hurry up and declare the first seed. Then he started to minimize practices. Pat Riley was good with practices. He needed you during the games. But mid-season and the latter part of the season, if he saw there was some fatigue, he would usually give us rest by canceling practice.

However long that is, what do the Lakers need to do to mitigate Howard’s absence?

I don’t know what Brown will do. Jordan Hill is around, so maybe throw him in at power forward and put Pau at center. But they’ll  be able to survive before Howard returns. They’re a talented team. The bench will be better. They’ve played without Andrew [Bynum] before and Pau stepped up. He’s a veteran player. He should be able to adapt to the pick-and-rolls that Nash will probably run. I think they’ll be able to survive until he gets back. But I haven’t heard any concrete dates yet. No one knows until he gets some elbows and gets used to the contact again.

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You mentioned earlier you didn’t like how Howard handled his exit from Orlando. How does he go about changing his mindset?

I’m an old veteran. I’m old school. Just do your job quietly in a methodical way. Limit the distractions. Don’t get caught up in the media too much. The sooner he can get here and settled in and realize this is a winning franchise, there’s no real need to talk a lot. He just has to play.  I know we live in an era when there is a lot of marketing. We had Shaq with Superman. Now we have Superman II. But we want championships, and I know he does too. Once he does that, he can talk all he wants after that.

With the bench, how do you ultimately determine whether they’re a successful unit?

Defensively, they have to be able to sustain leads and hold people in that area. They’re going to have to put points up. Some teams can put up a lot of points. That has to be consistent. If they’re only scoring 15 points a game, the bench’s defense has to be tighter. But they’re going to need more production than that. The bench’s play will be the only way for Mike Brown to limit the minutes for the starters.

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How would you compare the pressure Coach Brown faces this year, managing a talented team, versus last year, when he had limited training camp and dealt with a fledgling roster?

You have to give him the benefit of the doubt. Last season, he had a rough start with the [lockout] and coming in as a new coach. He was just gathering information and not necessarily trying to please everybody, but listening to everybody to incorporate ideas. This year, Mike will be a little bit more in control. He wasn’t out of control. But he will be more defined with what he’s doing. He won’t need as much input. He brought in [assistant] Bernie Bickerstaff, who has a great mind for the game and has been around for a long time. He will add a lot of stability to the coaching staff.

*We’re going to have a live chat at noon PST today! Bring your questions!

ALSO:

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How should the Lakers handle game-winning shots?

James Worthy says he wasn’t a fan of Dwight Howard

TNT analyst Kenny Smith considers Miami HeatNBA title favorites

E-mail the Lakers blog at mgmedin@gmail.com. Follow the Lakers blog on Twitter.


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