Mike D'Antoni is burdened with bringing the 2013 Los Angeles Lakers to a place based off of expectations rather than the realistic capabilities of this particular group of guys.
The NBA’s most fascinating team made a drastic change earlier this week and now they take their rightful place as…well still the league’s most fascinating team. The change I’m of course referring to is the ousting of Mike Brown as head coach, a merciful ending to a marriage that never should’ve been consumated but now ushers in a rather risky era of Lakers basketball. The decision the Lakers had to make after firing Brown was who to hand the keys over to to lead the team into this 2-3 year window to win titles. Who would be able to exact the most out of this Nash/Kobe/Gasol/Howard quartet while Kobe and Nash remained relevant, Gasol remained physically capable and Howard of course remained under contract. They began flirtations with ex-Lakers coach Phil Jackson immediately, and we’ll get to Phil later, but we know now that those talks never led to an official contract offer and Phil Jackson is not the Lakers coach now that the search has ended.
The Lakers wound up giving the job to Mike D’Antoni, the originator of the “7 seconds or less” era of Suns basketball from 2004-2008 that led to 2 trips to the Western Conference Finals and one of the most entertaining brands of basketball seen since the 1999-2003 Sacramento Kings (shameless plug from a Kings fan). Now the question becomes whether the Lakers chose the right guy to hand this team over to. The common misconceptions about D’Antoni run teams are that they encourage big men to scrap the concept of posting up in favor of nothing but pick and rolls, that team defense is a nonexistent concept, and that the green light for reckless shooting is given at all times. These are fun misconceptions. Mainly because they’re false. They’re not entirely misguided, Amare Stoudemire claiming that he got to work with Hakeem Olajuwon this summer because he never learned any post moves during his time in Phoenix is no farce. But then again, Stoudemire was no Pau Gasol, no Dwight Howard. Also, you’re talking about two big men in Gasol and Howard who if utilized properly could complement eachother in the prettiest of ways. Particularly in running the pick and roll. We’ve seen brief glimpses of this in their time together working with Steve Nash. Nash enters a pick and roll with Howard who immediately dives to the basket, and rather than feed Howard, Nash feeds Gasol who promptly flips it to Howard for the alley-oop. It’s the type of offense that could be scary to defend if the Lakers ever utilize it properly, but it also is just icing on the cake for what the core fundamental issue is for the Lakers team moving forward. Their flaws just so happen to be the very things all of the NBA’s other contenders (Heat, Thunder, Spurs, Grizzlies, Bulls, Celtics, Knicks) hold as strengths: three point shooting (except for maybe the Grizzlies, although Wayne Ellington is their main variable and he got off yesterday), team speed, roster versatility and athleticism. The Lakers are lacking in all of those areas, and no coaching change is going to solve that. The only thing that could solve that is the eventual 100% health of Dwight Howard. With him protecting the perimeter defensive flaws of all of the Lakers’ wings, then all of a sudden it’s a simple matter of basic rotations within a defensive concept. And this, I hope I’m not going out on a limb here, is something Mike D’Antoni and his eventual staff could easily accomplish.
Mike D’Antoni run teams (going off a sampling of the 2004-2008 Phoenix Suns) were always tops in the NBA in pace, and an average defensive ball club. Routinely finishing in the top 3 in Offensive Pace and around the top 15, 16 or 17 in Defensive Rating. What this means is that the Suns generated the quickest offense in the league, creating the most opportunities for both them and the opposition and were still an average defensive team. Not a bad club, not an atrocious club, but an average one. You adjust that for a more tamed version of that hectic offensive system and suddenly that 2004-2008 Phoenix Suns team, who’s main flaw by the way was their lacking of a defensive game changer such as Dwight Howard, becomes an above average and maybe even top 10 defensive team. Assuming this Lakers team can’t be something special on defense with a healthy Dwight Howard is something foolish. And by the way I don’t believe the Dwight Howard you’re seeing right now is healthy. He looks about 75% the Howard I’m accustomed to seeing, so there’s nowhere to go but up I guess.
Another common talking point people like to beat to death when they talk about this transaction is how much D’Antoni’s style is ill-fit for this particular Lakers team. And while the Lakers do lack those “Shawn Marion, Leandro Barbosa, Boris Diaw” kind of guys, it’s not entirely far fetched the Lakers could recreate something just as potent if not a little different stylistically. Those Suns teams traditionally played with a tight rotation of no more than 7 or 8 guys getting heavy minutes, well that plays right into this Lakers team’s wheelhouse, they currently hold no productive bench players other than Jordan Hill, maybe Jodie Meeks and the very apparently washed up Antawn Jamison. Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol run the floor great for big men, and players such as Jodie Meeks who can spread the floor, Kobe Bryant and the plodding Metta World Peace open up options for Steve Nash on secondary breaks. A healthy Steve Nash is what makes this bread and butter option of Mike D’Antoni run teams go, and without that all of a sudden you’re talking about having the likes of Chris Duhon, Steve Blake and (gulp) Darius Morris running this particular break. The 2013 Lakers won’t shut down the three point line because of their weak perimeter defense and they’ll have trouble as always with quick point guards, but they won’t get beat on the boards an awful lot, and they’ll always hold the advantage in paint points, unless Kobe Bryant decides in Game 6 of the Western Semis it’s time to start jacking shots.
In regards to the Lakers decision to forego an official contract offer to “the great” Phil Jackson, I see no problem with it. Phil Jackson was a coach who won 5 NBA titles with this franchise, and 11 in his career as a coach. He led a Lakers team that featured two of the guys that are featured on this team, Bryant and Gasol, to three consecutive Finals appearances before this team collapsed on itself. I don’t think at this stage in Phil’s career he was the right guy for the job. If you look back at all the teams who employed the Triangle Offense, non of them had an elite point guard. The Bulls teams featured BJ Armstrong and Ron Harper while the championship Lakers teams featured Derek Fisher. The point guard’s role in the Triangle Offense is solely to spread the floor and move the ball while the actions are dictated by the key decision makers (Jordan, Pippen, Bryant, Gasol, O’Neal). But with this Lakers team, it’d be a travesty to take the ball away from Steve Nash. And I won’t but I could talk with great length about how Dwight Howard’s one of the best pick and roll players in the game today while Nash and Gasol and also Bryant and Gasol have good chemistry with eachother but I won’t because these are secondary points. The primary issue was that Phil Jackson was asking for the moon. He looked absolutely gassed when he went out in 2011, and content in doing so. What’s to say a potential comeback wasn’t just a money and power grab away from the same organization that drove him out of town just a year and a half ago? He wanted to wrestle organizational control away from Jerry Buss and Mitch Kupchak, well these two guys just creatively secured the team Steve Nash and Dwight Howard! They did their jobs, Phil wanted more than a job, and with that point alone he wasn’t the man for the job. And I think now that I used the word “job” 3 times in that sentence it’s a good time to wrap this paragraph up. Phil Jackson needs to stop playing with the hearts and minds of ignorant Lakers fans, his time came and went, now let Mike D’Antoni find a creative way to lose in the Conference Finals so we can all get back to a world we’re happy living in (we all=Sacramento Kings fans).
In all seriousness, I don’t like this particular Lakers team less than I feel disdain for their coaching situations. They made the right, although hasty, decision in firing Mike Brown. They went with a much more safe choice in hiring Mike D’Antoni than in hiring Phil Jackson. I just don’t know if at the end of the day a, team with the roster deficiencies they have, can compete with teams that’ll take a healthy advantage of those like the Grizzlies will or the Thunder will or the Spurs absolutely will. I can’t see this team competing for a title this year without making some roster additions that fiscally look impossible, because if there’s anything we’ve learned with a retrospective glance back at NBA history, it’s that NBA championships are won with 8 guys playing in psync with one another, not necessarily just having the 4 best guys and little else. The Los Angeles Lakers will not regret the day they opted to pass over Phil Jackson, they definitely will regret the day they ever went into battle into the deep Western Conference with Jodie Meeks anchoring their bench though.