The San Antonio Spurs face the Los Angeles Lakers for the first time Tuesday night. Aside from being the two dominant teams in the post Jordan NBA, the two teams don't have a ton in common and the Spurs fan base doesn't really like the Lakers franchise. Spurs fans specifically hate this Lakers team because of the hype that came with it once Steve Nash and Dwight Howard were traded for over the summer. Now, the one likable part of the team, former Spurs assistant Mike Brown, is gone.
Hiring former Phoenix Suns and New York Knicks head coach Mike D'Antoni is the one way to make this Laker team even more unlikable for Spurs fans. Reuniting D'Antoni with Nash brings back memories of the Seven Seconds or Less Suns. Like the rest of the country, Spurs fans have fond memories of those Suns teams. Unlike the rest of the country, those memories involve the Spurs beating the Suns in the playoffs over and over again. And if Nash's class and no-quit attitude is the part of those Suns teams Spurs fans respected, D'Antoni's constant complaining on the sidelines and unwillingness to adjust his offensive system no matter what the situation is what we turned our noses up at.
That's an unfair and mostly ignorant perception of D'Antoni, who is a very good coach. Having said that, this hire doesn't strike fear in the heart of Spurs fans. Yes, when Howard gets healthy he and Nash are going to wreck teams with the pick and roll. However, D'Antoni's system also works well when there's plenty of shooters on the court, which the Lakers don't have a ton of, especially in their starting five. You can leave Metta World Peace alone and Kobe Bryant's never been confused for a sharpshooter, though he's never going to be left too wide open. Despite the lack of shooting, they're still going to be a monster offensive team because of the talent of Howard, Bryant Nash and Pau Gasol.
The defensive side of the ball is a different story altogether. The common theory is that having Howard there is going to make the Lakers a good defensive team once he's completely healthy, whenever that happens. If D'Antoni's Suns defenses were middle of the pack with Amar'e Stoudemire as his rim protector, Howard should make them really good, right? Well, those Suns defenses also had Shawn Marion and Raja Bell, two top notch defenders in their prime. The Lakers don't have one above average perimeter defender. That's a lot of ground Howard will have to make up for when guys get by Nash, Bryant and World Peace on drives to the basket. Also, the Lakers could become a middle of the road defensive team, but history shows teams need to be very good defensively to win a title. The last team to have a defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) outside the top ten was the 2000-2001 Lakers.
The Lakers' lack of depth will be a mixed bag under D'Antoni. One one hand, D'Antoni's never been one to go deep into his bench. We're likely to see a rotation of Nash, Bryant, World Peace, Gasol, Howard, Jodie Meeks, Steve Blake, Antawn Jamison and a little bit of Jordan Hill sprinkled in. So that's good news considering how bad the LA bench has been this season. It's also not great because that likely means 37 year old and recovering from a fractured leg Nash, 34 year old Bryant, 32 year old Gasol and recovering from back surgery Howard will all be playing heavy minutes before the postseason even starts.
Despite all these concerns, the Lakers are still going to be really good. They'll win at least 50 games and most likely the Pacific Division. The Spurs are still going to have a hell of a time defending that Nash/Howard pick and roll and there's still the issue of having no one to defend Gasol if Duncan's defending Howard, and oh yeah, Kobe Bryant is still going to do Kobe Bryant things. The Lakers are going to be better under Mike D'Antoni than they were during the first five games of the season. At the same time, his presence doesn't make the Lakers an overwhelming favorite to get out of the West, it just means they're a lock to be Spurs fans favorite team to root against.
Photo: USA Today