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Lakers, Rock Bottom...? (12.12.12)
When Mike D'Antoni was officially chosen over Phil Jackson to be the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, my immediate take on the situation was this, "Essentially, D'Antoni will have to coach in a manner that he's never coached before."
That statement alluded to D'Antoni's offensive and defensive philosophies and their ability — my perceived inability — to coexist with the current makeup of this Lakers squad. As it turns out, D'Antoni's system isn't working all that well, and under his reign, the Lakers are 4-8, and 9-13 overall (four games under .500 for the first time since 2004-05).
D'Antoni is not solely to blame. He was thrust in this situation due to the front office. The biggest culprit for this early season failure is Jim Buss, Dr. Jerry Buss, and Mitch Kupchak. My take is that it is mostly Jim Buss to blame, but if Dr. Buss and Kupchak signed off on his hiring, then it's all three of them. Let's not forget the rhetoric spewed from the brass following the hire of D'Antoni. Here's a quote from Kupchak following the hire, "After speaking with several excellent and well-respected coaching candidates, Dr. Buss, Jim and I all agreed that Mike was the right person at this time to lead the Lakers forward. Knowing his style of play and given the current make-up of the roster, we feel Mike is a great fit, are excited to have him as our next head coach, and hope he will help our team reach its full potential."
So, the front office panicked and fired Mike Brown without a definite backup plan. In my opinion, Brown did not deserve to be fired, and after watching the team's play under D'Antoni, it further validates my belief. Then, the organization flirted with Phil Jackson before ultimately spurning him with one of the most disrespectful courtships that I can recall. The organization clearly informed Jackson that it was his job if he wanted it, and then they decided to go in another direction at the last second. Rebuffing 13 championship rings, 11 as a coach of some of the greatest teams ever, and five of which came in Los Angeles, the organization decided D'Antoni would be a better "fit."
Never mind the fact that D'Antoni had never been to the Finals, or that his system has never incorporated back to the basket post players, let alone two of them, or that his system relies on shooters for offensive spacing that the Lakers roster doesn't have, or that his defenses have always been atrocious, or that he simply doesn't mend his philosophies to fit the makeup of his team (i.e. Carmelo Anthony's excellent post skills that were not utilized during his tenure as coach of the New York Knicks, and now Pau Gasol's post skills). How that equals "a great fit" is beyond me. But even if the front office truly believed that D'Antoni was the best fit, passing on Jackson may be the biggest mistake this organization has ever made.
With that said, if D'Antoni is going to lead this team, the onus is on him to find ways for this squad to win. In his 12 games as head coach, the Lakers have averaged 102.25 points per game. That's about eight to twelve points below what D'Antoni wants the team to average. Defensively, the Lakers have allowed 101.5 points per game. Although the Lakers are ahead on the point differential, that mostly stems from three wins that totaled a positive point differential of 61 points against the lowly Hornets, the disappointing Nuggets, and the mediocre without Dirk, Mavericks. Struggling to light up the scoreboard, or simply contain teams with solid defense, the Lakers have lost 8 of 12, and 5 of the last 6 games under D'Antoni.
The way the Lakers have been losing is actually quite perplexing. In the 12 games under D'Antoni, the Lakers have been outscored in the first quarter just four times, yet they have entered half time trailing in eight games (including all four games in which they trailed after one). Even more perplexing, the Lakers have been outscored just four times in the fourth quarter (losing all four games when that happened). Opening hot, and usually finishing strong, the Lakers have found ways to lose by giving up huge quarters that they struggle to recover from. In 9 of the 12 games, the Lakers have given up at least 30 points in one quarter. 30 point quarters are inexcusable, yet they are occurring regularly under D'Antoni. In three games, teams (Thunder, Magic, Kings) actually dropped 40 point quarters! In the three games the Lakers actually held their opponent under 30 points in any given quarter, the Lakers won 2 out of 3 (wins against the Hornets and Mavericks, a loss against the Pacers).
Overall, this team has a lot of holes that need to be shored up. Although D'Antoni is an offensive specialist, defense needs to be placed front and center. With Steve Nash out for at least another two weeks, the offense is not going to run as smoothly as D'Antoni wants, and the Lakers are not going to win games by simply outscoring the opponent. Until then, getting stops needs to be a premium.
Following a 94-100 loss that bumped the Cavaliers up to 5-17 overall, and dropped the Lakers to 2-7 away from home, coach D'Antoni got testy when questioned about his defensive coaching.
Following the game, which featured a 32 point fourth quarter for the Cavs, a reporter irked D'Antoni with this, "If you're criticized for not having any defense so far, it seems like you guys haven't played inspired defense or just haven't played defense, you come here, you have shoot-around this morning, and basically it's a film session, and a little shooting under everybody's own."
D'Antoni quickly jabbed back, "I didn't see you in the film, I didn't see you there."
The reporter responded, "So, that's not true then?"
To which D'Antoni replied, "No, it's not true."
The reporter then retorted, "Did you work on defense?"
Then D'Antoni really got upset, stating, "Hell yeah, we worked for half an hour on it. You're starting to piss me off. You're starting to piss me off, because you're saying something that is not factually correct."
D'Antoni noticeably got heated during this last stage of the probing, and his gesticulations began to rise with his temper. Unfortunately, Time Warner Cable quickly cut away from the heated exchange and went to a commercial break following a couple more remarks from D'Antoni and the reporter. But one thing is clear, D'Antoni understands that he's considered the biggest problem with the defense. His defensive response and rising temper point to the fact that he's feeling the heat for the Lakers' woes. D'Antoni does not want this heat. He may have thought his time in New York was tough, but it will be nothing compared to the expectations for this team in Los Angeles.
The most telling tidbit of the exchange is D'Antoni's belief that half an hour of working on defense is considered putting in work. The conviction he used when stating, "Hell yeah, we worked for half an hour on it," is all you need to know about D'Antoni. The way this team is getting lit up, half an hour isn't going to cut it. This team needs basic high school level drills for at least an hour, every practice. Drills like closing out, shell drills, rotations, what to do on pick and rolls/pops/slips, transition defense, boxing out, one on one defense, help side, denying the ball, defensive slides, actually getting in a defensive stance, help and recover, taking charges, hustling for loose balls, and reaction drills can easily take up an hour and ingrain defensive principles that are necessary for a successful defensive unit.
This squad has the talent to shut people down. Unfortunately, the Lakers routinely play lazy defense because they simply don't have that grind mentality. Defense should never waver, it's one aspect of basketball that can be a rock if given the due effort. D'Antoni needs to inspire this team and put forth the proper schemes for this squad to succeed. Transition and pick and roll defense have been especially atrocious this season. The Lakers give up far too many layups on fast breaks by not hustling back in transition, and they also get burned by not having a help man rotate on pick and rolls to cover for the man who hedges the pick. If you watch the highlights of the Cavs game, you will see Kyrie Irving destroy the Lakers by continually feeding Anderson Varejao easy buckets following the pick and roll.
Irving is a stud, but the ease with which he picked apart the Lakers is troubling, especially because the Lakers will have to get through the likes of Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, and Tony Parker if they plan on making a serious postseason run. Toss in guys like Jeremy Lin, Mike Conley, Stephen Curry, Ty Lawson, Ricky Rubio, Tyreke Evans, Goran Dragic, and Damian Lillard, and it's clear that the Western Conference is loaded with talented point guards that need to somehow be contained.
Overall, this team has a ways to go. Offensively, the team is struggling for continuity. Injuries have decimated the starting five, and the load is often thrown on Bryant. The Lakers are now 1-10 this season when Bryant scores more than 30 points. Although that stat seems to condemn Bryant as a ballhog, let me straighten that point out.
In a majority of those games, Bryant begins to take over offensively once he believes that the team is slipping. In almost every first quarter, Bryant assumes the role of playmaker. If the guys continue rolling, Bryant plays within the flow of the offense. If the guys taper off, Bryant begins taking shots. Bryant has had a disappointing habit of failing to get back in transition following what he believes are non-calls, but other than that, his effort is always in the right place.
Although the record isn't great, if it weren't for Bryant, those 10 losses would have been blowouts. Bryant executes what he believes the team needs, and in many of his scoring outbursts, he has kept the Lakers within striking distance. Without his 42 points against the Cavs, the Lakers would have lost by 20 instead of just six. Until Nash comes back, Bryant will be the only guy on the Lakers who can create a shot.
With Bryant struggling to play the role of superhero to the tune of wins, he seems willing to seek the necessary changes. Following the game, in response to the mounting losses, Bryant stated, "They're really f****** with my s***, really trying my patience with that zen thing." Bryant later used statements such as "Baffling," "I don't know," and "I'll give it a lot of thought," in regards to the slow start this season and the problems with the team. Rarely has Bryant ever sounded as perplexed as he was in this postgame soundbite, and it's obvious that he will do whatever it takes to turn this thing around. Bryant closed his interview with an eye towards improvement, stating, "One thing about this organization is that there are a lot of great players who came before you that are always one phone call away. I have no problem picking up the phone and talking to them and getting some advice." I have a feeling the other end of that call will be Magic Johnson, and Magic will surely have some great insight as to how to lead this squad.
With Bryant unable to carry the team to victories, Dwight Howard needs to start dominating. Although Howard seems to regularly lack touches when just looking at the box score, that simply isn't the case. Anytime Howard touches the ball, he is doubled, thus forcing a kick out. Howard also attempts double digit free throws almost every game. Howard's 18.4 points per game are decent, but I'd like to see that number jump up to around 22. Howard also seems to let his offensive performance dictate his defensive effort. As noted by Tim Legler, Howard doesn't seem to be handling the role of second banana all that well. Until he turns into a reliable fourth quarter scorer who can knock down free throws, he doesn't deserve to be "the man." Howard can play harder, and if he begins to dominate like he's shown in the past, the Lakers will reach another level.
Simply put, the entire squad needs to get on the same page and start putting in the necessary effort that befits a championship team. D'Antoni isn't on the court wearing number 8. His philosophies may be a detriment, but it's up to the players to play to the best of their capabilities. Inspiration should come from within, and if the players give maximum effort, this team will start reeling off victories. Until then, the losses will mount. With a quarter of the season gone, the Lakers can no longer coast. Significant ground has been lost, and the Lakers are currently in 12th place in the Western Conference with a 9-13 record. Hopefully this point marks rock bottom, leaving up as the only direction to move.