Michael Grange | October 31, 2012, 10:47 am
If you're a fan of exquisite basketball played in just the right proportions, it's not too early to wonder what the hell is going on in Los Angeles.
If you're a fan of endless possibilities, it's not too early to wonder if all that excitement and hope about another Showtime Era is going to get crushed.
The new-look Los Angeles Lakers made their premiere Tuesday night, a straight-out-of-Hollywood blockbuster with a massive budget, huge stars and a full off-season of giddy hype.
And the early reviews are not good. Facing a box of broken toys known as the Dallas Mavericks, a team without an injured Dirk Nowitzki, that had said goodbye in the off-season to stalwarts Jason Terry and Jason Kidd; a team that started Eddy Curry at centre -- Eddy Curry -- the star-studded Lakers picked up where their 0-8 pre-season left off.
It wasn't just that the Lakers lost 99-91.
There are all kinds of extenuating circumstances to explain that, from Kobe Bryant's sore foot that cost him the last week of training camp to Dwight Howard working his way to peak form after back surgery to opening night jitters.
And it wasn't that the Lakers' offence was statistically awful.
Los Angeles shot 49 per cent and had 24 assists on 38 field goals. A few tweaks here and there and they win the game pretty easily -- the Lakers were an unfathomably bad 12-of-31 from the free throw line and made just three triples in 13 tries. Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard, easily the most gifted big man tandem in the league, were predictably dominant, combining for 42 points and 23 rebounds, while Bryant as efficient as he can possibly be, scoring 22 points on just 14 shots.
The issue in Lakerland, and anywhere else people care about the nuances of basketball, was that Nash spent most of his 34 minutes on the floor seemingly rushing to get the ball out of his hands as quickly as possible and then sprinting to the far side of the floor to watch the rest of the possession like Lakers uberfan Jack Nicholson. He took just nine shots, making three but most tellingly, had just four assists in 34 minutes.
What’s worse is this is by design.
After a summer in which his club added Nash as a $27-million free agent signing and then traded for Dwight Howard, Lakers head coach Mike Brown settled on installing the Princeton offence as the best way to integrate his incredibly talented collection of veteran stars.
The issue with that approach is that the Princeton offence is an equal opportunity read-and-react approach designed to serve a group of athletes with the less skill and ability -- typically -- than their opponents. The premise was that by making every player a threat through a collection of clever cuts and backdoor passes, the whole would be greater than the sum of its parts.
The Lakers have the opposite problem. Their parts are awesome. Their parts are as good as any collection of players in recent NBA memory, including the Big Three in Boston and the Superfriends in Miami.
As an added bonus, at the head of the snake they have Steve Nash. At 38-years-old the Canadian point guard is six seasons removed from his consecutive NBA MVP awards, but his essential basketball gift remains.
No one in the game and few in history are better at distributing the ball to teammates equitably and in places that they can't help have success with it.
He's best at it in two particulars ways -- one is in transition, when he makes pinpoint passes to the right lane filler without exception; the other is in the halfcourt while running multiple pick-and-rolls with multiple partners. The Lakers did neither in their opener as they ran an offence that turned Howard into a passer and Nash into a spectator.
Last season, playing on a terrible Phoenix Suns team but given free reign to create as he saw fit, Nash led the NBA in making passes to the roll man in pick-and-roll and the man he passed to led the NBA in the points scored per play, with a field goal percentage of 60 per cent, again best in the league (data from ESPN.com).
This while primarily partnering with Marcin Gortat.
Much of the excitement about the Lakers adding Nash and then Howard was the prospect of watching him orchestrate one easy basket after another working with the former Orlando Magic centre, one of the best finishers on the pick-and-roll in the NBA. Similarly, combining with Gasol or Bryant offered all kinds of possibilities.
The smartest thing Brown could have done would have been to focus on the defensive end, give the ball to Nash on offence and let him figure out how to keep all the Lakers happy. If Nash's history of helping teammate after teammate enjoy career-best seasons, they would end up very happy indeed.
But it takes a special coach to know when to get out of the way. Former Suns coach Mike D'Antoni was just one when he combined with Nash to help Phoenix win 122 games over four seasons together. Don't be fooled by explanations about how these things take time or predictable pleas for patience. The Lakers don't have time. Nash is old; Bryant has this year and next on his contract. Howard is a free agent after this year.
The time is today.
Lakers coach Mike Brown showed his clumsy hand by assuming a system could improve on Nash's improvisational genius. It can't. Brown should be sent on his way for thinking it could or it will.
Free Steve Nash. Fire Mike Brown.