The Lakers have been bad all season.
Frustration with the team — among players and fans — is coming to a head as the Lakers head into a seeming death spiral and it becomes more and more clear that their $100 million roster of superstars isn’t even going to make the playoffs. (It’s not impossible the Lakers still make the postseason, but it’s standing right next to impossible with his arm around it.)
There is a lot of blame to go around — injuries, lack of depth exposed by said injuries, Kobe Bryant’s shot selection, all the team’s stars, the entire team’s attitude about defense, Mike Brown, Mike D’Antoni and so on. Basically everyone but Lawrence Tanter deserves a slice of blame. The worst part is it has been a perfect storm of problems — every problem seems to exacerbate the next one.
But two targets should be singled out for the biggest slices of the blame pie — Lakers management and Dwight Howard.
And if the Lakers are going to turn this around — even by next season — it will be up to those two to fix the issues.
What to do right is something they can learn by watching what the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat did right (and wrong) in the past five years since they assembled powerhouse teams. Both of them figured it out well enough to win a ring, which is far more than it looks like the Lakers will do right now.
Lakers management — Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak and the guy making the ultimate calls in Jim Buss — earned a lot of plaudits when they went out last summer and got Steve Nash and Dwight Howard to pair with Kobe and Pau Gasol forming a new super team. And deservedly so, it’s not easy to acquire that kind of talent and ownership was willing to pony up the taxes to pay for it.
But there seemed to be little thought to real team building — what kind of system the team would play, what would work best for the roster, and then being committed to it and getting role players to fit said system.
Instead the Lakers (at the request of Kobe) worked to bring in a Princeton-hybrid offense — something without play calls and the micromanaging Brown brought as coach. The idea was to make Steve Nash the point god and when he got the ball he could decide to fast break, or come up and call for some pick-and-roll action, or he could go into one of the Princeton sets.
When you have that many options at the top of the offense it’s going to take a long time for get guys on the same page and acting seamlessly. The Lakers never came close to that. Guys were clearly thinking and not reacting, combine that with the return just at the start of the season of Howard and other injuries and you kill any chance of the group jelling. The offense was a mess. And the defense was still worse (and supposed to be Brown’s specialty).
So the Lakers fired Mike Brown.
And went 180 degrees with Mike D’Antoni — a guy who won playing Amar’e Stoudemire at the five, flooding the floor with shooters and letting Steve Nash run the show as fast as he wanted. That was absolutely nothing like the Lakers roster, even Steve Nash is older and slower. The Lakers had two big men who want the ball in the post, plus Kobe and Metta World Peace like the post, also. “Young” and “athletic” are not words used to describe the Lakers roster.
If you learned one thing from watching Mike D’Antoni operate in New York is that the players must fit the system because the system isn’t changing to fit the players. The Lakers knew that and knew they had a mismatched roster for what D’Antoni wanted to do when they hired them — fans want to blame D’Antoni for not modifying what he does but this goes back to management hiring him knowing he was a system guy. Or at least Lakers fans need to hope management knew that.
And how you fix it is two-fold — D’Antoni somehow needs to learn from what Erik Spoelstra did in Miami tweaking his system until he figured out what worked. We can question if D’Antoni is willing to do it, but he has to be unless the Lakers want to totally overhaul the roster. It took more than a season for Spoelstra to figure out his Heat roster could win best with small ball and pressure, but he did, he adjusted and they had a ring ceremony because of it (and while they have struggled at points this season it is more about focus than system).
Also, the Lakers need to move one of their two tradable assets — Gasol or Howard — to get shooters and players that fit the system. If they don’t think Howard will re-sign with them next summer they have to change their stance to consider offers. It’s all on management, they built the roster and they need to get younger and more athletic (see Earl Clark) to make it work.
Dwight Howard’s pivotal role in the pivot
Howard is clearly not 100 percent after his off-season back injury and that is slowing him — he’s not nearly as explosive and he doesn’t cover ground on defense like he did in Orlando. And with Nash at the point and the Lakers bench the team needed the old Howard to shore up their defense and make it respectable.
Instead in recent games he has looked disinterested and disengaged. Rather than learning from Kobe about the fight needed to be a title contender, Howard has gone to blaming teammates and seeming not to get why what is best for him might not be best for Gasol or Nash. Howard is a great pick-and-roll big but he complains he wants the ball in the post more despite Nash. There seems to be little consideration.
Go read Kevin Ding’s fantastic piece on Howard at the Orange County Register. Do it, we’ll wait for you. He lays it right out there. While no player is blameless for the Lakers woes, Howard and his lack of play at the defensive end is the biggest issue on the court.
Howard seems to think he’s in a competition with Kobe rather than really being willing to sacrifice for the team.
Howard needs to look at the players on the 2008 Celtics, who willingly sacrificed stats and changed their role to do what was best for the team.
Howard needs to look at Dwyane Wade and how he learned to play with LeBron James, even if that means deferring to him, to make it better for the team. Howard can be the co-leader of the Lakers with Kobe if he wants to be. But to do that he needs to give not just take.
He can’t just demand the ball more, he has to earn it. Kobe will pass if Howard steps up and demands the rock — and then does something with it. If you watched Howard’s last three games you can’t blame Kobe and Nash for not passing him the rock — he hurts the offense when he gets it and goes half-speed. He has to play fast and hard. And if you’re not doing something positive with the ball, Kobe will be more than happy to shoot it for you.
The things that got the Lakers into this mess were not simple or singular, and with that the fix is not simple. There is no magic bullet. It’s going to take a lot of guys from the front office to the floor making adjustments.
And after 41 games, its time to seriously question if they can.