Three for 3: The New New Los Angeles Lakers

By: The Same Page Team

As part of our ongoing NBA coverage this year the Same Page welcomes you back to our Three for 3 feature. The concept is simple: We ask three of our contributors three questions about the NBA during the season and get three different answers. This time it’s the biggest story in the league: The hiring of Mike D’Antoni as the new coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. Now, follow along with Grant, Dagonas and Reynolds.

What do you think of D’Antoni as coach of the Lakers?

Grant: Well, the wording of that question is somewhat ambiguous. Because to be frank, I hate the thought of it. But I hate it because I hate the Lakers and wish them nothing but failure. Objectively, I think this was a great hire and the perfect way for the Lakers to maximize both their long and short term assets.

If Phil Jackson was really the only true competition for the job that D’Antoni had, I think the Lakers made the right decision. Much and more has been written about how the Lakers personnel are better suited to D’Antoni’s spread pick and roll offense rather than Jacksons notoriously complicated Triangle (although watching Dwight Howard try to run the Triangle and whipping the ball ten rows deep into the stands on a nightly basis would have warmed my heart) and I won’t re-hash those points here, except to say that I agree with them wholeheartedly.

The angle I think people are missing is that this hiring is the perfect move for Lakers management. By not hiring Phil Jackson, the Lakers give themselves an out, while still hiring an elite ‘name’ coach. If this doesn’t work out, well, there’s still Phil or there’s myriad other coaches champing at the bit to coach in LA. If they had hired Phil and the team struggled, or worse, were bad, as Jackson’s 2010-11 Laker squad was bad, what then? What happens when you hire the best and that still isn’t good enough? The shine comes off giving a 38 year old point guard with a bad back 3 years guaranteed and 27 million dollars and maybe Dwight Howard decides he doesn’t like being in LA and goes somewhere else next summer. With this hiring the Lakers are seen to be doing something radical, which will keep Kobe happy and they’re maximizing the talent of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard in the short term, while covering their asses in the long term. It’s evil genius level brilliant.

Dagonas: First, let us all take a moment to remember Mike Brown, who will likely never get a high-profile coaching gig like this again.  Now, D’Antoni is well known to be an offensive minded coach, and one who achieved reasonable success with Nash running the point in Phoenix.  I say reasonable success, because Phoenix was never able to reach the Finals, despite an excellent collection of talent that included Amar’e Stoudemire and Shawn Marion, along with MVP Nash.  After that, D’Antoni had a pretty disastrous tenure with the Knicks, that included one playoff appearance in three seasons, when they were swept in the first round by the Boston Celtics.

So will things be any different here?  Is D’Antoni the kind of coach that can achieve the ultimate goal of this Lakers team: winning a championship?  He has not really proven it in the past, and his coaching style seems to leave a little discipline to be desired.  Remember when Phoenix could have beaten the Spurs until half the team ran onto the court after a flagrant foul against Nash?  The Suns were screwed by the resulting suspensions, everyone said, but could you imagine a Jerry Sloan coached team reacting that way?  In short, while the offense will be instantly improved, D’Antoni lacks the hard line discipline some players need to guide their athleticism to championship level.

Obviously, Phil Jackson’s name resurfaced after Brown’s dismissal, but it seems tiresome for the Lakers to draw from that well again.  I also realize that on a team of veterans, there is little that a coach can do in terms of “coaching”.  D’Antoni’s role with the Lakers will be to manage the personalities, distribute playing time, and occasionally have shouting matches with Jack Nicholson.  Coming from the media pressure cooker that is New York, D’Antoni seems more capable of handling the unique situation of the Lakers than other potential candidates.

Reynolds: I prefer to take a Holmes-ian approach to this whole Lakers situation and discount the impossible before turning to the probable. The Lakers were never going to hire a stern, old school task master coach like Jerry Sloan or Nate McMillan (though I think the latter may be useful as a defensive coordinator-type assistant). In addition, very few coaches have the kind of pedigree and media savvy necessary to coach in Los Angeles. And I’m pretty sure Stan Van Gundy was not considered. That shrunk the list to two possible candidates: the free-wheeling stylings of Mike D’Antoni or the Zen leanings of Phil Jackson.

Look, I love Phil Jackson, love the whole mystique, the whole deep thinker aesthetic, but this team has Dwight Howard on it in a contract year. For all the talk about Kobe, Nash and Gasol, the future still lies with Howard. Was a goofy guy like Howard going to buy into Jackson’s whole Caine from Kung Fu teaching style by the end of the season? Sure, in the long run, Howard would benefit from someone pushing him in indirect ways, challenging him to look beyond his physical powers and Superman alter ego. But let him sign a long term contract first.

I realize this is all a rather roundabout way of getting to the point but to be honest, this is a team of largely mature, professional players. Nash, Kobe, Gasol, even, yes, Artest (and don’t forget Antawn Jamieson), know how the game is played. Why not just get out of the way? D’Antoni is said to lead generally unfocussed practices, and his defensive considerations are apparently less than ideal (though this has been debunked somewhat), but he lets talented players play basketball in a natural, open, fun way. Isn’t that what we all wanted to see when this team was assembled?

Relax Mike, it’s all good.

What is the outlook for the Lakers now?

Grant: Well it’s murky at best. If Nash returns to health, if Howard can form chemistry with him, if Kobe can deal with playing off the ball almost exclusively and if D’Antoni can figure out a way to adapt his system to Pau Gasol and a team that lacks even a single elite three point shooter (and don’t give me Chris Duhon. He shot over 40% from 3 last year but if Chris Duhon is playing significant minutes for this team, it won’t matter if he shoots 100%) then things look good! But that’s a lot of ‘ifs’. More ‘ifs’ than most contenders would want before the season begins and certainly more than a team spending the kind of cheddar the Lakers are currently doling out wants once the season has already started, especially given the team won’t have a training camp with their new coach. Having Nash running things is really the key, as he’s driven the bus for D’Antoni before and the system really runs through him. His options are massive but the options for the rest of the team are less so and therefore the offence is easier for them to learn. Being able to skip the learning curve at point guard is a luxury for this team and one they’re really going to need.

Another issue is how playing D’Antoni’s free-wheeling style is going to work when the Lakers inevitably meet the Oklahoma City Thunder? If a team wants to run, the Thunder are going to be able to run with them. The Lakers defensive efficiency will be really important in any matchup, but especially against the younger, faster Thunder. They’re going to have to forge a transition defence identity around Dwight Howard’s immense talent and not much else.

Dagonas:  As was mentioned above, you have here a team that can virtually run itself without much actual coaching.  This is a top-5 NBA franchise, even if I had been named head coach.  Nash can handle the play calling, Kobe is the motivational force, and Gasol and Howard anchor the defense.  Role players Ron Artest and Antawn Jamison are also well aware of their higher purpose, and likely won’t create drama by asking for more shots or minutes.

The offense improves instantly, while the defense will likely suffer from the lack of attention D’Antoni will devote to it at practice.  In the long run, the question is this: can the Lakers defeat the Thunder, or even the Spurs?  The Lakers will play a run-and-gun style, but that suits OKC perfectly, and Durant and co. can probably outrun the Lakers, especially in a 7 game series.  Meanwhile, if the Spurs are the first major roadblock in the playoffs, Popovich knows how to slow down a high-tempo offense, and showed it back when the Suns and Spurs were perennial rivals.  That may be the first monkey D’Antoni and Nash will have to get off their backs on their quest for the title.

Reynolds: Let’s keep this part simple. In the short term, if the Lakers start winning games, the outlook will be brighter than this guy’s necklace. Under the D’Antoni/Nash system, when things are going well, they tend to go really, really well (and look awesome at the same time). Guys will be flying up the court (presumably), everyone gets to take lots of shots, it is a basketball ideal, really. Yes, the short term outlook has to be brighter because there is no where to go but up. People want the new Showtime Lakers and the Buss family is doing, apparently, everything it can to bring that about.

The long term perspective, though, is… well, there is no long term perspective. The Lakers as currently constructed have one speed right now and make no mistake, much like their new coach’s style of play, it is a speed that will have to be maintained if this team is to reach its ultimate destiny (a championship) before the drag of time catches up with it. Much like the far less dynamic Celtics, the curve of the new NBA will leave them behind if they do not maximize the otherworldly talents of the players they have right now. The future may be bright, but that’s because the future is now.

Either the season ends like this for Kobe or it is Armageddon.

Besides Nash, which player benefits the most from the hiring of D’Antoni?

Grant: I don’t feel like there’s a real answer to this question, other than ‘nobody’ or ‘everybody’ so I’m going to talk about Pau ‘I don’t even like people named Paul’ Gasol. He is the true X-factor for the Lakers now. Probably the person who stands to benefit the most or the least, with no in between. His elite passing skills and tremendous basketball IQ would have been perfectly suited for a reunion with Phil Jackson and the Triangle; where he fits into D’Antoni’s schemes is less apparent. Gasol struggled to mesh with Andrew Bynum last season when Bynum’s talent demanded an expanded role. His struggles have continued this season with the implementation of Mike Brown’s now defunct Princeton offense; his scoring is way down and he’s shooting just barely 40% from the field. It remains to be seen if D’Antoni’s hiring will rejuvenate the Spaniard or pave his way out of town. His numbers will likely improve, as everyone’s do, under D’Antoni’s offense, simply by the virtue of more possessions being created.

However, rumours have already begun about a possible deal for Atlanta forward Josh Smith, someone who mirrors Shawn Marion in his prime, in terms of talent and athleticism, as a better fit at power forward for the Lakers than Gasol. Presumably in any trade for Smith, who is on an expiring contract this season, Gasol would be the major piece going back. Whether this or any other deal comes to fruition remains to be seen and will be heavily influenced by the team’s success during D’Antoni’s first few weeks on the job. The Lakers have shown via Browns firing that they’re all in, right now. Kobe’s prime is nearly over and the pairing of him with Dwight Howard is not something they can afford to waste. They won’t hesitate pulling the trigger on other moves to retrofit this roster to better suit D’Antoni’s needs, should they arise.

Dagonas:  Kobe B. Bryant.  He benefits because now this roster can do what it was built to do; run the floor, score tons of points, and win heaps of games.  This offseason’s rebuild project is probably Bryant’s last chance at a championship, with a window of three years, maximum.  Now that D’Antoni is steering the ship, the roster is getting a full opportunity to put its talents on display.  When Mike Brown was in charge of this team, it was like buying a PlayStation 3, an HDTV, and Madden 07.  It’s cool, but the potential is so much higher.  Letting Kobe play a fast paced system with his new toys might be just the motivation he needs to push for one more ring.

Who benefited more than Paul Pierce when Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett arrived in Boston?  Who benefited more than Dwyane Wade when LeBron and Bosh brought their talents to South Beach?  The Lakers are the third round of the NBA super-team experiment, and both previous versions have now proven successful.  With D’Antoni in place, the Lakers have the potential to be as good as their counterparts, and challenge for an NBA championship.

Reynolds: Definitely Dwight Howard. The rest of the Lakers team is old (Kobe), older (Artest) or, God love him, oldest (Nash). The much talked about 7 seconds or less D’Antoni system rewards runners and gunners which, five years ago, reached its apex with those Phoenix teams that featured some of the most profoundly athletic players in the league (Shawn Marion, Amare Stoudamire, Boris Diaw). This Lakers team is slow; except for the human cannonball Dwight Howard, back surgery not withstanding. Now, instead of having to learn an elaborate system of passing, cutting and motion (who has that kind of time?), Howard can couple his stunning athletic gifts with the skills of the most talented offensive point guard in a generation.

Over the long haul of the season, we can assume some things about the Lakers roster: Kobe is going to play his heroball game regardless, Gasol is going to generally be a good soldier and fit in, Artest is going to pretend it is 2004, and Nash is going to play kinetically sound basketball. To me, Howard remains the outlier, the franchise centre that still hasn’t quite mentally put it all together. Is it necessarily a good thing, in the long run, to have Howard in a loose offensive system that rewards fast break play and quick decisions? Maybe not for the entirety of his career (see: Stoudamire, Amare), but he’ll be happy, right? He’ll get tons of offensive opportunities to razzle and dazzle, which in turn, may inspire him to achieve even greater defensive heights (and believe me, his team is going to need the latter).

Nash knows what he’s doing. How about the rest?

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