It's opening night. A freshly-formed juggernaut takes the floor on national television. A title-tested shooting guard who's won at the highest level as Shaquille O'Neal's sidekick, flanked by two superstars attempting to join the Fellowship of the Ring, leads his team into battle against a recent NBA champion.
The result? A stagnant, befuddled offensive performance. An eight-point loss.
Sound familiar? That's precisely where the Miami Heat found themselves after Game 1 of the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh era in late October of 2010, which they tipped off with an 88-80 loss to the Boston Celtics.
Like the Heat circa 2010, these Lakers are still adjusting to one another, still learning how to play as a unit. The early days of Miami's now-budding dynasty bore witness to a tenuous balance on the perimeter between the incumbent franchise stalwart (Dwyane Wade) and the multiple-MVP arrival (LeBron James). LeBron was clearly the better player of the two, but seemed reluctant to assert himself as he normally would, for fear of upsetting Wade, his friend and colleague, and rocking a boat that was attempting to stay afloat amidst choppy waters.
A similar situation appears to be unfolding in LaLa Land, with Kobe in Wade's role and Nash as LeBron. Bryant is still a superb player, arguably the best shooting guard in basketball, but as the last two seasons made clear, the Lakers aren't necessarily better off with him handling the ball and initiating the offense.
Not that he was a ball-hog on Tuesday night—he used up a relatively modest 21 percent of the Lakers' possessions on the way to a 22-point performance.
But that number trumps Nash's 13.5 percent usage rate, which is startlingly low for a player of his caliber, who's had the privilege of running the show for most of his career.
And has done so quite well in the past, thank you very much. Nash's opening salvo in Purple and Gold—seven points on 3-of-9 shooting with four assists—was indicative of a guy who doesn't want to step on Kobe's toes (or his strained right foot), who's still feeling his way through the Princeton offense while acclimating himself to his new digs. As he told Ben Bolch of The Los Angeles Times after the game:
It is frustrating a little bit because I feel like we're thinking too much instead of playing. At the same time, we don't have the confidence just to play. We're not totally confident in where we're going. But we've grown a lot. We've come a long way with it and we'll get better with it.
Nash spoke in greater detail about striking a balance between fitting into the Lakers' new scheme and going to his bread and butter—the pick-and-roll:
I need to assert myself more in pick-and-roll situations.
I'm caught trying to get the ball moving in the Princeton [offense] and get us into different sets and opportunities, and tonight we didn't do a good job getting into the Princeton and we didn't get a lot of stuff in pick-and-roll actions.
So it's growing pains and it's a struggle and we're out of sync and we're probably going to have some more moments and games like that.
Indeed, the Lakers (and their fans) should expect plenty of frustration in the weeks (and perhaps months) to come, at least if recent history is any guide. The Heat stumbled out of the gate to a 9-8 record in 2010-11, a middling start that was analyzed ad nauseum by every talking head within close range of a microphone or a keyboard.
Those early returns landed a second-year head coach (and former video coordinator) on the hot seat. That coach was roundly criticized for sifting through seemingly makeshift tactics, trotting out an ever-changing rotation and generally appearing as though he were ill-equipped to oversee such a star-studded lineup, especially in light of the shadow cast by his predecessor.
Yes, I'm referring to LeBron's current coach—Erik Spoelstra, a disciple of the great Pat Riley—but I could just as easily be talking about his former coach, Mike Brown. The one-time Coach of the Year with the Cleveland Cavaliers has come under fire from all corners of the basketball world ever since the Lakers front office (mainly Jim Buss) hand-picked him to fill Phil Jackson's massive shoes.
(Passing over future Hall-of-Famer Rick Adelman in the process.)
Brown was the object of much ire in LA last season, when his Lakers once again failed to escape the second round of the playoffs, and has only seen the pressure on his shoulders intensify since Nash and Dwight Howard arrived.
No fewer detractors were calling for his head after the opener, to say the least. The Lakers looked helpless to stop the Mavs on one end and struggled to find easy shots on the other while running elements of an offense whose institution was Brown's brainchild.
Still, it's far, far, far too early for the Lakers to push the panic button.
Remember that 9-8 start the Heat slogged through in 2010? They turned things around shortly thereafter, winning 12 games in a row and 21-of-22. More importantly, that edition of the Heat ran all the way through the Eastern Conference and on to the NBA Finals, where they took a 2-1 lead in the series before succumbing to the payback buzz saw known otherwise as Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks.
Mind you, Miami did all this without their "Big Three" having yet figured out how to play together and absent anything resembling a productive bench.
Unless, of course, you're cool with giving big minutes to Udonis Haslem, Eddie House and Mike Bibby.
Rather, the Heat came within two wins of a title on sheer talent alone. The Lakers have the pieces at their disposal—the best center in basketball (Howard), an elite point guard (Nash), the top shooting guard (Kobe) and a top-five power forward (Pau)—to pull off a similar (if not superior) feat this season.
Albeit not without growing pains along the way, to which Nash alluded. Stiffness and uncertainty are to be expected from a team still learning the ins and outs of a read-and-react offensive scheme. Miami's motion-based arrangement wasn't exactly a slam-dunk when Spoelstra first instituted it last season.
Neither was Phil Jackson's Triangle offense when he first arrived in LA, though having two of the top three players in the NBA on the same team helped to smooth out a few of those wrinkles.
Abandoning the Princeton offense for a pick-and-roll-heavy operation may seem like the best option at the moment, except such a reaction overlooks the fact that A) Eddie Jordan's sets weren't and aren't going to constitute a majority of the offense, and B) good teams can win by playing pick-and-roll basketball, but great teams win titles with versatility, with ability to run multiple schemes and do different things well within those schemes.
That's what Erik Spoelstra came to realize down the stretch of Miami's sprint to the title last season. The key to succeeding with so many superstars is an offensive philosophy that accentuates the talents of each without placing them into stubborn, predetermined roles.
For Spoelstra, that meant letting LeBron be LeBron—power point guard, post-up punisher, all-around unstoppable force. As he told ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh:
Thinking conventionally that first season with LeBron -- that was my biggest regret as a coach. I put LeBron in a box. And that’s the worst thing I could have done.
Spoelstra didn't make the switch until the second round of the 2012 playoffs, when Chris Bosh's abdominal injury opened the door for LeBron to soak up minutes at power forward.
This isn't to suggest that Mike Brown and his staff should follow Miami's blueprint to a tee. Small ball isn't likely to be a viable strategy for a team that's demonstrably bigger, slower and older than the Heat's collection of athletic wings and perimeter shooters.
The task falls to Mike Brown and his staff to determine how best to calibrate their schemes so as to take full advantage of the roster at their disposal. Does that mean less Princeton and more pick-and-roll? Fewer touches for Kobe and Pau and more for Nash and Howard?
And what of the defense? How will the Lakers make up for Nash being torched on the perimeter by the likes of Darren Collison and Rodrigue Beaubois?
The defense figures to improve as Howard, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, works himself back into playing shape after sitting out for six months on account of back surgery, and as the Lakers develop a more cohesive chemistry with one another.
Getting to that point may well require that Kobe cede (at least some) control of the ball to Nash, just as Wade did with LeBron last season. Kobe's still a great player, but he and the Lakers would probably be better off with a pure point guard like Nash lubricating a creaky offense.
What the Lakers will undoubtedly need, just as the Heat once did, and of which they might not have the privilege, is time. It doesn't matter what the Lakers run, Princeton offense or otherwise, unless/until the whole of the team meshes into something more than just a collection of shiny parts. They have the talent, the championship experience and the locker room leadership in sum to make it work.
And along with that time will have to come a heaping helping of patience from all involved.
Unfortunately, the Lakers won't likely be afforded such luxuries if the results don't reflect in short order the lofty expectations with which the NBA's newest Fab Four has been saddled.
Which brings to mind the most crucial words of wisdom that the Heat, now defending champions, might lend to the Lakers in this time of premature anxiety: don't panic. Don't abandon what you've been working on. Unlocking and unleashing the power of this superteam will require quite a bit of trial and error and the tolerance to handle the frustration that will inevitably follow.
In the meantime, the Lakers would do well to ignore the noise, if not block it out entirely, as they work to foster trust in one another and in the system into which they've been slotted.
No easy feat, but if the Lakers study the example set before them by the Heat, they should find themselves stacking jewelry and hanging banners just as LeBron James and company were on opening night.