If the Lakers' perfect record of 0-8 in the preseason didn't raise some warning flags, it should have.
No team in NBA history has ever made the Finals after a winless preseason. After their eight-point loss to the Dallas Mavericks (minus Dirk Nowitzki), their decimation by a young and lively Portland Trailblazers team and a thorough dismantling at the hands of a very talented Clippers team, the Lakers barely look like a playoff team, let alone championship contenders.
What Lakers fans watched in the Mavericks game perfectly foreshadows a season that will be filled with the worst underutilizations of talent in the history of basketball.
According to TNT’s "Stat of the Night", in the Mavericks game, it was the first time in Steve Nash’s career that he failed to score at least 10 points or dish out at least five assists. When playing on a team with arguably the greatest player of the last decade in Kobe Bryant, arguably the greatest big man in the game today in Dwight Howard and a multiple All-Star and two-time NBA champion in Pau Gasol, its hard to imagine that Nash couldn't simply roll the ball to his teammates, take a nap at center court and collect his five assists mid-dream.
The reason for this underutilization falls squarely on the shoulders of one man, Mike Brown.
Mike Brown shall henceforth be known as the “Anti-Score.” Why should he adorn this nickname? To start, last year during the 2011-2012 NBA season, the Lakers averaged 97.3 points per game, which is the franchise's lowest point-per-game average since the 1954-55 Minneapolis Lakers. This is the same Lakers team that had a dominant big man in Andrew Bynum and the same Pau and Kobe—only one year healthier and fresher.
By contrast, Phil Jackson’s Lakers where among the leaders in scoring every year. How Brown could have held back a Laker team with so many dominant scorers (and having made so few roster changes) is simply staggering. In the Lakers first three games of the 2012-13 season, Brown’s new offense has produced a per game average of 97.3. The same as the worst mark in Lakers history achieved a year ago.
But in a lot of ways this new 97.3 is even scarier than their mark a year ago.
While starting off the year with a painful foot injury, Kobe Bryant is averaging 38.7 minutes per game in the young season. That means he is only sitting nine minutes the entire game. After he played 43 minutes in his most recent loss to the Clippers, when asked how his foot was feeling, Kobe replied, “It feels like its about to fall off right now.”
Somehow, despite being inordinately overworked, he is averaging 30.7 points per game, while shooting an unbelievable 61.4 percent from the field and 50 percent from the three-point line. Yet not only are the Lakers losing, they still can’t score!
Last year when the Lakers averaged 97.3 points per game, Kobe had his worst statistical year to date. He averaged 27.9 points per game, but only shot 43 percent from the field and 30 percent from the three-point line.
Kobe, despite being the champion he is, will not average 30 points per game while shooting over 60 percent this year, no guard has ever accomplished this in the history of the NBA. And the lingering question is, when Kobe’s production begins to drop off, which it will, where will the points come from?
Not from the Princeton offense.
To say the Lakers offense has been stagnant over the first three games would be an understatement. Since Brown has employed his "version” of the Princeton offense, the team has struggled offensively. One of the main problems with this offense is that it does not benefit the Lakers main scorers. In fact, it hinders them.
One of the fundamental philosophies of the Princeton offense is to be constantly moving at all times. However, for a player like Dwight Howard, that does not make any sense.
During Shaquille O’Neal’s reign of dominance, the Lakers ran the triangle offense very successfully. The goal of the triangle offense is to get the ball into the post. While a premium was placed on ball movement, the players were not asked to always be moving.
Phil Jackson described the offense "[having] a 4/4 beat, if you have the ball in your hands for longer than two seconds, you're holding up the offense." Which in theory makes sense, because the ball can move faster than the players ever could.
What O’Neal did so effectively is establish post position on one of the two blocks and stay there. If the Lakers guards were unable to throw a post entry pass, they would swing the ball quickly to the other side of the floor. Instead of feverishly following the ball (as the Princeton offense dictates), O’Neal would stay put, and hold his position on the weak side block. This was incredibly smart because when the ball moved to the other side of the floor, O’Neal’s defender instinctively would follow the ball, and as he was taught, place himself in between the ball and the basket.
When this happened, as it always did, Shaq won. He would then lock his player, and prevent him from regaining the position he once had when the ball was on Shaq’s side of the floor. The Lakers would deftly swing the ball back around the key, and make a quick post-entry pass to Shaq, whom by staying put, secured great position for his quick “baby hook” or a dunk.
This is the type of offense the Lakers should be running.
The focal point of the Lakers offense should be Dwight Howard, just as Shaq was the focal point ten years ago.
Why? If Shaq’s three championship rings don’t speak for themselves, it is the goal of a successful offense is to put the ball in a position with the highest percent chance of scoring. This is not just basketball 101 this, is logic 101.
When Dwight Howard has the ball, he is the player with the highest field goal percentage on the team. He is, or should be, with the correct offense, the closest player to the basket (the reason he has the highest field goal percentage), and will likely be double-teamed because of this. With the correct spacing, this will result in open shots for Nash, Bryant and Pau Gasol.
It really is that simple. The greatest part about the triangle offense is that it not only promotes passing the ball to Dwight Howard, but it provides players specific places to be when Howard is double-teamed.
When watching the Lakers this year, there have been three glaring issues: Kobe is the only player on the team who is not afraid to throw a post-entry pass. For some reason the Lakers players, Steve Blake and Ron Artest in particular, are afraid to throw the ball into the post. One can make the argument that the current offense is not providing the Lakers guards with enough spacing and openings to make a successful post-entry pass—which is true. However, even a blind squirrel can find an acorn, and despite the poor offensive sets there have been numerous times where Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol have been open, and the Lakers guards for some reason have refused to throw the ball into the post.
When playing alongside one of the best players in basketball today in Dwight Howard, he needs the ball. This philosophy is schoolyard simple—give the best player the ball. In the Lakers most recent loss to the Clippers Dwight Howard only took seven shots.
That is not a recipe for a win.
Also, one will notice that many of the players will be frenetically running and cutting around the floor, and this moving for the sake of moving does not benefit the flow of the offense. Steve Blake and Ron Artest are excellent at this too.
The problem with this approach is two fold: First, it is very difficult to establish a rhythm or flow to the Lakers' offensive game when players will potentially be in random spots after the first pass is made.
Second, when the ball is thrown into the post and the post player is double-teamed, the random nature of the offense makes it nearly impossible to have the spacing correct to successfully pass out of the double-team. One will notice that the Lakers have scored primarily on cuts off of double-teams, which many people believe are good. This is not good! Yes, at times, cuts can be effective, but they are not the answer to the problem, they are a merely a temporary solution. Cuts are random and will not always be there.
When a bomb is about to explode, one would want a set of directions to diffuse the bomb the exact same way every single time, not a random dive cut at a wire in hopes that it doesn't explode. That is what the triangle offense provides, directions.
Third, and possibly most importantly, is the Lakers inability, or Mike Brown refusal, to fast break. Since Brown has taken over the Lakers offense, the Lakers have found a new home on the fast-break points per game list: third to last. The Lakers are only averaging 7.7 points per game in fast-break points.
Brown has deliberately tried to slow the tempo and walk the ball up the court. There's no room for easy baskets. Steve Nash took a career four-point per game average player in Marcin Gortat and in two years helped increased his average to 15.4 points per game, thanks to getting Gortat easy baskets on fast breaks.
Imagine what Nash can do for Howard or Gasol if allowed to run. Look at last year's NBA champion Miami Heat to see how important transition basketball is in the game today. Transition breaks down an opponent's defensive schemes and allows for more one-on-one opportunities.
These situations should favor the team with the more talented players. The more talented players will win one-on-one opportunities often (like LeBron and Wade), rather than pit Kobe up against a one-on-four defense, standing outside the three-point line with four seconds to shoot.
Mike Brown has thrown out the directions and has essentially made it harder for his team to move the ball and get open shots by running a random offense, which in theory should work, but has never even won Princeton (the creators of the offense) a national championship.
Will the Lakers get better? Almost certainly yes. But to brush off this season's 0-3 start as well as the continuation of trends that precipitated last year's downfall would be simply irresponsible.
Nobody has a crystal ball and can tell exactly where this team is going. But with this coach, this philosophy and this offensive scheme...all indications say not very far.