From the beginning, most intelligent basketball minds seemed to agree that the Los Angeles Lakers running a Princeton offense wasn’t a good idea.
Apparently, Jim Buss got the memo and decided that Mike Brown wasn’t the right coach to lead Kobe Bryant to his sixth championship ring.
And after flirting heavily with Phil Jackson, news broke early Monday morning that—in somewhat of an upset—the Lakers have hired Mike D'Antoni to be its next head coach. D'Antoni is regarded as an offensive mastermind, but someone should remind him of the old adage:
It is defense that wins championships.
And the Lakers defense needs to be fixed.
Sure, in the 13 games that Mike Brown coached this year, there were stretches where the Lakers’ offense looked jumbled and clumsy, but that’s to be expected when employing a new system with new players and moving parts.
Now that D’Antoni has taken over the helm, the Lakers offense will be eventually be as smooth as butter.
But the defense is what needs the most work.
Bryant, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace are each above average defenders at their respective positions and Dwight Howard, at 100 percent, is easily the top defensive difference maker in the league. The major problem with Howard, obviously, is that he’s not yet functioning at 100 percent.
Rotations have been late and assignments have been missed and as a result the Lakers have given up 94.5 points per-game thus far this season. And while that opponents points per-game average isn’t bad—it ranks them in the top half of the league—it isn’t great, either.
The main reason why that average is too high, though, is because the Lakers haven’t played very many of the league’s higher scoring teams. Of its opponents thus far, only the Dallas Mavericks (second), Los Angeles Clippers (fourth) and Portland Trailblazers (ninth) rank in the top half of scoring teams across the league.
The last time the Lakers won the NBA championship in 2010, it was a Top-10 team in the league in terms of points allowed per-game. This Lakers team, thus far, is not.
In fact, of the past six NBA champions, only one had a defense that ranked outside of the Top-10 in points allowed per-game. Ironically, it was the Lakers, who during the 2009-10 regular season, ranked number 13 while surrendering 99.3 points per-game.
If D'Antoni wants the Lakers to be anything more than a more expensive version of his "seven seconds or less" Phoenix Suns, he'd be wise to ensure they make significant progress with showing and recovering on pick-and-rolls and perhaps employing a zone defense when squaring off against some of the league's younger, quicker point guards.
Today, Bryant and Gasol are older than they were in 2010 and Bryant is no longer the best scorer in the league. Today, at their advanced ages, if Bryant and Gasol are to enjoy similar success, they’ll need to think defense first, the same rings true for D'Antoni.
In the early part of the season, the Lakers have struggled mightily with pick-and-roll defense. Both Howard and Gasol have been reluctant to step out and show on opposing point guards, so a floor general with a decent midrange game has been consistently able to find space in their defense and take them apart.
Combined, Darren Collison, Chris Paul and Damian Lillard scored 58 points against the Lakers while shooting 22-44 from the field and dishing out 30 assists while only turning the ball over nine times.
What's worse is that the Lakers lack the defensive depth on the perimeter to help slow opposing point guards. Jodie Meeks, who is the best Laker defender on the second unit, is only playing about 10 minutes per-game. And since the Lakers won its last title in 2010, we’ve seen Sasha Vujacic, Luke Walton and Shannon Brown go and Matt Barnes come and go.
Today, the Lakers lack the defensive depth that it had when it was last a champion and that’s something that will need to be addressed if the team is to seriously find itself as a contender this season.
D'Antoni’s offense will incorporate pick-and-rolls for Nash and Howard, Nash and Gasol and Bryant and Howard. It will also certainly contain isolation sets for Bryant. Offensively, D'Antoni proved that he could design a system to take advantage of the offensive firepower his new team has, but we've seen this movie before.
In the playoffs is when the wins really count.
The disjointed offense that we’ve seen the Lakers attempting to execute will be fixed. And truth is, its shown life over the past two games as the Lakers have scored over 100 points in each of them.
It’s their defense that should be most concerning, though, especially when you consider that when the NBA playoffs begin in April 2013, the average age of the Lakers starters will be 33 years old. It's entirely possible that their old legs will be tired from playing an uptempo system, so again, they'd be wise to spend significant time developing a defensive identity rather than simply depending on outscoring opponents.
If the Lakers finish as the first, second or third seed in the NBA’s Western Conference, that may very well pit them in a first round matchup against the Denver Nuggets or Dallas Mavericks. And even if they manage to advance, a showdown with the Oklahoma City Thunder or Los Angeles Clippers likely awaits.
And let’s not forget that it was those same Thunder and its run and gun style of play that ended the Lakers 2011-12 season after just five games in the second round of last Spring’s playoffs.
Run and gun is probably something the Thunder can do better than these Lakers—even with Nash and Howard now in the mix.
It’s important to note that if and when a team collectively gives up on a coach and decides it no longer wishes to play for him, effort and intensity inevitably wanes. And there have been reports stating that Brown lost the full support of the members of his team.
Those types of defensive efforts need to be the norm for the Lakers.
Nash is one of the best shooters in the history of the league and his career assists-to-turnover ratio of 2.98 puts him in the top class of the best NBA floor generals in history. With Howard, Gasol and Bryant at his disposal, there's no doubt that the Lakers can win and win big.
But again, we've seen this movie before. When D'Antoni was the head coach of the Phoenix Suns and coached Nash, the duo won an average of 58 games per year over a four-year span that saw the Suns become one of the NBA's best teams and Nash win back-to-back Most Valuable Player Awards in 2005 and 2006.
But the duo never managed to win the NBA's Western Conference and most would attribute that to the Suns failing to put a high premium on getting stops.
For sure, the Lakers offense has been offensive, but any gifted basketball coaching mind can figure out how to utilize the immense talent at his disposal. D'Antoni will.
It’s the other end of the floor that needs to be figured out.
Offense wins games (in the regular season).
But defense always has and always will win championships. And for an aging team whose championship window was left slightly ajar after a surprisingly productive offseason, the Lakers’ vision of a 17th championship is all that matters.
It will not, however, come to fruition without a rededication to defense. That was true before Mike D'Antoni became the head coach of the Lakers. And it's especially true now that he is.