5 Things That Must Go Right for Mike D'Antoni's L.A. Lakers to Run to NBA Finals
After finally getting back to a .500 record, the L.A. Lakers have restored a positive outlook on a season that started off with mediocrity and uncertainty.
Averaging a decent 15.3 points per game on the fast-break during the past three games, Mike D'Antoni's coaching style and philosophy may cause this number to continue trending upwards.
There is no denying the glowing reputation D'Antoni has garnered for himself with his innovative style on the offensive end.
However, there are some detractors who may indicate that the offense itself lacks substance and the road blocks D'Antoni's Phoenix Suns team faced against the San Antonio Spurs were due to the slower and more physical pace of the playoffs.
Furthermore, the main criticism against D'Antoni is the fact that he doesn't seem to concerned with the defensive end of the floor.
Perhaps the greatest chance the Suns had to win it all under D'Antoni was in the NBA playoffs in 2007. Many believed that the Suns were destined to win the title if they had gotten past the Spurs. However, a series of suspensions and an unfortunate flesh wound on Nash cost them the chance in a series of unfortunate events.
With that playoff run being the pinnacle of D'Antoni's system at work, there is no true evidence that indicates that D'Antoni's style of play is a championship-caliber system.
However, if D'Antoni can utilize the talent around him to reignite his high-octane style of offense, make key tweaks and with a measure of luck, the Lakers have a legitimate shot of winning the NBA title.
Stats used in this article are accurate as of Nov. 19, 2012
The Lakers Need to Do More Than Just Run-and-Gun
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Mike D'Antoni's style of offense revolves around a philosophy that urges the roster to take the first available shot.
Furthermore, the emphasis is on taking a shot in seven seconds or less, despite whether a fast-break is ignited via a rebound or not.
If the first available shot isn't a great option, D'Antoni's teams would generally use the remaining time on the shot clock to run a standard pick-and-roll.
Traditionally, a pick-and-roll under D'Antoni's offense and Steve Nash's court vision would entail a variety of options.
Whether it be a roll to the basket by the big man, a mid-range pop from the big man, an open shot from Nash, deep penetration by Nash or a kick-out to an open shooter, the options all center around successful pick-and-roll play by the point guard and the big man.
Replacing Amar'e Stoudemire with Dwight Howard in D'Antoni's offense, the L.A. Lakers have a great one-two punch for the pick-and-roll.
Furthermore, Pau Gasol, Kobe Bryant and Metta World Peace are all capable shooters from the perimeter and can stretch the floor for this system to work as it had in Phoenix.
However, the main difference is the fact that the Lakers are an older team than the run-and-gun Phoenix Suns team D'Antoni used to coach.
While the pick-and-roll can still be a great cog in the offensive system, the Lakers may or may not be able to maintain such a hectic pace for the duration of the season without wearing out their veteran players.
The key to maintaining this high-octane offense is to diversify the styles of attack.
Furthermore, the offense itself will be slowed down against more defensively minded teams who are proficient in transition. With the pace slowing and becoming more physical in the playoffs, it is integral that the Lakers still make use of their other strengths.
One of their greatest strengths is the size and versatility of their big men.
Dwight Howard's strength in the low post and Gasol's skilled footwork in both the low and high posts make them two of the most dangerous weapons in the Lakers' arsenal.
By combining the fast pace with their size and skill advantage in the post against a lot of other teams in the NBA, the Lakers can make it hard for any team to prepare for them.
Furthermore, in the half-court and in clutch situations, there is no better isolation player and creator in Kobe Bryant.
Kobe Bryant Needs to Continue Being the Focal Point of the Offense
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Playing perhaps the most efficient basketball of his career, Kobe Bryant continues to be one of the greatest offensive weapons in the league.
Averaging 26.4 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.4 assists thus far, Bryant has shown longevity and toughness in his veteran age that is astonishing.
However, there is no doubt that in D'Antoni's offense, the offense is going to be orchestrated by Steve Nash during most possessions.
With this in mind, Nash's main priority should be utilizing the talent around him to create the best offense possible.
Consider the fact that although the players around Nash are very talented, a lot of them are inconsistent.
Consider Pau Gasol. His numerous moves in the low post, his passing from both posts and his court vision make him one of the most versatile big men in the league.
However, Gasol has a tendency to fold in clutch moments and is often criticized for being a soft player in the face of tougher and more physical players.
Consider Metta World Peace. When in shape, Peace is one of the better defenders in the league with tenacious grit and ability on the offensive end. However, as his career has progressed, his inconsistencies on offense remain a problem for the Lakers.
Finally, consider Dwight Howard. The big man would be a perfect fit for Nash in transition and utilizing the pick and roll.
However, when neither option works out to jump-start the offense, Howard's developing post game and inability to hit his free throws accurately make him a hard option to utilize in the clutch and at the end of the shot clock.
With all this being said, the most reliable offensive option in transition, in the half court and in clutch situations continues to be Kobe Bryant.
The one knock against Bryant throughout the years is his reputation as a ball-stopper and his high volume of shots.
However, playing perhaps the most efficient basketball of his career and garnering a high number of assists almost every game since Nash has been out, Bryant proves that he can still deliver as the focal point of any offense.
Defense Needs to Be a Focal Point of the Overall Strategy
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Mike D'Antoni has a terrible reputation for being an offensive-minded coach without too much concern for the defensive side of the basketball.
Thus far in the NBA season, the Lakers have put up decent defensive numbers.
Ranking seventh in defensive rebounds, 14th in opponents' scoring, 11th in defensive efficiency, 12th in blocks, and 16th in steals, the Lakers have been slightly above average on the defensive end of the ball.
However, though their numbers have trended upwards as they've fought their way back to .500, the transition style they are going to fully implement under D'Antoni will generate more shots not only for the Lakers, but also for opposing teams.
Once their offense is perfected, expect the Lakers and their opponents to have to defend against an increased number of shot attempts per game.
While the Lakers have the best defensive big man in the league in Dwight Howard and very proficient perimeter defenders in Metta World Peace and Kobe Bryant, they do have some liabilities. The most glaring weak spot for the Lakers is the point-guard position.
Though Steve Nash is an offensive specialist, his defense has never been a strong suit. In his old age, his defensive skills will only continue to wane.
Thus, combining the lack of penetration defense from the front line of the offense and the lack of defensive emphasis in D'Antoni's system, it is going to be on the players to communicate on the defensive end.
Defensive rotations, help defense and a constant presence in the paint are going to be vital for the Lakers on the defensive end.
Dwight Howard Is Going to Have to Hit His Free Throws at a Higher Clip
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Continuing to hit his free throws at close to a 50 percent clip, Dwight Howard's most glaring weakness has yet to be rectified.
In close-game situations, Howard continues to be a liability as teams tend to bail themselves out by sending the big man to the line.
When D'Antoni's system is full implemented, a lot of shot attempts for Howard will end via the fast break, a roll to the rim or an easy basket under the net.
Unfortunately for opponents, Howard's size, physicality and speed make it almost impossible for teams to deny him position in the paint. Furthermore, his wide frame and athleticism make him the perfect roller in a pick-and-roll offense.
For years, the best way for opposing teams to mitigate Howard's strength and positioning in the paint by bailing themselves out with hard fouls and steal attempts.
The higher number of shots Howard is going to have within the paint and via the pick-and-roll are going to be met by more and more fouls.
As disruptive as fouls are to the flow of the offense, missed free throws are that much more detrimental.
If the Lakers are going to have any hope of fighting off this cheap style of defense, Howard is going to have to make his free throws to deter teams from taking this shortcut.
Steve Nash Has to Be 100 Percent by the Playoffs
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Perhaps the main key to this entire operation is Steve Nash.
The way the offense is run, the ball will almost always be initiated by pick-and-roll play or drive-and-kicks.
Although Kobe Bryant is a capable passer, there is no other true play-maker on the team besides Nash. Being regarded as one of the most creative passers in the history of the league, Nash is the most important cog in D'Antoni's offense.
Although the Lakers have fought their way back to .500 without Nash, the playoffs are a different animal.
With the physicality and slowness of playoff basketball, Nash's ability to create will be more important than ever.
With transition ball being mitigated in the playoffs, Nash's proficiency on the pick-and-roll and creating for others in the half court will be important in attempting to prevent stagnation on the offensive end of the ball.
Often, when the ball slows down, possessions end with a Bryant isolation.
However, though Bryant is one of the best one-on-one players in the NBA, this style of play is not conducive to championship titles.
With Nash, the diversity and talent base of the Lakers' roster can continue to be utilized under Nash's offensive mind.
Though known more for his pick-and-roll and transition play, Nash is one of the best at driving and kicking the basketball in the half-court.
Despite his age and defensive woes, Nash will be essential in keeping the offense flowing no matter how much the pace slows down as the season wears on.