Los Angeles Lakers Can Be Thankful for Bernie Bickerstaff
After a dismal 1-4 start to the regular season, Mike Brown was fired as the Lakers' head coach.
Thereafter, chaos ensued.
Roaring chants resounded through Staples Center, willing the return of the great Zen Master, Phil Jackson. Over the next precarious days of wonder and speculation, names like Mike D'Antoni, Brian Shaw, Nate McMillan and even Jerry Sloan would be thrown into the mix.
Who would clean up the mess that Mike Brown left behind?
For the 33 All-Star selections in their starting unit, the Lakers had been reduced to a disjointed bunch, searching for an identity in their new Princeton offense. The philosophy constricted the Lakers to a stagnant, half-court team, yielding less opportunity for easy transition baskets.
The results were staggering.
At an anemic 97.2 points per game, Mike Brown's Lakers sunk to the franchise's lowest points-per-game average since the 1954-55 Minneapolis Lakers. Panic time in Lakerland.
Enter Bernie Bickerstaff.
Inheriting one of the worst starts to a season in Lakers history—as well as one of the most demanding sports-media markets in the country—Bernie Bickerstaff's run as Interim Head Coach would be anything but ordinary.
What happened? Well, history was made.
In a little over a week Bickerstaff led the Lakers to a 4-1 record, giving him the all-time highest winning percentage of any Lakers coach.
"That'll get me a Popsicle," Bickerstaff cracked.
While his light demeanor and jovial way of diffusing media tension earned much praise, Bickerstaff's impact on the X's and O's of the game should not pass without recognition. Behind that wry, cheerful grin, Bernie Bickerstaff's savvy basketball intuition helped turn an entire franchise around.
Bickerstaff's first order of of business: Remove the dysfunctional Princeton offense.
Brown's Princeton offense had been the chain around the Lakers' ankles.
Under Brown, the Lakers were second-to-last in transition offense production, scoring only 41 points in five games. That's an average of barely eight fast-break points a game.
In addition to the Lakers' nearly nonexistent transition game, their half court sets were supremely inefficient.
In the first five games, the Lakers amassed a total of 93 turnovers—an average of nearly 19 a game.
Unfortunately, these turnovers did not result from a high-risk, high-reward brand of basketball. As the porous 1:1 assist-to-turnover ratio would indicate, these turnovers were instead systemic of an offense that struggled with spacing, timing and execution.
The Lakers needed a change.
But what was Bickerstaff to do? He had the freedom to implement any offense he saw fit.
Ironically, the right move was one so suited to his personality. He stepped back.
He took a laissez-faire approach to the game, described by Pau Gasol as, "...just keeping it simple and letting us play."
And it worked.
Seemingly overnight, the Lakers transformed into a fluid, decisive and dynamic basketball team.
With Bickerstaff at the helm, the Lakers' fast-break production jumped from eight points to 14 point per game.
Equally encouraging, the Lakers' assist-to-turnover ratio improved to a respectable 1.5:1 over the same span.
Catapulting the Lakers to the fifth-highest rank in overall team efficiency, their reinvented style has translated to a more exciting and effective brand of basketball.
However, Bickerstaff's positive influence extends beyond a knowledge of general basketball principles.
His in-game decision making—particular to player rotation and bench substitution patterns—revitalized what was once one of the worst benches in the NBA.
Under the previous methodology, Mike Brown employed a 'block substitution' pattern, where Kobe and Dwight Howard would come out at the exact same time. This substitution strategy killed the Lakers' production, because it would leave the rest of the players on the floor without a superstar.
Without Dwight Howard playing with the bench, the Lakers did not have an inside threat to draw the attention of the defense. This forced the Lakers to rely primarily on their outside shooting.
The Lakers' bench shot a combined 37 percent from the field and a dismal 29 percent from the three-point line under Brown.
Enter Bernie Bickerstaff, and the bench suddenly springs to life.
Instead of relying on block substitutions, Bickerstaff opted to take Kobe and Howard out at separate times, thus overlapping their minutes. Bickerstaff's approach allowed Howard to play extensive minutes with the bench unit.
Over the first give games of block substitutions, the Lakers' bench managed a mere 87 points—an average of 17 points per game.
Their production has increased dramatically with the addition of Howard. Not withstanding Howard's personal statistics, Bickerstaff's bench unit posted 124 points, for an average of over 25 points per game.
As much as Howard's interior game helps the Lakers' offensive continuity, his interior presence brings a much-needed strength to the bench on the defensive side of the ball.
Do the Lakers need to make a trade to contend for a title?
Because NBA teams want their starters fresh to start and finish games, they primarily rely on their bench to play more minutes in the second and third quarters.
In the second and third quarters of the first five games, the Lakers gave up an average of over 25 points. The Lakers succeeded to outscore their opponents in both the second and third quarters in only one of these games.
After inserting Howard into the bench unit, the Lakers held their opponents to a respectable average of 23 points per game in the second and third quarters.
While Bickerstaff's tenure as Interim Head Coach may have been short lived, his guidance and leadership could not have come at a more crucial time. For this unprecedented turnaround has all taken place without the Lakers' valued floor general, Steve Nash.
And in just one short week, all is well again in Lakerland. The panic has dissipated, for the moment. And Championship speculation has returned to its usual place in the papers and the homes and the hearts of Lakers fans everywhere.
There is still much to be done before the Lakers reach their goal of raising the Larry O'Brien Trophy at the end of the year.
But amidst the quest for glory and greater things, credit should be given where credit is due, and it most certainly is due to the man whom Kobe Bryant referred to as the "consummate professional": Bernie Bickerstaff.
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