5 Reasons the L.A. Lakers Are Speeding Up After Slow Start
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The L.A. Lakers—who began the season a pathetic 1-4—gave new meaning to the expression "slow start". More than a facilitator for their offense, this bunch needed a resuscitator.
It wasn't so much about things going wrong. It was that nothing seemed to be going right for an organization that's quite accustomed to having its way on and off the court.
Expectations have been higher than usual in championship-hungry Los Angeles, mainly because the team added Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to a starting lineup that already included perennial All-Stars Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant.
The Lakers finished last season getting dumped on by the Oklahoma City Thunder in the second round of the playoffs. Surely, they'd come out of the starting gate this fall and quickly establish themselves with their new-look Princeton offense led by their new superstar point guard and center.
Even a winless preseason couldn't dampen coach Mike Brown's enthusiasm for what he envisioned once the real season got under way. What he didn't see coming was a 1-4 start and his own dismissal, the second earliest firing of a head coach since Dolph Schayes of the old Buffalo Braves resigned after just one game in 1971.
Quicker than you can yell "Metta, don't shoot that three-pointer", the Lakers came roaring back after the Brown firing to win five of their next six games.
As Mike D'Antoni made his debut Tuesday night, a 95-90 win over Brooklyn, it's become obvious that after their very slow beginning, the Lakers are speeding up in more ways than one.
Let's take a look at why the Lakers are coming together so quickly after such a slow beginning.
Mike Brown Is Out, Mike D'Antoni Is In.
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Let's face facts—Mike Brown as head coach of the Lakers was a disaster. We could look Jim Buss in the eye and say "told you so", but what good would that do?
The reality is that Mike Brown was the wrong fit for the Lakers in a number of ways. While acknowledged as one of the nicest, hardest-working coaches in the NBA, Brown is also known for the way he tends to micro-manage players and games.
That approach may work on an average team trying hard to make the playoffs, but not a club that's built to win now with some of the greatest players to have ever laced up a pair of court shoes.
The day Brown was unceremoniously fired, the team seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief. Though all players respected Brown and hated to see him go, they still must have felt like a weight was lifted off their shoulders.
In a matter of hours, the Lakers went from being over-taught students with tremendous pressure to re-energized professionals unencumbered and free to play without really having to think too much.
The results have been sensational. The team is 5-1 since Brown's departure.
Princeton Gives Way to Free-Flow Offense
The plodding Princeton offense was an experiment that blew up before it had time to germinate. It might have been a good idea before the Lakers acquired Howard and Nash, but it was simply the wrong plan of attack after the fact.
Why Brown and his staff kept trying to go with the Princeton over either a pick-and-roll or up-tempo offense was baffling. Until he broke a foot, Steve Nash tried his best to fit the Princeton into his style but it was like switching to a Ford Focus after you've been used to driving a Maserati for years.
After just one game—their 99-91 home opening loss to the Dallas Mavericks—the pundits were calling for the team to scrap the Princeton.
As conveyed by Yahoo! sports columnist David Mehrwein: "With four players starting outside the three-point line and one player at the top of the key, it plays against the Lakers' strengths. With Steve Nash and Pau Gasol/Dwight Howard on the court, the Lakers should be running the pick and roll; rendering other teams defenseless against their scoring ability. The Princeton offense does not allow the Lakers to get up enough shots in order to be competitive and use the offensive talent that is provided by the presence of their new role players. The Princeton offense needs to go."
The first thing assistant Bernie Bickerstaff did after Mike Brown was fired was to let his troops play a more up-tempo game and get bigs Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard more engaged through pick and rolls and high screens.
It paid off in the form of a 101-77 thrashing of the Golden State Warriors. The Lakers looked like an entirely different team.
Dwight Howard Rounding into Shape
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Dwight Howard's recovery from back surgery has been rather remarkable. Still, he struggled in the preseason to learn the Princeton and needed the time to work on his core conditioning.
Howard seemed like he was getting used to the idea of a slower, half-court game under Mike Brown when the ax fell on the former coach. When he learned the up-tempo game of D'Antoni was coming to L.A., Howard was quick to endorse the hire.
"We're excited for D'Antoni and an up-paced offense," Howard said via ESPN.com.
"Everything he's done with the teams he's had as far as how they pushed the ball and how they play in an open court, I think it will be good for Steve (Nash) and for all of us to put some points on the board."
Howard has been impressive, averaging 20 points and 11 rebounds. The latter statistic is less than his career mark of 13 boards per game, but Howard is just getting to the point where the spring in his legs is coming back to near normal. He pulled down 15 boards Tuesday night against the Nets to go along with his 23 points.
Howard is also free under the D'Antoni system to play pick and roll more often than he would have been with Brown. And once Nash is back in action, expect that aspect of his game to open up even further.
Steve Nash Was Misused Under Brown: His Return Will Spur Lakers Further
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Just the thought of Steve Nash being out on the floor, directing an up-tempo, Mike D'Antoni-coached offense makes the Lakers a better team.
The bottom line is that Mike Brown's offense was not suited to the style of Steve Nash, plain and simple. Brown should have scrapped the Princeton the day after Nash was acquired by the Lakers in July. But he didn't, and the team suffered for it.
Nash flourished under the guidance of Mike D'Antoni while at Phoenix and was the league's MVP two years in a row. With Nash recuperating and backup Steve Blake nursing an abdominal strain, second-year point guard Darius Morris has been playing the Nash role and doing quite well.
Still, Morris is no Nash and once the veteran PG and future Hall of Famer returns, expect to see this offense fly into yet another gear.
Nash averaged 11 assists per game last season for the Suns. He averaged over 10 assists for seven of the eight seasons he played in Phoenix, so if he's healthy in L.A. you can expect similar numbers even at age 38.
It Takes Time for Team Chemistry to Gel
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Team chemistry is critical to the success of any franchise. The Lakers spent the preseason and first few games getting to know each other and it's starting to pay dividends.
Teams talk about adversity all the time and how that can bring a club closer together. Whether a team of 10 games can qualify as suffering through adversity is questionable, but the Lakers have certainly felt the pressure and seen a lot in a short period of time.
The Mike Brown firing and subsequent snub of Phil Jackson to be the next coach in favor of D'Antoni created a circus-like atmosphere in El Segundo, practice home of the Lakers. But, as Howard noted in a recent television interview after practice:
"The key for us is to just go out and play."
Sounds simple enough, but that simple philosophy was apparent in the subsequent games following the departure of Mike Brown.
The Miami Heat of Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh and LeBron James started their first season together 9-8 before they started to gel and run off some impressive win streaks. The Lakers of Howard, Bryant, Nash and Gasol face a similar situation and it's bound to be a bit rough around the edges while they all get to know each other.
But, by the look of the team as they battled and defeated Brooklyn Tuesday night, the Lakers are quickly getting acquainted.