Whenever an NBA team struggles, it may be because of an identity issue. It may not seem like a big deal, but the lack of a true identity hurts more than it may seem.
Take the New York Knicks, for example. They were a team known for playing a slow, defensive game, but then Mike D'Antoni came in and tried to make them a run-and-gun team. That didn't work, and the team is now flying high thanks to Mike Woodson bringing the old system back.
Other teams this year have not been so lucky.
The Boston Celtics are having a hard time adjusting to life without Ray Allen, and the young Washington Wizards continue to struggle, even with talented veterans in the locker room.
Many other teams are still on the hunt for who they really are. Until they find their true identities, they will sadly be destined to struggle.
Dallas is not even two seasons removed from a championship, but its lack of an identity is clear.
The 2010-2011 team was a scrappy bunch fueled by motivation, refusing to back down against a tough opponent in the Miami Heat and their Big Three. Led by Dirk Nowitzki and some clutch scoring from Jason Kidd and Jason Terry, plus a dominant center in Tyson Chandler, Dallas won the 2011 Finals in six games.
Chandler then hit free agency and signed with the New York Knicks, and the house fell down. It was as though the Mavericks completely forgot how to play defense, and the team was swept out of the playoffs in the first round, as a No. 7 seed.
Dallas would not even make the playoffs this year if the season ended today. Nowitzki has yet to play in a game due to knee surgery, and Jason Terry and Jason Kidd have both departed via free agency. The only remaining players from the championship team are Shawn Marion and Rodrigue Beaubois.
The team was a fast-paced unit committed to defense during their championship season, but now they just look lost. They have an injury-prone scoring center in Chris Kaman, a pure shooter in O.J. Mayo and an aging point man in Derek Fisher.
Even if Nowitzki comes back at full strength, this team has no idea what it's all about.
Head coach Rick Carlisle had better sit down and take a look at his players to figure out just how to get the best out of them. Otherwise, he may be coaching elsewhere next season.
The Nuggets have not played absolutely horribly this season, but have still not lived up to the hype with their 14-13 record. Andre Iguodala was acquired in the Dwight Howard trade and has been the starting shooting guard, but he is a point forward whose scoring has never been his strongest suit.
Also, for some reason or another the team has no true No. 1 center. Instead, coach George Karl has Kosta Koufos and Javale McGee split the minutes at the position. Yes, McGee is young and can sometimes be immature, but he should still be the starter there due to his ability to dominate on both sides of the floor.
The saddest part is that Denver has all of the tools to be great. Ty Lawson is a phenomenal point guard, Danilo Gallinari is a great shooter, and Kenneth Faried is a defensive beast.
Still, they have not lived up to par because of Karl's insistence on using his players in certain roles. He wants his guys to play a defensive run-and-gun game, but the key player, Iguodala, is not suited for this system.
Rather, Karl should incorporate some isolation plays for Iguodala while occasionally using the run-and-gun. A slow-paced game is never a bad thing, and the Nuggets have the potential to make a statement in the Western Conference once the ship is righted.
That means Karl needs to find an identity and stick to it, and not keep on using a system that is a recipe for inconsistency.
The Nets got off to a great start at 11-4, but the wheels have fallen off. They are currently 13-12, and the luster they had at the start of the season is starting to fade away.
That isn't to say that the Nets are a bad team. They have a great deal of talent and their struggles can be attributed to the shooting issues of point guard Deron Williams and a recent injury to center Brook Lopez.
However, the Nets' problems run deeper than that. Here is a team that moved from New Jersey to try and establish a rivalry with the New York Knicks, but all they really did to fuel the fire was acquire a big-name player in Joe Johnson and re-sign key guys like Williams and Lopez.
The Nets may play in Brooklyn, but there is really nothing about the team itself that speaks to the about the borough, minus the food sold at the Barclays Center.
On top of that, what kind of team are the Nets this season? Are they a run-and-gun crew or do they rely on isolation and tough defense?
Finding the identity isn't an easy job for head coach Avery Johnson, who has lots of young players among his key veterans, but he has to find it if this team is to compete down the stretch. The move to Brooklyn means a new beginning, and that means a new identity needs to be established.
The Nets cannot just put their guys out on the floor and hope that their talent performs better than that of the opposition. Everyone needs to decide what the team is all about and how they will execute each and every victory.
The Washington Wizards' problem the past few years has been simple: They are a young team without an experienced leader or an identity.
Both problems appeared to be solved during the offseason, when GM Ernie Grunfeld acquired Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza from the New Orleans Hornets. Combined with Nene, who was acquired last season, the team had a viable veteran base who would establish a commitment to defense and help motivate the young players.
At least, that was the plan.
Washington has been without offensive catalyst John Wall all season long, as the former No. 1 pick recovers from knee surgery. As a result, everyone on the team, from veterans to inexperienced youth, appears to have fallen apart.
The Wizards do rank 11th in rebounding and 14th in points allowed, but everyone seems to have fallen asleep on offense since Wall's injury.
The team is just 3-21 and is led by an uninspiring head coach in Randy Wittman (118-238 career coaching record). The players have no idea what to do, and all Wittman can really do is hope for the best once Wall comes back, if he does at all.
Wittman should have a plan that is more than just letting his young and inexperienced players go out and play. The Wizards need structure and discipline, and they have none of that now.
Through that, they can establish an identity and finally get back on the winning track.
You can't help but feel sorry for the Milwaukee Bucks. Even though they are 13-11 and the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference, they are a house of cards just waiting to collapse. This is because their two stars, Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings, are primarily offensive players, though their defense is not absolutely awful.
Enter Milwaukee coach Scott Skiles, who has always been a defensive-minded coach. He wants to put together a balanced attack on both sides of the floor, but his two best players are guards. He has no big man or defender who can reach the same status, and thus he is forced to rely on his two guards to get the job done.
As improved as Ellis and Jennings have been on defense this year, they are scorers first. When push comes to shove, they're going to look to score points over playing consistently tough defense.
Either their attitudes or the coach need to change, or the Bucks will be sunk in the future.
Ever since the late '80s the Pistons have been a team that's all about defense. Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman and Rick Mahorn established that team as the "Bad Boys" squad that won titles in 1989 and 1990, and that tradition continued in 2004 with Ben and Rasheed Wallace.
Since then, Detroit has gone from a well-oiled machine to a lemon. The sad part is that it currently has the tools to be great again, but head coach Lawrence Frank is not utilizing everyone properly.
Instead of forming a deadly tandem of Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond in the paint, Frank opts to start the inconsistent and undersized Jason Maxiell at the 4.
Rather than take point guard Brandon Knight aside and tell him to stop shooting the ball so often and be more of a passer, the second-year floor general is allowed to run like a loose cannon.
There's only one way that this ship can be righted, and that is for Frank to take initiative and establish the old defensive identity. This means putting Drummond in as a starter alongside Monroe, and moving Tayshaun Prince back to small forward.
Both are risky moves, but Detroit needs its D.
Should the strategy work, Pistons fans will have many more reasons to smile.
The Celtics came within one win of the NBA Finals last season, but that was with Ray Allen as the starting shooting guard. He now plays for the Miami Heat, and his absence has hit Boston like a ton of bricks.
Fortunately for the team, righting the ship is a fairly simple exercise. Instead of letting Allen's absence shake their collective confidence, they just need to remember who they are.
The players must remember that they play for Doc Rivers, a man who runs a tight defensive system with isolation on offense. Every man has a role, and the Celtics can perform well so long as each man sticks to his.
More importantly, the Celtics must constantly tell themselves that they do not need Allen in order to be great. Yes, his three-point shooting is sorely missed, but he isn't on the team anymore and that's that.
Once everyone remembers how great they can be as a unit and relocate that tough defensive mindset established by Rivers, then the stage will be set for the team to go on one heck of a run.
When the Rockets signed Jeremy Lin over the summer, it appeared as though the Linsanity tour would continue in Houston. Then, GM Daryl Morey traded for reigning Sixth Man of the Year and dynamic guard James Harden.
In the blink of an eye, the team's identity became jumbled.
At first glance, it doesn't seem that bad. Rockets coach Kevin McHale uses a run-and-gun offense, and Harden and Lin are players who can thrive in that system. Unfortunately, such has yet to be.
Houston's system this season has looked like a mess as opposed to a solid identity. Jeremy Lin seems like he should be the star of the offense, but he is struggling to find his shooting touch. Given how he is more of a scoring point guard, this is a problem.
Instead, the Rockets offense looks more like a fast-paced isolation game designed around Harden and Chandler Parsons. That isn't a bad thing, but they still need a point guard who can consistently contribute.
The good news is that Lin finally appears to be turning things around, and the Rockets have won four of their last five. Even so, McHale and his assistants need to reassess the roster. Playing a run-and-gun game is fine, but it needs to be built in such a way that the best can be gotten out of every player.
At 13-12, the Rockets still have a lot of work to do in that area.
The Los Angeles Lakers have had the type of season that gives players nightmares. After spending years playing in Phil Jackson's defense-oriented Triangle Offense and then one year in Mike Brown's isolation game, it was suddenly decided that the team would play the Princeton offense to start the season.
For those who are unaware, the Princeton offense calls for constant ball movement and basically makes every position except center completely irrelevant.
This resulted in a winless preseason and a 1-4 start, so Brown was fired and replaced with offensive guru and run-and-gun enthusiast Mike D'Antoni. The result is remarkably inconsistent play that has seen the Lakers look just plain terrible at times, though that can partly be blamed on the injury to point guard Steve Nash.
Simply put, the Lakers need to figure out who they are. Are they a defensive team with a strong offense, a run-and-gun team, or a mix of the two?
Mike D'Antoni needs to be willing to deviate from his highly specific system and figure this out, lest he waste all of the talent at his disposal.
The fact of the matter is that the Lakers are the best team on paper, and to see them struggle because of their lack of identity is just plain sad.