Now that Steve Nash and Pau Gasol have finally both returned to the Los Angeles Lakers, it's time to answer the question: How long will it take the healthy Lakers to reach peak form?
Now it's important to note that the Lakers aren't healthy quite yet. Dwight Howard's health has improved since the start of the season, but he's clearly still dealing with back issues. So for the sake of argument, we'll assume that Dwight recovers over the course of the season.
Strangely enough, exactly when the Lakers reach their peak form won't be measured with time, but with change.
The Lakers, even when healthy, have two serious flaws—a terribly constructed play style and an utter lack of team chemistry. They'll reach their top gear as soon as those two very fixable flaws are taken care of...and not a second sooner.
We'll start with the system.
There were some serious critics of the Mike D'Antoni hire when it was made, and the reasons behind those criticisms are becoming apparent. His vaunted basketball system is simply nowhere near optimal for the current iteration of the Lakers.
D'Antoni's system is centered around playing offensive-minded basketball at breakneck speed. It requires a whole lot of speed, athleticism and outside shooting to be effective. Naturally, the Lakers have almost none of those things.
The Lakers are old, slow and not at all athletic. They have a couple of shooters, but not the amount or level of shooters that D'Antoni's system requires to be successful.
Yet, for whatever reason, the Lakers are still trying to run D'Antoni's system with little or no modifications to suit their personnel. They currently play the fourth-fastest brand of basketball in the league, and they've hoisted up 744 three-pointers so far this season, putting them at third overall in three-point attempts (per Basketball Reference).
The result has been a disorganized mess, both offensively and defensively. The Lakers score 109 points per 100 possessions, sixth in the league (per Basketball Reference).
However, that's a result of the sheer talent that they have on the court, not the way it's being utilized. The offense is, on the whole, a Kobe Bryant-led chuckfest. It's working now, but it's nowhere near ideal and more than likely won't hold up for an entire season.
Defensively, the Lakers are ranked 21st in the league, allowing 106 points per 100 possessions (per Basketball Reference). Though the Lakers have very few good defenders, the halfcourt defense will be okay when Dwight is completely healthy, simply because he's the best defender in the league.
But, primarily because of the pace they play, the Lakers are getting absolutely scorched in transition. They're daring teams to race them even though they're the team that can't keep up.
Though the Lakers don't have what they need to play “D'Antoni ball,” they do have two of the best big men in the league, both of whom have been starved for touches.
Gasol recently told USA TODAY's Sam Amick:
I don't find (playing with Howard) tough. It's more the system right now that makes it tough at times, because (D'Antoni) wants four guys to be spread and one interior guy and it's a guard-oriented system, so that makes it tough. I think there's enough looks for both of us. But again, it's not a system that you post up a lot, so we'll see. We've just got to figure it out, but if you've got two great post-up players, you've got to utilize it.
He's right. Foregoing D'Antoni's system for a slower-paced system that utilizes all of the Lakers' collective talents would be an offensive and defensive boost and wouldn't be so hard on the Lakers' aging bodies.
But D'Antoni responded to Pau by saying (again to USA TODAY's Sam Amick):
It's Pau who has to expand his game, and he'll expand out in the corner threes and he needs to take a couple, and we'll get him in the post when we can. But if we can't, we'll just get him relaxed and then everything will be good…Just try to figure out how we're going to win, how we're going to co-exist.
D'Antoni's insistence on pigeonholing his players into a preexisting system, rather than creating a system for the unique collection of talent he has, is both puzzling and counterproductive. Until D'Antoni discards or heavily modifies his strategy, the Lakers will never reach peak form. It's as simple as that.
Of course, D'Antoni's system isn't the only problem in L.A. Unless the Lakers generate some kind of team chemistry, they're not going to reach a championship level. That's just the way it works.
The 2003-04 Los Angeles Lakers definitively proved that an NBA team can't win a championship unless they all get along, or have such overwhelming talent that it just doesn't matter. This team is talented, but certainly not overwhelmingly so, which means that they better start creating some chemistry fast.
Just look at what's been going on in Lakerland these days. Kobe is calling out his teammates. Gasol is complaining about post touches. Antawn Jamison is upset about his lack of playing time. D'Antoni is snapping at reporters...the list goes on and on.
Those are just the off-court issues. That's not including the glares, finger-pointing and frustrated on-court arguments that seem to happen game after game.
The Lakers are playing utterly joyless basketball right now. Everyone seems to want different things. There's no sense of community or camaraderie among the team.
If you look at the best teams in the league—the Oklahoma City Thunder, Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs and the Los Angeles Clippers—you'll see that they get along on and off the court. They don't have a lot of internal problems, and everyone knows and accepts their role on the court. Going beyond that, they clearly enjoy playing together. It's why they're so successful.
There's absolutely no sense of that with the Lakers. They're a mess on and off the court right now, and it's not just because of the new faces on the squad. They genuinely look like they hate playing together. Until that changes, they'll never hit their peak form.
The good news for the Lakers is that it's pretty much scientifically proven that Steve Nash is incredibly fun to play with, so they're bound to start building some chemistry. Nash has thoroughly mastered the art of keeping other players happy, and if the Lakers start winning, they should be a lot happier in a few months. In theory, anyways.
The Lakers won't reach their peak level—a championship-caliber level—until D'Antoni gives them a new play style and until they start generating some team chemistry on and off the court. There's still plenty of ball left to play, but the Lakers are also dealing with some pretty big problems. Clock's ticking, guys.
All stats are accurate as of 12/31/2012