Mike D'Antoni should adjust to his talent and not try to mold them into something they are not.
There's really no way to teach chemistry. But, for the L.A. Lakers to make a serious run at the playoffs, they'll need to make adjustments both on and off the court as they look for that elusive key to success.
To date, the Lakers of 2012-13 have resembled more of a hodgepodge than a cohesive unit. They often play on different pages, fail to help the helper on defense, take whole possessions off and lose focus when opponents go on runs and widen leads.
The Lakers managed to get their first win of the new year on Sunday, beating the lowly Cavaliers 113-101 at Staples Center. Some might call it a step in the right direction, but if that was their silver lining, the Lakers might think about shredding their current playbook and starting over next fall.
L.A. did play some solid defense, getting contributions from Dwight Howard (14 rebounds), Earl Clark (nine rebounds) and Kobe Bryant, who relentlessly hounded Cavs point guard Kyrie Irving in the first half as the Lakers raced to a 57-45 lead.
But, as a team, the Lakers took just 69 shots to Cleveland's 95. It may have worked for a night against one of the NBA's worst teams, but try putting up 26 fewer shots than teams like Miami, Oklahoma City or the L.A. Clippers and see what happens.
Mike D'Antoni has been trying all sorts of approaches to bring the Lakers out of their malaise. But, just by saying that the new season started Sunday and the Lakers are 1-0 is like saying your chances for winning the Mega Millions Lottery are 100 percent because you bought a ticket today.
The Lakers are working hard to find their chemistry. They are trying to find the most effective and efficient path that will lead them to at least the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
But, time is running out. They may improve their chemistry, but will it be enough and will it be too late?
Jodie Meeks is part of an underachieving Lakers bench.
Nothing improves chemistry more than an inspired bench that cheerleads from the sidelines and contributes in bunches when the given opportunity arises.
That has not been the case for the Lakers this season, but there's still ample time for that to change.
There have been moments, brief stretches when a few players brought their A-level games onto the court. Otherwise, results have been rather dismal.
Robert Sacre, Jodie Meeks, Antawn Jamison, Earl Clark, Darius Morris, Devin Ebanks and Chris Duhon have all had limited success on the court. But, as a unit, the second team is not keeping or building leads. They tend to lose them, oftentimes very quickly.
Only four other teams in the NBA are less productive through 37 games than the Lakers bench. Averaging 15 minutes of action per game, the Lakers bench contributes just 26.8 points a contest, according to Hoopsstats.com.
That compares to the top two benches in the league, San Antonio and the Clippers, who average 42 and 41 points per game off the pine, respectively. And, the Lakers bench is 22nd and 23rd respectively in rebounds and assists.
Due to major injuries (Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Jordan Hill, Steve Blake and Steve Nash), the Lakers bench has become more of a M.A.S.H. unit than anything else. That, in itself, makes it hard to build chemistry.
Some, such as Earl Clark, have gone from being non-factors (thanks to D'Antoni) on the bench to logging over 30 minutes a game as a sub for an injured player (Jordan Hill, now out for the season). Clark was invisible as a bench player.
In his last four games, playing 21, 28, 37 and 36 minutes, Clark has emerged from under a rock to average 10 rebounds and 12.5 points.
But, the bench remains a dull reminder of just how ineffective the Lakers have been as a complete team competing for 48 minutes.
Metta World Peace says that the second unit often beats the first during practice. Now they need to show up for the real games and do the same.
Dwight Howard's upbeat personality can be a conduit for team chemistry.
Is it possible that Dwight Howard is just a bit jealous of his neighbor, the L.A. Clippers?
He's noticed how close Chris Paul and his teammates appear to be and thinks his own team could learn a thing or two about on- and off-the-court chemistry and brotherhood (via ESPNLA.com's Ramona Shelburne):
"It's something we have to do to get better," he said. "We have to play like we like each other. Even if we don't want to be friends off the court, whatever that may be, when we step in between the lines or we step in the locker room or the gym, we have to respect each other and what we bring to the table."
The Lakers rarely show emotion, tending to approach their jobs as just that—a job. D'Antoni doesn't think that players need to be cheerleaders for their teammates in order for them to win. Nor does Kobe Bryant, citing his three consecutive titles playing alongside the equally alpha male Shaquille O'Neal.
In their defense, the Lakers of 2012-13 have not really had the time to develop strong bonds that will carry them through to the playoffs. Yet, they have faced enough adversity in the form of injuries, coaching changes and blowouts to make them stronger in the long run.
The more success Dwight Howard and Steve Nash have as the newest Lakers, the more camaraderie the rest of the team should develop. Winning can cure just about anything, including a lack of chemistry.
Over the next 30 days, the Lakers need to beat the cellar dwellers, win some road games and occasionally knock teams that sit atop the standings.
If they can do that, the Lakers will discover they have a lot more chemistry than they ever realized.
Kobe Bryant has not been a steller defender this year. He's promised to pick up his game, which should inspire his teammates.
Great teams that win championships in virtually ever sport do so with great defense. And, great defense in the NBA involves an on-court ability to know where your cover is and help your teammates when needed.
James Worthy and Magic Johnson, both architects of the Lakers Showtime championship teams of the 1980s, always point to their defensive chemistry as the main reason they were able to score so many points on the fast break. Without it, they've often said, their Lakers team would not have been able to get up the floor in transition and score in bunches.
The same can be said of the great Boston Celtics teams of the 1960s, the dominating San Antonio Spurs of the 1990s and even the championship teams of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal/Pau Gasol during the first decade of this century.
Dwight Howard is the anchor of the Lakers defense—he's a three-time winner of the league's Defensive Player of the Year award. But, he can't do it alone.
Howard has called out his teammates to step up their games, to "help the helper" when a double team creates open lanes and unguarded opponents. He specifically pointed the finger at Kobe Bryant's lack of focus on a number of occasions.
NBCLosAngeles.com's Shahan Ahmed wrote of an early season altercation between Howard and Bryant over Kobe's failure to pick up his cover and, instead, do more ball watching than defending:
Against New Orleans, Dwight Howard finally stepped forward to let the world know that Kobe was not above playing defense. Howard yelled at Kobe during the game.
On the night when Kobe became the youngest player to reach 30,000 points, Dwight publicly called out No.24 on his missed defensive assignments and failure to rotate.
Lakers beat reporter, Kevin Ding, sent out the following flurry of tweets describing the scene:
“Dwight in disbelief at Kobe's lack of defensive rotation on Robin Lopez dunk. NO 12, LA 7.”
“Dwight and Kobe yelling at each other after Lopez gets another open basket.”
“Dwight yelled at Kobe for not rotating to Lopez. Kobe yelled back at Dwight, pointing toward the other end of the court.”
“Now in the timeout huddle, Dwight is standing up and pointing a finger in the face of the seated Kobe.”
If D12 leads and Kobe Bryant follows suit, the Lakers defense stands an excellent chance of making significant strides.
Metta World Peace, Earl Clark, Antawn Jamison and even Steve Nash are not above playing effective defense. But, they need the biggest two stars on the team to lead the way.
Is anyone listening? Steve Nash could be the true leader the Lakers have been missing since Derek Fisher was traded last year.
The closest thing to a leader the Lakers have is Steve Nash. He is most capable of occupying the role, but will need to turn it up a notch or two in order to get there.
All great teams have leaders on and off the court who bring other players together, inspire them to play hard and create a bunker mentality that fosters a winning attitude.
For the Lakers, those players have included Derek Fisher, who was a member of five championship teams, and Lamar Odom, a five-tool talent who managed to keep the clubhouse light when the stress levels got too high.
Kobe Bryant may be many things, including a tremendous scorer with a work ethic second to none, but he has never been thought of as a natural-born leader. He tends to lead with the effort he puts out night after night on the court, which is consistently superior.
But, what this team needs now is a leader who will encourage teammates, command their respect, teach and, ultimately, make big plays when they are needed.
That player can be Steve Nash, even though he's missed 24 of 37 games due to injury and is just now finding his basketball rhythm. Bryant must adjust to the fact that Steve Nash is running the show and not him, despite his calling the Lakers "my team" earlier this year.
Former coach Mike Brown knew what he had when Nash came over in a midsummer sign and trade with the Phoenix Suns. During training camp, Brown talked of Nash, the leader (via the Los Angeles Times' Mark Medina):
"He's a natural leader, more of a quiet leader than a rah-rah-type leader," Lakers Coach Mike Brown said. "But you can definitely tell that everybody respects him. He has a great feel for the game. He understands when and how much he needs to learn, too. He knows how to listen as much as he knows how to teach. It helps out tremendously. It makes you feel like you have an assistant out there on the floor."
Mike D'Antoni should adapt and adjust his coaching philosophy to fit the talent he has on the Lakers roster.
Team chemistry starts at the top with the coaching staff.
Just what sort of rapport has coach Mike D'Antoni been able to establish with his group of veteran superstars and assorted pieces since taking over for Mike Brown five games into the regular season?
It seems mixed at best.
D'Antoni says he prefers an up-tempo game in which ball movement creates open lanes and isolated open shots for perimeter shooters. The philosophy has become a square peg versus round hole concept, and it's obvious to most that it's not working.
D'Antoni attributes the chemistry issues to the lack of playing time Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant and others have shared since training camp. According to Ramona Shelburne of ESPNLA.com, D'Antoni said:
"I don't know if it's because of a lack of training camp, or a lack of Steve being with us from the beginning, but the relationship between Steve and Dwight's got to get a lot better," D'Antoni said. "It's not creating the easy shots that we need."
Taking over a team and trying to shape it to fit the skills of one player (point guard Steve Nash) is proving to be a most difficult task for D'Antoni.
The old, slow-a-foot Lakers require a coaching directive that emphasizes half-court offense, directed by Nash. It would still emphasize pick-and-roll opportunities but would also look to pound the ball into the block for its bigs, including Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Robert Sacre and Earl Clark.
The very fact that both Jordan Hill and Earl Clark rode the bench and played very little before injuries allowed them to shine, illustrates just how off target D'Antoni was in his thinking that the Lakers should play an up-tempo game at the expense of solid defense.
Out of necessity, D'Antoni has been forced to slow up the game enough to give his team an opportunity to get back and play solid defense. It remains the only way this edition of the L.A. Lakers has any chance of getting to the postseason.
Such a change in tactics may also eventually save Mike D'Antoni's his job.