Exposing the root cause of the 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers has been a conundrum that has vexed the organization for the entire year.
Expected to compete for a championship, the Lakers are desperately clinging to the hope they can capture the Western Conference's No. 8 seed. They are 29-30 heading into Sunday's game versus the Atlanta Hawks, two full games behind the Houston Rockets for that last playoff spot.
The examination of why this team is so disappointing has been bludgeoned into the ground so deep it may have found China.
The blame game has been endless. First it was Mike Brown, so they fired him and brought in Mike D'Antoni. Then it was Pau Gasol, who spent much of his season on the trade block before getting hurt. Then it was (and may still be) Dwight Howard, the player who is currently holding the Lakers' future hostage with his impending free agency and has been so aloof this season that we're one more lazy play away from J.R. Rider calling him out.
None of the blaming or examining really got to the crux of the team's problems—until Steve Nash broke what seemingly was a season-long silence. Nash, who signed with the Lakers this summer and stayed out of the drama-filled fray, summed their problems up in five words, per HOOPSWORLD's Alex Kennedy:
Identity is a weird word when it comes to judging basketball teams. It's completely immeasurable. For someone like me, who sticks mostly to statistical analysis, it's usually a topic worth avoiding because there is no way to quantify it.
However, you know "identity" when you see it. Tom Thibodeau's Chicago Bulls, they have an identity. They are successful because every player buys into Thibodeau's defensive system, an intricate rotation that emphasizes the defanging of pick-and-roll plays.
You'll notice one thing: Each of the teams mentioned take on the "identities" of their coach. When Nash criticizes the team's lack of identity, he's indicating a failure from D'Antoni.
It's unlikely he actually means to throw D'Antoni under the bus. The two have been close since their days with the Phoenix Suns. Still, if your team does not have an identity 60 games into the season, the criticism starts with the coaching staff.
That's not to say D'Antoni hasn't tried putting his hallmark on the Lakers. He has been oft-criticized for marrying himself to his system, especially with the choice to bench Gasol for Earl Clark. And while he has slowly adjusted, D'Antoni has done so at such a snail's pace that it may have had a season-crippling effect.
Per HoopData, the Lakers are running at the fourth-highest pace in the league, a hallmark of D'Antoni teams. They play slower than only the Rockets, Nuggets and Bucks. You may notice that each of those teams is led by young, quick guards on the perimeter; not guys with a combined 34 years in the NBA.
Overall, Houston and Denver rank among the league's 10 youngest teams while Milwaukee is, well, pretty poorly coached in its own right.
Similarly, the Lakers also emphasize the most efficient part of D'Antoni's offense—inside-out shot selection. They take the third-most threes in the NBA per game and use the paint at an above-average rate while being inside the bottom five in longer, mid-range jumpers—the least efficient shot in basketball.
From a purely theoretical standpoint, the Lakers' shot chart reads like an efficient offense. They take plenty of threes and shots around the rim while de-emphasizing nearly every mid-range area. It's a model that worked for D'Antoni in Phoenix for years and worked for a short period in the Big Apple.
The problem with this Lakers team is that they are a league-average (at best) team at shooting in those critical areas, per NBA.com:
They're a team that loves taking threes; they're just very average at making them. Of the Lakers' five regular starters, only one (Nash) is a plus three-point shooter—and he's supposed to be the guy setting up his teammates.
That has led to the Lakers making a critical adjustment: Kobe Bryant has become the Lakers' main distributor over the past 20 games. He's averaging 7.9 assists a night over the team's past 17 contests, a stretch that has seen them go 12-5. Over that time, Bryant has had heaps of praise poured down upon him for doing what's necessary to win—and rightfully so.
But let's be real here. The reason Bryant has taken on more of a distributor's role is not because he's become the NBA's Gandhi at age 34. It's because Nash is the Lakers' best shooter from beyond the arc, one of their only effective deep shooters, and it behooves them to have him spot up as much as possible.
It was, quite frankly, an adjustment that should have been made months ago. But, again, better late than never—now the Lakers' offense is humming along quite nicely.
And that's the only way they're going to win this season—especially since defensive efficiency is nowhere to be found. L.A. is giving up 107.9 points per 100 possessions over its last 10 games, which would be the league's third-worst rate this season.
Therefore, it will be up to the Lakers to continue their offensive ascent. To cement their identity, perhaps. If that doesn't happen and L.A. misses the playoffs, the blame game may finally land on the right target.