Will Dwight Howard or Mike D'Antoni Define LA Lakers' Post-Kobe Bryant Era?
If all goes according to plan for the Los Angeles Lakers (as it so often does), Dwight Howard will re-sign for $118 million this summer and, under Mike D'Antoni's stewardship, become the cornerstone of the franchise in time for the day when it no longer "belongs" to Kobe Bryant.
(Which may be much sooner than anyone had expected, since Bryant, who turns 35 in August, will be trying to come back from a torn Achilles.)
According to Kevin Ding of The Orange County Register, general manager Mitch Kupchak expects Dwight Howard to be the focal point on the court for the Lakers going forward and anticipates that D'Antoni will play along, at the very least:
For what it's worth, Kupchak expects @dwighthoward to be featured plenty -- like late in Lakers season, saying D'Antoni is fully "on board."— KEVIN DING (@KevinDing) May 22, 2013
The only proverbial fly in the ointment, then, would appear to be Howard. He may well pursue a shorter, four-year deal with a young contender on the rise (the Houston Rockets), another aging power attempting a reboot (the Dallas Mavericks) or a hometown team with big dreams (the Atlanta Hawks), among others.
Dwight could just as easily ink a new deal with the Purple and Gold, though him doing so appears to be anything but a slam dunk at this point. Among the many causes for skepticism about Howard's continued residence in LA is, well, D'Antoni's continued residence in LA.
According to Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com, Howard expressed plenty of dissatisfaction about his relationship with the mustachioed coach during a private, post-exit-interview meeting with Mitch Kupchak after the Lakers' season came to an embarrassing end against the San Antonio Spurs.
Apparently, Howard didn't appreciate that D'Antoni turned to Kobe and Steve Nash (i.e. the team's veteran leaders) for leadership, and hardly (if at all) fielded suggestions from Dwight.
(Because we all know what a tremendous leader Howard is...right? Maybe not? Okay.)
Still, per McMenamin, Howard's relationship with D'Antoni is far from beyond repair. It's entirely possible, then, that Dwight comes back and that he and Mike D. (attempt to) patch things up thereafter.
There might remain some concern, though, about whether their respective visions for the team and Howard's role therein can or will mesh. Throughout the 2012-13 season, Dwight made it clear that, if he had his druthers, he'd catch the ball in the low post and go to work one-on-one every time down.
This is despite his one-time desire to avoid following in Shaquille O'Neal's footsteps and the fact that his back-to-the-basket game was/is hardly his most effective asset as a player.
According to Synergy Sports, Howard scored a so-so 0.74 points per possession on post-ups. That number placed Howard 122nd among his peers in that regard—not terrible, but not exactly becoming of a guy who's purportedly an elite center and, as such, should probably dominate down low.
Dwight's desire to play in the post would appear to run contrary to what D'Antoni wants to do. The coach has made no bones about his belief that dedicated post-ups are among the least efficient plays in basketball; he reiterated as much during his introductory press conference with the Lakers back in November 2012, according to Lakers.com.
In D'Antoni's perfect world, Howard would get his touches (and plenty of them) in the pick-and-roll, wherein Dwight could either finish at the rim, kick out to a shooter on the perimeter or initiate a quick post-up.
Such an approach would make a ton of sense. Howard has long been one of the NBA's premier pick-and-roll bigs, thanks to his size and strength (in setting solid picks), his speed and footwork (in rolling to the rim) and his length, leaping ability and large hands (in catching the ball and finishing).
This makes even more sense on paper when you consider that Steve Nash, Howard's teammate, just so happens to be one of the most prolific proprietors of the pick-and-roll in basketball history.
Unfortunately, Nash's persistent injury problems during the most recent campaign limited the time in which he and Howard shared the floor and, thus, stunted the growth and development of their on-court chemistry.
Even so, Howard once again ranked as one of the league's most lethal finishers. Per Synergy Sports, Howard's 1.29 points per possession as the "roll man" were the ninth-most of any player in the NBA this past season.
Problem is, only 11.4 percent of Dwight's possessions came under those circumstances. Meanwhile, Howard posted up 45.2 percent of the time, even though he was far less efficient on the block, as discussed above.
Part of this seemingly strange split can be attributed to D'Antoni's attempt to fashion this team into a reputable outfit on the fly. D'Antoni had neither the time—in training camp or in practices—nor the personnel to properly implement his famed spread pick-and-roll system with the Lakers.
Even if Nash had been healthy enough to run everything like he did during the height of "Seven Seconds or Less" with the Phoenix Suns, LA still lacked the corps of competent shooters to open up the floor for the pick-and-roll in the middle.
And as easy as it might be to malign Mike for being inflexible and unwilling to alter his approach, the evidence at hand points to a different reality.
D'Antoni came to understand that his team's greatest advantage was on the interior with Howard and Pau Gasol. According to Synergy, the Lakers were the fourth-most effective isolation team in the league, with 0.87 points per possession on 10.9 percent of their possessions.
Granted, this has plenty to do with Kobe's penchant for "hero ball," though many of the touches that Dwight (and Pau) garnered in the post count in this regard.
More telling is that LA ranked eighth out of 30 teams in post-up efficiency. It scored 0.86 points per possession in the low post, where they operated from 14.4 percent of the time.
Only spot-up shots (21.3 percent) soaked up a larger share of the Lakers' possessions among all the play types that Synergy cataloged.
Clearly, then, D'Antoni didn't live up to his reputation for ball-sharing, pick-and-rolling, anti-isolation play. Instead, he kowtowed to his circumstances (and, perhaps, to Dwight's wishes and the wishes of those who wanted to keep him happy) in an attempt to turn a lost Lakers squad into something resembling a winner.
To be sure, D'Antoni didn't manage his team's assets all that well early on. He pushed Pau further and further from the basket. At one point, he benched Gasol even though he was clearly at his most valuable working in the post as a starter.
Who should have more control over how the Lakers play once Kobe Bryant retires?
But, as the season wore on, Pau's health improved. So did Dwight's. As a result, those two played better together down the stretch as the Lakers finished the year on a 28-12 spurt to claim the seventh seed in the Western Conference.
The thought is that D'Antoni will want to take a more earnest shot at bringing his once-revolutionary style of basketball to more vivid life in LA, now that he'll have the benefit of a full training camp and (fingers crossed!) a healthy Steve Nash to helm the on-court operation.
Perhaps the Lakers' front-office brain trust will buy into what D'Antoni is selling and attempt to stock the roster with shooters, maybe even by shipping Gasol elsewhere.
Perhaps Kobe's long and painful recovery from a torn Achilles will relegate him to being little more than a glorified spot-up threat or (dare I say it?) amnesty fodder.
And maybe Dwight will find the fame, fortune and legendary footsteps inherent in playing center for the Lakers alluring enough to stick around for the rest of his prime, even if it means submitting to more pick-and-rolls than post-ups.
After all, those Stan Van Gundy-coached Orlando Magic teams on which Howard starred played a four-out, one-in, three-point-heavy style that wasn't all that far off from what D'Antoni preached in Phoenix.
Then again, any talk of D'Antoni stubbornly reverting to a system that never once landed him in the NBA Finals might well be characterized as speculative. D'Antoni's Lakers looked like anything but his Suns or New York Knicks clubs.
They slowed the ball down, took their time in the half court, spent a significant chunk of their possessions in isolation and played from the inside out. Whenever Kobe wasn't dominating the flow of the game from the perimeter, anyway.
Who's to say the Lakers won't play that way again in 2013-14, especially if Howard's still around? It worked well enough for them during the second half of the season and might yield even better results in the upcoming campaign if the roster doesn't succumb to a swarm of injury bugs, as was the case in 2012-13.
In truth, whatever "system" D'Antoni conjures up to feature Howard will likely consist of a mix of pick-and-rolls and post-ups, among other things. The very best offenses are those that employ variety as a weapon in itself, and with the core pieces the Lakers have at their disposal, they should be well-equipped to attack in a number of ways at any given moment.
But the Lakers' financial commitment to Dwight will say plenty about which direction the organization will ultimately bend if conflict does, indeed, result. If LA doesn't win and Howard's unhappy with the way things are unfolding, the Lakers need only look to D'Antoni for a cheaper, more expendable fall guy.
Kobe may be on the way out by that point, but there's no good will to be gained from blaming a franchise legend who's helped to hang five banners at the Staples Center and will probably be handing the keys of the organization off to Howard when retirement comes calling.
Not that firing D'Antoni would be the first or more favored course of action—not before the Lakers attempt to align their plan more comfortably with Dwight's.
For better or worse.
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