The Los Angeles Lakers have struggled in the opening of the 2013-14 regular season, leading one to recall where the team was at the same time last year.
During the opening stretch of games in the 2012-13 campaign, the Purple and Gold boasted a lineup of stars who simply were not getting it done. The Lakers lost four of their first five games and consequently, let go of head coach Mike Brown.
Brown was replaced with Mike D’Antoni in a move that came with mixed results. Fans were outraged at the selection given that all early indications pointed at a reunion with Phil Jackson.
Ownership went in a different direction and as a result, the Lakers struggled with their identity. Fast-forward to the present, and it is evident that the decisions from a year ago have impacted the team in both positive and negative ways.
Changes for the worse
The Lakers faced health concerns early in the 2012-13 campaign as a result of Steve Nash’s fractured fibula. The injury was viewed as a mere obstacle for a team with four potential future Hall of Fame players.
That three-man unit is no more. Bryant ruptured his Achilles tendon prior to the start of the 2013 playoffs and, the Purple and Gold failed to retain the services of Howard at the conclusion of the postseason.
Bryant’s return date is uncertain. Thus, the triangle of superstars who played alongside Nash last season is a thing of the past. Further complicating matters, the two-time league MVP has not played up to his usual standards early in 2013-14.
His age, coupled with his injuries from last season, have shaken his confidence and in turn, he has struggled. Bleacher Report’s Kevin Ding got Nash to reveal as much in a candid interview:
The want is there; I’m still enjoying the challenge. It comes from within. I know what I’ve been through; I know how old I am and the miles I have on the body, but I still take the challenge. And there are still things I can build on and can improve.
The sum of it all is this: The coaching staff can only truly rely on Gasol for consistent above-average play. Every other player on the roster is either a journeyman or role player with very little cachet.
Indeed, the only capable guy on the roster with big-game experience other than the Spaniard is Jordan Farmar, and he is the Lakers’ backup point guard. Granted, the lack of postseason experience is not exactly the worse thing in the world during the regular season, but it still speaks to the lack of quality impact players on the team.
Indeed, with Metta World Peace receiving the amnesty axe during the offseason, the Lakers lack good perimeter and interior defenders. Hence, a defense that flirted with mediocrity in 2012-13 has simply fallen off a cliff this year.
I thought the Lakers defense would be better this year, being down 30 to Dallas last night, the defense doesn't look… http://t.co/joyaVpN2g3— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) November 7, 2013
Opponents have simply lit up the Lakers so far this season. Statistically, L.A. has been slightly better in comparison to last year, but that’s mostly a product of sharper defensive concepts.
This suggests that with a bit more scouting, it will be easier to exploit the Lakers’ defensive weaknesses going forward. Keep in mind, D’Antoni has shown a penchant for using small-ball lineups and traditionally, they tend to get dominated on the interior.
Not surprisingly, only seven teams yield more points in the paint on average than the Purple and Gold through the early portion of the schedule per Team Rankings.
It’s worth noting that the coaching staff has not yet figured out a rotation, and that affects continuity on both sides of the ball. The rotation was a bit more solidified at this point last season, which meant that players had a better grasp of the spots where they would play and contribute.
Because the coaches are still sorting their best lineups, the Lakers spend some stretches playing five-man units that are not a great fit. As the season unfolds, the D’Antoni will get a better feel for its parts and as a result, the defense, as well as the overall play, might pick up.
Changes for the best
The coaching change early in the 2012-13 campaign forced the Lakers into changing its identity. When Mike D’Antoni took over for Mike Brown, he completely abandoned the Princeton offense and accelerated the tempo.
Also, he put the ball in the hands of Kobe Bryant and asked him to orchestrate the offense. Los Angeles struggled because the concepts kept evolving, but the team never truly established an identity. The absence of a D'Antoni-run training camp certainly played a huge part in that.
That has since improved. In his second season coaching the Lakers, D’Antoni has had the benefit of implementing his strategies and philosophy from the start. Despite the limitations in Steve Nash’s game, Pau Gasol and company play at one of the fastest paces in the league.
They keep speeding things up on teams and look for quick-hitting plays. The Lakers run early pick-and-rolls in possessions, and their guys have the green light to fire away from three-point range.
Rotation players such as Jodie Meeks and Wesley Johnson have shot the ball with extreme confidence, regardless of the defensive pressure they have faced. That is a testament to the culture the coaching staff has created.
Indeed, there was friction last season because certain players felt underutilized. Gasol voiced his concerns over his role while Dwight Howard was equally frustrated because he felt he was not featured enough.
Although the season is still young, frustration has not set in with this Lakers group. The players have bought into their roles and furthermore, seem to enjoy playing with each other. Those looking for evidence of this need only watch the footage of Steve Blake hitting the game-winning shot against the Houston Rockets. Watch how his teammates greet him:
The Lakers are not necessarily better this season, but they are certainly a more cohesive unit. It’s worth noting that this has all occurred during the absence of Bryant. The five-time champion will eventually rejoin the team and from there, he will command the lion’s share of the offensive possessions.
One can only wonder if that will enhance or hinder the chemistry the team has formed. The Lakers’ all-time leading scorer is a bit of a control freak and is often at his best when dictating the offense. Make no mistake, Los Angeles needs his talent and leadership. However, his return will more than likely result in the recalibration of roles on the team, and that might pose a problem.
The Lakers’ early performance in 2013-14 practically mirrors the play of the season prior. Some parts have been altered, but surprisingly, they are basically what they were at the time Mike Brown was dismissed: barely average.