With his Los Angeles Lakers spiralling out of control, head coach Mike D'Antoni is searching for answers.
But it's a hopeless pursuit.
He doesn't have the pieces he needs to cure what's ailing this team. A group that needed a best-case scenario just to remain competitive has seen nearly the exact opposite play out.
Ravaged by injury and not overly talented to begin with, the Lakers don't have the bodies to change their fate. D'Antoni won't stop moving these pieces around, but he doesn't have nearly enough to solve this puzzle.
L.A.'s offseason transaction log should have prepared fans for a long season.
Perennial All-Star Dwight Howard made his escape, with veterans Metta World Peace, Antawn Jamison and Earl Clark following him out of town. The reinforcements called in were a batch of castaway reclamation projects: Chris Kaman, Nick Young, Wesley Johnson, Xavier Henry and Jordan Farmar.
But already tempered expectations have been forcibly lowered over the course of the season.
The rotation has been ripped apart by a rash of injuries.
Kobe Bryant was six games into his return from a torn Achilles before a fracture in his left knee sent him back off the floor. Steve Nash hasn't played since Nov. 10 and may not return to the floor this season. Farmar has twice torn his left hamstring. Steve Blake has been sitting since Dec. 10 with a torn elbow ligament.
Some nights, the Lakers don't look like they belong in the same league as their opponents. There's a sizable talent gap lowering this team's ceiling, even if D'Antoni doesn't want to see if that way:
D'Antoni on Lakers lack of talent: "That’s too easy of an out. At a certain point, you’re going to fight. It’s like being on the playground"— Ramona Shelburne (@ramonashelburne) January 6, 2014
Even at full strength, this team figured to be in trouble.
At the least, it was going to be overreliant on the offensive creativity of its aging backcourt. The roster runs short on players who can consistently create their own looks, a problem compounded by the fact that Pau Gasol hasn't been the same player since D'Antoni arrived. People were worried his teammates would go on Mamba watch when Bryant returned for a reason—Kobe isolations looked like this team's best offensive weapon.
There is no reliable back-to-the-basket scorer. The big best suited for the pick-and-roll game, Jordan Hill, has never drawn much support from D'Antoni (20.2 minutes per game).
With this group at something obviously short of full strength, the offense has been forced to adapt a quantity over quality mindset. Points come in spurts, and rarely do they come with any efficiency.
The Lakers' top six scorers are all shooting below 45 percent from the field. Four of those players are converting fewer than 43 percent of their chances: Young, 42.5; Bryant, 42.5; Henry, 42.5; and Blake, 39.8.
This is a pick-your-poison offense for its own coaching staff. None of the options elicit much faith from the sidelines.
And it gets even worse. The offensive end is supposed to be L.A.'s strength.
File the Lakers' porous defense in that same expected-to-be-bad cabinet. With such a heavy slant toward the offensive end from both the coach and his players, defense was never going to be more than an afterthought.
Again, L.A. has found a way to disappoint.
The body of work isn't good. The Lakers are tied for the No. 21 spot in defensive rating, allowing 104.8 points per 100 possessions.
But every good art collection needs a masterpiece. And L.A.'s recent 137-115 drubbing at the hands of the mediocre Denver Nuggets (103.7 points per 100 possessions, tied for No. 11) serves as this group's unsightly defining moment.
This was just bad from all angles.
The Lakers hadn't allowed that many points in a non-overtime regular-season game since the then-Charlotte Hornets dropped 141 back in 1993, via Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times. Seven different Denver players scored in double digits, including backup center Timofey Mozgov. A 4.9 point-scorer for his career, Mozgov has averaged 21.5 points in two meetings with L.A. this season.
"He's a little bigger and stronger than we are," D'Antoni said of Mozgov, via NBA.com's Dan Arritt.
Is he really bigger and stronger? Or simply more energetic and focused than L.A.'s defenders? The Lakers have taken the best-defense-is-a-good-offense approach to the extreme.
"We rely on our offense instead of our defense," Hill said, via Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News. "When an opponent scores, we feel like we have to come down and get a score."
That wouldn't be such a crutch if this team was an offensive machine. But when the offense struggles to tread water, these defensive leaks are impossible to plug. It's not a flawed system, but the byproduct of a flawed roster.
"The Lakers give up way too many fastbreaks, often spawned by their own turnovers," Bresnahan wrote. "They don't have great foot speed at guard and no bona fide rim protectors, a deadly combination."
They don't even maximize the few stops they do get. Only the Milwaukee Bucks have a worse defensive rebound percentage (70.8) than the Lakers (71.8).
D'Antoni's not going to have a defensive renaissance at this point of his career. Even if he did, he doesn't have the players to patch together a serviceable defensive group.
This problem isn't going to solve itself.
Finding a Fix
One isn't going to come this season. But that's actually a good thing.
Ideally, the Lakers were going to save their best work for the offseason. That's a prospect that looks better by the day.
L.A. needs to find a way to stay near the top of the draft board. There are no rising stars in this organization. Landing a top choice in a draft lottery that appears littered with those type of talents should be first priority.
Then the Lakers can shift their focus to free agency.
It would be nice if Bryant could do some recruiting with his on-court work before the season is over, but just about everything else regarding free agency has gone to plan. Not only have their own free agents kept their price tags reasonably low, but one of their biggest potential targets (Carmelo Anthony) has possibly been pushed into the market by his team's own ineptitude.
Unfortunately, none of that helps D'Antoni fix the problems at hand for this season.
But L.A. has been preparing for the first since last summer. It's been even rockier than expected, but still not exactly surprising.
Consider D'Antoni off the hook. For now.
If general manager Mitch Kupchak does his job, then D'Antoni will be back under the gun before too long.