Slowly but surely, Mike D’Antoni’s small-ball system is taking over, and it's becoming the Los Angeles Lakers' biggest problem.
Remember when the Lakers coach talked about running things through Pau Gasol in the low post? Remember when he talked about slowing the pace down?
In a preseason article by Dave McMenamin for ESPN Los Angeles, D’Antoni laughed off the Showtime expectations he voiced when joining the Lakers organization, saying, “I was on drugs back then.”
This time around, he was promising moderation, along the lines of what had worked in the latter part of the season:
We had a good pace, and it was the right pace. Not too fast, not too slow. The biggest thing is we closed out games last year with good defense and guys getting the ball in the right spots. So we'll do that. We'll try to do that this year.
That was then and this is now.
D’Antoni won’t come out and say it in so many words, but he has found a willing crop of disciples in his minimum-salary young gunners, and all of a sudden, “Seven Seconds or Less” is back.
Of course, he won’t acknowledge the old Phoenix Suns label, but you only have to watch recent Lakers’ games to see speed in action and a reliance on shooting over defense.
Against the New York Knicks on Sunday, two recent arrivals from the D-League, Kendall Marshall and Manny Harris, put up 20 shots between them. They combined for 30 points, so what’s the harm?
At the most basic level, the problem can be seen in the loss column.
After falling to the Knicks, the Lakers are in 13th place in the Western Conference standings.
There’s also the fact that pace can be deceptive. The Lakers may look like they’re moving faster, but they’re achieving less. Their offensive rebounding is among the worst in the league, shortening possessions, and their fast-break points per game have decreased recently.
In other words, they’re spinning their wheels.
D’Antoni has also been whittling away at complementary players who can offer size or low-post presence on either end of the floor. The system has resolutely become four-out, one-in, with Gasol playing big minutes on an injured foot, trying gamely to get up and down the court.
On Sunday, Jordan Hill played less minutes than Harris, Robert Sacre logged the least minutes of anyone on the floor, and Chris Kaman notched yet another DNP. Of course, it’s not fair to accuse D’Antoni of neglecting all Laker bigs apart from Gasol—rookie Ryan Kelly has started the last five games at the stretch 4 position.
It’s true that teams across the league have embraced various small-ball models. It’s also true that success is the greatest validation of all. In a recent article by Kevin Ding for Bleacher Report, Erik Spoelstra for the Miami Heat paid homage to D’Antoni’s early system: “The first year anybody in the league saw it, it took us all by storm. We were all scratching our heads and had no idea what we were seeing or how to defend it.”
It’s also true that the Heat have the players to back up their particular hybrid form of small ball.
The Lakers, meanwhile, are developing habits with young, impressionable players that could be hard to break.
Here’s where things can get really dicey. Steve Nash may be returning to the lineup soon, and while he once spearheaded D’Antoni’s fast-break system, he’s now about to turn 40 and isn’t likely to set any records for quickness.
Kobe Bryant will also presumably return in the near future and isn’t apt to take kindly to a bunch of amped-up draft busts running footraces and jacking up shots. It’s somewhat unclear why D’Antoni is even wasting time on a system that will have to change when Bryant returns.
So what happens in a new starting lineup? The game will become more methodical and the ball will run through the post more often. This obviously plays to Gasol’s strengths. As for the other guys on the floor, they’ll have to adapt under the fierce glare of one of basketball’s legendary taskmasters—the Black Mamba—the guy who’s been shaking his head and rubbing his eyes in disbelief on the sidelines.
D’Antoni’s not about to pick a battle with Bryant. The current Lakers head coach is happier going with the flow, such as a fast up-and-down flow that ends with a quick bucket. And if that’s not to Bryant’s liking, D’Antoni is likely to shrug his shoulders and adjust.
At least for the time being. You can never truly change D'Antoni's small-ball colors.
The Lakers may soon start to resemble a high-speed rotary with cars entering, cars exiting and a whole lot of confusion. If this is some kind of master plan heading toward next season, then perhaps it’s for the best. Why, then, does it feel as if a massive pileup is about to ensue?
"Only time will tell" is the oft-used adage. With a 16-29 record, time is not on the Lakers side, no matter what the pace.