When you're right, you're right. And Pau Gasol is (beyond) right.
"That's why you have to be disciplined and implement discipline, that's how you kind of make that better or make that not a factor," Gasol said of the Lakers' collection of players, via ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin. "I don't think there's a lot of discipline right now."
Indeed, the Lakers are a collective free-for-all. In the absence of something tangible to play for, like a championship, Mike D'Antoni's system has become host to profusions of individual stat-chasers auditioning for their next contract with the Lakers or elsewhere.
Chemistry is at an all-time low thanks to injuries and new additions as well, but teamwide progress is slowed most by the almost-every-man-for-himself mentality the Lakers now champion.
"Anytime you step on the floor, it’s an audition," admitted the newly acquired Kent Bazemore, per the Los Angeles Daily News' Mark Medina. "There’s probably a lot of teams watching."
Bazemore is one of just 10 current Lakers not under contract for next season. Two others, Nick Young and Kendall Marshall, are operating on player or team options. That makes the Lakers home to potentially 12 players looking to a future outside Los Angeles, which, in turn, has made for some me-first basketball.
"We just didn't move the ball," D'Antoni said after the loss to Indiana, via McMenamin. "We tried to go one-on-one."
Magic Mike's offensive system prides itself on general unselfishness in addition to volume shot selection. But the founding principals of his system have run amok since the Lakers turned into a potential carousel of talent.
Isolations have become more prevalent and while the team is working diligently, they're not working together or playing for the same thing.
In the three games since Bazemore and MarShon Brooks joined the rotation, Los Angeles ranks 21st in assists, down from eighth overall in the 53 previous contests, according to NBA.com (subscription required). While they alone aren't responsible—this pass-light dynamic also coincides with Young's brief return—both Brooks and Bazemore are reminders that the Lakers aren't a team. Not really.
This far into the season, with Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash still addled by injuries, the Lakers have regressed from a circumstantial tanker into an unabashed house of anarchy. There is no direction, no shared purpose, something Gasol puts on D'Antoni.
Though it's on the coach to maintain a united front, D'Antoni's control is limited. At 19-38, the Lakers have the Western Conference's worst record, putting the playoffs out of reach. What is he supposed to sell free-agents-to-be on?
For veterans like Gasol, who are guaranteed to snag a new deal this summer somewhere, it's easy to remain focused and preach order and responsibility. But for so many others, the future isn't certain. All players know is they have now, they have today and not necessarily tomorrow.
Still, it's on D'Antoni to prevent the Lakers from running astray. Lack of control has him presiding over other details that suggest he's grasping at air.
Against the Pacers, the Lakers ran small. Jordan Hill and Chris Kaman—neither of whom faces as much uncertainty as some of the younger players approaching free agency—combined for 24 minutes, much to Gasol's disdain.
"If we want to continue to play small, we have to play to that advantage and utilize our quickness," he said, per Medina. "If you get out-rebounded by 20 rebounds, I don’t care who you are or what you do it’s not going to work and we’re not going to win."
Similar disorganized framework was evident in Los Angeles' loss to the Brooklyn Nets, in which D'Antoni's rotation embodied indecision.
Perhaps in an effort to salvage the footprints of a system gone awry, D'Antoni has elected to ignore matchups and consistency in favor of defiance, a last-ditch attempt at ensuring his ideals continue to exist in theory. Or maybe he's actually amenable to holding open auditions at expense of winning and cohesion, having already resigned himself to reality.
That seems unlikely, given D'Antoni's previous distaste for players such as Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony, who wouldn't buy into his spread-the-wealth offense. The Lakers are a completely different beast now, though, with more than one or two players clearly out for themselves above all else.
To be sure, hustle isn't the issue. D'Antoni has always had a knack for instilling morale into no-names and journeymen. That, coupled with innate desires to prove individual mettle in contract years, guarantees effort. It's the individual part that's been damning.
"There's just too many individual actions right now," Gasol reiterated, per McMenamin. "It's really not a good flow and rhythm out there."
Regaining that self-effacing, almost-carefree bravado that captured so many hearts earlier this year starts with establishing authority and a clear-cut pecking order. Gasol has already done his part by speaking out in replace of Bryant's and Nash's inability to do the same. The rest is up to D'Antoni, who must ensure the majority of his team falls in line.
Giving more minutes to the team-oriented hustle guys is a good start. Hill is a name that springs to mind. Kaman, too, provided the longstanding tension between himself and D'Antoni has improved.
More to the point, D'Antoni must utilize out-of-body coaching tactics to restore order, by benching scorers who don't start distancing themselves from the egotistical dynamic Los Angeles is playing.
Part of D'Antoni and even Lakers brass is likely genuinely excited to give players such as Bazemore and Brooks burn and adequate opportunity to showcase their talents. But that doesn't mean Bazemore should be leading the team in shot attempts, like he has over the last three games.
That doesn't mean the offense should be in disarray in general, like it has these last three games, during which the Lakers rank 25th in offensive efficiency.
That doesn't mean the Lakers' campaign must become a season within a season, or game within a game.
Some semblance of structure and purpose beyond minutes and contract competitions is a necessity at this juncture. The Lakers are in the midst of a grueling stretch that has them playing seven back-to-backs to close out the season, and how it actually closes out is up to D'Antoni.
Losses will still pile up as the Lakers battle through an unforgiving schedule with largely unproven and has-been talent. Nothing is going to rechart their course. Not Bryant's potential, far-off return. Not surprising statistical runs from Marshall and Bazemore and so many others.
"We’re not playing the way we were before," Marshall said, via Medina. "It’s not fun at all. We need to figure it out and find ways to be competitive."
In lieu of redirecting their inevitable finish, the Lakers can change who they are, espousing a stretch run that, while mired in losing, can still be the source of camaraderie, instead of a disjointed and disheartened forum for self-absorbed brands of basketball.
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