5 questions facing the Lakers under Mike D'Antoni

November, 13, 2012
11/13/12
9:43
AM PT
Kamenetzky By Brian Kamenetzky
ESPNLosAngeles.com
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Nobody in the stands at Staples Center this weekend was chanting "We want Mike" -- and not just because doing so would potentially have sent mixed messages to management.

No, the locals wanted Phil Jackson, and thought they were getting him. (In fairness to them, Phil thought the same thing.)

Instead, the Lakers made the bold, less popular choice of bypassing Jackson for Mike D'Antoni, who would otherwise have been welcomed with open arms by most fans as a real upgrade over Mike Brown. At some point down the road, we'll all be treated to the definitive story of exactly what happened last weekend. Who said what, who asked for what, what promises were made, and so on. When it comes, I'll definitely read it.

But in the meantime, the Lakers have a new -- and very, very good -- head coach on the way, prompting a host of big-picture questions, the answers to which will have a major impact on the season going forward.

Here's a peek at five:

1. How do things work with Dwight Howard?

D'Antoni utilizes multiple pick-and-roll sets in his offense, and can trigger them with either (a) Steve Nash, perhaps the best p-and-r ballhandling point guard in recent memory, or (b) Kobe Bryant, who ain't bad either. Put Howard, statistically speaking the best roll man in the league on the other end, and big things can happen. Remember what Amar'e Stoudemire did with the Suns? Howard can do that sort of damage. Down low, D'Antoni hasn't really had much access to top-shelf low-post talent of Howard's quality, and the closest thing -- an ill-fitting, aging Shaquille O'Neal in '07-08 -- wasn't exactly a rousing success. Anchored down on the block, Shaq shot the ball efficiently but also got in Nash's way, trapping him -- in the words of TrueHoop's Kevin Arnovitz -- like "a hummingbird in a paper bag."

But while Shaq was by that point a massive, sedentary body, Howard is extremely mobile. He can enter and exit the lane in rhythm with Nash, and D'Antoni will come up with plenty of ways to get him traditional post touches, as well. This has the potential to be a wildly productive relationship, offensively.

But it's at the other end where Howard will be most empowered. As you may have heard, D'Antoni's teams have never been known for their defense. For the Lakers to be successful, he'll have to fix that. If it happens, the guy receiving the lion's share of the credit will be Howard.

2. How will D'Antoni use his bench?

Put kindly, D'Antoni has a (generally well-earned) reputation for employing a rotation so short that it seems inspired by that "Hoosiers" scene when the coach portrayed by Gene Hackman plays only four guys. In D'Antoni's final season with the Suns, for example, there was about a 1,000-minute gap between Steve Nash at No. 1 and Shawn Marion (who played only 47 games) at No. 8, then about 1,000 minutes between Marion (8) and Brian Skinner (9). Not a perfect measurement by any stretch, but you get the point. It's not all that hard to look at the Lakers' starters and their bench and decide not to go all that deep into the latter, but D'Antoni has little choice but to devise some sort of plan to squeeze as much from that group as possible.



Nash is 38 and has a broken leg. Kobe is 34, with about 20 seasons of regular and postseason minutes on the odometer. Metta World Peace turns 34 today. Pau Gasol is 32. Howard is recovering from back surgery, and so on and so on. The minutes for the starting unit must be managed in one way or another. Doesn't mean D'Antoni needs to have a 10th man playing 15 minutes a night, but if it means games are periodically lost because of it, he can't fall into the trap of overplaying his stars -- a trap that so often ensnared Brown.

3. Do the Lakers have enough shooting?

This question, of course, predates D'Antoni's (eventual) arrival, but becomes that much more important in his offensive structure. In Phoenix and New York, D'Antoni's roster tended toward a mobile point guard surrounded by shooters of various sizes. In L.A., that formula won't fly. And ironically, as Grantland's Zach Lowe notes, the switch to D'Antoni's system might only exacerbate the problem:
"You can pack the paint on these Lakers. Nash is by far the best shooter on the team, and one reason the Princeton offense made some sense was the idea that the Lakers could benefit by using Nash away from the ball as a spot-up threat to whom defenders could not yield even a sliver of space. Nash will be on the ball all the time now, meaning the four defenders away from it won’t have to worry about a single elite long-distance shooter."

Players often improve playing around Nash because the ball is always delivered on time and on target. That said, Kobe Bryant has never been a knockdown 3-point shooter. World Peace can absolutely hit a triple, particularly from the corner, but even with an improved stroke he still isn't exactly Steve Novak. In Antawn Jamison's 14 years, he has cracked the 36 percent mark on 3-pointers only three times. Gasol stretches the floor, but not from distance.

The only player on L.A.'s roster with a reputation for pure shooting is Jodie Meeks, who could find himself with a lot more playing time under D'Antoni. But no matter how you slice it, the Lakers aren't rich in deadeyes from downtown, meaning D'Antoni (alliteration alert!) will have to adjust the X's and O's a little to compensate.

4. At what pace will the Lakers play?

In four full seasons with the Suns, D'Antoni's teams never finished lower than fourth in pace factor (possessions per 48 minutes). In three full seasons in New York, his Knicks finished second, eighth, and third. But those rosters were built to get up and down the floor. These Lakers can run selectively, but up-tempo doesn't fit them round peg/round hole style.

Fortunately, the Seven Seconds or Less philosophy of Phoenix didn't include simply fast breaks. The Suns operated very effectively in the half court, as well.

My guess is that D'Antoni will temper the pace a little, and while the Lakers will play faster than they did under Brown (20th in pace last season), by the end of the season this will grade out as one of the slowest teams he's ever coached. They will, paraphrasing John Wooden, be quick (to get into their offense) but won't hurry (to shoot at the very first opportunity).

5. What's Kobe's role?

When the Lakers acquired Howard and Nash, the expectation was that for this four-All-Star lineup to work, Kobe would have to cede some space in the offense. He'd have the ball less with Nash there, would need to give up shots to Nash and Howard, and so on. His usage rate, at near-career high levels last season, would have to come down. The hope, by the way, was that in the process Kobe's efficiency would rise. And that's basically what has happened. Bryant's usage through six games is at its lowest level since 2003-04, not coincidentally the last time the Lakers trotted out a SuperTeam-type lineup of Bryant, Shaq, Karl Malone and Gary Payton. Entering Tuesday's game, Bryant is averaging 16.8 shots a game, a number he hasn't seen since his third year in the league.

Meanwhile, Bryant is shooting just under 54 percent. Even when the percentage inevitably falls, the opening games have shown Kobe's willingness to give some ground.

And this was through the process of trying to learn the Princeton offense, with Steve Nash generally in street clothes.

Kobe will still have some ballhandling duties under D'Antoni -- he's too good running the pick-and-roll himself not to take advantage, because it gives Nash a break while simultaneously helping spread the floor by having the team's best shooter (Nash again) stationed on the perimeter or moving off the ball. What will happen more, though, is Kobe moving away from the ball where the defense can't key on him, landing in those spots where he can shoot and score with the least amount of resistance.

The overarching question of Kobe giving up some of "his" with two more stars around him doesn't change much. The aesthetics will, but not in the form of his becoming a spot-up shooter in Nash's pick-and-roll game. What D'Antoni does in Los Angeles won't look exactly like his offenses in Phoenix or New York, because between Kobe, Gasol and Howard, the offensive weapons available to him aren't exactly the same. He'll adjust to his personnel as all great coaches do. (And on that side of the ball, at least, D'Antoni is a great coach. The same principle applies to Phil Jackson, as well -- he wouldn't have turned Nash into Derek Fisher.)

 

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TEAM LEADERS

POINTS
Kobe Bryant
PTS AST STL MIN
25.2 4.8 1.4 35.4
OTHER LEADERS
ReboundsJ. Hill 8.6
AssistsK. Bryant 4.8
StealsK. Bryant 1.4
BlocksE. Davis 1.2