I haven’t been writing much this season. While I’d like to claim that’s because I haven’t had downtime from my glamourous life as a secret agent/astronaut/millionaire, the truth is that I’m just too povo to afford League Pass so I can hardly watch games. ESPN’s spotty coverage doesn’t help.
With that said, in the past week I’ve taken the time to watch both the Clippers and the Lakers play. I still hate the Lakers and find the hype around the Clip Show to be a bit excessive (as much as I enjoy watching Chris Paul and Blake Griffin do their things) but I knew I needed to see them both to figure out just how more than thirty years of history has been turned on its head in one season, where everything’s gone right for the Clippers and everything’s gone wrong for the Lakers to the point where we’re seriously wondering if they’ll even make the playoffs.
As it turns out, it can be distilled to one of the oldest sporting clichés out there.
To be a great team – hell, even a good team – you need an identity. Miami have one (stifling D, speed in transition). So do OKC (perimeter scoring, athleticism). The Clippers identity is so obvious it’s even been lionized in a remix of a crappy hip hop tune. They are Lob City. They’re a high-flying, athletic, full court offensive team who are lead by their fearless General Chris Paul who takes over when a grind is required.
The Lakers? Well, they don’t really have an identity. This, more than anything (including health) is the biggest reason why they haven’t taken off this year.
The biggest reason for this is the clashing philosophies of everyone that matters in Lakerland. As everybody knows, Mike D’Antoni prefers to employ a high speed, open court game with lots of pick and rolls. Kobe, of course, likes the Kobe offense best – that is where he gets the ball and does Kobe things while everyone else gets the hell out of the way unless he tells them otherwise. Steve Nash’s way of doing things is much closer to the D’Antoni philosophy but he’s 38 and slowing down. And Dwight just doesn’t care so long as he gets to jump over people and flash that smile that gets phonier by the day.
One of the ironies of the situation? The Princeton offense, which Mike Brown had planned to implement with this team before his firing, would have been a much better fit for all the players once they fully learnt it – surely not a major problem for a veteran group. I’m convinced Jimmy Buss orchestrated the Brown firing thinking he could get Phil Jackson back – when he failed he panicked and signed the only other “name” coach available to try and keep his fans happy.
D’Antoni has a reputation as an offensive mastermind from his days in Phoenix, but the more you watch his teams the more you realize he’s a pure system coach. When he has the guys to fit his system magic happens. When he doesn’t, you get the Knicks of last year and the Lakers of now.
One of the squarest pegs in the round hole of the D’Antoni system is a ball dominant, pure scoring wing player. Joe Johnson realized this pretty quick and made his way out of Phoenix once he realized he would just be a career role player in the system. Carmelo eventually got D’Antoni fired and I’d bet my last dollar Kobe will do the same soon enough. They coexisted on Team USA, but that’s pretty different to an 82 game regular season. I’m willing to bet he is not the Lakers coach by this time next year.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I think Mike D’Antoni’s destiny is to be a great college coach. If he couldn’t win in the NBA with the Nash/Amare Suns squads (i.e. teams basically custom built for him) he’s not gonna win in the pros with anyone. In college he can recruit guys to fit his system and work from there.
That said, it’s not fair to wholly blame the coach either. Kobe may still be scoring, but he’s not carrying the team like he once did. His “superteam” have all spent extended periods on the sideline.
Most of all, though, the Lakers have shown the flaw in the Super Friends concept. Miami were able to get Wade, Bosh and LeBron together and they’ve managed to make their combo work basically because they’re all friends and love playing together. It goes back to playground basketball – if you have guys who enjoy playing together and get each other’s games, AND they’re some of the best players on the court…no one stands a chance. If, however, you take those same really good players and put them with others who may be as talented but don’t get their games as well, don’t like to play nice with others, don’t know how to make their games work with each other…you get the 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers.
Super teams can only work if everyone agrees to give up a little for the greater good, and usually this can only work if there’s a personal as well as a basketball connection. I remember reading somewhere that LeBron and Wade go out for dinner together all the time and Bosh and the other guys tag along even when they’re in Miami and the three amigos always split the check. I can’t see Kobe even sharing a bottle of water with Dwight or Pau these days. (Nash, on the other hand, is a natural Super Friends addition to almost any team except this one).
Can they make it work? Well, only a fool would bet against ballers of this caliber…but I think I’ve proven time and time again that I’m a fool when it comes to prognosticating the future of basketball teams. I don’t know how they’re gonna make this work. I highly doubt the Lakers miss the playoffs – but I can’t see them sniffing the title this year. If they’re smart, in the off-season they’ll trade Pau for some guys who can give them more depth and are the sort of role players who work with Kobe/Nash/Dwight and go hard for one more year, but I don’t think this Lakers core wins a championship.