Lakers fault Princeton offense in Brown firing, but real problem was the defense
By Rob Mahoney
Mike Brown is no longer the head coach of the Lakers.
Jim Buss telegraphed that Brown's firing might be a possibility on Thursday, and Marc Stein of ESPN.com suggested that Brown's job was in immediate jeopardy early Friday. There's a bit of a leap between considering a change of this magnitude and actually making it, but the Lakers never flinched; Brown's team started taking on water, and he was thrown overboard before he could even grab a bucket to bail himself out. Five regular-season games was all it took for Brown to conclusively prove (in the eyes of management, anyway) that he was the wrong man for the job, and that his Princeton-style offense would doom a star-heavy superteam. Per Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports:
Essentially: the Lakers made a huge, demonstrative move, and sent a message to every member of their operation. The only problem is that they did so for all the wrong reasons.
L.A.'s offense ranks seventh in the league in points per possession. The Lakers posted elite marks in effective-field-goal percentage, offensive rebounding rate and free-throw rate. The only key area of offensive performance in which this team struggled thus far relative to the field was in the turnover column -- a common ill for teams with newly installed offenses. There was a clear lack of chemistry and familiarity between L.A.'s stars, but even those miscues weren't enough to stop this team from posting strong overall offensive marks both with and without Steve Nash. The offense was far from perfect, but it was already good enough to score a top-10 mark and was had plenty of potential for stable growth over a larger sample.
The Lakers underachieved, and with so many talented players failing to win games, many critics turned to the most readily available narrative. Blame had to rest somewhere, and the Princeton was a recently introduced variable with enough flash and name recognition to take the fall for all of the Lakers' struggles. The theater was so convincing that even the Lakers themselves were fooled; from players to Jim Buss himself, much of the relevant cast believed that L.A.'s offense was failing the franchise. That wasn't really true, but it apparently supplied the Lakers with the needed grounds to terminate their head coach.
That's where L.A.'s internal logic gets messy. If Brown was really being fired for systemic reasons, he deserved far more than five games to get the entire roster up to speed. He deserved a chance to take this Lakers' offense from seventh overall into the top five or the top three. He deserved a chance to not only initiate a plan, but execute it. The Lakers clearly had no intention of exercising that kind of patience, and thus dismissed Brown by way of the laziest reasoning possible. And so there lies Mike Brown: felled for only having a top-1o offense after just five games with a brand new roster working in a completely new system.
The worst part of it all is that if Buss and the Lakers had just done their homework, they would see entirely different (and far more valid) reasons to make a change. The Lakers could have simply pointed to the other side of the ball -- being that defense is Brown's career specialty -- as reason enough for his firing. Both the effort level and execution have been disastrous for L.A. on that end, as Dwight Howard has failed in his attempts to compensate for the Lakers' lack of speed on the perimeter. Such a task would normally be well within Howard's reach, but his defensive impact has been muted by injury and a team-wide lack of cohesion. As for the former, watch Howard attempt to hedge, challenge, and keep up with dribble penetration:
That's isn't Howard's maximum defensive potential. He's still hurt, and he's still slowed. And while that in itself may not be Brown's fault, the fact that his team has clear problems with defensive communication and rotation very much is:
The Lakers' current defensive concept doesn't at all disguise the weaknesses of individual players, nor does it do anything to counter even the simplest of play actions. Metta World Peace, Steve Nash and Steve Blake are all vulnerable to direct dribble penetration, and without a reinforced rotational scheme to cover the back line, Howard and Gasol are often left scrambling. The cases in which the Lakers do make a timely initial rotation are offset by poor defensive rebounding or a vulnerability to the extra pass. A single screen allows opponents to test Howard, as no Laker seems capable or interested in recovering quickly. In that last regard, Gasol may be the worst offender of the bunch, as he seems to lose his man completely after stepping up to defend against the pick-and-roll:
All of those individual factors matter, and feed into one another to create a self-defeating spiral. A fully healthy Howard could help some, but even his ailing back isn't a sufficient explanation for a defensive coach failing to endow his team with defensive fundamentals. Maybe the Lakers spent too much time drilling the Princeton in training camp, or maybe Brown's lessons simply fell on the deaf ears of disinterested players. Either way, Brown's primary functions are to orchestrate and motivate, and his complete failure to accomplish either on the defensive end has caused the Lakers a world of trouble. The offense may not have been the problem, but this team was indeed struggling as much as its record would suggest -- and Brown, through no fault of the offense, was at least partly to blame.
All of that -- coupled with poor lineup management and the sins of yesteryear -- make Brown's firing vaguely justifiable. But that being said, there's no guarantee that a new head coach will be able to pull substantially more out of the current Lakers than Brown did. Some of L.A.'s biggest problems are inherent to its roster (defensive compatibilities, a horrid bench, injuries to Howard and Nash) and won't be solved overnight even under new leadership. This may still be an underwhelming defensive team that loses more games than it should, though this time without the Princeton (and Brown) to blame.
But that possibility rests with the front office's eventual determination of a long-term replacement. If a new coach inspires this team to give a greater defensive effort (in the same way that Mike Woodson's arrival extracted better defense from Carmelo Anthony and Co. in New York last season) and shores up some of their technical errors, then this could be just the catalyst that the Lakers need. Even if it doesn't light a fire under this team, it could buy L.A. a little time to find its way and the means to absolve the created pressures that come with running a famed offensive system. They won't be the mighty Lakers running the historic Princeton offense; they'll simply be a very good team working through their problems just like everyone else. Like it or not, that kind of perception matters. It weighs on the players, who feel obligated to live up to certain expectations and need to trust in their coach's authority. It creates problems for coaches, who must face repetitive public doubt, and combat propagated errors in basketball logic both within their teams and without. And most pertinently: It influences executives, who sometimes make important, season-altering decisions based on what they hear rather than what they know. Here's one thing we know for sure: Mike Brown is no longer the head coach of the Lakers, and the Princeton offense is hardly the reason why.