coach Mike D'Antoni sees room for improvement in L.A.'s defensive performance. (Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
Dwight Howard's free agent departure wasn't only a heavy blow to the Lakers' future, but also a crippling one to the team's present. Any hope that L.A. had of contending for the title in the coming season left with Howard; his recovery from injury and further integration into the Laker workings sat at the crux of the team's improvement, to say nothing of how valuable he would have been in stemming any dip in Kobe Bryant's production as he worked his way back from a torn Achilles tendon.
But life for the Lakers moves on all the same, and this season L.A. will have to do without a superstar-caliber center. For his part, Lakers head coach Mike D'Antoni hasn't let that loss dampen his optimism. In an interview with Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times, D'Antoni conveyed his belief that the Lakers can improve upon the 45-37 record -- good for the seventh seed in the West -- they posted a season ago, Howard's absence be damned:
"I don't see why not," he said. "I think we can be better because I don't think we reached our potential last year. Our lack of defense came mostly from lack of energy from guys that didn't feel right in their place on the team. Defense is energy, concentration and the desire to do it.
"If something is sapping that energy — distractions, injuries, not feeling good about the team — then you're not going to put your heart and soul into it and it comes out on the defensive end. They just didn't feel each other."
The "distractions" (primarily associated with Howard's then-impending free agency) seem overstated in this case, particularly relative to the Lakers injuries. D'Antoni is right in that energy and concentration are crucial to playing effective defense, but in the NBA so is a basic familiarity with one's teammates. L.A. had its problems with players -- Howard included, and perhaps especially -- not getting back in transition and rotating at half-speed, but moreover suffered from the lack of rhythm that commonly hits injury-plagued teams. Dealing with Bryant's freelancing, Steve Nash's defensive limitations, and Pau Gasol's lack of foot speed would have been a challenge with a healthy roster, but Howard's lingering back injury and the periodic absences of both Gasol and Nash made it impossible for the Lakers to ever catch a groove.
A hypothetically healthy Lakers team does have a chance to offer a more consistent defensive front, if still not one within conceivable range of contention or even genuine, bottom-line improvement. That puts D'Antoni somewhere between right and wrong; continuity alone could create an opportunity for the Lakers to play more fundamental defense than the team that ranked 20th in the league last season in points allowed per possession, but the same limitations still exist within the roster and without Howard around to help in any capacity. L.A. can be better in terms of playing off of one another and playing with better energy overall, though even that might not translate to tangible defensive improvement given all the ways that Howard influences opponents' actions while serving as a back-line defender.