Last Friday embattled Lakers coach Mike Brown arrived at the team's El Segundo, Calif., practice facility just before 9 a.m., ready to work. By 10, he was out of a job. Brown's firing was a knee-jerk reaction: What else can you call the dismissal of a coach who was trying to incorporate two new starters into one of the game's most complicated offensive systems, just five games into a season? But ownership, which, with a $100 million payroll and a pending bill for nearly $30 million in luxury taxes, wasn't willing to give Brown a chance to dig Los Angeles out of a 1--4 start.
This is an article from the Nov. 19, 2012 issue
On Monday the Lakers hired Mike D'Antoni, 61, one of the NBA's elite offensive minds, who was handed the reins after negotiations with Phil Jackson broke down. L.A. will shell out $12 million over the next three years for D'Antoni—and eat the remaining $11 million on Brown's contract—because the team faced major problems in every facet of the game.
Advocated for by Kobe Bryant in the off-season and installed by assistant Eddie Jordan—the architect of the read-and-react system that powered the Nets to the Finals in 2002 and '03—the Princeton offense was supposed to rejuvenate a team that slipped from sixth in the NBA in efficiency (111.0 points per 100 possessions) in 2010--11 to 10th (106.0) last season.
Statistically, the Lakers' attack wasn't bad: After beating the Warriors 101--77 under interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff last Friday, L.A. ranked 10th in efficiency (105.2). But, says G.M. Mitch Kupchak, "I never thought we got to the point where the offense was flowing. You would see some flashes of it, but we never had a consistent flow throughout the course of a game. They either weren't getting it or it was going to take too long for them to get it, and we weren't willing to find out which of the two it was."
In truth, the Lakers' personnel doesn't fit the Princeton system. Steve Nash won two MVP awards running mostly pick-and-roll in Phoenix. Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard are two of the most effective post-up players in the league. By emphasizing floor spacing, dribble handoffs and back-cuts, L.A. was ignoring its strengths. "We couldn't have contained Dwight and Pau if they'd just kept dumping it in to them," says an assistant from a Western Conference team that played the Lakers this season. "But they didn't. I was shocked."
The D'Antoni Effect
Even without a full training camp, D'Antoni's up-tempo attack—which has a steady diet of pick-and-rolls and allows Nash to freelance—should be easy to install. While the system will benefit Nash, adjustments must be made to enhance Bryant's role: In Phoenix and New York, D'Antoni's off-guard has been primarily a spot-up shooter. "His system in the past would have marginalized Kobe," says a Western Conference scout. "You will probably see more flex-cuts—basically running off baseline screens—for Kobe to get post isolations."
Brown came to L.A. with a reputation as a defensive guru: In three of his five years in Cleveland, the Cavaliers finished in the top 10 in defensive efficiency. But the Lakers were porous under Brown; they finished 13th in efficiency last season and were 23rd this year before he was fired. "They had such poor floor balance," says the Western scout. "Because they were still learning the offense, the transition defense has been terrible. Before, they were very good at getting back and setting their defense. With their size and power they could load up and make you play from the perimeter."
Again, personnel was a factor: Nash and Gasol are mediocre defenders, three-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard is recovering from off-season back surgery, and Bryant is only effective in spurts. "If Kobe is allowed to be physical, he's O.K.," says an Eastern Conference scout. "But he can't stay in front of the fast guys anymore."
The D'Antoni Effect
In the past D'Antoni has been criticized for not devoting enough practice time to D. In seven full seasons as a coach, his teams have never finished higher than 13th in defensive efficiency. While the improvements on offense will likely smooth the transition defense, the fact remains that even if D'Antoni hires a top defensive assistant—which as of Monday he hadn't—L.A.'s defensive deficiencies are due more to personnel than tactics.
After finishing at the bottom of the league in second-unit scoring last season (20.5 points per game), the Lakers acquired veterans Antawn Jamison, Jodie Meeks and Chris Duhon—and Brown didn't trust any of them. In a win over the Pistons last week, Brown reinserted his starters after Detroit cut the lead to 24 points (24 points!) with less than nine minutes to go in the fourth quarter. At week's end L.A.'s reserves were averaging 20.7 points, second worst in the NBA.
The D'Antoni Effect
The new coach's system should squeeze more production out of the reserves, but he isn't a magician. At week's end Jamison was averaging just 8.0 points per 36 minutes (down from 18.7 last season), and Meeks was shooting 28.6%. Unless the Lakers move Gasol—"If they could get a decent starter and two reserves for Pau, they should do it," says an Eastern Conference executive—they are still going to lean heavily on their starters.
Coaching a championship team isn't easy—since 1996 only seven men have done it—and from Andrew Bynum's defiant behavior last season to the viral video of Bryant's icy glare at Brown late in a loss to Utah this season, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that L.A.'s star-studded roster wasn't buying into Brown. "The [players'] body language was terrible," says the Western Conference scout. "Watch them coming out of timeouts or setting up some of the new plays in the half-court. They didn't look like a team that trusted the system they were playing in."
The D'Antoni Effect
This is where D'Antoni will have an immediate impact. He has the complete confidence of Nash, who became a superstar when they joined forces on the Suns. Bryant grew up watching D'Antoni play in Italy and played under him in 2008 and '12, when D'Antoni was a U.S. Olympic assistant. D'Antoni is regarded as a players' coach, and his track record gives him instant credibility.
That's important, because the clock is ticking. Jackson's triangle offense and championship experience would have improved the Lakers, but D'Antoni's fast-paced system could make them even better. Though if the players continue to perform—and, particularly, defend—as they did under Brown, there isn't a coach on the planet who can save L.A.'s season.
Picking It Up
In the off-season, the Lakers acquired one of the league's best pick-and-roll practitioners: point guard Steve Nash, who was eighth last year in efficiency among p-and-r ballhandlers. Even though he had a perfect new partner in Dwight Howard—the second-most-efficient roll man—Mike Brown never turned Nash loose. Here are his pick-and-roll possessions per game:
Nash in 2011--12 (with Suns)
Nash in 2012--13 (with Lakers)
But new coach Mike D'Antoni runs the play far more often:
D'Antoni in 2010--11 (with Knicks*)
Brown in 2011--12 (with Lakers*)
*Last full season
Source: Synergy Sports Technology