Let’s skip with the preamble and dive right in:
The offense was (not) the problem
Scoring efficiency is a notoriously weak indicator of actual offensive strength at this point in the year, but there’s just little hard evidence that the Lakers were struggling to put up points. They were 7th league-wide in offensive efficiency and at almost exactly the same points per possession (105.9) as they put up over the course of last season (106.0). And they accomplished this mostly with Steve Blake running the point.
However there were some worrisome signs. Productive ball movement, that is, not just passing but passing to advance the possession and slowly pull apart the defense, was tough to come by. Spacing was always going to be something of an issue for this team because among players that see significant court time, only Nash is a reliable shooter from distance.
The Lakers could still make it all work with the right amount of hard screening and quick ball movement, but unless Gasol or Dwight Howard consistently drew double teams — and the smart teams would single cover them — it’s hard to picture this bunch, with two centers and four post up players in the starting lineup, playing the open style to which we’re accustomed to seeing from a Steve Nash team.
The Princeton offense was not the problem per se, but it did seem to create a strange in-between mode. Neither a pure “bludgeon the block” strategy like the Triangle nor an open, pick-and-roll happy offense like D’Antoni’s.
Here’s the way the offense could have been a serious problem: the players didn’t want to run it and Brown/Eddie Jordan couldn’t sell it. If it made this particular group of stars unhappy and no one could convince them otherwise, regardless of the results, that could be a fireable issue.
The Stars didn’t shine
So Mike Brown and his staff weren’t the most creative bunch. But it’s hard to blame him when you take a look at this misshapen roster. Only four players are above replacement value to start with. Brown had one of them, Nash, for a game and a half, and Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol both look slow and out of shape. So really only Kobe was ready to contribute at his usual level to start the season.
Toward the end of their recent loss to Utah, Bryant tried to take over down the stretch, dominating possession after possession. Maybe he would never come to trust Howard and Gasol in those moments, but it’s more understandable that he would take it on himself when both big men were noticeably dragging throughout that fourth quarter.
As indicated by the previous section, the real issue for the Lakers was defense and without a strong Howard-Gasol tandem inside, it’s easy to see why. Slow big men structurally compromise a defense, there’s just no covering up for big men who either can’t move or won’t move. 14 feet in the paint has worked for the Lakers D as recently as 2010, but a decline in perimeter defenders coupled with lead footed help was crippling against supposedly much weaker opposition.
Another question that the first 6 quarters begged: Is Steve Nash any good any more? You may not have noticed because the Suns were never on TV, had a top-10 O-Rating and were generally miserable to watch, but this is not 2007, or even 2010 Steve Nash. He’s lost a moon-bound in quickness and almost always requires a screen to get free of his initial defender — something to watch going forward.
The Lakers’ Bench! Look away! Look away! AAAAARRRGGHH
Put another way: the Jamison problem.
Antawn Jamison has, for a few years now, been among the very worst defensive players in the NBA. He is so bad on that end that it becomes basically impossible to play him and not be outscored, especially because the power forward position is so vital to team defense.
With Nash out and Steve Blake in the starting lineup, Jamison — and let me remind you, this is for a team that many think can win a title — received the sixth most Laker minutes. It’s a catastrophically bad bench made worse by the fact that Brown left Pau Gasol as the lone starter to play with them. It’s possible Nash could have helped here. Maybe Nash, Jordan Hill (dive man), Jodie Meeks (shooter), Jamison (warm body) and Devin Ebanks (slasher) could have cobbled together a very Phoenixy, Nash-centric offense and kept the ship afloat while the starters rested.
We’ll never know, but it didn’t seem like Browns’ rotations were headed that direction, a direction would might have allowed the Lakers to spread out their fearsom 4’s precious minutes in a way that didn’t lead to complete and utter collapses from the second unit. By my calculations, units comprised mostly of bench players were -15 against Utah. This was going to be a problem all season, one that rotations could help, sure, but also a problem that Brown had little to do with creating.
If I’m a Laker fan, here’s why I’m staying positive:
Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard are still on the team. Three are not 100 percent, so there’s a good chance this team will get better almost by default. Howard, in particular, is cause for optimism. If he regains his bounce and light feet, he can solve many ills on both sides of the ball. Also, there is still a decent chance of improving through a trade for more shooters, especially a shooting big man. Perhaps most importantly, only five games have been played so there’s lots of time to develop an identity that works and have a successful season full of good basketball.
If I’m a Laker fan, here are the things I’m worried about:
I’m worried that World Peace, Gasol and Nash have declined permanently. I’m worried that my team may have just fired its coach without a clear idea of who would succeed him. I’m worried that there might not be any creative coaches out on the market who, without a training camp or much leash to experiment, can figure out a system that efficiently coordinates and exploits the resources available. I’m worried that playing two centers together for 30 minutes a night is just a bad idea in today’s NBA. And I’m worried that firing Mike Brown may solve some real issues but that the design of the team is fundamentally flawed such that no amount of great coaching would result in a title.
But I’m not a Lakers fan, so I’m not worried. I just sit back and Count Tha Thingzzzzzz.