Talking Lakers-Spurs, Mostly Lakers, With Pounding The Rock

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

With every Lakers-Spurs matchup comes the inevitable and enjoyable Fraternizing with the Enemy post with our favorite rival dance partner, Pounding the Rock.

J.R. Wilco

My friend, I can only imagine what it's like to be you, covering that three ring circus of a basketball franchise in the second largest city in the nation. Here I am, living in Austin covering a San Antonio team whose best off-the-court claim for publicity this year was a post-game confrontation between anpther California-based opponent's notoriously hotheaded ("immature"?) center and the Spurs' TV color announcer. Other than that, all the fans have had to argue about this year, besides the actual games, is DeJuan Blair's visible displeasure at his lack of playing time. That's it!

I feel like we're not even in your league because all the Spurs seem to be able to do is win basketball games, and that's certainly not sufficient to generate the kind of publicity that your team creates on a SLOW day! I'm almost embarrassed to even begin this exchange at such a disparate point of our teams' relative importance to the media, not to mention the world as a whole.

In fact, I think I'm just going to punt this one here and let you rant. I'm sure you have one inside you that you've been holding back. And what better format than this to finally let loose? You owe it to yourself. Your team just fired its coach five games into the season because of (as you said) their struggles on defense, so of course they hire a coach known to pretty much ignore that side of the game entirely. If that's not an excuse to go on a tirade then I don't know what is.

C.A. Clark

It certainly has been an interesting week. Honestly, the levels of pandemonium and sideshow that have been achieved in Lakerland the past few days are pretty unfathomable anywhere, even here. The Lakers have always been a circus, but its usually been of the one ring variety, allowing you to focus on the show with your full attention. Even when there is drama, its usually just one specific situation (the Kobe-Shaq feud, Andrew Bynum being Andrew Bynum) that is the source of everything non-basketball related. What's been unique about the circus this time around is that we Laker fans have been pulled in so many different directions all at once. The only other year that comes close, in my cognizant lifetime (i.e. post Showtime era) was 2004, when the Lakers signed Gary Payton and Karl Malone, and the team imploded in the NBA Finals, all while Kobe Bryant dealt with his ... legal trouble.
Just think about all the elements in one place: The Lakers engineered a completely one sided trade with a team that considers them their biggest rival to obtain that team's most iconic player in history, and then tops it by trading for the best center in the league completely on their own terms. As you can imagine, we were feeling pretty groovy about things at that point. Then we hear that Mike Brown is planning on putting in the Princeton Offense and we're all like "hmm, that's interesting, not sure that is the best way to use our new all world point guard, but let's see what it looks like". Then, we saw what it looked like in preseason and were all "Holy God, kill it kill it kill it", so much so that when the regular season started and the Lakers kept losing, all anybody could talk about was how bad the offense was, except the Lakers were top 10 in offensive efficiency the whole time while the defense was an abomination. I've never seen a situation in which so many people came to the right conclusion (that Mike Brown should be fired) for the wrong reasons.

And make no mistake. Brown had to go. I was surprised at the quickness with which LA pulled the trigger, and I can only assume that the reason for such a quick move was because it was clear behind the scenes that he couldn't handle the star power on the team, but it was becoming clear that the Lakers just didn't buy in to what he was trying to get the team to do. And you can't really blame them. Brown was preaching patience and long term vision, but these are not qualities he has the capability to sell. Forgive the verbatim quote from earlier work, but it's tough to sell patience when you grind your starters into the ground trying to erase 20 point deficits and changing rotations as erratically as an ant whose path has been blocked. And besides, the Lakers couldn't afford patience because they really only have one year to get this right before they have to convince Dwight Howard to stick around. Getting it right doesn't mean a championship, but it does mean avoiding abject failure and providing an atmosphere that is enjoyable to be a part of. Neither of which were strengths of the Mike Brown era.

Which brings us to the hire of one Mike D'Antoni, a man you should be familiar with after a half decade of hard fought battles that you were mostly on the right side of. Although Spurs-Lakers is a rivalry with more legendary ambition, because of the number of shared trophies between the two over the past 15 years, I would say Spurs-Suns had a greater number of relevant and iconic matchups over that timespan ... but I digress. I'm supposed to be ranting because the Lakers' abominable defense has been "the problem" this season, and yet the Lakers just hired a coach known as one of the best offensive minds in the game. Problem is, I really like the D'Antoni hire. Don't get me wrong, I was completely ready to climb on board the good ship Triangle for one last voyage into the sunset, but I think the D'Antoni hire puts the Lakers in a better situation long term without sacrificing a whole lot in the short term. One of the primary reasons why the Lakers have twice let Phil Jackson walk and then been forced to try and get him back is because a Phil Jackson team is so very specifically tailored for his coaching style, which is a style that nobody else has successfully duplicated. Thus, the Lakers have had to try to re-invent their roster on the fly, and both times they have failed to do so in a timely manner. Now, with Nash and D'Antoni on board, the Lakers can transition to a stylish brand of attack that has far more disciples (both players and coaches) to tap into when those two titans of industry move on.

In the short term, there are some issues that D'Antoni will have to tackle head on, the most vital of which being that the Lakers are probably the worst collection of shooters he's ever had to work with before. His offense works best with a clear lane, and there are a few players getting big minutes for L.A. who don't exactly pose that threat on the outside. And it will be interesting to see what he (or more like his defensive coordinator, whoever that is) does with the Lakers defense. But D'Antoni's defenses have always been far better than they were given credit for. His teams are always near the top of the league in pace, and that means more points scored AND given up, but if you go off of efficiencies, his Phoenix teams were usually middle of the pack. Besides, the best example of what his teams do defensively was his last year in New York, with Tyson Chandler as the defensive anchor that Dwight Howard can give him in LA. That team was a top 10 defensive unit ... right up until the moment D'Antoni was canned.

But your point made me laugh a little bit, because you are 100% correct that my main concerns with the Lakers at the start of the season were defensive concerns, and the Lakers went out and hired a coach who is known for the exact opposite of being a defensive mind. But here's the thing: Even though defense is the problem, it doesn't mean that offense can't be the solution. At the start of the season, the Lakers had an above average offense that was still clearly in need of refinement, and a below average defense that was a borderline disaster. The only possible silver lining behind the Lakers defensive performance, and the line I kept telling myself to keep me from insanity, is that the Lakers were playing a defensive scheme that required a player they didn't have yet, an in-form Dwight Howard. It has been clear so far this season that Dwight isn't moving like the Dwight Howard we've all come to know and fear, and I kept telling myself that this was the only reason why the Lakers looked so poor defensively. But Mike Brown has forever been known as a defensive coach, and the fact that he was unable to coax better defense out of the team he had right then (including Dwight's (hopefully temporary) limitations) was the biggest reason why I was in favor of his firing.

Bringing things back to D'Antoni, it begs the fundamental question of What do the Lakers need to do to get better? The answer, as it always is, is everything. Basketball isn't a zero-sum game. If the Lakers have a good offense and a bad defense and need to improve, they can do so by turning the defense into a good defense, but they can also improve by turning the offense from a good offense into the best offense in the history of everything. On the surface, that might sound like an insane expectation, but D'Antoni's offenses in Phoenix were pretty close to the best that have ever been seen in the NBA. There's no question he has more offensive talent on this Lakers team, the only question is whether that talent fits what he likes to do as well as what he had in Phoenix. From there, you can get into the hope that Dwight Howard is a better defensive anchor than D'Antoni has ever had before (especially in PHX) and that two major issues with the Lakers defense (a general malaise brought on by the discord in the locker room and Dwight Howard's lack of form) can bring along some measure of improvement on that end of the floor as well. The bottom line is that there is always room for improvement on either side of basketball. It's easier to consider improvement in the "low hanging fruit" side of things, whereby you improve what you aren't good at, but improvement is improvement. If D'Antoni can make the offense significantly better while at least getting the team to play hard defensively, he will have been a great hire and the Lakers will be right back on track.

Normally these exchanges have a bit more back and forth, but as your lede in indicated, this has been a bit of a one way street. I do feel a bit like I'm at the center of a black hole, with the Lakers consuming the rest of the NBA en masse. So I guess I'll try and tag on a subject you briefly alluded to without trying to: Just how bad of a homer is Sean Elliot. I've always liked Spurs fans for taking the lead of their head coach and being 1) smart 2) funny and 3) not taking themselves to seriously. Sean Elliot is the opposite of all those things, and so I wonder, do you folks like him as a color commentator? I would imagine that an enlightened bunch of fans would think that Elliot's homer brand of commentary was a disservice. Is that true? Or is he like a lovable uncle that you just laugh at when the time is right?

(Editors's note: At this point, as it was late in the evening, it was mutually decided that the rest of the conversation would take place over chat, instead of by email. With both of us logged in, and the time limit set at 4 minutes per reply, we continued the discussion. Each of us doubled our time limit once, but we pretty much kept to the self-imposed constraints until the end of the conversation. -jrw)

JRW

Without granting you any of your three points, I'll say that for me, Sean is certainly more of that avuncular presence than he is anything else. The closest comparison I've seen made to him is Tommy Heinsohn, and he seems to fit just fine up there in Boston, and you'd never get away with calling that fanbase anything less than educated. Not without losing a few teeth in the bargain, you wouldn't.

You really took it to another level with your 1700-word reply. Yes, that rant was one thousand six hundred and ninety-nine words long. Where does that leave me?

Clark

You wanted a rant, you got a rant, or at least, the equivalent length of a rant, even though it was significantly less ranty.

Well, I may not have been ranty then, but I sure as hell am ranty now. This latest round of Phil and the Busses has me about ready to drive off the metaphorical cliff. You mentioned earlier that the Lakers were a three ring circus, but I was ready to be all topical and call it a huge storm, with me as the role of Anderson Cooper, just observing the carnage and finding out what emerges. But the truth, as illustrated once again by the spin cycles coming out of both Phil Jackson's camp and the Lakers front office, is that this whole situation is more reminiscent of a middle school courtyard. It's straight eighth grade drama bullshit, and the politics of it has me fed up. I love Phil Jackson to death for all he's done for my beloved franchise, and he's hardly 100% (or even 50% probably) to blame for all this, but I won't be sad if his name is never mentioned in regards to the Lakers again, historical context aside.

JRW

That completely surprises me. If there was anyone in this mess that I felt you would side with (and please realize here that I have not stayed up on the minutia of this epic Laker transformation/revolution/regurgitation) I figured that you would've come down on Phil's side. This is the man that essentially delivered all of those championships to you guys. At least that's the way I've always seen it. Come on, there is even a large contingent of Spurs fans who pretty much admit that Phil's way of handling the press and refs is superior to Popovich's! Although I agree that your middle school analogy is sound, I have to wonder: do you really feel that there was nothing besides ego that kept him from negotiating in good faith to take over from Mr. Brown (can moo can you)?

Clark

My problem with picking sides in this kind of spin warfare is that the truth is completely unattainable. Was I in the room? Do I know what was discussed directly, what was possibly implied? Of course not. I'm as ignorant about what really happened as the day I was born. And I don't trust either side to say anything remotely truthful about things. The Lakers are basically claiming PJ was asking for the moon. PJ's camp is saying that's all crap, that nothing was even remotely discussed. And there is no way to know who is telling the truth, if anybody is. And your compliment of Phil is perfectly telling as to why I can love him and still think he's full of shit. The reason why Phil is so good, as a head coach, as an opponent, is because he is the NBA's best manipulator. You can worship a manipulator all day long, but fully trusting one is a fool's errand.

Here's what I do know: When Mike Brown was fired, I, as a fan and analyst of the Lakers, did not remotely consider the possibility that Phil Jackson would return to coach the team. Such was the thoroughness of the divorce between the Lakers and all things Phil, two years ago. It was a purge, in every sense of the word. Add that to the complacency Phil himself displayed in that final season, and I was pretty certain PJ was done as a head coach, and even more certain that the Lakers would never come calling again. It wasn't until they specifically mentioned Phil as a possibility, that I considered it. And the groundswell for Phil to return picked up because the Lakers were the ones fixing the currents. Why would they do that just to stand him up? It makes no sense. That doesn't make it impossible, mind you. Maybe they wanted Phil but changed their minds at the last minute. But good ole' Occam's Razor points pretty firmly to some sort of middle ground where PJ gave a firm impression that stuff would need to be done in a certain way that the Lakers ended up balking at.

JRW

If you think for even a moment that Pop is not a manipulator, then we're going to have words. And by that of course I mean words of an entirely different nature than we are currently having, which, while numerous, don't really amount to "fighting words." That aside, you did say "the NBA's best" and I understand that makes all the difference. I mean, the man uttered the word asterisk once, and not only enraged an entire fanbase, but provided fodder for journalists for years to come whenever they feel that something's worthy of special note (or footnote).

I'm completely with you as far as Occam's razor cuts through this particular issue, as well as your read on the final divorce between Jackson and the Lakers. I see no reason whatsoever that the front office would even consider him again, but once they did start considering him, how do you not follow through and see that all the way to the end? How many games at the beginning of the season can matter in the scheme of the rest of this year and the next? What's a day or two more with an interim coach? And since when has the moon been something that the Lakers franchise has been unable to deliver at the snap of their fingers? Honestly! I'm about to get upset about it, and I am glad you guys chose D'Antoni!

Clark

If by the moon, you mean simply money, then yes, there really isn't much of an excuse. But, just based on what Phil Jackson was discussing as a possibility the LAST time he was a coach, he was basically creating an entirely new type of position. Again, I have no idea how much of this is based in truth, but there was talk of an ownership stake in the team, complete personnel control, control over his successor, and that's not even touching the "I don't really want to coach road games" aspect of things. At what point do you sit back and say "this isn't worth it", no matter how badly you want Phil back. Especially when you have another option waiting in the wings that is a) approved by Kobe and Steve Nash, b) considerably cheaper, and c) more in line with your vision of how a basketball team should operate. Let's just say I can understand that there might have been a bridge too far for the Lakers in regards to Phil, and it wouldn't surprise me in the least if he tried to cross it anyway

JRW

When you start talking about a bridge too far, then I'm not sure that I'm going to be able to follow you down that path since, this far removed from the last championship, I'm starting to wonder whether any bridge is too far, once you've gotten close enough to your goal that a single addition will carry you to Larry O'Brien land. But I am an Astros fan from way back, and you probably know how that franchise dealt with Roger Clemens multiple years in a row, and he also refused to travel with the team, and had an insanely long list of demands that they completely kowtowed to in order to secure a contract with him. Which brings me back to my first take on this: As soon as I saw that Phil was out and Mike was in, I felt certain that is the ego thing. I understand that Phil has quite a specimen on him, but who is the one in your front office who is exerting control in support of his own? Because, when I look at this from the outside, I can't see this debacle as anything other than the franchise shooting itself in the foot over someone's foolish pride, and nothing more than that.

Clark

There are two inherent assumptions regarding your statement that require challenging. 1) That Phil Jackson coaching the team would somehow guarantee a championship and 2) that someone not Phil Jackson guarantees not a championship. I disagree with both. I would say that Phil offered the best chance to turn this Lakers squad into a champion, but not by a significant margin. The majority of the team is not Triangle ready, and the Lakers defense at the end of Phil's second reign was an abomination. Even if Phil was the safest choice, its one that came with a ton of questions. If Mike D'Antoni can re-capture what he had in Phoenix with far more offensive talent (in the starting lineup at least) and a better defensive anchor than he's ever had (and his New York squads, esp. with Tyson Chandler were very solid), this could be a great pairing.

But as to your question, there is only one ego that has enough power to pull the kind of power play you suggest, and that is Dr. Jerry Buss. Young Jimmy was no fan of Phil's, but, again, there's just no way Phil's name even gets mentioned if Jimmy intended to go in a different direction from the start. He sure as hell doesn't have the power to reverse the conversation after its already been started. Only Dr. Buss could have done that.

JRW

I understand how assumption one is invalid, but you have to grant me the room to believe that Phil Jackson brings with him a much higher chance of ultimate victory than Mikey D and his offense that can do no wrong, seeing as how San Antonio was undefeated in all of their playoff series against Phoenix during his tenure there. And as soon as you mention Chandler, all bets are off. He makes a defense miles as soon as he exits his vehicle at the arena's parking lot, so I'm not sure you can credit any of that to the Mustachioed Marvel.

And now you bring up the name of Dr. Jerry Buss, and I suppose that is the answer to the question I've been asking all along. Which of course brings up the entirely new questions of who really is running this Laker team and wasn't it supposed to be young Jimmy? But when super egos come into play, it's obvious that Buss the elder is the id in charge, and I'm guessing that even Carl Jung would have no question about that.

Which is brings us to today's matchup, and what we might actually expect to see on the court tonight. I'm not sure if you know, but the Spurs' team has been ravaged by a stomach flu which seems to be knocking everyone on the roster out for a game or two, player-by-player. So I have no idea who is going to show up for this contest, and I know that you have some injuries beyond Nash's shin. Will we see anything close to a standard Lakers versus Spurs game, or is this just going to be an all-out scrum? And who is running your team in the meanwhile? Will Mike even make it to LA in time to sit on the sidelines before he's had a chance to even talk with his team?

Clark

Please forgive, but I'm gonna pass on the Buss question. The bottom line for me is this: IF Jimmy were in charge of the coaching hire and IF Jimmy was dead set on avoiding the return of Phil Jackson, then we would never have heard his name mentioned in the first place. That leaves two possibilities, that Dr. Buss overruled at the last minute in favor of the offense D'Antoni brings to the table, or that the Lakers really did have concerns about Phil's demands and/or motivations.

You know what you are getting with Phil, so I'm just going to jump straight into what we are getting with Mike D. You can talk about that undefeated record against him all you want, but you know damn well that those were some razor thin contests where the Spurs were assisted by bizarre (Steve Nash's broken nose) and unseemly (Robert Horry's hip-check, Suns suspensions) circumstances. I'm not saying the Suns should have won at least one of those match-ups, but I don't think its a firm column of evidence that SSOL couldn't have worked. And saying that Chandler makes a defense better by himself, and thereby not giving D'Antoni the credit for those gains, misses the point by quite a lot. The Lakers have Dwight Howard, the only player in this league who does more for a defense than Chandler does. Whether D'Antoni had anything to do with NY's D or not, it is evidence that the right anchor can make his teams be solid defensive units. For me, this situation represents D'Antoni's perfect opportunity, a hybrid of the offensive talent (not the same offensive talent mind you, but the same quantity) he had in Phoenix and the defensive anchor he had in New York. Can you honestly tell me that the SSOL Suns wouldn't have broken through if they were just a wee bit better defensively?

After all this, you want to talk basketball? No, D'Antoni will not be there for Tuesday's contest. He recently had knee surgery and I don't think he's available to travel until later in the week. So the helm will be run by Bernie Bickerstaff, an Albert Finney type of coach who seems to have been just about everywhere over a very long coaching career. As to what kind of game we'll see, based on your input, I certainly don't think it will be indicative of any future matchups for these squads. The Lakers have found success the last two games by literally playing the kind of basketball that you might play at a pick up game. It works for them because something, something, four Hall of Famers on the court at once. The only injuries the Lakers are dealing with are all point guards. Steve Nash has a broken leg that is somehow not quite as serious as a broken leg sounds like it should be, and Steve Blake has an abdomen thing that will keep him out as well. Don't know who you'll be playing, but the Lakers will provide a steady dose of posting up Gasol and Howard with a few Kobe isos and PNRs mixed in.

JRW

Of course I want to talk basketball, whether it's after all of this, or at the very beginning of the conversation. That's why we're here.

Could those Suns have broken through? It's an excellent question. So many of those series were nip and tuck, as you say. But none of them made it to seven games. Ever. That speaks volumes to me, in addition to what I see when I regard the whole package that is Mike D'Antoni. I'm sorry, but I just don't see a winner there. Not an ultimate one, at least. Maybe I've had my view colored by all of those repeated playoff meetings, each of which ended the same way, or maybe it's the fact that he was such a media darling while never being able to bring the big trophy home and often coming off like a goofball. Is it fair? Possibly not. But then again, if it takes one of the two best defensive players in the league to make Dantoni's entire scheme viable, then I really wouldn't say it's a very replicable or reliable system. In my mind, it's not a question of whether the seven seconds or less teams could have worked, the point is that they didn't, haven't, and may never work. You guys have talked about how Mike Brown did not have the same gravitas that Jackson did to be able to sell patience to the Lakers. Well I feel the same way about Mike.

I would grant you that I'm missing the point if, as you said, the Lakers really did have Dwight Howard. But they don't. Not even remotely. Your writers have even admitted as much over the last couple of weeks. Howard is currently a shadow of his previously all-world defensive self. The question remains to be seen as to whether he will ever be able to return to the defensive force that he was in the past. I hope you does, because that makes for a better story and a better match-up, but until he is fully recovered from his back surgery, it's a moot point.

As far as tonight is concerned, a pick-up game will be pretty interesting to watch, especially considering the players involved. Bernie Bickerstaff has indeed been around forever, and it'll be fun to look back at this time once the regular season is over, and see whether this was the lone hiccup, or whether it was merely a preview of what the Lakers would have to deal with all year long.

Three coaches in one year was not what I was expecting for you guys at the beginning of the preseason. If I had to bet, I would put my money on Mike and the Lakers being in the mix right up until the end of the season, but we just don't know, and that is what makes your team the fascinating, and obsessed-over story that it is this year.

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