As much as we want coach Mike Brown fired immediately, it's not his fault. In fact, this team needs him, his offense and a healthier defense to succeed.
''I don't know if they will grasp it all,'' Jackson said the other day. ''Everything takes time and everything is instinctual. A lot of what you do you can't emulate or copy. You can't put it back in the same order you did it before. I may not introduce any of the usual stuff to the team until it's the right time. And it may not be the right time for four or five months."--The New York Times, October 31st, 1999
Before the seven more NBA Finals appearances and five more gold trophies adorning Dr. Jerry Buss' office space, Chicago Bulls maestro Phil Jackson came into Los Angeles charged with the task of making a talented, but underachieving Lakers team into a champion. He would install Tex Winters' vaunted triangle offense into L.A.'s offensive schemes, a conceptual scoring attack that even now (after 11 titles) some people regard as a form of smoke and mirrors witchcraft (one of Jackson's assistants on the Lakers, Brian Shaw, recounted last year to SI.com's Ian Thompsen "When I go out on head-coaching interviews and if I mention the word 'triangle,' it makes general managers and owners cringe. They don't want to hear about the triangle offense, they don't want to hear about Phil Jackson").
Ever undeterred, Jackson preached patience, and that's what he got. The 1999-2000 Lakers justified this attitude, and shot out of the gate, going 15-5 in November and along with his extraordinary past success in Chicago, captured the confidence of the city and Lakers Nation.
Mike Brown doesn't have Phil Jackson's record of success. The most the two have in common is coaching a 60-win team, appearing in the NBA Finals and their one Coach of the Year trophy apiece. What they do share is the journey of getting a team of underachieving superstars to buy into an intricate new system. For Jackson, it was the aforementioned triangle offense and relying on the team not to adhere to a certain set of plays, but rather to collectively grow within themselves a set of instincts that would get them open shots. For Brown, he's asking a team of veterans to buy not only into a complex Princeton offense, but also a tough defensive scheme that he only spoke of in theory, not in actual practice last season. Patience, as with Phil Jackson, has been preached by not just the coaching staff, but also by the team. A few days ago after the 116-106 loss to the Portland Trailblazers, Kobe Bryant let loose a fantastic tirade saying:
"Everybody shut up. Let us work. At the end of the day, you'll be happy with the result as you normally are...I don't understand. And I'm trying to bite my tongue and not calling them [the team's critics] 'dumb,' which I kind of just did. But they've seen us win multiple championships here in an offense that was tough to learn, that was a sequence of options that weren't set plays, that took five guys getting on the same page and working together. They know how that stuff works, so for them to be so stupid now, for them to say, 'Oh, let Steve dribble the ball around and create opportunities for everybody, or let Dwight post up or let me iso' ... It's, I don't want to say 'idiotic,' but it's close."
Kobe isn't incorrect. This is a complicated system that Mike Brown wouldn't have implemented if he didn't think the team has the basketball intelligence to harness it. The Lakers weren't going to grasp this any faster than Jackson's teams took hold of the triangle offense. Keep in mind that the 1999-2000 team opened (and closed) the season with great success, but at the same time had a great deal of continuity personnel-wise. This 2012-2013 squad isn't just trying to work in new role players (Antawn Jamison, Jodie Meeks, Chris Duhon, Jordan Hill), but also two prominent starters who both require their teammates to make massive accommodations for their style of play. This was never going to look good three games in, let alone three weeks or three months in.
After an 0-3 start, even calls for patience from the Patron Saint Mamba himself isn't what anyone is preaching. Mike Brown's head? On a pike, please, colorfully-rimmed glasses tied to his entrails. Before the season, calls for the coach's firing were louder than a Kevin Garnett expletive on national television. Now, the din is deafening. Amongst the biggest questions are:
Why run such a complicated offense when two huge pieces were added? Especially when one of those two pieces, Nash, has his biggest strengths seemingly nullified by a Princeton-style attack? How is this team not defending? Why have all three teams the Lakers played scored so often and so easily?
The truth is that some of these problems are, yes, rooted in Mike Brown's coaching philosophies and managerial shortcomings. But, to point completely to Brown and the way he's trying to get this team to execute is foolishly reactionary to a season just three games old, and after a preseason where the starting five played together for 30 minutes in real game situations. In defense of Mike Brown, this is much less his fault than the quick-trigger-fingered Lakers fanbase wants to believe.
In regards to the offense, let's not forget, going to last season, the question wasn't "why does the scoring have to be so complicated?", but rather "why is Mike Brown's offense so rudimentary?" It seems, for the moment, that the coaching staff went too far one way in trying to find a balance. As Brown has stated, and we've seen the past three games, the Princeton isn't the end-all, be-all for scoring. The Lakers are still running Kobe Bryant isolation plays, as well as some (but not enough) pick and roll offense. Still, as much as fans can be concerned about the team's scoring, they're still doing it by the truckload: the team has shot 49.8% over three games, and a staggering 38% from the three-point line. Bryant has been the main beneficiary of his new teammates, shooting 61% on 57 shots.
Last year's Lakers showed us that the team needed variety in their offensive output, putting up 95.9 points per game that was the franchise's lowest in decades. As complicated as the Princeton offense may be and as much as it seems to discount Steve Nash's strengths, the truth is that Nash is a 38-year-old point guard who's already gone down to injury within the season's first week. The Lakers needed to create another method of scoring that didn't largely count on individual excellence for isolations or strong point guard play.
More to the point, L.A.'s bench is much less potent than originally forecast. Mastering an offense that is most often implemented to disguise weaknesses in a player's individual ability to create his own shot is actually more key than anyone dares to admit. The Lakers actually need this type of complicated scoring attack. Mike Brown's force-feeding it now during in-game situations is necessary. Not implementing the offense in the early stages of the season would perhaps be a mistake in regards to learning it in the first place. The lesson going back to last season is that this team needs variance in their attack, not to straight-jacket themselves into a certain style of play. Take the Miami Heat for example: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh give them so many different styles in which to attack the other team. Between Bosh and James, a high-low post attack is their best weapon against the other team, but pick and rolls, as well high screens-rolls and isolations are also within their repertoire. In short, the Heat can beat any team, any style at any time. The Lakers NEED this. Pick and rolls for Nash and isolation plays for Dwight or Kobe aren't "schemes" the team needs to learn. Anytime they need to nail those plays, they can do so at the drop of a dime, and in Nash's case, more accurately so. A Princeton-style attack? With the limited offensive players around Nash, Kobe, Gasol and Dwight, and the limited minutes that Mike Brown wants to play his stars, I'd say they need it. Master it now, so the team can implement it whenever they choose later. Patience, as was preached by Jackson 13 years ago and echoed by Brown in the past month, it more important than ever.
Part of the trade-off of learning the offense is the turnover problem. As Dexter Fishmore tweeted during yesterday's debacle against the Clippers, it looked as if the Lakers had met each other that afternoon. The Lakers are averaging an astonishing 19.7 turnovers over three games, headlined by Wednesday night's staggering 24 in the Rose Garden. As the team continues to try to master the Princeton and passes are zipped around the hardwood, they aren't just interceptions by opposing defenses--at times, it appears as if the Lakers meant to pass it to the other team. Last night for example, there was one possession in the fourth quarter where Steve Blake appeared to hand the ball to Clippers' reserve Eric Bledsoe. The turnovers have been...silly (is that the right word?), but as the team becomes more comfortable with one another, as well as the offense they're running, the mistakes will surely begin to abate. After all, seven teams have averaged 18 or more turnovers in this young season, including the veteran-laden Indiana Pacers and Milwaukee Bucks. The Lakers look clunky and confused, but I suspect those are more telling of the times rather than the team itself.
But that's not to say that there aren't pretty big concerns in regards to the Lakers. There are some problems far more important that, if you believe in the collective basketball intelligence of the team, will come sooner than later. Some are issues that Mike Brown has no control over, and some are the real things he has to worry about. In order of "Ship be sinking!" exclamations, here they are:
1). Lack of athleticism on the wing
What pretty much everyone overlooked coming into the season was the real lack of athleticism from most of the Lakers wing players. Kobe Bryant and Metta World Peace are certainly solid one-on-one defenders, but in regards to their defensive rotations, not to mention Jamison and Steve Blake's, LA has a real problem getting back to open shooters on the perimeter. Opposing teams have shot 57 three-pointers against the Lakers and have sunk 38% of the tries, which is also a sign that other teams know how to effectively attack the Lakers.
This lack of quick wing players is also partially responsible for a Lakers team that hasn't forced more than 12 turnovers out of any of the three teams they've played so far. It's not particularly surprising against the Clippers, who took care of the ball better than almost anyone last season, but moreso for the young Blazers and the Mavericks who had half a dozen new players to integrate. The Lakers simply aren't quick enough to attack passing lanes or disrupt the other team's offense.
Devin Ebanks could be the key here. He's got the requisite youth, length and quickness to turn into a premiere perimeter stopper, if ever he could develop a solid enough offensive repertoire to stay on the floor and of course, care about defending. Moreover, this problem could all be partially solved by an active Dwight Howard up the middle. Howard's obviously still working himself back into game shape after back surgery, as he hasn't been the defender that he was in Orlando. Once he returns to full power, I suspect the perimeter defense will improve, but Mike Brown needs to think of other ways to stop teams from taking advantage of this pretty obvious weakness.
2). Physical team defense
Other than a lack of athleticism, I've seen a fairly disturbing lack of energy coming from a Lakers team that hasn't exhibited much of the fire or pride you'd see from any of the other title contenders. I haven't seen the team very active on defense, especially in regards to pressuring the ball and effectively bodying oppositions. Opponents are scoring an extremely efficient 1.27 points per shot, which is near the bottom of the league, and on 84 attempts a game to boot. The Lakers aren't enforcing their pace on anyone, which is partly a product of not knowing how they want to score, but also of not putting teams into uncomfortable spots on the other side of the ball.
The Lakers need to be more physical without fouling (putting the team to the line over 24 times a game isn't going to cut it), and pressure other teams into making foolish passes. Never mind the lack of athleticism on the wings: the Lakers need to use their size all over the floor to bully opponents. With a more steady offense, Mike Brown's team will be able to concentrate better on defense, including knowing how to enforce their style of play. The Lakers have given up 106.7 points a game, losing by just a hair over 9 points in all three contests (though the games were far more uneven than that as anyone who actually watched can tell you). That can't happen for much longer. In the words of the great Gregg Popovich, give me some nasty.
I mentioned in the preseason that my biggest concern for the Lakers was injuries; well, we're already here. Steve Nash looks like he's in his 20s, but newsflash: time doesn't bend for anyone, not even for someone with a criminally great haircut. He's already out with a fibula fracture, the seriousness of which we won't truly know for a week or so. Most importantly, it's pretty obvious that D-12 is working himself back into shape after his surgery. Whether he's actually still hurt is up for debate, but there's no doubt that he's not at full strength, which is hopefully just a conditioning and timing problem. The injuries aren't going to stop as any NBA team will tell you, but the age of the Lakers leaves them predisposed to a rash of inactive players. It's already happened.
Thirteen years ago, Phil Jackson kept on mentioning "patience" in regard to his 1999-2000 squad, and didn't have to justify it much. Their 67-15 record is tied for the second-best in team history. Here we stand today, in an even more "immediate satisfaction", spoiled society, asking for the very same attitude toward this team and a coach with a much less refined pedigree. There are a lot of problems with this Lakers team, but they are not entirely the ones that everyone is crying about, or ones Mike Brown can necessarily fix this instant. As Ben R pointed out in his Beast or Burden post this afternoon, one of Brown's greatest shortcomings thus far has been his maddening rotations, in which he's not staggering his superstars to have them play with the reserves. I'd go even further and say that Brown also fails at getting his team to play with more defensive energy. To correct the problems he can control immediately, Mike Brown has enough talent on his team that these small adjustments should pave the way for victories. The Lakers are playing the Detroit Pistons, Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings in three of the next four games, so this could be prime time for change.
I'm firmly on Mike Brown's side. I want desperately to believe in him, his philosophies and his ability to win. The schemes he's teaching could lead to a championship, or what is more important in Lakerland, multiple titles. I believe in the intelligence of the team to grasp the offense, and prosper within it. But what we need is patience. In the words of a dearly departed friend, it's time to get your zen on.
*All statistics taken from basketball-reference.com and ESPN.com
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