Given how the Lakers went about their business last week, you would be forgiven if you thought the real Laker team showed up to blow Denver into oblivion and had incompetent doppelgangers stand in against Indiana and Orlando. Perhaps the opposite sentiment should apply, as the frequency at which the "good" team shows up seems to be determined by the alignment of the stars and seasons. Either way, it is clear that the team is having a tough time keeping in sufficient rhythm such that they execute consistently and crank out offensive performances -- and defensive ones -- commensurate with their talent level. A big part of the problem is the fact that the Lakers are playing with their third and fourth string point guards at the helm of an offensive that is supposed to be dictated by their actions.
This is no longer the triangle or any other structured motion offense we have been accustomed to in the past years in which you can make things work through sheer execution. As with most other teams in the NBA, it comes down to the court vision and skill of your primary ballhandler and how he handles the flow of the offense. Near everything in Mike D'Antoni's system goes off the initial pick-and-roll and the opportunities that are created once the ballhandler penetrates off the pick. It is no accident that lineups featuring Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard initiating the pick-and-roll while being surrounded by three other shooters have achieved the greatest success under the auspices of D'Antoni's offense. Past Kobe, however, you have essentially no one who can come even remotely close to managing the system in the manner that D'Antoni requires. You may describe D'Antoni's pining for Steve Nash and Steve Blake to return as excuses, but he is absolutely right to say that they are essential for what he wants to do on offense. See the Knicks last year before Jeremy Lin arrived for a clear illustration of this.
Spacing, ball movement, and opening up the center of the floor for guards to penetrate and bigs to roll is the foundation of D'Antoni's system. It explains what may initially appear to be an incongruous statement at D'Antoni's introductory press conference that a team with two solid post-up men and a pair of starting wings also adept in that aspect would be discouraged from doing so. Stopping the ball by throwing it down to your big while everyone stays and watches is against everything that D'Antoni preaches. Last year, the Lakers beat opponents by slowing grinding them out on the strength of the two point buckets of Kobe from midrange and the Lakers' post players. Against Denver, we had a perfect presentation of D'Antoni's system in the shot chart, almost entirely threes and shots at the rim, an efficiency maven's dream. Getting such a result every night is dependent on your playmakers executing consistently and that's very difficult considering that Kobe is the only ballhandler who can work in this context. With Blake out for over a month and Nash's return uncertain, the Lakers simply need someone else capable of running the offense, and these types of up and down performances will continue until they do so.
- Antawn Jamison -- Not only is Jamison's emergence as a huge scoring threat an even more severe condemnation of how Mike Brown utilized him in his offense, he typifies the kind of player who succeeds in a supplementary role in D'Antoni's system. Jamison almost never shoots in an uncomfortable spot, hitting threes off kick outs or general ball movement and getting his shots at the rim through drives or cuts. If you are wondering why Jordan Hill has been -- to some degree unjustifiably, but we digress -- banished to the end of the bench, it is because Jamison complements both of the Lakers other bigs well by getting both of those kinds of shots when he is on the floor. With Dwight, Jamison is a more traditional stretch four and floor spacer, whereas he can move closer to the basket when working with a passing big as adept as Pau is. On the other end, Jamison's defense has been a pleasant surprise, as while he gets beat off the dribble from time to time, he is competing well at that end and his consistent rebounding has been a plus as well.
- Jodie Meeks -- Shooters simply thrive under D'Antoni and Meeks is no exception. His complete lack of conscience about throwing up shots definitely helps in this regard, although you wish someone would slap him upside the head whenever he puts the ball on the floor and goes inside the arc. Denver's defense was fairly miserable against this sequence, but Meeks did have a lot of success in that game running the pick-and-roll and using the available space to hoist up a wide open jumper or making the pocket pass if a hard hedge prevented this. He's sufficiently good enough in that regard that it is a fair argument that he should be eating into the minutes of the other wings to get more floor time.
- Dwight Howard -- With the exception of his stink bomb of a game against the Magic, in which Dwight had by far his worst defensive performance and was subject to an extremely successful Hack-a-Dwight strategy, Howard has turned the corner after a rocky start to D'Antoni's tenure. Again, last night notwithstanding, Dwight's defense has been terrific, denying penetration, contesting shots at the rim, and controlling the boards. His range is not yet at his standard otherworldly peak, but you could be forgiven for not thinking that considering how good he's looked in the grand majority of the Lakers' games thus far. As previously mentioned, D'Antoni is limiting Dwight's opportunities as a post up man, and for a guy who is a fantastic finisher on cuts and rolls to the rim, this is entirely justified. If D'Antoni or Kobe can figure out the magic set of words to get him to shoot his free throws properly, he would be set.
- Metta World Peace -- MWP has hit a bit of a slump with regards to his shooting, but give him this: he is one of the few guys on the team that unequivocally shows up to play every game. Against Indiana, he was 1-8 from the floor, but was trying his heart out, diving after loose balls and snatching 12 rebounds. His limitations as a defender were put on display against Orlando, as he struggles at chasing shooters through screens, but on the whole, he has been fulfilling his role as a floor spacer and occasional finisher quite well. That he has to stay on the floor for extended minutes since Devin Ebanks has only recently been freed from the team's doghouse and D'Antoni hasn't limited his minutes in favor of Meeks can't be helping, but his continual effort on the floor despite this is further cause for praise.
- Chris Duhon -- The critique of the Lakers' point current point guard corps is valid, but we should remember to place it in context. For a fourth point guard who was supposed to be a salary dump by the Magic, Duhon has acquitted himself quite well, getting his fair share of dimes every game off good reads and shooting the ball decently. His defense is nowhere near what his reputation says it is, as evidenced by him getting burned frequently whenever he's in the game, but again, we should frame our expectations for that of a fourth point guard and honestly, Duhon has been one of the big reasons the offense functions when Kobe sits and the bench comes into the game.
- Honorable mention to Darius Johnson-Odom and Robert Sacre, both of whom have acquitted themselves very well in D-League play. DJO in particular was utterly dominant until a subpar third game brought his percentages back to earth -- although 53.5% from the field, 46.7% from three, and 80% from the line are all very respectable -- but he still managed to dish out seven dimes and gather six rebounds during his time on the court. It should be noted that this is what should be expected of him assuming that he is a real NBA prospect; not performing against this level of competition, as Derrick Caracter failed to do during his short stint with the team, is a death knell to your NBA prospects. Sacre hasn't been nearly as impressive, but he played very well in his first two games, getting a double-double in both contests, before his averages suffered in a short 17 minute cameo in game three. It is doubtful whether either is recalled to the parent club barring injury, but that they are getting playing time and performing well is an endearing sight.
- Darius Morris -- Morris' short honeymoon as a serviceable point guard has more or less ended, as he's been awful in the past four games. While his defense is still generally solid and he retains value due to that aspect, the consistency he was beginning to display on the offensive end has more or less evaporated. His hesitancy coming off the pick-and-roll has resurfaced, as he still doesn't appear comfortable anywhere in-between the arc and the rim, although his surprisingly poor finishing ability at the latter continues to be baffling. A lack of an in-between game is a fairly big obstacle for any point guard, but someone of his size should be comfortable coming off a pick and just making a beeline to the rim to try to finish or draw a foul. Instead, we have gotten the Morris who pounds the ball far too much, and him losing his playtime to Duhon, especially down the stretch of games, is completely understandable.
- Kobe Bryant -- The corollary to the above description of Kobe's role in D'Antoni's system is that the flow of the offense is more or less subject to the manner in which Kobe is playing. On some nights, he is managing things flawlessly, mixing his scoring ability with pinpoint passing and keeping the defenses on their toes. On others, he is either shooting too much or being too passive, both of which causes the offense to stagnant. As Kobe put eloquently last night, this is the consequence of putting a guy who has been primarily a scorer for most of his career into a role he is not accustomed to filling. It is much easier for someone like Nash, who achieves this balance between scoring and passing much easier than Kobe does, to provide more consistent results as a floor general because of this. On the other end, however, Kobe's effort and form have been pretty miserable. Whether this is a consequence of having to handle the ball on nearly every single possession or not, his unwillingness to check shooters going through screens and such as bitten the Lakers in the rear quite a few times this season.
- Pau Gasol -- To a certain extent, Pau's problems can be blamed on his physical state, as he clearly can't elevate or move laterally well, but there's also the line of thought that he simply has to perform better. We gripe and moan about him being positioned away from the rim and acting as an imperfect floor spacer, but this is the same guy who hit nearly 50% of his long twos only two years ago. There is no getting around the fact that in this offense when playing with Dwight, he will be called upon to make those jumpers. Nash doesn't change this either, as he will be making the same pocket pass Kobe makes on the pick-and-roll to get him the ball around the eighteen foot mark. So when Kobe tells Pau essentially to man up, it is true to an extent. The role is not ideal for him, but a guy with his level of skill and talent has to be able to adjust, as Kobe has done by acting more or less as the team's de facto floor general. On defense, it is hard to say how much of Pau's problems are due to again, his physical issues hampering his mobility, but he has gone from at the very least an average performer at that end to quite the liability.