Welcome back, everyone, to the Silver Screen and Roll circular table. Today we've got something of a follow-up to our discussion of last week, which examined and weighed the various factors that could send the Lakers' 2012-13 season to a banner-less fate. That was a nice exchange of views, I thought, so as roundtable MC I decided this week to stick with the disaster-scenario theme. The question I posed to my fellow Laker Studies majors was: if there's no championship this season, who specifically will get the most blame? Which individual will be most identified with, and reputationally tarnished by, the team's failure to meet expectations?
There are plausible future scapegoats up and down the franchise org chart. Pau Gasol has faded the last couple playoffs and won't be forgiven a third. Dwight Howard is an even likelier choice. Much as public sentiment turned on LeBron James after The Decision, everyone (other than Laker fans) is beyond fed up with Dwight and would love an opportunity to humble him. Mike Brown? Lakerdom isn't sold on him now and Lord help him if he's seen to have squandered the greatest collection of star talent in history, to say nothing of one of the precious final years of Kobe's career. As the face of the organization and its dominant personality, he can't escape getting blamed (or credited) for events out of proportion to his actual level of responsibility.
I promise, we'll get cheerier in weeks to come! But part of the fun of a super team is the possibility of cataclysmic fallout and recriminations so why not indulge a little bit?
With the additions of Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, the Princeton offense and an upgraded bench, it's fair to say that the championship expectations are bordering that of a new Lakers dynasty already in Los Angeles. This is before a single game has been played. Looking into the crystal ball, though, I can't help but see one figure in the mist.
Taking a reverse approach, who is least likely to receive blame? Blaming Metta World Peace for this roster falling short is like blaming the apple for falling from the tree instead of blaming gravity. We all know there's more to it than the apple just "deciding" to free fall on a whim. Pau Gasol has been a familiar whipping horse for the Lakers' troubles, but as the third or fourth best player on the roster, blaming Pau again when there are at least two other players impacting the game more than he does misses the point.
With Ramon Sessions disappearing in the playoffs, and Derek Fisher's on-court production being none too desirable prior to his departure, it's impossible to fathom the idea that Nash will take the lion's share of the blame in a failed campaign. The coaching staff may receive criticism if the pieces don't mesh the way we daydream about it in our heads, but in the end with the talent brought together, and the system they will be applying, what happens on the court will come down to the execution from the players themselves. That leaves Dwight Howard, and Kobe Bryant.
Dwight Howard has never played with a team as talented as the Laker squad he will be anchoring this season. Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash AND Pau Gasol? His numbers shouldn't see a drop-off, as it's difficult to see him straying away from his made 7.7 field goals per game and 5.2 made free throws, especially considering that he is the best pick-and-roll finisher in the league and Steve Nash is the best pick-and-roll facilitator. Topping it off is the fact that the biggest upside to having Dwight Howard at center instead of Andrew Bynum is arguably on the defensive end, where his impact will be felt on a nightly basis. Dwight should be, and will be, in the clear. This is without even taking into consideration that his contract is expiring. I highly doubt Laker fans want to conduct a witch hunt on the superstar who will be carrying the franchise once Kobe hangs ‘em up for good, one year into the experience and while he's a free agent.
That leaves but one jutted jaw in the crystal ball, and it belongs to Kobe Bryant.
With the supporting cast that Mitch Kupchak put together as if he were casting director for the latest in the Ocean's 11 series, Kobe Bryant will have to adjust his game so the team can flourish. It's certainly been talked about enough ZERO games into the season. Do I expect him to? Definitely. The fact remains that the biggest challenge for the Lakers, and Kobe, next season will be finding an offensive rhythm to beat the opponents over the head with. Kobe has found himself surrounded by proven talent. Turnover against pressure defense? "Kobe needs to give it back to Nash, who should be running the offense anyway." Double-teamed and tried to force a shot over those extended hands? "He should have tossed it down low to Dwight who was alone against his man." With the superstar cast surrounding him, every little mistake is going to feel magnified. This isn't Andrew Bynum, Ramon Sessions and Josh McRoberts flanking him. This is a championship contending team with complementary pieces, a roster and offense that should be bursting with amazing basketball plays. If the Lakers fall short for the third straight year, the fingers will point at number 24.
Heck, I hear it already and the season hasn't even started: "Kobe can't share the spotlight," "He just wants to shoot until his arms fall off," "There's no way Kobe can play with Steve Nash controlling the offense." So if the Lakers do walk away without a title this season, expect the Kobe berating to reach unseen levels. Whether it's justified or not.
This is a tough one because blame could fall on any one of numerous people depending how the season goes. If Bryant struggles to relinquish control of the offense to Nash blame could be assigned to him. If Nash's inability to defend anything other than a chair leads to Westbrook or another explosive point guard sending the Lakers home early, certainly he will receive some blame. If Howard misses free throws down the stretch in big games he will likely see a heavy share of the blame. If Gasol can't make the spacing work as a power forward next to Howard, blame (and trade demands by fans) will almost surely follow. If the bench can't seem to provide much of anything they will be blamed once again. All that being said, if the Lakers fail to win the title the blame will fall on Mike Brown.
The Lakers have all the pieces, now it falls on the coaching staff to figure out how to put them together. Anything short of a title is viewed as failure in Laker land. An incredibly high standard to hit, but such exceptionalism is par for the course for the league's best franchise. Mitch Kupchak has succeeded in turning a non-playoff team in 2005 into a two-time champion on the quest for more with a fully loaded roster, all the while being over the cap and having only one draft pick in the top 10. Kobe Bryant succeeded in leading the Lakers to two titles and scored two finals MVP awards when others said he as too old. Gasol put the "soft" label behind for two great runs to titles. The Lakers legacy demands nothing but the best. The pieces are in place to win a title. If they fall short then Mike Brown will probably be the scapegoat.
I'm torn between picking Mike Brown or Dwight Howard as Most Likely to Take the Heat if the Lakers fall short this season. For Coach Brown, I think a title is all but mandatory. As many people have pointed out, the championship window for this version of the Lakers will be open for just a couple years, and if they don't get it done in 2012-13 (unless they come achingly close, like Game Seven of the Finals), there will be intense pressure on Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss to replace Brown with someone like Stan or Jeff Van Gundy.
But I think Dwight's in the crosshairs more than anyone. Look, as Laker fans we no longer care how badly he treated the Magic and their fans, but others' memories aren't so short. Dwight made himself a ton of enemies over the past couple years, and if he doesn't deliver the long knives will come out. Especially if Andrew Bynum has a big year in Philadelphia, which I expect he will. Kobe, of course, will take his share of blame if things don't go well. That's a given. But Kobe has an accumulated reservoir of league-wide respect that Dwight does not. Unfortunately Dwight can look forward to the pre-2012 LeBron treatment if the Lake Show gets bounced.
The Great Mambino
As much as I would love to lay the reasons for a season's ultimate achievement or premature demise at the feet of Metta World Peace, as he suggested should happen weeks ago if the Lakers were to lose, my logic is still steadily fastened to reality. The truth is, as always, that the captain goes down with his ship: win or lose, the onus is on Kobe Bean Bryant.
The Lakers are adding four new rotation players, including two All-Star caliber starters, to Mike Brown's top 10 guys this year. In all aspects of the game, the team is changing the ways it plays the sport. From Dwight's complete, persistent and overwhelming domination of the paint, to Steve Nash's playmaking ability to Antawn Jamison's and Jodie Meeks' distance shooting, this Lakers team will be wholly different from the slow, limited squads that have taken the floor since the opening tip of the 2010-2011season.
After giving this weeks of thought, I still can't even picture what the Lakers offense will look like. Kobe Bryant has never played with a point guard with the shot-creating expertise of Nash, nor has Nash had a bevy of elite talent of this magnitude surrounding him. Mike Brown has never had so many great - not good, but great - players to work with, let alone a genuine pass-first floor general with an ability to get his own at any time. Pau Gasol faces another big change in role, as he will now share the floor with another paint-dominating center with a much more limited offensive skill set than his last partner. However, I have faith that all these problems will be smoothed out with Nash, who has spent his whole career making his teammates better by distributing the ball, getting everyone involved and tempering egos.
That all being said, I would be shocked if the blame for the Lakers' failure were laid at Nash's doorstep. More so than anyone else on the team, Nash is genuinely liked by media and NBA fans across the country, and that type of reverence will curb a lot of criticism that might otherwise rightly float his way if the Lakers' scoring stutters. After all, even if Nash isn't at his fully formed best, the changes he'll implement will be amplified in comparison to the jumbled, stagnant offense the team had last season. Also, pass-first point guards are rarely blamed for a team's collapse, simply because inherent in their roles is an unselfishness that's hard to criticize. As Shaquille likes to say often and eternally muffled on television, it's never the big man's fault. The fans and the media are always going to look at the guy with the ball at the top of the key. Which leaves us staring at Kobe.
Even as the Lakers are bringing in two players that averaged over 30 shots per game combined in 2012, I still expect Kobe to hoist up between 15 and 20 per contest this upcoming year. Bryant is ball dominant, and even when he's not shooting on every possession it simply feels like he is. A lot of this is because of the difficulty of the shots he's taking (which makes them more memorable), but it could also continue to feel like he always is touching the rock because with Nash in the fold he'll be involved in more plays, whether he's shooting or not.
If the Lakers' new offense doesn't work, make no mistake, it won't just be about Kobe. Much of the blame should rightly be laid at Mike Brown for not being able to manage his team of superstars and their egos, or create an intricate enough offensive plan to properly use his cadre of scoring options. However, it'll go towards Kobe, because a slow, discombobulated Lakers offense must be the fault of the "ball hog" Kobe, who wasn't able to properly curb his gunner's trigger finger enough to share the ball or keep the on-court chemistry healthy enough. I can see Henry Abbott foaming at the digital mouth just imagining the type of venom he'll be able to unleash on the Mamba for any Laker pitfall. This isn't to say that Bryant should be without blame. If the Lakers cannot mesh the pieces together, both in the locker room and in on the floor, it'll be the fault of the team's captain and best wing scoring threat. In our collective zeal to protect Kobe, let's not forget he was definitely less than efficient this past season and needs to sacrifice shots this upcoming one for this team to win. If the Lakers fail to win number 17, it'll be a multi-layered problem, but the majority of it will be centered on Kobe.
As for Dwight, he might not be on the floor until December, but as soon as he dons the purple and gold, there's little doubt he'll be able to seamlessly impact the team's defensive schemes as a shot blocker, guarding the post and on help D. Jordan Hill and Pau Gasol are still good to strong defenders on any given night, and Meeks, Kobe and World Peace should be able to gamble on the perimeter with Dwight backing them up. Along with Mike Brown's defensive pedigree, Dwight will certainly be a transformative enough force on D that any misgivings on offense will be overlooked. Thus I can't imagine that Dwight will be given as much blame as Kobe.
Mike Brown, Mike Brown, and Mike Brown. When collections of epic talent like this come together and it appears that their skill sets have the potential to mesh nicely, the onus is placed upon the coaching staff to make sure that the team can realize its potential. While we have seen enough tape and breakdowns to believe that the Princeton offense can work for this group and integrate the talents of the Lakers' new big four, it is not an easy system to learn. Like the triangle, there will be an adjustment period for everyone involved. Nash will have to deal with playing off the ball more than he is accustomed to; Kobe needs to embrace being a cutter, screener, and in general a threat outside of solely isolation; Pau, although he will be more open more often than any other time in his career, will have to adjust to receiving the ball more often than not in the high post or close to the perimeter; and Howard will be a finisher on cuts and as a roll man rather than a first option in the post. These issues will require time, practice, and effort to work out, and it all falls upon the coaching staff to expedite that transition as best as they can. Brown, moreover, now has one of the best - if not the best - defensive players in the league in Dwight Howard to base his scheme around, and there is little excuse for the Lakers not to have a top five defensive mark next season.
Now, while we can directly attach blame to the coaching staff should the team have a rough transition, there is a big gap between that and blaming Brown for the Lakers not winning a title. This team very well could gel without a hitch and still lose to Miami in a seven game slugfest in the Finals. We often hate to admit it, but to put it simply, stuff happens. Shots don't fall, someone goes into an improbable slump, or the opposing team gets a variety of unanticipated contributions. Dallas rode a wave of such occurrences to a title in 2011, and while it would be remiss to call it mere luck, it is part of sports that we have to deal with. I suppose it ultimately comes down to the manner in which the Lakers fail to reach the finish line. If we can clearly point to a lack of cohesiveness or in-game strategy as the culprits, then Brown should receive the lion's share of the blame, and frankly, this is probably the only way the Lakers fall short besides injury. Given Brown's professed willingness to give Nash great freedom to run the offense as he sees fit and Howard's aforementioned great fit with Brown's defensive system, however, we should be fairly safe on this account.