Last year's Lakers squad featured a series of start-and-stop momentum shifts, clashes in basketball philosophies and an endless changing of personnel. The team and front office continually spouted how "well, without a full training camp, this team can't ____". Go wild with your fill-in-the-blank answers, kids. You probably won't be wrong.
Well, that's not going to be an excuse anymore. Head coach Mike D'Antoni has started his first full camp with the Los Angeles Lakers and the team is his to mold in the way he sees fit. What, if anything, do you suspect will be the biggest major change he'll be able to implement that will differentiate this year's squad from last year's?
While the responsibility of an improved team defense may fall under the to-do list of Assistant Coach Kurt Rambis, I expect improved chemistry on defense to be the biggest change the coaching staff will be able to implement this season thanks to a full training camp.
When I saw the topic for this roundtable, I initially thought about how the offense could be more efficient than last year. The rigidity and lack of ball movement on offense last year curbed any momentum the team developed post all-star break. The team had absolutely no chemistry, looking more like a pick-up team at the local rec center rather than a five-man unit. Even if the team did have a full training camp under D'Antoni last year, the pieces still wouldn't have fit his system. So if not improved flow on offense, then what?
Defensively, the Lakers were second to last in forcing turnovers in 2012-2013. Much of that was a result of having very little intensity on the defensive end, especially out on the perimeter. More important than having youth and athleticism is having guys who want to make the defensive stop - guys that collectively care enough about their teammates to never take a play off. Defense, even more than schematics, is about effort and energy. A full training camp under a coaching staff that is finally directing its efforts towards the defensive end will go a long way in putting together a team that improves as the season progresses. Many fans and critics expect the team to be even worse defensively without Metta World Peace and Dwight Howard; however, the difference in talent will be compensated for by a difference in effort. [I know Metta gave it his all, but one person can't make up for a team's lackadaisical attitude.]
Now that the roster is made up with of guys that fit D'Antoni's system on offense, the value of forcing turnovers on defense becomes even more imperative. A full training camp not only lets the players understand each other's tendencies, but also builds a sense of camaraderie. That team-first mindset will be critical for a team made up of individually sub-par defenders. Who knows, maybe Nick Young will rotate properly and even take a charge once in a while - it wouldn't be the first time, would it?
This is a tough question because many of the things D'Antoni implemented last season were centered around offense. The Horns sets aren't up and leaving, nor is the pick-and-roll heavy attack -- we've seen plenty of both already through the first few games of the preseason. Adding even more folds to the offense doesn't seem likely and defensively there hasn't been much of a shift from the team thus far despite the presence of "The Jedi Master of the Defense" Kurt Rambis (shouts to Billy Mac).
Where does that leave room for major changes?
What D'Antoni can do is manage the roster. The pieces the Lakers signed over the summer are being turned over and over on the coals during preseason and Coach 'Toni has already stated he intends to run 11 deep. This piggybacks on what my answer was on the last roundtable -- that the personnel sets he runs will be the biggest question mark that needs to be answered before the regular season begins.
Last season the roster felt claustrophobic. Whether it was because of injuries (oh, the injuries) or not having a place on the team (looking at you Devin Ebanks and either Darius Morris or Chris Duhon depending on the week) the Lakers were a small group of players that absolutely had to find a way to maximize their chances to win at all times. The fact that the team was teetering on the edge of the eight seed of the Western Conference through much of the year kept D'Antoni's foot on the gas and turned into exorbitant amounts of minutes and a short rotation just to get a few extra games in Staples Center for the post-season.
That is not the case in year two of the D'Antoni "era" (it's always fun to label eras). The team has a variety of players to run different packages -- say a fast-paced reserve unit with Jordan Farmar, Xavier Henry, Nick Young, Shawne Williams/Marcus Landry/Elias Harris/________ (Fill in your name in the blank), and Jordan Hill five-man unit as an example -- which will be distinctively different than last season.
The biggest thing Mike D'Antoni has going for him is a chance to learn what team he has control of. It's a fresh roster and a fresh slate. There's no excuse for him not to have those 11 players -- at least -- ready to play within the team's "philosophies." Execution of said philosophy, however, is another issue entirely.
I don't think there's much doubt that the biggest change D'Antoni should be able to implement for this year's squad is a coherent and consistent offensive vision for the team. Last year, between taking over the team after the season already started, losing another 20 games to point guard hell, and having his preferred offensive system ostensibly be rejected by the player around whom the system was designed, MDA had very little chance of creating a cohesive offensive unit. Then, as the losses kept piling up, the team was forced to abandon any attempt to "grow" into D'Antoni's offensive system, instead settling for a "Give the ball to Kobe and see what works" system most of the time.
This year, there are no excuses. Dwight Howard, the guy who submarined the offensive game plan with his unwillingness to play his role, is gone, so everybody on the team will finally want to play (a version of) D'Antoni-ball. And the other benefit, at least as it pertains to this conversation, is that Kobe Bryant is also likely to start the season on the bench. I'm not saying the Lakers will be better off without Kobe, far from it. But, without Kobe, there is only one way for the Lakers to play, and that is the Mike D'Antoni way (with some opportunities for Pau Gasol in straight post up situations). MDA has his point guard, he has his decently athletic bench, and he has a blank slate with which to work, a slate that is absent the biggest obstacle to his offensive system last year. For all the Lakers' failings, they do have a great deal of offensive talent, and they have (supposedly) one of the game's best offensive minds running the ship. If D'Antoni can't get the offense clicking from opening night, he probably doesn't deserve to be coaching this team next year. I suspect he'll be up to the task.
The biggest major change coming from Mike D'Antoni will be the institution of a real sense of consistent offensive flow. Too often last year was the offense disjointed and unable to establish a coherent plan of attack from game to game, no doubt owing to the constant injuries the team had to endure and the resulting flux in the rotations. The team was eventually able to settle on a system that revolved around liberal use of Horns sets with some high pick-and-roll sprinkled in for flavor, but even then, possessions often devolved into awkward post-ups for Dwight Howard or Kobe Bryant being called upon to create something from nothing. This year, the team should be able to walk into any given game with a clear idea of how it wants to attack opposing teams no matter what personnel are present in the game. There are four players on the team capable of being a primary ballhandler in the high pick-and-roll that D'Antoni prefers (Nash, Blake, Farmar, Kobe) and along with Pau Gasol's presence in the high and low post, there should be much greater consistency in terms of what the team runs. While it is true that the personnel are better suited to D'Antoni's system this year -- look at Shawne Williams, who was specifically brought in because of his positive experience with D'Antoni in New York and right now appears to be the top choice for the backup four spot -- the simple fact that the team will be on the same page in terms of the plays and execution will make everything move much smoother.
Now, whether this will result in a more effective offense ultimately depends on health. Without one of Kobe, Nash, or Pau on the floor, the offense will struggle to create shots even with optimal execution. Barring the emergence of a creator from a surprise corner -- with the possible exception of Jordan Farmar, who might have the requisite combination of talent and fit within the offense to transcend this label -- the Lakers will have to heavily rely on those three, all of whom suffered significant injuries last year. Now, we should note that this doesn't mean that the offense will be bad; quite to the contrary, the offense might end up being above average even with a poor bill of health due to the better consistency mentioned above. This doesn't clear the bar for the elite offense the Lakers need to make any noise next season, however, as this will require solid synergy not only from the non-star members of the team but between Kobe, Nash, and Pau themselves, somewhat of a tall order due to the aforementioned health issues. Nevertheless, next season's offense should be much more aesthetically pleasing than last season's ramshackle collection and should the cards fall a certain way, much better at putting the ball in the basket as well.
The Great Mambino
Many of the major changes happening in El Segundo right now aren't even a result of Mike D'Antoni's handiwork, per se--GM Mitch Kupchak and VP of Player Personnel Jimmy Buss molded a Plan B team this summer that would better fit the classic MDA teams of years past. The Lakers prioritized youth and athleticism as best they could with the financial restrictions they faced, and in that regard, they succeeded. This team has more speed, quickness and at the very least, the potential to defend on an acceptable NBA level. I have serious doubt on whether this team can harness those facets of the game, but regardless, the opportunity is there for the taking.
That being said, what a full training camp gives D'Antoni is the ability to give the Lakers not just a unified vision on offense, but adequate enough defensive chops that kept his great Phoenix Suns teams afloat on the other side of the ball.
In regards to scoring the ball, it's not hard to imagine the effect MDA will have with several weeks to implement philosophies rather than several days. Hopefully, this team will have enough players that will buy into high pick and roll basketball, attacking the rack with the type of ferocity seemingly limited to the greatest PnR operator of his generation in Steve Nash. The potential (a key word for next year's Lakers, in case you haven't noticed) for a cadre of shooters to punish teams for crashing too hard on what should be LA's bread and butter play is there, with Jodie Meeks, Steve Blake, Jordan Farmar and Nick Young roaming on the perimeter. Again, it's not hard to envision the Lakers' scoring attack with MDA being able to better channel his team's efforts in that sense with a full camp.
But perhaps more important than that, D'Antoni will have the opportunity to communicate to his team how to defend while playing a hybrid Seven Seconds or Less-style of basketball. Those Phoenix teams weren't stoppers in the half court set by any means, but their ability to disrupt oppositions in transition (which PHX was often faced with considering the style of their offense) with their quickness and athleticism remains an underrated part of their game. This Lakers team has the ability to perform the very same tactics with their new, young rotation horses.