If you were one of the people that thought the Lakers would be hovering around .500 in December, Saint Mamba praise you. There were very few writers on this blog that believed LA could tread water as successfully as they have for the past seven weeks without Kobe Bryant. Many of us felt that with a motley crew of minimum salaried retreads, creaky veterans and declining stars, this squad was headed straight for the lottery. Envisioning this team's future wasn't terribly hard: a decent scoring unit that would lose games primarily on one of the league's worst defenses. In fact, Ben Rosales, Drew Garrison and I spent a good 10 minutes on our inaugural podcast thinking aloud reasons that this Lakers team could be even adequate defensively. We came up with almost nothing.
But I suppose why that's why they're called "predictions" and not "proclamations". The Lakers are a punchy 10-11 team, with one of the league's weaker offenses and an...average defense. It's a shocking development to say the least, one that hinges on the fact that the Lakers play harder than just about any team in the league and have somehow harnessed the thus far untapped athleticism of their young players. Much of this is a gigantic testament to the coaching staff, who have somehow gotten the Lakers to buy in completely to the egalitarian nature of the defense and ball-sharing-centric offense. Coach Mike D'Antoni, once universally reviled by the LA fan base, has now gotten some early season buzz for Coach of the Year. Amazing.
That being said, how would you rate MDA's early season performance? What's been his best accomplishment thus far with this team? Where do you think he needs more work?
The Great Mambino
In the early season going D'Antoni has been fantastic, a strange notion to say the least. As I wrote in the preface, MDA has taken a cast of players that were one of the following in regards to defense: old and slow, able but unwilling, returning from injury or breaking down. For the most part, MDA has been able to mask the weaknesses of his least athletic players, hiding them on the opposing team's least mobile scorer and creating a defense scheme that puts less pressure on the bigs as rim protectors. The team's athletes have been extremely disruptive on and off the ball, hustling on every defensive play and hounding oppositions from the half court line onwards. Even players like Nick Young, long criticized for his lack of defensive intensity, has been leaps this season to being a slightly below average defender. D'Antoni has gotten through to Swaggy P more than any coach before him, which has to be his greatest accomplishment this season by far.
This is not to say that the defense has been great or couldn't improve by a long shot. But surprisingly, MDA has done the most with what he's gotten, especially without a traditional shot blocker or mobile guard that's able to lock down opposing point guards.
Where the team needs more work isn't a current issue--as I said, this team is as good as they can possibly be right now--it's more of a future one. Thus far, the Lakers have been an unselfish unit of scrappy underdogs where no piece is bigger than another. However, as Pau Gasol continues to work his way into shape and Kobe Bryant returns from injury, that will not be the case anymore. I would be shocked if this wasn't a Mamba-centric offense upon his debut, with Gasol fitting well into his role as a favorite second option of his. In that regard, this team will need work to keep players like Xavier Henry, Wes Johnson, Jodie Meeks and Steve Blake playing hard and sharp while not playing as aggressive roles in the offense.
Mike D'Antoni's tenure thus far this year has been a phenomenal success to say the least. This isn't to say that he's been perfect by any means or there aren't issues to be ironed out, but he's so thoroughly annihilated the expectations many had for this team that it's difficult to give him anything other than a shining gold star for his work. At the end of November, winning four to five games was supposed to be the end result; two or three wouldn't have been overly surprising either. Instead, MDA has more or less saved the career of two lottery busts in Xavier Henry and Wesley Johnson, engendered some production out of a guy who was out of the league last year in Shawne Williams, and gotten the entire team to buy into a team mentality so infectious it has carried them to an above .500 record when the mere thought of that was ludicrous. Seriously, this team has played without Kobe Bryant or an effective Steve Nash and Pau Gasol, the three guys who were supposed to carry this team, yet the Lakers have been competitive in nearly every contest with only a few exceptions. The flow on offense, until it was thoroughly discombobulated last Sunday, has looked great and the defensive energy and attempt to actually commit to rotations has been a rather stark departure from last year.
Now, not everything is roses and sunshine. The rotations have been the biggest issue with MDA dating back to last year, and there have been quite a few quizzical decisions so far this season. Shawne Williams stealing minutes away from more productive frontcourt players has been the biggest one, as despite demonstrating far more tolerance than last year, D'Antoni likely still considers all four of Pau Gasol, Jordan Hill, Chris Kaman, and Robert Sacre to be centers in his system, creating a minute crunch as all four likely deserve minutes at this juncture. That can't be accomplished in a rotation in which MDA wants to play both Williams and Johnson at the four, especially so now that Kobe's presence ensures that the latter will be receiving fewer minutes from this point forward. To be fair, MDA's rotation choices elsewhere have generally been solid and this is partly a roster construction problem that was evident in the offseason when the team signed Kaman despite having two serviceable centers in Pau and Hill; Sacre emerging as arguably the best defensive big on the team and an interesting pick-and-roll player has further compounded the problem. And like it or not, Pau more or less has to play because whatever your long-term goals for this season are, they require a healthy Pau to restore his trade value or to help this team into the playoffs. It's a minefield with no good answers available and it's honestly something the front office needs to resolve rather than leaving it to the coach.
Other than this, one really starts to nitpick if you want to continue. The concerns about MDA favoring high pick-and-roll play and outside shooting over straight-up dumping into the post as has been the norm for Lakers basketball for the last decade have died a sad and horrible death along with Pau's effectiveness in that area. Indeed, far from being a disadvantage, MDA's newfound ability to freely utilize his system has led to better offensive flow for everyone involved and given us some nice views of his basketball acumen via some nice sideline out-of-bounds plays. After years of Phil Jackson, decent in this area but never considered a particularly excellent Xs and Os operator, and Mike Brown, who was simply terrible in this regard, one has a fair amount of excitement for what MDA cooks up coming out of timeouts and it's played an important part in the Lakers being successful as they have this season. Altogether, MDA has more or less quieted even his most stringent detractors aside from the most incorrigible and intractable, quite the feat considering the fickle nature of fandom, and whatever Coach of the Year talks he's been involved in are entirely deserved.
Of course, he now faces a rather enormous task ahead of him in incorporating a hobbled Kobe Bryant before we can start handing him too many accolades. This is arguably as difficult of a task as incorporating injured players back into the rotation last season, if not more so: Kobe was a constant most of last year and no one came close to equaling his importance in how the team ran its offense. It's a paradigm shift of mammoth importance, as the team goes from a scrappy, underdog bunch that relied on energy, ball movement, and sheer pluckiness to win games to one centered around Kobe's game, for good or ill. Nominally, the team doesn't have to change all that much since Kobe should be able to run MDA's high pick-and-roll centric attack just as ably as Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar, but the sheer fact that the bulk of possessions will be subordinated to Kobe and whatever he deems the way he wants to run them, it makes such an adjustment difficult, especially for the players that were used to having the ball in their hands before. Combined with Kobe not being close to his former level as he gets his legs back under him and you end up with a rather difficult situation. This noted, MDA managed to eventually work out most of the issues last year and arrive at a paradigm that satisfied nearly everyone in the form of Horns, so one expects that he'll manage to do so this time as well. After being seen as an uncertain part of the Lakers' future, it seems that MDA will be sticking around from this point forward in what hopefully will be a restoration of his coaching restoration after last year's debacle.
MDA's success so far this season can be summed up by the fact that this team was able to stay to stay above .500 (10-9) without Kobe Bryant in the lineup. With an unproductive and injured Steve Nash, along with an ineffective Pau Gasol, D'Antoni was left a roster of misfits that no one expected to stay competitive. Heading into opening night, D'Antoni knew the team would be without Bryant for an undetermined period of time; on the other hand, Nash and Gasol were both presumed to have a bounce-back season after last year's debacle. The big three of Bryant, Gasol, and Nash have largely been useless, for lack of a better term, to the team through the first 20 games. Things rarely go as planned, and D'Antoni's ability to keep the rest of his guys productive deserves some credit.
Most rewarding of all, every player from Blake to Young to Johnson to Sacre has had an important role in each of the team's first 10 wins. For example, the Lakers' win last Friday in Sacramento had a great deal to do with Sacre's defense on DeMarcus Cousins, who had 32 points and 19 rebounds in a win against Dallas just a few nights later. Sacre contained him on the defensive end, helping to force 6 DMC turnovers; on offense, Sacre was phenomenal as the screener in multiple pick and roll plays that resulted in points on the board. Just as it was easy to blame D'Antoni last year for the mess we saw on the floor, it should be just as easy to applaud him when things go better than planned.
D'Antoni's biggest test now comes with having to incorporate a ball-dominant Kobe Bryant into a system that has succeeded primarily due to each individual's unselfishness. Given that D'Antoni was able tread water with a roster filled with one-year contracts and potential D-League stars, it might be time for Bryant to give a bit of credit to his coach as well. And with how consistently Bryant was looking to distribute the ball in his first game back on Sunday, there is quite a bit of hope that his insertion to the rotation will be seamless.
It's always difficult to pin proper credit to coaches, but the Lakers finishing above .500 before Kobe's return is quite a feat, especially when considering Pau has been a shell and Nash has been MIA. The players bought into the system and played an uptempo style, focused around pick-and-rolls to create floor space. It isn't always pretty but it's always at the forefront of what the team is trying to accomplish on the court. The team has a bit of an identity, even with guys like Xavier Henry and Wesley Johnson -- reclamation projects no matter how well they're playing right now -- and it's been a breath of fresh air.
He's also been incredibly flexible with trying to find personnel groupings and players that simply "work." The latest example is Robert Sacre, the latest Laker to start at center for the team. If Sacre is working hard and earning his spot, as D'Antoni has alluded to, then that's a great way to show the team that if you play well you'll get what you deserve. He's likely going to continue tinkering with the lineups going forward with Kobe Bryant returning, but from what it looks like from here he has a system in place and is willing to work with guys who are willing to work with him.
On the other hand that may be the area he needs the most work, depending on how you look at it. Jordan Hill is the latest victim in D'Antoni's carousel of rotations, and that's an easy way to lose a player's trust. As willing as D'Antoni is to try something new, he's equally unwilling to let things pan out over large sample sizes before making changes. It's hard to get into a flow with a constantly-evolving lineup and unclear roles, and that's the worrisome aspect of the flexibility he's shown.
Overall, though, it's hard to complain about the pre-Kobe coaching job D'Antoni put together. He proved he can make it work with the right personnel -- personnel that is by and large guys in their last chance to make a niche in the NBA -- and has rewarded the front office for sticking with him. It hasn't always been a perfect marriage (see: last season), but by and large there seems to be an increased appreciation for what he can accomplish as a head coach this season. We'll see where the meter is once his first full set of 82 games wrap up.