("What went wrong this season?" is the question we get the most from fans at Silver Screen & Roll. The 2012-2013 team had championship expectations, but a convergence of worst case scenarios kicked down LA to the the fringes of playoff contention. In this post series, we'll be taking a look at just what went wrong with each part of the Los Angeles Lakers this year, how it affected the organization and if this could be a problem going forward. Check out our examinations of the guards and big men from this past week.)
Mike Brown: 1-4 record (0-8 preseason)
Bernie Bickerstaff: 4-1 record
Mike D'Antoni: 40-32 (0-4 postseason)
What went wrong with the coaching?
The style of the coaches mismatched the personnel not once--but twice. Mike Brown, a dubious choice to continue his coaching tenure in this season, couldn't get his team to believe in his system or play hard for him.
What was unarguably one of the worst seasons in franchise history was strangely bookended by the same beginning and ending: a winless season proceeded by an winless postseason. There's no question that injuries are the primary cause here--when Steve Nash, Steve Blake, Jordan Hill, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard miss a combined 149 games, there's no team that can remain a contender through that type of storm.
However, the problem is that even when healthy, the personnel never quite synched up with the coaching style of the team's two skippers.
Mike Brown's tenure felt doomed even before the season began. The 2010 Coach of the Year was already under fire for a problem that never stopped dogging him from his time with the Cavaliers: a lack of an offensive system. Most times, the floor would be dotted with 3 shooters with a big man in the paint, with LeBron James acting as a single pivot to essentially create scoring chances all by himself. Either the defenses would crash leaving an open shooter, or oftentimes James would have to make something out of nothing using his superior passing and ability to penetrate the interior. The Cavs were a plodding, methodical bunch, finishing 25th in pace for Brown's last three seasons in Cleveland, despite having the league's most explosive fast break player. Still, a lot of the criticism on Mike seemed unfounded, as the Cavs finished in the top 6 of offensive efficiency for those same three years.
In LA, the 2011-2012 season saw a lot of the same, simplistic and sometimes non-existent offensive schemes. In a move that seemed almost defiant in its construction, Brown hired former Washington Wizards coach Eddie Jordan to implement a Princeton-style offense. The idea was that the system would create scoring opportunities more easily for players without the ability to create offense on their own. This complex scheme of backdoor screens, cuts and cross court movement was lost on the Lakers personnel, and seemed to marginalize the one-on-one excellence of Kobe Bryant, the pick and roll brilliance of PnR virtuoso Steve Nash and the dominant post-up play of Pau Gasol. The Lakers didn't warm to the idea of the Princeton all throughout training camp, with players giving lukewarm reviews to a plan that seemed needlessly complicated considering all the natural offensive talent on the floor.
But the true problem with Brown wasn't at the offensive end: the vaunted defense that had won him the job a year earlier was nowhere to be found. The 2011-2012 Lakers ranked a very unimpressive 13th in defensive efficiency and were missing the toughness and grit that was the hallmark of several 60-win Cavaliers teams. This year's Lakers team came right out of the gate after a winless preseason and immediately showed the emotional fortitude of a pouting Devean George. Right away, there was no fire behind a team that was supposedly motivated by its championship-starved veterans aching for accolades and respect. Despite four losses to four very tough squads in the season's first five games, it was apparent that these Lakers were not laying it all out there for their coach. Along with insincere notions of support for him and his offense, it become rapidly clear that the team simply didn't believe in their leader.
Even though he was fired five games into the regular season, you could surmise that Mike Brown actually lost his job just a month in to the offseason when he brought a questionable offensive system to a team that wasn't sold on him already. The rest took care of itself. I still believe that given time, the Lakers could have flourished in the Princeton offense, but what wasn't as obvious is if they ever would get behind such a unconvincing hire to begin with.
Similarly, Mike D'Antoni's ideas never meshed with the men who had to carry them out. However, a constant flow of injuries robbed him of any fair, long-term assessment.
Hours after a November 7th loss to the Utah Jazz, Brown was out, leaving assistant coach Bernie Bickerstaff to lead the troops while the search got underway.
Bickerstaff's approach was simple in its...well, simplicity. After all the criticism that had doused the complicated Princeton offense, Bernie very casually "let his boys play". For the duration of his five-game tenure, he implemented as little actual coaching as possible--he just let the talented veteran core of the team let their skills dictate the flow of the game. Miraculously, this non-coaching coaching seemed to work: the Lakers won four of Bernie's five games, all by double-digits. Perhaps it was the relief of not having to slog through another game of trying to stay within the Princeton offense, or maybe the Lakers truly didn't like Mike Brown, but those four games were amongst the best the Show looked all year. There's no suggesting that LA was better off with Bickerstaff--after all, he was quite vocal about how relieved he would be when the next guy would be ready to coach.
Mike D'Antoni's hire was...controversial, to say the least. After a brief dalliance with Phil Jackson, the front office went after another former Coach of the Year, seeking to harness the offensive excellence that had driven his Phoenix Suns teams to two Western Conference Finals. In an immediate contrast to Mike Brown, MDA seemed to immediately get along with his new team. Steve Nash of course had won two MVPs under the watch of D'Antoni, settling in as the engine to his coach's very detailed sketch for a high performance motor vehicle. Kobe Bryant had idolized a then-Italian League superstar MDA when the Mamba was a young boy growing up in Italy, even going so far as to pick #8 in his honor when entering the NBA. The rest of the squad seemed perfectly suited for their new manager--shooters everywhere and high quality passing from Pau Gasol. It all seemed like a perfect mix, on the surface at least.
But like Mike Brown, this Mike's tenure also was doomed from the onset, though not for the same reasons. Steve Nash, the very expensive key to this very expensive Lakers car, missed the first month of his new coach's employment. His understudy, Steve Blake, didn't play with a torn abdominal muscle. Dwight Howard's energy vacillated from night to night while recovering from offseason back surgery, while Pau Gasol was in and out of the line-up with tendinitis in both knees. Injuries destroyed D'Antoni's team immediately after his hire, making an already unenviable task of getting these superstars to play with one another even more difficult. Meanwhile, the rotation was constantly in flux, with MDA having no preseason to set his line-ups to get to know his roster. Jodie Meeks and Antawn Jamison sat for games at a time as their new coach tried to get a feel for who could play for him.
However, the real problem with D'Antoni at the helm was exactly what his detractors cried out at his hiring: the Lakers couldn't play defense. From MDA's first game on November 21st against Brooklyn, the Lakers ranked a pitiful 20th in defensive efficiency. The Lakers wings players seemed helpless to any point guard who had a modicum of speed or a handle, from killers like Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul to role players like Luke Ridnour and C.J. Watson. LA perimeter players regularly over-helped on defensive rotations, couldn't fight through picks and were extremely prone to ball watching. What's worse is that the porous defense was partially an offshoot of D'Antoni's vaunted offense--the Lakers wanted to run a fast break offense behind Steve Nash, but all that did was open up fast break opportunities for the other team. Los Angeles quickly became one of the league's worst teams in fast break points allowed. The Lakers couldn't afford to run on offense because they couldn't get back on defense, and thus the very reason the front office wanted D'Antoni in the first place was negated.
There were improvements as the year went on, and it's not a coincidence that the defensive numbers improved as Dwight Howard's health was on the upswing. Month by month, these are the Lakers ranks in defensive efficiency with MDA aboard: 26th, 21st, 18th, 15th and 9th. With Dwight blocking shots and destroying pick and rolls, as well as Pau providing excellent weakside help, LA was able to cobble together a very solid all around D. Now, is this improved defense Mike D'Antoni making adjustments as the season went on? Or is it just one of the world's best basketball players finally rounding into game shape? It's still entirely too hard to quantify. But aside from a small sample size in April (8 games), the Lakers are hardly a championship-level defensive team with an aging core that isn't getting any younger.
Even as many folks out there froth at the mouth wanting MDA gone, he was the man at the helm when his team squeaked into the playoffs, in spite of numerous obstacles put in front of him. D'Antoni was given a team that didn't suit his coaching strengths, without a training camp and dealt with momentum-killing injuries his entire time in LA. It's obvious that the team made several adjustments as the season went along, slowing down the pace of the game and force feeding the ball into Dwight Howard. It's difficult to throw MDA to the fire here considering everything that was against him, but even at their height, the team was still getting destroyed at home by 20 points to the Clippers and suffering embarrassing come-from-behind losses to the Washington Wizards.
Both Coach Mikes dealt with several obstacles including a laughable swarm of injuries, but the fact remains that both coaches didn't have the skill sets to sufficiently adapt to the personnel. The job of a head coach is to best accentuate his team's strengths and, to the best of his ability, hide their weaknesses. Perhaps what went wrong here is that they were ever hired in the first place.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino