Mad Men: The Lakers Preview

Kurt —  October 12, 2009

In the first of several Lakers previews coming to this site, we pay homage to Mad Men (because it is the best thing on television). Sure, this post is a bit Simmonsesque, but if you are going to steal, steal from people who do things with a flair.

“Change isn’t good or bad. It just is.”
—Don Draper

Sometimes lost in the excitement over a new season and new challenges we forget one simple thing — the Lakers won the NBA championship last year. When you have a contending team, you don’t make a lot of changes. And the Lakers didn’t. Kobe, Gasol, Odom, Bynum, Fisher, almost everyone is back.

Of course, the one change they did make turned some heads — basically a trade of Ron Artest for Trevor Ariza. This is where Don Draper is right — this trade makes the Lakers a different team, but that is not good or bad. They get a better wing defender against strong threes, a more consistent three point guy, someone with a polished midrange and post game (something he has already started to display in the preseason), but they give up some athleticism and versatility. None of that alone is necessarily good or bad, it just is. What matters is how the Lakers adjust and make use of the changes. Do they play to their strengths or not? Do they get Artest enough touches in places he can be successful, do they encourage him to be the playmaker he can be? Is the team defense going to be better? Early hints are yes, but preseason games are meaningless.

The Lakers have one other change to consider — the transition from Derek Fisher to another point guard. The Lakers are not going to offer Jordan Farmar a new contract before Oct. 31, so come the end of this season he will be a restricted free agent. If he wants to get paid, he can go out this year and earn it by basically demanding the job with his play. Same is true of Shannon Brown, who will be a free agent at the end of the season. It’s a long season, and over the course of it Fisher will be the starter but both of the others will get their chance to prove they should have the role next year. If one does not, the Lakers will look elsewhere. But the job is there to be taken if someone can defend well, play within the offense, run the break and hit open threes.

“A man like you I’d follow into combat blindfolded, and I wouldn’t be the first. Am I right, buddy?”
—Pete Campbell

Sometimes we can forget just how great a coach Phil Jackson is. First and foremost, the team plays hard for him. Next, he is the one man that can make Ron Artest feel included, by getting him into positions where he can succeed. Jackson does that better than any coach in the game today, maybe ever. To use an example we’ve used here before, when Kwame Brown just rebounded and played defense, when he played in the role Phil gave him, he didn’t suck. He was probably a backup center still (forced into a starting role), but he could fill a role. He just didn’t want to work hard and stay in that role. Basically that is what happens with all the guys that don’t work out in the triangle, they don’t stay in their role.

The Ron Artest of eight years ago may not have stayed in his role. Today’s Artest — with Phil and Kobe and Fisher in the locker room — may. It may even be likely. But I would not make any definitive declarations until January; we need a body of work to look at.

One other thing about Phil’s teams — traditionally they play great defense. The Bulls did. The difference between the 1999 and 2000 Lakers was really all about improvement on defense. And last year’s Lakers were a good defensive team with a great offense. With the addition of Artest and a healthy Bynum, the Lakers could be a very good defensive team. It will be a key this year, something to look for as we move into the season.

On a quick side note here — Phil Jackson cares about winning preseason games like Don Draper cares about being faithful to his wife. Which is why the one ugly preseason loss is not a big deal (there will be a couple during the season, too). It was not pretty — the turnovers trying to force the ball inside, the known issues defending quick point guards — but if you check, the Lakers record in games that matter is still 0-0. The team talked about it, and Phil sees this as the start of a new team starting to find its way through a long grind to come. That game really does not matter.

“Look, we’ve got oysters Rockefeller! Beef Wellington! Napoleons! We leave this lunch alone, it’ll take over Europe.”
—Roger Sterling

A great line from my favorite character on the show. And it’s a reminder that the European influence and style of play the Lakers remains.

Pau Gasol is at the heart of this, because he is a versatile offensive player who can beat you with either hand at the basket, with a jumper out to about 20 feet, or with a deft pass. His basketball IQ is through the roof. But it is not just him. Kobe Bryant grew up watching his father play in Europe and has some of that same versatility and big picture view in his game. Like many in Europe, Lamar Odom will pass before shooting. Sasha certainly has that in his game. Farmar can pass beautifully. The entire team plays unselfish basketball (most of the time).

This team was constructed to run the triangle offense, with versatile players and guys who can make the pass. It should be a beautiful thing to watch this year.

“I shall be both dog and pony.”
—Roger Sterling

Ron Artest can be his own show off the basketball court (and at times on it, in both good and bad ways). Lamar Odom is now a mainstream celebrity. Defending NBA Champions always face increased distractions and time demands, but this years Lakers could set a new record for ways to distract themselves.

The lesson here is simple but needs to be repeated — they need to stay focused, they can’t just coast and expect to flip the switch. They got away with it last year (remember the Houston series?) but this year the price for that will be steeper.

“I’m living like there’s no tomorrow, because there isn’t one.”
—Don Draper

Phil Jackson has sort of distilled the Zen idea of mindfulness — of being aware of each moment and living in that moment — into a basketball philosophy with his mantra “you’re only successful the moment you perform a successful act.”

This ties into the point about added distractions above, but we need to also remember that the Lakers have a big target on their back every time they walk into an NBA arena. The other team’s fans have circled this date on the calendar. So has that team. The Lakers need to live in the moment this season, and not rest on past successful acts.

“Don’t you love the chase? Sometimes it doesn’t work out; those are the stakes. But when it does work out, it’s like having that first cigarette: your head gets all dizzy, your heart pounds, your knees go weak. Remember that?
—Roger Sterling

“Our worst fears lie in anticipation” (quoting Honore de Balzac)
—Don Draper

The last two quotes go out to Lakers fans. Sometimes we can get caught up in a championship-or-bust mentality and miss out on the beautiful, fun things that do happen. We can pick apart what went wrong in a win rather than accepting that it is a win and remembering they do all not have to be pretty. Not every win has to be a first round knockout. First round knockouts and strikeouts are boring and un-American anyway. Bottom line, we should not get to a point where a win is a relief, it should be a joy. That is especially true in the playoffs.

We are excited about a new season, but we also fear the unknown so we try to convince ourselves our team can’t be beat when it matters. But that is simply not true. As I’ve said before, I think the Lakers have the largest margin for error of any contender this season and would be very difficult to beat if healthy. But that is talking about June. Right now, we need to enjoy this ride, this team, this moment. Enjoy the chase, it is that which makes the kill fun, not the act itself.