There are so many angles to the Mike D’Antoni hire that it’s nearly impossible to cover them all in a single sitting. The nature of his hire, whether he is — as the the front office claims — the right man for the job, how he’ll manage the heat of real championship expectations….I could go on and on.
But while those are mostly off court questions, it’s the on court ones that pique my interest. D’Antoni is a splendid coach that’s had a lot of success in this league. The top of the mountain has not yet been reached by any of his teams but that doesn’t diminish his quality, it only speaks to what his teams were able to accomplish.
But in Los Angeles, and with these Lakers, he has another shot to get where he wants to go. But to get there, several questions will need to be answered. Here’s a sampling…
1. Can he maximize his big men? The parallels between Dwight Howard and Amar’e Stoudemire are obvious. Both are athletic freaks who offer dominant roll man options in D’Antoni’s most used offensive action. And while he’s not the same caliber of athlete, Pau Gasol offers a similar option when operating the pick and roll. Both can be fantastic finisher in this play with Howard bringing the type of explosive dives to the rim that collapse defenses and Pau being a player that can slide into any quadrant of the court and be a scorer or passer after setting a ball screen.
But these players will also need more than P&R opportunities to be at their best. Both are very good post up options that can score in single coverage and create the types of mismatches that make defenses adjust their schemes. Howard has shown over the course of his career that simple power moves when isolated on the block create easy baskets while putting the opposing front court in foul trouble. Pau has shown he can work from the elbows and either low block to great effectiveness and getting him to his preferred spots would help him thrive.
Can sets be designed to take advantage of these players skills? Can it happen when both share the floor? These are questions that even Phil Jackson would have struggled to answer (lineup data shows that Phil played Lamar Odom with either Pau or Bynum at twice the rate he played Pau and Bynum together) so it’s not like this is some easily solvable riddle.
2. How will rotations be deployed and what will personnel groupings look like? One of my pet peeves with Mike Brown was his over-reliance on his starters and how that filtered down to a bench unit that never seemed to have his trust. D’Antoni also has a history of leaning on his starters heavily and playing a short rotation that featured his best players for extended period.
This Lakers’ team, however, needs more balance between starters and bench production. The reserves need their time on the floor not just because their production is needed but because the Lakers’ starters need their rest. Since the moment that Nash and Howard were both acquired, I’ve lobbied for staggered units that featured at least two of the big four on the floor at all times. The arguments is that their elite skills can augment the more specified ones of the bench players to create units that can carry the game against the groupings the other team deploys.
Under Mike Brown, we didn’t see this. Of course Nash was injured in the 2nd game and we didn’t get a chance to see this play out (though when all big four were available, we still didn’t see this). But D’Antoni will (hopefully) have his full arsenal of players available to him soon and my advocacy for this approach remains high. Spreading out his stars should allow them enough time to rest while still optimizing the strengths of his bench players to the point that they can provide a positive impact.
3. How will spacing issues be accounted for? The Lakers aren’t a great shooting team. Their best shooter is Nash but the presumption is that in this offense he’ll have the ball much more than he did in Mike Brown’s (or what Phil Jackson’s Triangle) offense. This fact will sure affect spacing because if Nash has the ball more, the other four players are spacing the floor for him rather than him contributing to the spacing because he’s working off the ball.
Do the Lakers have enough shooting to give themselves the room they’ll need to run a P&R heavy offense? At first glance, the answer to that question is no. Of the starters, only Kobe demands respect beyond the three point line and defenses have already shown a penchant for leaving Gasol and Artest to crash the paint and blitz the strong side when they run P&R’s. D’Antoni’s sets provide a natural element of space that is aided by the defensive three second rule but the question of whether this will be enough remains.
Wit the above question unresolved, the next logical one is whether the need to get more shooting on the floor affects the playing time of players who are currently key members of the rotation. Will Ron still be a guy that closes games? Will Jodie Meeks earn more minutes? Jamison? Will Jordan Hill still be a major player for this team? (This latter question is one that I’ve thought about a fair amount. Hill is a monster on the offensive glass and, ahead of Gasol, their 2nd best big man defending the P&R. He helps the team immensely when he’s on the floor and I hope his minutes aren’t affected.)
These are just a few of the questions racing through my mind. Over the coming days (and over the remainder of the year) we’ll cover more and look to answer some of them ourselves. Today, when D’Antoni is introduced as head coach I’m sure he’ll also discuss some of these topics and expand into other areas in which he hopes to improve the team. But as those questions get answered, more will remain and we’ll still need to see this team play on the floor.