Through today, Mike D’Antoni has coached the Lakers for 20 games. In those contests the Lakers are 10-10, buoyed by a recent surge that’s seen them win six of seven. Those wins have coincided with the schedule titling back in their favor with easier opponents, the return of Steve Nash and Pau Gasol from injury, and some much needed days off between contests that have allowed this team to practice.
While the strength of schedule can not be overlooked, the return of Nash and Gasol combined with the practice time have clearly made a difference for this team. With their full allotment of players (save for Steve Blake) and time together to mesh in non-game situations, Mike D’Antoni has finally had the time to sort out how he wants this team to play.
Five games into the regular season, Mike Brown was fired after only winning a single contest. Though he’d had a full training camp, he’d never really gotten the chance to sort out how his team would play in game situations. Though all his players were available to him in practice, Dwight Howard was not playing in most the pre-season contests. Combine this with Kobe and Pau both missing at least one preseason game and Jordan Hill developing a herniated disk during camp, and the Lakers never had their full roster available to them to see how they would play together in a live action setting. Brown also had a camp full of players all vying for one or two spots on the team, further complicating how he’d deploy players.
What also complicated matters was the fact that Brown clearly had a plan that would take time. He was implementing the Princeton Offense. He needed full buy in from the players (which he was getting), but also needed them to get through the growing pains of learning a read and react offense while also learning how to play together. This wasn’t like Phil Jackson taking over an established roster who’d had years together and understood how to play off each other. No, Brown had a team that was turned over by half and a system that depended on cohesiveness. As we said throughout the tough sledding that was the pre-season, this would take time.
One of Mike Brown’s main ideas was to lessen the load on Steve Nash while, at the same time, trying to maximize the strengths of the rest of the roster. This is why the Princeton Offense was considered a viable experiment. No, it wouldn’t allow Nash to be Steve Nash all the time, but it would put him in positions to be successful while doing the same for Howard, Gasol, and Kobe. Nash would also have the freedom to run whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. Mike Brown called Nash the quarterback of the team and he meant it. If Nash wanted to run the P&R every possession, he could have.
But Nash, like Brown (and Kobe and Howard and Gasol, it should be mentioned), were about the process. They wanted this Princeton idea to take root, grow, and sprout the fruit that would be the foundation of their team. They would play together. The sacrifice that each made would, hopefully, lead to a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Nash, as the point guard and the man with the ball in his hands to start each possession, took this idea to heart and held back his individual game in order to try and build up the group. He is, after all, a true floor general.
Steering the team in this direction, with a leader like Nash at the helm who would trust the process even in the face of the team’s struggles, over everything else, was maybe Mike Brown’s biggest mistake.
Mike D’Antoni has a history with Steve Nash. They’ve been partners in each other’s most successful times on a basketball floor. In his introductory press conference (and, to this day after Nash has played well in recent games), D’Antoni speaks of Nash in tones that go beyond reverent. Nash is his guy and he understands how having him lead an offense can uplift a team. Give Nash the ball and let him be Steve Nash. This is the way that D’Antoni has won games in this league and, after years in New York of not being able to simply give the ball to him, he will do it now in Los Angeles.
But Mike D’Antoni is not dumb. He also has 3 other players on this team who, along with Nash, form the most talented group of players he’s ever coached. Simply giving the ball to Nash at the expense of utilizing Kobe, Howard, and Gasol in ways that maximize their production would be silly. Nash, of course, can help in this area with his playmaking and leadership. But these are also players who can make Nash better by occupying defenders and giving him the space for him to get open shots and wider driving lanes to attack.
In recent games, we’ve seen D’Antoni start to sort this out. He’s using Nash off the ball more as a screener and utilizing Gasol’s passing ability in HORNS sets. The results have been devastating to defenses that find themselves having to deal with three fantastic finishers all working off the ball with screens and cuts designed to get them in position where they are most effective. There are simply too many options to defend with players who are too skilled to not find the space they need to get the ball and do something positive with it.
In watching these recent games and seeing Nash work off the ball, I have to think that Mike Brown is wondering where it all went wrong for him. Watching the Lakers run a combination of Nash led pick and rolls and HORNS sets (sets Brown had the Lakers run last season), I’m reminded of what Brown wanted to do with this team all along. I stood right in front of him before the Lakers’ first preseason game in Fresno where he talked about what he envisioned for this team. How Nash would have the ultimate freedom to run what he wanted, but that their system would be the Princeton and that would help everyone be at their best. He wanted offensive diversity to the tune of P&R’s and Princeton sets integrated in a manner that would, ultimately, be unstoppable when it was all figured out.
D’Antoni has seemingly taken that template but tweaked it ever so slightly. Rather than emphasizing the system that takes Nash off the ball, he is telling Nash to run the P&R. This allows Nash to operate in his comfort zone first while still taking advantage of the talents of all the players. Secondary are the HORNS sets that look and feel more traditional, but also lessen Nash’s load while at the same time using Pau in a way that maximizes his passing while putting Kobe and Dwight in positions where they are attacking off the ball to establish position where they can score.
The final product we’re seeing now is likely what we all envisioned before the season started; when we realized all these all-NBA caliber players were going to play together on the same roster. Mike D’Antoni has shifted the emphasis and has this team looking better (albeit in a larger sample) than Mike Brown did through camp and those first five games.
Who knows if Brown ever would have gotten the team to this place. With his emphasis on the Princeton rather than letting Nash be Nash, I have my doubts. When combined with some of his early season personnel decisions regarding rotations and player groupings, my doubts grow. But it is interesting that the offensive style we see on the court now is probably very much what Brown had planned when he watched film and diagrammed plays.
Maybe it just took a different Mike, and approach, to get the Lakers there.