Every coach has a philosophy. From that philosophy a style of play is born, a system is spawned, and a team’s identity is forged. Mike D’Antoni is no different. The Lakers’ head man wants many things out of his team — offensive spacing, ball movement, quick decisions that promote teamwork — but he also wants his teams to play with a certain tempo; a certain pace.
One only look at his history as a coach to know that this is true. In the 10 seasons he coached either the Suns, Knicks, or Lakers heading into this season, his teams only ranked outside the top 5 in pace in one campaign (the 2009-10 Knicks ranked 8th). Every other season his teams have played at one of the fastest paces in the league, regularly ranking in the top 3 and leading the league multiple times.
When D’Antoni was hired, he spoke about playing fast at his introductory press conference. His explanation waffled some — he didn’t quite own that he wants his team to play so fast, just that he wants his team to generate good shots — but he didn’t back away from the idea that playing a high number of possessions in games would be a good thing, especially for last year’s Lakers:
Books, papers and articles are funny because they have that catch line: ‘seven second or less.” I don’t even know how that came about, but that’s OK. My whole philosophy is 24 seconds or less. I don’t care if it’s seven, 10 or 20. You just have to get one good shot in those 24 seconds and that’s what we’ll do. I’ll expect us to be a little bit more up tempo – not seven seconds. There’s no reason why there’s not a great flow, whether that’s 13 seconds or 20 seconds. I was talking with Steve: ‘You have the best team, so why not play the most possessions you can play if you’re the best defensively and offensively?’ Anytime possessions are cut down, then a bad call, a missed shot then you have a chance to lose. If we keep possessions up here, then statistically, we have a lot better chance to win. That’s what we’re going to try and do.
D’Antoni’s take on playing fast is a common, data driven statistical approach in today’s NBA. More possessions favor the better team as they have more opportunities to show that they’re better. Over the course of a high possession game, the team with more talent will have more chances for that superior talent to win out. D’Antoni’s argument about playing fast, in a vacuum, made a lot of sense. When he was hired he saw a roster that had high profile names like Kobe, Howard, Gasol, and his old MVP Steve Nash. With Metta World Peace, Antawn Jamison, and Steve Blake the team had veteran players to flank that top shelf core. We all know it didn’t play out well for that group, but D’Antoni wasn’t alone at looking at that group of players and thinking the raw collection of talent could win at amazingly high levels.
This season, however, the Lakers are not nearly as talented. Even before injuries ravaged the roster, the Lakers were a fringe playoff team that was going to struggle to even make the second season much less win a round (or more) if they got there.
Yet, as of today, the Lakers play at the 3rd fastest pace in the league. If you take D’Antoni’s comments from his introductory presser, one has to wonder why exactly the team is ramping up possessions in games and, in the process, exposing their talent to the extra rigors that come with facing players better than theirs.
An argument could be made that playing fast actually made a lot sense before all the team’s injuries. With a full roster, the Lakers had a nice group of athletes who thrive in an open court environment. Add in the fact that teams aren’t used to playing at the tempo the Lakers play at every night and there is an element of surprise that forces opponents to adjust to that style during a contest. That adjustment may or may not be successful and if it’s the latter the Lakers have a distinct advantage that can help them win games.
Right now, though, this argument doesn’t hold water. The Lakers are without their top 3 point guards. Their starter at that position wasn’t even on the team a month ago. The back up is Jodie Meeks who, even though he’s having a very good season and has improved his work off the dribble, is a natural shooting guard and should not be tasked with leading an offense, much less an uptempo one where quick decisions and reading the entire floor in a split second are mandatory.
Beyond the issues at point guard, the Lakers have big men not necessarily built (or accustomed) to playing at such a fast tempo. Gasol is better suited playing at a slower pace where he can work from the post in more half-court oriented sets. Ditto for Chris Kaman. Robert Sacre is young and can get up and down the floor fine, but he’s not a great offensive player at this point and also does his best work in pick and roll sets where he screens and dives hard to the rim where he can be set up for easy shots by his teammates. The Lakers’ best big man for playing at this tempo is Jordan Hill, but his minutes have been cut in recent weeks, averaging 17 minutes a game over his last 5 (down 3 minutes from his 20 minute average over the season).
There are also defensive issues that come from playing so fast. The Lakers are bad in transition defense to begin with, but playing fast often leads to more turnovers which put even more stress on that transition D. The tempo the team plays at also seems to drive players into spots on the floor (both short corners, bigs and guards all crashing the paint via dives and penetration out of early possession drag pick and rolls) that create an unbalanced floor that make it harder to transition from offense to defense even when it is not an open court chance.
Yet, here the Lakers are averaging the third most possessions per game in the league.
Pace isn’t the team’s only problem nor its biggest. We talk about it all the time, but injuries have ravaged the roster and created a domino effect where players are forced out of position, new players have been introduced, and roles have been shuffled around just to try and stay competitive. But with all that change, their have been no adjustments in style to try and aid the remaining players to put them in better positions to succeed.
I can understand wanting to keep some semblance of a coach’s philosophy in place; to keep the identity and style consistent. But, even with that being the case, I have to wonder if maintaing the breakneck tempo with this version of the team available is really the best option.