With only 15 games left in this forgettable campaign — or maybe it is a memorable one for all the wrong reasons — the shift in focus from this season to next is basically complete. Wins and losses this year matter more from the perspective of how they impact lottery odds and draft position than anything else.
With that, the questions that are being asked now relate to prospect watching and the NCAA tournament, who the team should draft should players X/Y/Z be available, what free agents the Lakers should chase, and whether or not Mike D’Antoni should be retained. Nearly everyone has strong opinions on these questions (especially the last one) and these have become the major talking points in this final month of the season.
I would argue, however, that the biggest question isn’t any of those listed above, but a more foundational one: whoever coaches the team next year, will he be flexible enough to adapt his philosophy to the roster he has at his disposal?
If Mike D’Antoni is that man, I think it is very much fair to doubt that this will be the case.
Whatever you think of D’Antoni, it cannot be argued that last season he showed a fair amount of flexibility in what offense he ran in attempting to maximize his roster. No, Pau Gasol wasn’t optimized, but at least he played next to Dwight Howard often. He was also utilized as a decision maker in the team’s HORNS sets, playing a fair amount at the elbows with the ball in his hands.
Beyond Gasol, the Lakers’ offense also featured a fair amount of direct post ups for Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant. Both preferred to work from the post and both got opportunities to do so — even if both would likely say they wanted more of those chances. Both also got to work in isolation more than a typical D’Antoni offense would allow. Go back and watch the tape and you will find many times where Kobe and Dwight got the ball in the mid post (or further), had teammates clear a side, and then got a chance to work one-on-one against their defender. These are the types of actions both players have utilized most of their careers and D’Antoni did a decent job of accommodating them last season — something I don’t think he got enough credit for.
This year, however, those adjustments have not been present. Gasol is better utilized this season than last, but has been used more as the lone big man on the floor in an offense that resembles what D’Antoni would traditionally run. The HORNS sets that were so prevalent last year have all but vanished and have been replaced almost entirely by sets predicated on pick and rolls or ball reversals through the big men at the top of the key.
This style has also led to an abandonment of nearly all lineups that feature two traditional big men, especially as the season has progressed. This has translated to D’Antoni swapping out Hill and Kaman in favor of Shawne Williams, Ryan Kelly and Wes Johnson as the primary frontcourt partners for Pau. And while all three of the latter players have their strengths (with Kelly projecting well as a nice offensive player as a stretch big man), I don’t think it can be argued who the more effective players are at this stage of their respective careers.
The counter to this is that lineup data shows what groups have been more effective this season and an examination of these groups point to the more successful lineups having guys like Williams, Kelly, and Johnson playing the PF. However, when adjustments to playing style are not necessarily made and there is an emphasis on pushing the pace and taking shots early in the clock (the Lakers play at the 2nd fastest pace this year), I would argue you are probably not going to get the most out of a lineup that features two of the Pau/Kaman/Hill trio on the floor together.
Ultimately, maybe D’Antoni didn’t see enough of a talent disparity between the bigs he chose to play versus the ones he did not to make the types of adjustments he did the year before. It’s not like Hill and Kaman are Dwight Howard and necessarily deserve to be catered to. It probably also helped that Kobe wasn’t on the floor to dictate more of how the offense was deployed — remember, he was a major beneficiary of the teams HORNS sets last year. In the end, though, what D’Antoni showed this year was that his marriage to his system mattered more than making adjustments to maximize the likes of Hill or Kaman.
This was his right, of course. He is the head coach. And I have long argued that if you’re going to be held accountable for the results the team produces, you might as well go about achieving those results in whatever manner you see fit. That said, when heading into the next season the Lakers must ask themselves if this year’s inflexibility in terms of style of play and in lineup deployment will carry over into future seasons. If that answer is “yes”, the answer to whether this coach stays on may be the opposite.