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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.

If it seems like the Lakers haven’t played a lot lately it is because they haven’t. This will only be their fourth game in the last 10 days and their first since Friday. If you were hoping that all that time off would help with the injury bug you’d be right and wrong all at the same time.

Nick Young and Jordan Hill are close to returning and if they are not active tonight, they should both be soon. However, while those guys are on the mend, Jordan Farmar is on the shelf again, this time with a strained groin suffered in practice earlier this week. Farmar will be out at least two weeks and with only a month left in the season, who knows if we will actually see him again this year.

With Farmar out tonight the Lakers will again be down to a single point guard who is available to play. Kendall Marshall won’t be able to play the entire game, but he will likely see heavy minutes with Xavier Henry returning to his role as de facto backup PG as well as playing his natural role on the wing. The rest of the lineup will remain the same with Kelly, Pau, Meeks, and Wes Johnson likely the other starters.

That group will have their hands full against a Spurs team that has once again surged their way to the top of the Western Conference. At 50-16, San Antonio has the best record in the league and, as the Lakers know from the drubbing they took from them on Friday, are playing some really good ball right now.

What is most impressive about the Spurs is that they are winning while not having very much lineup consistency this season. A little while ago I wrote about how the Lakers have not had very good luck in putting the same groups of players on the floor together this season. That type of lineup disruption — and the “why” it has occurred — has been a major reason the Lakers have been so bad this year.

The Spurs, however, actually haven’t had any high minute groups this year either. On the season, their lineup with the most minutes played is their starting group of Parker, Green, Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter, and Duncan. However, due to injuries (mostly to Green and Kawhi) and the regular regimen of rest that Pop employs for Duncan and Parker, that group has only been on the floor for 210 minutes this year. Yet, here the Spurs are with the best record in the league.

A lot of credit must go to Gregg Popovich for this. He has established a system and has complete buy in from all his players to operate within it. Further, he’s done an excellent job of playing to his guys’ strengths and ensuring that he puts them in positions to succeed every night. What also helps is that the Spurs have had relatively no roster turnover over the last few years. This has given those players a chance to not only learn what Pop wants from them, but to master their roles within the team’s scheme and then perform when they do get their chance to play.

In any event, the Spurs are, again, one of the best teams in the league. Meanwhile, the Lakers are one of the worst. We are a long way from when this game was one the entire league had circled on their calendar as a must watch. No, this season, and especially after last Friday’s game, this may be a game that people want to turn off before halftime. I, however, will be watching the entire thing regardless of the outcome. Join me, won’t you?

Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time TWC Sportsnet. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.

Unless you live in a cave, you know that Phil Jackson has signed on to be the Knicks’ new Director of Basketball Everything (or something to that effect). The full details of the deal have yet to come out, but initial reports say that Phil will be paid around $12 million annually to be, among other things, the new face of the franchise and shepherd them into the future by, well, being Phil Jackson: owner of championship pedigree. How this plays out for Phil and Knicks isn’t yet known and popular opinion seems to be that he’ll either succeed because he’s Phil Jackson or fail because of James Dolan which, if you are asking me, sounds like a pretty good deal. I wish Phil nothing but the best in this endeavor — and it will be an endeavor, but that’s another discussion.

Of course, Phil’s trek back to his NY roots has brought to the forefront the major question of why is he taking this job with the Knicks and not the Lakers. This isn’t just a fan question either. Kobe Bryant is seemingly asking it. As is Magic Johnson. Phil should be a Laker, only he isn’t. For many, this is a development that induces anger.

I don’t really blame people for being mad. Phil is a charismatic guy who has had a lot of success with the Lakers. The fact that he left three years ago after his team played terribly against the Mavs doesn’t resonate as much with fans as the 5 championships he won with the franchise. This is understandable. Again, I like Phil Jackson and would have welcomed him back into the fold without the bat of an eye. He’s Phil Jackson.

But he is not coming back and that brings forth a reality that many aren’t seemingly ready to face. This is Jim Buss’ team; this is Jim Buss’ time to lead.

Tell the truth, you just got a lump in your throat didn’t you? You heard some ominous music playing in your head, right? Did you get the sudden urge to change the channel even if your TV isn’t on?

I get it. Jim Buss doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in fans these days. A wretched team this season and the sour taste of last season combined with the departure of Dwight and now Phil will do that to you, I know. The Lakers are down in the dumps and it’s All. Jim. Buss’. Fault.

Except, you know, it isn’t.

I am not here to defend Jim Buss. But I am also not here to rip him to shreds. Jim Buss has proven, as an executive, to be…actually I don’t know what he’s proven. His record is mixed. He has held his current title of Executive Vice President, Basketball Operations for the past 9 years. Before that his title was Assistant GM to Mitch Kupchak, a title he held for 7 years. Doing the math, that is 16 years in the Lakers’ front office “handling basketball related¬†decisions that range from the scouting of players and the NBA Draft to trades and the signing¬†of free agents” according to the Lakers’ media guide.

No one person deserves all the credit or blame for the team’s successes or failures over those years. As has been reported multiple times, the Lakers made most major decisions with input from Dr. Buss, Jim, and Mitch Kupchack with the good Doctor having the final say. Pinning any one decision on anyone besides Dr. Buss — while he was alive — is likely just spin, be it to praise or condemn someone. The fact is, the Lakers experienced a lot of success over the years and have fallen on hard times recently. Credit and blame can be doled out however one wants, but doing so without remembering that every major decision was made by all three of the aforementioned people with Jerry having the final say should probably be put out there first.

Now that Dr. Buss has passed, however, the Lakers are mostly in Jim’s hands. Even though he is not technically the owner — the Lakers were left to all the Buss children in a trust and they cannot sell without every child approving — he is the highest ranking executive on the basketball operations side. The buck, then, stops with him when it comes to player and coach matters.

As mentioned above, this likely gives you pause, but I prefer to see it as an opportunity for Buss to attack the perception that he is some sort of incompetent. For reasons that have nothing to do with ability, this will not be easy. The Lakers are a team of free-agents-to-be paired with players who have great name recognition but are injured and have question marks heading into next season. They have cap space to spend, but with the aforementioned roster issues aren’t necessarily the most desirable landing spot for free agents. They look as though they will have a high draft pick in a talented draft, but it is rare for a single draft pick to turn around the fortunes of a franchise right away.

And then, of course, there is that pesky perception of how good Jim is at his job. Whether it is true or not, the idea that Jim doesn’t have the ability to build a winner damages his, and by association the Lakers’, chances to turn things around quickly. And the only way to change that perception is to do the thing that is made even harder by how he is viewed. If this sounds like an inescapable spiral, it sort of is. The Lakers are in a position where they need several things to go right over the next summer or two — nailing their draft pick, Kobe returning to form, having some smaller FA signings work out very well, etc. These things aren’t impossible, but that’s a lot of things going right in a short amount of time.

The flip side of this, however, is that none of those things happen overnight. It takes time for a draft pick — especially an 18 to 19 year old kid (whose name isn’t LeBron, Shaq, Duncan, Alcindor, Wilt, etc) to prove he’s ready to play at a high level night in and night out and shift a team’s trajectory upward almost instanteously. We won’t know about Kobe’s progress and how he’ll hold up over the course of a rigorous NBA campaign until several months into next season. Free agent signings can always be spun positively on July 1st, but the act of them living up to (or surpassing) the value of their contract comes over the long haul.

This is how winners are built. I understand fans have little patience for stuff like this, but in many ways there’s no choice this time. This isn’t like when Phil Jackson took over the team that Del Harris couldn’t get over the hump. And it definitely isn’t like the team Pat Riley took over that won a championship just a couple of years earlier. There is no ready made roster here that is one piece away. The Lakers are rebuilding and need the time it takes to forge a foundation that a contending team can rest on for years to come.

Doing this any other way would be disservice to everyone involved. And while I have no way of knowing this, I have a feeling the people who know this best just so happen to be Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak. Whether people are willing to give them this time is another story entirely, however.

Grantland’s documentary series on Steve Nash continues, this time with Nash responding to fan backlash calling for his retirement.

Whatever side you fall on when it comes to this issue, the thing that stands out most to me from this video is Nash’s honesty about still wanting to play. He cites his love of the game, his desire to prove people wrong, and, yes, the money. He even goes so far as to say that anyone in his shoes would make the same choice (something I pretty much agree with, by the way).

What this clip also highlights for me is the conflict that comes up at the end of the career of nearly every great player. When is it time to retire? How can that be managed in a manner that is best for both the player and the team? When a player makes a significant amount of money, the decision of what to do becomes more than just a decision that the player makes for himself as fan and popular opinion starts to creep into the equation.

Right now, this issue relates to Nash, but we are already starting to see some of the same idea, twisted slightly, in regards to Kobe. His salary over the next couple of seasons is quite large and he’s yet to show he’s physically able to perform to a level that matches what he will be paid. (As an aside, even if Kobe plays wonderfully, there will still be backlash related to how much he is making, but that’s another post for another day.)

Ultimately, though, what Nash says in the video above is both incredibly honest while also showing the conflict that exists in him as he continues to work towards a goal that he understands he may never reach.

With all the hubbub about Kobe being ruled out for the rest of the season and Phil Jackson looking like he will go to the Knicks, it might be easy to forget that the Lakers have a game tonight.

The good news is that the Lakers are well rested and are coming off a win. The bad news is that they are traveling to Oklahoma City to play the same team they just upset on national television. In other words, if the Lakers were hoping to sneak into OKC and take advantage of a team who won’t take them seriously, that ship sailed when the final buzzer on Sunday went off with the Lakers in the lead.

So expect this game to go much differently than the one four days ago. Namely:

  • Don’t expect Jodie Meeks to shake free for so many open jumpers
  • Don’t expect the Durant/Westbrook duo to shoot 15 for 42 from the floor
  • Don’t expect OKC to rely so heavily on the three (they took 35 shots from behind the arc last game) for their offense

What I also don’t expect is for the Thunder to play as small as they did for as long as they did in the last game. In Sunday’s contest Steven Adams and Nick Collison combined to play a little under 22 minutes. This led to Durant logging a lot of minutes at PF and Serge Ibaka sliding up to play a lot of Center. However, with Ibaka guarding Pau he was less of a threat as a weak side helper defensively and had to do much more on ball work against Pau in the post. Pau didn’t necessarily take advantage of him down there, but it did mean that the Thunder had less help in the paint with the result being a more spread out D that yielded too many open jumpers against good Lakers’ ball movement.

Tonight I think OKC plays more traditional lineups for longer with more size up-front to not only try to limit Pau down low, but to give them the help they need on the back line that allows them to better chase the Lakers’ perimeter threats. Even low level scouting tells you that the Lakers need to hit a high number of threes to win any game and if the Thunder need to, they will likely start to overplay on those types of shots to make L.A. do more work off the dribble and finish over size when going to the basket.

Offensively, I also expect the Thunder to try and push the tempo a bit more and get easier opportunities to score in transition. Look for Westbrook and Reggie Jackson to try and get to the rim in the open court and if those chances aren’t there to pull the ball back and look for Durant and Ibaka as trailers near the three point line. Both are more than capable of hitting open jumpers and if Durant is a guy who goes unguarded on too many possessions he can easily get points in bunches to make the Lakers pay.

For the Lakers, then, the only thing they can really do is try to play their game in a way that keeps the Thunder off balance enough that the game remains close. That will be much harder today since Sunday’s game is so fresh on everyone’s mind and the Thunder will surely be looking to snuff out what the Lakers do best early and send them onto plan B. Whether the Lakers have enough to overcome or counter that is the big question, but based off this year’s results I think we know the answer is likely “no”.

Where you can watch: 6:30pm start time on TNT and TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.