The playoffs continue to roll with the Memphis Grizzlies heading for a down and dirty showdown with the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. For the Los Angeles Lakers, the story continues to be whether Dwight Howard will or won’t resign and how to fill in the gaps around a core group of expensive veterans. General wisdom holds that Lakers need to preserve the ability to rebuild during the 2014-15 season when Kobe and Pau’s contracts come off the books. The new CBA doesn’t give much wiggle room regardless – the upcoming season poses the challenge of fielding a supporting cast through the team’s own free agents, the mini mid-level exception, veteran minimum deals, the 49th pick in the 2013 draft and any potential Pau Gasol trade.
One of the funner bits of recent Lakers-related news is the hiring of Mark Madsen as the new head coach of the Los Angeles D-Fenders. The mere mention of Madsen’s name is invariably accompanied by references to his victory parade dance but the essence of the player was always his hustle and determination. Dubbed Mad Dog at Stanford, the tag carried over to his NBA career. It was in college however, that the iconic crash-and-burn reputation was made. Madsen routinely left it all on the floor during his four years at The Farm, helping the Cardinals to four straight NCAA appearances and making it to the final four in 1998. He was the 29th pick by the Lakers in the 2000 draft.
Mark Madsen’s nine seasons in the NBA were somewhat more measured than his collegiate years, he accepted the roles given him, played effectively, listened and learned. The true Mad Dog moments didn’t come as often but they existed, often inspired when larger opposing players tried to muscle him off the block. Madsen would get that familiar bug-eyed look and a real low center of gravity – the man was capable of clearing some room. The two-time NBA champion signed as a free agent with the Timberwolves for the 2003-04 season, played six seasons, was traded to the Clippers and waived. Madsen was an assistant coach for the D-League’s Utah Flash in 2009-10 and returned to Stanford the following year to get his MBA. He segued into an assistant coaching position for Cardinals this past season and now returns to the place where his NBA career began, shepherding players who toil on the fringes and ball for the love of the game, hoping to some day get their shot.
It’s been pointed out that the Lakers have to play the hand they’ve been dealt next season, there’s simply not a lot of other options considering current salary obligations and the new CBA. Given the obvious constraints, it’s not a bad thing to have a D-League resource that you literally share the house with – the D-Fenders practice and play at the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, home to the Lakers practice and training facilities as well as management offices. The team was created by Dr. Jerry Buss in 2006 and was always envisioned as a satellite operation that could potentially pay major dividends at some point down the line. Buss, who passed away this past February, handed the D-League reins to his son Joey five years ago. The CEO/President of the D-Fenders has instituted a number of significant changes, including melding Lakers and D-Fenders benefits for fans and season ticket holders.
For the most part, player movement between the big and little brother halves of the organization has been a matter of seasoning – Devin Ebanks, Darius Morris and Robert Sacre have each served recent stints with the minor league affiliate. Going back a few years, Jordan Farmar was the first player to suit up for a D-league and NBA game on the same day. So far, there hasn’t been much reciprocity – the Lakers most significant recent call up was Andrew Goudelock, by way of the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. This isn’t to say that the D-Fenders haven’t had any success placing players in the NBA. During the 2011-12 season, a record six players were recruited by 11 different teams. Included in the mix was former slam-dunk champ Gerald Green who got a New Jersey Nets call-up that year and is currently a key member of Indiana Pacers bench and one win away from the Eastern Finals.
The D-Fenders have had a bit of an uneven ride with coaches, general managers and even seasons in their entirety – they took all of 2010-11 off for some organizational housekeeping. Past head coaches have included Dan Panaggio, Chucky Brown, Eric Musselman (named 2012 D-League Coach of the Year) and Reggie Theus. This coming season will mark a new chapter – the naming of Coach Madsen was made official at a press conference yesterday.
Is Madsen the right man for the job? Predicting the future in sports is a risky proposition – the Lakers 2012-13 season stands as evidence of that fact. Still there’s a lot to be said for attitude and for varied life experiences. Remember, this is the guy who dedicated two years to missionary work before declaring for the draft. And then were the years spent absorbing wisdom from another spiritually-minded former power forward with deadly elbows – somebody nicknamed Action Jackson. Perhaps the real question isn’t whether Mad Dog can succeed within the D-League’s bubble but whether he can pay it upward to the Lakers – big brother might need a dime or two next season.
There’s an oft-used saying, ‘it’s a tough act to follow.’ You don’t want to be the band that takes the stage after the last band just totally shredded. Or the comedian that follows the guy who had them rolling in the aisles. Phil Jackson was a tough act to follow. Just ask Rudy T, ask Tim Floyd, ask Mike Brown.
Mike D’Antoni could have been the guy that simply followed Brown, they might have given him the keys to the city. But Jackson was back in the picture and for the most obvious of reasons – he was probably the best man for the job, having delivered great riches in the past. D’Antoni’s preferred system of basketball wasn’t suited for for the All-Star roster he inherited and it certainly wasn’t suited for a revolving door of injuries. A pretty rough season followed.
The Lakers lost another giant recently, someone whose greatness defined the team’s identity and direction. Kobe Bryant rounded the corner on Harrison Barnes and headed for Achilles surgery and a new found hobby of tweeting. Who knew?
Things can turn on a trifle as someone used to say. The loss of Bryant was both stunning and surreal and a couple hundred epic articles dropped over the next 24 hours and observers burped and patted each others backs and headed to the sink with the dishes, ready to rinse and wash and move on to the playoffs. In this particular narrative, non-Laker fans could afford to be magnanimous with their sympathy – you guys always have next year. Or not.
A funny thing happened at the tail end of the regular season. In the absence of certain giants and expectations, a team began to form their own ad hoc destiny. You can’t really label them bad news bears, not when fronted by Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol. You also can’t pin the month of April on the loss of Kobe and some new found freedom. The Lakers went seven and one and five of those games saw Kobe playing insane minutes and carrying much of the load.
Sometimes, you just have to watch. One of Mike D’Antoni’s pet phrases is ‘letting the ball find the open man’. He has no ownership of the concept, it’s as old as the game itself, a guiding principal in the sport, sometimes honored and often ignored. Over the last two games, the ball has found new movement out of necessity. Guys are getting touches they didn’t get before. And who would have guessed that Andrew Goudelock would get a call-up and join Darius Morris on the floor during pivotal minutes in a seed-defining win?
It’s not simply the loss of Kobe that has caused a change in the team’s philosophy. Steve Nash has been out of action and may suit up on Sunday against the Spurs, depending on the results from two recent epidurals. Will his return put a damper on Steve Blake’s resurgent play? There are no simple answers.
To say it has been a season of adjustment is saying just a little. There have been recent moments that show an interesting unity however. A time out and coaches interact with their players. Dwight’s chatting with Bernie Bickerstaff, Chuck Person makes a point with Metta World Peace. D’Antoni calls the guys to gather and they’re paying attention. A group that has seen little time together on the floor goes back out there and gets some stops. Games are won ugly but they’re won. And the Lakers are in the playoffs with the seventh seed and if nothing else they’ve earned the right to keep playing.
Spring is regarded as a time of renewal and hope. It’s not always pretty, it follows in the barren footsteps of winter after all. The NBA season is too long for the health of its players. It affects all teams and the San Antonio Spurs will be heading into the first round with issues of their own. For the Los Angeles Lakers, it’s a transitional era in ways that are sometimes willfully ignored. Their earth has been mined and harvested, it is in need of replenishment and the new CBA has thrown a few obstacles into the mix. It’s not to say you can’t use your remaining assets though or that you can’t use them well.
The past, present and future of the Lakers has coalesced for the moment – it may not be the most stable of circumstances but there is at least some acceptance – from a head coach willing to let his team play to its strengths to a team willing to share, no longer bound to a singular voice. The expectations game will be back in the summer, one way or another. For at least this moment however, it’s simply the game of basketball.