Archives For Laker Analysis

We may never know what went on behind the scenes that led to Mike D’Antoni stepping down as Lakers’ head coach on Wednesday night. Was it really about the team standing firm on not picking up his 4th year team option? Was the team going to let him go and rather than suffer the indignity of being fired he stepped down? Either scenario, to be honest, is believable. Especially after a report that the team agreed to pay him “more than half of the $4 million he was owed next season” upon him stepping down. Again, though, we will likely never know how it all went down.

What we do know is that the Lakers are now without a head coach and will be on the market for a new one.

That sound you hear is a cavalcade of Lakers’ fans celebrating like they just won their 17th championship. D’Antoni being gone is a dream come true. Just ask Magic Johnson. But, just because people wanted it so, doesn’t mean the only fallout is positive. Key questions also emerge. The most obvious is, of course, who will step in and be the next head man?

There will not be a lack of interested parties, that’s for sure. One report already has former Grizzlies’ coach Lionel Hollins interested in the position. Another says Byron Scott would like to be considered. In the coming days and weeks, I expect other names to surface who will be more than happy to take heaps of that Time Warner cash off the Lakers’ hands in bi-weekly installments. Coaching the Lakers may have lost some of its luster with the way the past couple of seasons have played out, but they are still the Lakers. That cachet still exists. Add in that they are more than happy to compensate the people who help them win and it will be a position people still want.

Just because there will be candidates, however, does not guarantee success; does not guarantee things will suddenly improve. D’Antoni had his faults and despite all that was done unto him through injuries and a major free agency defection he could have been better in several measurable ways. These things aren’t arguable. But the next guy in line will still have to deal with an uncertain roster, a potentially high draft pick to integrate into a team with Kobe Bryant wanting to win now, and the high expectations of a fan base who saw the person he’s replacing as a key culprit in the team’s downfall. When you sign on to coach the Lakers, you are signing on to win regardless of circumstances (at least in the eyes of many). In other words, no pressure big guy.

And therein lies the rub. It is overly simplistic to say just because D’Antoni is gone the team will be better off. Many thought that same thing with Mike Brown being handed his papers and look where the team is now. Coming off their worst season since moving to Los Angeles isn’t a particularly high bar to clear, but that’s not really the bar anyway. Fans, and to a certain extent the organization itself, will want the type of success the franchise has built its reputation on. And they will want it quickly. The coach will be a major part of achieving that success (along with the roster he is handed). Whoever takes over will have that honeymoon period of being “not Mike D’Antoni” and with no Phil Jackson to muddy the perception of the hire that period should have some staying power in the short term. There will even be some fans more planted in reality who understand the rigors of a multi-year retool and keep expectations in check.

But that won’t be everyone. We know that for sure.

In a way, then, what the Lakers have done (or what D’Antoni has done for them) is the easy part. The unpopular guy is gone, banished to never be spoken of again. The hard part, though, remains. The right hire must combine with the right draft pick and the right free agency signings and the right amount of injury luck to make everything right again. If that sounds like a lot of “rights”, you’re, well, right. A lot of things will need to go the Lakers’ way for them to get back to the position they are accustomed to being in. And while D’Antoni leaving may distract from this fact, that would have been true with him in tow, arms crossed and feet stomping on the Lakers’ sideline for another season.

Him being gone is just another unknown to navigate in a field that already had plenty of them.

That said, uncertainty and hope can be first cousins in the family of forward motion. The Lakers are starting anew and with that comes excitement. And after the last several seasons, we could certainly use some more of that around here. So, in many ways, celebrations are in order. At least until the next head coach loses three in a row.

I wouldn’t blame you if you missed the news or, if you did hear it, were immediately distracted by the news the Clippers’ owner had allegedly made another string of racially and ethnically insensitive statements that could land him in some trouble. I won’t rehash, or get into, those comments in this space. If you’re looking for reflections on the topic, you can read here or here for pieces I found thought provoking.

In any event, the Lakers are, reportedly, set on bringing Mike D’Antoni back to coach another year. This comes from the OC Register’s Mark Heisler:

After 10 days of soul searching, the key figures in Lakers management are agreed on bringing back D’Antoni for a third season as coach, a source with knowledge of the deliberations told the Register…

The Lakers have yet to inform D’Antoni of anything, but they intend to keep him, absolving him of blame for the 27-55 finish without Bryant and Steve Nash for 141 of a possible 162 games.

That second part about not yet informing the coach seems to be an important one. As was noted on twitter multiple times by other beat writers who cover the team (Mark Medina and Kevin Ding just to name a couple), the Lakers have yet to have a formal sit down with D’Antoni following the team’s exit interviews and may not do so for another week (or longer). So, while I am not outright doubting Heisler’s initial report, I tend to believe that this is not as done a deal as he might imply. (As an aside, that is not a shot at Heisler who I respect as a writer and someone who has long been on the Lakers’ beat.)

Especially when you consider that, within hours of that report surfacing, both Ramona Shelburne of ESPN Los Angeles and Sam Amick of USA Today reported that D’Antoni would like the Lakers to pick up his fourth year option this summer. From Amick:

It wasn’t just about whether they wanted him back, but whether he wanted to be there for the final seasons of the three-year deal worth approximately $12 million that includes an option in the fourth year. The crucial kicker, both literally and figuratively, is the option which is currently a key factor in whether he’ll return.

According to a person with knowledge of the situation, D’Antoni is has some concerns about returning as a lame-duck coach and is pushing for the 2015-16 option to be picked up. The person spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because of the private nature of the discussions.

It’s unclear whether D’Antoni will return if the Lakers maintain their current stance that they don’t plan on picking up the option, but the fact that he would like that sort of security should surprise no one who has watched these last two seasons unfold.

Amick paints a different picture here that should not be ignored. While it is more than fair to say Mike D’Antoni is not in a position to make any “demands”, it is also not difficult to understand his position.

Surely the financial security matters — if there is any inkling the team may fire him either in-season or next summer (and there is), angling for that year’s salary is smart — but the concept of him wanting the locker room authority that comes with that extra security is also real. It’s much easier to tune out a lame duck coach than it is someone who will, theoretically, be around for at least another season. It also is fair to acknowledge that in a summer where free agency will be a major part of how the roster is constructed, having your coach be (again, theoretically) locked in to more than one season is also helpful (if said player is signing on to play for this specific coach).

If D’Antoni is saying he wants the security and influence that comes with the team wanting him back for another season — and he seems to be — I don’t blame him. It is what anyone would want in his position. The question, however, is are the Lakers going to give it to him? The second question is how much does it matter?

We don’t yet know how serious the Lakers are, if at all, about bringing D’Antoni back. They have never been fond of paying people to go away and cutting D’Antoni loose at this stage, with another nice piece of change owed to him, would be exactly that. We also do not know how much that extra year of security matters to this coach. Is what we are seeing going to devolve into a game of chicken between the Lakers and D’Antoni? If so, who will blink first?

In an ideal world both sides would simply come to an agreement about what is going to be best for this team next season and beyond. While some don’t believe this to be true, a roster full of players who fit D’Antoni’s system and have the ability to play the style he wants can be very successful in the NBA. If those players are also strong individual defenders they can form the base of a team defense that performs well. On the other hand, a team built around Kobe and/or other post up threats who enjoy success playing in isolation and in drawing double teams near the paint and kicking out to shooters/slashers, both sides could also agree that it is better to part ways.

Which path ends up being the one the team goes down remains to be seen, but whichever direction they go here is hoping we know within the next couple of weeks.

The playoffs are underway and that means it is a great time to be a basketball fan. No, our Lakers aren’t in the second season but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy good basketball being played. I tried to catch as much hoops as I could over the weekend and I was pretty impressed with what I saw from everyone on the court (save the Pacers and the referees).

The start of the second season doesn’t just bring the on court stylings of the worlds best players, however. It also brings off court moves from the teams who were not good enough to qualify for extended seasons. In other words, coaching changes are afoot across the league with three head men leaving their posts today.

In Minnesota, Rick Adelman stepped down from his position, retiring after a fine career that saw him reach high levels of success at nearly every spot. As coach of the Blazers he reached two NBA Finals and was a major thorn in the side of the Lakers in the late 80’s and early 90’s. A decade later he helped turn around a terrible Kings franchise and turned them into real title contenders, pushing the Shaq/Kobe Lakers as hard as anyone in the playoffs in the process. He then moved onto Houston where he coached Yao, McGrady, and our old friend Ron Artest to results severely impacted by injuries to his stars.

His latest run with the Wolves was unspectacular in many ways — he failed to reach the post season a single time — but that should not diminish what he accomplished in previous stops. Adelman was a great coach who just so happened to have his best teams at the same times when the Showtime Lakers, Bad Boy Pistons, Jordan Bulls, and Shaq/Kobe Lakers were also at their best. Sometimes bad timing trumps ability.

While Adelman stepped away under his own power, the other two vacancies were not choices made by the coaches. In New York and Utah respectively, Mike Woodson and Ty Corbin both received their walking papers after poor seasons.

Woodson, only a year removed from a 50 win season saw a major regression from his Knicks this season. Poor defense, an offensive strategy that diverted from what worked last season, and injuries derailed his team’s season. And while the latter can’t be blamed on him, the former two certainly can be. Add in Phil Jackson coming in as the top basketball decision maker and it was only a matter of time before Woodson was shown the door in favor of a coach that fits what he wants to do (i.e. run the Triangle).

As for the Jazz, they let go of Corbin after 3 seasons of “rebuilding” that has not produced any tangible results. After trading Deron Williams, the Jazz have been one of the worst teams in the league, drafting in the lottery each season but not developing that talent into the types of high end contributors that change a team’s fortunes from cellar dweller to playoff team. Some of that must be placed at the feet of Corbin, a coach who hasn’t deployed rotations in a way that seem to make sense often enough while also not being creative enough on both sides of the ball schematically to support those decisions. Soon it will be someone else’s turn to try and optimize that talent and grow it in a way that returns the Jazz to the days they saw under Jerry Sloan. That is a tall task, of course, and following in a legend coach’s footsteps is never easy. Maybe the next coach will have enough distance from those days to escape that shadow.

As for the Lakers, there is no news on Mike D’Antoni’s status and there likely won’t be any coming soon. Coming out of the team’s exit interviews last week, the only definitive statements made from either Mitch Kupchak or D’Antoni was that no decision would happen quickly and that the coach is under contract for at least one more season (the Lakers have a team option for the coach’s 4th season). Purposely vague, those statements shed zero light on the situation and don’t even give a hint as to what the organization is thinking.

I, for one, am okay with this for now. Unlike what occurred with Jazz, for example, the Lakers haven’t had a slew of high picks go underdeveloped or underused. And unlike in NY, the Lakers have been brutalized by injuries to the point that it’s difficult seeing how coaching to a different style would have made a huge difference in their win/loss record (though, to be fair, the Knicks have also dealt with injuries — just not to the level the Lakers have).

So, we wait. The front office is preaching patience and I think that has as much to do with them asking for fans understanding that there is a rebuild (or a drastic retooling) upon us, but also because they will simply take their time to make a decision. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, even though it’s a perfectly reasonable argument that the team should know what it has in this coach at this point. Yes, the injuries matter and so do a slew of other factors, but they understand his philosophy and tendencies by now. Weighing those things against each other is worth exploring, but it should not take forever. I would imagine that at some point in the next two to three weeks we will know for sure what’s what.

In the meantime, watch some playoff hoops. The games are good, even if they do serve as a daily reminder that the Lakers need to get much better.

I usually try to look at why things happen rather than the end result. In other words, process does (and always will) matter to me and getting to root of an issue is what I try to do on a consistent basis when I watch games (and, consequently, when I write about them here or elsewhere).

Normally, then, when discussing the Lakers’ putrid defense I would try to explain what is actually making it, you know, putrid. This might lead to an exploration of the team’s transition woes, their inability to stay in front of their men on the perimeter, how some of their wing defenders are habitual gamblers, how their bigs fail to protect the rim adequately, and how the lack of communication between the five players on the floor exacerbate all of the above.

Unfortunately, though, I don’t want to write a dissertation on the Lakers defensive deficiencies.

So, rather than get into how dribble penetration allowed on the perimeter exposes slow-footed big men who, even when they do rotate, aren’t then protected by the perimeter players who should be helping the helper but don’t, I’ll just post a few numbers that basically confirm the team’s terribleness. Since the All-Star Break, the Lakers are:

  • Tied for 29th in the NBA with a defensive efficiency of 112.2
  • Last in defensive rebounding percentage at 68.6%
  • 27th in fast break points allowed at 17.2 points per game
  • Last in points in the paint allowed at 51.3 points per game
  • Last in opponent’s effective field goal percentage (which accounts for the value of three point field goals) at 54.5%

To put some of these numbers in context, in every single one of those categories the Lakers’ post all-star game number would rank last when measured against the current worst number posted for the season. Said another way, whatever team ranks last for the season the Lakers’ numbers since the middle of February are worse. Read those last two sentences again.

Never have I believed that the Lakers have quite on Mike D’Antoni. When you watch the games, the team continues to play hard, an observation that even the opposing team’s broadcast crew makes nearly every game. That said, what is clear is that even if the team is playing hard, it is not playing smart. Nor do I think that “playing hard” translates to all aspects of the game at all times. Often times players do not make the extra rotation defensively, do not sprint back in transition to slow the opposition, do not give the effort to defense that they generally do to offense.

Whether this is due to coaching, the player’s individual bad habits, or a combination of both is open to interpretation. What is not, however, is whether these things are happening and the negative effect it has on the the team’s ability to compete game in and game out. And no matter what side of the player vs. coach of the debate you fall on, the fact is that it is a major problem moving forward. Not necessarily this year (there is little left to play for or prove in these final nine games), but for next year and beyond.

After all, do you want players who go hard on one side of the ball but not the other? Do you want a coach who is the one who oversees these things happening? These are the questions the front office will need to ask themselves this summer when reflecting on this season and forecasting out to future ones.

Because, ultimately, the Lakers cannot have another year where their defensive numbers mirror the ones they have put up the 2nd half of this season. Not unless they’re okay winning 20 some odd games each year.

Throughout his career Kobe Bryant has rarely been one to hold his tongue when it comes to speaking what he sees as the truth, but over the past few seasons, that’s been even more true. Put a microphone in front of Kobe and he’s going to give you his unfiltered opinion on whatever topic he is asked about.

It should come as no surprise, then, that when Kobe announced he would not return this season he was very open about his thoughts on this season and what his expectations for the Lakers are moving forward. While the entire sit down is worth your time, the part that was most compelling, at least to me, was when he spoke about next year’s team and whether he could wait another year after this off-season to improve the roster:

No, nope, not one lick. Let’s just play next year and suck again. No, absolutely not, absolutely not. It’s my job to go out there on the court and perform. No excuses for it. You have to get things done. Same thing with the front office. The same expectations they have of me when I perform on the court, the same expectations I have for them up there. You have to be able to figure out a way to do both.

On top of those comments, were these given within the last couple of days:

The one sure-fire way to be a contending team is to have an abundance of talent (newsflash, right?). And in today’s NBA, the way you accumulate high end talent is by drafting it (the Thunder), signing it in free agency (the Heat), or trading for it (the 2008 – 10 Lakers). And once you have that talent in house, you have to be able to pay for it. It’s a pretty simple formula.

The problem for the Lakers is that none of those things are really possible next season. And a lot of it has to do with the CBA.

Let’s start with the draft since that is the one thing that the CBA really does not affect. The Lakers are primed to have a very good pick in the upcoming draft. That player should aid in bolstering the team’s core talent and, hopefully, be a building block player for years to come. But that player is only one guy. The Thunder didn’t get good with just Durant. They got good when Westbrook, Harden, and Ibaka were added to Durant (not to mention the time that was given to let them develop). The only drafted players the Lakers will have on their roster next season will be whoever they pick this June, Robert Sacre, and Ryan Kelly. While I like Kelly and Sacre, let’s not confuse them with elite prospects.

But when it comes to trades and free agency, the Lakers are really stuck in dealing with the rules that govern the league.

While the Lakers have cap space to offer free agents or to use as a mechanism to absorb money in a trade for a high salaried player, the rules say the team cannot go over the salary cap unless they are using that money to sign their own players. That last point is a crucial one, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

So while you (or Kobe) can say “we just need to sign (or trade for) player X, Y, Z” it’s really not that simple. The Lakers can spend all their cap space on a marquee free agent (or two if those guys decide they want to take a bit less), but even in the most ideal world the roster would still be one built around Kobe and that marquee free agent (or two). The same is true for a trade — the Lakers can try to work a deal for a quality veteran (say, Kevin Love) and offer to sign and trade one of their own free agents (say, Pau Gasol), but even if that were to happen the Lakers would have Kobe, Love, and….not much else. Yes the could fill out their roster with role players,  but the types of players they’d be signing are the exact type of guys they signed last off-season (guys like Jordan Farmar, Nick Young, Xavier Henry, Wes Johnson, and Chris Kaman; guys who took less money to play in L.A. for the Lakers or guys who no one else wanted and are looking to redeem their careers with no other option but to take the minimum).

Let’s go the other way, then. Let’s say the Lakers should maximize their spending by inking their own players via their Bird Rights and building up the roster that way. Only, if you do that, you’re essentially committing big dollars to the likes of Pau Gasol, Jordan Hill, Nick Young, and Farmar. In other words, you’re going over the cap to keep the same team you had this year. This, as far as I know, isn’t what Kobe means when he says he wants a quick turnaround. In fact, I’d imagine it’s the opposite.

This is the part of the story where I tell you this is actually, at least partially, Kobe’s fault. After all, he took a huge salary in the coming seasons and that salary is what is eating away at the team’s cap space and limiting their ability to sign multiple high level players. And there is some truth in that. If Kobe and the front office had been able to agree on a contract that paid him less, those savings could have been transferred into the pockets of other players the Lakers would want to acquire.

That said, what’s also true is that the Lakers are simply in a position where the rules are somewhat against them. By having so many contracts expiring at the same time, the Lakers will fall beneath the salary cap. This, then, puts a limit on what they can actually spend on players this summer. (If you even wondered by Pau Gasol makes more money than LeBron James, this is why — LeBron took less than the maximum salary (just like Wade and Bosh did) so that their contracts could fit into the Heat’s cap space.) Further, because all those contracts expire at the same time and the assets they do have under contract aren’t that valuable around the league, they cannot easily flip those pieces into the better players that would accelerate the rebuild in the manner that Kobe describes in his quotes above.

This is the reality the Lakers face. And, ultimately, Kobe must face it too. There is only so much you can do when all your talented players diminish in quality at the same time while simultaneously lacking alternative assets to improve your roster via the other avenues the CBA allows. So, while Kobe can talk about turning things around quickly the fact is the Lakers aren’t in any position to actually make that happen. Unless you see LeBron, Bosh, and Carmelo all deciding they want to make $7 million a year to come play for the Lakers. Yeah, me neither.