Why the Lakers will be better than they were last year (and why it won’t matter)

Spin the dial on your mind back to one year ago today, if you can.

Actually, let me help you. This is an excerpt from the preview I wrote on the eve of last season, before it all went horribly awry.

“Really, there isn’t gonna be any stopping them if they have their shit together injury and/or chemistry-wise. Talk yourself into how old Nash is, how selfish Kobe is, blah blah blah. If they stay healthy and united, they are gonna run shit. Don’t bother arguing with me, for I will not be moved on this.

This year, the Lakers ain’t nothin’ to fuck with.”

Hard not to laugh at myself here, even if I was by no means the only person who screwed this one up. Still, looking back, there’s one factor that I didn’t really count on. The one true destructive force.

Dwight.

Dwight came in as the new franchise hope and was gone in less than a year, taking all of the hope with him to Houston.

He was the man whose arrival forced the organization to cater to his every need, lest he be unhappy and leave at season’s end. Because of Dwight, the Lakers forced Pau Gasol to play on the perimeter, Kobe Bryant to play point guard and Steve Nash to stand in the corner and shoot jump shots, something I’ve openly complained about for months and was essentially corroborated by D’ Antoni himself a few days ago here, where he admitted the decision to feature Dwight was “political”. Honestly, it’s impossible to express what a damaging effect this had on a team that by all rights should have been (and was) the favorite to win the title, but disintegrated in a cloud of selfishness and lack of cohesion. Because of Dwight, Mike D’ Antoni had to abandon the offense he was hired to install so that #12 wouldn’t feel left out of a scheme that was consigning him to basically being a rebounder/defender type. You see, Jerry Busses’ explanation (if you choose to believe it) as to why they went with D’ Antoni over Phil Jackson was because he “wanted to get back to the showtime era run and gun style”, which makes sense enough until you factor in Dwight Howard’s complete inability (and unwillingness) to play such a style.

That Jimmy Buss. What a character.

Here’s the blurb version: Jim Buss’ and the Lakers new “brain trust” (and I mean “brain trust” in the “Men Who Stare At Goats” sense) thought Dwight Howard was good enough to carry the Lakers to title contention for the next half-dozen years, only they were too petty to hire Phil jackson back because that would be tantamount to admitting they never should have ditched him in the first place, so they hired a coach (D’ Antoni) under the guise of wanting to run & gun, only it’s well known in basketball circles that D’Antoni has no love at all for Howard’s game so the two clashed from day one. Out of viable options and not wanting to fire D’ Antoni and pay TWO COACHES to sit home and do nothing (Mike Brown made about 5 million last year to coach the Lakers for five games and was still owed one more seasons’ worth of pay) they basically forced D’ Antoni to do whatever possible to placate Howard, which led to the Lakers sucking and everyone being unhappy.

So Howard left for Houston.

While it may have appeared devastating to the media, the casual fans and a tiny minority of Laker fans who actually enjoyed Dwight’s stay here, the reality is, it may just have saved the Lakers from themselves in the long run. Instead of five more years of mediocrity, failed expectations and finger pointing, they’ll have a chance to regroup next summer, when they have a totally clean salary cap and a gigantic free agent pool from with to rebuild their house. Whether or not the new owner can be trusted to not fuck it up is another story, but at least you can sell fans on hope instead of the sure disaster the Dwight Howard era was likely to be.

And with that out of the way, this year is going to be interesting, for all kinds of reasons. This year, we’ll learn what a corrosive force Howard truly was, and more importantly, those of us who doubted the ability of Mike D’ Antoni will be given a little crow to chew on.

Orlando Magic v Los Angeles Lakers

They never stood a chance.

The Mike D’ Antoni “7 seconds or less” offense that worked like a charm in Phoenix with Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire and a cast of role players and can work the same wonders here, even if Nash is a little older and several Lakers (including THE Laker) are on the mend. The system is relatively simple: Push the tempo at all times in search of the kind of open shots that are created when a team can’t get back on defense. Spread the court, push the tempo and find a professional basketball player for a wide-open shot which, by all rights, he should make. If that doesn’t work, reset the offense and go to pick n roll, a scheme that suits the hell out of personnel like Nash, Pau and Kobe. All told, the offense should kick ass with this group, especially since the Lakers spent the summer rounding out the roster with players that may be limited but excel at what this offense requires of them, which is shooting. Nick Young, Wes Johnson, Jordan Farmar, Chris Kaman, Ryan Kelly, Xavier Henry and Shawne Williams are all flawed NBA players, but all of them can make open looks, as opposed to last years’ roster, which featured a dozen or so guys who were old, slow and wayward of shot.

So, if you haven’t already figured it out by now, Howard and D’Antoni were a miserable fit for each other. For Starters, the system requires an offensively versatile post man, and Howard is not that. Secondly, about two weeks into the season, Howard essentially vetoed running pick & roll with Nash (one of the greatest pick & roll players ever, by the way) because he’d grown tired of playing that way, instead preferring to be featured down low, and since the front office was doing everything it could to appease (in order to re-sign) Dwight, they told D’ Antoni to alter the offense to suit his talents. If you ever wondered why Pau Gasol was suddenly playing on the perimeter and even removed from the starting line-up last year, well, there’s your answer. By the time the Lakers had stumbled to a 17-25 record and were seemingly left for dead, D’ Antoni finally came up with the last-ditch idea to install Kobe as the point guard and use Nash as a shooter, an idea that, silly as it sounds, actually saved the Lakers season. Well, in a relative sense, that is. The Lakers finished out the year with a 28-12 record, a pretty damn good mark, mostly because Kobe willed them to it, averaging a mind-boggling 31, 7 and 8 in April before his Achilles heel checked out on him.

As an aside, do you know what’s so funny about this? Steve Nash spurned overtures from Miami and others because he wisely concluded that his role in the Heat offense would be limited to standing in the corner and hoisting wide-open threes, and he preferred to be the man driving the car for a contender, if you will.

If only he had checked with Dwight beforehand, he might have his ring now.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers-Media Day

Now playing: Kobe and the randoms!

Back to the here and now. As limited as they might be, as non-existent as their title hopes may be, I really am convinced that this team will be better than it was last year, if only by a game or two, the result of the old “addition by subtraction” rule. Last year’s fatal flaw, more so than Kobe or Dwight or D’ Antoni or anything else, was chemistry, as in there was none. Now, the feeling around this team is a lot lighter, the weight of expectation reduced to a pile of rubble. This team, no matter what the clueless owner may think, is not destined for anything greater than maybe 45-50 wins and a first round playoff exit. Still, it will be a fun bunch to watch, all running and gunning and bombs away from deep. If you can be OK with a team that is simply no more than a good, exciting squad, you’ll be pleased with these guys. Of course, it’s a long fall from grace for a franchise so proud, but it is what it is.

This is a time for reflection, folks.. This is the end of the world as we know it. This is the end of Kobe Bryant’s run on top, the end of the Lakers as viable championship contenders, the end of the good times. All of it.

This is the Jimmy Buss era, and it ain’t ending anytime soon.

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