PHOENIX — By choosing Mike D’Antoni instead of Phil “Zen Master” Jackson, the Los Angeles Lakers have found a key that could unlock the combustible talents of the greatest Phoenix Sun of ’em all.
Steve Nash’s brilliance as a pick-and-roll point guard was being dulled by Mike Brown, who, you might recall, is not generally regarded as an offensive savant.
With Brown and his commitment to the Princeton offense being shown the back door – by the way, it should be noted the Lakers’ 1-4 start had more to do with their Dartmouth-style defense than an offensive system generating a top-seven level of offensive efficiency – Nash and his new playmates now look appropriately dangerous.
Anyway, having D’Antoni and Nash join forces with Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol, the rest of the Western Conference is toast, right?
Well, things could become a bit nastier. But we probably shouldn’t expect a complete resurrection of “Seven Seconds Or Less,” either.
For some professional insight, we now call upon the wisdom of an assistant coach currently employed by another NBA team. Our first inquiry was inspired by news that the Lakers bosses believed D’Antoni’s system is a better fit for the Lakers’ roster than Jackson’s beloved Triangle.
Our expert agreed “up to a point. (Jackson) never really had a real point guard in Chicago or LA, and putting someone like Nash – who’s used to having the ball and spending most of the shot clock probing the defense – really would be a different dynamic.
“I’m not saying adjustments couldn’t be made. Great players have ways of figuring things out.”
OK, so what about Kurt Rambis – a former Jackson assistant and current ESPN talking head – insisting Nash would be just dandy in the Triangle?
“He (Rambis) was probably going to be on Phil’s staff, wasn’t he?” the coach said. “Of course he’s going to say that. But putting Nash in that system is not playing to what he does best.”
OK, so how about the marriage between the Lakers’ personnel and D’Antoni’s fast-tempo-driven system that breathes with Nash using high ball screens and working a two-man game in the middle of the floor, while a legion of deadly snipers pulls help defenders to the perimeter?
“The Lakers aren’t very similar to what D’Antoni had when the Suns were thriving,” the coach said, citing both the Lakers’ lack of spot-up shooters like Joe Johnson and Leandro Barbosa, or big men like Shawn Marion and Amar’e Stoudemire who capitalize on speed and quickness.
“In LA, he has two great post players in Howard and Gasol, and they’re pretty agile for giants … but they aren’t equipped to play a real fast tempo like he had in Phoenix. And there’s the Kobe dynamic of the ball stopping for his one-on-one opportunities.”
For some technical input on how D’Antoni might adjust in LA, we consulted an advance scout employed by another Western Conference team. He expects a lot of middle ball screens involving Nash and the big men:
“I think their best option would be Gasol picking and slipping, rolling or popping, with Howard lurking along the baseline like Marion used to. The player guarding Howard will have to choose going to Gasol for the slip and leaving Howard, or staying with Howard while Gasol eats up that mid-range shot. And if they don’t show hard on Nash, you have one of the best shooters in history coming off the screen unattended.”
And then there’s Kobe. Although D’Antoni’s system didn’t mesh well with Carmelo Anthony and Stoudemire in New York, our scout sees no such difficulty with this group:
“Kobe is more versatile, smarter and has a far superior will to win. The Lakers can run ball screen with Nash and down screen for Kobe on the weak side. Where do you load up on defense when that happens?
“He doesn’t have to try and play the exact same way the Suns played in Phoenix. All that matters is finding easy ways to score. They don’t have the floor spacers he had in Phoenix, but expect to see Nash working the middle and looking to get everyone involved. Their biggest adjustment will be learning to move as the ball moves.”
Of course, no examination of a D’Antoni team would be complete without mention of his seeming indifference toward defense. But it should be pointed out that using a points-per-game number as the measuring stick of his teams in Phoenix is, well, stupid.
In his four full seasons in Phoenix, D’Antoni’s teams never ranked lower than fourth in pace of play. This makes it a lot trickier to keep the overall points total low. In those four seasons, the Suns never checked in lower than 17th for defensive efficiency among the NBA’s teams – that’s not exactly great, but it’s better than the Suns have been lately, and easy to embrace because the Suns ranked near or at the top for offensive efficiency.
“He had a couple of guys in Phoenix that could really guard you,” the assistant coach said in reference to Marion and Raja Bell. “Bryant and Metta (World Peace) are getting a bit long in the tooth on the perimeter, but the two bigs provide more resistance at the rim than he had in Phoenix. They probably won’t be the 2008 Celtics on defense, but they can be good enough.”
Despite all of the chatter regarding personnel and how it blends with different systems, the truly crucial component in being the Lakers’ ring master is superstar buy-in.
Jackson’s court cred would have been automatic.
D’Antoni has obvious sway with Nash and was idolized by Bryant when Kobe was a kid growing up in Italy (where Mike was a big star). As an assistant coach for Team USA, D’Antoni has worked with Bryant and Howard on championship runs.
“He’ll have the attention of his players,” the coach said. “But he has that Showtime spotlight now in a town where the media and fans expect championships. Phil gave ’em five, and Mike’s never been to the Finals. That’s quite a microscope to be under.”
And it’s quite a Petri dish under that microscope.