State of Lakers: Change for the better?

LOS ANGELES “Brown is a good coach  314 regular-season wins don’t lie. He actually has a full season this year to show it. Let him.”

I wrote that at the end of last week’s “Three Thoughts.” I didn’t know it was also going to be the end of Mike Brown. But I still stand by what I wrote  Mike Brown is a good coach.

He’s just not the right coach for this Lakers team.

It wasn’t the second-round playoff beating by OKC last season or the 1-4 start to this season that doomed Brown. It was the fact that the Lakers had lost all eight exhibitions and 14 of the last 15 games — most in a very ugly fashion. 

The players were getting tired of the long workouts and film sessions, including a nearly three-hour shootaround/practice on the morning of an exhibition game in October. A team that was pretty good defensively for most of last season couldn’t make any stops when it counted, even in practice games.

For Brown, it was time to move on, maybe to a younger team with fewer immediate expectations. A group of young NBAers eager to learn the game and appreciate Brown’s ability to teach. He is one of the hardest working men in the NBA, always showing up early to work and spending a long time at the complex looking for an edge, any edge, that might produce a win.

Admirable with some organizations, but the wrong approach for a team loaded with older players, some of whom are nursing injuries. Short, organized and crisply run practices are best for the Lakers.

That’s what they’ll get from new head coach Mike D’Antoni.

Brown always talked about limiting Kobe Bryant’s minutes, or Steve Nash’s, Pau Gasol’s or Dwight Howard’s. It almost never happened. Even in exhibition games, Brown would often keep them in games far too long, risking fatigue and injuries even in games that meant absolutely nothing from a win-lose standpoint.

One of the first matters D’Antoni addressed at his Thursday news conference was him making a concerted effort to give his stars rest whenever possible. He admitted that sometimes it just isn’t possible when the score is close and the game is on the line. But he’s cognizant of the problem and will address it, unlike the tightly-wound Brown, who seemed more focused on the final score.

Players’ minutes is only one of the many potential stumbling blocks for D’Antoni as he steps into a Laker Nation which is still boiling mad at ownership for not bringing back Phil Jackson.

D’Antoni has to change the entire basketball culture of a team that’s been based around slower offenses for the past 12 seasons. There was the triangle under Jackson, the 3-point attack under Rudy Tomjanovich and Frank Hamblen and whatever offense Brown ran, including a variation of the Princeton offense this season.

Brown’s offense certainly played a major role in his firing.

It’s an offense that takes a long time to learn, can be confusing, and one that he and his staff were trying to implement in less than 30 days of training camp. The Lakers are a team put together to win immediately  win a championship. They shouldn’t be spending a lot of time trying to learn a new system.

D’Antoni’s offense isn’t tremendously complicated and can be leaned in a couple of weeks instead of a couple of months. With dynamic offensive players like Nash, Bryant, Gasol and Howard getting the bulk of the minutes, and a strong bench, once the Lakers get comfortable and consistent with the new system, they’ll probably average 100-plus points per game.

“If we don’t, then we’re not doing something right,” D’Antoni said.

Then there’s the Lakers defense, which has either been invisible or inconsistent so far. D’Antoni plans to funnel a lot of the action down low toward the dynamic Howard. Reserve forward/center Jordan Hill can also block shots, while Bryant and Metta World Peace have populated many All-Defensive teams.

Maybe the main factor that arrives along with D’Antoni is a sense of just playing basketball again. It started under interim head coach Bernie Bickerstaff, who gave the players freedom to do some freelancing on offense and it paid off in back-to-back wins. D’Antoni’s offense is brilliant in the fact that it has something for everybody.

Nash passes the ball to Gasol 16 feet out. He likes the shot, he takes it. He doesn’t like it, he kicks it out to Kobe. Same deal with him. There isn’t the strain of always waiting for someone to get to a certain spot before the clock runs out.

The pick-and-rolls will also be plentiful with Nash to Howard and Nash to Gasol. Fun is a word that been used around the Lakers a lot in the last four days.

Winning, of course, is always fun. But just watching Laker basketball will be fun again.

Who’s Hot: Jerry Buss, Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak for having the foresight and guts to hire a coach who will breathe some life into a franchise that has done horribly in the playoffs the last two seasons. If this turns it into a franchise where the players are having fun, Howard likely decides to stick around for the next six or seven years.

Who’s Not: The Lakers bench should headline this category, but the honor goes to the fans and the media who were merciless in spewing their venom and criticism toward management when it chose D’Antoni over Jackson. It was ugly and uncalled for, especially toward a family that always keeps the interest of the fans as part of every decision they make  especially Kupchak, who convinced Howard and Nash to come to LA. Yet, Kupchak is now a bum because he admitted to wanting D’Antoni all along. Geez.

Three Thoughts

1. Going from the sometimes overwhelmed Brown to the relaxed and assured D’Antoni should be a treat for the Lakers. While Brown seemingly had respect for everyone he encountered and was never rude or condescending toward the media, he always seemed to be one tense moment away from turning into salt. D’Antoni, on the other hand, is funny, self-deprecating with his humor and definitely changes the feel of a team led previously by Brown and the often dour, pompous Jackson.

2. Brown is one of the more decent people I’ve ever met in the sports world. He always had a hello and a handshake when you saw him, and would spend a minute or an hour talking to you, depending on the situation. It’s hard not to feel bad for the guy, considering he had no training camp and a shortened season in 2011-12, then all the injuries to star this campaign. He never had a full season to show what he could do with the Lakers. However, firing him was the right move at the right time. Otherwise, the Lakers risked losing the whole season and something every bit as important — Dwight Howard.

3. The Lakers’ focus is always on winning titles, but there’s something else they must give a significant amount of attention to: making Howard so happy that he signs back with the team when he becomes a free agent. The big man, who forced his way out of Orlando, saying he needed something different in his life, has been completely non-committal about his future plans. He said from Day One that the Lakers are his “dream team” to play for and that he loves the city, the fans and the organization. Is that how he really feels, or is he saying the right things after being burned so badly  he claims in Orlando? He and a few others know the real play, but I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the points that brought D’Antoni into camp was his willingness to make Howard the future of the organization  with the transition beginning now.

Quotes of the Week

“If you don’t believe that Kobe badly wanted D’Antoni to be the Lakers’ coach and went to bat hard for him, you’re pretty naïve.” — A source close to the negotiations who requested anonymity.

“Maybe I’m not smart enough to know any different.” — D’Antoni on why he seems so relaxed stepping into the lion’s den that is Laker Nation.

“The reason I haven’t tweeted in 2 days is because I’ve been mourning Phil Jackson not being hired as the Lakers head coach. My mother always taught me that if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” — Tweet from Magic Johnson.

“The decision’s been made that D’Antoni is the coach so we must support him. I appreciate him reaching out to me & look forward to speaking.” — Tweet from Magic.

News and Notes

• Nash is at least a week away from returning to action. He’s still mending from a non-displaced fracture in his left leg.

• Although they haven’t said it, three of the happiest Lakers have to be Antawn Jamison, Jodie Meeks and Chris Duhon. D’Antoni isn’t a punitive-punishment type coach, so none of them will be benched for a bad game  or a bad shot. If Meeks missed a few shots, Brown would bury him on the bench; same with Duhon. D’Antoni will probably leave them out on the floor, believing that they might hit 10 in a row. Same applies to Jamison.

• D’Antoni met his wife, Laurel, while living in Milan, Italy. D’Antoni was on his way to becoming one of Europe’s 50 greatest basketball players. Later, when he was coaching Benetton Treviso, Laurel D’Antoni ran business operations for the club. She also later worked on projects for NBA Europe.

What’s Next?

Friday vs. Phoenix, Sunday vs. Houston and Tuesday vs. Brooklyn and Wednesday at Sacramento. D’Antoni’s debut on the bench is expected to come Sunday against the Rockets. He’s still recovering from knee surgery and is on crutches.

Tower of Power?

Should finally be on the way … but still not yet.