State of the Lakers: No answers in sight

December 13, 2012

LOS ANGELES — For weeks now, I've been trying to figure out why the Lakers have been playing such lousy basketball. I've had about as much success coming up with answers as has Mike D'Antoni. The team has moments of good execution and great effort, but not nearly enough to compensate for the hours of horrible basketball they've turned in this season.
A lot of people — including Lakers icon Magic Johnson — would tell you that D'Antoni himself is the problem. But there's no tangible evidence that he solely is the cause of the Lakers' woes.
They've only played 13 games under the coach who took over from Mike Brown on Nov. 20, and while they're 4-9 with D'Antoni at the helm, it's more than his game plans or the lack of adjustment to his way of doing things.
Fingers are pointed at the defense, but they're giving up fewer points (98.8) than they score (101.5).
Turnovers are certainly a huge part of the negative equation, with L.A. having committed 60 more turnovers than its opponents. If the Lakers were able to cut the mistakes from 16 per game to 11 or 12, it would make a huge difference in their point differential.  That is something Steve Nash's return should rectify.
Because of the injuries to Nash, Steve Blake and Pau Gasol, the bench is depleted and D'Antoni hasn't really found a combination of reserves he's comfortable playing in every game. Anyway, the bench just isn't very good.
Overall, neither are the Lakers.
But it's about more than just a poor bench, injuries and the ups and downs of an NBA season. It's the reason for the ups and downs and poor defense.
D'Antoni allowing his team to continue playing with a lack of heart is first on the list.
Even going back to training camp — when D'Antoni wasn't even on the Lakers' radar — there was something disturbing about the way they accepted loss after loss; they eventually ended up winless in exhibitions. Coaches and players — to a man — downplayed the preseason results. "We'll be fine when the season starts," became the mantra. But they weren't, went 1-4, and Brown lost his job. Under interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff, the team had its only good run of the season, even without Nash, going 4-1 and looking like a team that cared. Then came D'Antoni and — inexplicably — it was quickly back downhill.
While it's impossible to accurately judge this team's basketball ability until Nash, Gasol and Blake return and play together for D'Antoni and in his system, it's become incredibly clear that right now D'Antoni can't get this team to play with heart and consistency.
Most coaches are equal in the knowledge of X's and O's; it's not very often that a coach comes up with something revolutionary. What separates the great coaches from the rest of the pack is the ability to motivate their teams on a daily basis and getting them to play with energy and heart.
Under D'Antoni, the Lakers — with the exception of Kobe Bryant and most of the time Dwight Howard — have played with nothing close to passion.
Having Bryant and Howard on the court for the vast majority of the games should in itself ensure a winning record. It should also ensure that you don't lose to the Orlandos and Clevelands. But talent isn't enough. And the blame has to fall to D'Antoni.
Nothing will change until D'Antoni stops worrying about when Nash is coming back and starts motivating the players still available to contribute.
There's too much talent on the Lakers roster to just have imploded as they have since Nov. 20, the day D'Antoni coached his first game. He often talks after games about players taking responsibility for their roles on the team. He needs to listen intently to his own words, and apply them to the man in the mirror.
Who's Hot: Kobe. Again. He's playing way too many minutes, and he's already banged up, playing with back spasms. But he has the heart of a warrior and goes out every night ready to carry the team if he has to. And he usually does.
Who's Not: Howard, whose back is still preventing him from being the player he was for nearly eight years in Orlando. He has some monster games like the 23 points and 18 rebounds he had against OKC.  And he has some games like he did against Utah, scoring just 11 points in the upset loss at Staples Center.
1 — Even when Nash returns, D'Antoni is going to have to make major adjustments to the offense. Besides the lack of passion permeating most of the team, this is an old team and can't possibly run the ball as much as the coach would like. It will be interesting to see if D'Antoni is a good enough coach to change his coaching style. If he doesn't, there will either be wholesale personnel changes before the trading deadline or D'Antoni will be joining Brown in the unemployment line after the season.

2 — Kobe has shown amazing patience with the lackadaisical play and demeanor of his team. A few years back, Bryant would have gone wild on his teammates, and it might have been the catalyst to shock them into inspired play. If D'Antoni can't — or won't — do it, maybe it's time for the Mamba to revisit the old Kobe, who was never hesitant to drop the verbal bombardment on his teammates if he felt they needed it.
3 — It seems unlikely, but if the Lakers continue on this path and miss the playoffs, there's probably little to no chance that Howard re-signs. That would be devastating for the future of the Lakers. And if you look at and listen to Howard after these bad performances, I don't think he'd stay on a team that can't win a title. He knows that like any young superstar, his legacy is tied to winning at least one ring. If it isn't here, it might be in Brooklyn. Or Dallas. Or Chicago. Maybe even Houston.
"The system is wrong for this team. And if it doesn't change, he'll be the wrong coach for this team."
— Earvin "Magic" Johnson when asked if D'Antoni is the right coach for the Lakers
"You'll have to ask the coach."
— Metta World Peace after the loss to the Knicks when asked what the Lakers have to do to improve
 "Well, no, I don't know about that, but ..."
— Phil Jackson on the Lakers being championship contenders
Nash said after the game in New York that he feels better and hopes to be back shortly. He also seemed very eager to take on the challenge of turning around the Lakers' point guard problems, saying he doesn't mind the pressure.
Kobe said talking to Magic about how the Lakers can get better was "like talking to Buddha." He said the Lakers will use Pau Gasol much more in the low post, something Johnson has been pleading for from D'Antoni.
Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak has been very quiet during this period of turmoil. Is it because he's being cautious in what he says, or keeping quiet because he doesn't want to publicly criticize upper management?
Friday at Washington … Sunday at Philadelphia … and Tuesday vs. Charlotte at Staples Center.
If the Lakers are going to pick up a win on the current road trip, it would seem like their best chance is Friday night against the Wizards. Even though they've shown signs of life after losing their first 12 games, the Wizards have only won three out of 19. If the Lakers lose to Washington, they should be made to walk to Philadelphia for Sunday's game.
Absolutely and positively not even close.