There is an abundance of negative adjectives in the English dictionary that would accurately describe the ten week reign of Mike D’antoni as the Los Angeles Lakers head coach. Dreadful, unacceptable, lousy, below-par. In less than three months D’antoni has yet to bring back any semblance of the Showtime Lakers that he promised. Instead his “system” has been a fraudulent mess that makes Tara Reid’s boob job of 2006 look like a success.
The coach that invented an offensive system that broke records and was one Amare Stoudemire playoff suspension away from making the ‘07 NBA Finals is now the focus of hourly criticisms. Is it justifiable to bury D’antoni like this? Sure, because he’s essentially destroyed the framework of the Lakers future. When your team goes from a pre-season destination of the NBA Finals to looking up at a Minnesota Timberwolves team that features a 65% version of Ricky Rubio and a distraught (and injured for most of the season) Kevin Love, you deserved to get buried daily by Stephen A. Smith on SportsCenter’s Centerpiece segment, which just happens to always be focused on the Lakers.
Dwight Howard and Steve Nash were supposed to be the light at the end of Kobe’s quest to join Michael Jordan’s table. Instead this bizzaro 2012-13 Lakers season has featured numerous storylines such as: Can Dwight deal with Kobe’s micromanagement and bitching ways on the court? Will Steve Nash get a new wardrobe? Will Dwight’s back ever be the same? Can anyone on this team actually play defense? When will Kobe smash Dwight’s head into the piano that he plays to keep his sanity? When will Kobe drop some f-bombs and bury D’antoni’s “system”?
(Wait he’s already done that… Moving on)
Will D’antoni tweak his system so two of the top four centers the association can actually play together? Why is that last question even on this list?
The most curious of the non-Kobe questions surrounds Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard, and D’antoni’s “system”. On paper the two seven-footers (Dwight is really 6’10”, but it sounds better to say he’s seven foot.) should have had no problem playing and thriving together on the court, but as we’ve seen in the first 42 games of this season, that simply isn’t the case.
Since D’antoni’s arrival on November 12th Gasol’s role has been questioned by the head coach who made a name for himself from a gimmick offense that happened to have one of the top three point guards in this generation and a dominant young Amare Stoudemire. That offense worked because all of the right pieces were in place to run a high octane offense that put the concept of playing defense on the backburner. Those Suns’ teams ran with the, we’re going to outpace and outscore our opponents on a nightly basis by using a deadly Steve Nash-Amare Stoudemire pick and roll with three shooters to spread the floor (also throw in The Matrix version of Shawn Marion, damn those Suns teams are fun to think about). This Lakers team is simply too old to do that, but D’antoni is either too stubborn or incapable of changing his system to fit the pieces that were given to him by Jimmy Buss and Mitch Kupchek.
When Dwight Howard was brought in Gasol’s value to the Lakers was never brought into question. Pau has the basketball ability of a much smaller player due to his deft passing touch and high-post (and corner three) jump shot. Still though this is a seven foot CENTER who thrives around the rim. When D’antoni set foot on the sidelines everything changed.
Suddenly Gasol found his basketball life revolving around those high post jump shots, instead of scoring at the rim. Sure Pau still gets his usual post work in when Dwight sits on his foam cushioned throne on the bench (per John Schuman from NBA.com, Gasol’s percentage of shot attempts from the paint when D12 is on the bench 67, when Dwight is on the floor that number drops to 44.2.), but his body language isn’t the same. Someone could (and really should) put together a Youtube clip series of Pau looking at Dwight with his arms up in the air after another blown attempt to stop a layup. He isn’t the same dominant center that helped lead the Lakers to two championships in the post Shaq era. He’s just another guy in a flawed system.
If D’antoni is going to catch shit for every mistake that he makes, he deserves to throw some back when he makes a good decision. Before the Lakers lost to the Bulls in Chicago on Monday, D’antoni announced that Pau would be reduced to the sixth man off of bench role and Earl Clark would start at the four. At the time it seemed like another ridiculous move in a season filled with them, however this one looks like it might actually work. Sure it seems silly that one of, if not the most versatile big man in the league is going to start every game of the rest of his Lakers’ career on the bench, but if D’antoni is unwilling to change his philosophy this is the most logical answer.
Don’t underestimate how valuable this move is. All of a sudden the Lakers actually have a legitimate second unit that could give them a distinct advantage. Think about it a fresh Gasol can come into the game when Howard sits and actually play the role he was made for. Sure it’s a small sample size but in the two games that Pau has been displayed in this new role he’s been very efficient. On Monday against the Bulls he had his first double digit rebound game since a December 22nd against the Warriors (he also had 15 points.) On Friday the eldest Gasol made seven of his eight shots from the field for 15 points and closed the door on a Jazz comeback in the fourth quarter (he also had seven rebounds). If Earl Clark can develop into something close to a Lamar Odom-lite, Gasol and the second unit will only become more powerful.
There is still a major flaw in the idea of Gasol coming off of the bench, he doesn’t play during crunch time. Doesn’t it make sense to have your second or third best (depending on how you feel about Dwight) player on the floor during the final three minutes of a close game? Wouldn’t this be the optimal time for D’antoni to make an adjustment to his “system” and figure out a way to get Howard and Gasol to co-exist on the elbows instead of sticking Gasol on the island of the high-post? Since when does a top 25 player not fit into a system?
Ugh my head hurts, let’s wrap this up.
Of course this progression most likely will be erased in mid-February when Kupchek and Buss move Gasol for .42 cents on the dollar (it would have been a fair exchange rate if Kevin Love had avoided the season ending injury to his wrist), but for now this actually looks like the first smart move in the reign of D’antoni. Just know this somewhere in Montana Phil Jackson is sipping on a nice glass of coconut water and enjoying the free week of NBA League Pass while laughing at the sight of Gasol standing by the scorer’s table waiting to check in.
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