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Lakers Fast And Loose In Win Over Rockets

The Lakers decisively beat the Houston Rockets on Sunday by a final score of 119-108 in their highest scoring game of the season. They separated quickly in the first quarter, and maintained their lead throughout the game. During the fourth quarter, they had as much as an 18-point lead, before putting on the brakes for garbage time. 

The widely anticipated reunion—of sorts—between Mike D’Antoni, the new coach of the Lakers, and Houston Rockets point guard Jeremy Lin—his old protégé during their time together in New York—did not take place as planned. Just minutes before the regularly scheduled press conference, the press room was notified that D’Antoni would not be coaching that night. But when asked about Lin, D’Antoni replied with some sentiment: “That’s a moment that when I retire, when you sit around, that’s one of the best moments I ever had coaching.”

Although D’Antoni said he was “anxious to get out there and ready to go,” the long-time Lakers’ trainer, Gary Vitti, had advised against it. Not wanting to be “a sideshow,” he decided to skip the evening’s game and let Bernie Bickerstaff continue as interim coach.

“I’m disappointed,” he later said. “I kinda got ahead of myself… I wanted to be [out there], but it’s just not quite there yet.”

Bickerstaff half-jokingly conjectured that the new coach and Steve Nash, a veteran of D’Antoni’s campaigns with the Phoenix Suns, might be “waiting to make their debut together.”

When asked whether he expected to have any contact with the team throughout the game, D’Antoni replied: “Halftime, before the game, after the game, but not during the game,” since he did not want to take away from Bickerstaff’s rhythm and authority. As for the continued employment of Bickerstaff on his coaching staff, D’Antoni unhesitatingly replied: “Oh yeah, he’s here, yeah.” But joked: “Unless he loses this game. You know, pressure’s on everybody.”

For his part, appearing relaxed and contemplative about his short stint as the head coach of the most popular basketball franchise in the world, Bickerstaff seemed slightly surprised when told that he would remain on D’Antoni’s staff. “Well, that’s all news to me! I hadn’t heard anything pro- or con-… That’s nice to know.”  

In general, D’Antoni suggested that he was aiming for a gradual and deliberate transition to his style of coaching. He said his involvement thus far has been “a little bit, not much,” since “you don’t want [the players] to think and play, you just want them to play in the act.” Later, he said of the progress the team has been making towards his style of play, “everyday should be better, everyday the guys are feeling better… then everything should be good.” Making it clear that Nash will be instrumental in that progress, D’Antoni said: “obviously it’s a lot easier with Steve Nash on because he has the command of it.”

Bickerstaff, however, was somewhat more forthcoming. When asked how much influence D’Antoni has had so far on the team, Bickerstaff replied: “He’s there in practice now and he’s going to shootarounds and he talks during practice, as well as pre-game, post-game, halftime.” Then he added that D’Antoni “has implemented some things and we’re trying to run those things. And to the players’ credit and their intellectual capacity, they’ve been able to comprehend some of this stuff and put it on the floor and do a pretty decent job of it… So most definitely.”

Consequently, we are not yet clear about how much influence D’Antoni has had, and we have—to whatever degree that influence may extend—only one or (counting Friday’s game against Phoenix, a 114-102 win) two games to survey. There are further caveats against over-speculation to keep in mind: for example, the general mood of the team that they now have a new coach and, thereby, have been disburdened of the especially difficult Princeton Offense; and that they went against what at this point must be considered a fairly weak team, the Houston Rockets. Nevertheless, D’Antoni’s particular brand of the uptempo style was clearly palpable, especially during the first half. If this game was a preview of what is to come, then Lakers’ fans should be relieved—perhaps even excited.

D’Antoni’s particular brand of the uptempo style generates what is not tracked by the stats. It’s not just that during each possession a conversion is completed as soon as possible. Instead, it’s that during each possession, the ball is more frequently distributed from player to player.

The motto is, after all, “7 seconds or less.” This does not mean that the player should shoot in seven seconds or less; rather, it means that, unless an open look occurs in less than seven seconds, the ball must be passed to another player. With this kind of system, there are more open looks generated per possession than in isolation plays. And more open looks per possession means—assuming everyone’s playing on par—enhanced accuracy in scoring. By creating more clean looks, it literally makes every player better since clean looks mean easier shots.

And that is what we saw in the first half of the game. The Lakers’ pace was faster than previously and the ball was distributed often and rapidly. It resulted in Pau Gasol getting clean enough looks to hit three out of six jump shots in the first half. For the game, Gasol shot 54% from the field, in contrast to his 43% for the season. Bryant’s 11 points in the first half were also from very clean looks. And for the entire game, World Peace was clearly the biggest beneficiary: for his 15 points, he shot 63% as opposed to his season average of 38%. The team as a whole shot 54% from the field while hitting 45% of their threes. Their averages for the season had been, respectively, 45% and 33%.

By the same token, since greater frequency of ball distribution should yield a greater number of assists, we should expect a corresponding uptick. The Lakers had been averaging around 20 assists per game so far this season. Against Houston, they recorded 27. In particular, Bryant registered 11 assists, mostly in the first half, while he had been averaging just under 5 per game this season—which is pretty much his career average. Of course, he is compensating for the absence of a starter-grade point guard. And once Nash in particular returns, those numbers should go down. But if Bryant decides to buy into D’Antoni’s approach, we should expect above career-average in assists from him.

However, once they gained significant separation in the second half, Kobe in particular seemed to feel expansive and reverted to more isolation plays. He began taking increasingly more difficult shots even though some of his teammates were open, including a jump shot in the middle of the third quarter when he was clearly obstructed by Terrence Jones. The rest of the Lakers’ line-up followed suit, then there was less of D’Antoni’s influence to be discerned. Nevertheless, Kobe registered a triple-double: 22 points on 50% shooting and 11 rebounds to go with his 11 assists.

After the middle of the fourth quarter—during which they led by as much as 18 points—the Lakers appeared as though they were playing an exhibition game against an increasingly hapless Houston team.

After a promising start, the Rockets soon became visibly overmatched. In particular, they had no answer for Dwight Howard. Able to return the ball to competent teammates when unable to post-up easily, only to get the ball back once the resistance abated, Howard scored readily and, at times, ostentatiously.

Although the Rockets distributed the ball quickly and frequently on most offensive plays, they missed several easy shots while taking ill-advised risks on more difficult ones. In contrast to a spectacular court-length pass from Gasol—with just 1.5 seconds left on the clock in the first quarter—that concluded with a wide-open Howard conversion, most of the Rockets’ attempts at passes from long-range were badly bungled.  

Chandler Parsons was the one bright spot on the Rockets’ roster. We may be witnessing a breakout season from Parsons, who recorded a remarkable 80% in both field goals and three-point attempts for his team-topping 24 points.

Omer Asik, who has been having a career season as the starting center for Houston, failed to deliver what is now his usual double-double in rebounds and points. Instead, he offered up a somewhat disappointing 9 rebounds and 8 points, although on 67% shooting.

Although he played a solid game with 20 points and 7 assists, James Harden appeared at times frustrated, not only with his own performance but with those of his teammates. Harden was loudly jeered by the crowd with every possession and seemed somewhat taken aback by it. He did, however, shoot at his normal 43%.

During Kevin McHale’s absence, it appears Kelvin Sampson has largely relegated Lin to the role of pure playmaker. Although he recorded 10 assists, he shot a dismal 22% from 9 attempts—although at least a couple of those were attempts to draw a foul that came to naught. In the second half, Lin seemed to lose confidence in his shooting. On several occasions, he eschewed clean looks in favor of a seemingly arbitrary pass. Indeed, on several occasions, he seemed to hesitate on an open look and disposed of the ball to his nearest teammate. Lin attempted one wide-open three-point, which failed to convert.

The Rockets were without Carlos Delfino, their sharpshooter off the bench. Other than Marcus Morris, who recorded 12 points on 42% shooting and grabbed 8 rebounds, and Terrence Jones, who shot his 8 on 57%, there was little spark off the Rockets’ bench.

As already mentioned, with Bickerstaff still at the helm and without clarity about the degree to which D’Antoni has already influenced his Lakers, one should avoid extrapolating too much from Sunday’s game. Moreover, we do not yet know how central a role Nash will play in D’Antoni’s system—and, correspondingly, what sort of role Kobe will have to play in it. And until Nash’s return, we can only speculate about what the Lakers’ march towards the playoffs will look like. However, many of the earlier possessions did bear the tell-tale fingerprints of D’Antoni’s uptempo offense, and most of them effectively disoriented the defenders and, consequently, concluded with clean conversions.

Examining D'Antoni Minimalism For Lakers

The Los Angeles Lakers' hiring of Mike D’Antoni instead of Phil Jackson remains controversial. And the press in Los Angeles is stoking the collective anger of the fan base.

T.J. Simers of the Los Angeles Times claimed that the verdict against the D’Antoni hire is now “unanimous” (referring, I suppose, to himself and his equally outraged colleague Bill Plaschke).

In a related interview piece with D’Antoni, Simers seems to have even deliberately omitted the “D” from “D’Antoni,” referring to his reputation as running defensively inept teams, as simply “Antoni.” Fortunately for D’Antoni, he has spent the last three years getting bad-mouthed and otherwise generally abused by the New York press. 

With his last loss, a 95-86 defeat at Utah, I had a gut feeling that Mike Brown would get fired. You can’t start 1-4 (after having lost the entire preseason) with the most expensive—and arguably the most talented—roster in the NBA and expect to survive with the Lakers. And sure enough, the next day he was gone. Then my immediate thought was that they would hire Mike D’Antoni to replace him. My reasoning was simple (and, as we will see in a moment, perhaps simple-minded): Steve Nash, a once-a-generation point guard, with not just one but two of the best pick-and-roll big men in the league—one of them the most formidable center since Shaquille O’Neal—at his disposal.

Then on second thought, it seemed like choosing Phil Jackson was not only the most obvious Lakers thing to do but also the sanest. After all, Jackson’s already been there, winning five titles with the club, two of them with Bryant and Gasol who still make up the team’s core. Furthermore, having spent an entire training camp figuring out the Princeton Offense, the transition to its close cousin, the Triangle, would certainly be less jarring for the players than one to D’Antoni’s “7 seconds or less” run-and-gun offense.

Politically, it would have also made much better sense. With the entire city begging for Jackson, who is revered by the virtually the whole basketball community, the management could easily scapegoat one of the players should the team fall short of expectations. And for about a day, what with the Times reporting “95%” certainty of the Jackson hire, it seemed like a done deal.

But Jackson reportedly wanted too much money, including a stake in ownership and greater managerial control—essentially, wanting to become owner, GM and coach in one body—and, to the ire of the entire Lakers' nation, the Busses balked. And despite the availability of Nate McMillan, Jerry Sloan, Mike Dunleavy, and the current man at the helm, Bernie Bickerstaff, they have gone with Mike D’Antoni instead. But why?

I’ve already mentioned the obvious reason. Pairing Nash with Amar’e Stoudemire during Nash’s first season with the Suns, D’Antoni produced stunning pick-and-roll results. Putting Nash in control over two skilled pick-and-roll big men should yield similarly effective results. Right? However, what is often overlooked is that the Nash-Stoudemire Suns featured three-point snipers like Joe Johnson as well as fast, young athletes like Leandro Barbossa and Shawn Marion. I will return to this latter fact in a moment. But first, I think it’s safe to speculate about a deeper reason behind the D’Antoni hire.

D’Antoni has often been described as an “anti-coach.” In an era of carefully structured plays based on reams of computer-generated data on opposing teams, with long practices required to calibrate the players for such stringent demands, D’Antoni famously prefers short practice sessions under one hour and psyches up his players before games by showing them their own highlight reels. Rather than trying to squeeze talented players into the highly specified roles of an inflexible sequence, D’Antoni allows his key players an enormous—some might even say, reckless—amount of freedom to create on the go. Perhaps due to his own experience as a successful young player-coach in Italy, D’Antoni in a sense relies on his best players to literally coach the other players on his behalf, on the court—to, sort to speak, make up their own plays as they go along.

For less talented and—let us say—cognitively challenged players, this style of coaching can be disastrous. But with smart and gifted players, this kind of autonomy on the court can yield an embarrassment of riches in points and, hopefully thereby, wins. Steve Nash, with his savant-like court vision and eerily precise hand-eye coordination, thrived on this kind of freedom. And in Bryant and Gasol, the Lakers feature two more of the smartest and most experienced players in the league. By all accounts, Bryant in particular is already a player-coach, both on the floor and off it. For such a talent pool of basketball smarts, a minimalist coach like D’Antoni may just prove to be a winning choice. In a sense, with the Princeton Offense now off the table, Bickerstaff seems already to be doing something like that now: let Bryant and Gasol figure out their own plays, and let everyone else find Howard.

There is, however, a potentially catastrophic down side. But before getting into that, let me dismiss two very popular complaints about the D’Antoni hire.

First, as already mentioned, many have been complaining about D’Antoni’s putative weakness on defense. As better-informed commentators like Zach Lowe of Grantland have pointed out, D’Antoni’s teams have been, in terms of points per possession, average—and thus not especially terrible—defensive teams. Average defense running small ball should not be surprising: you need big enough bodies to stop the opposing side. And at the end of the day it’s about who has more points up on the board. If you play average defense but way above average offense (as the Suns used to and the Lakers are now expected to), you will end the game in the black—usually in the triple digits. In addition, as D’Antoni recently pointed out, he now has Dwight Howard on defense, flanked by Kobe and Metta World Peace. In short, no matter who’s doing the coaching, the Lakers will be fine defensively.

The second common complaint is to point at D’Antoni’s admittedly dismal record with his last employer, the New York Knicks. But why blame D’Antoni—or any coach not named Isaiah Thomas? Long a bloated and chaotic organization, when D’Antoni first arrived in New York he was saddled with Stephon Marbury—the closest thing in existence to an Anti-Nash—and an out of shape Eddy Curry. Eventually he was reunited with Stoudemire, but instead of a capable point guard to run p-and-r’s with him, they gave him Carmelo Anthony, a would-be superstar who neither picks nor rolls but contemplatively massages the ball in solipsistic isolation. D’Antoni was clearly the wrong coach for the Knicks, but they were also the wrong team for him.

But are the Lakers the right team for D’Antoni? The single greatest cause for concern can be gleaned by looking at what I think is the most revealing moment in D’Antoni’s NBA coaching career: the Suns’ playoff run in 2006, with both Stoudemire and Kurt Thomas out with injuries. That team was perhaps the purest embodiment of D’Antoni’s run-and-gun small ball philosophy. And, in addition to smarts, it involved two key ingredients: speed and sharp shooting. Because the Suns were replete with hyperkinetic athletes, fast breaks were the norm. And if you score quickly, it means more frequently you will score per quarter.

Typically, Nash—who has never been especially fast down the floor—would find a Barbossa or a Marion ahead of him for one of those preternaturally prescient Nash passes followed by a quick bucket. Should the fastbreak be halted, the shooters would spread out the floor enough so that, when the ballhandler kicked out the ball to a shooter, a defender usually couldn’t return to his man quickly enough from double-teaming the ballhandler to stop the shot. Should he succeed in returning quickly enough, however, the shooter would simply drive to the basket for a repeat of the whole process. And often, the shots from a kick-out were three-pointers; hence, the Suns’s much vaunted scoring advantage on offense. In contrast, pick-and-rolls—no matter how masterfully performed—yield only two points. So at the heart of the D’Antoni offensive advantage are greater frequency of scoring through a high number of fast breaks and greater number of points through consistent three-point shooting. Speed and sharpshooting, like I said.

The current Lakers' lineup features enough of neither fast players nor reliable sharpshooters for this kind of offense. Howard is fast—for his size. Gasol now literally lumbers from basket to basket. Bryant is a great finisher and shooter inside the parameter; but, despite some dramatic clutch shots from beyond the arc throughout his hall of fame career, he is in fact only an average three-point shooter. Nash is the only shooter on the team who excels at the three-point line. So the Lakers are missing two of the key ingredients needed in D’Antoni’s system. Their fastbreaks usually slow down into a conventional offense, and they can’t spread out the floor enough. Consequently, it’s hard to see what sort of offensive advantage they might enjoy under D’Antoni’s tutelage. And it’s hard to justify D’Antoni’s hire—as preferable to anyone else’s—without the teeth of his offense.

Instead, what the Lakers have in their starting lineup is a bizarre, almost schizophrenic set of redundancies. When Nash returns, we can expect pick-and-roll’s with Howard and Gasol. So two points on long possessions. But with Nash out, we are seeing Bryant running either screen and pops off of Howard and Gasol or some depleted version of the Triangle—in which case, with Gasol, because he can pass and has decent range, being the lynchpin. So, again, two points on long (and slow) possessions. In aggregate effect on offense, then, what’s the difference? With Bryant running the offense, Nash is gratuitous. Should D’Antoni hand over the keys to Nash, Bryant would wind up gratuitous. 

 

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