What started out as head coach Mike Brown saying “it’s a process” as reason for the Lakers’ subpar performance has become head coach Mike D’Antoni using “when Nash comes back” to explain the team’s recent struggles.
“We’ll figure it out when Steve comes back and gives a little more flow to it,” D’Antoni said about the team’s lackluster offense following Tuesday night’s loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“Right now, we’re all screwed up,” he admitted.
Sure, Steve Nash was D’Antoni’s key facilitator when he led the Phoenix Suns to 33-victory increase in 2004-05 on the way to being named Coach of the Year. But that was eight years ago. Now Nash is 38, has missed the last 23 games due to a small left leg fracture, and is still out indefinitely.
The Lakers won their last two games, but their opponents – the Washington Wizards and Philadelphia 76ers – were missing key players, and a 11-14 record is nowhere near ‘Laker basketball’.
Is it wise for D’Antoni to bank so much on one star player’s return?
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It’s not unwise, according to Time Warner Cable SportsNet analyst and 25-year basketball coach Dave Miller, because D’Antoni “has no other choice due to the fact that this is how he wants this team to play.”
The D’Antoni system, dubbed ‘seven seconds or less’, calls for players to execute a fast-paced offense, run the floor and take quick shots. The more possessions, the better the chance of victory. All this with good balance, rhythm and flow.
“He’ll run the offense like nothing,” D’Antoni said of Nash in his introductory press conference last month. “For the other guys, it’s very simple. He’s a big part of it; we got Steve Blake coming back and he’s a big part of it. (Chris) Duhon knows it already, so that’s cool. We’ll get the other guys up to snuff. But the process should not be long and it should not be tedious at all.”
But the process has been long for the Lakers, and their 6-9 record under D’Antoni suggests they haven’t made much progress picking up his system. But whether or not they’re words inspired from their head coach, the players are betting on the same saving grace.
“Steve’s been conducting this offense for a while, and when he gets out on the floor he’ll be able to put guys in the right places,” Kobe Bryant said during practice earlier this month.
After the Lakers lost to the Cavs, a frustrated Bryant reiterated that catch phrase.
“When Steve gets back,” he said, “We’ll do a lot of running of that nature, try to do the ‘Showtime’ thing, get up and down the floor.”
That’s placing a big bet on Nash, but D’Antoni “has to put that much unwarranted pressure on Steve” because his offense was a custom fit for an elite point guard who understands transition basketball, according to Miller.
“He has no other recourse because there’s no other guard on the Lakers roster that understands the ebb and flow – when to push it, how to push it,” Miller said. “No one is a better floor general, regardless of age.”
The silver lining in all of this is that available point guards Chris Duhon and Darius Morris are going to have to learn the job, he said.
But former Lakers point guard Magic Johnson shared a different view recently.
At a Los Angeles Dodgers press conference (Johnson is a minority owner), he said D’Antoni’s offense system doesn’t fit the Lakers and that Bryant is the only player who can get up and down the court.
“What the coach has to do is say, ‘I have a certain philosophy but I don't have the players to play that scheme and that system,’” Johnson said. “I've got to adjust my system a little if I'm the coach.”
Committed to the system
The franchise, however, seems committed to D’Antoni’s system, even though Nash’s timeline remains unclear amid reports he may start practicing this week, and backup point guard Steve Blake is out through January while he recovers from abdominal surgery.
After his team fell to the New York Knicks, Nash told media “I can see some light at the end of the tunnel” but admitted that playing at the level he wants to might take some time even after he’s in uniform.
“All I can do is fight every day to get better, put myself through some of those painful workouts and hopefully this thing heals and I can get in shape sooner rather than later,” he said.
Nash also hinted at one of the Lakers’ fears – that his return might not be the magic solution everyone’s been waiting for.
“Hopefully I can help, but for me I just feel for my teammates. It’s been a tough year,” he said. “Hopefully we can get our guys back and we can all pitch in and make us a little better. But I still think there’s a lot of growing to do for this team regardless of who’s in or out of the lineup.”
Of the remaining point guards, Morris hasn’t contributed much beside a 15-point quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday, and Duhon has had mixed results. Duhon blamed a recent loss to the Utah Jazz, another lower-ranked team, on the Lakers’ defense – not offensive elements.
“We have the talent. We’re going to score. We just don’t play defense,” he said. “Until we do, nothing’s going to change.”
D’Antoni’s lack of emphasis on defense was, in fact, the criticism from Johnson and others that overshadowed concerns that his system might not suit the older, slower Lakers.
While the team is averaging more points per game – 103.1 under D’Antoni versus 97.8 under Brown – they are also allowing their opponents to score more. They limited opponents to 95.2 points under Brown, but have given up at least 100 in nine of D’Antoni’s 15 games so far.
“When Nash comes back” may be D’Antoni’s go-to answer, but he’s not turning a blind eye to the lacking defense.
“It won’t cure everything but it’ll help,” he said of Nash’s return. “But at that point, if it doesn’t cure some stuff, then we’re going to need to have some heart-to-hearts and we need to understand what’s going on. If he can’t run it, then we’ve got some problems.”
With the Lakers under .500 and 12th in the Western Conference a quarter of the season through, one thing is certain – Lakers fans are tired of excuses.
You can follow Jessica Kwong on Twitter at @JessicaGKwong.