LOS ANGELES — Kobe Bryant did not speak to reporters after practice Monday because Lakers point guard Steve Blake suffered an abdominal strain and could only get an appointment with an Orange County doctor in the early afternoon, so Bryant flew him there in his helicopter to avoid any irksome traffic on the 405. Given the events of the past 72 hours, this explanation sounded perfectly reasonable.
On Friday morning, the Lakers head coach was Mike Brown. On Saturday morning, it was Bernie Bickerstaff. On Sunday morning, it was supposedly Phil Jackson. And on Monday morning, it was shockingly Mike D’Antoni. “It’s been a zoo,” said Lakers forward Antawn Jamison, who has been in the NBA 14 years, long enough to earn a doctorate in dysfunction. “LeBron leaving Cleveland, guys bringing firearms into the locker room in Washington, I’m used to turmoil. This is just a typical day in L.A.”
Of the six biggest NBA stories since July, four have involved the Lakers: the acquisition of Steve Nash, the trade for Dwight Howard, the firing of Brown five games into the season, and the hiring of D’Antoni after the club started courting Jackson. “Everybody had expectations about it that were all pretty high,” Gasol said. “We understand what Phil brings to the table and how successful he’s been here and what he meant to the city and the franchise. But it couldn’t be for whatever reasons.”
Whether the Lakers chose D’Antoni because they believe his breakneck system is better suited to the current roster, or they did it because Jackson was asking them for everything but the Hollywood sign, Jackson’s specter will hover over D’Antoni’s head along with the 16 banners at Staples Center.
If you’re going to argue that a coach with no championships will somehow be more successful than one with 11, you have to start with Nash. The Lakers imagined him running the point as no one has done since Magic Johnson. They could not bear to turn him into Derek Fisher 2.0, and in Brown’s variation of the Princeton offense, that’s exactly what seemed to be happening. It was obvious Opening Night, which is all the evidence the Lakers had, since Nash broke a bone in his left leg the next day.
Jackson’s Triangle Offense typically deemphasizes the point guard, and while he might have amended it for Nash, the Lakers ran the risk of marginalizing him further. Nash is under contract for three years, longer than any player on the roster, and there is a strong possibility that he and Howard will be with the team when Bryant and Gasol are not. This was a move for Nash, who thrived with D’Antoni in Phoenix, and Howard, who can be everything Amar’e Stoudemire was and much more.
When the doors swung open to the Lakers practice court Monday, Howard was leading a fast break, an amusing snapshot to tip off the D’Antoni era. The club hopes the coach will arrive Wednesday and start installing his offense, which may come to be known as “seven seconds or more.” With four starters over 32, the Lakers cannot run like the 2006 Suns, but the Spurs have proven you can play fast without sprinting 94 feet. Last spring, the Spurs led all playoff teams in pace factor, mainly because of shots they generated off early and incessant pick-and-rolls. In the Western Conference Finals against Oklahoma City, Thunder head coach Scott Brooks said the Spurs ran more than 60 pick-and-rolls per game, and sometimes as many as six in a possession. To Brooks, those numbers sound astronomical. To D’Antoni, they’re normal. This is a coach so wedded to the pick-and-roll that he used to tell his teams, “If we run this, I don’t care what the defense is doing. They’re not stopping it.” In Phoenix, Nash turned Stoudemire into a premier roll man, but he did the same for the likes of Marcin Gortat and Boris Diaw.
“Steve is ridiculous in pick-and-roll,” D’Antoni said during an interview in October. “He’s the best, no doubt about it.” Of the Nash-Howard partnership, D’Antoni laughed at the possibilities. “I just don’t know if you can do better than that,” he said. The Lakers shouldn’t expect to run-and-gun as much as pick-and-roll, pretty much every sequence in every game, with Nash creating double teams and Howard catching pocket passes or careening for lobs. The Lakers do not have the floor-spacers the Suns did, but Jodie Meeks was the best spot-up shooter off the pick-and-roll in the NBA last season according to Synergy Sports, and he should occupy a major role reminiscent of Raja Bell. Blake could even be used off the ball. Metta World Peace may have to become a team security guard. “It will be an adjustment, but it should be a lot easier to adjust to than the system we were trying earlier,” said Jamison. “This philosophy is playing free basketball and utilizing our talent. The bonus is that we have Steve Nash.”
They don’t have him yet. Nash is still recovering and the Lakers announced Friday he is at least a week away from a return. But on Monday, as much of Los Angeles was lamenting the loss of Phil Jackson and all things Zen, Nash and his left leg must have been feeling quite a bit better. Frenzied L.A. may never suit Nash the way Phoenix did, but the Lakers just made it a little more like home.