- As we watch yet another Finals without the Lakers, what do we see? We see a league influenced with the principles introduced by Mike Dantoni, now represented in the Finals.The San Antonio Spurs, the most traditional of franchises, is succeeding with small lineups, pick and rolls, 3 point shooting and a fast pace. The Miami Heat have moved Lebron James to power forward and Chris Bosh to center.
- Small ball is everywhere and the Lakers have its progenitor on the payroll. It doesn’t matter if the roster doesn’t yet reflect a roster ideal for this coach. With a clearing of cap space in the summer of 2014, the Lakers are positioned for future championships, and Mike Dantoni is the best choice to guide the team through the new paradigm shift. Its easy to embrace the memory of Phil Jackson and multiple championships but that ship has sailed and was last seen drifting off into the sunset as a fiery mess after the 2011 playoffs. That team is gone and the expectations that come with it.
The Phoenix Suns were the envy of the league during the Dantoni era. When Steve Kerr came on board as GM, he doubted that this revolutionary approach could win a championship. He traded for Shaquille O’Neal and disrupted a system that had reached two Conference Finals. In New York, the Knicks made the playoffs with a barren roster surrounding Amare Stoudemire. The blockbuster trade for Carmelo Anthony for the second time scuttled the style of play that Dantoni had built.
The success of the Denver Nuggets this season is a reminder of what could had been in New York. It becomes easy to blame the coach for an organizations’ struggles. It was ironic watching the Knicks thrive this season as Mike Woodson followed Dantoni principles and shifted Carmelo Anthony to power forward and surrounded him with ball movers and shooters, all things that were resisted when he was there.
The Lakers front office made a concerted effort during its championship run to line itself up for a reboot in 2014. They jettisoned bench players seeking long term extensions (Farmar) , got rid of their bad contracts (Odom, Vujacic, and Walton) and made conservative acquisitions to keep the team competitive.
While doing this, Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak made stunning trades for Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, and Steve Nash. For reasons outside of their control, the trades didn’t work out as planned. The Paul trade was vetoed, and Howard and Nash faced injuries and integration issues.
Is that Jim Buss’s fault? No.
The Lakers were able to also sign Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks to minor contracts. On paper the Lakers hit a grand slam, but after years of luck and good health, karma reared it ugly face and punished the team with its most difficult season in almost a decade. Contrast this strategy with that of the Boston Celtics, who had similarly geared up for a long championship run in 2008.
Change is painful and the creeping doubt accrued by the death of Jerry Buss, the departure of Phil Jackson, and the aging of the roster, all created a narrative of a franchise in turmoil. Nothing could be further from the truth. The team has been caught in an ownership and roster transition and it will naturally not look pretty to a rabid fan base used to deep playoff runs. But looking at the fundamentals, the Lakers are in much better shape than during the similar transition periods such as the summers of 1992 and 2005.
Mike Dantoni was put in a difficult position taking over the team without a training camp. The Western Conference downsized and sped up their style of play and the Lakers would have been left behind last season no matter who was coaching. There is uncertainty going forward into the 2013-14 season with Kobe Bryant’s injury and Dwight Howard’s pending free agency.
The one thing that is certain, however, is the organization’s ability to acquire talent and a willingness to spend in order to field a championship contender. As fans, we owe the organization the benefit of the doubt. Viewing the current landscape of discarded, proven coaches, it becomes obvious that there isn’t a better option to helm this roster into the future. With some shooters, some young athletes, and with either Gasol or Howard in the middle, and the team will be back in the hunt.