Because it had to get worse before it got better Mike D’antoni was forced to endure the punishment, the house on fire, the Dwight Howard mess, and all the other grievances about his coaching tenure. Some problems solve themselves just because of the passage of time, of seasons changing. He endured the torment and the scorn and a year later has been the ideal fit to shepherd this crusade and start from scratch, not because he has changed his views on offensive basketball but because he has changed the players running it. Young instead of old. Long instead of compact. Enthusiastic instead of complainers. If what is perfect about basketball is what is perfect about chess, the beauty in the strategy, my pawn for your queen, then D’Antoni is at his strength. This is what he does best. He sees something elegant in role players who can shoot from the perimeter. It is a perfect fit, a marriage of his philosophy and their desperation shouldering the burden of a competitive game.
There is a theory about this D’Antoni team and how hard they play. They resemble a well coached college team in the tournament trying to pull off the upset. They have adopted the practice of distance shooting. They drain a lot of three pointers and have a brisk pace. They share the ball religiously, have a we-only-need-each-other attitude and are entertaining to watch. And yet this type of basketball can be just as deceptive as it can be thrilling. Mike D’Antoni’s comment last week, his confession was optimistic: “We are not special yet. I think we can get there.”
The Lakers have surpassed their own expectations of where they would be after eighteen games. Their own assumptions have been overruled. They have the top scoring bench in the NBA, the second best rebounding bench and the third best in creating steals. They have established shooters on the perimeter on both their first and second units and their rebounding is good enough, they are ninth in the league, a respectable ranking without a premiere rebounder like Howard. They make the most three point shots, 10. They are younger and have length but does that make them special or does that make them a team of specialists?
So far, they have won nine games and lost nine games which only means they are ordinary. Not an exceptional team but not horrible as was widely predicted. Victories have come against Houston and the Clippers and Golden State, predicted contenders as opposed to the Lakers collection of guys that hustle. And yet there is duplicity in those nine losses. The Lakers had the lead late against Memphis and San Antonio and the Wizards but fell apart. Either they couldn’t make shots on their end or defend shots on the opposite end and the steep hill turned into a foreign place, much too difficult to overcome.
This is not a denouncement of the D’Antoni system with its benevolent morals: share and you will be rewarded, but the Lakers take a ridiculous amount of three points shots. It is a bleak shadow that covers this team. You exhibit toughness or you die from finesse. It is the most difficult way to outlast your opponent when you continually jack up threes. The Lakers do it 26 times a game, the most in the NBA. It is not accidental that contending teams get to the free throw line as a strategic exercise, a way to wear down their enemy. They use their physicality the same way they execute their offense and are justly compensated. The pace of the game is managed, the best player on the other team is in foul trouble, the paint is controlled, the opponent is demoralized when they cannot stop you and they want to quit. There is no will of iron in the three point shot, no courage. You don’t bear the pressure and you don’t reap the reward and because of this the Lakers are continually punished.
Knowing that, knowing their lack of physical toughness is their most egregious flaw, the more you see of this team, the less you want to remember what happened last year. The house was divided then. It was a year of one crisis after another until the final, unimaginable ending of a torn Achilles. This year everything is new and at the same time it is a breath of fresh air, not just the offense of three pointers but the experience that borders on purity. It is generosity from one man to the next, a sympathetic way to play the game. The Lakers average 24 assists a game, fourth best in the NBA. One of the reasons is Steve Blake who is having a sensational year running the offense and making sure his teammates get the ball at the right spot. Make or miss, the Lakers play the same way, they treat each other with the same respect and support, they are the same link on the same chain. By far, this is Mike D’Antoni’s greatest coaching miracle, getting players on one year contracts to accept and believe in a system where the principles of the group are just as important as the principles of the individual.
It is difficult to interpret what D’Antoni means when he hints that this team could be special. In the NBA that means your team commits itself to defense, a character flaw in D’Antoni’s coaching culture. It seems unreasonable to believe after everything he went through in New York and last year in Los Angeles, he has made a fundamental change. The statistics say it is untrue, any sort of D’Antoni defensive conversion. This Lakers team that has lost nine games is 25th in opponents points. They are 11th in field goal defense. They are 20th in Points Differential. D’Antoni implies there will be improvement in his defense but exactly what does he mean by that? The Lakers only have one true defensive player in Wes Johnson. Jodie Meeks gives a lot of effort but in the loss against the Blazers, the two killer shots that ended the Lakers comeback were shots made on Jodie Meeks by Damien Lilliard and Wesley Matthews. How exactly is a steady player like Steve Blake going to contain Russell Westbrook or Mike Conley? And Pau has already shown how easily he gets pushed around. Andre Drummond nearly drove him off the floor in one offensive position when they played the Pistons last week. Or, perhaps, what D’Antoni means by special, is offensively special.
A team’s personality takes awhile to form. It bends with time, with each possession, each timeout, each missed rotation and each well executed screen and roll. Each game reveals a different conception of themselves. The Lakers have to win, of course, to know the scent of victory but they have to lose too, they have to know what it feels like to fight for your life. What D’Antoni loves about this team is what a corner man loves about his fighter. There are no concessions even when they are cut. They play as if there was no such thing as fatigue even if they are exhausted by what they have just done. Is that special? Perhaps it is, perhaps the closeness of the players, their acceptance of each other, the desperate way they play the game, their intolerance to losing is what D’Antoni really meant when he said they had the potential to be special. Perhaps he was thinking of last year. Or just maybe it was something else, perhaps he was dreaming. He was imagining the consequences of all the effort and coaching and patience and belief. Not just winning but steering the ship towards waters that are both beautiful and calm and proving the basketball world was wrong about this team. And more importantly they were wrong about him.