They were the consolation prize to last year’s hopes. They were a do over, a breath of fresh air, even as there was little comparison to last year’s team of talent. But this group of Lakers players excel where last year’s failed. They are willing to work hard, have a gritty if not unremarkable game and best of all no one burdens the room with complaints. It was everything D’Antoni had hoped for when they gathered in September and he began teaching them his offense. He is the architect and he is also the father. The Lakers are fourth in assists, first in bench scoring, first in three point shots made. Having bonded in the gym, over their collective disrespect, the Lakers reaped the benefits of more than two months together. Thus their chemistry was like a good marriage, they were able to stay together through rough stretches, they were not discouraged. Neither was D’Antoni who witnessed his belief system translate on the court, what he stakes his reputation on, that basketball should be played on a dependent level, passing and moving and attempting perimeter shots which create an easy flow even on those days when everything is miserable. And yet there are obvious flaws in D’Antoni-ball that are overwhelming and perhaps unfixable. The Lakers are near the bottom of the league in points scored in the paint, in isolation plays, in two point field goal percentage. They take more three point shots than free throws, always a sign of a finesse team, not one with toughness. And even with those very enormous deficiencies hidden beneath the garment of their interdependency, the joy the Lakers exhibited in playing together was one more reason to admire what they had made of their fate.
For nineteen games the Lakers played a system in which they were able to tread water in the highly competitive Western Conference. They shot the ball well from distance. Teams that played the Lakers had to account for their pace, their three point shots and their depth. On their end of things the Lakers did not have to overexert themselves because there was no star with ego demands, there was no isolation player, no gifted talent showcasing his superiority. But there is a reason a star is a star in this league, why they carry the day. They have to be accounted for at all times. The stars overwhelm the details of the moment with their presence. Someone like Kobe makes the game easier as he is guarded consistently and is the object of the opponents dread. Don’t get going, they beg with their double teams, not tonight.
It seemed less important during the early part of the season, the absence of a Lakers savior. Only in those close games when they needed someone consistent to depend on was there the memory of missing something. Or someone. In an odd way the Lakers were almost interchangeable pieces, their names less relevant than how they played off of one another in their effective display of ball motion and perimeter shooting. But adding Kobe into the offense wrecked the original chemistry, that September thing, almost as if they thought he was never coming back. The Lakers went from a three point shooting team who occasionally passed the ball inside to a team with terrible spacing although their willingness to move the ball remained. Kobe wanted to pass last night, he tried to adapt to what the team had been doing for months and to his credit he did not force his individual offense on anyone, he only attempted nine shots. His turnovers though were indicative of the larger dysfunction. A third of his bad reads, as he put it, were possible because the spacing was wrong, players were in the wrong places, were robbed of their rhythm. Suddenly they did not recognize themselves.
When you toss a rock from a twenty story balcony it can break something. It is a ridiculous premise to believe nothing will come out of it unscathed. And so it was for Mike D’Antoni’s offense last night, not entirely broken but not the same either. It was an inevitable conclusion that rendered a predictable regret. Physics is about velocity and force. D’Antoni’s offense is about rhythm and spacing. Take a group that plays at a fast pace and add a dominant scorer who has not played in eight months; disaster is inevitable. And yet it was not a terrible game either, just one in which adjustments were needed, particularly to the starting lineup where Pau was as ineffective as he had been all season and naturally the scapegoat. He made only three shots though Kobe consistently went to him early and often. Wes Johnson is not known for his scoring but he had two points the entire game. Robert Sacre was a fish out of water. And the efficiency of Steve Blake was overruled by Kobe who needs the ball in his hands. Kobe only took two shots in his first eight minutes. The rest of the team took ten shots, missing six. So it was a simple matter of their inexact science and Kobe’s searching for confidence that made the starters seem dazed, like they were strangers on a train, which, in a way, is what they were.
There are certain decisions D’Antoni has to make regarding how he wants his first unit to play and who is the best fit around Kobe. Kobe will catch up with the speed of the game, the rust will disappear. He will need shooters on the perimeter who he can play off of, who will be open as defenders gravitate towards Kobe. Once again D’Antoni is going to have to change the lineup to maximize Kobe’s talent and yet maintain his starter’s effectiveness. The fact that four of the starters who had been playing with each other since September did not score in double figures was a horrendous display of what was supposed to highlight their unified character.
Regardless of Kobe being out there life goes on. Last night it was not the case that they deferred to Kobe and that was a good surprise. Rather the Lakers starters gave up their game for him. Once upon a time he could have taken advantage of their submission but he is still working his way back, trying to figure out what he must do to get his game back to where it needs to be without the benefit of a training camp. The good news for the Lakers is that the unit Kobe did not play with, the bench, thrived. Adding an additional scorer in Jodie Meeks makes them even more lethal offensively. They played as they had played all year, comfortable with each other and confident.
Something to consider. It was the first game even though it was the twentieth game. Not much was accomplished other than seeing up close what we always knew, basketball is a team dynamic. Change the team structurally and change the outcome. Having Kobe is better than not having him and yet with him out on the floor there is greed, you want too much all at once. It is easy to get trapped into the folklore instead of looking at it through a lens of productivity, who does what well and with whom. Even with that in mind this challenge facing D’Antoni of creating chemistry with his starters is child’s play compared to the selfishness of last year; this team is just not that ego driven. They want to be there for each other and to do it as a team, to take pride collectively in what the world said could not do be achieved. So in the end, it is up to D’Antoni to figure it all out so that there is a minimal amount of damage and things stay as they are with a high character team that wants to win and wants to do it as brothers.