Before the Mike D’Antoni era, whenever Pau had a double double the chances were the Lakers won. 75% of the time. But the past two years of small ball when Pau has gotten a double double the Lakers lose. 55% of the time. It is a frustration that boiled over on Friday night and turned into unbearable grief. Pau was demoralized. He had not expected the season to be a funeral or for him to stand graveside. But there he was sifting through his own emotions and trying to reconcile it with what just happened. The Lakers lost to Orlando, a horrible team, another horrible team like Utah and Philadelphia and Milwaukee. Once again the Lakers defense was soft. Once again an unremarkable player had their best game of the season. This night it was Tobias Harris, a nice, young player but not particularly efficient or consistent on the season. Clearly it is just beginning to set in with Pau that this is it, this is his last year with this franchise and this is how it is going to end, death by a thousand cuts. A loss here. A blowout there. Dunks and layups. Third quarter misery. When will it end- not anytime soon. It prompted Pau to say, “When you lose against the worst teams in the league, you have to ask yourself why-and what does that make you?”
It makes you one of the worst teams in the NBA. The second worst in the Western Conference. Terrible on offense. Terrible on defense. Lacking adjustments or toughness or the grit to fight through games, to try to take a victory. But of his misery Pau is entitled. He is getting older and his game is not what it once was but recently he has been extremely efficient, the Lakers best player and even then it has not helped. In the last fifteen games he has scored 20+ points twelve times. He has been aggressive and skilled around the rim but he does not get enough shots and when he leaves the game that is when the team forgets everything, there is no purpose, no intellect, no one to take Pau’s presence in the post so the Lakers just jack up bad three point shots because scoring makes them feel good. Of course, D’Antoni could put Kaman in when Pau goes out but that is one more D’Antoni confusion about his rotation and this season.
The Lakers defense is the second worst in the NBA. They give up 105 points a game. Twenty years ago when the Lakers won 33 games they gave up 104 points a game. This defense is at a historic level, it has never been this bad. There are several reasons. The offense of perimeter shooting without offense rebounding is a disaster waiting to happen. Missed threes creates fast break opportunities for the other team. In D’Antoni’s dreams the Lakers are a good shooting team. But in the real world they are 22nd. This news flash: long rebounds create opportunities for the other team. The lack of athleticism of the perimeter shooters means transition points on missed shots. In half court sets the Lakers don’t contest shots, don’t put a body on players, don’t stop the ball, don’t block out, don’t go after rebounds, they reach and then they quit. They play defense with their hands and not their feet and as tonight showed that begins a parade to the free throw line. The Lakers rotations are slow, they often double the wrong man leaving open shooters and they don’t cover space quickly but all that said, their biggest problem is that they are not tough. They don’t go into games with the mind set of fighting for what they want. There is a casualness to how they play and it is reflected in their rebound numbers, their turnover numbers and the final score.
There is a school of thought that says it is because the Lakers do not have an individual defender to make up for the group’s mistakes, that is why they are so extraordinarily wretched on defense. While that is true to an extent it is also a lazy rationale for the Lakers nonchalance. This is why. The Boston Celtics have a similar roster of vagabonds and last chance causes filling up their roster. But the Celtics are 10th in defense, because, well, they practice it and they have a defensive coach who demands they play it. It is just that simple, the tone is set from the top.
Mike D’Antoni’s Phoenix teams were terrible on defense too, ranking last or next to last. But they scored points. 108 points one year. 110 points the next year. 109 points another year. They had the ability to outscore the teams they played against. But this Lakers team averages 100 points a game, they cannot outscore teams, and without defensive intensity or defensive pride or toughness they just cannot compete. Not when they give up 137 points. 110 points. 113 points. 123 points. 120 points. 121 points. 109 points. 114 points. Of this, there seems to be no end in sight.
So it happened in Orlando. Pau introduced himself to the rest of the season. He has never had a season like this. He has never suffered in this way. He has never despised a coach this much. He has never hated a system like he hates D’Antoni’s small ball because it does not even work. This is just game number 43. Someone better tell Pau there are still 39 more games to go. If he is miserable now just wait. Carmelo scored 62 points tonight. He’s up next.