Sometimes the most talented teams don’t make it. Does anyone remember how talented the 1997 Laker roster was? That team included four All-Stars, all young, and all approaching their peak. Nick Van Exel, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, and Eddie Jones made for a scary team. Further down the bench, championship winner Robert Horry, Rick Fox, Derek Fisher, and Elden Campbell rounded out the primary seven-man roster. That was a team that got swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Utah Jazz. The talent was all-world, but chemistry on and off-the-floor was clearly lacking. Everyone wanted the ball. Few were willing to sacrifice. Few were unwilling to work as hard during the off-season. Few played defense. As gritty as Fisher, Fox, Jones, and Horry were, that team finished 20th of 29 teams in defensive rating. They didn’t deserve the championship.
Flip the script. Now it’s 2014. That entire line of players, except two, are retired. The reality is, Fisher and Bryant see limited playing time due to skill set limitations or injuries. The current roster is loaded with role players, given the green light under the Mike D’Antoni offense. Jordan Hill, Jordan Farmar, Jodie Meeks, Ryan Kelly, Nick Young, Kendall Marshall, Wesley Johnson, and Kent Bazemore have all had career games in terms of scoring. Players have made 7 3-pointers, scored over 30 points, or had 15 or more assists in over four games. Despite these numbers, the Lakers record is still at 22 wins.
Early in the season, chemistry on the team was the topic. Everyone got along well. The team moves the ball. On and off-the-floor, there was a sense of camaraderie. Everyone was looking out for each other, except when Nick Young got caught in a skirmish against the Phoenix Suns. Even then, they talked it out and everything turned out okay.
So, what’s my point? The topic of this article highlights the three components to a championship team. It takes championship talent, a team mold, and discipline to be on the same page as a unit to get to the promised land. The 1997 Lakers didn’t play defense and looked inflexible in the half-court set with Shaquille O’Neal isolated in the paint. The 2014 Laker team plays their tail off, despite multitudes of injuries. They manage to score 102 points per game, 12th in the league. They give up 108.2 points per game, with the 3rd worst point differential in the league.
In 2000, after Eddie Jones and Elden Campbell got traded for Glen Rice, J.R. Reid, and B.J. Armstrong, the team was a better unit. Despite having less defensive talent in the starting lineup with A.C. Green at power forward, the Laker team made things work. Shaquille O’Neal, still didn’t hit the 300lb. mark that Phil Jackson wanted, but at 325, was in the best shape of his career. There was structure on the offensive end. There was a pecking order in the locker room. There was a commitment to defense from Bryant defending point guards and Shaquille O’Neal ruling the paint. Despite the talent drop off, the Lakers won the championship, and deservedly so.
In 2001, the dynamic duo was so great, that Horace Grant nearing retirement was an upgrade defensively up front. Lindsay Hunter provided a killer start to the 2001 season. It wasn’t the best regular season for the Lakers, but it was the best playoff run in Laker history.
What does this all mean? Coaching is important. They need to bring their idea of structure and identity into the team. The way to championship road, even in losing seasons, is creating good habits on the defensive end. Laker fans know this, and have seen enough great high scoring teams to know there is no guaranteed championship working one end of the floor. If the team doesn’t buy into the coach’s structure, there is no identity. Without identity, there’s no sense of team. Without a sense of team, there are no wins.
It seems Mike D’Antoni’s days are numbered.