Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Laker Delusions

  Last week, the Los Angeles Lakers fired their head coach Mike Brown after the team went winless in the preseason (0-8) and started the season by winning one of their first five games. Brown took over last season with a four-year 18 million dollar contract, replacing retired legendary coach Phil Jackson and led the team to a 41-25 regular season record, good enough for a third place finish in the Western Conference. After squeaking by the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs, the Lakers were defeated soundly by the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games in the second round.

  In their desperation to squeeze another championship out of the Kobe Bryant era, the Lakers rebuilt their roster in the offseason. They obtained two-time MVP point guard Steve Nash as a free agent and got six time All-Star center Dwight Howard in a trade for oft-injured center Andrew Bynum. Bynum was projected to be the centerpiece of the post-Bryant Lakers, but had fallen out of favor with his injuries and questionable work ethic.

  Laker fans had visions of their new ‘Big 3’ of Bryant, Nash, and Howard not only winning the Western Conference, but also being able to take the championship away from the Miami Heat’s trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. These hopes were bolstered when the Western Conference Champion Thunder traded Olympian James Harden to the Houston Rockets rather than give him a long term contract that would put the team over the salary cap and compel them to pay a luxury tax.

  Even with Nash getting injured in the second game of the season and Howard not playing in the preseason while he recovered from offseason back surgery, losing four of the first five games was not how Laker management envisioned their season starting and Brown was fired just a day after being given a ‘vote of confidence’ from Jim Buss, the Lakers executive vice-president and son of owner Jerry Buss. I think that if a coach that was given a four-year 18 million dollar contract was fired after one season and five games, the man who signed him to the contract should be walking out the door with the coach, but I might think differently if I owned a basketball team and my son was hiring and firing the coach.

  Mike Brown was the NBA Coach of the Year in 2009, a year after taking the LeBron James led Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals. He was the biggest coaching name available to the Lakers, who like to have a big name coaching their team. After last seasons’ disappointing playoff loss, Brown decided to install the ‘Princeton Offense’, which relies on precision movement and is generally thought of as an offense used to help teams with inferior talent compete against superior opponents. The new offense came under fire with the dismal start and was no doubt the primary cause of Brown’s dismissal. It is interesting to note that the 2 main candidates to replace Brown also have trademark offenses; 11-time NBA championship coach Phil Jackson uses the ‘Triangle’ offense and Mike D’Antoni has a fast break offense that asks his teams to take the first good shot and generally try to outscore the opposition.

  Firing the coach, any coach, for not winning enough at the beginning of the season is straight out of the Yankee playbook of the 1980s. In 1985, Yogi Berra was the manager of the Yankees and they lost the first two games of the season to the Red Sox. Owner George Steinbrenner declared that the third game of the series was a ’big game’. The Yankees lost that game and Steinbrenner was livid. The Yankees evened their record at 5-5, but after losing 5 of 6 games to the Red Sox and White Sox, Yogi was fired with a 6-10 record despite Steinbrenner’s preseason pledge that Yogi was going to be the manager the entire season.

  Another page out of the 1980’s Yankee playbook that the Lakers seem to have adopted is getting the biggest names available and expecting them to not only immediately mesh, but also play at peak levels established many years ago. New point guard Steve Nash is a two-time NBA MVP and an eight time all-star. Steve Nash is also 38 years old. Kobe Bryant has been an All-Star every year in this century and has five championship rings. Kobe Bryant is 34 years old and has played almost a hundred games a year for the last 18 years (counting playoffs and Olympics, etc...). Two other big name holdovers, Pau Gausol and Metta World Peace (the former Ron Artest) are 32 and 33 years old.

  Getting Dwight Howard makes a lot of sense to me. At 27, Howard is still in his prime years and is arguably the best center in the league IF he can come back from his recent back surgery. Howard made a lot of bad press for himself with his demands to be traded from the Orlando Magic team alternating with his holding out the promise of resigning with the Magic in return for more say in the management personnel. The Lakers understand that these issues are solved by winning. Howard’s circumstances are very similar to the last big-name center the Lakers received from the Magic, Shaquille O’Neal. Like Howard, O’Neal had led his team to the NBA finals but forced his way out of Orlando when he came to the conclusion that the Magic was never going to be able to provide him with the supporting players to help him win a championship. The only question I have about Howard is that while he has been a defensive giant (three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year) in Orlando, he constantly complained about not getting enough shots. If this behavior continues in Los Angeles, he could ignite what promises to be an uneasy chemistry.

  On Monday, D’Antoni was hired to a three year, twelve million dollar contract to coach the Lakers, whose will now be paying both Brown and D’Antoni at least four million dollars a year apiece to coach and not coach the team. Will the Lakers be able to contend for a championship? With the exception of Howard, none of their star players will be any better this year than they were last year. And last year this team was barely good enough to get to the second round of the playoffs. If the Lakers fall short, there will be plenty of people saying they should have hired Phil Jackson to be the coach, but the team didn’t look like champions two years ago in Jackson’s last season when they were swept out of the playoffs by the Dallas Mavericks.

  If the entire Lakers team is healthy going into the playoffs and can stay healthy through them, there is a possibility of them making the Finals (especially if Thunder can’t replace Harden), but I can’t see them getting out of the Western Conference. There are too many younger, more talented teams like the Thunder, Clippers, Grizzlies, and Nuggets for an aging team to fight through and the experienced teams like the Spurs, Heat, and Celtics have talent just as good if not better. If the rules are changed to allow the Lakers 30-plus year old superstars to bring their scrapbooks on the court with them, I may have to revise my prediction.