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Los Angeles Lakers: Dwight Howard
In the lead-up to Thursday's game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets, however, all the focus was about a single player, Dwight Howard, and not the teams involved.
And then the game happened and Steve Blake, the Lakers' eighth-leading scorer through the first five games, was the guy to play the hero, hitting a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer over the outstretched arms of Howard with 1.3 seconds left to lift L.A. to the thrilling 99-98 victory.
Hoops is just a funny game that way. Sure, everyone will remember LeBron James' consecutive Finals MVPs from the past two years when they talk about his career long after he's retired, but Mike Miller was the star of Miami's clinching game in 2012 and Shane Battier couldn't miss from 3 in Game 7 of the Finals in 2013.
Great players are considered great for a reason. On any given night they can take over and carry the rest of their guys, but what turns a collection of players into a unbreakable unit is when those other guys carry the great players every once in a while.
And when you rely too much on one player? He can let you down. The Lakers learned that lesson last season when they had what Mike D'Antoni described as an All-Star lineup and about as much cohesion as the real All-Star teams have when they're slapped together for a weekend every February.
The Rockets, the team considered loaded with talent compared to L.A.'s ragamuffin roster, learned it in the loss. Howard isn't actually Superman. Put him on the free throw line, where he went 5-of-12 in the fourth quarter when D'Antoni resorted to Hack-a-Howard.
On a night that was built up to be about the Lakers seeking revenge against Howard for leaving their franchise in the dust or about Howard seeking justification for his decision, it was L.A.'s team performance that was the story.
After storming into Houston, shutting down Dwight Howard for most of the game, making virtually every 3-point shot they took for half of the game and spreading the ball around enough to put six players in double figures, the wheels came off in the fourth.
James Harden scored seven of his 35 points and the Lakers were shooting just 5-for-21 in the final frame, turning a four-point lead after three into a two-point deficit with 3.4 seconds left when Jodie Meeks inbounded it to Blake on the left wing. Blake immediately let it fly from 3 over the outstretched arms of, appropriately, Howard, and the Lakers won the game.
At times the game was as ugly as a Howard free throw (he went 5-for-16 from the line, by the way), but the Lakers were able to find a way to pull out their first road win of the season against Howard and a good team in the Rockets.
How it happened: Just like in the San Antonio game (which they lost) and the Atlanta game (which they won), the Lakers got up big in the first half by 19 points but let the lead disappear. And just like at Golden State and in Dallas, the Lakers looked dead in the water in the fourth quarter on the road. But this time, L.A. found a way to win.
What it means: The Lakers proved they have it in them to come back down the stretch, despite not having a true superstar to turn to, what with Kobe Bryant sidelined.
Hits: Blake, the hero of the night, finished with 14 points on 4-for-6 shooting from 3.
Meeks kept up his resurgent season, scoring 18 points on 6-for-9 shooting, including 5-for-7 from 3.
Meeks contributed to the Lakers' bench getting it done again, as the reserves scored 54 of the Lakers' 99 points.
Howard struggled mightily against his former teammates, scoring just 15 points on 5-for-10 shooting and he even scored a bucket for L.A. while battling Wesley Johnson for a rebound. He did have 14 rebounds.
Misses: Xavier Henry came into the game as L.A.'s second-leading scorer averaging 12.4 points. Not only did he lose his stating role to Nick Young, he lost his mojo, going 1-for-5 from the field for three points to go with three fouls and a bonehead play or two (not protecting the ball and getting stripped at halfcourt by Harden comes to mind).
Pau Gasol had just two points on 1-for-10 shooting.
Stat of the game: 11-for-14 (78.6 percent). That's what the Lakers shot from 3 in the first half, accounting for more than half of their 64 points and causing Rockets' general manager Daryl Morey to send out this very self-aware (and humorous) tweet: "My analytics say that if they shoot 80% on 3 point shots we will not win."
Up next: L.A. closes out its three-game trip on the second night of a back-to-back in New Orleans on Friday.
But reunions have a funny way of forcing you to deal with old emotions and lingering issues.
So for one night at least, Dwight Howard and the Lakers will go back to talking about all of the things they grew tired of talking about last season. All of the chemistry issues the best team money could buy never resolved. All of the "what ifs" and "why nots" that everyone involved just has to live with and learn from now.
Could things have been different? Was there anything anyone could have done to change the outcome?
Howard was in Los Angeles earlier this week to play the Los Angeles Clippers, returning to Staples Center for the first time since his season came to a frustrating, tearful end when the Lakers were swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the playoffs. A season that had begun with championship aspirations, a season in which Howard consistently battled pain and injury (he had preseason back surgery and suffered a torn labrum midway through the season), had ended in crushing disappointment and inevitable regret.
Now, his Houston Rockets host the Lakers for the first time since he decided to leave.
When the Lakers made their previous trip to Houston, in early January, Howard was just two days removed from suffering the torn labrum. He watched from the bench and saw the Rockets erase a 14-point first-quarter deficit en route to a 125-112 runaway victory.
He saw James Harden come out on top of the individual matchup with Kobe Bryant, dropping 31 points, 9 assists and 6 rebounds on 11-for-19 shooting to Bryant's 20, 7 and 5 on 8-for-22.
He saw 6-foot-9, 24-year-old Chandler Parsons fill up the stat sheet with 20 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, a block and a steal.
He saw Jeremy Lin excite the crowd with his boundless energy and joy for the game.
And he saw Kevin McHale, one of the best big men of all time, on the sideline presiding over it all.
There were his future teammates. There was his future coach. You have to wonder, did Howard know right then and there where he wanted to be? When he heard Steve Nash tell reporters after the game, "I definitely don't think there's a guarantee" that the Lakers would ever get it together with the group they had, did he silently nod his head in agreement?
The Lakers brought Mike D'Antoni, Bryant and Nash to their pitch meeting to try to keep Howard in L.A., but they did not connect, and he chose to leave for Houston and a four-year, $88 million contract.
Howard hasn’t spoken to most of his former teammates since choosing Houston, telling reporters this week that the Lakers he still talks to are Jodie Meeks, Jordan Hill and Robert Sacre.
"I wanted him to come back," Meeks said. "He was a great teammate, but at the end of the day, I didn't want him to come back if he wasn't going to be happy. I wanted it to be good for both parties. He's where he wants to be."
Limited by injuries and unsettled in his role in the Lakers' offense, Howard often seemed uncomfortable in L.A. and sometimes pressed to be thought of as the franchise centerpiece. When Lakers security personnel carried Bryant’s bags on road trips, for example, Howard would demand the same treatment, as if he envied the longtime star’s status.
On practice days, Howard had his driver keep the engine running on his blue Maybach outside the team facility in El Segundo, as if he had somewhere else to be. "There's probably a hole in the ozone layer right above El Segundo because of him," one source said.
"It got a little bit sideways, I think, for everybody," D'Antoni said. "Not saying who's at fault, who isn't. I don't think he was completely healthy and there was a lot of pressure on them. Right from the beginning, they thought championship or bust, and he wasn't healthy. Now all of the sudden, starting in the preseason, you lose eight preseason games, you go 1-3 at the first [games of the regular season] and now it's like, 'Oh, shoot.'
"For everybody concerned, nobody left it just to mature into what it should have been and it never got there -- for all kinds of reasons. It's too bad. He's obviously a great player, but now, let's turn the page and let's go on. No use crying over spilled milk, it just happens."
On Thursday, an injured Bryant will have the courtside seat. You have to wonder, will he watch Howard and Harden lead the Rockets and think of what might have been?
DALLAS -- The rims in the American Airlines Center have microphones attached to them with the volume turned up to ungodly levels to accentuate every "THWACK" of a swish or "THUNK" of a miss, with the sounds echoing through the arena.
Let's just say there were a lot of thunks for the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday as L.A. shot just 44.3 percent en route to a 19-point blowout loss to the Dallas Mavericks.
Enough to maybe hear the clanks some 1,400 miles away back in Hollywood. Enough to leave Lakers fans silent with their own thoughts after a relatively promising 2-2 start to the season was erased by a real clunker.
But the even worse effort was on defense. The Lakers let Dallas run all over them as the Mavs shot 52.1 percent from the field, hit 13 3-pointers and Monta Ellis dropped in a game-high 30 points himself.
There has been so much talk in recent days about how the Lakers would balance out their 11-man rotation to have a potent offensive team on the floor, but Tuesday was a stark reminder that none of that matters if L.A. can't find a way to defend.
How it happened: The Lakers fell behind by as many as 20 points in the first half as they were completely controlled on the boards (a 29-19 Dallas rebounding edge, including seven on the offensive glass) and went to the locker room down 67-48. It got worse from there. The Mavs pushed the lead to 30 in the third and while L.A. went on a minor 17-4 run to end the quarter, it was never a game in the fourth.
What it means: The road blues are back for the purple and gold. After starting last season 1-5 on the road and the season before that 1-7, the Lakers have a new look this season but the same old problems stumbling out of the gate away from Staples Center. Not only have they lost both those games, but both were embarrassments with the Golden State Warriors winning by 31 and the Mavs winning by 19. There was already going to be enough pressure on the Lakers to win their home games while Kobe Bryant was out to keep their head above water, but if they can't even show up with competitive efforts on the road they'll be in big trouble real quick.
Hits: Nick Young, who boldly proclaimed he was going for NBA Sixth Man of the Year after losing his starting role to Xavier Henry over the weekend, led L.A. with 21 points on 8-for-12 shooting off the bench.
Misses: Henry scored only five points on 2-for-8 shooting.
There were a lot of misses, frankly. Henry can't be singled out as the only one responsible.
Stat of the game: 72-32. The amount the Lakers' starters were outscored by their bench.
Up next: It's Dwight Howard time. The Lakers finish up their three-game trip with a back-to-back against Howard and the Houston Rockets on Thursday and the New Orleans Pelicans and their frightening mascot on Friday.
Dwight Howard is way too good of a basketball player to suggest that some sort of addition by subtraction might happen with the Los Angeles Lakers now that he's in Houston. He was hurt all of last season and never felt comfortable with the organization or his teammates. But it really hasn't been that long since he was a defensive monster and legitimate MVP candidate. So stop that clichéd addition-by-subtraction talk. You don't just lose a talent like that and not feel it.
There is, though, something to the notion that the Lakers will be better in some areas without him. Pau Gasol, as you can already see from his limited preseason action, is going to start looking a lot more like the guy who won two NBA titles with the Lakers, and not the miscast stretch-forward who was forcibly demoted as a focal point of the offense to accommodate Andrew Bynum and then Howard.
And Chris Kaman, the Lakers' unheralded consolation prize after losing Howard in free agency, might be the key to it all.
Yes, you read that correctly. Kaman might be the key to it all. Because what Kaman embodies is exactly the way the Lakers will be different this season without Howard.
They won't be as fast or quick or talented. But they will be more flexible. They will do things they may not want to do, and play roles they're not accustomed to.
Kaman isn't the perfect fit for a system like D'Antoni's by any stretch of the imagination. He's neither explosive nor exciting. Howard was supposed to be the bigger, badder version of the Phoenix-era Amar'e Stoudemire. A guy like Kaman would presumably be the last person you'd cast to play in an up-tempo, high-scoring attack like the one D'Antoni's teams normally use. But you know what? He's willing to try it. Heck, he's eager to try it.
"I'm flexible," Kaman said after scoring 12 points and grabbing seven rebounds in the Lakers' 90-88 exhibition win over the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night at Citizens Business Bank Arena. "I can post up. I can shoot the ball. I can set a ball screen. I can pass the ball. I have good, well-rounded basketball knowledge and skills. I'm not like a superstar, but I'd like to think I do a decent job out there."
"I think that's a good indication of how much liberty and how much my teammates also trust me to make plays and make shots and then, when the defense collapses, find them," Gasol said after the game.
It was also a far cry from last season, when he was often positioned at the elbow to create space for Howard, while Bryant was left cajoling Gasol to buck the system for his own benefit.
"He tells me to run to the post, take [position] and screw everything else," Gasol said last season, sharing Bryant's message to him.
Now, it's sanctioned by coach Mike D'Antoni, too.
"I don't want to run to it all the time, but a good portion of the game, I want to be able to operate from that position and make plays," Gasol said.
Even Nick Young, who hardly ever sees a shot he doesn't take (he has had 25 shot attempts in 45 minutes through the first two preseason games), knows that getting Gasol involved is part of the plan.
"Of course, we got to feed that big man, Pau," Young said. "Let him go to work."
Steve Nash, who should have the ball in his hands more this season deciding where it will go, spoke about the importance of going to Gasol.
"He’s going to be very central to what we do," Nash said. "He’s somebody that we want to run the offense through a lot -- get him in pick-and-rolls, get him on the post, get him on the elbow -- and have him involved and be a threat as much as possible."
“We were stacked and it was an epic failure,” said Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist and Lakers super fan, Flea, in a recent podcast with LandOLakers.com. “For me, it was the most disappointing Lakers season of all time and not even close to any other season.”
I know what that life’s all about, having grown up as a Philadelphia sports fan. Losing and frustration and disappointment come with the territory.
If I went into every season with a championship-or-bust mentality as a fan, I would have given up watching sports a long time ago and probably would be really into cooking shows and have some random additional skill, like being able to play the piano.
But, I kept watching and I keep watching. And even though there’s been only one Philadelphia championship in my lifetime (the 2008 Phillies) and I have that Jerry West in me where I hate to lose more than I love to win, I have conditioned myself to still be able to find enjoyment as a fan in a season, even if there is no ring at the end.
Now, the Lakers have 16 championships in their history, compared to just five for the three major pro sports teams in Philly (three for the 76ers, two for the Phillies and zero Super Bowl wins for the Eagles I’m not an ice hockey guy). So that fact alone might naturally lower my expectations. But is being a Lakers fan all about rooting for rings and nothing else?
What if those expectations were removed? What if you forgot about the history for a second and, instead of focusing solely on the team’s quest for No. 17 or Kobe Bryant’s fight for No. 6, you took in each game for what it is? What if a loss in January wasn’t a referendum on how the team could potentially perform in June, but rather something the team could learn from in February?
Take my Eagles, for instance. Have you seen them under Chip Kelly? I came into this season thinking that an 8-8 record would be pretty much their ceiling after a dreadful 4-12 mark last season. Two weeks into it and they’re 1-1, so that’s right in step with my instincts. But there is nothing mediocre or ho-hum about how they got to 1-1. If I wanted to view everything in the specter of their Super Bowl chances, then I could focus on how they almost let a 26-point lead disappear against Washington and how they were 7.5-point favorites at Lincoln Financial Field in Week 2 and lost to San Diego.
But if I forget about Lombardi for a second, I can appreciate what’s going on here. Back-to-back 30-point games? Last season, the Eagles scored 30 or more in just one game all season -- a 38-33 loss to the Dallas Cowboys. LeSean McCoy putting up 184 running yards in Week 1, Michael Vick collecting 428 passing yards in Week 2 and DeSean Jackson hauling in 297 receiving yards over two games? This is silly stuff. And wildly entertaining. And all I could ask for as a fan.
So, how about it, Lakers fans? What if Mike D’Antoni gets these guys to reach the 110-115 points per game that he promised at his introductory news conference? What if there is chemistry and growth and a few upsets along the way -- both from the Lakers beating a team or two that are better than them and falling to a few inferior opponents?
The knee-jerk reaction from some of you I’m sure will be, “Well, we had ‘Showtime’ already AND we won.” And you’d be right on both counts. But even though this season’s Lakers will be wearing the same purple and gold uniforms as those teams from the 1980s, everything else has changed in the NBA they’ll be competing in. You can still honor the past without making it an unrealistic standard you hold the present to. Plus, it’s all about context. Comparing this aging Bryant/Steve Nash/Pau Gasol-led team to Magic Johnson/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar/James Worthy in their prime isn’t a fair fight. But comparing it to the squad that had an injured, unhappy Dwight Howard on it last season? Or to the team that slogged up and down the court under Brown? It would have to be better than that, right?
I called up Paul Coro, who covers the Phoenix Suns for the Arizona Republic and got on the beat one month after D’Antoni got the job as head coach of the Suns. How did Phoenix fans accept the 7 Seconds or Less era?
“When he took over the team, [there] was kind of free rein because there wasn’t any expectations,” Coro said. “Everything about it was great. They were winning beyond anybody’s imagination. They were doing it in a way that was innovative and thoroughly entertaining. It just blew people away how much fun it was. Immediately, they had big crowds -- sellouts early in the season. I think they ended up starting a sellout streak that carried on for a few years. It was nothing for them to be up in the 110-120 [point range].”
Albeit the Suns have never won it all, having lost to the Chicago Bulls in the 1993 Finals and to the Boston Celtics in 1976, so you could say that they never knew what it was like to root for a championship team like L.A. The point is, though, that those D'Antoni Suns teams were worth it for the fans. They were memorable. They were thrilling. They were fun.
A healthy Bryant, Nash and Gasol, with additional playmaking from guys like Nick Young, Jordan Farmar, Wes Johnson and Steve Blake, plus Jordan Hill and Chris Kaman playing big down low and Jodie Meeks and Ryan Kelly or Shawne Williams spreading the floor outside can be fun, too.
I'm excited about watching the next Eagles game. Do I think this will be the best season ever for the Birds? Nope. But they could surprise me. It's a nice feeling.
Wouldn't it be nice to feel that way about the Lakers again?
Will the Lakers make the playoffs this season?
It’s a key question of the offseason, but it’s one usually answered with more questions. Is Kobe Bryant healthy? Is he the same Kobe? Are Pau Gasol and Steve Nash actually on the floor? Is Phil Jackson involved somehow?
With so many unknowns, the consensus has been that the Lakers will miss out on the postseason this year. In a recent ESPN.com panel, the Lakers were not only pegged to miss the playoffs, but were ranked 12th in the Western Conference.
It seems a little unsettling -- particularly to Kobe -- if only because the shift from known entity to wildcard happened so quickly. While it’s difficult to predict where a team with so many question marks will finish, we can look at the precedent set by teams of a similar makeup and style.
Healthy or not, maybe the only thing that’s safe to assume right now is that the Lakers will be a below average defensive team.
The first (and biggest) reason for that is the loss of Dwight Howard. Although he was far from the one-man defensive anchor he was in his Orlando days, Howard still had a positive impact defensively last season, as the Lakers allowed 5 more points per 100 possessions when Howard was off the floor than they did when he was on the floor. Last year was a poor defensive effort by Howard’s standards, but it was still among the league’s best.
Maybe losing a great defensive player could be overcome on its own, but let’s not forget that the Lakers ranked 20th in defensive efficiency last season with Howard. It’s also tough to ignore that Mike D’Antoni has only coached one above-average defensive team (better than 15th in defensive efficiency) in ten seasons, or that Pau Gasol and Steve Nash are both now a year older. New additions Nick Young and Chris Kaman aren’t exactly renowned for their defensive prowess, either.
Add all that up, and it would be somewhat of a miracle for the Lakers to finish above 15th in defensive efficiency this season. Assuming that miracle doesn’t happen, where does that leave the Purple and Gold?
A look at the offensive and defensive efficiency marks for the playoff teams of the last decade is a good starting point.
After two and a half solid seasons in Philadelphia, where Meeks established himself as a valued contributor on playoff teams, the sweet-shooting guard signed with L.A. at a discount with the hopes of winning a ring.
While he witnessed his teammates go down left and right with injuries as the season wore on, Meeks fortunately avoided any health problems. With Kobe Bryant out with a torn Achilles tendon, it was Meeks who was on the court at shooting guard in Bryant's place in the regular-season finale against the Houston Rockets, driving baseline and throwing down a game-sealing dunk in overtime to secure L.A. the seventh seed in the postseason.
But whoever was holding the purple and gold Voodoo doll spared Meeks only for so long. He suffered a third-degree sprain in his left ankle in the Lakers' opening playoff loss to the San Antonio Spurs, ending his season three games sooner than his team did after the Lakers' decimated roster was swept by the Spurs.
"It was really bad timing," Meeks told ESPNLosAngeles.com in a phone interview from his offseason home in Atlanta on Monday. "I was very frustrated just because, selfishly, I was like, ‘Man, I can get as many shots as I want now and I can’t even play.’
"I felt like it was a good opportunity for me to kind of showcase what I could do on a more productive level because the guys were hurt."
As this upcoming season approaches, all Meeks wants is that opportunity again.
On Thursday night at the Nokia Theatre, there was an event called Kobe Up Close. The details: Jimmy Kimmel was going to interview Kobe Bryant for an hour, they were selling tickets for anywhere from $25 to $200, and all proceeds went to fight homelessness through Kobe and Vanessa Bryant's charity organization, which is partnering with Cedars-Sinai Medical Center to help serve underprivileged families in Los Angeles.
Here's a quick breakdown:
The Lakers tip things off playing in one of the three nationally televised games on opening night, Oct. 29, at home against the Clippers. They go upstate to play the Warriors the very next day, the first of 19 back-to-backs on the season. L.A. comes back to Staples Center for their next two games, hosting the San Antonio Spurs on the Nov. 1 and then the Atlanta Hawks on Nov. 3.
The Lakers travel to Houston to face off against Dwight Howard and the Rockets on Nov. 7 in just their sixth game of the season. You think that will give Kobe Bryant any motivation to be ready to play by late October? Howard will return to L.A. to hear the boo-birds on Feb. 19 in the Lakers' first game after the All-Star break.
Former Lakers head coach Mike Brown (along with Earl Clark and Andrew Bynum, if he's healthy) will come to town on Jan. 14 when the Lakers host the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Lakers also travel to Cleveland on Feb. 5 in the middle game of a three-game trip that ends Feb. 7 in Philadelphia when Bryant will have yet another Philly homecoming.
Metta World Peace will surely receive a warm welcome from Lakers fans on March 25 when he returns to L.A. with the Knicks on March 25.
The Lakers will get their first look at Brian Shaw coaching the Nuggets on Nov. 13 (the first of two times next season when the Lakers play the second night of a back-to-back in the Denver altitude) and Shaw and Co. come to L.A. on Jan. 5.
The Lakers host LeBron James and the two-time defending champion Miami Heat on Christmas Day and foam fingers probably won't be handed out at the door this time. The game is at 2 p.m. PT on ABC. The Lakers play in Miami on Jan. 23.
They go to OKC to play Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook (and Derek Fisher) on Dec. 13 and play the Thunder in a rare home-road two game series on March 9 in L.A. and March 13 in Oklahoma City.
Their annual trip to the Mecca of Basketball at Madison Square Garden is Jan. 26 when they face World Peace and the Knicks and L.A. goes to the place that has been a thorn in its side for the last decade -- the Rose Garden in Portland -- on March 3.
L.A. plays the Clippers on three other occasions after opening night -- Jan. 14 ("road" game), March 6 and April 6 (another "road" game). They travel to play the stripped-down Boston Celtics on Jan. 17 and the guys in green come to L.A. on Feb. 21.
The Lakers' longest road trip is seven games -- at Phoenix, Boston, Toronto, Chicago, Miami, Orlando and New York -- spanning from Jan. 15-26. Their second-longest is a four-game trip through Oklahoma City, Charlotte, Atlanta and Memphis from Dec. 13-17.
The Lakers have a brutal six-game stretch to close out the regular season, which could prove challenging if they find themselves on the playoff bubble. It starts with a road game against the Clippers, followed by three games at home against Houston, Golden State and Memphis and ends up on the road in Utah and in San Antonio.
The Los Angeles Lakers’ pitch to try to convince Dwight Howard to stay started long before billboards sprung up around L.A.
Some six months before the billboards appeared, in positioning Howard as the franchise's future, the Lakers put Pau Gasol in the past, and often, on the bench.
“We did have a free-agent market last year we had to be aware of, and you make certain arguments based on the future,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni told ESPNLosAngeles.com. “Whether they’re right or wrong, that’s the reality of it, and we went that way, but it was never meant to be a slight to (Gasol) or never meant to be that he was the cause of our problems.”
While health certainly had something to do with it -- Gasol’s knees, feet and head (a concussion) caused him to miss 33 games last season -- Gasol was aware of the ground shifting beneath him as the Lakers gravitated towards Howard.
“It was at times frustrating because of the reality of that specific situation,” Gasol told ESPNLosAngeles.com in a phone interview from Barcelona. “Obviously the franchise wanted Dwight to stay and everyone, or a lot of people, tried to make him comfortable and please him at times.”
Now, with Howard out of the picture, the Lakers’ Plan B is to go back to Plan A and make Gasol the team’s primary option down low.
“There was just a lot of factors last year that won’t come up this year,” D’Antoni said. “I even told (Gasol), you make decisions based a lot of times on the future that probably, if you were just doing the competitive, basketball thing, the decision would have been something else.”
The decision going forward, at least for next season (with Gasol in the last year of his contract and the Lakers set to pay him $19.3 million), is to go back to orbiting around the four-time All-Star.
“I expect him to have the best year he’s ever had coming up,” D’Antoni recently told ESPN LA 710 radio.
Whether that’s just lip service or not may be up to Gasol.
“I’m excited about next season,” said Gasol, who is still recovering from the procedures he underwent in May to alleviate tendinosis in both of his knees. “I’m going to work really hard to get myself in the best shape that I can and hopefully my body will react well. The main thing is if I can start healthy and stay healthy. And the rest, with my skill set and the team that we have, everything will happen well. But, it’s just a matter of being healthy and wanting it and working hard. I’m committed to having a great year and I hope our team, we have a great year together. So, great expectations for next season individually and also collectively.”
He’ll have the starting point guard, Steve Nash, on his side to help those expectations from going the way of Dickens’ Pip.
“I thought the games that Pau and I played together where Dwight didn’t play, I thought we really played well together and the offense really flowed,” Nash told ESPNLosAngeles.com. “So, I’m not concerned about that. That’s going to be great.”
Despite the Lakers being swept out of the playoffs to end last season, Gasol was playing his best basketball of the season at the finish. Gasol shot 50 percent or better from the floor in eight of the Lakers’ last 11 games in the regular season (L.A. went 9-2), and he registered three triple-doubles in a six-game span from April 12-26, becoming the first NBA big man to do so since Chris Webber had three in five games in Feb. 2005, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
“To me, it worked well when we started playing a little more inside-out instead of outside-in,” Gasol said. “One, we slowed the game down a little bit adjusting more to our personnel and our roster and then when there was better ball movement, whether if it was through the post or through the elbow or pick-and-rolls, when there was better ball movement we played better and our defense was better. We had better defensive balance, and things worked out better, so it is something we need to keep in mind.”
D’Antoni said next season he plans to go through Gasol down low, to give him opportunities at the elbow where he’s “devastating” and to have him run pick-and-rolls where Gasol can either receive the pass for his own scoring play or be positioned to make the next pass -- ideally, either a kickout or a lob -- to find an open teammate.
The coach also thinks that Gasol and newly acquired center Chris Kaman will be a natural fit together in the starting lineup.
“I just see them kind of blending in together pretty easily,” D’Antoni said. “A lot easier than it was last year (with Howard), let’s put it that way.”
Now, after three coaches in the past three seasons and after being bumped in the pecking order for both Howard and Andrew Bynum, Gasol will take up the task of reminding everyone that he can be more than just one of the game's most skilled big men.
"You don’t get to be one of the best by just being talented or skilled," Gasol said. "There’s certain things you also need to do in the game defensively, being physical and decisive out there. Being a presence. Those things are also very important. Talent and skill don’t mean that much if you don’t play as hard as you can or you don’t do other things because there are a lot of talented players in the league.
"To be one of the best, that’s actually what I’m going to work for again."
You may have heard about Steve Nash “trying out” for Inter Milan, the Italian soccer powerhouse competing, along with seven other teams, in the Guinness International Champions Cup starting next week. The tryout, which isn’t a real tryout, is among many promotional events scheduled in the lead-up to the tournament.
Nash sat down for an extended one-on-one with Grantland a few hours before the tryout to discuss his basketball philosophy, the Lakers’ future, the Spurs’ near championship, Dwight Howard, and lots more. What follows is an edited transcript of our chat.
Full interview »
That’s what the Los Angeles Lakers are trying to find out.
Gone is their best rim protector in Dwight Howard, off to Houston. Gone, too, is their best perimeter stopper in Metta World Peace, off to New York.
Now the Lakers will find out if less is more.
Not that L.A.’s defense was any good with the services of the three-time defensive player of the year in Howard and one-time DPOY winner in World Peace, anyway. The Lakers were tied with Brooklyn for 18th in the league in defensive efficiency, allowing opponents to score 103.6 points per 100 possessions. Even with Howard patrolling the paint, L.A. ranked 22nd in the league in opponents’ field goal percentage inside of five feet, according to NBA.com Stats Cube (59.8 percent), and even with World Peace’s notoriously quick left hand, the Lakers were 26th in steals per game, generating just 7.0 a night.
“Their defense never really gave them a chance to win,” newly hired Lakers assistant coach Kurt Rambis told ESPNLosAngeles.com. “It was very erratic at best. In a lot of ways, when you bring in a lot of players from a lot of different systems, it takes awhile to get everybody connected and on the same page, how you have to defend a myriad of offensive NBA sets and you have to defend talented offensive people, it takes all five guys. They’ve got to be connected, and they’ve got to make the correct decisions at the correct time, and for the Lakers last year, it was clear that they just never really got connected on that end of the floor.
“You could see throughout most of their games, guys would turn their palms up to the sky, and it was like, ‘Is that my responsibility? Is that your responsibility? Who was supposed to do what?’ So, we’ve got to do a much better job of getting them so they can cover each others’ backs at that end of the floor.”
The reason that Rambis is back with the Lakers is not only because the team lost its two most talented defenders in Howard and World Peace, but because it lost its two most defensive-minded assistant coaches in Chuck Person, whose contract was not renewed, and Steve Clifford, who became the head coach in Charlotte.
Rambis, who assumed a defensive coordinator-type role in the final two seasons of his last run with the Lakers when Phil Jackson was head coach, said that Mike D’Antoni isn’t giving him the same label.
“(D’Antoni) said that all assistant coaches will be involved in all areas in our initial conversation,” Rambis explained. “Not that we have etched everything in stone, but to come back as a defensive coordinator, you can talk to Mike about whether there’s going to be any sort of designation on that. By my understanding, there isn’t going to be, but he just kind of wants all of the gaps to be covered so everybody is responsible for working with players and being involved in practices and being involved with games. But to have myself associated with the defense, that means that area is going to be covered.”
The Lakers have had a precipitous decline on the defensive end. After they held the Boston Celtics to just 79 points on 40.8 percent shooting in their Game 7 win in the 2010 Finals, their last three playoff appearances have ended in ugly fashion. First the Dallas Mavericks shot a blistering 46.2 percent on 3-pointers during a four-game sweep in 2011, amid Andrew Bynum decrying the team’s “trust issues” on the defensive end. Then the Oklahoma City Thunder scored 100 or more in three of their four wins against L.A. in their 2012 second-round series. Finally, in last season's first-round sweep by San Antonio, the Spurs shot a combined 53.0 percent from the floor in Games 2-4 after figuring out the Lakers' D that held them to just 37.6 percent shooting in Game 1 of the series.
“They never got connected defensively,” Rambis said of the 2012-13 season.