But with the Heat coming off three straight Finals appearances and two straight titles, the Lakers’ back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010 seem like a distant memory.
So much has changed within the Lakers organization since 2010 -- Phil Jackson’s retirement, Mike Brown’s dismissal, Mike D’Antoni’s hiring, Dr. Jerry Buss’ death, Dwight Howard’s departure, Kobe Bryant’s torn Achilles, etc. -- but perhaps the most dramatic is that a team that once defined itself by the precepts of Jackson's triangle offense now finds itself playing so-called "small ball."
While it might seem as if the Lakers, like many other teams, are mimicking Miami's championship approach, the Heat are actually playing in the style that D’Antoni introduced to the league when he coached the Phoenix Suns a decade ago.
“Miami took it to another level,” D’Antoni said after practice Wednesday at the American Airlines Arena. “Now, they got the best [execution of the style]. You win two titles and of course you have LeBron [James] and those guys too and [Heat coach] Erik [Spoelstra] does a great job. So, it is a copycat league and when you win something and you do it that way, a lot of people come that way.”
While the league has embraced D’Antoni’s philosophy, he’s had less luck getting the Lakers locker room to fully embrace it.
"It's more of a finesse game," Bryant said Monday in Chicago when asked how the NBA has changed for the worse in his 18 years in the league."It's more small ball, which, personally, I don't really care much for.”
Pau Gasol echoed Bryant’s stance Wednesday.
“I’m not a big fan of having a small forward playing the power forward position,” said Gasol. “But, it’s kind of evolved to that and most teams do that. I don’t know if it’s a lack of big men or just a style that has been implemented and it’s worked for some teams and teams try to kind of match up to it. But I’ve always been more of a fan of two bigs that can dominate the paint, can pound teams and take advantage of their size if you do have it. If you don’t have it, then you do whatever you can. That’s just the reality of the league right now.”
D’Antoni, who said at his introductory press conference with the Lakers last season that posting up is the “least efficient play in basketball,” argued that his system still accommodates big men, as long as those big men have the same well-rounded game as the guards they play with.
“I don’t think there is a shortage of bigs,” said D’Antoni. “I think the bigs are much more skilled and now you have [Dirk] Nowitzki, you never had a Nowitzki -- a 7-footer who could shoot 3s. And Kevin Durant is 6-11, I want to say four inches taller than [former Celtics center] Dave Cowens. You know, stuff like that.
"The bigs are so versatile now that when they call it ‘small ball,’ I think that’s a misnomer. It’s not small ball, 7-footers run it, so it’s not small ball. What it is is ‘skilled ball.’ You spread the floor and people move and you play a different style. But the best type is still big brutes that are skilled and I think we have more skilled guys in the league now than ever.”
The Heat, in a mini slump having lost four of its last seven games, makes the system work with the 6-11 Chris Bosh playing center, the 6-8 Shane Battier playing the stretch 4 and James, at 6-8, playing everything from the backcourt to the frontcourt to the point.
“They play small most of the time but they’re active and they kind of make up for that length and size,” said Gasol. “They’ve been effective the way they’ve been playing, back-to-back championships, there’s no way around it. This year, maybe they’re not dominating as much as they have and maybe they have been struggling a little bit as of late, but they still have a great squad.”
With Bryant and Steve Nash playing just 12 games total between them because of injuries this season, L.A. doesn’t have the talent that Miami does, but is nevertheless adhering to D’Antoni’s system, ranking third in the NBA in pace, using 97.2 possessions per game. The problem has been their efficiency. Possessions don’t matter all that much unless you convert them. Miami is second in the league in offensive efficiency, averaging 109 points per 100 possessions. The Lakers are 22nd, averaging 100.9.
Despite the diminishing returns for the 16-26 Lakers and the persistent wariness of guys like Bryant and Gasol, D’Antoni is sticking to what he believes in.
“Everybody likes something and you just try to get blends of what works,” D’Antoni said.
He admitted, however, that that blend is a whole lot easier to accomplish having a four-time MVP like James on your roster.
"If you have LeBron you can probably play any way you want to," said D'Antoni. "It doesn’t matter how you play."