Lakers showcase their imperfections in season-opening loss to Mavericks
By Rob Mahoney
With hyperbole ever in vogue and the rush to break new argumentative ground a priority, sports fans and media alike have generally agreed to disregard reason for the sake of a quick take.
But the NBA season won’t be determined by one game, and it’s certainly not a fair representation of what lies ahead for a team as overwhelmingly talented as the Lakers. Opening night taught us plenty about L.A., but even a loss this emphatic doesn’t offer any kind of declarative message. It’s more of a first look than an accurate baseline, and a chance to get a more concrete idea of what may be possible and what may go wrong.
What did go completely wrong in this particular game was the Lakers’ offense, though it was hardly the result of one specific flaw. The problem wasn’t the Princeton-inspired system that merely presents smart players with playmaking options, but rather a flurry of errors in execution and balance. Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard were all somewhat misused, which tends to be the case when a team institutes an offense with actual progressions rather than simple setups. The Lakers’ stars already have a grasp of where to be on the court, both through their instincts as players and preseason work. But learning how to read Princeton-style cuts is a different endeavor entirely, and that facility can only be acquired through in-game exposure.
Of course, it hardly helped matters that Nash was hounded at three-quarters court by quick, athletic guards virtually every time he brought up the ball. Read offenses don’t just need experienced practitioners — they need time. They wear down opponents by forcing them to make decision after decision after decision on defense, and then feast on the slightest defensive mistake. Sloppy and impatient play let an energetic Mavs defense off the hook, in a sense, but the fact that the Lakers were starting their sets with around 15 seconds on the shot clock took away a considerable systemic strength. Otherwise, there was actually a lot of good movement that came as a result of L.A.’s underlying flow. We saw stretches where the Lakers cleared the paint completely through cuts and passing, and others where they worked seamlessly from high pick-and-rolls into deep catches for Howard in the post. But those more promising possessions were often offset by stagnant side pick-and-rolls and the rigidity of an offense just recently dropped upon a highly talented roster. It’s only a matter of time before things start coming together in L.A.; the Lakers are finding a balance of play-calling and role distribution that best makes sense for this collection of players, and that kind of equilibrium just can’t be established on paper.
In the frontcourt, we can put the token claim of an incompatibility between Howard and Pau Gasol to rest. Over the course of a single summer, many apparently forgot that Gasol and Andrew Bynum had an interesting on-court chemistry last season; the balance of the Lakers’ offense was far from perfect, but per NBA.com, Los Angeles outscored its opponents by 3.4 points per 100 possessions with both bigs on the floor, relative to just 1.7 points on average for the season. Gasol assisted on almost 14 percent of Bynum’s made field goals over the course of the season — the highest mark on the team. Gasol appears to have ported that chemistry over to Howard, finding the Lakers’ prized center for lobs and feeds at every opportunity.
Yet some of those lobs only contributed to Howard’s frustration, as the Mavs spared no effort nor physicality in halting his attempts around the rim. The fouls piled up, as did the free throws, but Howard finished a miserable 3-of-14 from the line to anchor a marvelously inaccurate 12-of-31 night by the Lakers overall. Under that weight, along with the annoyance of other fouls not called and a limiting lack of stamina, Howard’s composure crumbled. He forced shots. He complained to the officials incessantly. And most damaging of all: he struggled considerably on defense and was frequently late getting back in transition.
Dallas’ offensive game plan was obvious, as it was the only one afforded the team in the absence of Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Kaman: run. Darren Collison and Rodrigue Beaubois pushed the ball at every opportunity, and Dallas sustained itself on primary and secondary fast breaks. What wasn’t there on the first push opened up on the second, be it through trailing three-point shooters, an extra pass or a defensive oversight. The Mavericks challenged the Lakers to keep up, and Howard and his teammates struggled to do so. At one point, the slowed, 33-year-old Elton Brand plodded ahead of Howard and the entire Lakers team on a fast break, and he would have had an uncontested look if not for Howard’s flagrant counter. Just to put things in perspective: The points earned on that single transition play matched Brand’s entire fast break output for the month of April last season, per Synergy Sports Technology. This was a perfect storm of transition breakdowns for the Lakers, and one that even the slowest Maverick (well, save Eddy Curry) could exploit.
The Lakers’ defensive struggles hardly stopped there. Gasol and Jordan Hill both did regrettable work in defending the pick-and-roll, and one can’t help but wonder if they were relying a bit too heavily on a Howard rescue. The general idea of blitzing opposing ball-handlers is a helpful one, especially with Nash giving up a few strides of foot-speed to Collison. But Gasol and Hill were both consistently guilty of late recovery in those situations, and thus put Howard in a horrible defensive position.
Those problems were only magnified when L.A. went to its bench. As admirable as it was that the Mavs were able to hang with a star-studded Lakers frontline, their biggest runs of the game — a 12-2 burst at the start of the second to take the lead, and a 14-4 run early in the fourth to preserve it — came against the Lakers’ much-maligned reserves. In both situations, Howard was left on the floor with a bench platoon of Hill, Antawn Jamison, Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks, sorting through all kinds of defensive concessions without much familiarity. That’s a tall order even for an all-world center, much less one playing 38 minutes in his first real game action since early April. Mike Brown will need to take a long, hard look at his substitution patterns over the next few weeks, because something in this mix clearly isn’t quite right.
And honestly, the punchlines regarding Brown’s coaching work can wait. He may not be the most creative offensive mind, but he tends to get the most out of limited defensive players and knows not to overburden talented players with structure. He understands the skills of these players well enough to get things on-course quickly, no matter how clueless he may look in his TNT reaction shots. This is a team due for correction, and Brown isn’t in over his head. He and the Lakers need a moment to sort through some of their weaknesses and previous assumptions before more fully capitalizing on their tantalizing potential.