D’Antoni’s sky-high scoring goal for Lakers will be tough to achieve
By Ben Golliver
By all accounts, new Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni handily won his introductory press conference on Thursday. He was funny, self-deprecating, at ease, personable and had the look of an extraordinarily happy man who just had his dream job handed to him.
Flush with all that excitement and, by his own admission, under the influence of medication following a recent knee surgery, D’Antoni preached the message the masses wanted to hear: points, points, points, fun, fun, fun.
“If we’re not averaging 110 or 115 points per game, then we need to talk,” D’Antoni declared.
The underperforming outfit he’s taking over, of course, isn’t anywhere near that ballpark. Through Thursday, the Lakers were averaging 96.5 points per game, below league average, even with an above-average offensive efficiency. Their 19th-ranked pace and 20th-ranked three-point shooting percentage combine to cap out the raw points well below the new standard D’Antoni wants to meet.
Let’s quickly put that standard into context. The highest scoring team so far this season is the Heat, at 104.2 points per game. That mark is virtually identical to last year’s highest scoring team, the Nuggets, who finished the lockout-shortened season at 104.1 points per game. Only one team in the last five seasons has managed to average 110 points or more points, the 2009-10 Suns, who won 54 games under coach Alvin Gentry. Over the last 10 NBA seasons, a grand total of zero teams have averaged 112 points in a game, let alone the 115 points at the top of D’Antoni’s goal range. In case you were wondering, the 1992 Warriors, under coach Don Nelson, were the last team to top the 115 points per game threshold, averaging 118.7 points on their way to a 55-win win season.
To recap: D’Antoni expects his team, in a worst case scenario, to be the league’s highest scoring team by more than five points and to score more than all but one team in the last five years. In a best case scenario, he expects them to be the highest scoring team in the NBA over the last two decades. Already, that’s enough to wonder whether he consumed one too many pills on Thursday.
His 110 points per game goal isn’t coming from nowhere though. Three different times during his Phoenix tenure, in the era famously dubbed “Seven Seconds or Less”, D’Antoni’s teams averaged 110 or more points per game: 2004-05 (110.4), 2006-07 (110.2) and 2007-08 (110.1). The Suns advanced to the West finals in 2005. The 2005-2008 stretch was the golden years of D’Antoni’s coaching career. The Suns finished with an offense ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in efficiency all four years and they led the league in pace twice, never finishing lower than No. 4. This was D’Antoni’s unique philosophy come to its best fruition: push the pace, move the ball, put up elite efficiency numbers and run the other team off the court. Given the poor results from his first two seasons coaching, one with the Nuggets and in taking over the Suns in 2004 during midseason, and how his tenure with the Knicks flamed out, it’s no wonder he is nostalgic for those good times.
The obvious next question: can it be replicated with his current personnel? There’s a long list of reasons to believe that will be exceedingly difficult.
Let’s start with Nash, who should be the surest element in this equation. As mentioned, he continued D’Antoni’s high-scoring legacy into the first year of the Gentry era, and has been the engine behind four teams that averaged 110+ points in his career, and five others that topped 105 points or more. In the last 11 seasons, he’s led the NBA’s most efficient offense six times and finished second three other times. That’s extraordinary. The last two seasons, the Suns, who let Amar’e Stoudemire leave in free agency, just weren’t the same team. They slowed the pace noticeably, the team efficiency fell off, and last year was the first time since 1999 that a Nash team didn’t average more than 100 points a game, averaging just 98.4 points. The fall is clearly attributable to outside forces, but the takeaway is that Nash, who will turn 39 in February, was no longer a superhuman offensive force capable of overcoming those factors by himself. That, coupled with his leg injury in just the second game of this season, is cause for concern. Getting to the 110 points figure will require Nash replicating his 2005-2010 form.
Dwight Howard, meanwhile, will be in totally uncharted waters. Howard has never played for a team that’s averaged 105 points, much less 110, and he spent his last three seasons in Orlando playing at a below-average pace. Only once, in 2010, did he play for a team that finished in the top-5 in offensive efficiency, and that was due in large part to having the league’s fourth-best three-point shooting percentage, thanks to the likes of J.J. Redick, Rashard Lewis, Jameer Nelson, Jason Williams, Mickael Pietrus and Ryan Anderson all shooting 37 percent or better from deep. Only once, his rookie season, when Orlando went 36-46, did he play for a team that played at a top-5 pace and that team averaged less than 100 points per game. He simply has never played for a team that has married elite offensive efficiency and a fast pace, the D’Antoni ideal. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen, but it does mean that one of L.A.’s four stars will find himself playing as he’s never played before while also recuperating from a back surgery that still has him at less than 100 percent.
The other two members of the Lakers’ star-studded quartet, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, do have experience achieving D’Antoni-esque results, although it’s somewhat limited. In his 17th season, Bryant, fifth all-time in scoring, has never played on a team with below-average offensive efficiency. Until 2010, he had never played on a team with below-average pace, either. The Lakers’ had top-five offenses in four of his five championship seasons, although the speed at which they played in those seasons varied from No. 5 in the NBA in 2009 to No. 14 in 2000 and 2001.
The years that should give D’Antoni the most hope are 2007-08, when the Lakers lost in the Finals to the Celtics, and 2008-09, when the Lakers beat the Magic to win the Finals. Gasol arrived in a midseason trade from the Grizzlies, where he had never played for an elite offense and had topped 98 points per game on only one occasion, and immediately joined a Lakers juggernaut. In 2007-08, the Lakers averaged 108.6 points, the most points of any team Bryant has played on, and they finished No. 3 in offensive efficiency and No. 6 in pace. The following year, the title season, the Lakers nearly replicated those results, averaging 106.9 points per game, finishing No. 3 in offensive efficiency and No. 5 in pace.
The last two Lakers’ seasons simply haven’t displayed the same magic. L.A. played at below-average paces in 2010-11 and 2011-12 and slipped out of the top-five when it comes to offensive efficiency. Gasol, now 32, has ever-so-slightly declined, putting up similar statistics but shooting worse from the field every season since 2008-09. The fundamental question here is whether the 28 and 29-year-old Gasol is gone forever, and whether the 32-year-old Gasol can keep up if the Lakers’ tempo increases markedly, as it will need to if D’Antoni’s goals are to be met. The same thing goes for Bryant: can the 34-year-old guard, who is apparently past knee issues that limited him in recent years, rekindle his performance levels from 2008 and 2009? The early returns for Bryant are excellent: he’s shooting 55.1 percent from the field, aided by an expected rise in his attempts at the rim and a serious drop in his long two attempts per game. That trend is one of the most promising aspects of the Lakers’ early start and the shot location distribution won’t be compromised by D’Antoni’s open court style.
But even if Bryant and Gasol match their level of play from 2008 and 2009 that won’t be sufficient, by itself, to reach D’Antoni’s standard. Remember, neither has played on a team that has cracked the 110-point barrier. Taking all of these factors together, then, we’re left with this reality: Nash will need to play at or near his peak levels, Bryant and Gasol will need to play at or above the strongest stretch of their tenure together, and Howard will need to smoothly hop into the mix, without a past context to aid his adjustment. All of those things must happen for D’Antoni’s prediction to come to fruition, and that’s still saying nothing about the Lakers’ much-maligned bench or the fact that the new system must be implemented during the season rather than with the help of a training camp or preseason.
If all of those conditions left you shaking your head, it arguably gets worse. D’Antoni, at his press conference, made what should be considered a cardinal mistake by invoking the “S” word: Showtime.
“We would love to be able to play Showtime-type basketball,” he said. “Now, they might have done it the best that you can do it. We would like to get some place close to that. I think that would be awesome.”
Imagine, for a moment, if Heat forward LeBron James made a similar comparative statement between himself and Bulls legend Michael Jordan. Imagine the outcry if the 2012 MVP said: “I would love to be able to play Jordan-type basketball. Now, he might have done it the best that you can do it. I would like to get some place close to that. I think that would be awesome.”
James has expressed a similar sentiment, although in a softer and less direct manner, and those comments are invariably met by an immediate outcry from those who believes a one-time champion has no business comparing himself to the Greatest Of All Time. Here’s the rub: the James/Jordan comparison makes significantly more sense than D’Antoni’s Showtime hopes.
When it comes to overall offensive efficiency, nobody belongs in the same sentence with those Lakers. Under Magic Johnson, the Lakers averaged more than 115 points for an entire decade, and led the league in offensive efficiency six times in 10 years, finishing twice on two other occasions. And, by the way, they won five rings. This was possible with Johnson, one of the league’s greats, in his prime, coached by a legend, surrounded by Hall of Famers in their prime, or close to it, clicking on every possible cylinder, with years to hone their abilities. They scored more points than D’Antoni’s Suns, they had more success than D’Antoni’s Suns, who never made the Finals, they lasted more than twice as long as D’Antoni’s Suns and their offensive efficiency peak, in 1987, was better than any season D’Antoni’s teams have posted.
The 1980s were, clearly, a different era. The median NBA team in those days averaged between 107 and 110 points, rather than the 97 to 101 points we’ve seen over the last few years. That doesn’t help D’Antoni here, it hurts him. His approach, so far, has been to promise Lakers fans the world, indicating that he believes he can reverse the NBA’s trend toward lower-scoring games, blow the other 29 teams out of the water from a scoring perspective and post numbers rarely seen in the modern era. He has done that even with all of the limiting factors and possible speed bumps on his roster cataloged above.
If D’Antoni is serious about “needing to talk” with his players if they aren’t hitting 110 points a night, now is probably a good time to invest in conference call software and an unlimited phone plan.