What’s Up With The Los Angeles Lakers?

It’s been a very up-and-down NBA season so far, with only a few teams rising to the top and looking like real contenders for when May rolls around. The rest of the pack either looks like bottomfeeders or are too inconsistent to really gauge how their season will turn out. But in looking deeper into that inconsistency, we might be able to make some sense out of the league’s most disappointing teams so far this season. In this series of posts, we’re going to take a look at why certain teams that should be contending are currently struggling. First, we have to start with the most underwhelming team in the NBA that constantly begs the question:

What’s up with the Los Angeles Lakers?

Kobe Bryant. Dwight Howard. Steve Nash. Pau Gasol. Ron Artest. Antawn Jamison. Those are the Lakers six best players. HOW THE HELL IS THIS TEAM NOT INSTILLING FEAR IN EVERYONE BY NOW? We gave the Lakers the benefit of the doubt when the incompetent Mike Brown was running his silly little Princeton offense, but there’s no excuse for the Lakers’ current 9-13 record. Granted, that’s not a terrible record, but it’s certainly not acceptable when you’ve got multiple Hall-of-Famers in your starting lineup. Whether or not you believe Mike D’Antoni is the solution and whether or not you think Phil Jackson would have been a better fit, the Lakers should not be struggling this much still, especially considering that they’ve fared worse under D’Antoni than Brown.

In the Lakers’ defense, injuries have prevented them from reaching their full potential or even develop chemistry yet. But with Kobe and Dwight on the floor at the same time, it’s hard to make too many excuses. Everyone keeps saying, “Once Steve Nash comes back, you’ll see!” or “They still have plenty of time to work things out!” But unfortunately for LA, Nash’s return isn’t going to fix the Lakers’ extensive problems on the defensive end. If anything, it’ll make those problems worse. Gasol’s injury would be another way to deflect how poorly the Lakers have played so far this year, but he really hasn’t done much when he’s been on the court. Gasol prefers playing closer to the basket but D’Antoni’s system has him shooting elbow and baseline jumpers. His complaints about adjusting to the system and the tendinitis that’s been ailing him all season spurred Kobe’s now infamous “put your big boy pants on” quote, one that speaks volumes about the team’s lack of unity, chemistry and yes, leadership.

How much longer before Kobe completely goes ballistic on his teammates?

How much longer before Kobe completely goes ballistic on his teammates?

You can disagree all you want, but Kobe is not the leader the Lakers need right now. And before you write me off as another Kobe hater, let me say that I’m entirely aware of how much more efficient he’s been this season, how he’s leading the league in scoring and how he’s the youngest (that’s YOUNGEST, not FASTEST) player to reach 30,000 points. Without Kobe, this team would have an even worse record. Then again, is Kobe’s leadership what this new, struggling team needs? Watch five minutes of a Lakers game and you can see the pure disdain on Kobe’s face every time Dwight Howard misses a free throw or every time someone misses a defensive assignment. For years, Kobe’s used the same kind of unrelenting, competitive, yelling-at-your-teammates leadership we saw out of Michael Jordan for the first half of his career, and so far, that’s gotten him five championships. But they were all with the best coach in basketball history. What happens now that Derek Fisher and Phil Jackson aren’t around to console teammates not strong enough or not accustomed to Kobe’s verbal beatings and melting staredowns?

Kobe may be leading the charge on the offensive end with more efficient scoring, but the Lakers are 1-10 this season in games in which Kobe scores more than 30 points. ONE. AND. TEN. I don’t care what anyone says, that kind of scoring is not effficient from a team perspective. I still believe the Lakers have time to figure things out, I think that Nash’s return will brighten the gloomy mood in LA right now and I know this team has too much talent to continue struggling like this. But the clock is ticking and saying, “We still have time to work things out,” isn’t as true when a quarter of the season’s already gone by. Gasol and Nash need to get healthy and a solution for Hack-A-Howard needs to be found soon, but the bigger problems are Kobe’s “Eff You I’m Just Gonna Do It Myself And Shoot My Way Into 30+ points” mode and an embarrassing defense. One of those things is fixable, but with D’Antoni and Nash at the helm, that defense might be a lingering problem. D’Antoni’s irritable answer and overreaction to the question of defense certainly helps illustrate how lost this team is on that end of the floor.

I’ve given the Lakers the benefit of the doubt so far. When every journalist in the country was ready to freak out that LA wasn’t winning games so early in the season, I held off. But after tonight’s embarrassing loss to Cleveland, it’s hard to ignore the fact that this is not a good basketball team. Kobe went for 42 points and Dwight Howard had 19 points and 20 rebounds, but NOBODY ELSE contributed. Having Steve Blake out has forced Chris Duhon to play the point, but there’s no excuse for Jordan Hill and Antawn Jamison to be so overwhelmingly average. The Lakers are facing problems with injuries, their bench and their defense, three areas that are hard to overcome, even with Ron Artest playing some pretty solid minutes. It’s still not impossible for this team to be a contender come April and May, but if this type of play continues, they’ll be lucky to make the playoffs.

They still have time and injuries have been a problem, but this team should be so much better.

They still have time and injuries have been a problem, but this team should be so much better.

Lakers Hire Mike D’Antoni

After the Lakers engaged Phil Jackson in talks for the past few days, they made a surprising decision to hire Mike D’Antoni instead. The negotiations with Jackson allegedly broke down, but one source said Jackson was ready to accept the job until he was told the Lakers had already chosen D’Antoni. The Lakers have said they believe D’Antoni to be a better fit for the current roster and there were lingering concerns about Jackson’s health and ability to travel to away games. There were also concerns about Jackson’s triangle offense, which had been very successful with Kobe and Pau Gasol in the past, but might not be effective for Nash and Dwight Howard.

D’Antoni is known for his fast-paced offense and his time in Phoenix with Steve Nash and the high-powered Suns. However, D’Antoni’s career took a turn for the worse in New York as he was unable to properly manage Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire. Now in LA, D’Antoni will get the chance to team up with his old point guard Nash and some other enticing superstars like Kobe Bryant and Howard.

Lakers fans should be happy that D’Antoni will be able to properly utilize Nash since LA’s star point guard will now be able to run the pick-and-roll to his heart’s content, but the D’Antoni hiring won’t solve all of the Lakers’ problems. There’s still the issue of how Kobe and Nash will share the ball since both need it in their hands to be effective. There are still health concerns as the team waits for Nash, Kobe and Howard to be fully healthy again. The Lakers will still have problems defending quick and explosive point guards. And even with a defensive-minded coach in Mike Brown, the Lakers struggled mightily on the defensive end. D’Antoni has never been a good defensive coach and abides by the philosophy of high-powered offense outweighing the need for consistent defense. It’s true that the Lakers do have two good defensive players in the post with Howard and Gasol, but one thing’s for sure: if you want to beat the Lakers, you’re going to have to outgun them and outscore them. Because with D’Antoni at the helm, this offense will start to turn around and put up big numbers. It’s just the defensive end that could be a cause for concern now.

Mike D’Antoni and Steve Nash will be teamed up once again, this time in Los Angeles.

Mike Brown Fired

After a disappointing 1-4 start to the season, many in Los Angeles were starting to panic that their star-studded cast wasn’t giving fans a very good Lakeshow. A lot of the blame was placed on Mike Brown, but most were expecting him to turn things around with the Lakers’ upcoming six-game homestand. Unfortunately for Brown, he won’t get that chance.

The Lakers fired their head coach today and are actively searching for an immediate replacement. The Lakers are considering the likes of Phil Jackson, Jerry Sloan, Mike D’Antoni, Brian Shaw, Nate McMillan and Mike Dunleavy. Jackson announced his retirement but certainly would have a hard time turning down such a tempting offer with so many superstars in place. D’Antoni would be superb in redirecting a struggling offense, especially considering his experience and know-how when it comes to coaching and utilizing Steve Nash, but for a team that’s been appallingly bad on defense, D’Antoni is certainly not the right choice for the job. Shaw would be a popular choice among the Lakers’ players given his prior time with the team as an assistant, but Los Angeles would need to request Indiana’s permission to talk to Shaw.

Brown was not the right coach for the job, no one will deny that. Last season, the Lakers failed to reach 100 points numerous times and were nearly unseated by the Denver Nuggets before the Thunder defeated them pretty handily. Brown is a great defensive-minded coach, but nobody saw any of that defensive impact this season. In fact, the Lakers were terrible on the defensive end. And when you combine that with the frustrating Princeton offense that completely slowed down the tempo and took the ball out of Nash’s hands, it’s easy to see why this day was coming. When the Lakers signed Steve Nash and Dwight Howard to join Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, everyone hailed them as the new Western Conference favorites and rightfully so. But Brown’s stubborn offensive sets completely ignored Nash’s elite pick-and-roll skills and slowed down the tempo. Brown’s incompetence completely negated the whole point of signing one of the best point guards in the history of the NBA and took away fast break opportunities for Howard and Gasol, bigs who are effective in running the floor.

I have to confess I never thought it’d be after five games. To the rest of us, firing a coach after five games seems like a ludicrous decision made out of panic. But this is the Laker nation we’re talking about and it didn’t want to be patient anymore. Fans had been calling for his head for some time now, and although there’s always a contingent of erratically impatient Laker fans calling for someone to be fired or traded, there’s been a large outcry at this talented team’s dismal start. Firing your head coach after five games might seem like a premature decision to the rest of the basketball world, but Los Angeles management decided to pull the trigger and start regrouping as soon as possible instead of waiting for the situation to play itself out. The Lakers are used to being successful and they’re used to having things go their way. It’s been a part of their history. Anything less than a title run is unacceptable to the majority of Laker nation. Brown didn’t fit that category and he was the wrong man for the job. So although it seems unfair to let Brown go so soon, Los Angeles is chasing another championship this year and didn’t have time to wait around for Brown to learn how to manage his superstars.

Mike Brown couldn’t figure out what to do with his talented roster. So LA fired him in 5 games.

Blaming Melo

The popular thing for awhile seemed to be blaming Carmelo Anthony for the New York Knicks’ struggles. Whether it was the six-game losing streak, Mike D’Antoni’s resignation or the rumors that he wanted to be traded, the common trend when talking about the New York Knicks became: “Blame Melo!”

But let’s take a closer look at the facts and use our brains a little bit. This trend spread like wildfire, but was it fair to put 100% of the blame for the Knicks’ extensive problems on Melo? Definitely not.

Stop regurgitating what you hear on Sportscenter. It's not Melo's fault

First, let’s take a look at the three ways Melo did screw up New York. 1) Melo’s isolation plays. Melo’s playing style turns downright selfish at times and hurts the team’s chemistry and ability to contribute. You’ve seen it before: Melo dribbling around, jacking up a shot after winding down the shot clock, usually missing, then jogging back on defense. 2) Melo’s defense. “Playing” defense is exactly what I would call it, because it doesn’t look like he’s really even trying. What happened to the guy that went toe-to-toe with Kobe Bryant in the playoffs on the Nuggets? 3) Melo’s injury. This is probably the one that hurt the most. The injury that sidelined Melo gave Jeremy Lin the chance to rise as New York’s go-to man and allowed the team to develop new chemistry. Behind Jeremy Lin, this Knicks team clicked, had fun, and everyone saw the ball thanks to their newfound distributor and scorer. Carmelo’s return screwed up the winning chemistry that the team established with Lin.

Now it’s important to understand why the Knicks’ six game losing streak shouldn’t have fallen entirely on Melo’s shoulders. First of all, calling Melo is a ballhog is only semi-accurate. The guy is a scorer and should be given the ball because otherwise what’s the point of having him? Certainly not for his defensive intensity! A dip in everybody else’s numbers should be expected when a scoring machine like Carmelo Anthony is inserted back into the lineup. Second, keep in mind that any time a star player sits on the sidelines for awhile, the team has to respond to his absence. This means that the group establishes a new rhythm and chemistry, so when the star returns, the team dynamic is different and both sides have to adjust. This happens with ANY star player, so saying that Melo ruined the team chemistry is a little unfair.

It’s also unfair to place all of the blame with Melo when the Knicks had a myriad of other problems going on that few people acknowledged during that six-game skid. One was Jeremy Lin’s poor shooting during that stretch. Although he put up 14.5 shots per game, he shot 39% from the floor. Yes, Melo was leading the team with 18 shots per game and his shooting percentage wasn’t fantastic either, but Amare Stoudemire was only getting 13.7 looks per game. Amare is the Knicks’ second-best offensive threat! Even if Amare’s numbers have drastically dipped from 25.3 ppg last season to 17.4 ppg this seaosn, Lin should not be putting up more shots than him, especially when Lin is shooting so poorly. Amare already plays terrible defense, so if he’s not getting touches you might as well leave him on the bench. Then you realize guys like Landry Fields and JR Smith weren’t getting enough touches. Tyson Chandler was out for a few games and battled that wrist injury. Finally, look at the teams the Knicks played during that stretch. You should notice the level of competition rose dramatically compared to when Linsanity was on the rampage; games against the Celtics, Mavs, Spurs, Bucks, Sixers and Bulls would all be challenging even without all the problems the Knicks have been dealing with.

You're looking at New York's biggest problem, but here's a hint: it's not Melo.

But the biggest problem with the Knicks was their coaching situation. You can talk all you want about how D’Antoni’s resignation came down to Melo’s isolation style vs. D’Antoni’s “team-basketball-centered-around-the-point-guard” strategy. You can blame Melo for basically ousting D’Antoni when management realized it was time to either get rid of the coach or get rid of the player. You can even blame all the ESPN reports for spurring the resignation with their stories about Melo not backing D’Antoni’s system and wanting a trade (which he adamantly denied). But that fact is, D’Antoni was not the right coach for New York and his system tanked there. He didn’t connect with his star player and the team suffered for it as conflicting styles of play manifested themselves. Think back to Melo’s time in Denver. Before Anthony wanted a trade and put the Nuggets in an uncomfortable place for most of the season, did George Karl have these kind of extensive problems with Melo or his team? Not even close. D’Antoni was the wrong guy for the job. And this is coming from a Suns fan who realizes how important he was in revitalizing basketball in Phoenix (before his lack of emphasis on defense led to the team coming up short).

I started writing this post before the Knicks went on a three-game winning spree, but the fact remains the same even if they hadn’t won those games: New York is much better off without D’Antoni. The Knicks have won three straight under Mike Woodson, all by double digits (including a 42-point Portland massacre). The scoring has been extremely balanced under a coach who knows how to manage his players, even if that means letting them take the reins a little bit. Melo has lowered his shots per game by about six during this winning streak, which does show the team is better when he’s not putting up 20 shots every night. But don’t forget all the other problems the Knicks had before Woodson took over. JR Smith has turned things around, averaging just under 17 ppg. Lin is shooting the ball less and stepping into his role as a true point guard. Novak has emerged as a dangerous threat from downtown and Chandler has returned to the lineup.

Despite the fact that Carmelo Anthony has shot the ball poorly this season, Linsanity is over; he has offensive weapons around him. What the Knicks need now is for Lin to be a true points guard by looking to facilitate first and score second. If he does this, if the scoring continues to be balanced, if Melo shoots the ball less, if Amare and JR Smith stay involved and if Novak, Chandler, Shumpert and the rest of the supporting cast continue to fulfill their roles, New York will make the playoffs. Whether or not Woodson’s coaching will help this team realize its full potential remains to be seen; his record as head coach of the Atlanta Hawks wasn’t exactly stellar. But the most important point is that with someone else in charge, New York could develop into the team Knicks fans hoped for, but could only dream about, with D’Antoni in charge.

Without D'Antoni, the future of the New York Knicks looks much brighter

Mike D’Antoni Resigns as Head Coach

Mike D’Antoni resigned as head coach of the New York Knicks today. After recent reports that D’Antoni had lost the team’s respect and that there were rifts between Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks’ coach, it was made official today with D’Antoni’s resignation. It was a mutual decision according to Yahoo! Sports, as D’Antoni and Knicks owner James Dolan agreed it was time for the three-year coach to step down.

The Knicks are currently on a six-game losing streak despite their extremely talented roster of Melo, sensation Jeremy Lin, Amare Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler, JR Smith, Landry Fields, defensive specialist Iman Shumpert and 3-point machine Steve Novak. The Knicks competed with the league-leading Chicago Bulls Monday, but were unable to get the win despite a better offensive night from Amare and Jeremy Lin. The loss put New York behind Milwaukee in the East standings as the Bucks moved into the 8th spot.

I’ve never been a fan of Mike D’Antoni (and yes, this is coming from a Phoenix Suns fan), but I thought the Knicks would give him the rest of the year at least to turn things around. This move midway through the season might put the team into further disarray unless the team can get a quality replacement in fast. Rumors are already circulating that Jerry Sloan and Phil Jackson may take over, but these rumors have yet to be confirmed. For now, Assistant Mike Woodson, former coach of the Atlanta Hawks, will take over as interim coach. But a quality coach could be exactly what the Knicks need to finally establish chemistry team with an unhappy star (Melo), a struggling point guard (Lin), and an underachieving/defensively lazy star (Amare).

Mike D'Antoni has officially resigned as head coach of the New York Knicks after three years

Recent Trends Around the League

Overtime seemed to be a theme of last night’s NBA action. Let’s take a look at which teams are going in the right direction and which squads need to start regrouping.

Contrary to my prediction that the Orlando Magic would slow down and start losing because of all the Dwight Howard trade speculation, they have done anything but that. They have not only maintained their position at the third spot in the East, but have distanced themselves from Philadelphia in the fourth spot. The Magic responded from an awful loss to the Bobcats with impressive, Howard-dominated wins over the Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat (in overtime). This team will continue to go as Superman goes, but for the time being, Dwight Howard is unstoppable.

But nobody looks as underachieving as the New York Knicks right now. The Knicks are suffering a six-game losing streak, have lost eight of their last 10, and are not shaping up to be anything more than a dysfunctional team with too many scorers (although they looked a lot better in their competitive contest with the Bulls). And no, the main problem is NOT Carmelo Anthony. Jeremy Lin’s offensive production has declined, but the biggest problem in NY has been Mike D’Antoni. I’ve never thought much of D’Antoni’s coaching, and this stretch of losing with so much talent isn’t helping. Another giant problem is Amare Stoudemire, underachieving on both ends of the floor while taking up the majority of the Knicks cap space ($83 million through 2015 to be exact). When Amare, Lin and Melo play well at the same time, they give you competitive performances against teams like the league-leading Bulls. But then you’ve got distractions like JR Smith’s semi-nude pictures on Twitter and all of the media-frenzied “Is Melo the Knicks’ Problem?” controversy. I still think the Knicks will turn things around, but they have fallen out of the number 8 spot in the East, giving it up to…

The Milwaukee Bucks! The Bucks are currently in playoff contention in the East thanks to the Knicks’ losing streak, but also because of their winning streak. The Bucks have won three in a row because of Ersan Ilyasova’s emergence as a superstar. Illyasova is averaging 21 ppg in March so far and has established himself as a great offensive threat. However, Drew Gooden’s revitalization should not be undervalued either. This has all been done without the help of Andrew Bogut and Stephen Jackson, who were traded yesterday to Golden State in exchange for dynamic scorer Monta Ellis. Things are looking up for the Bucks in the East, especially if the Knicks continue to struggle. But they should keep watch out for the two teams right behind them.

Will Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis be able to coexist?

Which includes the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs are led by Antawn Jamison’s scoring presence and rookie star Kyrie Irving’s ability to close games (which he does with intelligence by taking the ball to the rim instead of settling for isolation plays that lead to low percentage jumpshots). Despite their losing record (like the Bucks), Cleveland is still in the playoff hunt.

Speaking of the Indiana Pacers, this team has not lived up to expectations. While I stand behind them as my sleeper pick in the East, they haven’t been getting the quality wins they’ve needed to establish themselves as legitimate contenders, losing four straight before a rebound win over the hapless Blazers. Admittedly, those four loses were against the Bulls, Hawks, Heat and Magic, but this young team needs these type of wins, not only to send a message to the rest of the East, but to gain confidence for when the postseason rolls around. The Pacers have gone 0-for-2 on that front.

The Dallas Mavericks were on a downward spiral lately, losing eight of their last ten before defeating the Wizards last night. Their losing streak dropped them to the seventh spot in the West and was made even worse considering the majority of those losses came to teams under .500 (New Jersey, New Orleans, Phoenix, Sacramento and Golden State). I still believe the Mavs can be competitive in the postseason, but the same could be said of the Lakers last year, who claimed they would be dangerous in the playoffs despite dropping games during the regular season. And we all know how that turned out.

Remember when the Denver Nuggets were losing games and not even in the top eight in the West? Those days are over. The Nuggets have won six of their last 10 and are currently the six seed in the West. But what’s most encouraging is that Danilo Gallinari and Nene’s return wasn’t even the primary reason for Denver’s surge; now that these two stars are almost back in rhythm, watch out.

Gallinari and Nene led the Nuggets to a big overtime win over the Hawks last night

I’ve already written about the Memphis Grizzlies climbing in the West, but what’s up with the Phoenix Suns? Despite the fact that they were far back in the standings in the West, they have won seven of their last 10 and seem to be turning things around. Steve Nash continues to set up Marcin Gortat for success while Grant Hill and Jared Dudley have steadily increased their production on both ends of the floor. Suns fans should hold their breath for a playoff appearance (both because Phoenix still has a long way to go and because tanking would secure a better draft pick), but this might be a team worth watching if this success continues.

The Minnesota Timberwolves and the Houston Rockets suffered season-altering blows in the form of injuries to their star point guards. Ricky Rubio is out for the season with a torn ACL while Kyle Lowry’s bacterial infection will keep him sidelined for two to four weeks, during a critical stretch of Houston’s schedule with the Rockets teetering at the number eight seed in the West. These teams still have playoff hopes and the Rockets did get a great win against the Thunder last night, but these critical injuries will make it difficult on them.

Finally, the battle for L.A. and the Pacific division seems to have swung to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Los Angeles Clippers continue to struggle without Chauncey Billups while the Lakers have won seven of their last 10. During that stretch, LA has beaten the Heat and got an huge double-overtime win in Memphis last night, looking like the much more playoff-competent team right now, especially with Bynum and Gasol getting more touches. Vinny del Negro is coaching his quality team into the ground, and even with Billups’ absence, the Clippers problems are inexcusable.

Andrew Bynum and Kobe powered the Lakers to a double-overtime victory on the road

Quick Injury Update – 3/5/12

Danilo Gallinari and Nene saw limited action in the Nuggets’ overtime win against Sacramento last night. Fantasy owners should be patient; although they are not putting up big minutes yet, it is to be expected that Karl eases his two stars back into playing, especially with the Nuggets playing so well right now. Look for Denver to make a surge in the West in the next few weeks.

Brook Lopez is expected to miss 3 weeks with an ankle injury. Fantasy owners’ disappointment should be paramount, as Lopez was finally back in the lineup and playing extremely well for a few games before yet another injury. The Nets will be hurting by his absence, as Deron Williams can’t be expected to drop 50+ every night.

An unfortunate but familiar sight for Brook Lopez

Chris Bosh is set to return to action tonight after missing the last three games because of his grandmother’s death. The Heat probably wouldn’t have needed him back too badly for tonight’s game against the lowly Nets, especially with Brook Lopez out, but the Heat have lost two of their last three without him and will certainly be looking to reestablish their rhythm.

Tyson Chandler is still nursing a wrist injury and although he hasn’t missed any games because of it, Mike D’Antoni said he might sit him if it gets any worse. Losing him for even a few games would be a big loss considering his averages of 11.6 ppg and 9.8 rpg, along with the defensive presence he brings in the paint.

Chandler has been dealing with some wrist pain since the Knick's game against the Mavs on February 19.