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Reinvention will be the key skill for Lakers next hire

Posted by on May 3, 2014 in Jim Buss, Mitch Kupchak, Opinion | 8 comments

(NOTE: Below is my column on the Lakers and their just-beginning search for a new coach, written for SheridanHoops.com…)

A fairly inclusive list of potential replacements for Mike D’Antoni, following his resignation as head coach of the Lakers earlier this week: John Calipari, Kevin Ollie, Byron Scott, Jeff Van Gundy, Stan Van Gundy, Derek Fisher, George Karl, Mike Dunleavy, Kurt Rambis, Lionel Hollins, Tom Thibodeau, Mark Jackson, Steve Kerr, Ettore Messina…

Plenty of impressive names, but hardly reflective of some grand organizational philosophy on playing style or priorities beyond, as has been reported, to “make a splash.” 

It’s an expression that ought to make Lakers fans nervous, because it implies one big mission is to cleanse the fanbase’s collective palate after two failed coaching hires since Phil Jackson’s departure, and the bitter taste of the previous two seasons. As opposed to, you know, finding the best candidate for doing the job. Not that the two are mutually exclusive, but the emphasis ought to be entirely on the latter, with the former as a byproduct.

Which gets to the big challenge facing Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak entering what will likely be a long process: It’s very difficult to match a coach to a team when there’s really no team to match him with. The Lakers have three guys under contract next season, one of whom may not actually be able to play (Steve Nash), another coming off two major injuries at age 36 and a six-game 2013-14 season (Kobe Bryant) and the third who is Robert Sacre (Robert Sacre).

While it would obviously be less surprising to see the Lakers reconstruct a high-end roster this summer than say, Milwaukee, odds favor next season’s team looking a lot like this year’s talent-thin polyglot of short term contracts designed to maintain maximum cap space going forward. So the squad Future Coach gets in his first year is likely to be vastly different than the one he has in 2015-16, and probably again in 2016-17.

And each of those teams will could have a vastly different mix of superstar ego and skill set. It’s perfectly reasonable to believe the first three seasons for L.A.’s next coach could play out something like this:

-Year 1, bad team orbiting around Kobe, cultivating a critically important #1 pick.

-Year 2, a better team orbiting around Kobe and The Team’s Next Star Acquisition, someone who may or may not mesh well with Bryant.

-Year 3, a still growing team, now without Bryant but folding in still more new players, and perhaps a second new superstar, who may or may not mesh perfectly with the one imported the year before.

I’ve long maintained the star L.A.’s next coach has to best mesh with isn’t currently on the roster. That doesn’t mean Kobe Bryant won’t present a massive challenge to D’Antoni’s successor. (After all, why should he get off easier?) There will be pressure, not just because of anything Kobe might say or do but the enormous capital he has among fans and his place in local basketball culture, to, if not conform to Kobe’s preferences on the floor, at the very least look like it. To some degree, you gotta kiss the ring.

(One line of thinking: You don’t give a player $48 million for two years and not tailor things to him. The other: You give a guy $48 million precisely so you don’t have to.)

Whoever coaches the Lakers next will obviously need the strength to work effectively with Kobe, handle the L.A. media and a very edgy legion of fans, and navigate what is likely to be a tough first season (this time without the lure of a guaranteed lottery pick at the end of the rainbow). From there, he’ll have to fold in new stars with new egos and skill sets, but with no way to effectively anticipate who those stars might be, because the NBA doesn’t work that way.

The team’s system could easily have to change three times in three years.

Everyone has an wish list for the next coach of the Lakers. Better defense, a system more tailored to Bryant’s skill set, savvier communication with the media and better communication in the locker room, cache potentially drawing free agents, and so on. But while all those things matter, the timing of D’Antoni’s resignation combined with the current state of the franchise mean the most important quality for the Lakers’ new sideline guru will be flexibility and a gift for reinvention.

There is no shortage of quality options, to be sure. But after botching their last two hires, even if they prioritize the right things, there’s no guarantee they’ll come up with the right fit, in part because anticipating what he’ll fit into is so difficult.

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Mitch Kupchak’s message to fans: “Pardon our dust”

Posted by on Apr 10, 2014 in Mike D'Antoni, Mitch Kupchak, Opinion, Uncategorized | 5 comments

It’s almost always better to under-promise and over-deliver.

That could be what Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak, freshly extended contractually, was thinking when he sat down with USA Today’s outstanding Sam Amick this week. At the very least, Kupchak made it clear that while the goal is obviously to get back atop the mountain quickly, the rebuild in El Segundo will take as long as it takes:

Q: You can’t talk about free agents, but is it accurate that you’re not going to reach for band-aid type player, that if a LeBron (James) or a (Carmelo Anthony)-type player aren’t available, that you don’t just do something to do something and that’s where the patience comes into play.

 

A: Well, obviously we’re not going to share our plan with you, OK? Our goal is not to go 41-41. That’s not our goal. Our goal is to be considerably better than that. And maybe we can do it in a year, or maybe it takes two or three years, OK? Any of those scenarios would be wonderful scenarios. I mean there have been teams — seven or eight teams in the NBA who have never even been to the Finals of the NBA and they’ve been around 30 or 40 years.

Yes, he said putting this thing back together in three years – this one doesn’t count, by the way – would be categorized among the “wonderful scenarios,” noting how many franchises wander the desert for decades without sniffing the Promised Land. My words not his, but basically Kupchak is telling Lakers fans, undeniably spoiled by the team’s consistent success, to suck it up and enter the real world. This jibes with the general evolution of Kupchak’s public comments over the course of the year, designed to temper expectations.

It wasn’t always so. At the end of last season, while never stating it themselves the Lakers let the restorative “Summer of ’14!” narrative take hold. Stick with us, people, it’ll all be over in a few months! Smartly, the team has gradually unwound that line of thought with more tempered messaging. Multiple reports (and sound logic) say they may not make a big free agent splash this offseason, and there will be no rush to use cap space save the portion already carved out for Kobe Bryant. It’s a process, this rebuilding thing. The CBA mitigates some of their traditional advantages. The front office has to be patient. Now Kupchak states the (totally realistic) idea the whole thing could take a year or three, if the Lakers can land somewhere in wonderful. Less wonderful might take a little longer, still.

Granted, Mitch is famous for this sort of thing. As he tells Amick, his plans are none of our business, anyway. But sometimes minimizing expectations isn’t just a function of public relations, but strategic team building. Fans don’t have to like it, but they ought to be prepared for it. They certainly shouldn’t be fed false hope. Throughout the interview, Kupchak reinforced the deliberateness with which the Lakers will proceed. “As much as we’d like to be very competitive and competing for a championship next year,” he tells Amick, “it may or may not happen, ok?”

What about Kobe? Won’t he be pissed if the Lakers aren’t contenders next year?

“He’ll be fine,” Kupchak says. “He’s got no choice.”

SOL*. Which is the truth.

I wrote last week about the reasons the Lakers might not want to fire Mike D’Antoni this summer and ticked off quite a few people, some of whom disagreed with my premise while others completely missed the point.** Hearing Kupchak communicate in stark terms about the next couple seasons, something I’m sure he’ll do again once exit interviews roll around in 10 days or so, gives me more confidence the Lakers, historically not a panicky organization under Dr. Buss, won’t buckle to public pressure this summer or going forward, making moves outside their strategic plan just to appease Kobe or get fans and media to lower the flame under Jim Buss’ desk chair. Hopefully, if/when they fire D’Antoni, it’ll be with a clear plan in mind for matching Future Coach to Future Roster led by Future Star.

(Patience, by the way, is more Buss’ burden than Kupchak’s. If things stay sour next year, Mitch will get criticized, but the heaviest artillery will be aimed at Jim. Fair or not, that’s just reality.)

This is how it has to be, because the Lakers can’t afford to let optics dictate the rebuild. Despite the general cleanliness of their books, they don’t have a full complement of draft choices, and no truly marketable young talent to dangle in front of teams in a trade.*** (Save, of course, the guy they’ll draft this summer.) They can’t do what Houston did to get James Harden. Without those things, the CBA makes it tougher to round out a roster, even when they eventually get their next franchise cornerstone.

There is always the chance opportunity will come earlier or packaged differently than expected. Pau Gasol did. So did Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. Not that the latter two worked out well, but at the time both looked like a startlingly good return on flawed assets. Stuff happens in the NBA. The Lakers will not only have cap space to sign players, but make trades without sending corresponding salary back. I trust Kupchak to exploit opportunities when they arise.

But sometimes you just have to wait. Which, as a wise man and his backup band once noted, is the hardest part. Given how sobering Kupchak generally sounds even when his amp is turned up to 11, he’s a perfect spokesperson for the message.

*Your reaction to this sentiment could goes a long way towards determining whether you’re among the warring fans AK wrote about last week

**To reiterate, I don’t care if D’Antoni is fired this summer. He will and should be replaced, whether this summer or next. Even if you believe he’s a great coach who hasn’t been given a fair shake (I’m not in that group), there’s just no way he can be rehabilitated in this town. Can’t happen. I just don’t want him fired because the organization feels pressure to throw red meat to the fans. When they can MDA, the Lakers need to have a solid plan ready to replace him and build the appropriate accompanying roster, as opposed to opening up the Rolodex and making calls until someone they hope fans like/have heard of says yes. 

***This is why I’m inclined not to trade the pick. Even if the Lakers can swing Kevin Love, they’ll still need more pieces around him going forward. Difficult to do through free agency alone. So let’s say the Lakers can’t get a star, but do get someone who can be a solid second or third best player on a championship team going forward. That guy, locked into a rookie salary scale, has tremendous value. So roll the dice. Keep the pick, and go sign Love (or make some other move) down the road. 

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Podcast! Trade deadline reaction

Posted by on Feb 21, 2014 in Jim Buss, Kamenetzky Brothers Land O'Lakers Podcast, Kobe Bryant, Lakers Analysis, Lakers Audio, Lakers News, Mike D'Antoni, Mitch Kupchak, Opinion, Pau Gasol, Podcast | 4 comments

So Thursday noon has come and gone, and what did we learn? The trade deadline is but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Full disclosure: The first sentence is totally original, but most of that next part was borrowed from Macbeth. Still, it’s nonetheless fair to say Trade Deadline 2014! was a relative bust, without a whole lot of action locally or across the Association. The Lakers made their move Wednesday night, sending Steve Blake to Golden State for MarShon Brooks and Kent Bazemore. The day’s big blockbuster (relatively speaking) involved sending a B-ish player (Evan Turner) to Indiana for a once-pretty awesome wing (Danny Granger). The move could absolutely impact this year’s title chase, but overall the day was defined by Twitter waiting around for something cool to happen.

But good news! In this case, “nothing” means something. Thursday was still important for the Lakers, for different reasons. Click on the module to listen, navigating with the helpful list of talking points below…

  • Breaking down the Blake deal. Did the Lakers get anything they might be able to use going forward?
  • Thursday, Mitch Kupchak said they don’t consider the repeater tax to be a big issue. Is he being genuine? Should the Lakers be more concerned?
  • Do the Lakers overvalue their own guys? Do they know how to operate from anything but a position of great strength?
  • No first rounders and few second rounders changed hands Thursday. Stars, or the closest thing this market had to offer, generally stayed put. What does this say about today’s NBA, and how does that impact the way in which the Lakers will have to rebuild?
  • Evaluating the more significant deals. Blake to Golden State, Turner to Indy, and…, mostly that.

Finally, does the methodical, unhurried nature of Mitch Kupchak’s speaking style hurt the Lakers as the deadline gets down to the final moments? We investigate.

Ultimately, the Lakers are today more or less what they were on Tuesday, a disappointing development for those (understandably) hoping they’d be able to pick up some assets. Back to the drawing board.

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So much is at stake for Pau Gasol

Posted by on Dec 30, 2013 in Lakers Analysis, Opinion, Pau Gasol | 7 comments

With the season heading south in a hurry, it’s as good a time as any to talk about stars and legacy.

Justified concern for his future health notwithstanding, few things in this world are more secure than Kobe’s in L.A.. Short of shanking Jeanie Buss and painting Chick’s statue Celtics green, it’s hard to think of anything he could do to undermine it. Steve Nash is bustling his ass in hopes of ending a brilliant career on his terms, but can’t get his 39-year old body to cooperate and acknowledges it may never happen. Still, while he’ll never have much equity in Los Angeles, Nash’s reservoir of goodwill and respect around the rest of the basketball universe rightly runs deep. He was still very good until injuries totally derailed the train at an age where that kind of thing commonly happens.

Overall, Nash’s legacy won’t suffer.

Pau Gasol is the youngest of the Lakers’ three headliners, is (respiratory issues aside) the only one actually playing, and is probably worse off for it. And when it comes to legacy, he undoubtedly has the most at stake.

Given what he’s done to help deliver three Finals runs and two titles to the city, Gasol ought to have more goodwill in the bank. But he doesn’t, and like a company slipping in the business world, Pau is quickly burning through his cash reserves. Basically, it’s par for the course given how busy his bandwagon has been over the years. Nobody took a bigger beating after the ’08 Finals than Pau. Huge moments in the subsequent championship runs restored his reputation, but many were quick to jump off in Phil Jackson’s final season, including a depressing playoff loss to Dallas, a series in which Pau was awful.

I don’t need to fill you in on the last couple years. Better in some ways than he was given credit, but not good enough.

Still, for much of that time, Gasol occupied a sort of moral high ground. The organization sent him away, then in a moment of epic awkwardness yet to be fully overcome, had to bring him back. He’s been on and off the trade block ever since. To say Pau was jerked around in Mike Brown’s offense is an understatement. The first season under Mike D’Antoni wasn’t much better, as the Lakers seemed to change offensive identities game to game while bending over backwards to make Dwight Howard feel comfortable. Through all of it, Gasol (for the most part) shut up and tried – often to the point of stubbornness – to do the principled thing, sacrificing for the team. Last year, particularly, while Kobe and Howard wrestled for control, someone had to give. Gasol did. Yes, his production slid, but to some degree it could be explained by context.

Now, not so much. He can, and has, complained about his role in the offense, but as we’ve noted in the podcast a few times, Pau hasn’t been effective enough near the basket to justify it. According to Synergy, Gasol has produced a very ordinary .758 points per post up (and when D’Antoni says straight post ups are a horrible play for the Lakers, he’s not making it up. Again, via Synergy, they rank 30th in points per post possession.). Moreover, there’s simply no sidestepping Gasol’s 44.6 percent mark from the floor, nor the implication his effort is tied to how he’s utilized. Gasol’s defense was once an undervalued aspect of his game, something backed up by the numbers. Now, he’s a huge part of the team’s problems keeping opponents away from the rim.

He’s still a productive player, averaging a near double-double in just 30 minutes a game. Pau’s rebounding rate is as high as it’s been since ’08, and his assist rate is well above his career average. No small thing for one of the best passing bigs the NBA has ever seen. But for someone still paid like an All-Star, still spoken of as an All-Star, and who most importantly expects to be treated like an All-Star, Gasol’s production hasn’t been anything near All-Star quality.

Fit remains a problem. He will never like the way he’s utilized in D’Antoni’s offense. I also think there is, despite his love of L.A., his loyalty to the Lakers, and appreciation of Bryant’s support, too much fatigue sinking in. Pau has over the last few seasons grown into an increasingly square peg for an increasingly round hole, and at some point fighting it becomes too hard for everyone involved. But if it was just about external forces, we wouldn’t be at this point. Equally fundamental is the decline in Gasol’s health and play. He’s not the same guy anymore. Many rightly note how Pau’s game is based more on his head than his body and that Gasol has never been an elite athlete by NBA standards, but mileage and injury have sapped his legs, robbing him of explosion offensively and mobility on the other end.

Gasol never wowed people with incredible foot speed or quickness – though he certainly had more of the latter than was given credit – but needed a certain amount of for his creativity and court vision to matter, and more still to maintain elite status. Now, he can have a plan and fool people, but can’t consistently go from mind to body fast enough or with the requisite burst. Some possessions, of course. Some nights, sure. Every night, no. He complains about where he’s put in the offense, but often Gasol gets the ball high on the floor because he can’t establish position four or five feet closer in. When he gets to his spots, Pau isn’t converting.

Defensively, where in the post and in space he was once effective and underrated, currently, he’s neither. Not with any consistency, at least.

Maybe it comes back, if the knees hold up and he can round into shape, the latter something he hasn’t been able to do this season thanks to offseason surgeries and those nagging respiratory issues. History says no. Players with Gasol’s mileage and physical ailments tend to get worse, not better. But maybe he can be an exception. Maybe put back into an environment playing to his strengths more consistently, with his body and breathing right, he would produce results more in line with everyone’s expectations. Clearly Pau believes that’s the case.

Either partial knee replacement
construction careers
wireless tv speakers
alcohol withdrawal
opiate addiction
boombox
ankle injury
construction management
way, he’s at the critical point every professional athlete meets at some point in his career, when self-perception isn’t matching reality. Say what you will, but for all the Black Swan/White Swan/Big Boy Pants/Gasoft! stuff, the guy has immense pride in his game and skill set. Always has. In that respect, Pau is no different than the overwhelming majority of his peers who are often among the last to recognize decline.

He believes there is more elite productivity left in his basketball body, and I want him to be right.

Which is why this moment is so important for Pau. By all rights, he should be remembered as a great Laker, one who brought glory to the franchise. Instead, he risks making his lasting impressions disappointment and a sort of passive-aggressive petulance. The victim card can only be played so far in sports before performance becomes impossible to overlook. Fair to say Gasol has arrived at that point.

Many fans and media have taken to putting air quotes around Gasol’s recent upper respiratory problem. As a matter of policy, I don’t question the legitimacy of a player’s injury, or in this case, ailment. There is simply no way to know what guys are feeling or how they’re impacted. The type of infection Gasol has fought can unquestionably wreck a player. (You and I can do our jobs while short of breath, but we don’t have to play NBA basketball.) I’ll let him decide when he’s physically capable of playing effectively again, even while the Lakers appear, at best, irritated and the optics, as ESPNLA’s Dave McMenamin notes, are horrible. 

But when he does, ideally starting Tuesday night against Milwaukee, I hope he shuts up and plays as hard as he can for however many minutes he’s capable. I hope he plays well. Gasol is not long for the Lakers, whether his performance improves or not. He’s been gone once, and would already be gone again if an acceptable deal had been found over the summer or into this season. He’ll be gone at the deadline, or certainly by next year. What he’s playing for now, whether now lasts another 10 games or through the rest of the season, is the ability to rehabilitate a legacy going in the wrong direction and threatening what should be a lofty place in Lakers history.

That he was pushed downhill by circumstance doesn’t seem to matter anymore.

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They can be heroes, if just for one day

Posted by on Dec 19, 2013 in Kobe Bryant, Mike D'Antoni, Opinion, Pau Gasol | 1 comment

Even by the often hierarchical standards of sports offense in the NBA is particularly so. The best teams are organized around a superstar, and on those teams with multiple A-listers — Oklahoma City, Miami, etc. — typically there is one (Kevin Durant, LeBron James, etc.) at the top of the marquee. Behind them, there’s a designated number two (even if that guy considers himself a 1-A), then on the fortunate squads, a third.

When teams don’t follow that blueprint, it’s generally out of necessity, not design. Sometimes they’ll try to make lead scorers out of lesser players. (Give most NBA players enough shots, and they’ll flirt with that magic 20 point-a-game mark.)

Alternatively, the goal can be creating offensive egalitarianism, in which no single player is a dominant scorer.

Over the first quarter of the season, with no Kobe Bryant, (for all intents and purposes) no Steve Nash, and Pau Gasol playing pretty poorly, that’s how the Lakers attacked the problem. It’s also part of the reason they were so much fun to watch. Say what you want about Mike D’Antoni and his system, but while the Gasols and Dwight Howards of the world may not like it, he’s made plenty of money for role players. Everyone is encouraged to put up numbers. Shoot if the shot is there, run when running is there, and so on.

Because the Lakers didn’t really have “the guy,” everyone could play the role. Game to game, Jodie Meeks could star. Or Wes Johnson, Steve Blake, Jordan Farmar, Jordan Hill, and Xavier Henry. This type of team won’t win a ton of games, but on a roster where there isn’t all that large a talent gap separating the top of the rotation from the bottom, it’s an effective way to maximize each player’s potential. Perhaps more importantly, there is something empowering for players knowing they can show up to the arena every night with a real chance to do something outside their NBA caste. Particularly when most of the roster is playing (at best) for their next contract or (at worst) to save their NBA lives.

It helps explain the team’s energy over the pre-Kobe period.

It’s not his fault nor his intention, but Bryant’s return undoes that. Everyone goes back to being what their profile says he should on a team orbiting around a superstar. Kobe is the focal point, with Pau behind him and then whatever might be left for the other guys. That Kobe is often going out of his way to facilitate opportunities for teammates doesn’t change the basic reality. It’s just different now, and it’s one of the reasons the Lakers have struggled at times with Bryant on the floor. Guys have to play one way with Kobe, and another way when he’s on the bench. Long time teammates of Bryant understand it and adjust, but most of this roster (the available bodies, particularly) are new to the process.

The Lakers are learning that dynamic now, and in a lot of ways the learning curve is stunted by the need for Kobe to handle the ball while all the other point guards are on the shelf. When he’s back to being a two or three, everyone will have to adjust all over again. Over time, Kobe is going to keep improving and the rest of the Lakers should learn how to play with him more effectively. It shouldn’t have to be said, but they’re better (better, better, better, better) with Bryant than with without. Significantly so.

But maximizing this roster (for whatever that’s worth) isn’t simply a matter of mechanical execution, but the Lakers doing whatever they can to recapture the spirit of the early season, and again finding ways to empower the supporting cast.

 

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