Now to see if Mike D’Antoni can play backup point guard, because if not, his arrival only solves part of the problem.
In the greatest of truths, the one the Lakers may not confront in the transition of the quick-trigger coaching change and the D’Antoni hire, Mike Brown may not deserve the blame for the 1-4 start. If he does, interim Bernie Bickerstaff deserves Coach of the Year and a lifetime contract to stay on the job for going 2-0. Instant analysis is instant analysis – unless, as is apparent, management had doubts about Brown long before this week amid a new roster and injured stars.
The D’Antoni hiring is encouraging for the Lakers on several fronts. Phil Jackson would have been respected in that locker room like no one else, but D’Antoni is a pretty close second, probably ahead of Brian Shaw, the current Pacers assistant who was the consensus choice among players to succeed Jackson in summer 2011. D’Antoni can handle life under the heat lamp, will play the entertaining style owner Jerry Buss loves, and has a very good relationship with Kobe Bryant, from their Team USA days, and Steve Nash, from their Phoenix days playing Mach I. The rest of the roster will follow.
D’Antoni also brings the one thing Jackson can’t: potential closure on the sideline. If the new guy does well, he will be around a while. Jackson had already left the Lakers twice, once setting fire to the place on his way out the door by holding Bryant up for humiliation and the other time, about 18 months ago, by being relieved when the season ended in playoff embarrassment. Jackson almost certainly wouldn’t stick around for the next generation, after Bryant and Pau Gasol are gone and Dwight Howard is the unquestionable centerpiece. D’Antoni can walk across that bridge.
It’s just that the hire doesn’t come close to ensuring the Lakers are back on the path of clear Western Conference favorites. They’re still not as young and athletic as the Thunder, still not as cohesive and grounded as the Spurs, and still not as deep as the Clippers. Plus, there is no way to know when Nash will be back after missing five of the seven games with a fractured leg and how much time he will need to get into rhythm once he does return.
The bench is the major concern, but then again, it was from the beginning. Each of the four full-time starters – Bryant, Howard, Gasol, Metta World Peace – is averaging at least 34.7 minutes per. Taking Steve Blake, Nash’s replacement at point guard, out of consideration, three reserves were trusted enough to play at least one-fourth of the games: Antawn Jamison, Jordan Hill and Darius Morris.
Morris got there only because he moved up the depth chart, from third-stringer, at the point thanks to the Nash injury. Jamison is at 34.8 percent from the field and averaging 3.7 rebounds in 16.1 minutes. (Hill in 16 minutes: 5.7 boards.) And Brown got so desperate for help behind Bryant at shooting guard that he turned to World Peace, the starting small forward and not exactly known for his dependable offense, or dependable anything, come to think of it.
Jodie Meeks is making 28.6 percent of his attempts overall and 21.4 percent from behind the arc, cutting his playing time down to 10.6 minutes. Maybe Brown didn’t give Meeks time to break out of the slump. Or maybe, just maybe, the guy signed to be the shooting specialist off the bench needs to produce to get the minutes when the coach is dangling and playing for wins now. If the chance comes now but the baskets don’t, at some point it won’t be Brown’s fault anymore.
The second unit was always a primary concern, and it will continue to be until proven otherwise. There is still time, though, for Nash to heal and Meeks and Jamison to improve. The season can be saved, which was always the case as Lakers fans acted as if the ground was opening beneath them. It is still early, at least for everyone except Brown.