The Lakers are currently 22-44, which puts them in last place in both the Pacific Division and the Western Conference, and already eliminates them from playoff contention. Only three teams, namely the Sixers, Magic and Bucks, have worse records this year. Let that sink in. This will be only the third season since 1994 that the Lakers haven’t made a playoff appearance. The Lakers have never won less than 30 games since moving to Los Angeles in 1960, and with just 16 games left and a losing streak on their hands, they may not get out of the 20s in the win column. But just why are the Lakers so bad this year? Let’s take a look at the main problems.
1. Mike D’Antoni’s system. Mike D’Antoni and Stan Van Gundy were pioneers back in the day, changing the focus to 3-pointers, which is a much higher percentage shot. Effectively, shooting 40% from 3-point range is like shooting 60% from 2-point range, which is an unheard of 2-point percentage, save big guys like DeAndre Jordan and Andre Drummond. I’ll take about this later, but D’Antoni’s system calls for three main components: a true point guard, 3-point shooters, and a power forward/center capable of running pick-and-rolls.
For the first key factor in his system, D’Antoni inherited Steve Nash after taking over for Mike Brown in 2012. This would have been a great fit had it been 2004 and Phoenix, but unfortunately it was 38-year-old Nash. D’Antoni’s system calls for a point guard that takes the ball up every time down the court and facilitates, but there are almost no true point guards anymore. Besides Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo, most guards in the league are combo guards that are better scorers than passers. There are guard-dominated teams, like Golden State, Washington and Cleveland, but there are few true point guard-driven teams anymore. D’Antoni would have to find a true passer to run the offense, but he doesn’t have that. Going back to Nash, we have to consider his assists over the last four years. In his last two years with Phoenix, Nash had 11.4 assists and 10.4 assists per game in each of the respective seasons. Since coming to LA, however, Nash has dropped off significantly. Yes, he has battled injuries, but that doesn’t discount his lack of production.
As for the second component, the Lakers are shooting 38.2% from 3, putting them 3rd in the league for 3 point percentage. In 2004, the Suns had both Steve Nash and Joe Johnson shooting the lights out from beyond the arc, shooting 43.1% and 47.8% respectively. Surprisingly, Jordan Farmar and Kendall Marshall are putting up similar numbers, but the surrounding cast isn’t nearly as good from 3-point range. Another problem with the 3-point game is that now, everyone is doing it. With the 2004 Suns, they were first in 3-pointers made, attempted, and percentage, but here lies the problem. The 8th place 3-point percentage of today (37.5% from the Pelicans) would be just .2% off of 3rd place in 2004. The game has adjusted, and now every team shoots a higher amount and percentage from 3-point land. Yes, the Lakers shoot a high percentage from 3, but so does the rest of the league. D’Antoni relied so heavily on 3-pointers because it gave him an advantage back with the Suns, but now that the entire league shoots 3s, the advantage has vanished.
And for the final part, the Lakers haven’t been able to find a big man that can execute the pick-and-roll effectively. They tried it with Dwight Howard, but that’s simply not his game. He’s a post-up player that needs to dominate down low, and pass it out if necessary. Surround him with 3-point shooters and an unselfish backcourt and you have a championship contending team (aka the 2009 Magic or the current Rockets). The Lakers have Pau Gasol, who isn’t a cutting forward/center. Being from Spain, he plays a very European style game, opting to shoot before driving to the basket. Unfortunately, this is a lower percentage shot than getting to the hoop, and D’Antoni’s system calls for the highest possible percentage shots in order to be most effective. The pick-and-pop doesn’t work as well as the pick-and-roll, just another downfall of the D’Antoni system.
2. D’Antoni’s Inability to Adjust. D’Antoni should be able to recognize that he doesn’t have the players to fit his system, but he is a stickler for his own system. His stubbornness towards adjusting to the players debilitates the team, which has caused them to lose so many games. His players aren’t versatile enough to play the roles that his system calls for, so the system plainly does not work. D’Antoni, however, continues to run his ineffective system in LA.
The Lakers are trying to run the system, ranking 4th in the league in assists per game. D’Antoni’s system calls for ball movement and high assist numbers, and the Lakers are still doing this. As we can see, though, this system does not work even when the team executes the plan D’Antoni has for them.
3. Lack of Defense. The Lakers are 24th in rebounds this year and 29th in points allowed, scoring almost 7 points less per game than their opponents. When the Clippers obliterated the Lakers 142-94 on March 6th, the Lakers showed no hustle. The Clippers scored 19 fast break points to the Lakers 0 in the second quarter of that game, and did it with ease. The Lakers simply do not get back on defense, as their coach doesn’t have any defensive focus whatsoever. D’Antoni is used to not having to play defense because of his high-paced, high-scoring offense, but hasn’t adjusted to this either. They’re not outplaying their opponents on offense, yet they still take it easy on defense.
4. Injuries. Now this one is pretty obvious; without Kobe the Lakers are going to be much worse. Steve Nash has also been battered this year, sitting out for back injuries and soreness, and Nick Young has had knee problems as well. Kobe has only played 6 games this year, so that puts a huge hindrance on the Lakers’ playoff hopes. To be fair, though, LA was 2-4 with Kobe in the lineup, so he wasn’t as dominant as he has been. His stats also suffered, as his points per game were cut in half since last season. The Lakers played with 8 active players against Cleveland due to injuries, and finished with just 4 active players thanks to 2 of those players fouling out and Nick Young and Jordan Farmar getting injured. The Lakers have had a dismal injury report this season, the final reason they have suffered so significantly on the court.
There’s no quick and simple fix for the Lakers, but there are a few things they can do to at least improve next year.
1. Fire Mike D’Antoni. We know his system doesn’t work anymore. It didn’t with the Knicks and it doesn’t with the Lakers. He will continue to try to run the system even without the necessary parts, and that’ll hurt them for years to come. Personally, I’d like to see Jeff Van Gundy back on the court, and he’d do much better than D’Antoni.
2. Deepen the Roster in Free Agency. Speculation has it that Carmelo may be on his way to LA, and this would help immensely assuming both Nash and Kobe can stay healthy. Even guys like Danny Granger and Kyle Lowry would add depth and skill to the lackluster Lakers’ roster.
3. Be Smart in the Draft. The Lakers are going to be in the lottery next year, so they need to pick well. Kansas center Joel Embiid would help on the defensive end, averaging 2.6 blocks right now and 8.1 rebounds, limiting opponents’ second chance points.
4. Finally, Get Kobe another German Knee Procedure. After coming back from that procedure in 2013, Kobe scored 27.3 points per game and had his highest assist totals since 2005 and highest rebounds since 2008. If Kobe needs further treatment for his knee, pray the Lakers send him back to Germany.
The Lakers haven’t been the same since Phil Jackson left, not winning more than 45 games without Phil. The Clippers are now the dominant team Los Angeles, a rare occurrence in the Lakers-Clippers rivalry. The Lakers have some serious work to do in order to rebuild and take back the throne both in L.A. and in the NBA.