For the better part of the past three decades, to hear "LA is 1-4" has been nothing out of the ordinary. It's just that "LA" has typically been in reference to the lowly Clippers, not the storied Lakers. This season, however, as the Clips morph into one of the league's deepest, most exciting teams, it's the Lakers who have stumbled out of the gate, looking old and uncharacteristically slow early on.
GM Mitch Kupchak was lauded for his offseason additions of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to flank Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. And while there should be a grace period for Howard and Nash -- see Miami Heat 2011 -- a 1-4 start (1-12 including the preseason) is the worst of the Kobe era -- and with the league's highest payroll. It's a record that should be sending up red flags.
Just what exactly has gone wrong isn't so much the question as what hasn't gone wrong.
The pro game, as it stands in 2012, starts and stops with the point guard. Nash, even before he injured his leg, has been a shell of the creative maestro he was in Phoenix. Mike Brown's Princeton offense -- from which Brown said Nash could deviate whenever he wanted -- essentially relegates Nash to a spot-up combo guard with little use and even less pick-and-roll, a tactic he's perfected in collaboration with athletic, skilled bigs (e.g., Gasol and Howard). Granted, Nash has played just two games this season, but with the Lakers he has a minuscule usage rate of 13.7 (the number of possessions a player uses per 40 minutes). With the exception of his first two seasons, he has never dipped below 20.6 during his 16-year NBA career. Making matters worse, Nash -- one of the league's greatest all-time shooters -- is taking a mere six shot attempts per game, almost half his career average.
"Either the system is flawed or something's going on," owner Jerry Buss said. "Or, like the Triangle [offense], it's very hard to pick up and understand."
Even without Nash in the lineup, the Lakers look like a confused AAU team, reliant on isolation and one-shot, bailout possessions. In Wednesday's 96-85 loss to Utah, they shot a woeful 34 percent from the floor and turned the ball over 18 times, a trend that is becoming increasingly predictable. Despite shooting a highly respectable 47 percent through five games, they rank 15th in points scored and just 24th in field goals made.
The Lakers' defense, thought to have been majorly upgraded with Howard anchoring the paint, has surrendered a shockingly high number of easy looks, and ranks 19th in field goal percentage against. Howard, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, can mask much of the team's lack of speed on the perimeter, but Kobe hasn't shown himself to be the lockdown defender he once was, and teams can avoid Metta World Peace by forcing switches and implementing pin-downs and staggered screens for elite scorers. As a result, LA is allowing 42 points per game in the paint, which is a touch higher than it allowed last season.
Any NBA season is a test of endurance and will, and a team this talented will usually figure things out. The Lakers have four premier starters and nothing but time to fix their litany of glaring issues. Perhaps Mike Brown has the answers; but it was nearly a decade ago when Kupchak raided Buss' pocketbook to acquire future Hall of Famers Gary Payton and Karl Malone, and that move failed to garner a title. But both Malone and Payton were well past their primes. Last season, the 38-year-old Nash registered one of his best years to date, and Howard, still just 26, may still be getting better.
The Lakers, their fans and mostly Buss are not used to waiting around, though. That's what 17 championships will do for you. The Western Conference, meanwhile, with upstarts like Minnesota, Portland and Houston, is getting deeper, with very few easy games. Which leaves the question: What will give?
Something always does in Lakerland.
UPDATE: 2:06 p.m. -- Turns out that the answer to that question is: Mike Brown.
Sources have told ESPN that Brown has gotten the axe. Dumping Brown five games into the season may seem harsh, but his system didn’t work last year and clearly hasn't been working this year. Take into consideration that the Laker offense is running pick-and-roll less than 10 percent of the time (per Synergy), and the Kobe "death stare" becomes understandable. Minus Howard, this is not a young Laker core: Nash is 38, Bryant is 34 and Gasol is 32 -- so the time to win is now.
Jerry Sloan could be a prime candidate to replace Brown, but don't rule out Mike D'Antoni, either, who would happily give the keys to the offense back to Nash.
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