As the losses have piled up to start the season (1-3, and 0-8 in the preseason), the most commonly used phrases you’re hearing from these Lakers are: “It’s a process”, and “that will take time.” Anxious fans are told to relax, for the team will figure it out in time. But is that really even true at all? Does it take time for great teams to come together?
When you look back through recent Laker history, along with what other superteams have done, history seems to suggest otherwise.
In Feburary 2008, Pau Gasol came to join the Lakers, a team running the “complex” triangle offense. In his first game he dropped 24 and 12 in a Laker win on the road. That team went 27-9 to finish the season and went all the way to the NBA Finals in year one. There was no “process” of integrating Pau. The team gelled with their new all-star right away.
If you want to keep digging in the history books, the Lakers other super-team didn’t take long to figure it out either.
Karl Malone and Gary Payton joined Kobe and Shaq in 2004. That team started 18-3, despite Payton’s issues adjusting to the triangle, Kobe’s legal issues, and beef with Shaq. They performed immediately, and just like the ’08 Lakers, went to the NBA Finals in year one. It’s impossible not to point out that since the arrival of Phil Jackson, L.A. have never had trouble getting stars to gel (at least on the court).
Phil instituted the triangle offense, purported to be every bit as difficult as the Princeton, in his first season with the Lakers, 99-2000. He brought together a new team with Shaq, Kobe, and a new cast of role players. The Lakers rolled to 67-15 and a title in year one. There was no discussion of the “process” of building a championship team, and there didn’t need to be. The team performed immediately, and they ultimately grew into champions.
For the sake of fairness, it is necessary to examine non-Phil Jackson coached teams, even thought doing so still negates this while “part of the process” argument to explain the Lakers’ early struggles.
The 2008 Celtics brought in a trio of superstars for a run at a title.
Year One: 66-16 and an NBA title.
Led by Doc Rivers and defensive mastermind assistant coach Tom Thibedou, the Celtics became an incredible defensive team, clicking right away, and throttling the Lakers in the finals. Aside from some struggles early in the post-season, the Celtics pretty much ran over everybody from day one en route to a title, relying on steady defensive principles to overcome any chemistry issues to start.
The only evidence for the superteam “process” argument is Miami in 2011. A 9-8 start for the eventual finalists (and 2012 Champs), may initially validate the idea that superstar teams take time to gel.
However, Erik Spolstra recently acknowledged that he “kept LeBron in a box” in year one, which compounded the alpha dog conundrum that existed between LeBron and Wade.
“Thinking conventionally that first season with LeBron — that was my biggest regret as a coach,” Spoelstra said. “I put LeBron in a box. And that’s the worst thing I could have done.”
After setting LeBron free in 2012, the Heat won the title, and now have found an identity in “position-less basketball.” It took a year for Spolestra to figure out his team, and once he did, the team responded in kind.
The Lakers on the other hand don’t seem to have traditional chemistry issues.
The team is very orthodox in it’s construction: a pure point guard in Nash, the best shooting guard in the league, a defensive stopper and decent three point threat at the 3, Gasol’s genius at the 4, and the best center in the game. They even have a clear sixth man (Antawn Jamison), although he has not been effective thus far. The Lakers do not suffer from a lack of talent, or a lack of traditional roles. Even as this team learns each other, they should be beating teams early in the season – teams that are also learning each other, like Dallas, and Portland.
The offense is fine, as the Lakers are scoring 100 per game, and very efficiently. The Lakers are stumbling out of the gate because they are playing poor defense, with opponents scoring 99.8 per game (including only 79 by Detroit), through 4 games.
The team does not have solid principles to rely on, as the Celtics did, or clarity in what they are trying to accomplish on both ends of the floor, as Jackson’s Lakers always did.
The Lakers slow start cannot be chalked up to a “process” of getting to know each other. It can be attributed to poor rotations on defense, poor execution of game plans, poor game plans, and poor substitution patterns, along with the laissez-faire “it is a process” attitude.
The danger of this mentality is that it takes away the sense of urgency to win right away – a sense of urgency that is needed every night in the NBA.
History suggests that the Lakers’ poor start is more than just early season jitters, and even more alarming, it doesn’t look anything like the “superteams” of the past.
Whatever it is that seems to be ailing the Lakers, we can be sire of one things: it doesn’t have anything to do with the process.