Last Friday embattled Lakers coach Mike Brown arrived at the team's El Segundo, Calif., practice facility just before 9 a.m., ready to work. By 10, he was out of a job. Brown's firing was a knee-jerk reaction: What else can you call the dismissal of a coach who was trying to incorporate two new starters into one of the game's most complicated offensive systems, just five games into a season? But ownership, which, with a $100 million payroll and a pending bill for nearly $30 million in luxury taxes, wasn't willing to give Brown a chance to dig Los Angeles out of a 1--4 start.
On Monday the Lakers hired Mike D'Antoni, 61, one of the NBA's elite offensive minds, who was handed the reins after negotiations with Phil Jackson broke down. L.A. will shell out $12 million over the next three years for D'Antoni—and eat the remaining $11 million on Brown's contract—because the team faced major problems in every facet of the game.
Advocated for by Kobe Bryant in the off-season and installed by assistant Eddie Jordan—the architect of the read-and-react system that powered the Nets to the Finals in 2002 and '03—the Princeton offense was supposed to rejuvenate a team that slipped from sixth in the NBA in efficiency (111.0 points per 100 possessions) in 2010--11 to 10th (106.0) last season.
Statistically, the Lakers' attack wasn't bad: After beating the Warriors 101--77 under interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff last Friday, L.A. ranked 10th in efficiency (105.2). But, says G.M. Mitch Kupchak, "I never thought we got to the point where the offense was flowing. You would see some flashes of it, but we never had a consistent flow throughout the course of a game. They either weren't getting it or it was going to take too long for them to get it, and we weren't willing to find out which of the two it was."
In truth, the Lakers' personnel doesn't fit the Princeton system. Steve Nash won two MVP awards running mostly pick-and-roll in Phoenix. Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard are two of the most effective post-up players in the league. By emphasizing floor spacing, dribble handoffs and back-cuts, L.A. was ignoring its strengths. "We couldn't have contained Dwight and Pau if they'd just kept dumping it in to them," says an assistant from a Western Conference team that played the Lakers this season. "But they didn't. I was shocked."
The D'Antoni Effect
Even without a full training camp, D'Antoni's up-tempo attack—which has a steady diet of pick-and-rolls and allows Nash to freelance—should be easy to install. While the system will benefit Nash, adjustments must be made to enhance Bryant's role: In Phoenix and New York, D'Antoni's off-guard has been primarily a spot-up shooter. "His system in the past would have marginalized Kobe," says a Western Conference scout. "You will probably see more flex-cuts—basically running off baseline screens—for Kobe to get post isolations."
Brown came to L.A. with a reputation as a defensive guru: In three of his five years in Cleveland, the Cavaliers finished in the top 10 in defensive efficiency. But the Lakers were porous under Brown; they finished 13th in efficiency last season and were 23rd this year before he was fired. "They had such poor floor balance," says the Western scout. "Because they were still learning the offense, the transition defense has been terrible. Before, they were very good at getting back and setting their defense. With their size and power they could load up and make you play from the perimeter."