The moment the doors opened at the Lakers’ practice facility nearly a month ago, reporters saw the first glimpse on how the Lakers’ so-called Super Team will look.
But Dwight Howard wasn’t throwing thunderous dunks. Steve Nash wasn’t zipping passes all over the place. Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol weren’t using their amazing footwork to find an open mid-range jumper or drive to the basket. Instead, the Lakers repeatedly stopped practice and went over concepts.
Lakers assistant coach Eddie Jordan, whom Mike Brown hired this offseason to teach elements of the Princeton offense, frequently shrilled his whistle. At times, Jordan instructed Nash where to set up the play. Other times, Jordan demonstrated where Bryant should move off the ball. Jordan told Gasol and Howard how to space properly in the paint and high-post. Jordan showed Metta World Peace where to fill in the gaps.
Granted, the Lakers weren’t playing against an actual defense. Because of his ongoing rehab from back surgery, Howard paced himself with his movement. And with it being the first day of practice, the Lakers valued processing information than actually executing it.
That was the first sign the Lakers weren’t going to enter the 2012-13 season by simply rolling the basketball on the floor and letting four future Hall-of-Famers sort it out. Brown wanted to add structure to an offense that many of his players lacked in his first season.
A month later, the Lakers’ 99-91 season-opening loss Tuesday to the Dallas Mavericks show they’re still wondering where to go. In this case, however, the Lakers played against an actual team. They didn’t have the benefit of stopping the game so they knew where to go.
“We just have to flow,” Howard said. “Once you think too much out there, you tend to mess up. We want to make sure the offense flows. Sometimes you tense up. You have to relax.”
The Lakers hardly showed much of that at all.
Oh, there were moments, such as when the Lakers finished the first quarter with 10 assists on their 13 field goals. Gasol’s team-leading 23 points on 8 of 19 shooting partly reflected his early work facilitating the offense, which set up open looks for Howard inside and ensured crisp ball movement elsewhere.
But soon the offense became stagnant.
Nash looked conflicted on whether they should run pick-and-roll sets or the Princeton system. That delayed reaction then contributed to mass confusion elsewhere. His seven points on 3 of 9 shooting with four assists looked as bad as his defense, where he let UCLA product Darren Collison drop 17 points on an 8 of 12 clip. During timeouts, the Lakers frequently chatted with each other about how to run the offense. On top of that, the Lakers only went 12 of 31 from the free-throw line, which Jordan Hill and Howard blamed on overthinking.
“I’m not sure we’re close offensively,” Nash said. “I think we’re pretty premature offensively. But we have covered a lot of ground.”
Therein lies the pressing questions Lakers fans are asking after the team’s poor season opener. How long will it take for the Lakers to click? The Lakers finally had a full training camp to learn new concepts. Even with a new team, the Lakers have an elite center (Howard), elite passer (Nash), elite scorer (Bryant), elite defender (World Peace). The Dallas Mavericks lacked their leading scorer in Dirk Nowitzki (knee) and starting center in Chris Kaman (calf). Dallas lost Jason Terry and Jason Kidd to free agency. Four of their starters (Elton Brand, Darren Collison, O.J. Mayo, Brandan Wright) played in their first game. Yet, Dallas managed enough.
Still, Brown believes this process will take time.
“I hope come after Christmas sometime, January, before All-Star break, we’re clicking a little bit,” he said. “So when we go away for All-Star break, we come back, take another week or so and figure it out and take off from there. But I don’t know. They’re an intelligent team so it may happen sooner than later. Or it might not.”
That likely won’t sit well with Lakers fans. After all, they attended the season opener with as much enthusiasm as an All-Star game. Bryant addressed the crowd at center court about “bringing another championship back to Los Angeles.” The Lakers always expect immediate results.
The Lakers showed some by improving from the 0-8 preseason by shooting 49.4 percent from the field, posting 38 field goals off 23 assists and trimming the turnovers to 14. Yet, the bench still only mustered only 17 points. Their inconsistent offense then led to an disengaged defense.
“Sometimes we get a little too frustrated when offensively don’t look as good or we’re not very sharp right now,” Gasol said. “That’s affecting us and carrying over to the defensive end. It’s something that we can’t allow to happen. If we’re able to look past that and be solid defensively and be patient with the offense and understand we’ll make mistakes and it won’t look great right now at times. But we can control the defense and we can be good on the defensive end. That’s something we need to focus on.”
Why the difficulties? The Princeton-style offense predicates on making reads, cuts and passes as an entire unit. Any slight hesitation will cause a trickle-down affect into the offense suddenly becoming stagnant. Hence, why the Lakers
began training camp repeatedly stopping play to ensure a stronger foundation. They say they’ve only processed 50% of the system. And in their first regular season game, the learning curve clearly showed.
“It’s a process,” Bryant said. We have to continue to chip away at it. That should be any team’s goal, trying to get better every day. For us that’s certainly our motto.”
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