Lakers Forming an Identity
By Trevor Wong
At the start of training camp in late September, the mood and feeling within the Lakers practice facility and around the players was noticeably different.
“It feels good,” Steve Nash said of the atmosphere. “Last year was kind of tough from the start. It was hard to really to feel a lot of positive energy. It seemed like a challenge.”
That challenge was no more evident in the fact that the Lakers 2012-13 projected starting lineup of Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard started just seven games together and played a total of 189 minutes as a unit during a Murphy Law’s Lakers season in which nearly every rotation player missed significant time.
The Lakers rallied to amass a 28-12 record post All-Star break to secure the No. 7 playoff seed in the West, but they never really found that chemistry amongst each other.
“Chemistry is always the biggest thing,” Bryant said. “It’s always the most important thing. If the chemistry is not there, no matter how much talent you have, it’s going to be a struggle.”
Nash echoed similar sentiments.
“As successful as we were the second half of the season, we never found an identity,” Nash said. “We found a way to win some games I think on talent.”
Part of finding that identity is going through a full training camp and preseason, something coach Mike D’Antoni wasn’t afforded last year. Now he’s had the opportunity to figure out the strengths of his players, rather than try to work out the kinks on the fly, when the games matter.
“The difference is we don’t have to hunt and peck and go through people’s personalities and figure out what gets them going and what doesn’t,” D’Antoni said.”
Nash, who played for D’Antoni in Phoenix from 2004-08, understands the significance of a full training camp, particularly for the Lakers second-year coach.
“That’s where Mike really thrives,” Nash said. “I think that it’s important you get your work in, but the more energy and more continuity you have in a practice session, the more guys get out of it, the more they enjoy it, the more collective energy there is.”
Finding that collective energy during last season, though, was a struggle on the defensive end of the floor. The Lakers ranked 18th in defensive efficiency, allowing 103.6 points per 100 possessions.
“Defense is always collective,” D’Antoni said. “You have to do it collectively. I didn’t think we were into it last year. It’s hard to say they didn’t try. With their collective energy, they just weren’t in sync with each other. A lot of times that shows up on the defensive end.”
On media day, however, Bryant acknowledged the Lakers improved in particular areas with certain offseason acquisitions that could aid the team’s defense.
“We filled the holes we were weak at last year in terms of length and athleticism and covering ground, especially defensively,” he said. “When you have those guys that have that length and that speed and can close out to shooters and then shut down penetration on the rotation, it makes a big, big difference.”
In half of their preseason contests, the Lakers forced their opponents into at least 20 turnovers. Last year, they ranked 29th out of 30 teams in that category with 12.8 per game.
Whereas the defense struggled at times last year, the offense didn’t miss a beat. The Lakers ranked eighth in the league in offensive efficiency, averaging 105.6 points per 100 possessions. But as much as success as the team had on offense, it wasn’t a byproduct of running D’Antoni’s system.
“We never really ran Mike’s system last year,” Nash said. “That’s part of finding an identity. Through personnel, no training camp and very little practice time with all the injuries, it was hard to get his system going and it was hard to find an identity.”
For an offense predicated on ball movement and floor spacing, Lakers management added key offseason additions that slide right into D’Antoni’s system. Shawne Williams started the final two preseason games alongside Gasol, while Wesley Johnson has also seen the bulk of the backup minutes at the four. With multiple options that can stretch the floor, Gasol will likely be a focal point of the offense inside, a place where he operates much more effectively.
“If he’s healthy, he’s going to be an All-Star player,” Mitch Kupchak said before training camp opened. “He’ll be the focal point of our play in the paint. He’ll be able to post up and he’ll be on the move whether it’s a pick and roll or pick and (pop). He’ll be able to hit (the outside shot). He won’t really have to share that much space.”
Bryant maintained the team will find a rhythm suited to the styles of the entire team, one that would best cater to everybody’s skillsets.
"We’re going to play exactly how we finished off last year: playing with a tempo that’s right for us,” he said at media day. “We’re not an up-and-down, run-and-gun type of team by any stretch of the imagination. But we’ll use the strengths that we have.”
Finding those strengths in the preseason has been evident with D’Antoni mixing and matching various lineup combinations. Trying to find a particular pace at which the team is comfortable with is another area where the team is still trying to adjust to as well. But more than just finding on-court chemistry, the Lakers were able to bond off the court when they traveled to Beijing and Shanghai to play two contests as part of the NBA’s Global Games. The 13-hour flight to Beijing and the 11-hour flight back from Shanghai, plus the time spent together in China was an opportunity for the team to connect.
"Usually when you travel that far and you go through something like that,” Nash said, “it can bring people together.”
With the start of the regular season around the corner, there is a healthy competition amongst the team for minutes. But the players say the atmosphere is different in a good way, and there is already an identity forming within the group.
“This year feels a little bit more like a team,” Nash said. “I know it’s early. Who knows how good we’ll be. But the early energy and vibe is really positive.”