Editor's note: Throughout the 2012-13 NBA season we'll be asking our colleagues at ESPN Los Angeles to weigh in on the progress of the Heat's quest for back-to-back titles. This week, Dave McMenamin outlines "Seven improvements or less" for the Lakers to reach the Finals.
If the stars align and the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat both manage to get to the Finals this season, the league will not only get the dream Kobe Bryant-versus-LeBron James matchup, but the intriguing coaching duel of the newly appointed Mike D’Antoni against Erik Spoelstra.
While D’Antoni might double Spoelstra in terms of longevity on the sidelines (he’s in his 11th season as a head coach, compared to Spoelstra, who is in his fifth), Miami’s coach has never had a losing season (D’Antoni has five times) and has two Finals appearances and a ring to his credit while D’Antoni has never made it past the conference finals.
The Heat (7-3) look primed for a third straight trip to the Finals, while the Lakers (3-5) have already had many head coaches this season as they've had wins.
Let’s look at the seven improvements (or less) the Lakers have to make under D’Antoni to make a Finals run seem realistic:
1. Get something out of the bench.
In order for Miami to win the championship, it didn’t just rely on James playing at an elite level with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh flanking him with additional support. The Heat don’t win it if Norris Cole doesn’t come off the bench to score eight points in eight minutes in a six-point win in Game 4 of the Finals or if Mike Miller doesn’t score 23 points in 23 minutes as a substitute in the series-clinching Game 5.
D’Antoni will be tasked to get the Lakers’ second unit primed to make the same type of contributions. In order to do so, D’Antoni’s first order of business at his introductory press conference was to stoke the egos of his reserves to build their confidence. He said he has been hoping he could coach Steve Blake for the last 10 years: “I think he's perfect for our system.”
He said Jodie Meeks has the green light: “The only time he needs to shoot is when he touches the ball.” He showed the team highlights of Chris Duhon running his offense in New York and said: “He looked good on it, and he will look good.”
Now if he can keep Jordan Hill, Antawn Jamison and Darius Morris also ready to play, the Lakers might have something and with a starting five as talented as the one they’ve assembled, “something” is all they’ll need from the bench.
2. Empower Pau.
This was supposed to be a bounce-back year for Pau Gasol after he struggled last season as he twisted in the trade winds. His inspiring Olympics performance, coupled with a point guard like Steve Nash looking to optimize his tremendous skill set, made it seem like he would find his footing again.
Based on how Gasol has started 2012-13, it turns out his 2011-12 wasn’t as bad as we thought. Gasol’s numbers have decreased across the board (scoring down from 17.4 to 13.8 points per game, rebounds down from 10.4 to 9.9, shooting percentage down from 50.1 to 40.4 percent) through the first eight games of the season and D’Antoni needs to treat Gasol like a reclamation project.
"I just want him comfortable in what he does … You try to coach against him and you scheme against him and it’s not easy. I think Pau is going to be great. I can’t wait to work with him,” D’Antoni said. “I know players are criticized a lot (for) not being tough enough and I just don’t buy into it. He’s a tough guy in a sense that he’s a skilled guy, there’s a difference. I think sometimes you get outside of what you do. What he does is great and I’m going to get him to do what he does.”
3. Defend, defend, defend.
D’Antoni’s teams have never been as bad defensively as his reputation. When you play at an accelerated pace, there are going to be more possessions for you, but also more possessions for your opponent so the score is going to climb. Still, even if his teams haven’t been terrible at defense, they’ve only been middle of the road at best and that needs to change when you have a three-time Defensive Player of the Year in Dwight Howard on your team.
“The biggest thing for us is getting stops on the defensive end,” Howard said Thursday. “That’s going to be key come playoff time. You get stops, you score. So the more stops you get the easier it will be for us to get down the floor.”
4. Spread the floor by making shots from distance.
D’Antoni’s “Showtime” plan for the Lakers sounds well and good until you question if they have the personnel to pull it off. Quite simply, there’s no evidence to support that this Lakers bunch can hit open shots. L.A. ranked last in the league in 3-point percentage for much of last year (32.6 percent overall) and they’re around the same accuracy so far this season (32.7 percent, ranking them 20th because shooting across the league is down).
Meeks and Nash were seen as a two offseason additions that addressed that need and Bryant embraced the role of outside shooter at the London Olympics and it’s paying off so far this year as he’s shooting 55.1 percent from the field and 44.1 percent from 3. In order for D’Antoni’s system to work as well as it can, guys like Meeks and Blake and Metta World Peace are going to have to knock down their open looks when the stars are double-teamed.
5. Keep Dwight happy.
“I think your margin of error is to win a championship and that’s not easy, I don’t care at any level,” D’Antoni said Thursday. The other error D’Antoni must avoid is marginalizing Howard. Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said this week that the team views Howard as the “cornerstone of the franchise moving forward,” but the only way that happens is if the All-Star center signs a contract extension this summer. D’Antoni not only has to win, but he has to win in a way that features Howard.
“If we can clear things up and clear some room, I would expect Dwight Howard -- as soon as he gets healthy -- to be unstoppable,” D’Antoni said. The coach’s system provided plenty of opportunities for the similarly athletic and talented big man Amar’e Stoudemire in Phoenix and New York, but Stoudemire also had a midrange jumper portion of his game that made him more dynamic as a pop-out shooter in pick-and-roll situations.
Howard doesn’t have that. D’Antoni is also against one-on-one post-up possessions, calling them the most inefficient play in basketball, so that takes another Howard strength off the table. He’s got to tailor his offense to feature the big man somehow.
6. Protect his backcourt.
Nash is 38. Bryant is 34. Both should be playing minute totals below their age every night. D’Antoni will be tempted to stretch their usage out as much as possible, but he’s got to trust Meeks, Morris and Blake to back those guys up.
“I’m going to say I’m going to take care of (Nash), cut his minutes down – him and Kobe – and every time I want to win, they’re going to play a lot,” D’Antoni said, trying to make light of his own coaching downfall. “That’s just the way it is.”
That can’t stay the way it will be if D’Antoni wants his future Hall of Fame backcourt playing their best come playoff time.
7. Drown out the noise.
Spoelstra started off just 9-8 in the Big Three era and heard it from everywhere that it was only a matter of time before Pat Riley pulled him from his coaching seat and took his job. He weathered that storm and then had to hear all the same questions again when Miami blew a 2-1 Finals lead and lost the championship to Dallas. Yet Spoelstra persevered, adapted to the job while staying true to his fundamental beliefs about the game and lo and behold, got to lift the Larry O’Brien trophy last June.
If D’Antoni thinks he has been through the wringer already from his failed time in New York, he’s in for a rude awakening. D’Antoni hadn’t even landed in L.A. yet this week and Lakers legend Magic Johnson was already criticizing his hiring over Phil Jackson. If the Lakers struggle, he won’t be compared to Mike Brown -- the coach he’s actually replacing. He’ll be compared to Jackson -- the coach with 11 championships to his none. He needs to embrace the challenge, not cower from it, and believe in himself.
“Our expectations are to win a championship, we have the team and players to do that,” D’Antoni said, showing the right attitude. “Boy, is this fun trying. I can’t think of a better group and a better city and a better fan base to try to get it done.”
He has to know that if he doesn’t get it done, the fan base will certainly be able to think of a better coach for the job.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.