Jan. 30, 2013; Phoenix, AZ, USA: Los Angeles Lakers head coach Mike D

The Los Angeles Lakers Breaking Point: The System V. The Players

This NBA season has been full of surprises. For Lakers fans, it’s been absolute sports misery. Whenever the words “Los Angeles Lakers” are uttered, trouble doesn’t follow too far behind. Since the we’ve-all-been-warped-into-an-alternate-universe theories have yet to be backed by any evidence (aside from the Clippers W-L column) the several narratives developing from the most mind-boggling Lakers team ever won’t cease from gaining traction.

The Lakers have gone 3-1 in the past seven days but they lost Dwight Howard to yet another injury in their loss against the Phoenix Suns. I can’t tell if the fact that it happened on Steve Nash and head coach Mike D’Antoni’s former stomping grounds was poetic justice just another heaping pile of irony to add to the season.

As if that wasn’t enough, the Lakers ongoing problems with Pau Gasol refuse to come to a halt. So much so that his Olympic teammate, Minnesota Timberwolves guard Ricky Rubio decided to chime in on the situation. Here’s what he had to say, according to Jon Krawczynski of the Associated Press.

“It’s been the last two years that it seems like they don’t want him, but actually they need him. He’s a great player. He can do a lot of things and he had some issues with the knees, too. It’s been a lot of years without resting for him. But he’s a veteran. He knows how to play.”

It’s easy think of reasons why Rubio might be wrong here, especially this year. The Lakers do infact need Gasol but he’s been far from a great player this season. Not to say that Mike D’Antoni placing him on the bench has done anything to help his cause.

But let’s face it. Pau Gasol is a man worn down. All of the trade rumors, malignment from his own teammates, fans, the media, his head coaches –  long before the entrance of Mike Brown or Mike D’Antoni – have taken their toll. He played his part quietly for as long as he could, but the problem with having thin skin is that eventually it either sets you off or it shuts you down. At some point, something was going to give.

Scoring a career-low 12.8 points per game, Gasol is en-route to the worst season of his NBA career, on both sides of the floor. Moreover, he has a negative offensive rating and only five of the Lakers best twelve line-ups feature him, according to Basketball Reference.

Here’s the kicker though. He’s not the only Lakers big man with a negative rating. Enter,

Jan. 30, 2013; Phoenix, AZ, USA: Los Angeles Lakers forward Pau Gasol reacts in the second half against the Phoenix Suns at the US Airways Center. The Suns defeated the Lakers 92-86. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Dwight Howard. What’s worse is that Howard and Gasol together represent the Lakers second-worst two-man combination with a net rating of -1.3.

With the Lakers sitting at the 10th spot in the Western Conference and every loss inching them closer to the impending doom of falling out of playoff contention, the problems in Hollywood must be addressed sooner than later. And for the record, they passed the “later” threshold the second Mike D’Antoni decided that Earl Clark was a more acceptable starter than Gasol.

Even with new-look Kobe flaunting his best Magic Johnson impersonation, the problems in the Los Angeles front court persist. However, they aren’t unfixable. For one thing, Mike D’Antoni needs to get Pau Gasol back into the line up. There’s really no way around this. Pau Gasol, regardless of the kind of season he is having, is one of the most talented big men in the league. What’s seemingly unfixable is D’Antoni’s attitude.

To explain what’s going on here, I’m going to take out a little page from the book of my ol’ friend Albert Einstein:

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

This metaphor may be a bit of a stretch, considering how Pau Gasol is in fact a basketball player and playing away from the basket for him isn’t quite as perplexing as climbing a tree with fins.  Not to mention, Einstein kind of screwed up here. The fish wouldn’t get much of a chance to feel stupid before it died from a lack of water. I’ll stop now. Please don’t stop reading. Just bear with me here, please.

The point is that no matter how great a player Pau is, he won’t  flourish if the circumstance are working against him. History and a few dominating stretches this season have shown that Pau Gasol, while older and slower, is still an extremely effective player if you put him in a position to be successful.

For example, even though Los Angeles was an abysmal 1-4 through Mike Brown’s very short stint with the new-look Lakers, the Howard-Gasol duo had a much healthier +/- rating of 8.2 per game. In some weird, twisted way even the Princeton offense did better things for Pau Gasol, offensively, than Mike D’Antoni could.

Here’s the thing that a lot of people are forgetting about. Regardless of the Lakers injury issues, lack of depth and chemistry issues, this team is still far too talented to be

Jan. 30, 2013; Phoenix, AZ, USA: Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard reacts on the bench after suffering an injury in the second half against the Phoenix Suns at the US Airways Center. The Suns defeated the Lakers 92-86. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

46 games into the season without a solidified playoff spot.

Of course, the Lakers issues can’t just be pinpointed on to exactly one thing. Believe me, if they could, they wouldn’t be in this predicament. At the same time, it’s becoming more and more clear that Mike D’Antoni has absolutely no idea how to coach this team. His system isn’t working, neither is his philosophy… and why would it?

D’Antoni has a 3-time Defensive Player of the Year, albeit with a bad back, at his disposal. Still, he chooses to disregard that side of the ball completely.

80% of his original starting line-up is on the wrong side of 30. Still, he insists that the team play at a fast pace. Newsflash, Mike: The Lakers don’t run. They haven’t had any semblance of a good transition game for years and the entry of a hobbled Dwight Howard isn’t about to change that.

Herein lies the problem: Mike D’Antoni is not an elite coach and he sure as hell can’t help this team reach its elite potential. He makes the fatal mistake of  trusting his system more than his players, who by the way will have a combined 35 All-Star appearances under their belts come February 17th. The team has reached a breaking point: Mike D’Antoni refuses to change his system and the players aren’t tailored for it.

There’s no point in avoiding the inevitable outcome. The Los Angeles Lakers are a team desperate for any sense of direction and they’re not getting any from their head coach. A few moments of sheer dominance have provided a glimpse into what could be, but they are never met with any continuity. The reign of the system prevails,  holding the players captive while nobody wins. Like everyone and their mothers have said, if the circumstances don’t change quickly, things are going to get very, very ugly in Lakerland.

Tags: Dwight Howard Los Angeles Lakers Mike D'Antoni Minnesota TImberwolves NBA Pau Gasol Ricky Rubio

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