There’s no forgetting Phil Jackson, whose success–11 titles worth–was challenged only by his whimsy, which made it easy for his Lakers to play for him and fun for the Laker press corps to cover him.
Personally, I thought Mike Brown would be dead on arrival, or, at least, not too long after arrival, with no chance of following in Jackson’s humongous footprints.
Aside from bad timing—Brown got Derek Fisher Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol at ages 37-33-31—the new coach is a nice, straight-up guy, as opposed to a what-me-worry, press-dazzling, player-enabling, Cheshire-cat-grinning quote machine.
Happily for Brown, who was never going to talk his way out of trouble, he looks like he could have a chance to coach his way out.
I like a lot of his early moves, like bringing Metta World Peace off the bench.
In other words, Brown benched the former Ron Artest’s backside to start a smaller, more energetic player at small forward.
A year ago, with four 30-something guys who were huge for the positions (Fisher at 6-1, 210; Bryant at 6-6, 215; Gasol at 7-0, 250, Artest at 6-7, 260) plus Andrew Bynum at 7-0, 285, the Laker starters looked like an NFL offensive line.
If all five played hard, there wasn’t a lot of quickness out there, or energy.
Trevor Ariza gave them that before his dufus agent pulled a power play on the Lakers, which got his client to Houston, which sent him to New Orleans, where he remains for the moment.
Sure enough, Devin Ebanks, whom no one had mentioned as a potential starter, for this season or ever in the NBA, went into the lineup and began knocking down shots, and looking athletic.
Of course, it only took two off games for Brown to bench Devin and put Matt Barnes there.
Barnes made five shots in three starts, but the Lakers won two and it’s not like Brown has Rudy Gay on his bench awaiting his chance.
In the good part, RA/MWP, a low-post threat who never got low-post touches playing with three better low-post players, started eating up opposing reserves, with scoring totals of 19-14-10-9 off the bench, if he also threw in a few RA/MWP-like ones of 4-4-0.
So if players still have to play, and you have to have enough and we don’t know if they do, Mike Brown is out there, thinking!
In the end, these Lakers will rise or fall on the defense he stresses.
At this too-early-to-tell stage, they’re number one in the big defensive, opponents’ shooting percentage, at 40.3 percent.
On the other hand, they’ve played five of their seven games at home, with only one elite opponent—the Bulls, who took that 11-point lead away from them in the last 3:45.
I ripped the hiring of Brown at the time. If they were going to hire an Eastern slow-down coach, as they never had, I thought their guy should have been Jeff Van Gundy, who dazzled the mighty Gotham press with his Joe Schlemiel persona, giving him a shot to succeed Jackson, at least as a personality.
Nevertheless, whoever it was, wherever he was coming from, there was something to be said about hiring a defense-minded coach.
The Lakers were good under Jackson—number five last season, holding opponents to 43.7 percent–because of their height, their scheme, good individual defenders like Kobe, Fish and Metta, driving opponents into giants like Drew, Pau and, yes, Lamar Odom.
Unfortunately for them, as a group they approached defense as something they had to do between possessions.
I once suggested to Jackson that his team’s approach was like the medical term, “P.R.N.,” which means, “use as needed.”
“You’re right,” said Phil.
The Lakers, who used to work mostly on offense, now work mostly on defense, making Brown a nice counter-point after 11 seasons of Jackson.
If good coaching and good players will take you a long way, the Lakers have to go all the way or everyone will think they’re failures, including everyone in their organization, and the players, themselves.
Whatever happens—and contention looks possible, especially with the best two NBA teams in the east–the Lakers will need more good players, especially young, athletic ones.
Now to see what they do, who they get and what happens next.