Posted: Tuesday November 6, 2012 11:57AM ; Updated: Tuesday November 6, 2012 11:57AM
Ian Thomsen
Ian Thomsen>NBA MAILBAG

Lakers seeking identity; more mail

Story Highlights

Mike Brown may find that the Princeton offense isn't the right fit for the Lakers

Will the Lakers eventually focus on playing pick-and-roll around Steve Nash?

More topics: James Harden's hot start, impact rookies and the Amar'e-less Knicks

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Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant and the Lakers have opened 1-3 with losses to the Mavs, Blazers and Clippers.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

We are going to remember Tuesday because of the elections, and we are going to remember the last week because of Hurricane Sandy.

We are not going to remember this past week because the Nuggets happened to lose their first three games on the road or because the Magic won their first two at home without Dwight Howard. We know that most of the happenings this early in the NBA season aren't going to be relevant by the time the playoffs and the lottery are upon us next spring.

The only events of the NBA's opening week that may have enduring legs are James Harden's 82 points in his first two games with Houston and the Lakers' 0-3 (or 0-11 if you include the preseason) start. Which leads to the first of many responses we'll be offering each week to your questions:

OK, so the Lakers won't go winless this season. But tell me, was their 0-3 start indicative of a larger problem in Lakerland?
-- Jeff, San Diego

The short answer, Jeff, is yes. Absolutely, yes.

Let me ask you and anyone else: Who are the Lakers? What is their style? What are they trying to accomplish? That is a question we cannot answer, because the Lakers themselves do not know.

The Princeton offense has turned out to be a major distraction for the Lakers. I can imagine why coach Mike Brown went with it, because it would be his version of the triangle, an even-handed system that would keep Kobe Bryant from dominating the ball and ensure that each of the Lakers' four stars would share an important role in the offense.

But there were always going to be two issues. The first problem is that it takes a long time to learn the Princeton offense. If the Lakers look like they don't know what they're doing, it's because they don't. I remember spending a day with coach Pete Carril at Princeton years and years ago when he told me how he installed his signature offense each season. Each day at preseason practice he would break down the core fundamentals. When they passed the ball into the low post, should the forward go to the corner or screen for the guard? And then they would work for an hour on what everyone should be doing when the forward screens for the guard. Then they would work on their options when the forward goes to the corner. Then they would break down the other options, bit by bit, day after day, in order to make all of the options blend fluidly together.

When George Karl was in between jobs in 2003-04, he wanted to learn about the Princeton offense and so he spent a few days with Northwestern watching the practices of coach Bill Carmody, who had been Carril's assistant and successor at Princeton. Karl was impressed by Carmody's ability to break down the complicated system and teach his players to run it efficiently. But he also noticed that Northwestern hadn't paid much attention to the defensive end. He asked Carmody how much time he spent coaching defense, and Carmody replied that there was little time to focus exclusively on defense because the intricacies of the offense ate up most of their practices. That revelation convinced Karl to stay away from the Princeton offense.

This isn't to say that the Princeton is a lousy offense. On the contrary: It is a terrific scheme, and no one in the NBA is better at teaching it than Eddie Jordan, a new assistant to Brown's Lakers. Jordan was the assistant for the Nets when his Princeton offense helped them reach the NBA Finals in 2002 and '03.

But those Nets were a running team. They were defined more than anything by their talent for scoring in transition. None of their scorers excelled at getting his own shot in the half court, and so they relied on the mechanism of the Princeton offense to help create shots when the game slowed down. It was a good system for the Nets.

The Lakers aren't primarily a running team, and they have four stars who can each create his own shot. The first issue for the Lakers is that they're going to need more time to learn the Princeton offense, and the second issue is that the offense may not be suited to their players.

In Steve Nash, they have one of the great pick-and-roll point guards in history. Brown has said that Nash or Bryant can break off the Princeton to run pick-and-roll anytime they want. Shouldn't pick-and-roll be their primary weapon? Nash and his teams in Dallas and Phoenix have consistently achieved better results than expected over the years because he has been so difficult to stop in pick-and-roll, and with the Lakers he could run it with Bryant, Howard or Pau Gasol.

Anyone who watched the Mavericks and Suns knows that they ran systems. Those systems developed organically around the talents of Nash, who brought out the best in his teammates and made sure that everyone was involved.

I'm certain there are good arguments for engaging in the Princeton offense. Maybe I'll turn out to be entirely wrong about this, and maybe the Lakers will reach the Finals while bonding under the Princeton umbrella.

The more likely outcome is that they'll shift away from the Princeton over the course of the year. It took time for Dallas coach Rick Carlisle to give way to Jason Kidd's on-the-fly judgments, it took time for Miami coach Erik Spoelstra to quicken the tempo to exploit LeBron James' decision making, and it will take time for Brown to adapt to Nash. Brown is an excellent coach and I believe he will make the big leap of adapting to his players to take full advantage of the Lakers' talent. I envision him finding a way to make this work -- which means the Lakers will blend naturally around Nash's playmaking skills, rather than compelling him to learn an entirely new system at the end of his MVP career.

I suppose we've now reached the point where Kobe tells me to shut up.

Is it fair to say the Thunder underestimated just how good Harden could be?
-- Chris, Chicago

I'm sure the Thunder understood the extent of Harden's talent, Chris. Their roster hierarchy, success and ambition to win a championship meant that Harden couldn't dominate the ball and explode for 37 and 45 points, as he did in his first two games for the Rockets.

It's one thing to score prolifically for a young team without playoff prospects in Houston, and it's another, more meaningful thing to contribute subtly and in a variety of ways to a title contender in Oklahoma City. What Harden is doing right now is a bit like what Jeremy Lin did last year with the Knicks. As much fun as Harden has been having with the Rockets, he will know better than anyone that the role he is playing for Houston isn't as important as the role he played in helping lead Oklahoma City to the Finals last season.

The Harden of OKC and the Harden of Houston are two different players. And I really do believe that Harden's contributions were more valuable for the Thunder than anything he may do for the Rockets this year.

[Ben Golliver: Harden headed for monster offensive season]

Besides Anthony Davis and Damian Lillard, which rookies are making the biggest impact for their team?
-- @rookiewire

Based on his 28 points Monday in a win at the Clippers, you should include explosive Cavaliers shooting guard Dion Waiters on the short list. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is producing for the Bobcats without needing the ball, while Austin Rivers (though he has been shooting poorly) has assisted the Hornets with the ball in his hands. Jonas Valanciunas is averaging an impressive 5.7 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 19.3 minutes with Toronto, while Jared Sullinger's rebounding is going to make him vital to the Celtics' rotation.

The Mavs' Jae Crowder, the Warriors' Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli and 35-year-old Knick Pablo Prigioni are among the many rookies to follow. There were 21 rookies averaging at least a dozen minutes per game in the opening week, which means there were too many contributors to predict who will be on the All-Rookie team apart from Davis and Lillard.

Was Amar'e Stoudemire's injury the best thing that could have happened to the Knicks?
-- Tyler, New York

I don't think so, Tyler. The team that exists now isn't going to go far in the playoffs. The Knicks are making 45.3 percent of their three-pointers, and they won't keep that up.

Their only hope of making an impact in the playoffs is to find a way to involve Carmelo Anthony and Stoudemire when they're on the floor together. They need to get Stoudemire back as soon as possible in order to do the hard work of developing his partnership offensively with Anthony while also incorporating Stoudemire into their defense. They can win without him during the regular season, but they won't accomplish anything meaningful during the postseason unless Stoudemire is contributing in a big way.

Can the 2-0 Magic afford to play this well?
-- Heather, Orlando, Fla.

That's a great question, Heather. I assume you mean that every game they win serves to degrade their chances of winning the draft lottery in May.

Here's another way of looking at it: Strong performances early in the season will hike up the value of their players, enabling the Magic to receive better value in trades leading up to the deadline.

I thought Orlando was going to be terrible this season, and it looks like I may be wrong. But I also thought the Magic would be trading away salaries throughout the year, which is something they may yet do.

Are the Pistons the worst team in the NBA?
-- @golfdufus

The Pistons have a chance to be the league's worst, and that should be their goal, I suppose. They should be trying to land a star in the draft around whom they can rebuild.

As I mentioned to Heather, I went into the season thinking that Orlando might be the worst team in the league. Charlotte is willing to absorb losses and develop its young players while adding another top draft pick (per the OKC model to which Bobcats general manager Rich Cho contributed when he was assisting the Thunder's Sam Presti). Sacramento isn't likely to mesh. Portland has been better than I expected, but again it's too early to draw conclusions.

Thanks to everyone, and please send in more questions for next week.

 
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