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Bryant on what he expected: "I saw us as a team that had to mix it up. We have the talent to do a lot of different things. Find out what that is on any given night, and it would come from penetration and reading the defense."
D'Antoni on what he expected: "I saw Steve and Dwight in a lot of pick-and-rolls. That would be the basis of our offense. That also gets Kobe open shots—shots he doesn't have to work so hard for."
But Nash suffered a small fracture to his left fibula before D'Antoni even arrived, and he didn't return until Dec. 22. While he was out, D'Antoni struggled to find an answer.
Critics of his hiring postulated that D'Antoni would not be a good fit with an aging team that resembled, in some respects, a post office—Howard, Bryant, Pau Gasol, Metta World Peace and Antawn Jamison all like to play with their backs to the basket. Those critics included the Looming Legend.
"The players don't match well with Mike's system," Jackson said last week. "I like Mike as a coach, just not with the personnel the Lakers have. But that's a choice management made: to emphasize Steve Nash. I love Steve. Who doesn't? But he's 39. Dwight Howard is 27. You have a chance to extend your future with this young ballplayer who can come back and lead your team, but that's not what they did. They emphasized the older player."
THE TAO OF STEVE
There is some truth in Jackson's assessment, but the success of the Lakers' offense, at the end of any day, is going to depend mostly on Bryant. Age aside, Nash has played well, shooting 51.2% from the floor and 40.5% from three-point range. True, his assists are down—7.4 per game, compared with 10.7 last season with Phoenix—but that is a huge number for a Lakers point guard teamed with Bryant, who is averaging 5.6 dimes. Over Kobe's last 14 seasons starting at shooting guard, only in 2003--04 (Gary Payton) and in lockout-shortened '11--12 (Ramon Sessions) has a backcourt mate averaged more assists than Bryant.
"In terms of adjustments that had to be made by individual players," says Kupchak, "Steve may have had the biggest of anyone."
Nash will almost always defer when Kobe wants to isolate, but if he has his way over the final 28 games, Nash will be directing a different offense. "More pick-and-rolls, and more pick-and-rolls after that," Nash insisted last Thursday night as he hustled out of the locker room to catch a late-night plane to Phoenix. "As bad as we were tonight [against the Clippers], we looked good when we ran pick-and-roll."
That message was clearly directed at one person. Howard's inability—or unwillingness—to embrace a pick-and-roll offense has been a major subplot of the Lakers' season.