Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni says his team’s season just started. Is it too late?

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Prior to the team’s game against Cleveland, Los Angeles Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni suggested that the Lakers’ season started over on Sunday, even after a 15-21 start to a (pre?) season that some thought would end in the Lakers losing all of 21 contests over an 82-game turn. Sunday was the 2012-13 debut, D’Antoni declared, which was probably just fine for a Laker team setting up to take on a 9-29 Cleveland Cavaliers team in Los Angeles. The Lakers romped, if not entirely predictably (the team’s 36-game preseason has been that rough), in a 113-93 victory.

It was a hollow motivational ploy to most outsiders. Paired with a sterling defensive effort against a Cavaliers team that ranks amongst the five worst offensive teams in the NBA. An insignificant win amongst the 30 or so in 46 games that the Lakers will probably need just to make it back to this year’s postseason bracket. A game that answered absolutely no questions, because the same ailments that the Lakers face in mid-January were the ones we assumed of them after trading for Dwight Howard in early August.

What else do you want D’Antoni to do, though?

In terms of inspirational constructs, the idea that the team’s season started on Jan. 13 against one of the worst teams in the NBA is an easy out. Still, the “take one game at a time and play that game”-ideal that D’Antoni is attempting to put in place, though it reminds of the sports cliché to end all sports clichés, is the proper one. Without punting it into cliché-dom, had it been articulated better, this ideal walks hand in hand with what Phil Jackson has been preaching for years.

D’Antoni has no other choice. He’s been dealt a fantastic hand with this Laker roster, potentially, but nothing’s gone his way so far. Even before D’Antoni’s time as Lakers coach it was obvious that the group needed good health and a Herculean (read: typical) defensive effort from Dwight Howard in order to not only survive but thrive in 2012-13, and the team has received neither. Steve Nash and Steve Blake have been lost at various times to injury. Pau Gasol has battled knee, foot, and concussion issues. Howard has dealt with the aftermath of a significant back surgery, and is now working through a torn labrum. Only sheer Bavarian willpower has kept Kobe Bryant’s platelets in place.

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On top of that, it’s mid January and we still don’t know what Steve Nash is capable of in this offense, as he seems like an afterthought even while working under the same coach that helped him to two MVPs in 2005 and 2006. Gasol seems criminally underutilized, as D’Antoni appears to be the only coach in the NBA that seems to think Pau should be spotting up for jump shots. Bryant has been allowed to both chuck away (good, even if he shouldn’t be taking game-deciding threes) and let his defense go to pot (bad); and most importantly, Howard has rarely worked as an impactful force for a defense that “jumped” from 24th to 23rd overall following the Cavaliers win.

We’re 27 games into the D’Antoni era. Nash has been gone, Pau here and there, and Dwight looks nothing like the guy we saw swat half the NBA from 2008 to 2011, but this is on him at this point. And left with no Gasol trade to lean on as Los Angeles’ Next Great Excuse, this is what he’s come up with: “One game at a time.”

We don’t blame him, considering his paucity of options. Provided he stops asking Pau Gasol to hit three-pointers and starts letting Steve Nash dominate the ball. We’ll get behind the “one game at a time” noise only if he coaches that one game the right way.

Of course, worries about Nash and Gasol’s role might not be as big a deal if Dwight Howard could get back to his sterling play, Steve Nash recently ascertained. Following Sunday’s win, he delineated as much to ESPN’s Dave McMenamin:

"He's the anchor to the team," Nash said, openly bestowing pecking order status on him. "When he plays with energy, plays hard defensively, we're a different team. The only way for us to realize our aspirations is if he is that presence defensively."

While Howard spent most of his postgame remarks complimenting the team's collective defensive effort, when he was told about what Nash said, he gobbled it up.

"It is my role," Howard said. "On both ends. To help other guys get open and on the defensive end play strong, communicating and talking and telling guys where they need to be. I understand that they need me on the floor, they need me focused every night for us to win."

Modern NBA games are filled with microphones and high-definition feeds and local games that are shipped worldwide. In an instant you can tell which teams are talking on defense, and which teams aren’t. It doesn’t take a press row pass to note that the chatter defensively during Laker games isn’t as strong as the chatter you hear elsewhere. Heck, the Golden State Warriors fill up broadcasts with constant talking on that end, and they’re barely ranked in the top 10 defensively.

That’s where the Lakers need to be, though. Nobody was asking for a top-five finish in that area, that was never going to happen with Nash, Bryant, and Gasol on board, but we were hoping for a top-10 finish on defense to pair with a sterling offense. Just above-average was enough, and yet the team needed a blowout win over one of the NBA’s worst offense’s just to make it to 23rd.

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It was a game the Lakers were supposed to win, according to Metta World Peace, who pointed out that the young Cavaliers (“starting five rookies”) probably were out late into the Los Angeles night on Saturday, before chiding the Los Angeles media for not properly talking up the Lakers as a team as opposed to a collection of stars. Of course, for decades, collections have stars have found ways to form great teams; whether it was by result of kismet, years of chemistry-building, or great coaching.

Kismet ain’t gonna happen. The Lakers, full of stars in their 30s, don’t have years to get this right. This team is under the same sort of pressure, if less arrogantly applied, that the 2010-11 Miami Heat dealt with. Without the benefit of falling back on a few in-prime years to work it out.

Great coaching, though, could still turn this thing around. Feet held to the fire defensively, whether that means demanding the real Dwight Howard show up or Kobe Bryant actually follow his man, could make a difference. If that falls into place, worries about Nash’s role or Gasol’s inability to work as a stretch power forward could fall away.

The team has a 45-game season left to figure it all out, with Gasol hopefully returning soon. The only problem comes in the fact that the Lakers probably have to go 30-15 just in order to make it to a playoff bracket some expected them to top.

Is this a 30-15 team?

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