Mike D'Antoni returns to New York tonight with more problems than he probably envisaged. His Lakers look lost, their recent embarrassment coming Tuesday night in Cleveland. Where they were humbled by the lowly Cavaliers demonstrating little or no effort on the defensive end of the floor and looking short of ideas on offense.
It's hardly the ideal time to be going to the Garden either, with the red-hot Knicks 16-5 and Tuesday's close fought win against rivals Brooklyn will only have boosted morale further. This is a different Knicks team to the one D'Antoni left behind. They have seasoned veterans willing to sacrifice their own statistics for team development. They have quality role-players that have bought into coach Mike Woodson's system and in Jason Kidd they have a genuine floor leader that everyone can look up to and thrive off.
Oh, and there's Carmelo Anthony.
Anthony is the MVP of the league so far, without question. He has a determination this season that we have seldom seen from Carmelo. He has seen 3 men from his Draft class (James, Wade and Bosh) lift the NBA title last year and he wants a piece of that too. He is playing solid defence and distributing the ball a lot more. Carmelo 'The Team Player' is still putting up monstrous numbers but that isn't concerning him. He cares more about the team than his own personal achievements.
How D'Antoni could have done with that Carmelo.
The bitterness between the pair was more than evident during their time in New York. Carmelo not buying into D'Antoni's system and reverting to Isolation offense. The emergence of Jeremy Lin helped for a short while but when Melo returned it was business as usual. D'Antoni was removed and Lin departed to Houston for what Melo called a 'Ridiculous' contract and New York was Melo's again.
D'Antoni has every right to feel bitter about the situation. When you're star player isn't putting in Maximum effort how could he expect anyone else to be? He should look at this current Laker team in the same light though. He is already in danger of losing them the way he lost the Knicks. He must take last years experience and try a different method.
While Kobe is saying all the right things, he is clearly unhappy. Not so much with D'Antoni, with some of his team-mates. In particular Pau Gasol, who's putting up career-lows in every category. Whether his knees were bothering him or not is irrelevant. He didn't look comfortable in D'Antoni's system and without Nash he is unable to use to high pick-and-roll to his advantage.
Then there's the defence. D'Antoni has never been known for his defensive prowess (Nicknamed 'Antoni with no D' by the New York Media) but it beggars belief that he can't implement a defensive scheme that can make this Lakers team better. They have 3 all-NBA defenders in Kobe, Dwight Howard and Ron Artest that can be relied upon to lock down defenders on any given night. At least that's how it used to be. The effort isn't there right now, not in transition, in their rebounding nor their rotations. Some have said D'Antoni needs to bring in a defensive specialist to shake things up and develop a scheme that will suit these players. Not many know he tried that in New York with a certain Mike Woodson.
Look how that turned out.
Howard in particular is as curious a subject matter in the NBA right now. This is, without question, the most dominant centre in the NBA. The last 2 years have damaged Howard, that is clear. He has freely admitted that he should have handled the situation in Orlando better. Pushing for a move to Brooklyn before eventually ending up in L.A. At times he looks like he is going through the motions, every part of his game has declined since he has arrived at the bright lights of Hollywood. The most glaring being his free-throws, which have dropped to below 50 percent and have allowed teams to purposely foul Howard in close games rather than let Kobe take a shot or let Howard get to the rim. His happy-go-lucky demeanour won't sit well with Kobe for long. Not while they are losing anyway. Bryant has already stated he wants Howard to be more nasty, much like Shaq was during Kobe's most successful time as a Laker. Whether he can get this out of Howard remains to be seen.
They are holding out hopes that an ageing Steve Nash can transform this team, which isn't an ideal scenario. This isn't the 2005 Phoenix Suns. This isn't a 7 seconds or less offense, or at least it shouldn't be. These are seasoned veterans, most well into their 30's and a different pace is needed. Nash has the ability to get the best out of everyone around him no doubt about that. The question needs to be asked though just how much does he have left to give? Los Angeles' depth has been exposed very early on in this NBA season and should Nash go down again things could become critical for the one time favourites to win the Western Conference.
D'Antoni has tried to play down Thursday's game as 'Just another' but he isn't fooling anybody. He wants retribution for the way the situation played out in New York. The thing is there couldn't be a worse time for this game to be happening. New York is buzzing again, everyone is talking about the Knicks and their legitimacy for a claim to the NBA title. If Kobe and Co. can't motivate themselves for this game then we'll know just how severe the problem is for the Lakers and D'Antoni. Of course it's too early for make-or-break games a quarter of the way into the NBA season. This will, however, give us the clearest indication yet just how much work there is to be done. A win against the in-form Knicks, being the first NBA team this season to win at Madison Square Garden, could transform their season. Suffer a blow-out to the league's hottest team and the finger pointing and questions will no doubt become more severe.
My guess is, things are going to get worse before they get better.
Dean Jones: Follow me on Twitter @DeanJones_