BROOKLYN — There is a happy harmony to this largely nameless Los Angeles Lakers team, a steady rhythm of passes and player movement and willing co-dependence, the sort of virtues that Mike D’Antoni has long preached as a head coach, whether in the Italian leagues or the NBA.
The Lakers are missing Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash, but they are chugging along in this early season on the strength of their esprit de corps, climbing back to .500 on Wednesday with a 99-94 victory over the Brooklyn Nets.
“I’ve liked almost everything—especially with their attitude and the way they’re doing it,” D’Antoni said earlier. He added, “We’re coming together as a team.”
Bryant will return soon, perhaps in the next week or two, posing a small—albeit thoroughly welcome—challenge to the Lakers’ nascent chemistry as he works to regain his form after Achilles surgery.
The more insidious threat to the Lakers’ good vibe, however, might be a more subtle force, seen only on spreadsheets.
Ten Lakers have contracts that expire next summer. Only Bryant, Nash and Robert Sacre have guaranteed deals for next season. Nick Young has a player option.
This is a team with an expiration date, every player a placeholder, a temp worker in search of his next job, who might prioritize personal glory over team goals.
“I think there’s always that concern, that players will start playing for themselves, playing for their contract,” D’Antoni told Bleacher Report. “That’s the prevailing thought.”
But, he hastened to add, the Lakers have assembled a cast of “good guys” whose character should hopefully endure through the long winter months and the inevitable hiccups to come.
“They really want to win,” D’Antoni said. “I think they understand also that you can do both—you can get the stats and win at the same time and play good basketball.”
The transitory nature of this Lakers team came into sharper focus on Monday, with the news of Bryant’s two-year, $48.5 million extension. He is now on the books for $23.5 million next season. Other salaries and cap charges could leave the Lakers with just $22 million in cap room. Signing even one elite free agent could wipe out that sum—and would force the Lakers to renounce the rights to most of their players, from Pau Gasol to Steve Blake, from Jordan Hill to Jordan Farmar.
NBA players might not grasp every intricacy of the salary cap, but they do understand this basic math. They also understand that prospective employers are scanning the daily box scores.
“As a player, it’s definitely not easy to live that and go through that,” said Chris Kaman, the Lakers’ backup center, who has seen the full range of player personalities and player agendas in his 10 years in the NBA.
“For all the guys who are young and don’t understand how it goes, it can be difficult, because they think all they gotta do is come in and score,” Kaman said. “So then they force things and they do things that they aren’t normally accustomed to doing.”
In this case, it helps that the Lakers have a head coach who is renowned for giving his players a great deal of freedom, and for a high-paced, high-caliber offense that boosts statistical averages and generally makes everyone look good. (Ask Chris Duhon, Boris Diaw and Raja Bell, or any number of others who have had career seasons under D’Antoni’s lead.)
But if the Lakers start to slip? If their camaraderie wavers under a five-game losing streak? If July starts sounding more important than January?
It wouldn’t take long to identify the potential trouble spots in the rotation. Nick Young has a well-earned reputation as a conscience-free gunner. He has been fairly judicious so far in his Lakers tenure, shooting 44.9 percent from the field while taking 11 shots per game.
Other young players, such as Hill, Wes Johnson, Jodie Meeks and Xavier Henry, are still looking to make their mark and prove their worth in this league. All have shown degrees of promise in these early weeks, and all could open next season in different uniforms.
“The best you can do is block that out and just play,” Kaman said. “I think we have some guys on the team that really understand what needs to be done, that scoring isn’t all that’s going to get them the money that they need. That we need to win.”
The other threat to chemistry could come from the players who fall out of the rotation in the coming months, as Bryant gets back up to speed and D’Antoni settles on a steady eight- or nine-man group.
D’Antoni has confronted this very situation before, with the Knicks four years ago. That team was also designed for obsolescence, as the franchise positioned itself for the free agent bonanza of 2010. LeBron James earned more back-page headlines than anyone who actually played for the Knicks that season.
“At certain points, mentally, it gets fatiguing to think ‘What’s my end result?’” D’Antoni said, reflecting back on that season.
His players remained professional throughout, but D’Antoni said, “I just think there’s not that extra spark sometimes you need to have to win games in the NBA.”
No one expects the Lakers to suddenly splinter into 15 me-first factions, but team officials were concerned enough about the contract dynamics that they addressed the issue with the locker room early on.
The early results are encouraging. The Lakers, with only Gasol to lean on, no galvanizing leader on the floor and no fourth-quarter closer, are a respectable .500—still in striking distance of a playoff berth, and with Bryant warming his engines.
The offense is balanced, with eight Lakers averaging at least eight points per game, led by Gasol at a modest 14.9. Nine Lakers (not counting the injured Nash) are averaging at least 6.8 shots.
“I think they understand it,” D’Antoni said. “Now, I say that today and they could turn into serial killers in two weeks and I’m going `uh-oh.’ But I really believe, I trust these guys.”
The harmony only needs to endure until the roster expires.