6:24AM EST November 15. 2012 – LOS ANGELES — If LeBron James and his Miami Heat colleagues felt so inclined, they could author a book on the art of meshing superstar players and their personalities after all they went through leading up to the championship last June.
The Los Angeles Lakers, as fate would have it, could use that sort of how-to guide right about now.
As was the case with the Heat two seasons ago, a slow start (9-8 for the Heat, 1-4 for the Lakers) caused all sorts of consternation among the team’s fans and led to pressure to fire the coach. The Heat didn’t, standing by coach Erik Spoelstra and ultimately looking smart because of it.
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They endured the disappointment of an NBA Finals loss to the Dallas Mavericks in 2011 and all the added scrutiny that came with it but reached their goal with a six-game Finals win against the Oklahoma City Thunder a year later. The Lakers, meanwhile, fired coach Mike Brown on Friday and will welcome new coach Mike D’Antoni in an introductory news conference Thursday.
Yet while James, the reigning MVP, and his teammates weren’t looking to offer a tutorial to the NBA’s latest super team when they arrived this week to face the Los Angeles Clippers, they do know what it will take for the Lakers to turn it around.
“It’s not easy, and it doesn’t happen overnight,” James said. “We live in a world where you automatically sign guys, and you guys (in the news media) want success right now. It’s a process. It’s not a video game where you can just put guys on the team and it automatically just happens and you have the best team in the world. It takes time.”
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Their stories are similar, but the circumstances — as Dwyane Wade pointed out — are different enough that they may help explain how each team handled its situation. When the Heat stars met on South Beach in the summer of 2010 and signed deals that made them Miami’s at least through 2014, Wade was the oldest of the bunch at 28, while James was 25 and big man Chris Bosh was 26. The Lakers’ new core is just as impressive as the Heat’s on paper — unless it’s birth certificates or player contracts that we’re talking about.
Resident star Kobe Bryant may well be the oldest 34-year-old in the sports world, having logged the equivalent of almost 17 full seasons in the NBA between regular season and postseason play (1,389 games in all) and spending so many summers playing internationally as well. He is signed through next season and has said he may retire after that.
New point guard Steve Nash is signed through 2015, but he is 38 and also a high-mileage player because of his extensive postseason experience. As for Dwight Howard, it’s not a Father Time issue with the Lakers’ new center so much as a matter of his expiring contract. The 26-year-old is free to sign where he pleases this summer, and the Lakers are well aware they must make him happy to avoid the disaster of him leaving town.
“We kind of had a little bit more time and a little bit more patience,” Wade told USA TODAY Sports. “I think (the Lakers’ decision to fire Brown) was probably moreso looking at the age and saying, ‘Listen, we don’t have time to be patient.’ It was unfortunate.”
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The differences go beyond the age factor, though, as the power structures of each organization likely had a ripple effect on the respective coaching situations as well. Former Lakers coach and current Heat President Pat Riley is the unmistakable leader of Miami’s operation, so it was to Spoelstra’s benefit that he had come up under Riley’s tutelage and earned loyalty from their shared history. Brown, a former video coordinator like Spoelstra with a similar reputation as a detail-oriented workaholic, had no such luck with the Lakers in part because of what is a cumbersome totem pole of power.
Brown, who never won it all in Cleveland but was 272-138 in four seasons with James, may have thought he was safe because he had the backing of the man thought to have taken control of the Lakers these days, Jim Buss, the team’s vice president and son of owner Jerry Buss. Entering the season, Brown was expected to have time to make the most of this group and ultimately be judged in June. His ill-fated decision to install the Princeton offense that would take months to perfect was the most obvious sign he thought he had more time.
But Buss is no Riley when it comes to having the final say. It’s a chorus of often-contradicting voices in Laker Land, with his father’s still as prominent as any and Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak hanging on at the helm as well. After Brown was dismissed just five games in, the mixed messages from the Lakers brass only continued during the controversial courting of Phil Jackson that his agent would eventually tell ESPN was “indicative of the shabby way the organization is being run.” Meanwhile, the Heat, while having no plans of relinquishing their NBA throne, watched from a distance like everyone else and were more than happy to have become the second-biggest circus in the league.
“If you watch any sports show, (the Lakers are) taking up half of the show,” Bosh told USA TODAY Sports. “But the thing that I try to tell people (about so-called Super Teams) is, ‘This isn’t XBox, it’s not PlayStation. In real life, it’s a lot more complicated. Guys have to make a lot of sacrifices, roles have to be established.
“It’s a very long season. We figured that out. There’s going to be a lot of ups and downs, and when you’re contending for a championship that’s how it is. One day you’re on top of the world, and the next that world is crumbling. It’s a part of the gig, man.”
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The Heat, who would certainly know, will be watching like the rest.
“Yeah, we watch everything that they do,” Bosh said. “We know that they have huge upside and their propensity to really bring it together, it’s huge. The potential danger (of the Lakers) is there.”
As was the case with the Heat, Wade predicts, the Lakers will find their way.
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“This team can win 60% of its games without a coach,” Wade said of the Lakers. “They can figure it out. And they have players who will figure it out. Just like us. It’s early in the season, and they’ll figure it out. We were 9-8 (in 2010), and then at one point I think we won 21 of 22 games. And then we went through another tough stretch. There’s going to be highs and lows with those kinds of teams.
“(The Lakers) don’t have the same personnel (as D’Antoni’s Phoenix Suns teams from 2005 to 2008). But he’s one of the best X’s and O’s coaches that this game has ever seen, and he (will) put them in a position to be successful.”