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BEN BOLCH / ON THE NBA

This Lakers team is more to Mike D'Antoni's liking

There are no superstars (not yet), but there is also no discord and more communication as each player knows his role.

November 30, 2013|By Ben Bolch
  • No Kobe, no Nash? No problem for Coach Mike D'Antoni, who has guided the Lakers to a winning record without its starting backcourt.
No Kobe, no Nash? No problem for Coach Mike D'Antoni, who has guided… (Michael Nelson / EPA )

MacGyver usually had more to work with than Mike D'Antoni has so far this season.

A paper clip, a stick of chewing gum and a ball of twine … who wouldn't take that over some of these Lakers lineups the NBA's most resourceful coach has been forced to roll out?

D'Antoni has made it all work, for the most part, the Lakers' 9-8 record a one-game improvement over where the team was at this point last season even with Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard in the lineup.

"It's a lot easier to coach them," D'Antoni said Saturday of his current players. "They listen and do kind of what they want to do. So I haven't made a whole lot of adjustments; it's just a different atmosphere."

OK, so one thing has remained a constant: D'Antoni still loves to joke. Pretty much everything else about the Lakers has changed in his second season with the team.

There's no icy tension among the stars, Howard having long since departed and Bryant likening Pau Gasol to a brother in the foreword of Gasol's recently released book, "Life/Vida."

There's no sign of Pout Gasol, the 7-footer not griping like he did last season amid demotions to the bench that famously prompted Bryant to tell his teammate to pull up his big-boy pants.

There's no veteran languishing on the bench amid a lack of communication, D'Antoni recently talking to Chris Kaman about his reduced playing time, unlike D'Antoni's radio silence last season with Antawn Jamison.

"He's telling everybody what their roles are and he's believing in everybody and giving them the confidence to go out there and just play basketball," forward Wes Johnson said of D'Antoni before unveiling the coach's mantra. "'You've been playing this game your whole life; just go out and play it.' "

The Lakers have shown a surprising amount of game given their pedigree, beating Western Conference powers Houston, Golden State and the Clippers without Bryant and with only a smidgen of the former great known as Steve Nash.

Nine players have led the team in scoring, showing how little sustainable star power this roster holds. D'Antoni has shown faith in his players by using a 10-man rotation and unearthing finds such as Jordan Hill. The coach has also made timely tweaks to his starting lineup.

Everything somehow seems to be working, the Lakers having won five of six games heading into a showdown with resurgent Portland on Sunday at Staples Center.

There has been zero selfishness on a team including 10 players either on a one-year contract or in the final year of their contract. Nick Young is even playing defense, of all things.

"We're all hungry, we're communicating a lot better, everybody's been paying attention and asking a lot of questions," Johnson said. "That's going to carry us a long way."

D'Antoni seems to get the power of chemistry after failing to grasp the concept a year ago.

The coach last season: "Whether you're happy or not doesn't really matter if you are playing as hard as you can. You don't have to love each other."

The coach Saturday: "We have a bunch of good guys and they all accept who they are, where they are in this stage of their career and what needs to be done to win."

There. Was that so hard?

D'Antoni dismissed the notion that bringing in his own assistant coaches this season has made an appreciable difference, noting that the staff he inherited from Mike Brown and interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff 10 games into last season "was great too."

But a full training camp certainly helped the team implement a pace more to D'Antoni's liking. The Lakers are averaging 100.4 possessions per game this season, up from 96.8 last season.

Now the team must prepare for the ultimate changeup in Bryant, who could return as soon as Friday against Sacramento. Whose minutes will Bryant take and how many? Will a player who has averaged 25.5 points in his career continue to be a high-volume scorer or more of a distributor?

"Different games will call for different things, and you just play basketball and he'll read a situation where it's facilitating or scoring," D'Antoni said. "You get into a situation, you have to make a judgment; a couple of guys [defending you], I've got to pass. [If there's] nobody, I'm scoring. So he'll do that.

"He'll be in the No. 1 spot, wherever that is."

The way things are going for the Lakers, Bryant will continually be in the right spot, his coach there to help him find his way back onto a team that has remained surprisingly relevant.

ben.bolch@latimes.com

Twitter: @latbbolch

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