After weeks of hedging, the Los Angeles Lakers made things official on Wednesday afternoon: Kobe Bryant will miss the remainder of the 2013-14 season due to the lingering effects from his left tibial fracture. This leaves the injury-ravaged Lakers to finish off the course that has been well in hand since both Bryant and guard Steve Nash went down earlier this season – spiraling toward the bottom of the Western Conference for just the second time since the franchise moved to Los Angeles.
This spiral, coming on the heels of one of the more disappointing seasons in NBA history (for any team) in 2012-13, allows for open season as to the futures of both Nash (who could be cut, this summer, encouraging a retirement that he doesn’t want), free agent Pau Gasol (who has routinely clashed with the team’s coaching staff both on record and off), and head coach Mike D’Antoni.
D’Antoni, who was hired in a late night move by late former Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss over Phil Jackson in November of 2012, has struggled to a 62-74 record as Lakers coach. This isn’t a fair representation of his coaching abilities – Bryant has played just 10 games in 11 months, Nash has looked a shell of his former self while on the court, and Dwight Howard was working through a debilitating back injury last season – but the same concerns that were in place in the fall of 2012 (when D’Antoni replaced former coach Mike Brown) are still lingering.
Is Mike D’Antoni the right coach for this team, as either presently constructed with the future Hall of Famers dotting the roster? And is he the right coach for whatever team the Lakers manage to field for 2014-15 and beyond?
According to those pesky anonymous sources, apparently both the Lakers front office and Kobe Bryant doesn’t think so.
ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith reported as much on Wednesday morning, from Lakers Nation:
“I had a source tell me last night [that] Mike D’Antoni is gone at the end of the season. He won’t be there [...] I’m just telling you, that’s the word coming out of L.A.”
“It’s not coming from the Lakers themselves, but people close to the organization say that Mike D’Antoni is gone because there’s no way that [Carmelo Anthony] would elect to go there if D’Antoni is there. If D’Antoni is gone, with the cap room they have coming up and Kobe’s imminent return, [L.A.] is a viable option [for Anthony].”
“People close to the organization.” So, agents are guessing, and Stephen A. Smith is relaying an agent’s guesswork for all of us, which is nice. Yes, Carmelo Anthony probably doesn’t want to play for the coach he clashed with in New York, a coach that quit on his team partway through the 2011-12 season, but the real reason Carmelo Anthony doesn’t want to go to the Lakers is because he’s also have to give up tens of millions of dollars to do so, while playing alongside a recovering 35-year old Bryant.
It’s damn convenient. We’re not exactly in D’Antoni’s camp here, his work in Los Angeles has been a failure, but this is also like saying “Carmelo Anthony won’t go to the Detroit Pistons this summer if they hire his former combatant George Karl as the team’s head coach.” Sure, Carmelo wouldn’t really want to play for Karl again (I don’t know any player who would, at this point), but the real reasons will always been financial and basketball-driven, in that order. And we don’t blame Anthony for that order.
But multiple sources told Sporting News that the reason for D’Antoni’s potential dismissal is closer to home—star guard Kobe Bryant.
Bryant, sources said, has “no interest” in playing for D’Antoni next season, and wants a new coach in place for the 2014-15 season.
The Lakers have a team option for the final year of D’Antoni’s three-year, $12 million deal, and with Mike Brown now coaching in Cleveland, the team would enter 2014-15 free of any obligations to ex-coaches should they decline D’Antoni’s option. And with D’Antoni out of the way, tactful types like Jeff Van Gundy (who refuses to interview or respond to overtures from teams working with head or interim coaches already in place) could be set to suit up for a rebuilding Laker squad after talking with the coach-less team this summer.
Of course, coaching really isn't the Lakers' biggest problem. The team's scads of injuries, somehow, aren't even its biggest issue.
The problem in Los Angeles is that the Lakers co-owners Jim and Jeannie Buss do not see eye to eye, and that Jim Buss' personnel leanings leave a lot to be desired. Bryant spoke about as much on Wednesday. From ESPN's Dave McMenamin:
"I think we have to start at the top in terms of the culture of our team," Bryant said. "What kind of culture do we want to have? What kind of system do we want to have? How do we want to play? It starts there and from there, you can start building out your team accordingly."
"You got to start with Jim," Bryant said. "You got to start with Jim and Jeanie and how that relationship plays out. It starts there and having a clear direction and clear authority. And then it goes down to the coaching staff and what Mike (D'Antoni) is going to do, what they're going to do with Mike and it goes from there. It's got to start at the top."
"How can I be satisfied with it? We're like 100 games under .500," Bryant said. "I can't be satisfied with that at all. This is not what we stand for. This is not what we play for. A lot of times it's hard to understand that message if you're not a diehard Laker fan. It's hard to really understand where we're coming from and what we're accustomed to, which is playing for championships and everything else is a complete failure. That's just how it is. That's how it was explained to me by Jerry (West) and all the other great Lakers who have played here and that's how I grew up thinking. So that's just how it is."
Bryant is already on record as wanting seven-season teammate Pau Gasol to return, and if Gasol takes the sort of pay cut that Kobe Bryant (who will make an insane $23.5 million next season, a pay cut from this year’s $30 million salary, but one that could hamstring the team in the free agent market) refused to take, the Lakers could be players this summer as they recruit free agents. Bryant’s salary won’t allow the team to bring in a pair of top-tiered stars, but the potential is there for a proper rebuild. Especially if the Lakers strike gold with what could be a top five pick in this year’s NBA draft.
This is likely why, after several wasted years in the wake of Phil Jackson’s departure in 2011, both the Lakers and Bryant want to get this right. The team will enter 2014-15 with just five playoff wins to their credit since Jackson was forced out, with Bryant having played just 10 games in 18 and a half months and with no assurances even if the team does hit a home run both in the draft and the free agent market.
They’ll need a coach to put it all together. Is Mike D’Antoni the right man for the job?
Several sources that have watched Los Angeles Lakers basketball over the last year and a half say “no.”
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