Mike D'Antoni and Kobe Bryant in a 2008 photo that hasn't been heavily modified (Getty Images)
The most persistent and prominent of the criticisms lobbed at Phil Jackson over his coaching career was the idea that he merely rolled the ball out to his superstars and took unending credit for their eventual and expected winning ways. That he was the luckiest guy on earth, coaching all those greats, and that his triangle offense didn't even run any plays!
Well, the Los Angeles Lakers haven't hired Phil Jackson for a third time. Instead, they're going with former Phoenix Suns and New York Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni, as first reported by the Los Angeles Times. D'Antoni, like Jackson, has been criticized for merely rolling the ball out and letting the highly paid stars do the work. Still, in the wake of Mike Brown's unsuccessful 71-game tenure as Lakers coach, isn't it pretty clear that this is exactly what the Lakers need? For someone to, as Kobe Bryant put it less than delicately but completely accurately on Sunday night, to "get the [expletive] out of the way"?
This wasn't always the best remedy, not in Jackson's frustrating final year with the Lakers in 2011 and Brown's run to the second round of the playoffs last season. The Lakers needed guidance with that roster, and too often (yes, even under Jackson) the voices coming from the bench weren't strong enough to bend that instinct. With a healthier Bryant alongside new additions Dwight Howard and Steve Nash and the hoped-for return to prominence of Pau Gasol, the less-is-more ethos might be a perfect fit. And, luckily for Lakers ownership, D'Antoni is willing to work for far less than Jackson's more-more-more.
The Lakers could have had Jackson. Jerry Buss could have made things uneasy for son Jim Buss and paid the money necessary to make it worth Phil's while to save the Lakers' floundering fortunes for the third time in 13 years, and the Lakers could have decided that with the team's massive payroll and the millions they're still on the hook to pay Mike Brown over the next few years that they may as well go ahead and pay the coach Kobe wanted the most. Instead, they picked up Kobe's second choice, and it's probably the best deal for all involved. It's true the Lakers players weren't listening to Phil when he and the team uneasily parted for the second time in 2011, same as was the case in 2004, but a few years away tends to change that. That's the guess, at least. It would have been a marvelous pairing once again, but one we'll never get to see.
For those disappointed in ego and money and control (those minor things) getting in the way of something special again, D'Antoni's presence is superb consolation.
Mike's drawbacks have been detailed, to some length, since his 2004-05 Phoenix Suns shocked the NBA while running (literally) to the league's best record. D'Antoni's Suns teams are routinely mediocre on defense — per-possession stats consistently rank the squad in the middle of the pack defensively, a fact that is stretched to the point of absurdity by those who still look at raw points scored and given up a way of determining defensive and offensive value. D'Antoni's last team in New York was ranked 10th in defense before he and the organization decided to part ways, and their immediate upshot to the higher echelon (as in, "the Knicks turned into the best defensive team in the NBA for a while") on that end can also be argued away with the fact that his departure coincided with possible league-worst defensive big man Amar'e Stoudemire going down with injury, and the fact that the Knicks clearly played harder out of possible spite once Mike went away.
The offensive drawbacks? Under both GMs Bryan Colangelo and Steve Kerr in Phoenix, D'Antoni's teams were flush with outside shooters that would sometimes leave Steve Nash as the only guy in the lane in both transition and the half-court. The Lakers have shooters from the outside, but not necessarily "makers." Comparing Howard's work in the middle to latter-period Shaquille O'Neal probably isn't the easiest sell, but it should be noted that Gasol's best work is done in the low post in ways that resemble your typical low-post plodder (even if Gasol ends the possession with a perfectly timed dish or deft score). Nash and Bryant have barely played together, thus far, and D'Antoni's biggest asset (his offensive gifts) was probably what the Lakers needed least right now.
Still, the idea that the offense was going to sort itself out, and that the Lakers badly needed a defensive-minded coach to improve upon what was a terrible defensive start to the season doesn't quite scan with me. The offense did, does and will need considerable minding as we move along. Nash has to learn to co-exist with another ball dominator in the back court. Kobe has to do the same, and all of the Lakers have to determine a way to improve upon their middling start to the season in terms of 3-point shooting — not a lot of spot-up guys on this roster, and Bryant (an all-time legend as a scorer, but for his career a below-average 33.7 percent 3-point shooter) will have to watch his amounts of transition threes.
Pau Gasol and Phil Jackson, in October (Getty Images)
D'Antoni will ask for just as much; and the reality is that this was never going to be a great or even good defense in the first place. It's true that the Lakers' 18th-ranked defense (a ranking that jumped eight spots in one night even after a poor defensive outing against Golden State because the Warriors missed an unending series of good looks) has to improve to the edges of the top 10, but this team was also created to either lead or come close to leading the league in offense as well. Yes, defense was Mike Brown's problem, but D'Antoni will have no choice but to improve the Lakers' offense (currently ranked 10th) significantly if he wants his new club to be thought of as a championship contender by spring.
As the team digs out of its low point, in spite of a two-game winning streak, the same frustrations remain.
Even given the animosity and questions about whether he truly wanted all that entails with an NBA comeback, Jackson probably was the ideal choice. It's unfortunate that the Lakers didn't pull out all the stops in order to convince the team's former coach to return.
Dumping a coach under the circumstances related to Mike Brown's first five games — no Nash, no bench, new offense, Dwight Howard's defensive ability working at about a "C" level — was in and of itself a bum move. Of course this team was going to get better. And, of course, Brown the tactician and hard worker wasn't going to rest until it happened.
And D'Antoni, still without a ring, still has a lot of questions to answer.
Credit the Lakers, though. Firing Brown after five games was unfortunate and almost unprecedented, but the team moved swiftly to admit its mistake in his 2011 hiring. And if Jackson didn't want to deal with the tedium and stress of plodding through 70-some regular-season games before getting to what really counts, then credit the Lakers for moving on to a second choice that has a chance to be just as successful.
The Lakers made out again. And in six months this early season intrigue will probably feel like it took place six years ago.
Los Angeles just hopes it will have won close to 60 games between now and then.
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