Before the ink was even dry on Mike D'Antoni signing a four-year deal to be the next head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, the basketball world began rejoicing that the Showtime Lakers are officially back.
Let's slow down for just a minute, though. Everyone knows D'Antoni's system will fill the score sheet, but can it fill the win column? More specifically for Lakers fans who have grown accustomed to deep runs into the NBA playoffs, can D'Antoni's system fill Jerry Buss's trophy case?
No matter what happens, it will be fun to watch. In his seven full seasons as an NBA head coach for the Phoenix Suns and New York Knicks, D'Antoni's teams were in the top five in scoring six times, leading the NBA in points per game in three of his four full seasons with the Suns while leading the Eastern Conference in scoring in two of his three full years with the Knicks.
D'Antoni's teams have never scored fewer than 102 points per game in any season. Good news for Lakers fans is that the system was never better than with Steve Nash—the new Lakers point guard who has made an MVP career out of pushing the basketball—at the helm.
Still, with all the scoring and all the regular-season wins, the Suns (and certainly the Knicks) didn't have much to show for it in the postseason and nothing, save for a few MVP awards for Nash, to fill the trophy case.
D'Antoni made the playoffs once in three full seasons with the Knicks, and while his Phoenix squads won their division three times and made the postseason in each of his four full seasons as head coach, they never made it past the Western Conference finals.
In his seven full seasons as an NBA head coach for the Suns and Knicks, D'Antoni's teams have been home for the NBA Finals every year, watching the Phil Jackson-led Lakers compete in three championship series in that span, winning two of them.
That is what D'Antoni has gotten himself into with the Lakers: the immediate and never-ending comparisons to all the success that has come before him.
D'Antoni has to win, win fast and win in the playoffs for this new Showtime Lakers experiment to be considered a success.
That's the thing about the old Showtime Lakers in the Pat Riley era. We remember them because they were fun to watch, sure. Magic Johnson's no-look passes and Kareem Abdul-Jabaar's sky hooks invigorated the NBA in the 1980s. More than anything, we remember those Lakers teams because they won championships.
The Lakers won four NBA titles under Pat Riley in the '80s, losing in the finals on three other occasions. The Lakers got to the NBA Finals in seven of eight seasons from 1981-1989.
In the nine years after Riley left, the Lakers made the playoffs eight times, including a trip to the finals under Mike Dunleavy in 1991 in a torch-passing series to Michael Jordan's Bulls. But Los Angeles went 12 years between championships before bringing in Phil Jackson to change the direction of the franchise.
The Lakers won three straight titles in Jackson's first three seasons. Los Angeles then went another six years without a title—including one year without Jackson where the team missed the playoffs entirely—before Phil returned, order was restored and the Lakers won two more titles with a third trip to the finals for good measure.
(Wow, Mike Brown had no chance, did he?)
With Brown fired, it's D'Antoni's job (and those enormous coaching shoes) to fill. He has all the pieces in place to make this Lakers team as memorable as those in years past. He has his old point guard back, and while Nash has surely lost a step as he creeps closer to 40 years old, he should have enough left in the tank to still run D'Antoni's system.
D'Antoni has Kobe Bryant, who, despite getting up in years himself, is still one of the greatest players in the history of the sport. And D'Antoni has the benefit of established big men in Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard to fill the paint, grab rebounds and score easy buckets in transition, something Brown's system did not give the Lakers as much opportunity to do.
It will be fascinating to watch how D'Antoni's brand of run-first, defend-second basketball meshes with the personalities on this Lakers team. Can Gasol keep pace with such a high-powered offensive system? While Metta World Peace could thrive in this open-court environment, the same may not be the case for Antawn Jamison, another aging star who comes off the bench for this team.
Most importantly—especially if we're looking ahead to the playoffs—will this team defend?
D'Antoni has some phenomenal defensive pieces with which to play; Bryant is one of the greatest defenders in the history of the game, Howard is perhaps the best defensive big man of his generation, and World Peace has been a lockdown defender for most of his career. Will D'Antoni use them? Does he even care about stopping the other team?
We laud his offensive acumen, but it's important to remember that D'Antoni's teams were giving up nearly as many points as they were scoring every year.
In his seven full seasons leading the Suns and Knicks, D'Antoni's teams were in the bottom three in points allowed per game five times.
In Phoenix, D'Antoni's style really never caught up with his teams until the playoffs, as each season with the Suns they scored at least five points per game more than they allowed in the regular season, despite never giving up fewer than 102.9 points per game.
In New York, the system didn't work. The Knicks allowed over 105.7 points per game in each of his three full seasons, allowing more points than they scored in two. His team didn't fare much better last season either, when he was removed after 42 games with an 18-24 record despite the fanfare surrounding New York and Jeremy Lin.
Lin, or the offense finally looking like D'Antoni imagined it despite a seemingly random array of parts, was not enough to save D'Antoni's job there. Now, gone from New York, D'Antoni has signed on for perhaps the most pressure-filled situation in the sport.
Brown was given five regular-season games to make an overhauled roster with a new point guard and new center gel into a championship contender. D'Antoni will surely have longer than that, but will he have much longer than the one-plus season Brown was given to reshape the Lakers into another title team?
While the roster in Los Angeles is full of superstars, it is old, and the window is closing more by the day. The Buss family grew impatient with Brown's too-patient style of play, but in hiring the exact opposite style of coach, have they made the right choice to lead the players they've assembled? Will they have a quick trigger for the coach who preaches a quick trigger?
The Lakers should make the playoffs on talent alone. However deep they go, we know they'll be playing fast. Lakers fans just hope the playoff runs under D'Antoni aren't over as fast as those with his past teams; otherwise, he could be gone just as quickly as the last guy.