How L.A. Lakers' Hiring of Mike D'Antoni Saved Their Championship Aspirations

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How L.A. Lakers' Hiring of Mike D'Antoni Saved Their Championship Aspirations
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Phil Jackson or no Phil Jackson, the Los Angeles Lakers were in dire need of a new head coach after canning Mike Brown and did well to hire Mike D'Antoni to be his replacement.

Yes, D'Antoni's resume pales in comparison to that of the Zen Master, which features (among other things) 11 championships and the most postseason victories in NBA history. And, of course, there's been no shortage of rumor, hearsay and general speculation surrounding the handling of all this to assume, with some confidence, that the Buss family bungled this process for the second time in less than two years.

(Thanks, Jimmy...)

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Whether or not you think it was fair for the team to fire Mike Brown just five games into the 2012-13 season given his circumstances (i.e. roster turnover, revamped coaching staff, new offense, Steve Nash's injury, Dwight Howard's recovery), you could tell, just by watching them play, that something was amiss with the Lakers, that perhaps the players weren't taking to their coach.

The Lakers' plunge in defensive efficiency from sixth in P-Jax's final year to mid-teens in Brown's first to 20-something this season suggested as much, as did the fact that, aside from a blowout of the winless Detroit Pistons, their offense wasn't exactly humming either.

If the Buss family was hell-bent on correcting the perceived mistake of hiring Brown, better that they move to make a change ASAP rather than waste more of an all-important season to have their suspicions confirmed.

And were it not for Jackson's involvement in this whole ordeal, the enlistment of D'Antoni would look like a coup for the scrambling Lakers.

D'Antoni's tangible accomplishments—Coach of the Year honors, three Pacific Division titles and back-to-back trips to the Western Conference Finals with the Phoenix Suns—clearly pale in comparison to those of Jackson, though his work as an offensive innovator is well worth noting. His acclaimed "Seven Seconds or Less" offense ushered in a new era of uptempo basketball in the NBA, emphasizing the efficiency of at-rim attempts and corner threes as the ideal results of pick-and-roll basketball.

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In Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, D'Antoni not only has a point guard who won two MVPs on his watch and an All-World center who earned an Olympic gold medal in his system, but also a duo that could be the best the pick-and-roll has ever seen.

Or, at least, that's what D'Antoni told Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated back in October:

 

High praise, indeed, especially coming from a guy who saw Nash turn Amar'e Stoudemire into a perennial All-Star and those two tear the league apart with their screen-heavy partnership.

There's some concern that LA lacks the requisite shooters to space the floor for the pick-and-roll, with some cause. Steve Blake has hit 40 percent of his attempts so far this season, but has been in and out of the lineup and isn't exactly a spot-up guy to begin with. Metta World Peace leads the Lakers in three-point attempts with six a game, albeit while converting a subpar 31.3 percent of them. Jodie Meeks may be a sharpshooter of some repute, though his numbers so far (20 percent from beyond the arc) would suggest otherwise.

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Nonetheless, the duty of perimeter players in D'Antoni's system is to attract defensive attention, and few in the game today do that better than does Kobe Bryant. Even if he weren't playing such outstanding basketball for a 34-year-old (26.4 points on 55.1 percent shooting from the field and 44.1 percent from three), the Black Mamba would still command double- and triple-teams on the wing.

And if opposing defenses leave him open while attending to Nash and Howard, he's liable to burn them.

Pau Gasol may not be much of a floor-spacing power forward—which could land him back on the trading block before long—but what he is (a Boris Diaw deluxe, in D'Antoni-ish parlance) should suit LA's soon-to-be-potent pick-and-roll game just fine. Pau possesses the versatility and sheer basketball IQ to operate effectively from just about anywhere inside the three-point line, even if he's clearly at his best with his back to the basket on the block.

For all the praise Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has garnered for going small with LeBron James at power forward and Chris Bosh at center, it was D'Antoni who first popularized the notion. He regularly upshifted his players positionally, most notably with Amar'e in the middle and Shawn Marion, a more natural wing, manning the "four".

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These Lakers may be too big to go small as a way of life, though there are hints that D'Antoni could squeeze more out of his new team's terrible bench by "downsizing". As ESPN's Beckley Mason noted on Monday (in relation to John Hollinger's original suggestion), the Lakers could play the struggling Antawn Jamison at power forward, where his slow-footedness isn't such an issue defensively and his offensive arsenal makes more sense. With Jamison up front next to either Gasol or Howard, Kobe might then slide over to small forward, with Meeks (or even Blake) stepping in as a shooter at the off-guard spot.

The possibilities are abundant (if not endless), and D'Antoni, an offensive mastermind, figures to make the most of his seemingly-mismatched options. It's plausible, then, that Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak wasn't just covering for his bosses when he told Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com that D'Antoni was a "better fit" for this Lakers roster than was Phil with his vaunted (but difficult to learn on the fly) Triangle offense.

But scoring has never been an issue for D'Antoni's teams. On the other hand, defense has been a (perceived) weakness of his.

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At least by less illustrative measures. D'Antoni's Suns teams regularly ranked at or near the bottom of the NBA in points allowed per game. However, such a simple metric doesn't account for the fact that his teams also pushed the pace at an historic rate. His offenses created more possessions and, in turn, allowed the opposition more looks as well. When adjusting for pace, his Suns were merely middle-of-the-pack in defensive efficiency.

As for his most recent coaching stint, D'Antoni's New York Knicks were a top-10 defensive club by the time he resigned, thanks in no small part to the Defensive-Player-of-the-Year efforts of Tyson Chandler. This, despite having no fewer than two sieves (Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire) and arguably a third (Jeremy Lin) on the floor for much of the time.

D'Antoni's latest gig in LA will afford him a luxury he's never before enjoyed—a team equipped with defensive-minded players. Kobe and Metta are old and Dwight still lacks a measure of his previous explosiveness, but each is a defensive captain in his own right, one who takes pride in his play on that end of the floor.

And the Lakers have three of them at their disposal—as opposed to the one D'Antoni had in New York, or the none he had in Phoenix.

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To be sure, these same defensive stars struggled on Brown's watch, which was disconcerting given his reputation as a score-stopping sideline savant. But that may have had as much to do with Brown's inability to reach his players and his overly-nitpicking coaching style as it did with anything strictly related to Xs and Os.

Frankly, the Lakers don't necessarily need a defensive guru to guide them in that regard. As Kobe told Sam Amick of USA Today, the Lakers hardly ever spent time practicing defense under Phil Jackson and managed to win five titles under leadership nonetheless:

 

"I mean Phil's been here, and—to be honest with you—we might have, in all the years I've been with Phil, (had) maybe three defensive drills the entire time. And I'm not understating it at all. But his philosophy was always—you guys need to figure it out on your own. And that's what made him a phenomenal coach, was that he was able to sit back and trust the process and trust players to communicate with each other. That's when a team is at its best. As a result, we've had some great defensive teams. But we have to hold each other accountable though." 

 

Such mutual accountability starts with respect for the coach, which shouldn't be an issue with D'Antoni. He already has Bryant's full support—be it the product of Kobe's childhood admiration of D'Antoni in Italy, his Olympic success under D'Antoni, his years spent playing against D'Antoni's Suns or some combination of those factors. Nash will surely be delighted to rekindle his basketball relationship with the coach who oversaw his metamorphosis from merely a good (or even very good) point guard to a surefire Hall-of-Famer and one of the best of his generation.

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The Buss family seems to be pleased. They've long been yearning for a return of the glitz and glamour of the "Showtime" era, and D'Antoni would appear the best fit to bring that to fruition.

But it's Howard whose approval may be most important of all, given his upcoming free agency and importance to the future of the franchise. Luckily for the Lakers, he's already shown public support for the coach with whom he, too, tasted international success at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Not that Dwight's word can be so easily trusted after his outgoing fiasco with Stan Van Gundy and the Orlando Magic.

That aside, for a team as veteran-laden as the Lakers are at the moment, the support of its core players may be all that matters. These guys don't need to be taught how to play or even how to win. Some of them (Kobe, Pau, Metta) have won championships, others (Dwight, Nash) have come close and just about all have some measure of postseason experience.

What they need is a coach who understands how to manage egos and keep his players happy, who won't work them to death during endless practices while attempting to implement intricate (if poor-fitting) principles. What they need is a sideline leader whose credibility won't be called into question so easily.

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Among those responsible for the product, anyway. It's become a popular refrain in the LA sports media in recent days to point out that D'Antoni's never won anything, that he lacks the championship credentials to run the Lakers that Jackson had in abundance.

Those slights are valid to an extent, if not particularly nuanced. Jackson flamed out in his final year on the bench, leaving some to wonder whether he wouldn't soon lose interest again during a third go-round.

And as lucky as the Zen Master has been to coach some of the game's greatest players (Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe), D'Antoni has encountered a fate nearly equal and opposite in kind and proportion. In 2005, his 62-win Suns were set back in the Conference Finals by a fracture in Joe Johnson's orbital bone. In 2006, he guided them one win closer to the NBA Finals despite losing Amar'e to a devastating knee injury early on in the season. In 2007, the Suns were beset by controversy when Stoudemire and Diaw were suspended for leaving the bench in the Conference Semis against the Spurs, costing D'Antoni's team Game 5 and, perhaps, the series.

D'Antoni will need a more favorable draw from Lady Luck if he's to make the most of his new hand with the Lakers. They were behind the eight ball in the West before Mike Brown was axed and will remain so for some time until D'Antoni gets his bearings about him. Their roster is old and top heavy, their supporting cast seemingly too thin and flotsam-like to live up to its name.

But there's hope for these Lakers yet. Case in point: Tuesday night's 84-82 loss to the visiting Spurs. The Lakers nearly upended the team with the best record in the West, despite starting their third-string point guard (out of necessity) and operating under lame-duck interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff.

Are the Lakers better off with Mike D'Antoni than they were with Mike Brown?

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If ever there were a moral victory to be savored by a championship hopeful, this was it.

Things will improve for these Lakers; they can't stoop much lower than where they were this past Friday morning. In time, the players will gel, the coaches will settle in and the product on the court will merit more than just derision from the hoards of robed judges at the Staples Center. 

This team is too talented and too experienced to spend the entire season under water. There will be stability now that the man in charge doesn't have a blade hanging over his neck or a seat of coals awaiting him on the bench.

Not yet anyway.

Mike D'Antoni isn't Phil Jackson, but he's not Mike Brown, either, and that may well be enough to lift the Lakers out of desperation and closer to their preseason expectations.

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