B/R Talks to Jack McCallum About the Los Angeles Lakers, Mike D'Antoni and More

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B/R Talks to Jack McCallum About the Los Angeles Lakers, Mike D'Antoni and More
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

It's been a wild week for the Los Angeles Lakers, to say the least. They've fired Mike Brown, talked to Phil Jackson, hired Mike D'Antoni and, somehow, managed to win a couple of games and nearly pull one out against the visiting San Antonio Spurs.

D'Antoni, though, is still recovering from knee-replacement surgery. As a result, the mustachioed maestro isn't expected to take over in-game coaching duties until Sunday, at the earliest, leaving Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and company to fend for themselves under Bernie Bickerstaff for a bit longer.

But what can we expect from the Lakers under D'Antoni, a man who revolutionized the NBA with his uptempo pick-and-roll offense in Phoenix, once Steve Nash returns from a slight fracture in his left fibula?

To get a better idea, we turned to a man who understands all the principals—D'Antoni, Nash, Kobe, Howard and Phil, among others—better than most. I spoke over the phone to Jack McCallum, a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame and the author of ":07 Seconds or Less — My Season on the Bench with the Runnin' and Gunnin' Phoenix Suns," about those historic Suns teams, how D'Antoni's system fits with these Lakers, what went on with the coaching search and more. 

Note: Immediately below are excerpts from my conversation with McCallum. For the full transcript, skip to the bottom.

 

What do you mean by Seven Seconds or Less? Why were those Suns teams so important in context of modern NBA history?

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Mike thought that, against conventional thinking, you could get a good shot within seven seconds...that you were not playing fundamentally unsound basketball if you got a shot within seven seconds...

As far as the importance went, at the time, it seemed new, and it was new. But I always pointed out that it went more to the ‘50s and ‘60s. People don’t understand how many points basketball teams used to score. I mean, the Boston Celtics, of the great Bill Russell teams, they scored 120 points a game, you know?

This wasn’t really new, but I think other people would say, “Okay, fine. D’Antoni had great teams. They were entertaining. They got a lot of attention. They got to the Western Conference Finals two years in a row, but did they [and can they] win a championship?" ...And the answer to that, so far, has been that you cannot, but I don’t think it’s been totally disproven.

 

Does blame for D'Antoni's “failures” belong to the system or more to the extenuating circumstances that arose during his time in Phoenix (i.e. Joe Johnson’s eye injury in the 2005 playoffs, Amar'e Stoudemire's knee injury in 2005-06, Game 3 against the San Antonio Spurs in 2007)?

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

I’m glad you put the quotes around “failures” because these were really, really great basketball teams. It is hard to win a championship. A lot of things have to go right. The year I did the book, the following year is probably their best team, and there were the suspensions that you talked about.

But look, you sound like you’re doing hopeless rationalization by saying, “Well, they would’ve won if this didn’t happen and that didn’t happen and Tim Duncan didn’t hit a bizarre three-pointer and blah blah blah.” The point is, they didn’t, but I do not say it as being a failure of the system or anything in particular, but I do see it as, at some point, you probably have to get a few more better defensive half-court possessions.

 

Does having defensive-minded guys like Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace and Dwight Howard make D’Antoni’s system a better championship fit in L.A. than it was in Phoenix? 

Taken from a defensive standpoint, absolutely. I think the big factor there is Dwight Howard. Mike had a couple lockdown defenders in Phoenix. Raja Bell was pretty good, and Shawn Marion was very good.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

What he didn’t have was the sweeper back, and when you think about it, it was kind of unusual he was able to have a transition offense without a shot-blocker. That he had, a lot of times, Shawn Marion, who was the small forward, going in to get the rebound. Nash, even, wasn’t a bad rebounder and got his own. So, potentially, you would think, Dwight Howard, who is both a shot-blocker and a rebounder, that this would be an enormous advantage for his offense.

 

Obviously, the Lakers’ biggest goal is to keep Dwight. Do you see D’Antoni as right guy to convince him that L.A. is place to be? 

History would say, no, he’s not the perfect guy, because he doesn’t build his offense around a back-to-the-basket center. But I would hope that Dwight Howard would realize by this point that he’s not going to get to the Hall of Fame on his back-to-the-basket offensive proficiency. Whether or not he realizes that, your guess is probably as good, if not probably better than mine.

 

Does D’Antoni spend much time focusing on defense?

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

Mike’s argument has always been that he’s not as bad a defensive coach as people say, and I think, taken on that statement, that is absolutely true. However, as someone who was at Mike’s practices and really respects him as a coach, I would say that Mike probably, if he was being honest, would say himself that maybe he hadn’t devoted that extra 10 minutes to defense that he should.

Every coach has strengths and weaknesses. I guess you could say maybe Phil Jackson didn’t because he won 11 world championships, so what was his weakness? Hard to say. But everybody does, and Mike’s is that [defense]...

His biggest challenge just might be Dwight Howard right now. Dwight Howard defensively, motivating him to be that guy could be his biggest challenge.

 

What are some of the other challenges D’Antoni faces? 

I think one of the underrated things that hasn’t been talked about much is how good a three-point-shooting team the Suns were. I mean, you had the Seven Seconds or Less offense. It sounds like you’re finishing at the basket.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

That wasn’t always the case. They finished a lot at the three-point line. They pulled up on three-point shots. Steve would penetrate, collapse the defense, kick it back. Think about that team—Steve Nash was a good three-point shooter, Shawn Marion [was] very underrated, he turned Raja Bell into a three-point shooter, and he got [Leandro] Barbosa and Eddie House coming off the bench as three-point shooters. They really had a good three-point shooting team, very efficient.

I don’t see that with the Lakers, and that’s a part of the offense...

Nash is still there, but Kobe, as a three-point percentage shooter, has not really been unbelievable. Certainly, Metta World Peace is not that way. Pau Gasol has not stepped up and he doesn’t have that three-point depth, so that would be another thing that I would be concerned about.

And I guess, finally—it’s something everybody’s talked about—at Steve’s age, and Kobe at 34, I believe...I think one of the underrated aspects of Kobe’s career has been the banged-up level that he’s played at. I mean, that’s a pretty hurting guy right there...You hope, cumulatively, that hasn’t gotten to him because I don’t think they have amazing depth and I think Mike’s going to want to get a lot of minutes—mid-30 minutes—out of Kobe, so we’ll have to see how that works.

 

How do you see D’Antoni meshing with this Lakers roster, without a training camp?

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I think one of the positive things is what you would think it wouldn’t be, and that is, they’ve got to know that they need some changing. I mean, they came out of the gate and they were bad. You could say there were some reasons—Nash got hurt—but I think, from the beginning, it was a very unsettled coaching situation with Mike Brown. I really feel bad. Let’s face it, he was on the hot seat from last season, and it never seemed settled there.

The positive thing [D'Antoni] has is that everybody has to think that change is needed. So I do think he will be able to come in, make some changes right away. I think they will get going. This is a total prediction: I think they will get going in the right direction.

 

What can D’Antoni do to adjust his system to what the Lakers have on the floor?

I think the No.1 aspect of that, to talk optimistically, the underrated aspect of D’Antoni’s offense was its half-court proficiency...

Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE

I don’t think he’s necessarily a full-court coach. I think he’s also a half-court coach, and I think that sort of offense for Kobe, obviously he’s got to mix in his post-ups. I guess, cutting to the chase here, figuring out an offense has never been D’Antoni’s problem. He will figure that out, and Steve Nash will figure that out, when to get Kobe his post-ups, and I think he can take care of Dwight Howard by running him all the time on pick-and-rolls.

I don’t think he wants Dwight down there calling for the ball like he’s Shaquille O’Neal. Dwight’s an active guy, he should be an active pick-and-roller, so I see that as the positive things. I joked with Mike that it’s a 12.5-Seconds-or-Less offense now, and that’s not necessarily a slow offense, either. That’s a pretty effective offense. I think they’ll be able to do that.

 

What sorts of roster moves should the Lakers pursue now that D’Antoni’s on board? 

I’ll tell you, Mike has always loved Boris Diaw, although he’s in a good place now. He loves mismatches. He loves a player like Boris. I know San Antonio isn’t going to hand Boris Diaw to the Lakers.

Soobum Im-US PRESSWIRE

So I would look for a three-point shooter and a versatile big man who can break people down a little bit. Whether or not those kind of guys exist and are available is another question.

 

Can Pau Gasol be that Boris Diaw-type guy for D’Antoni?

That’s a very good question. One of the things I talked about with D’Antoni, and I think one of the reasons he was positive about the move, was that he loves Gasol. I think the No. 1 reason he loves Gasol is that he’s smart. He’s got that European sense about him. He understands offense. He’s a smart guy. You can talk to him...

 

Do you see this as being a Showtime 2.0 outfit, as the Buss family would likely hope it can be? 

That’s gone. I mean, Showtime was run by the greatest point guard there ever was. Magic Johnson was in the prime of his career, and he was 6’8" or 6’9".

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

His wing guy was James Worthy, who is one of the most underrated players of all time. Worthy never comes up in conversation. This was a guy who ran the floor as a forward. I’m trying to think of someone who ran it better. 

And then, if that broke down, he had Kareem in the half court. He had the best half-court-bailout, shot-clock-running-down guy there ever was.

Does [D'Antoni] have anything like that? And I know that’s been thrown around, Showtime, but good luck establishing that, because I just don’t see that happening.

 

Do you think D’Antoni’s system can be as successful now as it was in Phoenix now that the rest of the league has had years to see it and copy it? 

I think the short answer to that is no, because, for the reasons we talked about, I don’t think it can be that system. I think it has to incorporate more post-ups for Kobe Bryant. That’s fairly obvious...

I don’t think he worried about isolations and getting a superstar that many points because he didn’t have that type of player. So I think, in one respect, the question is kind of unanswerable because I don’t think we’ll see that system with the Lakers. We’ll see some kind of compromise system. There has to be, with Nash’s age and the fact that Kobe’s there.

 

Do you think D’Antoni was the best man for the job, especially given that Phil Jackson’s name was involved? 

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

For me to tell you that Mike D’Antoni is a better coach than Phil Jackson, I can’t do that. At some point, the proof is in the pudding with Phil. Phil Jackson is in the conversation as the greatest coach of any sport of all time. You can’t argue with results.

Having said that, other people have criticized the choice, saying, “Well, look at all the other candidates out there.” There weren’t a lot of other candidates out there. There’s a whole universe of things that go on with being head coach of a basketball team that goes beyond the court. There’s handling the front office. There’s handling the media. There’s being the face of the franchise. A head coach in the NBA, particularly in a place like L.A. or New York, that’s a job for a CEO-type of person. So when you talk about those requirements, you get down to a very few number of people. So if you don’t get Phil Jackson, to me, Mike D’Antoni is as good a choice as any one they could’ve made.

 

How do D’Antoni’s coaching style and personality compare to those of Phil Jackson and Mike Brown? 

Well, it’s probably closer, strangely, to Phil, because they’re both real smart—I’m not saying Mike Brown isn’t smart, because Mike Brown is a very smart guy—but Mike Brown is more of an academic guy. He almost comes across as your accountant, kind of calculated and stuff like that.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Phil, in a different way, enjoys this kind of give-and-take with the press. He enjoys going out there and giving his opinion and showing “Okay, you’re a writer, but I’m as smart as you are. I know what you’re talking about. I know what you’re trying to get out of me.” D’Antoni loves that, too. D’Antoni’s a very, very smart guy. You know, he was a great student and all that, and he loves that kind of out-front talking to the media, being the face of a franchise and doing a very good job of it. Phil did it very wryly and subtly. You know, Phil liked to plant his little points in. D’Antoni’s a little more out there with one-liners. But in that respect, they’re very similar.

On the bench, D’Antoni becomes a little bit of a different person. I mean, he’s the nicest guy you would ever meet off the court, but once that game starts, D’Antoni has a very, very, very serious competitive streak. He will be up on the refs. He will be in their face. He won’t be in his team’s face, but he’ll be in the refs’ face. He will get some technicals.

 

How does D'Antoni feel about this opportunity? 

I know how he feels. He feels unbelievably lucky. These guys who coach in the league have a pretty good sense of their own value. I suppose some of them may overrate it a little bit. But D’Antoni thought he had one more good job in him. He thought that he would coach another team, and most people did...

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Now, all of a sudden, he’s got the Lakers. I mean, the Lakers is one of the top jobs. It’s got to be one of the three most focused jobs in sports. There’s the Yankees manager, maybe some NFL teams, maybe the coach of the New York Giants. But the Lakers is right up there, so I know he’s excited and probably did not expect this, certainly in March, when he resigned from the New York Knicks, which was a very soul-crushing experience.

 

What’s your take on how the Lakers handled their coaching situation over the last week? 

Well, obviously it was a clown show. In a certain respect, they were in a bad position because as soon as Mike Brown was dismissed, the Laker faithful, understandably, is going to start in with Phil, because nobody likes sequels like Hollywood. And here’s a sequel, there’s already a precedent for the sequel, Phil coming back once.

So, this was the most logical thing in the world, and it’s almost like—and I don’t have knowledge of this—the Busses had to go out and do this. They had to have this conversation. They couldn’t not have this conversation.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

And having had it, I don’t think they were fully committed to it from the beginning. There’s not been good blood between [Lakers executive vice president] Jim Buss and Phil. It’s uncertain how much [Lakers owner Dr.] Jerry [Buss] is doing anymore, so I don’t think they were fully committed to it, even though they had to get the Laker faithful excited by starting in on it. So, to a certain extent, their hands were tied, and they did a worse job than they could’ve of untying it.

 

What’d you think of Magic Johnson’s reaction to the process?

It didn’t surprise me. Magic’s thing is, you’ve got to get the guy. You see how he’s running the Dodgers now. This is going to happen. The next thing is going to be, for Magic, we’ve got to get LeBron James there, that L.A. deserves the best guy, that L.A. has to have the best. I understand that. I totally understand that.

But Magic’s always been in this weird position. He’s not only the greatest symbolic figure there, but he’s also involved in ownership, and he seems to go off the party line a number of times. I mean, he went off it with Mike Brown. They hire poor Mike Brown, and the greatest player in the history of the franchise, arguably, is saying he’s the wrong guy, and that’s the same thing going on here...

 

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Do you think Nash and D’Antoni can rekindle that old Phoenix partnership, given Nash’s age and health?

They will rekindle the relationship. However, if you recall, one of the criticisms of D’Antoni during that time was playing Nash too many minutes. So now, we’re talking eight years later, we’re talking a guy who’s had injuries, even though he keeps himself in superb shape.

He’s going to have to get more out of Steve Blake. Obviously, they’re not going to divide the minutes, but Steve Nash is going to have to be around 30 minutes or below. So I think the key thing will be fitting whoever the backup point guard is into that Nash role.

I think that’s going to be very, very important because I don’t think it can work exactly like it did in Phoenix. I think Steve is going to need more breaks, and he’s going to have to reach into that bench a lot more...

 

Mike’s had some experience with turbulent ownership (i.e. Robert Sarver with the Suns, James Dolan with the Knicks). What are the odds that the Lakers’ currently shaky situation up top could be his undoing? 

It won’t be his undoing if they win. It will be his undoing if they don’t win. D’Antoni is very, very good in these situations. I confess, I was not as close to him and Dolan. That situation, you have to understand New York. That is the strangest thing there ever is, because Jim Dolan is a Howard Hughes figure. You just have no idea what is going on with the ownership there.

Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Robert Sarver was very much there. He was at coaches’ meetings, he was in the office all the time. He was just a little gadfly, kind of always there, and I was amazed sometimes how him and D’Antoni did have a pretty good relationship. I think it’s going to be closer to that. I think him and the Busses, whoever he’s dealing with the most, will get along just fine.

But, at the end of the day, if they don’t do what they wanted to do, which is probably get to the Finals, it’s going to come apart.

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What do you mean by Seven Seconds or Less? Why were those Suns teams so important in context of modern NBA history?

Mike thought that, against conventional thinking, you could get a good shot within seven seconds. And that spoke to not necessarily on a fast break, what we call transition. You could get the rebound, you could even take it out of bounds, and you could push it, and even in what might be kind of a semi-half-court offense with a couple movements and spreading the floor, you could get a good shot within seven seconds, that you were not playing fundamentally unsound basketball if you got a shot within seven seconds, which certainly, at this point in the NBA, is not the way, and seven, eight years ago was even more so. You know, it was kind of a half-court league, so that was kind of the heresy that he spread.

As far as the importance went, at the time, it seemed new, and it was new. But I always pointed out that it went more to the ‘50s and ‘60s. People don’t understand how many points basketball teams used to score. I mean, the Boston Celtics, of the great Bill Russell teams, they scored 120 points a game, you know?

This wasn’t really new, but I think other people would say, “Okay, fine. D’Antoni had great teams. They were entertaining. They got a lot of attention. They got to the Western Conference Finals two years in a row, but did they win a championship?" So, to a certain extent, those Seven Seconds or Less teams still stand as the question mark in NBA history. That is, you can probably win consistently with that offense, but can you win a championship with that offense? And the answer to that, so far, has been that you cannot, but I don’t think it’s been totally disproved.

 

Does blame for D'Antoni's “failures” belong to the system or more to the extenuating circumstances that arose during his time in Phoenix (i.e. Joe Johnson’s eye injury in the 2005 playoffs, Amar'e Stoudemire's knee injury in 2005-06, Game 3 against the San Antonio Spurs in 2007)? 

I’m glad you put the quotes around “failures” because these were really, really great basketball teams. It is hard to win a championship. A lot of things have to go right. The year I did the book, the following year is probably their best team, and there were the suspensions that you talked about.

But look, you sound like you’re doing hopeless rationalization by saying, “Well, they would’ve won if this didn’t happen and that didn’t happen and Tim Duncan didn’t hit a bizarre three-pointer and blah blah blah.” The point is, they didn’t, but I do not say it as being a failure of the system or anything in particular, but I do see it as, at some point, you probably have to get a few more better defensive half-court possessions.

I’m not a real metrics guy, so I haven’t really figured this out scientifically, but come the playoffs, the Miami Heat found this out. Every team has ever found this out, and that is, you’re going to have to stop that team in the half court a certain number of times in clutch games. The Suns, for whatever reason, whether it was the indoctrination of the offense or maybe the guys they had—you know, Amar’e Stoudemire was not a great defensive player, Steve isn’t a great defensive player—they were not able to do that, and that, in the end, to me, was the biggest difference.

 

Does having defensive-minded guys like Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace and Dwight Howard make D’Antoni’s system a better championship fit in L.A. than it was in Phoenix? 

Taken from a defensive standpoint, absolutely. I think the big factor there is Dwight Howard. Mike had a couple lockdown defenders in Phoenix. Raja Bell was pretty good, and Shawn Marion was very good. 

What he didn’t have was the sweeper back, and when you think about it, it was kind of unusual he was able to have a transition offense without a shot-blocker. That he had, a lot of times, Shawn Marion, who was the small forward, going in to get the rebound. Nash, even, wasn’t a bad rebounder and got his own. So, potentially, you would think, Dwight Howard, who is both a shot-blocker and a rebounder, that this would be an enormous advantage for his offense.

However, to this point, they haven’t played a game yet when I’m saying this, but Dwight Howard seems the one least enthused by Mike’s arrival. And I’m only reading that—you’re out there, you’d know better than I do—from the one press conference when it seemed Dwight Howard’s going, “Well, what the hell’s going on here?”, when, in fact, he should say, “Well, I’m in an offense where I’m going to get some pick-and-roll touches. And I’m in a defense where I have a chance to get some rebounds, block some shots and get the ball to Nash. Maybe we go down and score in five seconds and I’m not running up and down the court, trying to dominate at both ends in Orlando,” and we’re going to have to see if that happens.

 

Obviously, the Lakers’ biggest goal is to keep Dwight. Do you see D’Antoni as right guy to convince him that L.A. is place to be? 

History would say, no, he’s not the perfect guy, because he doesn’t build his offense around a back-to-the-basket center. But I would hope that Dwight Howard would realize by this point that he’s not going to get to the Hall of Fame on his back-to-the-basket offensive proficiency. Whether or not he realizes that, your guess is probably as good, if not probably better than mine.

But I do think, if Mike can convince him that he’s really going to be—and I say this very guardedly—that Bill Russell type of player, that player who semi-revolutionized basketball in the '50s by being a shot-blocker and a guy that initiated the offense. Dwight Howard, hey man, he’s got that ability, and if he can be convinced that he’s that guy, he will be dynamite.

But if you want me to tell you that’s a slam dunk for Mike to do that, I just can’t say that because I don’t know.

 

Does D’Antoni spend much time focusing on defense?

Mike’s argument has always been that he’s not as bad a defensive coach as people say, and I think, taken on that statement, that is absolutely true. However, as someone who was at Mike’s practices and really respects him as a coach, I would say that Mike probably, if he was being honest, would say himself that maybe he hadn’t devoted that extra 10 minutes to defense that he should.

Every coach has strengths and weaknesses. I guess you could say maybe Phil Jackson didn’t because he won 11 world championships, so what was his weakness? Hard to say. But everybody does, and Mike’s is that [defense]. 

And if you combine that with the fact that he hasn’t had that guy—I mean, he really didn’t in Phoenix. Amar’e Stoudemire was a bad defensive player seven or eight years ago, and Amar’e was the basket-protector. Now, he had a little bit in New York with Tyson Chandler, but by the time they got that full thing rolling, it was a little bit dysfunctional. It will be interesting to see if Chandler becomes that guy with the New York Knicks this year.

So now he’s got Dwight, so now it’s put-up time, you know? Now it’s, okay, you’ve got this guy, he’s back there. You’re going to have to get him playing, but that’s your job as the coach, and I think that might be—you know, we’re all spending a lot of time, and I am, too, talking about Kobe and Steve and everything—his biggest challenge just might be Dwight Howard right now. Dwight Howard defensively, motivating him to be that guy could be his biggest challenge.

 

What are some of the other challenges D’Antoni faces? 

I think one of the underrated things that hasn’t been talked about much is how good a three-point-shooting team the Suns were. I mean, you had the Seven Seconds or Less offense. It sounds like you’re finishing at the basket.

That wasn’t always the case. They finished a lot at the three-point line. They pulled up on three-point shots. Steve would penetrate, collapse the defense, kick it back. Think about that team—Steve Nash was a good three-point shooter, Shawn Marion [was] very underrated, he turned Raja Bell into a three-point shooter, and he got [Leandro] Barbosa and Eddie House coming off the bench as three-point shooters. They really had a good three-point shooting team, very efficient.

I don’t see that with the Lakers, and that’s a part of the offense. One of the things Mike was best at was getting three-point shots off of set plays, particularly side court. I saw that happen 35-to-40 times, that somebody got an open three off a half-court, out-of-bounds-type set.

So, you know, Nash is still there, but Kobe, as a three-point percentage shooter, has not really been unbelievable. Certainly, Metta World Peace is not that way. Pau Gasol has not stepped up and he doesn’t have that three-point depth, so that would be another thing that I would be concerned about. And I guess, finally—it’s something everybody’s talked about—at Steve’s age, and Kobe at 34, I believe...I think one of the underrated aspects of Kobe’s career has been the banged-up level that he’s played at. I mean, that’s a pretty hurting guy right there. That guy’s played as hurt as anybody has without complaining about it in a long time. You hope, cumulatively, that hasn’t gotten to him because I don’t think they have amazing depth and I think Mike’s going to want to get a lot of minutes—mid-30 minutes—out of Kobe, so we’ll have to see how that works.

 

How do you see D’Antoni meshing with this Lakers roster, without a training camp, midseason? 

I think one of the positive things is what you would think it wouldn’t be, and that is, they’ve got to know that they need some changing. I mean, they came out of the gate and they were bad. You could say there were some reasons—Nash got hurt—but I think, from the beginning, it was a very unsettled coaching situation with Mike Brown. I really feel bad. Let’s face it, he was on the hot seat from last season, and it never seemed settled there.

The positive thing [D'Antoni] has is that everybody has to think that change is needed. So I do think he will be able to come in, make some changes right away. I think they will get going. This is a total prediction: I think they will get going in the right direction.

But if some of these others things we’ve talked about don’t work out, it’s not like the West is there for the Lakers to win. Look at how good Oklahoma City is. All of a sudden, look at how good Memphis is. Look how good San Antonio is. And if you figure out the Lakers’ start with some of the questions we talked about—Dwight Howard, the age of Kobe and Steve, injuries, lack of depth—they’re not a slam dunk to win the West. I think they will be better, but the fans expect them, I would think, to get to the Western Finals. That is a long mountain to climb as it stands right now.

 

What can D’Antoni do to adjust his system to what the Lakers have on the floor?

I think the No.1 aspect of that, to talk optimistically, the underrated aspect of D’Antoni’s offense was its half-court proficiency. When I came back to that season I followed them and watched them, I don’t think of a rebound, a dramatic long pass or two passes and a layup. I don’t think of that. I think of a team that came down pretty quick, got into a quick pick-and-roll, got into a quick hand-off, got into a quick what D’Antoni called a dribble-out—where Nash goes right at the guy forcing the defense to something, he cuts back door, Steve gets a jump shot if they double the guy standing there. So, I think that works very well.

I don’t think he’s necessarily a full-court coach. I think he’s also a half-court coach, and I think that sort of offense for Kobe, obviously he’s got to mix in his post-ups. I guess, cutting to the chase here, figuring out an offense has never been D’Antoni’s problem. He will figure that out, and Steve Nash will figure that out, when to get Kobe his post-ups, and I think he can take care of Dwight Howard by running him all the time on pick-and-rolls.

I don’t think he wants Dwight down there calling for the ball like he’s Shaquille O’Neal. Dwight’s an active guy, he should be an active pick-and-roller, so I see that as the positive things. I joked with Mike that it’s a 12.5-Seconds-or-Less offense now, and that’s not necessarily a slow offense, either. That’s a pretty effective offense. I think they’ll be able to do that.

 

What sorts of roster moves should the Lakers pursue now that D’Antoni’s on board? 

Nobody’s going to give...although people always do tend to give the Lakers things. There’s some three-point shooter out there.

I’ll tell you, Mike has always loved Boris Diaw, although he’s in a good place now. He loves mismatches. He loves a player like Boris. I know San Antonio isn’t going to hand Boris Diaw to the Lakers. 

But he loves those types of things where a guy is a “4”, maybe a "3" or a "4," and maybe he can’t guard that guy on the other end, but that guy’s got to guard him. And D’Antoni always figures, if he has the mismatch, that he’s going to get more points out of his guy than the other guy’s going to.

So I would look for a three-point shooter and a versatile big man who can break people down a little bit. Whether or not those kind of guys exist and are available is another question.

 

Can Pau Gasol be that Boris Diaw-type guy for D’Antoni?

That’s a very good question. One of the things I talked about with D’Antoni, and I think one of the reasons he was positive about the move, was that he loves Gasol. I think the No. 1 reason he loves Gasol is that he’s smart. He’s got that European sense about him. He understands offense. He’s a smart guy. You can talk to him.

Does he have that kind of ability? I think D’Antoni expects him to not only have that, but to sort of be a runner. He’s not thought of as an athlete like Metta World Peace, but I’m thinking the third or fourth guy on that fast break is as liable to be Pau Gasol as it is to be Metta World Peace.

 

Do you see this as being a Showtime 2.0 outfit, as the Buss family would likely hope it can be? 

That’s gone. I mean, Showtime was run by the greatest point guard there ever was. Magic Johnson was in the prime of his career, and he was 6’8" or 6’9".

His wing guy was James Worthy, who is one of the most underrated players of all time. Worthy never comes up in conversation. This was a guy who ran the floor as a forward. I’m trying to think of someone who ran it better. 

And then, if that broke down, he had Kareem in the half court. He had the best half-court-bailout shot-clock-running-down guy there ever was.

Does [D'Antoni] have anything like that? And I know that’s been thrown around, Showtime, but good luck establishing that, because I just don’t see that happening.

 

Do you think D’Antoni’s system can be as successful now as it was in Phoenix now that the rest of the league has had years to see it and copy it? 

I think the short answer to that is no, because, for the reasons we talked about, I don’t think it can be that system. I think it has to incorporate more post-ups for Kobe Bryant. That’s fairly obvious.

But even Michael Jordan, one of the most athletic guys ever in any sport, Michael you don’t think of as a floor-runner. You think of him, he got a lot of that spectacular stuff off of half-court offenses. That’s why Phil [Jackson] ran a Triangle, because although it was a team offense, Phil got Michael a share of controlled shots in the half-court offense.

That didn’t really exist for Mike in Phoenix. I don’t think he worried about isolations and getting a superstar that many points because he didn’t have that type of player. So I think, in one respect, the question is kind of unanswerable because I don’t think we’ll see that system with the Lakers. We’ll see some kind of compromise system. There has to be, with Nash’s age and the fact that Kobe’s there.

 

Do you think D’Antoni was the best man for the job, especially given that Phil Jackson’s name was involved? 

As everyone knows, I deeply respect Mike D’Antoni. He’s probably as close to a friend as an interview subject, which is why I try to stay away a lot of times from writing about him. I certainly have, but I haven’t written that much about him.

However, for me to tell you that Mike D’Antoni is a better coach than Phil Jackson, I can’t do that. At some point, the proof is in the pudding with Phil. Phil Jackson is in the conversation as the greatest coach of any sport of all time. You can’t argue with results.

Having said that, other people have criticized the choice, saying, “Well, look at all the other candidates out there.” There weren’t a lot of other candidates out there. There’s a whole universe of things that go on with being head coach of a basketball team that goes beyond the court. There’s handling the front office. There’s handling the media. There’s being the face of the franchise. A head coach in the NBA, particularly in a place like L.A. or New York, that’s a job for a CEO-type of person. So when you talk about those requirements, you get down to a very few number of people. So if you don’t get Phil Jackson, to me, Mike D’Antoni is as good a choice as any one they could’ve made.

 

How do D’Antoni’s coaching style and personality compare to those of Phil Jackson and Mike Brown? 

Well, it’s probably closer, strangely, to Phil, because they’re both real smart—I’m not saying Mike Brown isn’t smart, because Mike Brown is a very smart guy—but Mike Brown is more of an academic guy. He almost comes across as your accountant, kind of calculated and stuff like that.

Phil, in a different way, enjoys this kind of give-and-take with the press. He enjoys going out there and giving his opinion and showing “Okay, you’re a writer, but I’m as smart as you are. I know what you’re talking about. I know what you’re trying to get out of me.” D’Antoni loves that, too. D’Antoni’s a very, very smart guy. You know, he was a great student and all that, and he loves that kind of out-front talking to the media, being the face of a franchise and doing a very good job of it. Phil did it very wryly and subtly. You know, Phil liked to plant his little points in. D’Antoni’s a little more out there with one-liners. But in that respect, they’re very similar.

On the bench, D’Antoni becomes a little bit of a different person. I mean, he’s the nicest guy you would ever meet off the court, but once that game starts, D’Antoni has a very, very, very serious competitive streak. He will be up on the refs. He will be in their face. He won’t be in his team’s face, but he’ll be in the refs’ face. He will get some technicals.

And I think one of the underrated aspects here is how the crowd is going to kind of like that, because the crowd never got that from Phil. The crowd needed Jack Nicholson to get up. Well now, they got D’Antoni to get up, and he will get up, and I think that will light up the arena a little bit.

 

How does D'Antoni feel about this opportunity? 

I know how he feels. He feels unbelievably lucky. These guys who coach in the league have a pretty good sense of their own value. I suppose some of them may overrate it a little bit. But D’Antoni thought he had one more good job in him. He thought that he would coach another team, and most people did.

But when you think about teams you’re going to coach, you sort of think about—not to cut them up but—the Atlanta Hawks. A good team, but, you know, they’re the Atlanta Hawks. You’re in Atlanta. You’re not going to be the favorite to win the championship. You’re not going to be noticed all that much. I think D’Antoni thought that his future might hold that kind of job for him.

Now, all of a sudden, he’s got the Lakers. I mean, the Lakers is one of the top jobs. It’s got to be one of the three most focused jobs in sports. There’s the Yankees manager, maybe some NFL teams, maybe the coach of the New York Giants. But the Lakers is right up there, so I know he’s excited and probably did not expect this, certainly in March, when he resigned from the New York Knicks, which was a very soul-crushing experience.

 

What’s your take on how the Lakers handled their coaching situation over the last week? 

Well, obviously it was a clown show. In a certain respect, they were in a bad position because as soon as Mike Brown was dismissed, the Laker faithful, understandably, is going to start in with Phil, because nobody likes sequels like Hollywood. And here’s a sequel, there’s already a precedent for the sequel, Phil coming back once.

So, this was the most logical thing in the world, and it’s almost like—and I don’t have knowledge of this—the Busses had to go out and do this. They had to have this conversation. They couldn’t not have this conversation.

And having had it, I don’t think they were fully committed to it from the beginning. There’s not been good blood between [Lakers executive vice president] Jim Buss and Phil. It’s uncertain how much [Lakers owner Dr.] Jerry [Buss] is doing anymore, so I don’t think they were fully committed to it, even though they had to get the Laker faithful excited by starting in on it. So, to a certain extent, their hands were tied, and they did a worse job than they could’ve of untying it.

 

What’d you think of Magic Johnson’s reaction to the process?  

It didn’t surprise me. Magic’s thing is, you’ve got to get the guy. You see how he’s running the Dodgers now. This is going to happen. The next thing is going to be, for Magic, we’ve got to get LeBron James there, that L.A. deserves the best guy, that L.A. has to have the best. I understand that. I totally understand that.

But Magic’s always been in this weird position. He’s not only the greatest symbolic figure there, but he’s also involved in ownership, and he seems to go off the party line a number of times. I mean, he went off it with Mike Brown. They hire poor Mike Brown, and the greatest player in the history of the franchise, arguably, is saying he’s the wrong guy, and that’s the same thing going on here.

All I can say with Magic is, they’re used to it in L.A. Put it that way. I think it’s certainly something to write about, but I certainly understand it and it’s happened before and I think they’ll probably get by, particularly if Mike [D’Antoni] wins.

 

Do you think Nash and D’Antoni can rekindle that old Phoenix partnership, given Nash’s age and health?

They will rekindle the relationship. However, if you recall, one of the criticisms of D’Antoni during that time was playing Nash too many minutes. So now, we’re talking eight years later, we’re talking a guy who’s had injuries, even though he keeps himself in superb shape. 

He’s going to have to get more out of Steve Blake. Obviously, they’re not going to divide the minutes, but Steve Nash is going to have to be around 30 minutes or below. So I think the key thing will be fitting whoever the backup point guard is into that Nash role.

I think that’s going to be very, very important because I don’t think it can work exactly like it did in Phoenix. I think Steve is going to need more breaks, and he’s going to have to reach into that bench a lot more. So Steve’s relationship with the backup point guard—or backup point guards, whoever they may be—is going to be very important. Mike’s able to communicate just fine. There won’t be any problem with that.

 

Mike’s had some experience with turbulent ownership (i.e. Robert Sarver with the Suns, James Dolan with the Knicks). What are the odds that the Lakers’ currently shaky situation up top could be his undoing? 

It won’t be his undoing if they win. It will be his undoing if they don’t win. D’Antoni is very, very good in these situations. I confess, I was not as close to him and Dolan. That situation, you have to understand New York. That is the strangest thing there ever is, because Jim Dolan is a Howard Hughes figure. You just have no idea what is going on with the ownership there. 

Robert Sarver was very much there. He was at coaches’ meetings, he was in the office all the time. He was just a little gadfly, kind of always there, and I was amazed sometimes how him and D’Antoni did have a pretty good relationship. I think it’s going to be closer to that. I think him and the Busses, whomever he’s dealing with the most, will get along just fine.

But, at the end of the day, if they don’t do what they wanted to do, which is probably get to the Finals, it’s going to come apart.

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