Mike D'Antoni and Lakers Must Convert Cheap Talk into Valuable Wins
Mike D'Antoni, newly christened coach and savior of the Los Angeles Lakers, has already done a lot of talking. Now all he has to do is turn his words into wins.
In his introductory press conference on Nov. 15, D'Antoni exuded the casual confidence that has marked his career—and notably, was totally absent from the micromanaging, somewhat uptight coach he replaced. A little bravado is important, especially from D'Antoni, whose performance is sure to be picked apart from every imaginable angle.
He'll need to be confident when the critics are scrutinizing his every move.
D'Antoni can say whatever he wants, but none of his rhetoric will matter if the Lakers don't perform on the floor. Maybe we can help him out by selecting a few of his choicest statements and explaining how to turn words into action.
"I was just talking to Steve (Nash). It's weird. When he feels better, I'll start to feel better."
That's right, Mike. Steve Nash will not only cure what ails you, but he'll also be the remedy for your team's clunky offensive performance. If you think about it, nobody but Nash has ever run D'Antoni's offense at an elite level. So the sooner Nash returns from his broken fibula, the better off D'Antoni and his team will be.
Besides that, Nash himself will look more like the player that won a pair of MVP awards. When not used as the primary ball-handler, Nash's shortcomings (on defense in particular) make it hard to keep him on the floor. Mike Brown seemed to prefer using Nash as a cutter and a spot-up shooter, which obviously didn't take advantage of his otherworldly pick-and-roll skills and elite decision-making.
If Nash is feeling good, D'Antoni will be, too.
"I'm going to say I'm going to take care of (Nash), cut his minutes down—him and Kobe—and every time I want to win, they're going to play a lot. That's just the way it is."
This is going to be a problem. Nash's injury was a little unlucky, but it definitely highlighted the inherent risk that comes with playing NBA basketball at age 38. Kobe is still Nash's junior by four years, but he's got almost as many miles as his teammate does.
No matter what D'Antoni does to revamp the offense, he's still going to have to deal with one of the NBA's shallowest benches. That means he's got to figure out a way to use his star guards without overtaxing their bodies during the regular season. If he does get into the habit of immediately subbing in his big guns when a lead starts to shrink, he runs the risk of wearing them down, or worse, losing them to injury.
Nobody believes the Lakers can win a title without Nash and Kobe playing significant roles. D'Antoni would do well to remember that, even if resting his stars means the Lakers drop a few regular season games they'd otherwise win.
"I told (Jodie Meeks): the only time he needs to shoot is when he touches the ball. Other than that, don't shoot. That's what he does."
If there's a better example of D'Antoni's "keep it simple, stupid"-coaching style, I haven't seen it. Unlike Mike Brown, who was notorious for calling sets on nearly every possession, D'Antoni's comments here indicate exactly why he's the man for this job.
D'Antoni's offense allows his players to operate with almost total freedom. If Meeks—or the rest of the Laker bench—continues to struggle, they'll have only themselves to blame.
Shooters shoot, runners run and passers pass in D'Antoni's offense. Allowing his players to simply do what they do best has led to great success for D'Antoni (and many previously unknown bench contributors) in the past. If Meeks and his benchmates can heed D'Antoni's advice, the Lakers' biggest weakness could see drastic improvement.
"Maybe put the 'D' back in my name. That would be nice. Some people have been taking that out."
D'Antoni said this when asked what Dwight Howard would do to improve his poor defensive reputation as a coach. Here's the thing, though: D'Antoni's teams have never actually been all that bad on the defensive end.
Sure, his Phoenix Suns clubs gave up a ton of points, but those high totals were the result of the league's fastest pace. On a per-possession basis, the D'Antoni-era Suns were generally average defensive outfits. From 2004-05 to 2007-08, D'Antoni's Suns ranked 17th, 16th, 13th and 16th in defensive efficiency.
Keep in mind that many of those teams were defensively anchored by Amar'e Stoudemire's interior "presence," which everyone knows was really more of an absence.
Substituting Howard for Stoudemire on D'Antoni's new team should make a significant difference. Whether it'll be a big enough difference to help propel the Lakers to a championship is another question. But let's at least stop perpetuating the myth that D'Antoni can't coach defense.
D'Antoni's not blowing smoke here. He knows the Lakers can be a very good defensive team under his guidance. They'll need to be just that if they're going to chase a title.
"It'd be great. He can come over and cuss me out in Italian and you guys might not even know it."
In case anyone forgot about it, D'Antoni and Kobe share a unique connection. Bryant spent some of his youth in Italy idolizing D'Antoni. He even adopted D'Antoni's original No. 8 because his current coach wore it in the Italian league.
Communication between Bryant and D'Antoni will be critical to the Lakers' on-court success. As long as everyone's talking about winning, it won't matter what the language is. D'Antoni should be careful, though. Bryant verbally endorsed (via espn.com) Mike Brown right to the end, but we all learned how he really felt about Brown when we caught a glimpse of the now-infamous "death stare."
"Maybe I'm not smart enough to know any different."
That was D'Antoni's response when asked why he didn't feel intimidated by the title expectations in Los Angeles, and it's a perfect answer.
D'Antoni will have the best chance of success in the win column if he plays dumb, shutting out the constant noise of the L.A. media. He'll receive mountains of criticism no matter what he does, so he's better off tuning it all out and doing what he knows how to do: coach winning teams.
Maybe he can't help preserve the health of his aging and/or fragile stars. Maybe he won't be able to revitalize a struggling bench unit. And maybe he'll never figure out how to use Howard and Pau Gasol together. We'll find all of that out eventually.
What matters most is D'Antoni's confidence in himself. If he can impart some of that to his team—while simultaneously shutting out all the noisy doubt that surrounds his appointment as coach—he'll have a real chance of success.
He knows that...no matter how "dumb" he says he is.
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