Will Mike D'Antoni's Lakers Tenure End the Same Way it Did in New York?
Either way, his exit from L.A. will be very different from the way he left the New York Knicks.This time around, the coach won't quit.
D'Antoni was hired to right the ship after the Lakers fired Mike Brown just five games into the 2012-2013 season. A 1-4 record was unacceptable for a team with four future Hall of Famers and expected to compete for a championship this season.
D'Antoni won more than 60 games twice in his four full seasons coaching the Phoenix Suns, with the help of the ideal floor general for his point-guard-driven system, Steve Nash. With shooters spreading the floor, Nash would carve up defenses off pick-and-rolls with Amar'e Stoudemire. D'Antoni had a successful stint in New York as well when he had a quality point guard on the floor.
Lakers management hoped the architect of the seven-seconds-or-less offense and his star pupil, Nash, could recapture their magic in L.A. The coach also had a solid relationship with Kobe Bryant, who had idolized D'Antoni as a child growing up in Italy and played for him on two U.S. Olympic teams.
Yet, many basketball insiders and members of the media questioned the move. Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times summed up their concerns quite succinctly when he wrote of D'Antoni, "He's never taken a team to an NBA Finals. He has a losing record in the playoffs. He doesn't coach defense. His sprinting offense will be tested on a team led by aging guys who no longer sprint."
Twelve games into D'Antoni's tenure, Plaschke's words appear to be prophetic. The Lakers are 4-8 with D'Antoni on the sidelines, falling to 9-13 overall and have looked apathetic at times on the court. Their defense has been horrendous, surrendering an average of 107 points per game.
Most disturbingly, the Lakers appear to be headed in the wrong direction and the pressure to win is mounting. They have lost four of their last five games and D'Antoni snapped at a reporter after their most recent loss to the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers on December 11.
According to ESPNlosangeles.com, after being benched for the entire fourth quarter of the Lakers' loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on November 23, starting forward Pau Gasol complained to reporters about how he is being utilized.
“I’m not a pure jump-shooter," Gasol said. "I can stretch the defense out and make a couple jumpers. But how I get going is by getting in the paint and creating off the post, things like that. "
Magic Johnson, the typically optimistic vice president of the Lakers, publicly voiced his concerns about D'Antoni after the Cavaliers game. According to latimes.com, Johnson called D'Antoni's offense a bad match, saying it "doesn't fit the talent that the Lakers have."
Johnson was also critical of D'Antoni's use of Gasol, stating, "But if you continue to have him at the three-point line, he's not going to perform well because he hasn't been out there, especially with Phil Jackson and the Lakers [and] when he was playing in Memphis. He was down low" (via latimes.com.)
To be fair, the Lakers' struggles go way beyond D'Antoni's system. Their starting five is old and banged up. Gasol has missed the last five games with tendinitis in both knees, and Nash has been out since early November with a fractured fibula.
Dwight Howard, who was supposed to anchor the defense is still working his way into shape after back surgery. The Lakers' center is averaging an impressive 18.4 and 12.1 rebounds per game, but his lack of conditioning is evident on the defensive end, where a lack of lateral mobility has left Howard and the Lakers vulnerable to the pick-and-roll.
The Nash injury has been particularly devastating because he is so crucial to D'Antoni's system. His offense was unsuccessful during his first two seasons in New York without a quality point guard to run the show.
In his third year with the team—2010-2011—the Knicks had a terrific first half with Raymond Felton averaging 17.1 points and 9.0 assists per game, before he was shipped to Denver in the Carmelo Anthony trade.
Last season, the Knicks got off to a horrid start with Toney Douglas—a shooting guard in a point guard's body—and Iman Shumpert—a rookie who had never played point guard before—running the point. Once Jeremy Lin took over the reins, the Knicks started winning games.
Management may be short on patience, but they do not want to make another in-season coaching change, and they recognize that some of the team's key players are injured. Plus D'Antoni has the backing of Nash and, for now, Bryant. He will have the opportunity to turn this team around.
Once Nash returns D'Antoni's system will kick into gear. Gasol will be back on the court and Howard's conditioning will improve. The Lakers will be playing playoff quality basketball before long.
Unfortunately for D'Antoni, the playoffs are not the Lakers' goal. They are expected to compete for a championship. And D'Antoni will not get them there.
Some of the most prevalent trends in the NBA were spawned by D'Antoni's offense. Teams are going smaller and spreading the floor to create space for pick-and-rolls and open looks from the perimeter.
But the Lakers have two highly-skilled seven-footers in Howard and Gasol. Instead of spreading the floor, they should be using their size to feast on smaller teams inside, much like the Grizzlies do with Zach Randolph and Pau's brother Marc.
However, as Pau Gasol has discovered, D'Antoni's system is very rigid, and the coach is unwilling to tinker with it in accordance with his personnel. His refusal to allow Carmelo Anthony to play in the post caused a standoff with the star forward which ultimately led to the coach's resignation.
As demonstrated by 82games.com, the numbers bear out Gasol and Johnson's comments. Pau has been more efficient this season in the pivot than from the perimeter, but D'Antoni is unlikely to maximize his strengths. Gasol will either remain ineffective in the Lakers' offense or be traded for less than he is worth.
The Gasol problem represents the greater issue that D'Antoni's offense is not conducive to a roster like the Lakers, which has several scorers who need the ball in their hands. He wants his point guard to dominate the ball, as opposed to allowing scorers operate in the post or face a defender one-on-one.
The system worked in Phoenix because the only player who needed to get his shots was Amar'e Stoudemire and they came to him easily as the roll man on pick-and-rolls with Nash.
Stoudemire developed the same chemistry with Felton in New York. After the Antony trade, the offense got bogged down because Anthony and Stoudemire both needed their touches.
Nash has three main scorers to distribute the ball to in Bryant, Howard and Gasol. The Lakers also lack the spot-up shooters that D'Antoni's offense requires to spread the floor.
Of course, this team has several flaws beyond D'Antoni's control. Three of their four stars are in their mid or upper thirties and the fourth, Dwight Howard, is coming off back surgery. The team lacks the depth necessary to withstand injuries to their older players.
They are slow on the wing, which will be devastating against athletic teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat. Metta World Peace and Kobe Bryant are not the defenders they once were, and Steve Nash could not stay in front of quick point guards like Russell Westbrook and Tony Parker when he was 29. He will be 39 in February.
Yet, the expectations are so high for this team that somebody will have to take the fall if they do not at least make the NBA Finals. Given D'Antoni's rocky start and the mounting criticism of his system, the question is not if, but when he will be fired.
The key word there is fired. D'Antoni knows that one hasty resignation based on a personality conflict with a star player can be excused, but a second resignation would mark the end of his coaching career. He is also not about to walk away from the remainder of a three-year, $12 million contract.
The Lakers do not have the type of player who could and would force D'Antoni into that position anyway. As great as Gasol is, he is the fourth most valuable player on the team and does not have the type of clout to force D'Antoni out. Howard has to lay low after his feud with Stan Van Gundy and the Orlando Magic's management, and Nash loves his coach.
The one man on the Lakers' squad who could win a showdown with the coach is not inclined to force one. Kobe is an intense competitor, has clashed with teammates and was once called "uncoachable" by Phil Jackson, but he has always publicly supported his coaches and never forced one out.
Mike D'Antoni is a fine offensive coach, but he is never a good fit for this Lakers team. The situation in Los Angeles is not as dire as it appears, though the Lakers will not meet expectations this season. Mike D'Antoni will pay the price, but this time the decision will be the team's, not his.
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