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Can Mike D'Antoni Handle Massive Egos of LA Lakers Superstars?

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 06:  Head coach Mike D'Antoni of the Los Angeles Lakers complains to a referee in the game with the Denver Nuggets at Staples Center on January 6, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.   NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
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Sean HojnackiFeatured ColumnistFebruary 24, 2013

It's been a bumpy ride for the Los Angeles Lakers, the preseason favorites in Vegas to win the Western Conference (per Los Angeles Times).

They had some tumult at head coach in the first 10 games. Mike Brown's five games (1-4) preceded Bernie Bickerstaff's five games (4-1) before Mike D'Antoni was tabbed as the somewhat surprising replacement.

As of Sunday, the Lakers are just 22-24 since appointing D'Antoni to steer the ship.

While D'Antoni is at fault for not taking better charge of his star players, he wouldn't have to worry about it if the team was playing better. Unfortunately for the coach, his superstar-saturated lineup has not soared to the heights that were forecast.

Dwight Howard has underperformed, Steve Nash has yet to revive the patented D'Antoni pick-and-roll, Pau Gasol is deteriorating and Kobe Bryant, though personally having a very strong statistical season, thinks the team is "old as sh—" (per Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com).

Moreover, Howard and Bryant have been butting heads publicly for months now. In early January, there was Kobe's famous picture on Twitter of staged fisticuffs with Dwight, D'Antoni recumbent on a trainer's table between them, helpless to stop it.

That jest made light of their alleged feud, but it didn't vanish there. 

In early February, Kobe told ESPN's Jackie MacMullan that the Lakers "don't have time for [Howard's shoulder] to heal...We need some urgency." Dwight subsequently responded, "That's his opinion, that's it. He's not a doctor" (per McMenamin, ESPNLosAngeles.com).

Even Dwight Howard's dad weighed in and suggested D'Antoni take better charge of the situation (via Jeff Schultz, Atlanta Journal-Constitution).

Throughout it all, D'Antoni has not only been unable to prevent his stars from airing their grievances in public, he's also seemed utterly oblivious to it.

 

Pacifism

As Kevin Ding of the Orange County Register wrote on February 9, "Mike D'Antoni is and always has been one to shy away from confrontation." 

And for the most part, that strategy has blown up in his face. At the time of Ding's article, D'Antoni's club was 24-27. 

Since then, the Lakers have won three of their last five games for a minor improvement. However, the two losses included a narrow defeat versus the Miami Heat—in which they committed eight fourth-quarter turnovers—and a blowout against the L.A. Clippers.

Ding continued in a damning dissertation on the Lakers coach:

D'Antoni has let the big personalities of his star players ricochet around the locker room without being put at ease or put in place, let chronic missteps in team play at both ends of the court exist with little practice correction or video breakdown, and offended pretty much every already-on-edge person vested in the Lakers' cause with flippant, emotional remarks to the media that make it sound like circumstances or his own players are to blame for not winning.

Sometimes with teams in a big media market, perception is greater than reality. Phoenix isn't that far from L.A., but it makes a world of difference in terms of scrutiny. Losing control of the locker room is the death knell for a head coach.

Also, it's somewhat surprising that Kobe has been so frank with the media this year, sometimes shooting his mouth off to the detriment of his team. Bryant figured to be his coach's pupil.

D'Antoni was a professional basketball star in Italy, and Kobe was a huge fan of the mustachioed man when he was growing up there.

It's no wonder Kobe called his coach "an offensive genius" for his gold-medal winning schemes in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics (McMenamin, ESPNLosAngeles.com).

But for some reason, the "genius" holding the clipboard can't get his Steve Nash engine purring like it used to.

 

The Show Must Go On

Obviously, D'Antoni has led successful teams before. And it's hard to expect a coach to come in during a season and have everything immediately running smoother than a Swiss clock.

Ding compares D'Antoni's current situation to Heat coach Erik Spoelstra's first season with LeBron James and Co. Both cases involve "a collection of superstars not automatically dominating, a coach widely presumed incapable of corralling them to go in the same direction."

And as the Heat learned last season, winning heals all wounds and quiets all chirps. As Howard observed about LeBron, "People forget about all the negative stuff when you win...That's the only thing that cures everything else" (per Ding).

But Howard himself isn't winning in his first season with L.A. His defense has gotten erratic, and the offense is clunky.

Referring to Howard and Steve Nash, D'Antoni said:

The timing's not there. Whether they need more time, I don't know. They're not clicking right now. We've got to keep working on it...I thought for sure that would be in the bank and that's easy, and the rest of the stuff might be harder. Well, that has not come through and that has hurt us (via Ding).

But Nash and Dwight may finally be finding their chemistry.

On Feb. 20, the Lakers took down the Boston Celtics 113-99 for an emotional victory in the wake of Jerry Buss' passing. Howard had 24 points while Nash had 14 and dished seven assists as they ran a potent pick-and-roll.

Howard avoided the bad habit of slipping off screens too early, and this created room for Nash to shoot and made it easier for Dwight to roll hard to the bucket.

Nash commented after the game (per Associated Press, via ESPN):

He has to find ways to free me up and therefore, I am going to find ways to free him up. It is still a work in progress, but the last two games before the break he really committed into running pick-and-rolls, setting good screens, rolling hard and you saw either me free for jump shots or him going down the paint for fouls or finishes.

Perhaps Dwight has finally accepted his place in the D'Antoni offense. As much as he wants to post up, the pick-and-roll is the path forward.

The Lakers also endured the Portland Trail Blazers on Friday, 111-107. Though their schedule doesn't get any easier, if they play to the high level they've flashed recently, they should certainly find themselves in the playoffs.

And Kobe agrees. 

In an interview with Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated, Bryant confidently endorsed his team's playoff chances, saying, "It's not a question of if we make the playoffs. We will. And when we get there, I have no fear of anyone—Oklahoma City, San AntonioDenver...whoever. I have zero nervousness about that."

And assuming the Lakers get there, no team in the West wants to face the Black Mamba and a potent Nash-Howard pick-and-roll. 

It doesn't seem like D'Antoni will ever be able to wrangle the throbbing egos of his future Hall of Famers, but that won't matter if they bring the Larry O'Brien trophy back to L.A. sometime soon.

 

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