Grading Mike D'Antoni's Job as LA Lakers Coach This Season
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The Lakers wasted no time in sacking incumbent coach Mike Brown after the team stumbled badly out of the gate, and after a brief dalliance with Phil Jackson, D'Antoni was management's choice to lead the Lakers out of the darkness.
There were ups and downs throughout the season and certainly no lack of drama or intrigue. Let's take a look at what D'Antoni did and did not do well before giving him a final grade on his yearly report card.
Credit where credit is due. D'Antoni was dealt a pretty poor hand with the Lakers. Sure, he had four All-Star-caliber players who will all be enshrined in the Hall of Fame one day, but he rarely had them all available together.
Those five combined to miss an entire season's worth of games. And that was with those guys constantly gutting it out to play through pain. World Peace even came back from the same injury that knocked Russell Westbrook out of the playoffs in a mere 12 days.
D'Antoni found a rotation that worked about halfway through the season and stuck to it, finally giving his guys defined roles. Success was immediate after the rotation finally crystallized.
Known for a run-and-gun spread pick-and-roll offense, D'Antoni adapted his system more than most people realized to play more to his players' strengths.
He went away from his reliance on the pick-and-roll in favor of more post-ups, taking advantage of two of the best post players in the league at their respective positions in Bryant and Gasol.
Many of L.A.'s best looks came from passes out of the post to weak-side shooters and guys cutting to the hoop. The Lakers also ran a lot of action out of the "Horns" set, something D'Antoni never used with the Seven Seconds or Less Suns.
He also made the bold move of playing his former MVP point guard Nash off the ball more. It may have seemed like a counter-intuitive strategy, but it worked.
Nash was the Lakers' only reliable three-point threat, so having him off the ball spotting up ready to launch created space for the rest of the guys to work. D'Antoni also cajoled Bryant into more of a facilitating role, leading to Bryant posting the highest assist rate of his 17-year career.
It wasn't a seamless integration for D'Antoni. As a midseason coaching hire, he didn't have the luxury of a training camp to get to know his players and vice versa.
Still, with the talent on the Lakers' roster, losing 20 of his first 32 games beggared belief. And it wasn't just that they were losing, it was the way they lost, getting absolutely manhandled by the league's elite teams.
The Lakers were a mess defensively, solely relying on Howard's prowess at protecting the rim to prevent points. If you look around at the most respected coaches in the game, whether it's Gregg Popovich, Tom Thibodeau, or Doc Rivers you see that they all oversee elite defenses.
Even coach of the year George Karl's Denver Nuggets (a team commonly thought of as an offense-first, offense-only squad) finished a respectable 11th in points allowed per possession, seven spots ahead of the Purple and Gold.
D'Antoni also never figured out how to use the Lakers' biggest advantage—their big man combo of Howard and Gasol.
Right off the bat D'Antoni alienated Gasol by benching him in fourth quarters and later by insisting for a brief stint that Gasol come off the bench,
He had Gasol routinely stationed 20 feet from the basket and even shooting three-pointers on occasion. Anyone that's ever seen Pau Gasol play knows that he's a supremely gifted post player, not a face-up catch-and-shoot stretch-four type.
When Howard and Gasol shared the court, the Lakers were outscored by their opponents per 100 possessions. It's on D'Antoni that he never figured out how to use his two bigs together. Subbing in Antawn Jamison for Pau Gasol is never the solution.
Perhaps the biggest controversy of the year for D'Antoni was the way he managed Kobe Bryant's minutes towards the tail end of the season.
In a seven-game stretch between March 30 and April 12, Bryant played 319 out of a possible 336 minutes before a torn Achilles ended his season. That's utter madness.
I don't buy that all those minutes caused the injury. As far as anyone knows, an Achilles tear is more a fluke than anything else.
But to play Bryant those kinds of heavy minutes at the end of his 17th season is unconscionable.
Even in the midst of a playoff race, even if Bryant insisted on staying in the game, it's the coach's responsibility to make sure his players don't break down and have enough left in the tank for the postseason.
If a coach doesn't have the authority or the guts to override a player's wishes—even a super face-of-the-franchise star like Kobe—he’s in the wrong profession.
It's tempting to hold D'Antoni to his own words.
In his first radio interview on 710 ESPN LA, D’Antoni made it clear that "If we're not at least in the hunt, a serious hunt, then I've failed as a head coach. I'm comfortable with that."
Looks like you failed then, huh, Mike?
What grade would you give Mike D'Antoni for the season?
But it's not as simple as handing D'Antoni an F grade. There were definitely some mitigating circumstances.
The injuries were real, and many of them to his top players. An already thin Lakers team had to stretch themselves even thinner. Darius Morris and Andrew Goudelock comprised the starting backcourt in a postseason elimination game for crying out loud.
Yes, D'Antoni dug them into a deep hole, but he was also at the helm when the Lakers played .700 ball over the season's final 40 games and grabbed the No. 7 seed in the West after everyone had counted them out of the playoffs.
Overall, the season was a disaster, but it wasn't all D'Antoni's fault. His final grade for coaching the Lakers comes out to a C-. Better luck next year, Mike.
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