Mike D'Antoni was set up to fail last season, and he didn't exactly do himself any favors during the Los Angeles Lakers' disastrous 2012-13, either. But after surviving one of the most scrutinized NBA campaigns in history, D'Antoni is going to get a much better chance to prove he's capable of running things in Hollywood this year.
Training Camp: A Novel Idea
The Lakers spent the summer of 2012 trying to learn Mike Brown's Princeton offense, only to see the front office scrap the entire plan—coach, strategy and all—a mere five games into the season.
So when D'Antoni took over shortly thereafter, he found himself coaching a team that was totally unprepared for his signature offensive style. Right from the get-go, L.A.'s new coach was playing from behind.
It's far from a certainty that the Lakers will look like D'Antoni's high-octane Phoenix Suns this season; the current roster still lacks the kind of outside shooting and athleticism that made those teams so dangerous. But at least D'Antoni will have a chance to spend a full training camp determining how many elements of his preferred style will be useful with the Lakers' personnel.
D'Antoni's flexibility was one of a handful of overlooked positives last season.
By the time the Lakers got the hang of how their coach wanted them to play last year, it was clear that the roster wasn't cut out to run the same sets that worked in Phoenix. So D'Antoni scrapped his usual plan and tried to build an attack around the Lakers' strengths.
L.A. went 28-12 down the stretch after D'Antoni commendably put aside his long-held offensive beliefs. So, while plenty of D'Antoni's decisions last year deserve some criticism, it's not really accurate to call him out for being a gimmicky offensive coach. Based on his adaptations last year, it seems likely that D'Antoni will find a way to implement tactics in a full training camp that will maximize the Lakers' personnel.
The Roster: Imperfect but Improved
It's still too early to say whether the Lakers will actually be a better team without Dwight Howard. Even at his crankiest, D12 was still an extremely valuable on-court asset.
But it certainly seems like the players the Lakers have added will give D'Antoni a few more familiar offensive options.
Chris Kaman is an elite jump-shooting center and exactly the kind of space-creating big that D'Antoni loves. He won't stretch the floor all the way out to the three-point line, but Kaman drilled a fantastic 51 percent of his shots from 16-23 feet last season, per Hoopdata.com. So he'll be a much more versatile offensive option than Howard was.
Plus Pau Gasol will be free to shuttle between the elbow and the paint now that the Lakers lack a traditional on-the-block center.
D'Antoni likes skilled offensive big men, and now that Howard is out of the picture, he'll get a chance to show what he can do with them.
Kobe Bryant's hazy injury situation could also benefit D'Antoni. Don't be mistaken; this isn't a case for saying the Lakers are a better team without Bryant. Far from it, actually.
But if No. 24 misses the first few weeks of the season and/or is slowed upon his return, D'Antoni will get to put the ball back in Steve Nash's hands. Due to a combination of injuries and Bryant's takeover effort as a facilitator, that was really never the case last season.
Maybe putting the full decision-making load back on Nash's fragile shoulders (and knees, back and hip) will be a failure. But at least it'll be a failure on D'Antoni's terms.
Most importantly, D'Antoni will no longer have his every move undermined by the franchise's insistence that he cater his decisions toward pleasing Howard. Last year, there was always a concern with keeping the big man happy, which was born out of a fear that a discontented Howard would leave as a free agent.
Well, Howard was unhappy and he did leave. So at least D'Antoni will get to do his job without having to worry about the incessant whining of a seven-foot adolescent.
The Ghost in the House
The biggest hurdle to D'Antoni getting a fair shot in Los Angeles is the fact that the vast majority of Lakers fans have already made up their minds about him. Winning can change people's opinions on almost anything, but there's really no amount of success that will ever erase the perception that D'Antoni is currently occupying the job that should have been Phil Jackson's.
And nothing makes a coach look worse than a comparison to the Zen Master.
Jackson is doing some consulting work with the Lakers, so his presence will loom over the team all year. The minute something goes wrong, or D'Antoni makes a mistake, cries will ring out for Jackson's re-installation as coach.
Basically, D'Antoni is competing for fans' affection and the organization's approval against a ghost. Except that said ghost is actually real, works in the office upstairs and would probably get a key to the city if he took D'Antoni's job.
So in that sense, D'Antoni will never get a totally fair shake in Los Angeles—not as long as Jackson is figuratively haunting the halls.
The Lakers will use the 2013-14 season as a transitional period between their past and their future. L.A. is going to have a boatload of cap space with which to totally restructure its roster next summer, and if D'Antoni wants to be a part of the team's new era, he'd better be impressive this year.
Ultimately, D'Antoni still has to contend with a number of disadvantages. But at least he'll get a better chance to prove his worth than he did a year ago.