Mike D'Antoni is confident his team will surprise folks next season. He knows he has to be.
The embattled Los Angeles Lakers coach sat down late last week with ESPN Radio 710 in Los Angeles, discussing a wide range of topics, from Dwight Howard's decision to leave for the Houston Rockets to the current state of the franchise. While the former topic has been raked over the coals so many times that we need to buy a new rake, D'Antoni hasn't been much for State of the Union-style addresses since Howard's departure.
That stance changed in the interview, as D'Antoni made it clear he expects one thing from this roster—May basketball (h/t The Orange County Register's Janis Carr):
Here is where you chime in and ask, "What else was he going to say? That the Lakers were going to be terrible next season? That he's not exactly looking forward to coaching Nick 'Swaggy P' Young?"
Of course he wasn't going to say those things. Camp is still months away. The Philadelphia 76ers coach would probably deny they were tanking next season, you know, if they had one.
But D'Antoni's quotes are at least worth examining because of the integral role he'll play in keeping the ship afloat. These Lakers aren't tanking. They're trying to compete for a playoff spot, even though they've made such cost-cutting measures as amnestying Metta World Peace.
Chris Kaman, Mr. Swaggy and a litany of minimum contract players isn't a lot, but there are two "open" playoff spots in the Western Conference.
It's possible the Lakers take one.
D'Antoni's optimism is more of an acknowledgement of what this season means for him and the Lakers franchise. Next season might be one of transition from a roster standpoint, but it's one in which the coaching staff will have to prove its chops.
Let's be clear: Barring a Kobe Bryant request, D'Antoni is very unlikely to be shown the door during the 2013-14 season. For whatever reason, he's Jim Buss' guy. He's the man the front office chose over Phil Jackson. And even if the team did benefit somewhat from Mike Brown's hiring in Cleveland, canning D'Antoni involves the process of paying another coach to sit at home and eat Pringles.
His job status after the season, though, rests on a multitude of factors.
If Bryant misses much (or all) of next season and the Lakers wind up in the lottery, then it'd be hard to justify sending any coach packing. You wouldn't have expected the Chicago Bulls to fire Tom Thibodeau if they had missed the playoffs last season. Same thing with D'Antoni.
That said, the last thing D'Antoni can afford is a train-wreck campaign—Bryant or no Bryant. His first campaign in Los Angeles was nothing short of an unmitigated failure, with a team (unjustly, in retrospect) expected to compete for a championship needing some late-season luck to make the playoffs. Then the Staples Center faithful watched on in horror as the team flopped around lifelessly against the San Antonio Spurs.
As the losses mounted, the criticisms did likewise. Fans viewed D'Antoni as an inflexible, sarcastic rent-a-cop with a mustache. And they more notably viewed him as a guy who isn't Phil Jackson. Any coach who wasn't Phil was bound for censure, but D'Antoni's disposition made it all the easier.
After a while, the truth stopped mattering. Particularly when it came to criticizing D'Antoni's oft-cited spread offensive system. What you watched last season for the most part wasn't D'Antoni's "system." It was a bastardized version.
Bryant's beloved isolation possessions at the top of the elbow wouldn't have had any place in the "seven-seconds-or-less" days in Phoenix, and you saw with the whole Earl Clark-Pau Gasol fiasco just how much the coach struggled with the spacing of having two 7-footers.
And Steve Nash correctly noted in an interview with Grantland's Zach Lowe that the team didn't have enough shooting on the outside to even get those players enough spacing, resulting in the awkward "hybrid" we saw last season:
I don’t think we would have ever been like that. We don’t have the shooters to really space the floor. Pau and Dwight would have been...an interesting mix. So it would have had to have been some kind of hybrid.
Nash, proving that he's possibly the league's best basketball mind, also pointed out that too many possessions had only one or two passes, that the ball didn't move enough—partly due to the individual excellence of Bryant. And it's at least fair to point out that he never got a chance to work with the players and build a stable relationship during camp or the preseason.
None of this is necessarily to give the Lakers or D'Antoni a pass. His first two months of the job were an exercise in Schadenfreudian glee. He couldn't decide on a rotation. He alienated multiple players. He chose to start Earl Clark over Pau Gasol.
Again: A head coach in the National Basketball Association, someone paid millions of dollars, thought it was a good idea to play Earl Clark instead of Future Hall of Famer Pau Gasol.
You can see where the frustration came.
Things generally picked up after a fateful team meeting, but it takes time to change public perception. That's especially the case now that Howard, a guy who openly complained about the coach, made the unprecedented decision to leave Los Angeles. Plenty of people are to blame for Howard's departure. None are as likely as D'Antoni to serve as the face of that situation, should things go sour.
Remember, this isn't the first time D'Antoni has rankled a player's feathers. Carmelo Anthony wasn't what one would call a fan. Amar'e Stoudemire didn't exactly do much for his reputation as an aloof defensive mind.
The magical ghost of the summer of 2014 awaits, when guys like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and a bevy of others can become free agents. You might have heard of those guys. We know the Lakers have. But if the team's plan is, as expected, to land one of those guys and build for the future, can it really sell someone like D'Antoni as the long-term answer?
We'll find out next season. D'Antoni has a full training camp. He has a defensive-specialist assistant in Kurt Rambis. He has a bevy of new players, most of whom can stroke from the outside.
He also faces one of the most untenable situations in Lakers history, while staring at a career crossroads.
Can D'Antoni pull it off?
We'll have to wait to see, but the answer to that question may be the most intriguing in a season full of them for Los Angeles.
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