Before arriving in Hollywood, it was D'Antoni's point guard-transformative offense that pillaged through the depths of the NBA and turned Jeremy Lin into a global phenomenon. Last season, it was his ideals that helped Earl Clark become an everyday player, worthy of being handed a three-year contract by the Cleveland Cavaliers
This year, while navigating a labyrinth of obstacles, there has been Wesley Johnson, the former top-five pick turned draft bust.
Within D'Antoni's free-reigning system, Johnson has started to flourish, showing frequent glimpses of the player he was projected to be. In doing so, he's validated his spot on the Lakers. Earned his place in the starting lineup.
Proved once again that there's something to this Mike D'Antoni guy after all.
Always Something There
Pretending as if there wasn't always something to Magic Mike's system is inane.
Chastise him for his defensive disregard if you must, but he knows how to coach a spectacular offense. More importantly, he knows how to coach athleticism and make the most of exotic rosters.
General manager Mitch Kupchak pieced together a core worthy of the lottery this summer. Not to say he had a choice—he didn't. Dwight Howard left, Kobe Bryant was injured, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol weren't getting any younger and the Lakers had no money to spend. When you consider what he had to work with, Kupchak did a bang-up job.
But that doesn't make this, as Bleacher Report's Howard Beck called them, "largely nameless" Lakers team great. Or even good. Somehow, they are. Good enough, at least.
Los Angeles currently ranks 17th in offensive efficiency, uncharacteristic of a D'Antoni-coached squad. They rank in the top half of defensive efficiency as well, also uncharacteristic of a D'Antoni-guided platoon.
Nothing about these Lakers, these D'Antoni-led Lakers, is particularly fantastic. But the Lakers are above .500 and in the thick of the Western Conference playoff picture. Without Kobe Bryant.
For all the flack D'Antoni withstands, this is what his system is about—competing. Magic Mike hasn't won any NBA championships and wasn't enough to convince Howard to stay, but his teams generally compete. They believe.
Johnson knew this even before the season. According to ESPN Los Angeles' Ramona Shelburne, he chose the Lakers over the Milwaukee Bucks and Atlanta Hawks, both of whom offered him more money and years, to play for D'Antoni.
The decision was a good one. Without Johnson, the Lakers wouldn't have had an extra diamond in the rough. And without D'Antoni, Johnson would have never befriended the optimism he's come to know.
Numbers Speak for Themselves
At first glance, Johnson's 2013-14 numbers aren't anything to excite yourself over. He's averaging 8.5 points per game on 43 percent shooting, relatively unimpressive metrics for someone who was once destined for stardom.
But that 43 percent conversion rate will go down as a career high if it stands. So will his 44.6 percent success rate from downtown. Same goes for his 13.7 PER. And his 3.8 rebounds per game. And his 1.1 steals.
For further reference, look at how his per-game numbers this season stand up against those of his previous three:
|Johnson By the Numbers|
|Seasons||MPG||PPG||FG%||3P%||STLS||Off. Rtg.||Def. Rtg.||PER|
There's a difference. A substantial difference.
In Los Angeles, Johnson has become even more of a reliable defender, someone who can now defend both the 3 and 4 positions. Per 82games.com, opposing small and power forwards are averaging a combined PER of 15.3 against him, a hair above the league average of 15, and that defensive rating of his (102) would be a career best.
Johnson has also started coming into his own on offense. Ignore the 8.5 points per game—those are whatever. Look at his three-point percentage instead, which is currently hovering 10.1 percentage points above his career average, despite attempting 3.3 a night, the second-most of his NBA tenure.
Attributing his increased production and effectiveness to an uptick in playing time does little as well. Of all that's changed, his time on the court has remained steady. His 24.5 minutes per game aren't even two minutes above his lifetime average.
So how do you explain his emergence? As a coincidence? Quarter-season-long aberration? If you're a downer, then sure. But maybe it's something else. Maybe it's D'Antoni. The coach he signed with Los Angeles to play under.
The coach who has been here before. Revived a player's career before.
D'Antoni isn't the best coach in the NBA. Any number of people could go on hours-long rants, highlighting his lengthy list of flaws.
Few, if any, could have coached these Lakers the way he's coached them, though. This is a team comprising mostly players on expiring contracts, who know they aren't necessarily a part of the long-term plan.
Times like these are when players start to look out for themselves. Pad their stat lines. Spite the hand that's only temporarily feeding them.
Not these Lakers, though. Not them at all.
Johnson, Jordan Hill, Jodie Meeks, Nick Young and everyone else are playing as a team. Some of them, like Johnson, are flourishing alongside D'Antoni. Hill has been magnificent. Meeks, too. This entire team has been adequate, when they were slated to be a disaster.
In the middle of it all is Johnson, who helped lead the Lakers past the Detroit Pistons. Who drilled six three-pointers in a single game for the first time in nearly three years, and just the second time in his largely disappointing career.
"His word he always uses is be 'dynamic,' " said Johnson of D'Antoni after Los Angeles' 106-102 win over the Pistons, according to ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin.
Who, like the rest of the Lakers, is beginning to understand his potential under D'Antoni's direction is far greater than most ever realized.
*All stats in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference and are accurate as of Dec. 1, 2013.