Mike D'Antoni has players who respond to him this year, something he did not enjoy last season.
From his very first day on the job last year as Lakers head coach, D'Antoni seemed poised for failure. Fans overwhelmingly wanted Phil Jackson back for a third act, but they got the coach who resigned from the miserable New York Knicks instead. He literally limped into the introductory press conference, having undergone recent knee surgery—not a good, upbeat sign.
In a city that treasures its sports teams, the iconic Lakers will always judge their head coach on his wins, losses and playoff success. For that reason, Mike D'Antoni is still on a proverbial hot seat.
Sure enough, the 62-year-old D'Antoni does have a .535 winning percentage over 10 regular seasons but only .441 in the playoffs, the "real" season by Lakers standards. Conversely, Jackson, the NBA's all-time winningest coach, with a .704 winning percentage in the regular season (1,155 regular season wins), a .688 percentage in the playoffs and 11 World Championships to his credit, defines what it means to be great.
With Kobe Bryant set to return to action on Sunday, the ragtag Lakers are one game over .500 and have won six of their last eight games. D'Antoni continues to seek respect from hardcore fans still smarting over last year's decision to hire him over Jackson when the team unceremoniously fired Mike Brown five games into the season.
Would Dwight Howard still be with the Lakers if Phil Jackson were its coach? Hard to say, but let's go out on a limb and say YES. But that is old history and D'Antoni now finds himself with a team (sans Howard and Metta World Peace) that he can truly call his own.
In reality, D'Antoni's performance over the past year has not been bad. In fact, this year's version of the Lakers is comprised of talented castoffs who never made a dent with their former teams and found a temporary home seeking basketball redemption in Los Angeles. They are making the most of it.
As point guard Jordan Farmar explained D'Antoni's positive influence (via Los Angeles Times):
He's done great. He's bringing us all together as a team and making us believe in each other and the system and how we're going to win. I think he's managing personalities really well and the team on the court too.
Even little things like time-out plays he draws. He does a really good job of reading what the defense is doing and we take advantage of it.
A 10-9 record may not meet the high standards of Lakers diehards, but the bar this year was set so low that D'Antoni actually looks like a decent skipper. His reputation for turning no-names into somebodies has once again been proven correct.
Unlike last year when he arrived late to the party, this is D'Antoni's team. Wesley Johnson, Xavier Henry, Jodie Meeks, Nick Young, Jordan Hill, Shawne Williams, Jordan Farmar and Robert Sacre are all playing with a youthful intensity that can be attributed to a coach who gives them minutes and opportunities to succeed.
This team has bought into the D'Antoni system, which employs a motion offense and a get-back-as-fast-as-you-can defense.
Jodie Meeks, averaging 13.5 points on 50 percent shooting, says of D'Antoni (via L.A. Times): "He's playing 10 guys. I'm sure that's hard to manage but I think he's doing a great job keeping everybody satisfied but at the same time hungry."
There's no question D'Antoni is more comfortable and more in command as Lakers head coach this year than last. He gets a higher grade because he's good at coaching young talent and has had his team competitive in almost every game they've played. If not for a few late-game collapses on defense, the Lakers could easily be 14-5 or 13-6.
Friday night's six-point win at Sacramento was the perfect example of what D'Antoni's Lakers look like: Six players in double figures with no one individual stealing the limelight. How that changes when Bryant returns to the lineup Sunday is anyone's guess, but for now this team has a lot of chemistry.
D'Antoni's L.A. resume must also be measured by last season, when expectations were off the charts. He inherited a Lakers team predicted by many (including the Vegas odds makers) to reach the NBA Finals in 2013 and challenge LeBron James and the Miami Heat for the title.
D'Antoni told the Los Angeles media at his introductory press conference: "We're built to win this year... If we win a championship, I'll get a fair shake. Winning takes care of everything."
With Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard, the Lakers could proudly boast four All-Stars and future Hall of Fame selections among the starting five. Nash signed a three-year contract before D'Antoni came on board, the team envisioning him as the Nash of five years ago in Phoenix. But the soon-to-be 40-year-old went out just three games into the season with a broken leg.
Neither Howard nor Gasol were comfortable in the up-tempo system D'Antoni was used to. Both were unhappy much of the year—Howard because he really wanted to play for Phil Jackson and Gasol because he felt like the odd man out.
The Lakers' big four took turns stumbling, bumbling and eventually crumbling under the intense weight of injuries and pressure to win with this high-priced Hall of Fame talent.
Give some credit to D'Antoni for coaching the Lakers to a late-season finish that saw them go 28-12 and sneak into the playoffs in the final days of the regular season. Others have pointed out that it was Bryant who took control of the team during that second-half run.
It actually looked like the Lakers could make some noise in the postseason until Bryant collapsed on the floor against Golden State and tore his Achilles. In that first round, the Lakers went quietly into the night, getting swept by the San Antonio Spurs.
Still, last year was not a good one for the Lakers or D'Antoni. In its own way, the team vaguely resembled the failed experiment in 2003 that brought Karl Malone and Gary Payton to the Lakers to team with Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. Four superstars and one burnout in the 2004 Finals against Detroit.
D'Antoni did not win a championship. Howard grumbled and left town. Gasol grumbled and worried he might be traded. And Bryant became the biggest question mark for a team that was clearly in transition.
While the team waited for Bryant to heal and return to work, D'Antoni went about assembling the best players from the roster he was dealt. The obvious chemistry surrounding this young Lakers team can be, in part, attributed to its head coach.
What's become obvious is that Mike D'Antoni is a respected offensive-minded coach who really never paid much attention to defense. He made a smart move in bringing former Lakers great Kurt Rambis in as an assistant and the team defense has picked up considerably.
For one year on the job, Mike D'Antoni gets a grade of B-. What could easily have been a major train wreck and derailment last season has turned into a team of hard-charging, energetic and athletic players who have come together as one unit. D'Antoni must get some credit for that.
The bigger test starts on Sunday when Kobe Bryant returns to the team. What will happen with that chemistry and bond that's been so nicely forged by the likes of Young, Henry, Williams, Hill, Farmar, Blake, Johnson and Meeks?
Show me a coach who wins games and—more importantly—wins in the playoffs, and I'll show you a great coach. D'Antoni has succeeded on one level. But will that be enough if the Lakers have another postseason letdown?