For the first 19 games of the season, the Los Angeles Lakers' Mike D’Antoni was having a field day with a team that might be best be described as a bunch of perfectly agreeable misfits—and then the Black Mamba returned.
What will the relationship between D’Antoni and Kobe Bryant resemble for the rest of the season, partnership or power struggle?
The eternal optimist would say the former—if these guys survived last year’s train wreck together, then this season should be a piece of cake. Bryant’s finally back on the court after a long layoff from a devastating injury, and now it’s time to rock!
Or is it? A small difference of opinion recently materialized concerning the team’s record before Bryant’s return to action. It was enough to get people talking.
At issue are the primary parties’ own words. Per Dave McMenamin of ESPN Los Angeles, there’s a differing perception about the Lakers’ 10-9 start.
After Kobe Bryant downplayed the Los Angeles Lakers’ modest success in going 10-9 without him, saying Monday, "It's not like we we were gangbusters before," coach Mike D'Antoni came to the defense of Bryant's teammates.
"I have to disagree with that," D'Antoni said after Tuesday's shootaround in advance of the Lakers' game against the Phoenix Suns. "We were 6-2 in the last eight [games before Bryant's return] and I thought we played extremely well, winning three [in a row] on the road. ... So, that's not quite right. I'm really proud of what the guys did."
To put the situation in perspective, D’Antoni had in fact earned some redemption points over the first 19 games. Last season was a coach’s perfect nightmarish storm, from injuries to conflict to losses and back to injuries again. Adding fuel to the fire was the very arrival of the new head coach, which was preceded by the dangling of Phil Jackson before the adoring masses before having that possibility jerked away.
Even Laker icon Magic Johnson weighed in on the controversy, which in and of itself caused more than a few media ripples.
By contrast, this season hasn’t been all that bad.
Among the highlights has been a team that gets along and plays well together. Among the positives have been minimum salary reclamation projects that gun up and down the floor and sink outside shots with happy abandon. Among the surprises have been Steve Blake’s career-high assists numbers and a bench unit that is leading the league in points scored at 47.8.
Now of course, Bryant is back and there are certain things that go with the territory. Such as a perfectionist’s attitude and an unwillingness to see the world through rose-tinted glasses.
For Bryant, being in 12th place in the western conference isn’t exactly the cat’s meow. He can be hardest on himself, as evidenced by the unflinching grade of “F” that he placed upon his own performance after his return to action against the Toronto Raptors last Sunday night.
Bryant’s solitary “gangbusters” line shouldn’t have stirred so much discussion, and it probably would have quickly disappeared from view if not for D’Antoni’s rebuttal. Maybe he just thought he was tossing the rest of his troops a bone. But he was also tossing chum in the water for the circling sharks.
Take, for example, the ESPN First Take segment that accompanies McMenamin’s article. Here, you have two guys in Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless, who always love a good debate but now find common ground.
Smith opens up with the following salvo: “What I make of Mike D’Antoni’s comments is that he wishes he [didn't] have Kobe Bryant.”
He goes on to explain that in D’Antoni’s perfect world, you have a captain and four guys who have no accountability to anyone else on the floor, and who are free to take the shots that are open to them.
Smith adds, “Now, to some degree you have to defer to Kobe Bryant so as a result, it compromises everything that Mike D’Antoni wants to do.” Smith also points out that for all the wins D’Antoni had in Phoenix, he never won a ring, and so, he needs to watch what he says.
As for Skip Bayless, he agreed with Smith’s assessment, adding, “The quote came off as if D’Antoni resents Kobe’s presence, that D’Antoni was very proud of the coaching job he had done with a lot less than Kobe Bryant.”
Bayless closes with the following: “I’m paraphrasing the quote a little bit but you see what I mean; it’s D’Antoni saying, ‘Hey, we really had it going on. I’m proud of what we had and now Kobe’s coming back?’”
To a large degree, this is all about spin. It’s about provoking discussion, but it’s also about taking the most controversial segments of dialogue and running with them. Bryant’s "gangbusters" line was preceded by "The chemistry will be fine" and followed by "Guys know how to play with me, it will be fine." Those lines however, didn't get as much airtime.
A day after Bryant's self-grade fail, he went a little easier on himself, noting that after watching game film, he upgraded his performance from an “F” to a “D.”
And in fact, Bryant’s Tuesday night performance against the Phoenix Suns was a marked improvement over his debut.
So, forward progress, correct?
The Lakers’ next game isn’t until Friday in Oklahoma City. The team has more time to practice, more time to acclimate and more time to find a common rhythm on the floor. Bryant and D’Antoni have more time to find their own areas of accommodation and agreement. It’s not unlike other relationships in life—we all find ourselves in contentious conversations at times and either move on or become trapped.
Will Bryant and D’Antoni make this thing work, or will the relationship devolve? Could the situation ultimately escalate into a full-blown power struggle? It’s a legitimate question. Certainly, remarks are parsed and magnified in the public eye, but they aren’t manufactured from thin air.
And whose job is it to define chemistry, or how players adjust to each other? Is it Bryant's or D'Antoni's?
In the best of worlds, it's a shared purpose. It's not always that simple, however.
In the Lakers’ current head coach and a superstar who recently signed a two-year extension, you have guys who can run a little hot, guys who will get their backs up. Each will let their remarks fly off the cuff at times, later going back to temper them.
It’s a different relationship than the one we knew between Phil Jackson and Kobe. It also poses a different dynamic for the media. Jackson’s remarks can provoke because he intends them to provoke. He is a master at the sly, calculated dig, and he knows how to use the press to his advantage.
D’Antoni, on the other hand, will sometimes snap at the bait, and as a result, the media will use him to their advantage.
For now, the larger picture is the team’s performances on the floor—how Bryant acclimates back into the game and how his teammates acclimate to him. Within the brightly lit bubble that always accompanies the mega-market Lakers, however, there will also be a closely watched subplot that can assume the lead at a moment’s notice.
And that could be the biggest story of the season—a power struggle that could consume the soul of Lakers nation, the fight to be the team’s undisputed voice. There may not be a true winner in the purest sense of the word, such as the ultimate success of this year’s edition, but in terms of a power grab, remember one essential thing—there’s a reason the team’s paying Bryant over $30 million this season while D’Antoni’s earning $4 million.
Bryant’s star power still fills those high-priced courtside seats.
For now there’s a sense of calm in Lakerland, albeit a somewhat uneasy one.
It only takes a sentence or a rebuttal. It only takes one game or one postgame. It takes just one moment of unthinking candor, and then, all bets are off.