Efforts to remain competitive while looking ahead to the future led Los Angeles to assemble a roster of offbeat players in hopes D'Antoni, like he tends to do, could make something out of the unknown. And he has.
The latest unadorned talent turned role player turned prominent contributor and superjock is rookie Ryan Kelly, who, like so many others before him, is finding his niche in an open-floor plan and a rotation so desultory, only D'Antoni could be behind it.
From Irrelevant to Dominant
Drafted in the second round this past summer, Kelly didn't even qualify for "seldom used" in the early part of this season when he wasn't recovering from a foot injury. Through the first 27 games, he made just five appearances, never seeing more than seven minutes of action.
Over the last 14 games, specifically since Shawne Williams' departure, D'Antoni has gone to the rookie more and more. Kelly has logged at least 12 minutes of action in 13 straight games, including 31 or more in his last three.
In those last three games, Kelly is averaging 15.3 points and 5.3 rebounds on 57.8 percent shooting overall and a 40 percent clip from three-point range. His recent performances have been so impressive, D'Antoni decided to start him ahead of the Lakers' road game against the Toronto Raptors.
"He's going to give us toughness and smarts and move the ball and hopefully he'll hit open shots," D'Antoni said, per ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin. "I just think we're a better team when we can spread the floor."
Kelly did not disappoint, going for 17 points on 5-of-7 shooting from the floor, showing an uncanny ability to reach the free-throw line, where he was 6-of-6.
That versatile offensive punch is something the Lakers have missed in recent weeks with injuries handcuffing their roster like a freshly apprehended fugitive. They've done a good job of fielding passers and scorers—specialists—but have lacked that spot-up shooter who can create his own opportunities while drawing fouls.
Pau Gasol on Ryan Kelly: "His basketball IQ is really showing. He's been a great addition to our team"— Serena Winters (@SerenaWinters) January 19, 2014
A majority of Kelly's damage was done in the fourth quarter, where he ensured the Lakers completely erased a 19-point first-half deficit by piling on seven points.
There was little time to bask in the success of his first career start, a 112-106 come-from-behind victory, though. Rookies, however impressive, still have responsibilities in Los Angeles' locker room:
After scoring 7 of his 17 pts in the 4th Q to help get LAL the win, Ryan Kelly still had to collect the locker room name tags #rookie— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) January 19, 2014
"Coach thought I brought pretty good energy [against Boston] and I worked my tail off, so he thought I earned it," Kelly said of starting before the game, via McMenamin.
After receiving the green light from D'Antoni, he earned it some more.
One of Many
The legitimacy of Kelly's emergence can be argued forever.
Is he for real? Riding a hot streak? The product of sparse scouting reports? Some combination of all three?
More exposure will determine how steady a contribution Kelly makes, but there's absolutely no questioning the obvious: There's something about D'Antoni.
Already known for extracting significant production from relatively unknown players, D'Antoni has taken his knack for obscure finds to a whole different level.
Just this season, Kendall Marshall has saved his career under D'Antoni. From flaming out with the Phoenix Suns to averaging a respectable 10.7 points and 9.1 assists on 45.4 percent shooting per game, he's looked like an NBA point guard. A work in progress for sure but a legitimate floor general nonetheless.
Before him there was Xavier Henry and Wesley Johnson, former top prospects considered busts, who have reinvented themselves and rivaled career numbers while playing for Magic Mike. More established, though equally unsound, players like Jodie Meeks and Nick Young have experienced a renaissance of sorts as well.
Meeks is putting up a career-high 14 points on 44.6 percent shooting, rewarding D'Antoni for the 32.4 minutes a night he's bestowed upon him. Young, meanwhile, has transformed into a fierce leader and one of D'Antoni's favorites.
"Nick's been doing it all year and he just keeps going," D'Antoni said after Young notched 29 points on 7-of-13 shooting in Los Angeles' win over Toronto, per the Associated Press (via ESPN).
Most coaches would, and have, loathed the predominately erratic numbers Young posts. Not much has changed in terms of production this season, either. Young is still a chucker who can both fill it up offensively and incite hair-pulling from spectators.
Solid stretch run for Nick Young + Ryan Kelly, combining for 14 of Lakers' last 18. Lakers win 2 in a row for 1st time since 12/17 + 12/20.— Mike Bresnahan (@Mike_Bresnahan) January 19, 2014
But D'Antoni has found an appreciation for his devout loyalty and unbridled motor, just like he's found a use for players deemed not good enough by their former teams.
The D'Antoni Way
"Other people have to step up," D'Antoni previously said, per McMenamin.
They have. Many of them, in fact. Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar, when healthy, have found success in his point guard-friendly system. Jordan Hill, in lieu of recent struggles, has done the same.
With D'Antoni, there's always someone. A player cut by his former team, drafted in the second round and pushed to the side or someone else. If there's a diamond in the rough, he'll find it.
Mike D'Antoni referred to second rounders such as Sacre and Kelly as "found money." He said: "That's good stuff."— Bill Oram (@bill_oram) January 19, 2014
Wins haven't piled up as a result of D'Antoni's free-reigning guidance, that's for sure. The Lakers are still seven games back of the Western Conference's final playoff spot, and they have dropped as far as 14th in the conference standings.
Health remains an issue, too. Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Henry, Farmar and Blake are nowhere to be found, protracted absences reflected in Los Angeles' 16-25 record.
But the Lakers aren't thinking about the playoffs.
Mike D'Antoni says the team isn't thinking about the playoffs, "we need to keep plugging along." When I asked Pau, he agreed.— Serena Winters (@SerenaWinters) January 19, 2014
Who will be D'Antoni's greatest project by season's end?
They can't. There will be no looking ahead for these Lakers, who are still without their best player and chasing an identity they may never catch.
One game at a time—that's how far the Lakers can look. Each and every game brings a different opponent and, more importantly, a different contribution from a different Laker.
The one thing that will remain constant is D'Antoni, the oft-ostracized head coach with the system, patience and stomach necessary to ensure the Ryan Kellys and Kendall Marshalls won't go unfound.