Mike D’Antoni is probably the top villain in the City of Angels, but he deserves somewhat of a pass.
The Los Angeles Lakers have been decimated by injuries, and yet, the coaching staff has kept the team from completely drifting into the abyss. The Lake Show currently resides near the bottom of the Western Conference standings, but one could say the players have overachieved.
Considering that they are the best players on the team, that’s a fairly important piece of information. Consider what the Miami Heat would look like without LeBron James and Chris Bosh all season. It probably would not be a pretty sight in South Beach.
D’Antoni has been faced with this dilemma and produced some interesting results. He has managed to max out the talent at his disposal. Indeed, a quick look up and down the roster reveals that some of the players are enjoying the best season of their respective careers.
For instance, Kendall Marshall is technically second in league assists per game. He does not qualify among the league leaders because he has not appeared in enough games (to qualify, a player must be on pace to play 70 games or dish out 400 assists), but it’s clear that he is finding his teammates in the right positions.
It bears mentioning that Marshall was out of the league when the season started. The Lakers signed him when Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar went down with injuries.
Marshall is hardly D’Antoni’s lone success story this campaign. Xavier Henry is another reclamation project who has flourished in Los Angeles. In his first three seasons in the NBA, he averaged 4.5 points in 14.4 minutes per game, according to Basketball-Reference.
As a member of the Lakers, Henry has increased his overall production with added playing time and a boost in confidence. Earlier in the season, his coach offered ESPN Los Angeles’ Dave McMenamin this appraisal:
‘(Henry) plays big, plays strong,’ D’Antoni said. ‘I think he’s a 3-2, he can play whatever he wants. And then Blake just makes up for it. He’s just a tough sucker. He’s just tough and he’s not going to back down from anybody. I don’t care how tall you are, he’s coming at you.’
Before straining his right knee in late December, Henry was averaging a career-high 10.1 points on 21.8 minutes per game.
Prior to teaming up with D’Antoni, Marshall and Henry had not enjoyed any level of sustained success in the Association. It stands to reason that the Lakers coach has figured out how to utilize these players, as well as a few other ones on the roster.
At 17.1 points per game, Nick Young is leading the Lakers in scoring despite playing the role of sixth man. Also, he is posting the best PER figure of his career (15.1).
Even Gasol, who has struggled throughout the duration of D’Antoni’s tenure in L.A., has finally come around. The big man uttered these words to Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times in mid-December:
‘The fact that I’m not getting the ball in the post affects directly my aggressiveness,’ he said. ‘When I’m not getting the ball where I want to, where I’m most effective, where I can bang guys and utilize my skill, that affects my aggressiveness and overall intensity.’
The Spaniard has since changed his tune and returned to his dominant ways, producing 20.6 points, 12 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game in the month of January. In a fascinating twist of fate, the former New York Knicks head coach is taking his guys exactly where they need to go.
All but three Lakers (Bryant, Nash and Robert Sacre) have guaranteed contracts past this season, per Sham Sports, which means the majority of the players will be in the hunt for new deals this summer.
D’Antoni is actually helping them increase their value by feeding them minutes and a green light to shoot the ball. It’s an interesting development in comparison to what’s happening with the Milwaukee Bucks.
Established veteran Caron Butler is having an awful season by his standards, and O.J. Mayo has begun to question the identity of the team.
Charles F. Gardner of the Journal Sentinel relayed his thoughts: “You’ve got teams like Memphis, Chicago, physical, defensive-minded. Here we are at game 40, we don’t know what we are right now. It’s going to be hard to collect wins when you don’t know what to expect.”
On the flip side, guys who were relatively unknown (Wesley Johnson and Henry) are showing off their talent and thriving for the first time in their careers.
Still, criticism is still the flavor of the month as it pertains to D’Antoni because of the team’s record. Franchises and headmen are ultimately measured by wins and losses, and victories have been relatively minuscule.
It prompted Gasol to lash out and question the Lakers’ place in the league. Dave McMenamin of ESPN Los Angeles has the juicy details:
‘We are who we are right now,’ Pau Gasol said after the Lakers’ 114-105 loss to the Orlando Magic on Friday. ‘Some nights are better than others but, bottom line, when you lose against the worst teams in the league, you got to ask yourself why and, kind of, what does that make you?’
The guy Jim Buss picked simply has not gotten it done on this end. In the interest of fairness, though, there is a question we must ponder: Would the great Phil Jackson do better with this cast of characters?
Skepticism just showed up at the door.
D’Antoni has essentially led the Lakers to the best production possible. Moreover, the team has looked fairly interesting (it keeps appearing on national television!) and remained mostly positive in the face of what is a disastrous year by the high standards of the organization.
Nick Young said it best to Bleacher Report’s Kevin Ding: “‘It’s on you if you want to get embarrassed,’ Young said afterward. ‘I take pride in this Laker uniform.’”
Instead of blaming each other for the misfortunes of the team, the Lakers have looked for ways to improve and get back to winning. In all honesty, the odds of Los Angeles actually getting better are incredibly small given the lack of availability of its best players.
Nash’s return has become a story of hope, while Bryant’s health is up in the air as well. He is scheduled to be re-evaluated within the next week, which could signal a triumphant return. Then again, Bryant might still remain sidelined with a fracture to the lateral tibial plateau in his left knee.
Through it all, the Lakers will continue to show up and play competitive basketball. That’s a testament to the man steering the ship.
All statistical figures provided accurate as of January 26, 2014.