LOS ANGELES — Warren LeGarie, the agent for embattled Los Angeles Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni, was doing all the talking.
He was doing the pointing, jabbing his index finger into Chris Kaman’s chest. LeGarie also stood up periodically to yell down at the Lakers center hunched in a courtside seat Tuesday night, ball in his lap, postponing his pregame court work to listen.
Head bobbing in emphatic declarations, LeGarie gestured numerous times toward the Lakers bench where D’Antoni is positioned during games. Kaman threw his hands up a few times but had little to say to LeGarie, who represents so many NBA coaches and executives that he qualifies as more of a power player in this league than any 7-footer.
Kaman looked like a student with his lecturing teacher, definitely hearing out a man who isn’t his agent but whom he considers a friend. (Kaman benefited from LeGarie’s influence in 2006, when LeGarie coach client Mike Dunleavy insisted on Kaman getting a five-year, $52 million extension—the first time Donald Sterling’s Los Angeles Clippers ever extended anyone before contract expiration—before Dunleavy would accept his new deal from the Clippers.)
Kaman is the type who has done far more talking than listening in his life, and some of his talking this season has been about D’Antoni’s rigid, uncommunicative, distrustful coaching of the Lakers while not giving Kaman consistent playing time. Just one week earlier, Kaman had revealed that D’Antoni hadn’t talked to him for the previous three weeks.
D’Antoni has one more guaranteed season left on his Lakers contract, and the club is leaning toward retaining him despite some privately disgruntled players and massive public disdain. It’s not clear which way the organization will go with him.
But Kaman’s 15-minute conversation with LeGarie ended with the agent yelling two words to Kaman: “Thank you. Thank you.”
And whatever it was that LeGarie, a famously smooth negotiator, had said, Kaman did his pregame shooting, came into the locker room and immediately told reporters there that people should be a lot less vicious and a lot more compassionate toward LeGarie’s client, poor Mike D’Antoni.
“He’s not trying to hurt anybody,” Kaman said. “He’s not purposefully doing anything negatively. I think he’s just trying to do the best he can with what we’ve got. All the injuries...I’ve never seen injuries like that before in my life.”
And this: “For as much heat as he takes, I don't think that he has had a fair shot at it, either.”
And this: “We have to, as players, respect the position of the coach.”
After the Lakers’ 124-112 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers was complete, I asked Kaman about his pregame chat with LeGarie and whether it had given him any new perspective on D’Antoni’s situation.
“We were just talking,” Kaman said. “We were just talking about everything. He’s just a good buddy of mine.”
I asked Kaman where he stands now in his feelings about D’Antoni.
“It’s been a tough year for him, as it has been for a lot of guys,” Kaman said. “Me, in particular, just being in and out, in and out, just trying to figure my way through all of this, I can sort of put myself in his shoes and try to look myself in the mirror and say, ‘What would I do if I was him?’ And it’s hard to answer that question; it’s a tough position.
“Especially with all the injuries we’ve had and all the different things we’ve had to go through, I think it’s no easy task for a coach. Especially with the Lakers. This is a first-rate organization, and they do things better than most. They’re used to winning, and it’s a lot of pressure. And all these injuries didn’t make it any easier for him.”
Bear in mind, just one week ago Kaman was saying this season was “by far” and “tenfold” worse than any other in his 11-year NBA career. And this is a guy who spent the 2011-12 season being traded from his only team—in the Chris Paul trade, so those fans were downright jubilant about Kaman leaving—and who, for a time, was dismissed from the New Orleans Hornets while the NBA-owned club that would finish 21-45 tried to trade him but couldn’t.
While not naming a name and saying “it doesn’t get anyone anywhere” to spout negativity with the season a lost cause, Kaman said last week that the key to good coaching is “being a mediator as opposed to being someone in authority all the time. It’s about putting little fires out—small fires here or there—and keeping everybody’s egos together and managing that. Players know how to play if you give them enough guidance in the beginning.”
Late Tuesday night, when I asked Kaman if D’Antoni’s communication could’ve been better, Kaman said generously: “It always can be better with any coach, not just Mike. It’s such a big balance to be a head coach. It takes a lot. It takes a lot out of you. You see guys who can’t even finish years sometimes; they have to defer and hand it over to someone else. It drives people nuts.
“It takes a special person to coach a team, and in this day and age, the way the game is played, it’s a lot of pressure. You get two, three years, maybe, and then you’re outta there if you don’t produce. It’s no easy task. So I’ve got to look myself in the mirror and put myself in his shoes; it’s tough. It isn’t easy. With all the injuries and everything, it’s hard to say what would’ve happened if we would’ve had a healthy team.”
Kaman went on to say that if he were really in D’Antoni’s shoes, he would go as far as to stick with D’Antoni’s stretch-4, spread-floor style that Kaman dislikes: “Just keep rollin’ with it. He’s gotten to the Western Conference Finals before and been pretty successful.”
And even if that means this season stinks for Kaman?
“I have to respect the position of the head coach. And that’s how it goes.”
Kaman is no pushover. He has his own opinions about a lot of things, and he’s kind of a loudmouth about many of them, whether in jest or in earnest, for the NRA or PETA. He’s the sort of guy who has always been bigger than everyone else and has enjoyed talking the talk to go with it.
Kaman lying down on the bench in Cleveland was both hilarious and disrespectful—it was him being him. Kaman’s ability to push buttons, along with a willingness to turn his own volume knob up, can be controversial. There was more than one occasion in the pregame locker room when Kaman’s bold words caused joyful teammate Nick Young to freeze his smile in confusion and to ask Kaman: “You serious?”
The lesson here is twofold: One is that LeGarie’s reputation as the NBA’s equivalent of Frank Underwood from House of Cards, a veritable puppeteer both cunning and driven, appears well-earned.
But there’s also this: Whether it needed to be D’Antoni, Kaman or LeGarie doing the talking, the coach’s relationship with the player didn’t have to be this bad for this long.
They’re not so different, really.
D’Antoni and Kaman agree completely on the impressive work ethic of youngsters Robert Sacre and Ryan Kelly and the incredible drive of 40-year-old Steve Nash. They agree many players are already concerned about upcoming free-agent status. They agree that Jodie Meeks has been the most consistent Laker this season and deserves more shots than the Pau Gasol-Kaman starting tandem allowed Meeks to get Tuesday night.
They also agree that Gasol and Kaman together are slow and defensively challenged, even as much as Kaman wants the big lineup that debuted against Portland to get as much of a try as D’Antoni’s other 32 starting lineups—real stat—this season.
There remain agendas all over the place, including LeGarie’s, in this season that Kaman said a week ago he couldn’t wait to end. Whatever the impetus and whoever is more wrong, though, there’s something nice and very right about Kaman accepting D’Antoni here before it’s all over.
Even in a season when everybody is frustrated by their part in the failure, mutual respect can, and should, still prevail. And if even season-long nemeses Kaman and D’Antoni can share blame on their way out, what is nearing the worst season in L.A. Lakers history at least feels a touch more civilized.
Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.
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