The Case for LA Lakers Keeping Mike D'Antoni

D.J. Foster@@fosterdjContributor IApril 2, 2014

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 30:  Head coach Mike D'Antoni of the Los Angeles Lakers gestures during the game with the Phoenix Suns at Staples Center on March 30, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
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The Los Angeles Lakers should retain Mike D'Antoni as coach for next season, no matter how ugly this year has been on the surface.

The primary reasoning is pretty simple.

Would D'Antoni be the ideal coach for a team that competes for championships every single season and gets the pick of the litter in free agency? 


But are the Los Angeles Lakers one of those teams?

Also no.

There's the delusional outlook, and there's the reality. The Lakers were once a perennial contender, but now they are far from it. That alone, in some minds, necessitates someone to take the fall. So who is the scapegoat?

It isn't the star center playing in Houston that Lakers fans only have to see a few times a year. It's not the franchise legend sitting on the sideline in a suit. It isn't one of the game's greatest point guards who has a body that keeps failing him. It isn't the owners who share the same last name of the man who oversaw multiple title teams.

It isn't even the mash unit of players on the floor, outclassed from the tip almost every single night.

Nope. It's the guy on the sidelines who isn't Phil Jackson and who "doesn't coach defense," the guy that never should have been hired in the first place, the guy who is leading the Lakers to their worst season in franchise history.

It's D'Antoni.

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - DECEMBER 27:  Mike D'Antoni, Head Coach of the Los Angeles Lakers watches during play against the Utah Jazz at EnergySolutions Arena on December 27, 2013 in Salt Lake City, Utah. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees th
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And really, that's the life of an NBA coach. There's a reason why when things go bad, the coach goes first. It's the easiest thing to do, and given the short lifespan of most coaches in the league, it's clearly the preferred method as well. 

It's one the Los Angeles Lakers should resist the temptation of taking, though. Looking at this year objectively, the Lakers never had a chance at doing anything substantial.

But with that being said, D'Antoni has made lemonade with some real lemons. Point guard Kendall Marshall was out of the league entirely, and now he looks like a real part of the future thanks to D'Antoni's system and tutelage.

Ryan Kelly was a second-round draft pick with low upside, but D'Antoni has helped develop him into a viable stretch 4.

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 25: Ryan Kelly #4, Robert Sacre #50, and Kendall Marshall #12 of the Los Angeles Lakers celebrate during a game against the New York Knicks at Staples Center on March 25, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressl
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Think of it this way: Has the individual stock of most of the players on the Lakers' roster risen or fallen under D'Antoni? Every young player on a non-expiring deal (Marshall, Kelly, Robert Sacre and Nick Young) has improved and played better than expected. That may not mean much to those focused solely on wins and losses, but to someone like general manager Mitch Kupchak, it means plenty.

Here's Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times with more:

The Lakers have a dilemma with D'Antoni, who coached the Suns for five successful seasons. They still owe him $4 million next season and don't want to look like a franchise with a coaching turnstile.

But Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol don't support his small-ball offense and Lakers fans don't support him, period.

So the team will decide fairly quickly after the April 16 regular-season finale — pay him to not coach the team, just like Mike Brown, or try to make it work next season.

General Manager Mitch Kupchak said last week he thought D'Antoni was “doing a great job under the circumstances,” but how great would obviously be revealed in coming weeks.

If you re-define D'Antoni's objective this year from "fielding a title contending team" to "developing young talent for the future," he has indeed done a great job, particularly given the circumstances.

Of course, you'd like to think that the Lakers will be contending again soon, and that's where the questions of whether D'Antoni is right for the job going forward are born from. Here's Dan Feldman at ProBasketballTalk with more:

The factor most working in D’Antoni’s favor: The Lakers might settle for one more rebuilding year next season – getting younger and avoiding the luxury tax (and delaying repeater penalties) before a loaded 2015 free agent class that includes Kevin Love. If they do that, they as might as well keep D’Antoni rather than paying two coaches. Plus, they’ll be better positioned to hire a new coach a year later when the team is better.

The thought of firing D'Antoni and paying two coaches might not be the worst thing for a cash rich franchise, but D'Antoni's uptempo, three-point oriented system has a history of creating diamonds from the rough (Jeremy Lin, for example) and boosting players' stats, which in turn enhances their trade value. That matters.

From the Lakers' perspective, letting D'Antoni finish out the last guaranteed year of his contract provides some bonuses for the 2015 offseason as well. When it comes time for the Lakers to recruit a star free agent and hire a new coach, the two signings can be symbiotic. Certain players care deeply about who they play for and what system they are in. A clean slate can be viewed as being better than a new coach coming off a losing year.

If the plan isn't to go big this offseason, D'Antoni is a good bet to help more than he'll hurt, save for possibly the relationship with Kobe Bryant.

Bryant has been vague in his previous assessments of D'Antoni, but this report from Sean Deveney of The Sporting News does sound a bit problematic:

Bryant, sources said, has “no interest” in playing for D’Antoni next season, and wants a new coach in place for the 2014-15 season. 

That's obviously a pretty big deal, but Bryant is past the stage in his career where the franchise needs to completely cater to his every whim, despite his status and contract. The star that will be around for the future should have more say than Bryant in these matters, based solely on the fact that, well, he'll actually be on the team in the future. That star isn't on the roster yet, but if all goes according to plan, he will be soon. 

So will the desired coach be D'Antoni? Probably not, but if the Lakers don't make drastic changes this offseason, where they'll be limited by Bryant's massive contract extension and the expiring deal of Steve Nash, then accumulating young assets and playing for 2015-16 is probably the smartest and most realistic option available.

D'Antoni is essentially a placeholder, and yes, placeholders aren't unexpendable. If the Lakers do decide to fire him and go elsewhere this offseason, though, it should be done as just one small part of an expansive plan to compete right away and not just a reactionary move done to satisfy those who are out looking for blood.

If this offseason isn't the right time to acquire the very best talent, D'Antoni can at least shine up what's available to him and put the franchise in a better situation going forward, even if it's done in unconventional ways. That's who D'Antoni has always been, and instead of being cast as the scapegoat, that's who the Lakers should allow him to be for one more year.


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