It’s the tail end of a disastrous season, and Los Angeles Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni is trying for the last laugh—playing the spoiler and ruining other teams’ playoff dreams.
By picking up a few wins, however, the rebuilding Lakers may be torpedoing their own chances for a top draft pick.
That’s not the beleaguered coach’s concern. His rotations may leave observers scratching their heads, but he’s certainly not playing to lose. Now in his second, and perhaps last, season with the Lakers, the small-ball innovator will either stay or go on his own terms—encouraging his players to space the floor and jack up shots at will.
Per Jovan Buha for ESPN Los Angeles, D’Antoni recently reveled in a few wins after so many losses:
We want everybody to hate us by the end of the year. We did get New York and now we’re trying to get Phoenix and then we’ll try to give them a favor by getting Portland. We’ll have our chances, so hopefully we can do that.
“Welcome to the Player Haters Ball” - Nick Young after last night’s win. Easily my favorite quote of the year.— Lakers Nation (@LakersNation) March 31, 2014
As it turned out, they upset Phoenix on Sunday, 115-99, on the back of Chris Kaman, who had his best game of the season with 27 points, 17 rebounds and seven assists. On Tuesday, against the Portland Trail Blazers, D’Antoni took an uncharacteristic big-man plunge, starting Kaman alongside Pau Gasol, who was returning after a bout of vertigo.
The experiment didn’t work—although the Lakers were right in the game as late as the third quarter. The two veteran 7-footers might not have been a good pairing, but Nick Young was letting it rain with 40 points. At one point in the second quarter, Young was 8-of-8. By the end of the game he was 15-of-26.
Los Angeles wound up losing, 124-112.
On Wednesday, the motley Purple and Gold headed up to Sleep Train Arena on a back-to-back, playing the Sacramento Kings. It was an unlikely war between a team with 25 wins and another with 26. On the one hand, both were competing for a better draft pick, and on the other, for a shred of pride.
Gasol was out with vertigo once again, while Kaman sat with a calf strain. Jordan Hill had a rare start at center and responded with 18 points, 15 boards and four blocks before fouling out. Hill has been in and out of D’Antoni’s rotation all season.
According to Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News, Hill has no interest in returning to the Lakers next season in a similar role, saying: “Of course not. Who would?”
Hill is speaking for low-post big men, of course. If you're a gunner in this offense, you'd be happy to stick around.
At the final buzzer, the Kings had won, 107-102, which for now means that the Lakers retain the sixth-worst record in the league. Their loss is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your point of view.
Lakers' tank watch Wednesday - Pistons at Pacers, Celtics at Wizards, Lakers at Kings - huge game for Lakers— Eric Pincus (@EricPincus) April 2, 2014
This is when you know how badly things are broken—when the merits of winning become grounds for debate.
Just last week, the Lakers were poised to take over the fourth-worst record in the league. Now, they’re slowly ebbing away from the draft’s promised land, in a one-step-forward, two-steps-back kind of way.
Let’s be clear—Los Angeles isn’t exactly setting the league on fire these days. But consider how some of the true bottom feeders are doing:
Meanwhile, the Lakers, in their anachronistic desire to play spoilers, are 3-7. What on earth is their head coach smoking? This is no way to tank!
D’Antoni’s star has fallen precipitously since his glory days with the Suns—of that there can be no doubt. The 2004-05 Coach of the Year has been a seminal small-ball influencer in the NBA, but he can also be so single-minded in his belief system that the larger picture is lost, with only one flickering beacon remaining—the quest to score faster and more often.
You can say D'Antoni hasn't had the players this season amid injuries, but that's not the end of the story. It's never that simple.— KEVIN DING (@KevinDing) March 28, 2014
Six of the Lakers’ final seven games are against teams either in the playoffs or contending for a berth—the Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs. The other game is against the Utah Jazz, who for now have taken a two-game lead for the worst record in the Western Conference standings.
With their 50th loss on Wednesday night, the Lakers have plunged to their deepest depth since the 1974-75 season. And yet, there is a devil-may-care attitude down the stretch. Most of the players don’t have a contract next season and are highly motivated to showcase their abilities to the league.
D’Antoni himself is fine with this—more scoring, more better. Knocking a team or two out of the playoff picture would simply be adding a cherry on top. As of Wednesday night, the Mavericks, Grizzlies and Suns were all tied for the eighth and last spot in the Western Conference standings.
The Lakers host Dallas on Friday and Memphis on April 13. And the upcoming draft isn’t remotely on D’Antoni’s radar.
With an uncertain future, he’s stating his case, of which he’s certain. He’ll do it his way.