Even if Mike D'Antoni's brief tenure with the Los Angeles Lakers hadn't been marked by two horrendously disappointing seasons, deafening calls for his ouster and constant sniping from his own players, he'd still be on thin ice right now.
D'Antoni is just days away from becoming one of the least enviable things in sports: a lame-duck coach. He's under contract for just one more season at $4 million, and there's no clear indication as to what the Lakers will do with him.
And while that's bad news for D'Antoni, it's even worse for the Lakers because this situation—no matter how it plays out—will end badly.
Playing out the Deal
If D'Antoni comes back to Los Angeles without signing an extension, it'll be an outright disaster.
The same issues that sunk the Lakers this year will still exist, only they'll be made worse because every player on the roster will know their coach has absolutely no leverage.
Granted, the roster could be different. L.A. has loads of cap space and could conceivably clean house, save for holdovers like Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Robert Sacre. But even with fresh faces on the bench, this would be an untenable situation for D'Antoni—especially if the talent general manager Mitch Kupchak brings in isn't enough to impress Bryant.
And let's be honest: Bryant isn't going to be impressed by anything at this point in his career. He's well into the "cranky veteran" section of his career arc.
Even if the Lakers magically populate the roster with talent, why would those players ever listen to a coach they know lacks the support of management? This is why so few coaches ever reach the final year of their deals. It's almost impossible to have the ear of the roster in such an obviously short-term position.
For what it's worth, D'Antoni is taking a relaxed approach to his uncertain future, telling Sam Amick of USA Today, "Well, I think after the year is over, we'll sit down with management and see where they're going, see where they're headed, and it's up for them to decide. It's not for me to decide."
In some ways, D'Antoni's right. He can't force the Lakers to give him an extension, not after two seasons as bad as the ones he's endured.
But he can walk away of his own accord, which would be a powerful move. And probably a smart one.
I get it: It's easy to say D'Antoni should resign when it's him giving up $4 million and not me. But there's a case to be made that another season of pure anguish isn't worth that price.
Were D'Antoni to leave now, via retirement or resignation, he'd do so at a low point. But his career and reputation have been on a downward trajectory for a while, so getting out now might allow him to avoid an even lower conclusion.
I mean, who knows how ugly things could get next year?
Realistically, D'Antoni's not getting another NBA job. So walking away would close the door on this chapter of his professional career. But that doesn't seem so bad, especially when he could easily have some real fun as a gimmicky mid-major college coach. There his high-octane offense and nonexistent defense would make for an awesome spectacle.
In other words, he's still got options.
While leaving on his own terms would potentially be a real quality-of-life improver for D'Antoni, imagine the blow to the Lakers if a coach walked away because he saw no hope for the future. Maybe that's why the Lakers are reportedly looking to end things proactively:
Nothing saves face like the old "You can't quit, you're fired!" approach.
It's not like many fans would shed a tear for D'Antoni's departure. But on the heels of Dwight Howard leaving money on the table because he had no faith in the franchise, this would be tough to bear.
There are few things more valuable to Lakers fans than the belief their franchise is somehow exceptional in the present because of its past. A coach leaving of his own accord, even one as unsuccessful as D'Antoni, would pound the final nail into the coffin of that misguided notion.
Back for More
Stop laughing. No, seriously, stop it.
Though it's almost impossible to envision, there's still a less-than-zero chance D'Antoni gets a contract extension. Admittedly, it's hard to imagine how that might happen.
After all, from the moment he signed on in the first place, D'Antoni was viewed as a second-rate replacement for Phil Jackson, the man everybody really wanted. If he were to come back with a new deal, that sentiment wouldn't disappear—even with Jackson now officially unavailable.
The immense failure that was the past two years can't be ignored. The Lakers didn't come close to competing at the level they expected. That fact alone should be enough for the Lakers to cut him loose.
But we can't really pin all of that failure on D'Antoni. He had no chance to be successful last year. Not after Nash went down immediately and Howard clashed with Bryant in a way that ripped the team apart. Nobody would have won big in those circumstances.
And this year was over before it started. Even with Bryant healthy (a pipe dream from the start given his age and severe injury), the Lakers wouldn't have been a playoff team.
As B/R's Dan Favale correctly points out, the talent was never there:
For most of this season, the Lakers have housed personnel that, collectively, rivaled the talent on the Philadelphia 76ers. D'Antoni has coached through key injuries, ultimately guiding Los Angeles' merry band of misfits to 25 victories. Under the circumstances, I'll take it. The Lakers should take it.
We can't rightfully bury D'Antoni for how bad the Lakers have been, but we also can't say he did much to make them better.
On balance, D'Antoni's return—especially with a new extension—would be an admission that "bad" was good enough.
Out of Options
So, the Lakers are stuck between a rock and a hard place...and another hard place. Of their three options for dealing with D'Antoni's future, none are good.
The ideal scenario would feature the Lakers firing D'Antoni the moment the 2013-14 season ends because they've got some terrifically capable coach waiting in the wings, ready to take over. But no such coach exists, and even the decent ones who might replace D'Antoni wouldn't want to take on the pressure of leading a lame roster amid intense L.A. scrutiny.
The Lakers don't have a plan to fix this thing in the near term, and D'Antoni's uncertain status is just another symptom of that lack of direction.
This won't end well, but anyone with a little forethought knew that from the beginning.
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