Mike D'Antoni never had a chance. There were All-Stars, living legends and the breathtaking city of Los Angeles, sure. But from the moment D'Antoni was handed the keys to the Los Angeles Lakers' kingdom, it's been predestined that the man almost solely responsible for his hiring would be sending him packing.
Based on recent reports, that meeting is about to take place sooner than you think. ESPN's Dave McMenamin appeared on SportsCenter on Tuesday and said the Lakers were "leaning" toward firing D'Antoni.
Let's just kill the suspense now. The Lakers, barring some major change of heart, will fire D'Antoni and likely not too long after next Wednesday's season-ending bloodbath (I'm assuming) against the Spurs.
It's understandably inevitable at this point.
Tuesday's 145-130 loss to the Houston Rockets set a Lakers single-season loss record at 53. Only the Utah Jazz—a team that gave up on its season last July—have a worse record among Western Conference teams.
"I've said it before, and it's because, (expletive), it seems like I'm always in it," D'Antoni told Sam Amick of USA Today, "but it's like Winston Churchill said, 'If you're in hell, just keep your head down and keep on going.'"
Even in a season such as this, where many expected the Lakers to go through a transition, hell seems like a friendly alternative. Especially with the co-tenant Clippers looking like championship contenders. Someone's head was bound to roll. And the announcement that general manager Mitch Kupchak had signed a multiyear extension all but sealed D'Antoni's fate as the designated fall guy.
As if there were any other choice.
To understand why the D'Antoni era was dead on arrival, you have to go back to the circumstances surrounding his hiring. It's frankly one of the most confounding management decisions in recent memory.
After a whirlwind summer netted them future Hall of Famers Dwight Howard and Steve Nash for a package of (assumedly) late first-round picks (but not their 2014 pick) and the incomparable Andrew Bynum, the Lakers had seemingly fallen expletive-backward into a dynasty. Again.
Howard and Nash would combine with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol to create the NBA's most formidable starting lineup. Say goodbye to Miami's "Big Three" and hello to L.A.'s "Big Four." There were Sports Illustrated covers and title projections and even a succession plan in place. The aging Bryant would eventually be supplanted by the rejuvenated Howard as face of the franchise.
The honeymoon phase lasted all of five games. After a 1-4 start, the Lakers unceremoniously fired Mike Brown and began an in-season search for a long-term coach—far from an ideal scenario.
Brown is far from my favorite coach in the world—his brand-new five-year contract in Cleveland might be the only coaching decision that tops D'Antoni's hiring in terms of recent absurdity—but his departure was only the first sign of trouble.
All summer long, the Lakers hard-sold the move to the regimented Princeton offense (which many forget came at the behest of Bryant himself).
The Princeton, a regimented, rule-based system tangentially related to Phil Jackson's beloved Triangle, seemed a difficult but manageable fit from the outside. It would require Steve Nash to play without the ball more than he'd ever done prior, but Pau Gasol's all-world passing would be on display. And the system's components would help the Lakers play with two 7-footers without as many spacing issues.
But learning the Princeton is a process; it's not your typical NBA scheme. As Nash told Grantland's Bill Simmons, the practices stretched ungodly lengths—with most of the time being spent on simple walkthroughs. Everyone was miserable. Nash, Bryant, Howard and Gasol, the lot all trying to make pieces fit that just weren't.
“Training camp was miserable,” Nash said. “We had these enormous practices because we were trying to figure out this really intricate offense. Nobody knew it.”
Even if jettisoning Brown was the right call in retrospect, the Lakers did nothing to help themselves in finding a replacement.
You know the story by now. Jackson, the most decorated coach in the history of the game and soon-to-be fiance of Lakers part-owner Jeanie Buss, spoke with Jim Buss and other members of the front office and appeared on the precipice of taking the job. All of the chaos surrounding Brown's firing was about to work out. If anyone could turn it around, it'd be Phil.
Then the Lakers shocked everyone by hiring D'Antoni. The he-said-he-said-she-said-they-said surrounding the Jackson storyline doesn't need a 5,000th rehashing. All that mattered to Lakers fans then, and even now with Jackson serving as president of the Knicks, is that D'Antoni was not Phil Jackson. He was the dude who prevented the savior from riding in on the white horse.
And things have only gotten worse since.
When he first arrived, D'Antoni admittedly did his part in grinding every last gear. Stylistically, the move was designed to help free Nash of his constraints and give Bryant his first quality point guard since Derek Fisher's peak. Never mind the fact that management was asking the players to throw out all the work they had done learning a complex system in the preseason. And the whirlwind left D'Antoni without a training camp or even regular practices to implement his own style—a difficult situation that led to some obvious growing pains for all sides.
One of his first moves as head coach was to insanely and offensively alienate Gasol, an unselfish and intelligent big who many thought would flourish under the coach. Instead, D'Antoni backed Earl Clark at the starting power forward spot.
The Lakers wanted Mike D'Antoni's take on "Showtime" basketball. So he was giving them what they hired him for—personnel constraints be damned. Criticisms were boundless at the time about D'Antoni's inflexibility with his system, about the utter inanity of playing EARL CLARK over a Hall of Famer, about how if Phil were here, none of this would've happened.
It didn't help that the robust core stunk. Amid injuries to Nash and Gasol and the lingering effect of back surgery from Howard, the Lakers dropped as low as 17-25 on Jan. 23. Nothing was working. And even as D'Antoni continually made tweaks to his system—by the end of the season, the 2012-13 Lakers looked almost nothing like any other D'Antoni team—his was only part of a breeding ground of resentment in the locker room.
The undercurrent of toxicity was already in place. Bryant and Howard were always a strange personality mix. Bryant is a fierce, no-nonsense competitor, one of the most driven athletes of his generation—in any generation, really. Howard, while he gets a worse rap than he probably should, is decidedly not that. He's smiling; he's joking; he's playing pranks on teammates; he's eating candy like it will cease production tomorrow. To Bryant, he was essentially a Shaquille O'Neal redux, only with less talent and without the "on" switch that would turn O'Neal into the world's most dominant player.
Everyone could see that was going to be tough from the start. As the season went on, you could tell it was going to be tough. I think Dwight just didn’t hide the fact that he didn’t like it. You either have to decide and say 'I’m not going to like it' and move on or just eat it and make it work. You could tell he wasn’t committed to moving on. He didn’t like it. He was stuck in 'I don’t like it' mode. I’m not putting it on him but you can tell it really bothered him.
The Lakers, thanks in large part to some key adjustments from D'Antoni, eventually turned their season around to make the playoffs. Just in time, of course, for Bryant to go down with a career-threatening Achilles tear that effectively ended any chance of a deep run. The lasting image of the Spurs' first-round sweep of Los Angeles is Howard being ejected in Game 4, with Staples Center sending a chorus of boos to the court as he walked off as a Laker for the final time.
Howard would high-tail it to Houston, leaving $30 million on the table just to get away. His departure got the wheels churning on the dumpster fire that's about to cost D'Antoni his job.
While few foresaw this level of dreariness even after Howard's departure, it's not all that shocking. The Lakers' cap sheet was mucked up to the point they could not afford to add valuable replacements, and instead went the other way. Metta World Peace was amnestied, and the team tried to put a piecemeal pseudo-playoff contender together with minimum contracts.
Only the most insane Lakers fan saw a potential playoff team in this mess, but it's fair to say we all thought they'd be more competitive. Aged or not, Bryant, Gasol and Nash are still formidable offensive talents when healthy; 35-40 wins wasn't outlandish. That trio has instead missed a combined 153 games this season.
On a pure talent level, it's hard to say any team west of Philadelphia is worse. There has been a never-ending stream of 10-day contracts, an often hilarious over-reliance on Nick Young and nights when Jordan Farmar has been tasked with being a primary scoring option.
“With the amount of injuries and the rebuilding and the evaluating different players, I don't know that any coach is going to be real successful this season,” Nash told Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times. “John Wooden is not going to be dealt a great hand with all the change and injuries we've had. You look at it every week, someone else goes down.”
D'Antoni has been D'Antoni throughout—to his benefit and detriment. He and Gasol still have a glacially cold relationship. He's ripped Lakers fans to shreds (and then backtracked). He's been flippant at times, brutally honest at others, and continued a behind-the-scenes tug-of-war with forward Jordan Hill.
The 62-year-old coach has also tapped into potential that few within his profession could. Kendall Marshall has a renewed seat at the NBA table thanks to D'Antoni's "point guard whisperer" reputation. Young might get a multiyear deal from a team looking for a microwave-scoring sixth man. Xavier Henry impressed before myriad injuries ended his season. Wesley Johnson can kinda-sorta shoot now and is developing into a quality defender.
Circumstance and increased playing time carried some weight in helping these guys along, but it's undeniable that D'Antoni has a special gift of tapping into and emphasizing a player's one special ability. He's done it for years.
Yet, that's not nearly good enough. D'Antoni knows it. Fans know it. The front office knows it. The Lakers do not plan on being terrible for long. It's an open secret they covet Kevin Love and want to open their books for the summer of 2016, when Kevin Durant and a whole pile of others will hit the open market. The team needs to prove it's still a palatable destination, and the quickest way to start is by distancing itself from its current bottom-feeding existence.
In a decade, we'll look back on D'Antoni's era as one of, if not the worst, in Lakers history. He'll be lumped in with Randy Pfund, late-run Bill Sharman and Mike Dunleavy, blips on the historical radar whom those donning purple and gold would rather forget.
Just know, in the grand scheme of things, there are plenty of reasons D'Antoni will wind up on that list. Only a select few lie at his feet.
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