SALT LAKE CITY – Mike D’Antoni’s disconnect with Los Angeles Lakers fans went to a whole new level Monday night.
As if D’Antoni’s failure to win in two seasons wasn’t bad enough, his failure to lose Monday night almost certainly cost the Lakers some draft-lottery balls. His job is to win basketball games, so that’s fine.
What isn’t fine is D’Antoni being ignorant of the lottery implications, as he revealed himself to be after the Lakers’ 119-104 victory over the Utah Jazz.
D’Antoni believed the Lakers winning didn’t affect the lottery, talking in circles about the Jazz and Lakers having the same number of lottery balls anyway. D’Antoni even asked us reporters after a follow-up question if we were sure about the lottery when the victory ensured the Lakers will have the sixth-most lottery balls May 20 unless the Boston Celtics manage a victory against a Washington Wizards team Wednesday night that will really want to win and ensure they don’t face the two-time defending champion Miami Heat in the first round.
Perhaps D’Antoni has a sense that he’s being fired and doesn’t much care what happens to the Lakers next season. More likely, he’s not spending much time understanding the standings because all that is relevant to him now is his team won’t be in the playoffs.
But for comparison, just look at the way Nick Young approached the night. He was aware of the standings, not because of the lottery balls and next season, but because he was simply looking for additional motivation, wanting reasons to drive himself harder.
Young said the point for him was that he did not want to be “the last place-team in the West.” And so despite a still painful left knee that had him telling Lakers trainers that a pregame treatment left it feeling only slightly better, Young went out and scored 41 points on 14-of-23 shooting. His will to win enabled the Lakers to persevere through a sloppy start and 13-point deficit, and by the end of the night, he was incredibly happy—and his teammates were, too.
“Swaggy P can play a little bit,” said Swaggy P, teammate Ryan Kelly listening from his nearby locker and breaking into a huge smile.
“Nick got hot in the second half, and we just kind of rode his energy,” teammate Jodie Meeks said.
Not that many noticed with basketball’s focus rightly on good teams nowadays, but the Lakers had lost seven consecutive games. Along that way, they guaranteed the worst record in L.A. Lakers history. It had been a long, long time since the guys on this team could feel good about something.
How good they felt about this was evident in the photo Young posted to Instagram from the team plane.
“We had fun together,” Young said after the victory. “We needed a night like this.”
Pau Gasol was there as part of the fun and togetherness, joining the team on this final two-game trip despite ongoing vertigo issues that left him feeling ill and dizzy yet again after the flight to Salt Lake City on Sunday night.
Asked why he made the trip in his condition, Gasol shrugged and said: "Be a good teammate, be a good professional." I asked him if he considered not coming, and Gasol said he was medically cleared by the doctor to fly, so he did. He also mentioned he was one of the team captains and wanted to support the guys. (Kobe Bryant did not come on the trip.)
The attitudes of Young and Gasol are the right ones. Players are supposed to compete and enjoy competing; they are supposed to support each other and enjoy supporting each other. It might be almost meaningless in a season like this, but when the players are human, it absolutely is not meaningless.
For Lakers fans playing the percentages, this was just the wrong time for the guys to earn a feel-good moment. In reality, the draft is a crapshoot, even if it does make some sense to increase your chances for someone such as Joel Embiid (assuming his back is healthy).
But because D’Antoni, for one, obviously doesn’t get it, I’ll explain this a little further: It isn’t even about the percentages for a higher pick; it’s more about the need to feel like something is accomplished for the franchise to increase hope for the future.
Fans of both good and bad teams are understandably emotional by the time the season’s final week comes. Lakers fans especially feel it because they are so unaccustomed to losing. They care about the draft and care more about it than is rational—but that’s OK.
It’s a shame that the coach of a team as popular as the Lakers is this unaware of how the fans feel. D’Antoni has valid reason not to want to hear how the fans feel about him, but it’s not just that: His modus operandi is to shield himself from the world in that way, preferring to plow ahead and just coach pure basketball.
The players definitely matter, but the fans matter, too. That’s easy to remember in a place like Utah, where the Jazz is the only big-time game around.
This is the place where a fan once stormed the court after a Jazz victory over the Lakers. His method of celebration? Run up to Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak and yell in Kupchak’s face.
Then-Lakers coach Phil Jackson once said it wasn’t even realistic for the NBA to put a young referee into the rabid atmosphere of a Jazz home game and expect the ref to be impartial with the fans hooting at him.
On this night, with the Jazz about to lock up the inglorious title of “last-place team in the West,” it was jarring how quiet EnergySolutions Arena was.
It was so quiet that this could be overheard from one of the locals:
“This is the first time I’ve ever, ever wanted the Lakers to win a game,” he said. “I’ve never wanted it to happen before.”
It’s a time for emotional fans to savor their own small victories.
The Jazz are now in line to have a 37.8 percent chance at a top three pick and a 11.9 percent chance at No. 1. The Lakers are down to 21.5 percent for the top three, 6.3 percent for No. 1.
Who knows how everything will turn out.
But right now, Lakers fans feel like they can’t win for losing.
Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.