Los Angeles Lakers Have No Choice but to Fire Mike D'Antoni

Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 16, 2014

Apr 13, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA;  Los Angeles Lakers head coach Mike D'Antoni during a timeout against the Memphis Grizzlies at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Lakers invested $48.5 million in Kobe Bryant before the 35-year-old had a chance to prove his torn Achilles hadn't effectively ended his run as an elite-level player.

So, forgive me for not subscribing to the idea that the $4 million in guaranteed money left on head coach Mike D'Antoni's contract saves his place on the Staples Center sideline for the 2014-15 season.

I'm not even sure anyone selling that theory actually buys it themselves. The Lakers have been printing—and burning and printing some more—money for years. Now, a $4 million payment (a shade above Jordan Hill's salary) is too much for them to stomach?

OK, it's not the money per se, but how it would be spent that's supposedly keeping the decision-makers up at night. The Lakers, according to Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times, "are tired of paying people not to coach them. In the last 10 seasons, only Phil Jackson was not still owed money when he left the team."

Coaching changes are never easy, particularly those that come with a substantial price tag attached. But settling for present problems because of past mistakes—as opposed to correcting them—doesn't seem like the soundest business strategy. Not when a smidgen of the franchise's TV money could put its most recent blunder officially in the rearview.

Mar 28, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA;Los Angeles Lakers head coach Mike D'Antoni looks on during the first half against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Target Center. The Timberwolves won 143-107. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Yet, it's those $4 million keeping those should-he-stay-or-should-he-go questions alive. It has to be them. There is no other argument from the keep-D'Antoni side, assuming that faction even exists.

The Lakers (26-55) have set a franchise-record for losses in a single season. Their winning percentage, which could climb to .329 with a win over the San Antonio Spurs in their season finale, will be the second-lowest in the organization's history.

"This is either as bad as it's ever going to get for the Lakers or the start of a long, slow decline," ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne wrote. "The end of a miserable season or the beginning of a new era."

The moment of movement is now and axing D'Antoni is the no-brainer start of that process.

It might not move the Lakers any closer to relevance—or even eliminate the funk permeating through the franchise—but at least it would be a change. When you've hit rock-bottom—and hopefully this is rock-bottom—change is always good.

This isn't D'Antoni's fault, by the way. Not the staggering loss column, the disastrous defensive marks (108.1 defensive rating, 28th), none of it.

No coach could have survived the losses he's had to endure.

Dwight Howard bolted last summer, and Chris Kaman took his place. Bryant (Achilles, knee fracture) and Steve Nash (nerve issues) played a total of 490 minutes, or 1,715 fewer minutes than draft bust Wesley Johnson. NBA vagabond Nick Young leads the team in scoring—no one could win with this group:

Even at full strength, though, it's hard to imagine D'Antoni winning with this core. He should have never held this job to begin with.

After dispatching Mike Brown five games into the 2012-13 season, the team was desperate for answers. With a historically relevant four-headed monster (Bryant, Nash, Howard and Pau Gasol), the Lakers had the chance to do something special.

But finding a special kind of coach was imperative.

The Lakers needed a maestro, someone well-versed in the classical elements of the game (inside-out play, superstar-centric sets). They settled for a house DJ instead, a coach dead set on implementing a system that devalued stars and traded post play for perimeter attacks.

It was a square-peg/round-hole setup from the start. The pieces didn't fit then, and they don't fit now.

Sue Ogrocki

Obviously, some of those pieces will likely change over the offseason. Twelve of the team's 15 players are likely to become free agents at season's end, assuming Young declines his $1.2 million player option.

Bryant, of course, is going nowhere. That alone should put the final seal on D'Antoni's walking papers.

Sources told Sporting News' Sean Deveney that Bryant has "no interest" in seeing D'Antoni return. Bryant has tried embracing the system (he's matched or set a new career high in assists in the last two seasons), but the system clearly isn't working.

Byrant has also expressed optimism that Gasol will return, via Lakers Nation's Matthew Moreno, which would seem to be an anti-D'Antoni move.

"It's no secret that he dislikes Coach Mike D'Antoni's offense," Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times wrote. "It's also no secret that the Lakers will eventually weigh whether D'Antoni returns for the final guaranteed year of his contract."

This offense couldn't be less equipped to maximize Gasol's gifts, and the 33-year-old has still put up 17.4 points, 9.7 rebounds and 3.4 assists. He's worth keeping around, particularly if LeBron James doesn't make a surprise appearance on the free-agent market.

Bryant has never masked his appreciation of the Spaniard, and the pair have flourished together in the past. If the Lakers choose D'Antoni over Gasol—after choosing D'Antoni over Bryant's guy, Phil Jackson—they could have a surly, aging, expensive Bryant on their hands for the next two seasons.

Sue Ogrocki

The Lakers might have Nash (D'Antoni's prized pupil) and rookie Ryan Kelly (a D'Antoni-style stretch 4) on the roster, but those are tertiary pieces. Bryant is the centerpiece, perhaps with Gasol once again occupying the second spot in the pecking order before L.A. makes a free-agent splash in 2015.

The coach needs to reflect the personnel. It hasn't for the last two years.

This isn't a tough call to make, regardless of how the Lakers are trying to spin it.

"I'm not going to discuss Mike other than to say there is no timetable for any type of decision," general manager Mitch Kupchak said, via Bresnahan. Last month, the assessment was the coach "was doing a great job under the circumstances."

It's all smoke and mirrors— and thinly veiled ones, at that.

Whatever vision the Lakers once had for D'Antoni, surely this isn't it. A rookie and some place-holding free agents won't change a thing.

So, while there might be four million reasons to keep him around, there's one big reason to let him go: this isn't working. And when something's broke, it needs fixing.

The Lakers have no other options. D'Antoni has to go.


Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.