Long-shot scenarios are always intriguing.
A waning election night with the road to victory becoming increasingly byzantine. A sporting event in which the point differential is way more than the minutes left.
The possible last days of a beleaguered NBA coach, when it’s starting to feel like a foregone conclusion.
But sometimes long shots do cross the finish line first, coming from way off the pace, or in Mike D’Antoni’s case, hanging on while gasping for breath after running too fast, too early.
The word from inside the Los Angeles Lakers has been next to nil. During his annual exit interview, general manager Mitch Kupchak offered a terse and ambiguous response to the question of his head coach’s future, per Lakers.com:
“Mike is under contract for two more years. If anything happens, we’ll let you know.”
To be more specific, D’Antoni has one more guaranteed season left. The final year of the contract is a team option.
Lakers management has not met with D'Antoni yet, however. I've said before Lakers are leaning toward keeping D'Antoni, but we'll see.— KEVIN DING (@KevinDing) April 26, 2014
Meanwhile, the coach’s support structure just lost a core component. Dan D’Antoni, an assistant coach under younger brother Mike with the Lakers, New York Knicks and Phoenix Suns, has been hired as head coach at Marshall University, according to Rick McCann of The Huntington Herald-Dispatch.
Both brothers are products of Marshall’s Thundering Herd basketball program. Mike now loses a longtime ally and fellow small-ball advocate.
So where does this leave the one-time Coach of the Year? One would think in no-man’s land, waiting to hear his fate. Yet if Los Angeles is indeed looking toward the summer of 2015 when the free-agent class will be much stronger, why would they bring in a new coach now?
According to Mark Heisler of the Orange County Register, a decision may already have been made:
“After 10 days of soul searching, the key figures in Lakers management are agreed on bringing back D’Antoni for a third season as coach, a source with knowledge of the deliberations told the Register.”
This isn’t what most Lakers fans want to hear, but a reality check suggests we imagine a scenario in which management milks one more year out of what would essentially become a lame-duck coach.
That is, unless D’Antoni somehow summons the old fire and blazes a path to the playoffs.
Recently, Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News spoke to former Laker champion and NBA TV analyst Rick Fox about the state of the Purple and Gold. Fox pointed out the number of unexpected injuries that doomed this season’s chances, the lack of defensive emphasis in the current system and a best-case scenario moving forward:
“Your best hope is you are entertaining as can be and can catch lightning in a bottle in the playoffs and you play the type of teams that play your style and you just happen to be better than them.”
In other words, the exact same thing they were hoping for this season.
So if an unapologetic run-and-gun purist makes it to another season, what would some other offseason decisions look like?
First, let three big obstacles walk away in free agency—Pau Gasol, Jordan Hill and Chris Kaman haven’t been a fit with D’Antoni, and it should be clear by now that he’s not about to change his stripes.
D'Antoni says he had no issue with Gasol's critiques re: small ball, lack of ball movement. But D'Antoni said he wishes Pau kept it in house— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) February 26, 2014
Next, hope you draft a player with a fast motor who likes to shoot—such as Dante Exum, or even a rising Dunkadelic like Aaron Gordon.
Look to re-sign guys like Nick Young, Jodie Meeks, Kent Bazemore, Xavier Henry and Jordan Farmar. Don’t worry about whether they’ll start or not, or if they duplicate anyone else’s position. Each of those guys had a career- high in scoring this season except for Farmar, who was just 3 percent off his best season.
Remember, the core essential with the famed “seven second or less” philosophy is putting up more points than the other guy—the notion that the best defense is a good offense.
Sign Shawn Marion. Because D’Antoni still talks about this guy every chance he gets, and because he’ll be an unrestricted free agent once the Dallas Mavericks come to the end of this year’s playoff journey. Said signing, of course, would do absolutely nothing for the Lakers' long term rebuild plan.
Broker some kind of summit accord between Kobe Bryant and D’Antoni. This one needs no further explanation.
And finally, after clearing all these hurdles, management has to have its own sit-down with a coach whose willful sense of tunnel vision may be unparalleled in the league.
Small ball may be the future, but the coaches who are most successfully embracing a faster pace are also working both ends of the floor. You can’t live off frosting alone—you need a little protein in your diet.
D’Antoni doesn’t have to actually embrace the validity of defense, but at least give it a little lip service.
He’ll probably grin and agree before continuing his barnstorming ways.
Imagining a scenario in which D’Antoni returns doesn’t necessarily mean a deep run in the next playoffs. But if it can buy the team another year in a two-year rebuild, and if young minimum salary retreads can be developed into valuable properties, isn’t that at least some level of success?
D’Antoni looked like a long shot to continue with the Lakers as a wretched season came to a close. But it just may be that he hangs on for one more season.