Whenever a new coach enters, a wave of hope rushes right through that door with him.
The Los Angeles Lakers could use that kind of infusion, but they are also prepared to live without it.
Marshall University felt the upsurge Friday with the introduction of Dan D’Antoni as its new head basketball coach. Coming off a season with 22 losses, tied for most in school history, Marshall needed something fresh—ideally its biggest-name son, Mike D’Antoni, to come play savior.
Mike was legitimately interested in returning to his alma mater, according to the Charleston Daily Mail’s Chuck McGill, seemingly very close to the Marshall athletic director who spent four days with Mike in Los Angeles courting him. McGill wrote: “If the Lakers made a move, Hamrick was ready to pounce and (Mike) D’Antoni was ready to slip on that kelly green jacket once and for all. ... D’Antoni had to let Hamrick know the dream was not going to come to fruition.”
Hamrick then gave the job to another past Marshall great, Mike’s big brother, Dan, the Lakers assistant coach who had been hanging around those four days of Marshall courting Mike in LA.
Is that the real story? That Mike D’Antoni would almost rather coach the Marshall Thundering Herd in Conference USA but is stuck with NBA royalty in the Los Angeles Lakers?
Here’s how Dan put it in a radio interview with the West Virginia MetroNews Network: “Mike is kind of stuck where he is…I shouldn’t say ‘stuck’…Mike is in contract with them, and I was the one available.”
Whether Mike is indeed stuck or truly locked in as Lakers head coach for next season remains foggy. As much as Jim Buss, Lakers executive vice president of basketball operations, has indicated privately that he isn’t sold on retaining D’Antoni, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak was emphatic in his April 18 endorsement of D’Antoni’s job performance in this injury-filled Lakers season.
“Under the circumstances,” Kupchak said, “I’m not sure anybody could have done a better job than he did.”
As much fan criticism as there has been of D’Antoni, the Lakers have been trying to evaluate his status in an emotion-free vacuum. Same as at every stop in his coaching career, D’Antoni empowered some fringe players with playing time and shot opportunities—Kendall Marshall, Robert Sacre, Ryan Kelly and Jodie Meeks producing more than expected.
D’Antoni also had notable misses with Wesley Johnson and Jordan Hill, two players whom the Lakers needed to bring consistent focus given the team's dearth of athleticism.
(Another point that has gone overlooked: The 2012-13 Lakers’ struggles could’ve been greatly mitigated if D’Antoni had been able to get Meeks to produce anywhere close to what he did this season for that guard-depleted team.)
In the long view, though, whatever D’Antoni hasn’t done, the excuses are viable: He didn’t have a first training camp; he didn’t have Steve Nash to control the offense; he didn’t have Dwight Howard all there mentally or physically; and he had injuries almost everywhere to almost everyone.
That’s why Kupchak sits there and wonders if D’Antoni rightly merits firing—with the Lakers needing to be aware how continuity will again be lost if they bring in yet another coach this offseason.
(As for continuity in the form of the Lakers exercising their team option now to lock D’Antoni in for 2015-16...well, D’Antoni’s dogged agent Warren LeGarie can ask, but it’s illogical he shall receive. The 2015 free agents might require different leadership—actually a main reason to keep D’Antoni, so the Lakers don’t hire someone now and then have to hire someone else a year from now.)
Thing is, continuity doesn’t clear the stale air from a sad room. And D’Antoni has become undeniable emotional baggage for the Lakers to lug in front of their fans, which is why the easier move to make would be to fire him. Doing that would ensure next season arrives with renewed optimism for the many fans who can’t bear the thought of repeating this season’s misery.
Cut to Marshall’s feel-good moment with Dan D’Antoni’s introduction Friday.
Dan called it his “dream job” and was moved to tears telling the story of how Marshall team doctor Ray Hagley, who died in the 1970 Marshall football plane crash, had told him he’d be the basketball coach someday.
Same as Mike put forth the day he became Lakers coach in November 2012, Dan brimmed with confidence and spoke of championships and dropped suggestions of scoring 130 points and promised an “entertaining style.”
Referring to the color of their alma mater (but surely sounding harsh to the ears of Boston Celtics-hating Lakers fans), Dan declared, “D’Antonis have always bled green.”
Dan even used the Lakers’ brand to inflate his own, responding to a question about feeling pressure coming in so late in the high-school recruiting process by smirking at the idea of pressure:
“I just came from the L.A. Lakers,” Dan said.
And the assembled boosters and reporters laughed and laughed for a solid 10 seconds at how big-time their new coach was—because it’s always fun to let your eyes brighten and imagine that a new coach is the deliverer of dreams.
The reality is that Dan D’Antoni is 66 and might be in over his head, having never been the lead coach in college or the pros before, not having coached at all in college for 43 years. Even a big fish in a small pond can sink fast.
The reality for the Lakers is that even with a new coach, they will be bad next season if Kobe Bryant isn’t fantastically productive or if Bryant has bad players alongside him as a result of the plan to preserve salary-cap space for 2015 free agency. The expression “lipstick on a pig” seems like something they might say in West Virginia, and it does sort of apply to the concept of a new Lakers coach.
But if it’s D’Antoni’s mustache that stays on the Lakers, there seems a clear limit to how handsome they will be too.
Torn between two unattractive options, to stick with the existing one, Buss and Kupchak have to believe there’s wisdom D’Antoni has not yet imparted on the Lakers—because you never know if someone else can deliver dreams unless you try him.
Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.