It has been nearly a week since the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers resigned.
The frenzied speculation about a successor has died down to a dull roar, but an interesting question remains—how will Mike D’Antoni be remembered?
Fans of the Lakers have been spoiled by a steady stream of iconic figures, from superstar players to a couple true coaching legends—Pat Riley and Phil Jackson. Those who dare to follow have often been vilified, cast to the side and largely forgotten.
It’s understandable if you judge purely by the ultimate measuring stick of success—Riley and Jackson combined for nine championship rings while coaching the Lakers.
As for all the other guys, you’d have to go back to Paul Westhead in 1980 to find another finals victory for the Purple and Gold.
You know it’s a tough crowd when none other than Magic Johnson, a five-time Lakers champion, decides to pile on.
D’Antoni was hired in a failed attempt to recreate the Showtime era, and the very face of that gilded chapter became one of the coach’s harshest critics.
The lack of success was not for lack of trying, or for want of deeply held basketball principles. This unapologetic purist blazed a small-ball path for two seasons with ill-suited stars, willing reclamation projects and the chronically injured.
Actually, they were all injured.
The latest Lakers coaching failure was hired shortly after the start of the 2012-13 season, replacing the wipeout otherwise known as Mike Brown.
It might have been a fresh new start if not for a giant waving red flag—D’Antoni was hired instead of a guy who had produced the last five championships and had seemed ready for another spin.
A brand new hire was basically doomed from the start.
D’Antoni acknowledged his surprise at being chosen over Jackson during a radio interview for the Mason and Ireland show on ESPNLA 710 in November 2012, per Ramona Shelburne for ESPN LA: “I know he's a great coach. Has been, will be, one of the best if not the best ever."
The guy who wasn’t Jackson was comfortable with his own brand of basketball, however, and put his reputation on the line: "I'm going to do everything I can do to win a championship. If we're not at least in the hunt, a serious hunt, then I've failed as a head coach. I'm comfortable with that."
It seemed as if D’Antoni had been given the guns to compete at the time, with a starting lineup of Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard. But then came all the stops and starts, opposing philosophies and—more than anything—the injuries.
The Lakers limped into the 2013 Western Conference playoffs with a 45-37 record, with Bryant having blown out his Achilles tendon during the 80th game of the regular season.
They were unable to claim a single victory against the San Antonio Spurs in the first round.
If D’Antoni’s maiden voyage with the Lakers was bad, his second season was the Titanic—an unrelenting death spiral with fewer stars, more injuries, increased conflict from within and, ultimately, the worst loss record in the team’s history.
And then we came to the end of an extraordinarily disastrous experiment and the beginning of the search for the next guy who won’t be named Jackson.
Because the Zen Master finally got tired of waiting for the Lakers to invite him back to the table and decided to become the president of the New York Knicks.
The debacle of the past two seasons belongs as much to management as it does to the coach who ultimately took the fall. Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak, and yes, the late Dr. Jerry Buss himself, should have known better, but instead of entering into a relationship with eyes wide open, they were willfully wearing blinders. They grasped at nostalgic memories of a bygone Showtime era, somehow believing it could be rebottled with mostly wrong parts.
Will fans only remember the landslide of losses or will they also acknowledge that a guy who probably shouldn’t have been hired, at least gave new promise to a group of young castoffs who were all but out of the league?
Because there were some shining moments, especially for a motley group of bargain-basement players who were given confidence, encouragement and a steady green light to shoot to their hearts’ content.
Nick Young, Jodie Meeks, Xavier Henry, Kendall Marshall and Kent Bazemore all had career years. Jordan Farmar flourished in a way that he hadn’t under Jackson during two championship seasons. And even Jordan Hill, a defensive presence who was out of alignment with D’Antoni, enjoyed his best season yet in the NBA.
There were disappointments, too, such as the fact that Nash was never healthy enough to effectively reunite with his favorite coach. You’d catch fleeting glimpses of what once was, when the future Hall of Famer had a rare good night, moving well and firing laser-guided passes.
Unfortunately, he was only able to appear in 15 games this season.
Bryant played even less—six times due to a knee fracture suffered in December. The five-time champion seemed increasingly disenchanted with D’Antoni as time went on, even though he was watching, not participating.
Sometimes, it’s that detachment that allows a person to see the bigger picture.
Perhaps most troubling of all was the fact that a Lakers head coach couldn’t or wouldn’t find a way to bridge the gap with Pau Gasol, a highly versatile big man and normally one of the league’s true diplomats and communicators.
More than just basketball differences, the conflict between Gasol and D’Antoni spoke to a stubborn willfulness and extreme tunnel vision that put what one man believed to be the evolution of the game ahead of the collective good of the team itself.
In other words, it’s fine to empower minimum-salary role players, but not at the expense of your stars.
How will Lakers fans remember D’Antoni? Right now, the overriding feeling seems to be a cathartic release of pent-up anger and frustration. Despite the reasonable excuse of injuries, there were simply too many losses, especially for someone who was chosen over one of the true icons of the game.
In time, we may remember games where ball movement and spacing led to a blizzard of baskets from beyond the arc; or the month of January when Marshall averaged 11.9 points, 11.5 assists and converted 44 percent of his three-point attempts using that old-fashioned set shot.
Or Swaggy P running back up court, celebrating after a highlight-reel dunk.
A few shining moments won’t erase 55 losses, of course. And, it may be too early to look for Mike D’Antoni’s silver linings.
For now, all eyes are on the choosing of the Lakers’ next head coach, and the hope that whoever it is, can fill the shadows of past greatness and emerge into the light, unscathed and victorious.
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