There’s no questioning Mike D’Antoni’s standing as an offensive guru in the NBA coaching community. In 2004, the Phoenix Suns, with head coach Frank Johnson, ranked 11th in the NBA in points per game. The following season with D’Antoni as head coach, they vaulted to tops in the league offensively.
In 2008, the New York Knicks under head coach Isiah Thomas finished 21st in the NBA in points per game. The following year after adding D’Antoni to coach, they ranked fourth.
The best-case scenario for the Los Angeles Lakers with D’Antoni as the new coach is obvious. He has the ability to make the Lakers’ 10th-ranked offense this season even more explosive and dynamic.
Familiarity with point guard Steve Nash from his time in Phoenix and a mutual respect with Kobe Bryant, who idolized D’Antoni while growing up in Italy (h/t USA Today), mean that two key pieces are already in place.
At best, D’Antoni can transform this roster into an offensive juggernaut on the court, not just on paper.
Forget the Princeton offense Lakers fans. Nash—when he comes back healthy—will finally be able to run the Lakers’ engine as he should have been allowed to do from the get-go, much like the run-and-gun Suns days of old.
Bryant, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard are all dynamic offensive threats that Nash can defer to while running an up-tempo offense. Metta World Peace, Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks are all adequate spot-up shooters who will get plenty of open looks in D’Antoni’s free-flowing offensive style as well.
D’Antoni has never been (and likely never will be) a great defensive coach. However, with his ability to mold teams into offensive powerhouses, the Lakers may be able to get by even with what has been a middle-of-the-road defensive team.
Howard, Bryant and World Peace can become the defensive anchors that dwarf the run-and-gun Suns defensive abilities of the past. (Only Shawn Marion set the tone defensively during those years, but he couldn’t do it alone).
In a perfect world, D’Antoni’s offense will spark a team desperate for a change of pace. His world-class offensive system will allow the Lakers to run rampant on opponents, while having the defensive responsibilities fall on proven defenders: Howard, Bryant and World Peace.
In spite of that rosy outlook, if the beginning of this season has taught Lakers fans anything, it’s that expectations don’t always come to fruition.
During D’Antoni’s final season in New York, players had basically given up on him before the explosion of Jeremy Lin. The Knicks’ overall struggles made D’Antoni decide that resigning as coach was his best option.
Who’s to say that if he doesn’t turn around the Lakers’ early struggles, he could be just another failed experiment?
D’Antoni received a huge contract in New York for his ability to run an exciting run-and-gun offense. But will that type of strategy work with one of the oldest rosters in the NBA? Nash is 38 years old. Bryant is 34. World Peace and Gasol are a combined 64 years old, while Antawn Jamison is 36 and having the worst season of his entire career.
In spite of this, according to Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports via Twitter, Antawn Jamison said, “Even though we are older, we can still get down the court. Offense is not a problem. We have to improve on the defensive end.”
Let’s examine this statement for a minute.
Jamison seems to have confidence that despite the Lakers' collective age, they’ll be able to run.
According to Jamison, though, the offense is not the problem, the defense is. Seeing that Jamison is averaging just 3.6 points per game this season, perhaps he may need to re-evaluate his stance on the offense because he’s provided virtually no spark for it thus far.
Anyway, why would the Lakers bring in D’Antoni if players feel the defense is a more pressing issue? If a defensive-minded coach like Mike Brown couldn’t fix the problem, how will an offensive guru like D’Antoni instill a defensive mindset with this group?
In addition to that, D’Antoni is notorious for playing seven- or eight-man rotations. On a team like the Lakers that needs to rest its superstars, can D’Antoni delve deeper into the bench without disrupting any offensive rhythm?
Playing fewer players allows for that free-flowing offense to work efficiently because everyone knows his role while still getting respectable minutes. Nash isn’t the same player he was four or five years ago though, so D’Antoni has to monitor that.
As a best-case scenario, the Lakers will figure out their defense and ride D’Antoni’s offensive wave. Nash and Bryant will embrace a key figure in both of their basketball lives and thrive in the backcourt as a result.
As a worst-case scenario though, the Lakers will end up as an older, broken-down version of the run-and-gun Suns. Phoenix couldn’t get over the championship hump because their reckless style and lack of defense prevented crucial wins in the playoffs.
Can the aging Lakers keep pace with D’Antoni’s running style, or will they fade in the backstretch? Only time will tell.