Without Steve Nash, What's Keeping Mike D'Antoni Coaching LA Lakers?

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 25, 2013

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This was supposed to be the Hollywood version of Los Angeles Lakers head coach Mike D'Antoni's famed "seven seconds or less" offense.

The teacher and his prized pupil, Steve Nash, reunited under the bright L.A. lights. They didn't have the gazelles surrounding them as they once had in Phoenix, but their offensive minds seemed smart enough to mesh their style with a new supporting cast.

But the Lakers failed to understand one of Tinseltown's biggest lessons: The sequel is never as good as the original.

This duo hasn't reversed that curse, thanks in no small part to the fact that it's become a solo act. Nash doesn't have the legs to run an up-tempo system, or even the body to see a second of floor time. He hasn't played since Nov. 10 and isn't expected back for at least another three weeks—assuming the 39-year-old ever returns to the hardwood.

D'Antoni looks lost without his fallen star, but his prominent perch on the Lakers sideline doesn't appear to be in jeopardy just yet.

So, what's keeping him in that spot and off the chopping block?

His Hands Are Medically Tied

Even the best coaches need players to compete.

Would we look at Phil Jackson the same if he never had Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal under his wings? Does Erik Spoelstra own any championship rings if he doesn't have Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and LeBron James on his roster?

That's not an insult to those coaches. They elevated those transcendent talents to heights that other bench bosses could not reach. But the importance of having a talented roster cannot be overstated.

That's nothing like what D'Antoni currently has in L.A.

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 08:  Mike D'Antoni of the Los Angeles Lakers and Jodie Meeks #20 react during the game against the Toronto Raptors at Staples Center on December 8, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and
Harry How/Getty Images

Even at full strength, there would be questions about this team. But those are hypothetical because this roster hasn't had a clean bill of health all season.

Bryant started the season on the shelf rehabbing the torn Achilles that ended his 2012-13 campaign. Just six games into his return, the Mamba went back to the sideline with a fracture of the lateral tibial plateau in his left knee that's expected to keep him out for six weeks.

Nash's injuries are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to L.A.'s point guard woes.

Jordan Farmar was shut down by a torn hamstring on Dec. 1. Steve Blake has been out since Dec. 10 with a torn ligament in his right elbow. If not for a last-ditch signing of former NBA castoff Kendall Marshall, there would not be a healthy point guard on the roster.

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 20: (L-R) Ryan Kelly #4, Jordan Farmar #1, and Steve Blake #5 of the Los Angeles Lakers look on from the bench against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Staples Center on December 20, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: U
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Back spasms sent Chris Kaman to the sideline earlier this season. Foot surgery cost rookie Ryan Kelly a chance to get his feet wet in the NBA summer league, and he's been fighting an uphill battle ever since.

For a team already short on talent, these injury blows have hit more like haymakers.

"I can't believe the job [D'Antoni has] done, because I don't think this is one of the most talented Lakers team by far," Hall of Famer and former Lakers general manager Jerry West said, via Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times. "They've had an injury-filled season, and when you have that, it always disrupts things."

That disruption can be seen in the team's 13-16 mark, its minus-3.3 net rating (22nd overall) or its 5-10 record against teams with a winning percentage at or above .500.

These might feel like uncharted waters for a franchise as proud as this, and D'Antoni may seem like the obvious scapegoat for these struggles. But this roster wasn't built for relevance. That fact, far more than his coaching style, has put the team in the position that it is now.

There's an unfortunate truth behind his status too. Even if this was all his fault, he'd still be coaching this team.

Financial Commitment

In the court of public opinion, D'Antoni may well serve out the rest of the season on the chopping block. He's been there ever since the Lakers brass tabbed him instead of Phil Jackson for the job last season.

But fans don't have a say in deciding D'Antoni's fate.

That decision belongs to the L.A. executives, who are shelling out $4 million for D'Antoni's coaching services this season and next. That money is as good as gone, even if the Lakers no longer saw him as the right fit.

Even the mighty Lakers have their financial limits.

November 15, 2012; El Segundo, CA, USA;    Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak (left) sits next to new head coach Mike D'Antoni during a press conference at the training facility in El Segundo.  Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY S
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Record aside, D'Antoni's doing what he can to earn his paycheck. 

Nick Young is scoring (15.6) and shooting (.431/.382) better than he has in three seasons. Xavier Henry (10.3 points, 2.8 rebounds in 21.9 minutes) is wiping off the three years of funk that followed him after he became a lottery pick in 2010.

Jodie Meeks (.460/.415/.797 shooting slash) has been remarkably efficient. Wesley Johnson (1.4 blocks, 1.1 steals) and Jordan Hill (9.3 points, 7.8 rebounds) are enjoying their best NBA seasons to date.

D'Antoni is making the most of what he has.

"I'm not going to crush or fade or 'woe is me,'" he said, via Yahoo! Sports' Marc J. Spears. "There is no time for that."

The Lakers don't have the bodies to be good, but they have the heart to remain competitive. On the NBA scale, instilling that kind of effort on a $4 million salary is no worse than earning your keep.

PHOENIX, AZ - DECEMBER 23:  Head coach Mike D'Antoni of the Los Angeles Lakers talks with Wesley Johnson #11 during the NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at US Airways Center on December 23, 2013 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Suns defeated the Lakers 117-90. N
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

There are a few things that Los Angeles fans need to accept.

D'Antoni is not Phil Jackson. He never was before, and he never will be. Jackson may have been a coaching option before, but that bridge has been burned and those ashes have been cleared.

D'Antoni's also not a miracle worker. There isn't another coach out there who could push this roster into contention. Eating the remainder of his contract and shelling out more cash for his replacement in search of something that doesn't exist is just bad business.

He's rough around the edges, and his passion sometimes puts him in tough spots. But like the rest of Lakers nation, he wants to see this franchise move back in the right direction. 

There will be no more Nash-D'Antoni magic. There may not even be a Nash at all anymore.

But if you want to know how the master will outlast his apprentice, you don't have to look far for the answer.

You can see it in the way D'Antoni has met adversity on the fly. It's there in the stat sheets of players who have never posted box scores like this before. It even shows up on the team payroll, with D'Antoni's future earnings all but securing his sideline spot.

So, why is D'Antoni still coaching this team? Because the Lakers need him now more than ever. 

*Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.


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