Grading Mike D'Antoni's Season with the Los Angeles Lakers

Howard Ruben@howardrubenContributor IApril 6, 2014

Los Angeles Lakers head coach Mike D'Antoni, right, yells at referees as guard Steve Nash looks on during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Washington Wizards, Friday, March 21, 2014, in Los Angeles. The Wizards won 117-107. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill

If coaching the Los Angeles Lakers was a college course, Mike D'Antoni would be on the verge of flunking.

In college, you usually get to come back and take the class again.  In the NBA, they show you the door and tell you to enjoy the summer.

NBA coaches are normally graded on how the team performs, how the players respond to their philosophy, and their ability to inspire the troops to work hard and get the most out of their skill set.

If one is to grade D'Antoni, it should be on his two seasons with the Lakers. He's had an opportunity to coach a team (2012-13) with championship credentials and another (this season) with young, talented players needing an opportunity to show what they can do in the NBA.

D'Antoni has failed to produce with both, the Lakers being swept out of the first round by the San Antonio Spurs in last year's playoffs and coming apart this year with their worst record since moving to Los Angeles from Minneapolis in 1960.  It marked just the sixth time the team has failed to reach the postseason since the franchise was formed in 1947.

Has Mike D'Antoni been unfairly criticized for leading what is arguably the worst Lakers team in franchise history? Certainly, you can't really fault him for the plethora of injuries that have decimated the Lakers the past two years?

Or, can you?  Does the buck/ball stop with D'Antoni or should the Lakers consider bringing back the coach who once led the Phoenix Suns to three Pacific Division titles and a .650 winning percentage over one five-year span?

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In spite of their disastrous season, the Lakers do have reasons to keep D'Antoni around another year.  Management is seriously considering that option, according to Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report

D’Antoni has one more guaranteed season left on his Lakers contract, and the club is leaning toward retaining him despite some privately disgruntled players and massive public disdain. It’s not clear which way the organization will go with him.

Kevin Love could be in a Lakers uniform by 2015.
Kevin Love could be in a Lakers uniform by 2015.Ann Heisenfelt

We keep hearing about why the Lakers may be better to wait until Summer 2015 to make a coaching change, because that is when they will dip heavily into a free-agent market stocked with such prizes as Santa Monica native and UCLA alum Kevin Love.

In other words, why not let D'Antoni flame out over the course of next season as the Lakers continue on their current path of mediocrity?  There isn't a great free-agent class coming out this summer, so why not keep D'Antoni around.

If they fire him now, the Lakers will have to pay two coach's salaries next season, not prudent for a fiscal-minded team.

As Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times reported on March 7, following the Lakers historical 48-point loss to the Los Angeles Clippers:

The unfortunate truth is that the Lakers are probably locked into at least one more awful season and might as well drag D’Antoni along for the ride. With LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony looking like increasingly unrealistic options, the Lakers will probably preserve their maximum salary slot for the summer of 2015, when Kevin Love becomes available.

Bolch went on to write that, although D'Antoni is not the long-term solution, it makes sense to let him sink with the ship in 2014-15.  "He's the perfect coach for a bad team and there’s no reason to jettison him until the Lakers are ready to take flight."

What happened to the Lakers of Dr. Jerry Buss and Jack Kent Cooke?  How can a really bad coach be the "perfect fit" for a really bad Lakers team that will probably lose two-thirds of its roster this summer?

And based on their comments, it would seem D'Antoni has already lost the confidence of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol.  When your star attraction says he doesn't know if he wants the coach to return and doesn't understand how management could not offer a front-office job to Phil Jackson, then you know there are some major problems.

The creative force behind the warp-speed, seven-seconds-or-less offense in Phoenix, D'Antoni was the wrong hire for a team populated by aging superstars (Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol) and a premier center (Dwight Howard) who prefers a half-court game.  What was management thinking in November of 2012 when they fired Mike Brown and brought in a coach who only knew one speed:  very fast?

We all know how last year turned out.  Sure, the Lakers made the playoffs, but D'Antoni wore out Bryant in the process and lost the Black Mamba to a horrific Achilles injury just days before the second season was to start.  And Howard, never happy with D'Antoni's love of speed, left for the Houston Rockets.

An evaluation of D'Antoni as Lakers coach:


While it's been acknowledged throughout his coaching career that D'Antoni has a creative offensive mind, there's never been much appreciation for the way he manages a game. 

D'Antoni had to do more managing last year as the team made a late-season push to get into the playoffs.  But, that was as much about Kobe Bryant bucking the up-tempo game in favor of more half-court offense as a way to better utilize Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard.

This year D'Antoni has managed the team by not trying to rein them in  There has been much more of a freelance approach—players are encouraged to push the ball up the court and take shots early in the clock. 

It's provided players like Jodie Meeks and Nick Young the opportunity to create plays for themselves.  When the shots fall, the Lakers and D'Antoni look brilliant for a few seconds.  That is, until the opponent attacks on the other end of the floor and exposes the Lakers defense.


D'Antoni would get a D+ in this department. While some of the younger players, such as Kendall Marshall, Xavier Henry, Wesley Johnson, Ryan Kelly and Robert Sacre, have been given significant minutes to showcase their talents, there are just as many players who've been shunned this year because they didn't fit in with D'Antoni's system.

The coach's standard answer after losses was that the team would look at film and get better. He's had on-again, off-again spats with his big men, Chris Kaman, Jordan Hill and Pau Gasol, which is yet another way of not motivating but rather alienating players.

Center Chris Kaman has had a rocky relationship with Mike D'Antoni and seen his talents wasted.
Center Chris Kaman has had a rocky relationship with Mike D'Antoni and seen his talents wasted.Noah Graham/Getty Images

A healthy Kaman sat on the pine for weeks and complained openly to the media, telling ESPN's Dave McMenamin that he hadn't spoken to D'Antoni in three weeks. Trying to take a higher road, Kaman pinned the blame on himself for picking the wrong team to sign with last year.

"My bad on my part not doing due diligence enough to look into a situation better and style of play and that kind of thing,"

When D'Antoni finally inserted the former All-Star into the starting lineup, Kaman responded with a blistering performance—28 points, 17 rebounds and six assists—in a surprising 115-99 win over the Phoenix Suns.

The same can be said of Hill, who has not been a favorite of D'Antoni's dating back to when both were with the New York Knicks. Injuries have forced the coach to utilize him more of late.

On the year, Hill has averaged 20 minutes, nine points and seven rebounds, but in his last eight games, he has seen the minutes go up to 26 per night, the scoring to 15.3 and rebounds to 10.4.

Hill won't openly criticize the coach, but it's obvious there is a disconnect between the two men. At 26, Hill is just entering the prime of his career, and the Lakers would do well to re-sign the soon-to-be free agent. If D'Antoni remains as coach, Hill is certain to leave L.A.


D'Antoni has really had to be creative because Laker players go down with injuries on a regular basis.

Consider that, over the course of the year, the team has lost Bryant, Henry, Young, Gasol, Kaman, Nash and Jordan Farmar for more than 250 total games due to injury.

Bryant, Gasol and Nash were all starters at the beginning of the year. Kobe played in six games, Nash in 14. Gasol, meanwhile, will end up missing about one-quarter of the season due to various ailments, the latest being a severe bout with vertigo.

D'Antoni has worked with what he's had and, for that, deserves some praise. Ryan Kelly might not even be in the league had D'Antoni chose to leave him with the D-league Defenders.

But, D'Antoni's rotations, for the most part, are not efficient. Especially when one considers that healthy players like Hill and Kaman spend long periods, if not entire games, with warm-ups on and a towel draped around their necks.


It's not been an easy year for D'Antoni, but he could have been in New York where the media is noted for being relentless in its pursuit of stories and headline-grabbing quotes.

There's only one Phil Jackson, and the Zen Master was known for his ability to spar with the press much the same way he sparred with his players.

D'Antoni is cordial with the media but not effusive.  As the season spiraled out of control, so too have some of his press encounters. It's obvious the head coach is frustrated with loss after loss but, as he told Los Angeles Daily News reporter Mark Medina, he tries to not let it bother him.

I don’t sit around and look into hot chocolate and say, ‘Aw, I don’t know.'  You just do your job, you do the best you can and hope you get some breaks along the way.

The Lakers should be looking to change their culture as soon as possible, not when a good free-agent class emerges over a year from now.  What they don't need now is a coach who seems content with watching his youthful charges grow.

The Spurs under Gregg Popovich and power forward / center Tim Duncan have made the playoffs in 16 of the 17 years the All-Star has been in San Antonio.  The Spurs know how to rebuild without building from scratch.

And the Boston Celtics, under rookie coach Brad Stevens and general manager Danny Ainge, are constructing a team with youth and draft picks.  They seem to be on a much faster track than the Lakers.

D'Antoni has failed to win games and hearts in Los Angeles.  That's all that really matters in grading the coach.

Per Kevin Arnovitz of and its ranking of coaches:

Advanced stats gurus have wrestled with coaching analytics for years, but there's still virtually no objective measure to rate the guys who draw up the plays and manage the egos apart from titles and rings.

Win and you're considered a great coach.  Lose or finish out of the running on a consistent basis and your ranking dives.  Of the 30 who call themselves an NBA head coach, Mike D'Antoni ranked 20th.

In Los Angeles, that's just not good enough.