Mike D’Antoni will be great… for the Lakers… for now. He’s taking over for a doomed-from-the-start and overrated Mike Brown. He’s taking on a team with three players whom most GM’s would be happy to build a team around, and a 4th who used to be in that category. He’s walking into a situation with a team that is destined for success. If Kobe acted as player-coach on this team, the Lakers would win at least 50 games. This leads us to two questions. The first, will this Lakers team really listen to any coach? The second, do the Lakers need a coach at all?
D’Antoni coached Steve Nash during the best years of both of their careers. Nash won two MVP awards under D’Antoni’s system in Phoenix. Shawn Marion and Amare Stoudemire were the ideal running big men in an offense that inspired Jack MacCallum’s 2006 chronicle of the Phoenix Suns :07 Seconds or Less. The title refers to the amount of time in which D’Antoni believes his offense has the best chance to score on any given possession. In other words, if the shot clock clicks down to 16 seconds, the possession is something of a failure. D’Antoni’s system had an enormous impact on the way offenses are run in the NBA today. However, the run-and-gun style of play is next to impossible to implement in the playoffs. Fast breaking starts with a rebound and an outlet pass. In order to get a rebound, a team has to stop the offense from scoring. This concept is called “defense,” and it is a concept that D’Antoni has never been able to teach. To be fair, players have to buy into team defense, and other than Tyson Chandler in New York, D’Antoni’s teams have never been assembled with defense in mind. Still, he has yet to show he can win with any semblance of team defense. You might say D’Antoni’s system died with his ill-fated attempt to coach the Knicks over the last four years.
It will be interesting to see what D’Antoni is asked to do with this offense. He doesn’t have the personnel to push the pace. Howard and Artest give him defensive weapons he’s never had. Nash will not have the ball in his hands at all times as he did on those Suns teams. We can assume the pick and roll will feature prominently in this offense with Nash and Bryant taking turns off the ball, and Jodie Meeks and Steve Blake finding themselves as wide open as they’ve ever been in the corner.
As has been well documented by D’Antoni doubters, his up-tempo philosophy has yet to produce an NBA Finals appearance, let alone a ring. D’Antoni’s best teams made the Western Conference Finals in 2005 and 2006, years where Nash was at his peak. One of those runs to the Western Conference Finals was halted by injuries and lack of depth. This Lakers roster is as top-heavy as they come. The only reserves that any sane coach might trust are the aging Antawn Jamison, backup center Jordan Hill and sharpshooter Jodie Meeks, who was buried on the bench by Mike Brown’s strategery. Unlike San Antonio and Boston, two contenders who have complemented their graybeards with talented and developing younger teammates, the Lakers must seek help, especially in terms of shooters.
The Western Conference will be loaded again in the playoffs and the Lakers will inevitably have to contend with the likes of the Thunder, Spurs, Clippers, Grizzlies and Nuggets. The Lakers will be an offensive juggernaut, but we knew that as soon as Howard and Nash came aboard. Before we go crowning the Lakers the new kings of the NBA, remember, Mike D’Antoni is at the helm. Dwight Howard is a monster underneath, but he can’t turn Steve Nash into a defender, nor can he turn the Lakers bench into a useful collection of NBA-caliber assets.
Let us rejoice: Phil Jackson likes being retired and is so tired of NBA travel that he demanded Bernie Bickerstaff coach all road games, which led Jerry Buss to toss his champagne flute at the framed picture of Jerry West hanging on the office wall. So…D’Antoni gets his chance. And he’s likely to run with it…at least until May.
Conan Graham contributed heavily to this post.