Allow me to do what Mike D’Antoni’s previous teams famously couldn’t: defend the man.
He’s not a perfect coach, but he's far from a terrible coach. He’s a two-class upgrade over the guy he’s replacing. He arrives with instant credibility with two of the Lakers’ most important players, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash. His shoot-em-up-style offense will go over well in a place that puts a premium on entertainment. He’s charismatic and also very unflappable, thanks to a few rough years where he was all but devoured by the New York media.
True, he’s not Phil Jackson, and if that’s the biggest knock on D’Antoni, then fine, because nobody is Phil Jackson. Perhaps not even Phil Jackson anymore. Bottom line is the Lakers could’ve done better than hiring D’Antoni only if they got the Jackson who was hungry and healthy and prepared to do anything to win championships -- even accept a reasonable amount of money. But there was no guarantee that Jackson was walking through the door again.
And so the Lakers got the Beamer instead of the Benz, the next-best coach available, someone whose record and reputation isn’t as sinister as it seems, but will get thrown in his face anyway if the Lakers don’t at least reach the NBA Finals next summer.
Do you know who’s complaining right now in the organization? Listen closely. That’s right. Nobody. Kobe is fine with the new coach, so is Nash, and everyone else who matters has no issue with D’Antoni. That’s important, because the Lakers can’t afford to gamble here. Their window of opportunity is slimmer than the supermodels in this town. They’ve got two years, max, to get Kobe another ring. Maybe one, if Dwight Howard does something semi-drastic and signs somewhere else next summer.
D’Antoni is a hire you make and then sleep peacefully at night. He’s not Mike Brown II. He’ll get the most out of Nash, a player he coached to two MVPs in Phoenix. Nash will flourish in D’Antoni’s system, which relies heavily on screen rolls and freeing up teammates for open shots. Howard will get five dunks a game by rolling off picks.
The Lakers' new coach isn’t foolish enough to run Nash into the ground, though. Nash is a few months from turning 39; why would the coach do that? Let’s safely assume that D’Antoni will add a few variations designed to give Nash sufficient breathers and preserve him for the long haul. Remember, nobody knows Nash like D’Antoni. So the fears about D’Antoni’s system turning Nash into a nub are probably a stretch.
D’Antoni also goes a way back with Bryant. When Kobe was growing up in Italy, his basketball hero, other than his father, was a quick and determined point guard who played for one of the local teams. That player was D’Antoni. Kobe chose No. 8, his original jersey number with the Lakers, as a salute to the man who is now his coach. Kobe’s high level of comfort with D’Antoni settles a major issue because the Lakers couldn’t afford to, say, bring in Nate McMillan or Jerry Sloan or anyone who didn’t have a proven background with the most important player on the team. Again, they’re on the clock, with no time for getting-to-know-yous.
As for Howard, he’s probably the least of L.A.'s concerns. After what he went through with Stan Van Gundy in Orlando, Howard likely welcomes the chance to bond with any coach who’s approachable and player-friendly and brings a respectable track record. For the most part, that’s D’Antoni, the exception being his fractured relationship in New York with a demanding Carmelo Anthony, which shouldn’t be held against him.
D’Antoni’s teams often underachieved in the playoffs -- he has a losing post-season record -- and he has never reached the NBA Finals. That doesn’t mean there aren’t mitigating circumstances, with Robert Horry shoving Nash in 2007 topping the list. D’Antoni’s crime is he couldn’t get past Kobe and Shaq, or Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. Is that pardonable? As for his stay in New York, D’Antoni had to sit through a rebuilding process, then try to pacify Anthony in one season. In a sense, he was set up to fail.
The only real question under D’Antoni will be the Lakers’ ability to play defense. And that’s fair. In Phoenix, the Suns couldn’t stop anyone. In New York, the Knicks’ reluctance to even try to defend ultimately cost D’Antoni his job. The only way the Lakers can maximize their limited time with this reworked roster is by putting the brakes on a young and frisky Oklahoma City team and out-witting the veteran Spurs, their two most dangerous threats in the West. How’s that supposed to happen with a coach who has only emphasized the “D” in his last name?
It really comes down to this: D’Antoni will emphasize defense; now he needs the players to buy into it. And he needs defenders, something he never had in Phoenix and only in very limited supply in New York.
Does anyone believe that Howard will suddenly lose the desire to defend under D’Antoni? He won’t, and in fact, D’Antoni has never had a stopper like Howard anywhere. Kobe is still capable of defending, same for Metta World Peace, and as for Nash, he is who he is. No coach can turn him into Gary Payton.
These are heavy and high-strung times for the Lakers. They’ve become victimized by their history and the high-profile moves they made last summer. Their fans are fiercely demanding, in the same manner that the Heat’s fans were two years ago. But there’s even more stress on the Lakers than Miami because their core is aging and on the stopwatch. They must either win a championship or come close enough in order to justify all the fuss. And a coach, if he isn’t the right one, can only screw things up.
Mike D’Antoni isn’t the perfect coach. But given the choices the Lakers created for themselves by refusing to hire Brian Shaw two summers ago, then by a refusal to bow down to Jackson, D’Antoni is the logical option.
His new players will win, but will they defend their man as well as their coach come summertime? That’s when we’ll see how close D’Antoni can come to perfection.