If there’s one thing I love about the Lakers, it’s that they’re willing to take a calculated risk. Dr. Buss is known for his poker exploits, after all.
And, on the surface, this certainly looks like a gamble. With the most decorated coach waiting in the wings to take over and (potentially) bring championship glory back to the organization in a third stint, it seems….odd that the Lakers would go in a different direction. Over the weekend the team was said to be “all in” for Phil but it turns out when they turned over their cards it was Mike D’Antoni’s face as the new king of the sideline.
I, for one, would have been more than happy to have Phil Jackson return for another go ’round. The prospect of having him back was the stuff that feel good movies are built on.
Phil brings a caché that instills confidence and a sense of calmness. His history of championship level success meant the rope he’d have to produce would have been much longer than any other choice. That, in itself, can be a major difference in the perception of where this team is going. Simply put, he has style and substance and that reflects a calm sorely needed in any environment as rich with drama as this one. He knows that territory well and would likely navigate it seamlessly.
That said, there were no guarantees that what Phil would have brought to the team would have been what was needed. This group isn’t some sort of Triangle ready roster that’s simply waiting for him to come back and install the system everyone knows and has comfort with. Only Pau and Kobe have had any sort of success in this system and the other players on the roster that have even played in it number a grand total of three. For what it’s worth, the Lakers actually had just as many players on the team who’d played in the Princeton — or a version of it — with Jamison, Blake, Meeks, Hill, and Ron and it’s not like there was some extreme comfort level there.
So, the Lakers went in another direction. They chose the coach with the more simplified offensive system — yes, what D’Antoni runs is a system — that will rely more on players making the types of basketball decisions they’ve made their entire career. They’ll be asked to move the ball onto the open man and shoot when open all while operating on a spaced floor. There will be a reliance on pick and rolls but I think it’d be silly to think that we won’t see post up chances for Kobe, Pau, and Dwight. For all the sense that D’Antoni is such an offensive genius, I find it odd that there would be so many concerns that he wouldn’t be able to adapt to one of the most talented groups (at least in his starting five) that he’d ever coached.
This isn’t to say there aren’t any concerns. The fit of certain players certainly jumps out right away. Gasol in particular isn’t the ideal power forward to space the floor by circling the arc. The bench players aren’t necessarily “shooters” in the classic sense and that may lead to a breakdown in spacing that D’Antoni will need to confront with creativity rather than simple talent. But for a man that is considered as smart at coaching offense as he is, I think he’ll work through these issues. After all, his top end talent is elite and with that the foundation for any system is improved dramatically.
As to the question of D’Antoni’s lack of a defensive pedigree, there’s both a reality and a disconnect to facts when evaluating him. HIs Suns teams were never as bad on that end as the existing perception. They regularly ranked in the middle of the pack on that end of the floor in terms of defensive efficiency and suffered more in terms of antiquated measurements such as points per game. In his last year with the Knicks, his defense ranked in the top ten of defensive efficiency once he got Tyson Chandler to anchor his back end. With Howard in tow and some very good defenders in place in Los Angeles, I believe we’ll see a team that can play to that same level.
A this point, though, what matters most isn’t our perception of the past but what D’Antoni can actually do with this roster. The talent in place is the same that many believed was good enough to win a championship to start the season. Mike Brown didn’t maximize that talent and he’s now unemployed. D’Antoni will need to produce on the floor with the players he has or the criticism that haunted his predecessor will follow him in the same manner.
No, D’Antoni isn’t Phil Jackson. And we’ll never know the full extent what actually took place in those closed door meetings between him and the Laker brass. But D’Antoni is no slouch of a coach. His teams achieved a great amount of success even though they fell short of the final prize. With this group, though, he may have his best chance to rectify those past defeats and earn himself, and this team, some redemption.
I can honestly say I’m excited about the prospect of what he can do on both sides of the floor with a group that includes Nash, Kobe, Pau, and Howard. Time will tell if he’s up to the task but the same would have been true of any choice made. Even if some people’s perception says different.