The Curious Case of Mike D’Antoni

Daniel Rapaport —  December 23, 2013

Note: This piece was written before Saturday night’s game against the Warriors. I’ve chosen to erase the game from memory, as you can’t really tell anything about a team playing without its three point guards and two best players on the second night of a back-to back. I suggest you do the same.

I’ve come to the conclusion that Mike D’Antoni hates attention. He must.

With all eyes off Lakerland after Kobe’s newest injury, the Lakers comfortably beat the far more talented Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday night. Nick Young led the squad with 25 points on only 14 shots (and even dished out a season, and quite possibly career high 4 assists). Xavier Henry filled in at point guard admirably, taking relatively good care of the ball for a 6’6” SF who likely hasn’t brought the ball up the court since high school. Pau looked springy again in the post on his way to a near-triple double. The crowd cheered approvingly all night. After the game, Coach D’Antoni was visibly pleased, even acknowledging that Swaggy P’s antics “get him going.”

For at least one night, MDA wouldn’t have to answer questions from national media. His disgruntled face would be spared from SportCenter. Instead, he was free to enjoy an upbeat locker room with relatively little interference. Because when Kobe’s not playing, people lose interest in the Lakers.

Which is more than fine for Mike D’Anotni.

You guys know the numbers already, but I’ll give you a quick refresher as to where the purple (blue) and gold stand through 27 games. This season, the Lakers are 13-14 and sit in 10th in the stacked Western Conference. If Los Angeles was lucky enough to be located somewhere east of the Mississippi River, the Lakers would be in solid playoff position at 4th in the East (I feel like every basketball piece written this season, regardless of content, isn’t complete without a jab at the historically awful East). In games were Kobe doesn’t play, the Lakers are 11-10. When you consider the personnel that MDA’s had to work with in those 24 games, that record becomes nothing short of remarkable.

Pau Gasol is a career perennial all-star and probably a future Hall of Famer who still has a tremendous basketball IQ and is a valuable locker room guy. But he’s no longer a go-to type player, a guy you can throw the ball to in the low block and know you’re getting a bucket. Thus, shifting the focus of the Kobe-less offense to Pau simply wouldn’t keep the Lakers competitive. Instead, the Kobe-less Lakers rely on a run and gun offense built heavily on three point shooting and fluid ball movement. Guys like Wesley Johnson, Shawne Williams, and Xavier Henry- who casual Laker fans didn’t know existed until this year- see significant minutes. It’s a distinctly different Lakers than any of us are used to seeing, with a new player leading the team seemingly every night. If I’d had told you before the season that a this team sans Kobe, with Pau Gasol averaging only 14 points a game, would be 11-10, you wouldn’t have believed me.

Here’s some perspective. After the Golden State Warriors signed Andre Iguodala in free agency this summer, many (including myself) foresaw them contending to come out of the West. Just look at their roster! Steph Curry gave Popovich headaches aplenty in last year’s playoffs and might be the greatest shooter in the history of the NBA. Klay Thompson’s emerged as the second half of one of the league’s most devastating backcourts and, like Curry, simply cannot be left open. Iguodala is an all-star who earned a place on the 2012 gold medal winning Team USA. Harrison Barnes could very well blossom into a bonafide star. David Lee, while overpaid and unpopular this season, is a two-time all star and Andrew Bogut is an elite defender. I could go on, but I think the moral of the story is clear: The Warriors have more talent than the Lakers do. Way more.

After Saturday’s blowout victory of the laughably shorthanded Lakers, the Warriors moved to 15-13 on the season. That means the Dubs are exactly one game better in relation to .500 than the Kobe-less Lakers are. Chew on that for a minute. A team whose top 6 contributors are an over-the-hill Pau, Jordan Hill, Nick Young, Xavier Henry, Wesley Johnson, and Steve Blake has the same record in basketball games as a team who goes with Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Barnes, Lee, and Bogut.

And for that, Mike D’Antoni deserves more than one hat tip. Every single time the Lakers notch a win against a team with far more talent, like Friday’s W, I’m genuinely surprised. But as I watch this team more and more, I’m starting to realize that that’s not the correct reaction.

Because this is what Mike D’Antoni does.

He takes teams who, on paper, look dead in the water and guides them to victories by milking his players for every ounce of production they have in their bodies. A quick peek at MDA’s tenure with the Phoenix Suns illustrates this nicely.

We all remember the seven-seconds-or-less Suns by recalling images of those hideous orange uniform and Nash’s equally hideous haircut. But what made those teams so successful was the depth of Nash’s supporting casts. In 2005-06, D’Antoni somehow got 13.3 points and 6.9 rebounds per game out of Boris Diaw- both career highs. Shawn Marion enjoyed the prime of his career playing in D’Antoni’s offense, averaging 20.1 points and 10.8 boards over a three-year stretch. Between 2005 and 2008, Leandro Barbosa was good for 15 points a game. While excellent players, neither Diaw, Marion, nor Barbosa has been able to replicate that kind of production anywhere else. In short, D’Antoni got the most out of his players in Phoenix, just as he is this season in LA.

Based on the above info, you’d think Mike D’Antoni would have earned a reputation as one of the league’s finest coaches. But this simply isn’t the case. Because when the focus of the NBAsphere shifts to D’Antoni, he crumbles.

After reveling in relative anonymity to the tune of a 253-136 record in Phoenix, D’Antoni was brought in to revive one of the league’s struggling juggernauts (sound familiar?) in the Knicks. But the personnel of that Knicks squad-especially ball-stopping Carmelo Anthony- didn’t take to the D’Antoni system, going 121-167 in 3+ years. Unable to escape the spotlight of New York, D’Antoni was fired. He failed, and did so publicly.

So, which Mike D’Antoni will we see in the remaining 55 games? Will we get the offensive mastermind who gets the most out his roster, or the quick-tempered guy who’s unable to adjust his coaching style to fit his team?

I’m afraid that with D’Antoni, as has been the case with this Laker team all season, it’s just impossible to predict.

Daniel Rapaport

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26 responses to The Curious Case of Mike D’Antoni

  1. MDA did adjust his playing style and got a decent run to finish last season. Of course, the circumstances were different then, and they didn’t seem like long term strategy.

  2. The thing this article (and everyone seems to forget) about the MDA’s time in NY was that he was hired to do a rebuild – and was saddled w a horrible team from the Isiah Thomas years and nothing to do until wait out expiring salaries etc… His gm (Donnie Walsh) even noted that MDA and him understood that his record would take a hit for this very reason but MDA liked the challenge. MDA did only have Melo for basically 1 season after he was traded for – and while they weren’t a fit together (the trade was more consumated by James Dolan wanting a superstar of Melo’s caliber more than being a good fit for the team) , that doesn’t mean that his style/coaching was crap for that time in NY. Sometimes a bad team is a bad team – regardless of who coaches. If you want to say you don’t like his system or maybe he should have adjusted more specifically to Carmelo/or personell should have been more tailored to his style of play then fine. To just simply state his record without putting it in context is unfair and annoying. W all due respect to PJ (who is a great coach, not disputing that) – its like saying his win totals are solely because of him and ignoring the fact that he had the leagues best player/s on his team at all times. Don’t see why this is such a surprise to people that MDA can actually coach – his style/personality may not suit everyone but thats no different from any other guy.

  3. From da Czar:

    “I’m afraid that with D’Antoni, as has been the case with this Lakers team all season, it’s just impossible to predict.”

    True!

    This will create interesting blog threads as posters will make sweeping claims about Lakers & MDA prospects based on a single game victory or loss.

  4. one of the league’s finest coaches? Really?

    MDA is no different than paul westphal/westhead, or don nelson. I would not want any of those guys coaching a team with a real chance at winning a title.

    MDA deserves some credit for this year – given the difference in talent (at least on paper) compared to last year. He also deserves criticism for last year as well.

    He’s been very unlucky. No doubt about that. And he does deserve credit for the job he’s done.

    I understand that there was a caveat – “Based on the above the info.” But that’s a real cop out.

    Just say you’re surprised (or you’re not surprised) and leave it at that. Let’s at least see how the whole year turns out before we start the parade.

  5. It might be good to note here Daniel that MDA, for all the flack he gets in media, moreso now that he has been coaching NY and LA as opposed to Phoenix before, is that he is a good coach but has very bad rep.

    For all the things that he’s not, MDA is a coach that brings out the best out of the worst talents. Reclamation projects are almost his thing, which makes him a really effective coach for bad players.

    If you can’t coach good players you’re bad, if you only coach good players, then you don’t really coach at all now do you?

    Jeremy Lin
    Shawne Williams
    Al Harrington
    Earl Clark
    Xavier Henry
    Nick Young

    Just a few of the other players worth mentioning. 3 out of the 6 names got really good contracts the year after, 3 of which are still undecided. All 3 that got contracts out of their emergence have seriously flanked in their current teams now, which means they’re simply “system players” or their new coach couldn’t find the magic that once was.

    There’s no Lin-sanity in Houston.

  6. There’s no Lin-sanity in Houston.
    *****

    Because of “The Beard!”

  7. “He takes teams who, on paper, look dead in the water and guides them to victories by milking his players for every ounce of production they have in their bodies.” and “Will we get the offensive mastermind who gets the most out his roster, or the quick-tempered guy who’s unable to adjust his coaching style to fit his team?”

    Take these two statements and you wouldn’t think they should be placed in the same article. If he is able to squeeze the most out of average talent, why would you talk about him being unable to adjust in the spotlight? Everywhere we hear the same refrain, “you win with talent”. Phil Jackson wouldn’t have had any way near the record he did, unless he had the talent. Perhaps Jerry Sloan is a better coach, but he didn’t have the same level of talent throughout his career.

    Now we see a coach who is able to take young players – often other people’s castoffs – and mold them into a team that presents all of them with their best career stats, yet we want to say he is a one-dimensional coach. I just don’t get it. People like Kobe, Michael, Lebron, or Carmello are harder to coach than a young newbie – I get it. But, to say MDA can’t coach is to ignore the facts.

    Most of the blog complaints come in two flavors – Kobe can’t change (he is a stubborn shooter) and MDA can only coach SSOL. YES, Kobe would rather shoot (he feels his shot has a better chance of going in under pressure – whatever you may think) and MDA would rather run a spread offense that runs at every opportunity. But this doesn’t mean neither of them can coexist or change. Kobe is one of the smartest players playing and MDA has had to deal with cheap owners (PHX), really dumb owners (NY) and now he gets a relatively new owner who is under tremendous pressure to reproduce the immediate past (Jim Buss).

    I get the criticism of different moves or situations, but the general level of hatred for all these people is just astounding. Aside from personal vendettas, I don’t think any of them have done enough to deserve the venom.

  8. It’s true that Dantoni seems to breathe life into squads of misfits. It’s fun to watch and maybe that’s what Dr. Buss saw when he endorsed his candidacy to replace Mike Brown.
    What’s mystifying still though – can anyone answer? – why he played Sacre and Kelly and Williams ahead of Kaman? (Kaman already reminded us why Kupchak picked him up w his 17-rebound night and his scintillating block on Corey Brewer.)
    Why he waited so long to promote Hill to starter?
    Why does Dantoni hate big men?
    (See Pau Gasol’s benching last year).
    That is the real mystery of Mike Dantoni.

  9. JC, all that mystery and yet he gives you results. Well, consider how much talent we don’t have right now… maybe bigs are the curse to the game of basketball?

  10. C. Hearn, doesn’t explain still. Granting Lin-sanity started while Melo was out but it also expanded to alot of games with Melo already in the lineup.

    Harden is supposedly better as a teammate and less of a ball-hog. And yet…

  11. Mike D may not be the best coach in the world, but you have to be an elite coach to get to coach for multiple NBA teams and the USA National Team. We may dislike the guy, say he is not an effective coach for this roster and not agree on his philosophy or style, but to say he is a “bad coach” or a “joke of a coach” is simply inaccurate.

    Let’s not confuse the question with whether he is a good/bad coach over whether he is the right coach for this team in the long term. These are two very different questions. I

  12. Players can have good years based on showcasing their talents for their next contract, they can also put up good numbers when no one has scouted them. NBA players are scouted for their weaknesses and strengths but that only pertains to players that are in a team’s rotation. How many games have you seen where an unexpected player gets in the game and puts up incredible numbers? It happens almost nightly, but just as soon as that player gets regular playing time, his numbers drop precipitously. Top notch players are able to play at a high level even when the opposing team knows what they will do.

    A coach can predict what games they will win and lose predicated upon consistency from their players. So far this season, the Lakers have had a different player in the lineup and lead them in scoring on most every game. The only consistent player has been Nick Young, the player that was supposed to be the least predictable out of the rotation players when the season started. While it may be entertaining to the average fan to not know who will lead the score on a nightly basis, it is not a recipe for success in the long run. If the Lakers are deciding which players to extend contracts to, then they must give these players consistent game minutes to determine whether they deserve a contract. Either the Lakers are trying to make the playoffs, or they are developing players for future rosters, and draws for free agents.

  13. Mike Brown hiring instead of Rick Adelman led to D’antoni being here.

    Adelman’s offense would have catered to the inside-out thinking. Bynum and Pau would have had more touches for sure, and even Dwight wud have been happier, but either way I think dwight wud hav left(just not Kobe friendly)

    D’antoni does wonders with athletic wing players that can run… Stoudamire happen to fit PERFECTLY with his system. And if not for The then Spur’s Horry foul on Nash, leading to ejections of players who stepped on the court, D’antoni and Nash might have won a ring together.

    I’m rooting for these players and yet root for a pingpong ball come next draft with a miraculous pick made to transition the Lakers to the post-Kobe era.

  14. MannyP: “Let’s not confuse the question with whether he is a good/bad coach over whether he is the right coach for this team in the long term. These are two very different questions.” Yes -nailed it
    So the two discussions:
    1) Good/Bad: Mike D’Antoni is an NBA coach and 4 different franchises have paid him for their head coaching services, so to say he knows nothing or is not a coach is wrong. On the other hand, existing in the league either as a player or a coach for 12 years is merely a demonstration of competency to some extent as opposed to whether that you are good by NBA standards. Clearly MD is in the middle – meaning he is a qualified coach, who has never shown the ability to take a team all the way, or to get along with super stars. He is obviously good with younger players who fit his style. Good/bad is little limiting, but he isn’t worthless and sure isn’t great.
    2) Our Coach: I was extremely vocal last year that he should not be our coach. We were told that he was “better for the roster”. This was wrong as DH was not successful in the system and ultimately left partially because of it; Pau has had well documented troubles; AJ was despondent; Kobe is not “fitting” in, and All of our big men have a hard time fitting in. This was not a good fit. I also never thought he was championship material and I still don’t. Last year we had championship aspirations and we had a roster that did not match him, so we clearly hired him for political reasons. However that was last year. This year we have no championship aspirations, and we have a dearth of talent. MD is fine, and this could be the case next year a well. The real question is whether MD is a plus or a minus in terms of finding Super Star FAs. I think he is a minus, and the Melo history, the DH history, and the Kobe fitting in issues are better evidence against than Steve Nash is in favor. So in summary:
    A) He is not “bad” but I really wouldn’t say he is “good” either – he just is.
    B) He should not have been our coach last year – period.
    C) He is fine to be our coach this year. and should finish the year.
    D) We need to evaluate what we are doing in FA to see if he should be the coach next year.
    E) With regard to triangle’s parade – strike up the band – Jim Buss wants desperately to take a victory lap, so somehow the season will be spun into a huge victory in 11th place.

    Most Laker coaches either win titles or they are fired. D’Antoni’s name is destined to be right next to Del Harris’ name in Laker history. The two guys who kept their jobs for a long time in spite of never making the Finals. I see others are picking up on the 8 year record thing. We are in year 4 with no Finals with no end in sight. No it isn’t all the coach or the FO. However it ain’t all bad luck either and saying that it is, downgrades 60 years of history, because that must have been all good luck And using the CBA as an excuse does the same thing. We were the most successful franchise in sports for over 60 years and we are not behaving that way now. Hiring a mediocre coach is OK or most teams, but not for the Lakers. At least not the pre 2011 Lakers.

  15. Why in the world is Williams starting tonight over Hill . Guy is avaraging 3 points last 6 games and made 1 three pointer. What does MD see that I don’t ?

  16. daniel: you forgot to mention he ain’t getting any younger; as in curious case of. one thing for certain: he’s one stubborn son of a gun and to me shows considerable resilence (thick, real thick skin) to his credit. the same could be said for the veterans on this team; all of which are or should be sitting next to coach d’antoni on the bench. like a virus or an infectious disease, the illnesses, injuries keep spreading. keep this up and before you know it, our D league and the lakers will be interchangeable. like a breeding ground for the eventual inevitable: tanking without really tanking. he makes it look so effortless.

    speaking of which, phoenix may appear to be effortlessly toying with our lakers tonight. let’s hope not.

    Go Lakers

  17. Daniel, exactly what are the rules that hang things up in moderation? I can understand swear words and almost-swear words, or the word ‘trade’, but sometimes it really seems arbitrary. If my way of expressing myself seems to create contradictions, then I would like to know why. Also, if there are a number of us being held up, then the moderation needs to be reviewed every couple of hours, or so.

  18. Craig,
    I don’t even know what causes a lot of the comments to be held up in moderation. So, Daniel surely won’t know. I am the person who does most of the approving, so if there’s a delay in getting things approved, you can direct those comments to me. Not to Daniel, Andre, Rey, or any of the other contributors. I can say I do try to check the site frequently, but with family, work, and other commitments, some days I don’t get to them as quickly as I’d like.

  19. Actually, Saturday’s game against the Warriors did happen and presents a blueprint for how to defend the Lakers. Expect to see more teams use full court presses to trap the ball and force turnovers. D’Antoni will have to work his magic with what is left on the roster. Over time, this will be very good experience for the players since they will have to learn to bring the ball up court and initiate the offense. Michael Cooper learned to do it, so can the current players.

  20. Getting one’s comment stuck in moderation is the site equivalent to stopping the ball in the MDA offense. It kills the flow. Yet . . . we come back, hoping and optimistic, like guys on one year deals, eager to prove our mettle. All kidding aside, Darius is awesome and we are lucky that he runs a tight ship. Otherwise FBG would be like so many other fan sites: a tiresome exercise in separating the wheat from the chaff.

  21. Baylor Fan,
    You are correct, but the funny thing is that that approach is a standard when dealing with a team without PGs and was even discussed on this site more than once.

    The problem with a group of young, energetic players is that they don’t know how to moderate their play and husband their energy for a later emergency. They play all out. That’s why Stu’s comment that Henry was playing ‘under control’ for the game was instructive to me.

    The Warriors present a particular type of problem for the Lakers that only a few clubs can implement. Their three wing players and the three on the 2nd unit are all so athletic and good shooters that offensively and defensively we get overwhelmed in waves. This compounds our youth, in that they get frustrated and cannot expand the options they have – they get tunnel vision. Only experience can teach this to our players and this is their year of experience.

  22. Don’t see why this is such a surprise to people that MDA can actually coach –

    It isn’t.

    Like I said before the Toronto game, last year showed some of MDA’s weaknesses, and this year shows some of his strengths. Last year, he was in a high-expectations situation; this year, he is in a low-expectations situation. Also, again, D’Antoni has been hired in LA and New York, had been the subject of a best-selling book, and works for Team USA. No matter how many times some paint MDA as a disrespected victim, he’s not;and to show I can disagree with my friends, no matter how many times Robert compares him to Del Harris, he isn’t.

    What Robert is correct about however is the part about FA recruitment. Given where the team is, the ability to get high-end talent in the market over the next three years will be huge. The biggest FA target the Lakers have had on the MDA/Buss watch–Dwight Howard–is gone, so Buss and MDA are 0-for-1. That is not all their fault, of course, but they and Mitch are the ones running the show. I suppose you could also count Kobe as a FA, if you like, but I wouldn’t. Buss and MDA will need to improve that recruitment percentage. Shawne Williams and Jodie Meeks can only take you so far.

    As to the Kobe/MDA fit thing, that concern has been addressed, with specifics, multiple times. Rants complaining about that concern add nothing to the discussion. If people have specific reasons that they think it will work, other than “Kobe is smart” let’s hear them.

  23. As to the moderation issue, Darius asked us to stop mentioning it, so I for one have done so (until now, but that is different). It is what it is, and Darius has explained it.

  24. I just don’t get it.

    This has been covered multiple times as well. Last year’s team was 5th in Pace, 3rd in 3PA, and 19th in 3P%, so they played MDA ball without having MDA personnel.

    He did adjust, a bit, the second half, but what mostly happened was Howard started moving better, the team’s point differential matched its record, and he started playing 7 guys since the bench was so bad. It worked enough to get the team to 8th.

  25. The mistake was the Great Dr. Jerry Buss entrusting this great organization to his son. We all want our sons to walk in our footsteps and continue our legacy. However, the daughter would have been the better choice. She gets it and understands what needs to be done. Jim Buss is making decisions based on emotion. He did not want Phil back because Phil abhors him and the power struggles between the two were well documented. Phil knew that Jim Buss making day to day decisions was “bad juju”. So, Jim decides to move faraway from Phil’s system and Legacy as he can with the crazy emotional D’Antoni hire. Doesn’t care that he has two dominant bigs and an aging superstar on the roster. Then he follows that up with another emotional decision by trading for a former great point guard in Nash. Whom I bet if you ask Jimbo he would tell you one of his favorite players ever. Which demonstrates his method of decision making…emotionally based. Not saying he didn’t think it thru some. Think about it…in getting Nash Jimbo felt that would solve the issue of the team adjusting to the offense. Which might have worked to some degree had he not invested in an player that was clearly done. Bet you the Phoenix guys were high-fiving each other under the table when Jimbo made that deal. Finally, Jimbo makes another emotional type decision in extending Kobe Bryant contract at a ridiculous salary. Really Jimbo! Just when we were thinking ok well we lost DH12 and we are stuck with this crap coach running some modified Loyola Maramount scheme we can make it to free agency and fix this fiasco. But then you eat up alot of the cap space to pay a player as great as he has been clearly is not the player he was and prolly will be even less after the serious injury. Thus limiting what you can do with Free agency…again Really Jimbo!!! I have been a Laker Man since June, 1970…seen all the greats on the wall with the exception of Mikan. The Lakers are bigger than Kobe bigger than anyone on that wall. Bigger than even the Great Jerry Buss! I love Jerry Buss never got to meet the man but I will tell you the was no better owner in sports. The league commish use to consult him….then dogged him in the end to make some also rans wanna-be contenders at the cost of one of the great historic franchises in all of sports. We will never forget your treachery Stern and you know Dr. Buss did not forgive you for your betrayal. However, if I could have talked to Dr. Buss I would have told him this… King Henry XIII and his desire for a male heir is well documented. Is it not ironic that it was his daughter Elizabeth that made England the most powerful nation on earth.