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. HeĀ 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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