We may never know what went on behind the scenes that led to Mike D’Antoni stepping down as Lakers’ head coach on Wednesday night. Was it really about the team standing firm on not picking up his 4th year team option? Was the team going to let him go and rather than suffer the indignity of being fired he stepped down? Either scenario, to be honest, is believable. Especially after a report that the team agreed to pay him “more than half of the $4 million he was owed next season” upon him stepping down. Again, though, we will likely never know how it all went down.
What we do know is that the Lakers are now without a head coach and will be on the market for a new one.
That sound you hear is a cavalcade of Lakers’ fans celebrating like they just won their 17th championship. D’Antoni being gone is a dream come true. Just ask Magic Johnson. But, just because people wanted it so, doesn’t mean the only fallout is positive. Key questions also emerge. The most obvious is, of course, who will step in and be the next head man?
There will not be a lack of interested parties, that’s for sure. One report already has former Grizzlies’ coach Lionel Hollins interested in the position. Another says Byron Scott would like to be considered. In the coming days and weeks, I expect other names to surface who will be more than happy to take heaps of that Time Warner cash off the Lakers’ hands in bi-weekly installments. Coaching the Lakers may have lost some of its luster with the way the past couple of seasons have played out, but they are still the Lakers. That cachet still exists. Add in that they are more than happy to compensate the people who help them win and it will be a position people still want.
Just because there will be candidates, however, does not guarantee success; does not guarantee things will suddenly improve. D’Antoni had his faults and despite all that was done unto him through injuries and a major free agency defection he could have been better in several measurable ways. These things aren’t arguable. But the next guy in line will still have to deal with an uncertain roster, a potentially high draft pick to integrate into a team with Kobe Bryant wanting to win now, and the high expectations of a fan base who saw the person he’s replacing as a key culprit in the team’s downfall. When you sign on to coach the Lakers, you are signing on to win regardless of circumstances (at least in the eyes of many). In other words, no pressure big guy.
And therein lies the rub. It is overly simplistic to say just because D’Antoni is gone the team will be better off. Many thought that same thing with Mike Brown being handed his papers and look where the team is now. Coming off their worst season since moving to Los Angeles isn’t a particularly high bar to clear, but that’s not really the bar anyway. Fans, and to a certain extent the organization itself, will want the type of success the franchise has built its reputation on. And they will want it quickly. The coach will be a major part of achieving that success (along with the roster he is handed). Whoever takes over will have that honeymoon period of being “not Mike D’Antoni” and with no Phil Jackson to muddy the perception of the hire that period should have some staying power in the short term. There will even be some fans more planted in reality who understand the rigors of a multi-year retool and keep expectations in check.
But that won’t be everyone. We know that for sure.
In a way, then, what the Lakers have done (or what D’Antoni has done for them) is the easy part. The unpopular guy is gone, banished to never be spoken of again. The hard part, though, remains. The right hire must combine with the right draft pick and the right free agency signings and the right amount of injury luck to make everything right again. If that sounds like a lot of “rights”, you’re, well, right. A lot of things will need to go the Lakers’ way for them to get back to the position they are accustomed to being in. And while D’Antoni leaving may distract from this fact, that would have been true with him in tow, arms crossed and feet stomping on the Lakers’ sideline for another season.
Him being gone is just another unknown to navigate in a field that already had plenty of them.
That said, uncertainty and hope can be first cousins in the family of forward motion. The Lakers are starting anew and with that comes excitement. And after the last several seasons, we could certainly use some more of that around here. So, in many ways, celebrations are in order. At least until the next head coach loses three in a row.