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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.

It looks like the Los Angeles Lakers will be looking for a new head coach for the next season. Per Ramona Shelburne of ESPN…

For days, D’Antoni wanted his option year exercised by the team. The Lakers continuously did not budge and, as a result, he has resigned from his position.

D’Antoni came in as the Laker head coach (instead of Phil Jackson as we all know by now) after Mike Brown was fired five games into the 2012-13 season. He has clashed with many players on the team, including Dwight Howard (who has since departed to become a Houston Rocket) and Pau Gasol. I did feel he was dealt a bad hand as the Lakers in the last couple of years have been riddled with injuries. But I also feel he didn’t make the best of what he had as guys like Jordan Hill and Chris Kaman got inconsistent playing time (basically 40 minutes in one game and DNP the next).

Now the Lakers are really going to get a fresh start. The only signed Lakers this coming season are Kobe Bryant, Robert Sacre, and Steve Nash.

D’Antoni finished with a 67-87 (.435) record with the Lakers. He also had stints with the Nuggets, Suns, and the Knicks.

I wouldn’t blame you if you missed the news or, if you did hear it, were immediately distracted by the news the Clippers’ owner had allegedly made another string of racially and ethnically insensitive statements that could land him in some trouble. I won’t rehash, or get into, those comments in this space. If you’re looking for reflections on the topic, you can read here or here for pieces I found thought provoking.

In any event, the Lakers are, reportedly, set on bringing Mike D’Antoni back to coach another year. This comes from the OC Register’s Mark Heisler:

After 10 days of soul searching, the key figures in Lakers management are agreed on bringing back D’Antoni for a third season as coach, a source with knowledge of the deliberations told the Register…

The Lakers have yet to inform D’Antoni of anything, but they intend to keep him, absolving him of blame for the 27-55 finish without Bryant and Steve Nash for 141 of a possible 162 games.

That second part about not yet informing the coach seems to be an important one. As was noted on twitter multiple times by other beat writers who cover the team (Mark Medina and Kevin Ding just to name a couple), the Lakers have yet to have a formal sit down with D’Antoni following the team’s exit interviews and may not do so for another week (or longer). So, while I am not outright doubting Heisler’s initial report, I tend to believe that this is not as done a deal as he might imply. (As an aside, that is not a shot at Heisler who I respect as a writer and someone who has long been on the Lakers’ beat.)

Especially when you consider that, within hours of that report surfacing, both Ramona Shelburne of ESPN Los Angeles and Sam Amick of USA Today reported that D’Antoni would like the Lakers to pick up his fourth year option this summer. From Amick:

It wasn’t just about whether they wanted him back, but whether he wanted to be there for the final seasons of the three-year deal worth approximately $12 million that includes an option in the fourth year. The crucial kicker, both literally and figuratively, is the option which is currently a key factor in whether he’ll return.

According to a person with knowledge of the situation, D’Antoni is has some concerns about returning as a lame-duck coach and is pushing for the 2015-16 option to be picked up. The person spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because of the private nature of the discussions.

It’s unclear whether D’Antoni will return if the Lakers maintain their current stance that they don’t plan on picking up the option, but the fact that he would like that sort of security should surprise no one who has watched these last two seasons unfold.

Amick paints a different picture here that should not be ignored. While it is more than fair to say Mike D’Antoni is not in a position to make any “demands”, it is also not difficult to understand his position.

Surely the financial security matters — if there is any inkling the team may fire him either in-season or next summer (and there is), angling for that year’s salary is smart — but the concept of him wanting the locker room authority that comes with that extra security is also real. It’s much easier to tune out a lame duck coach than it is someone who will, theoretically, be around for at least another season. It also is fair to acknowledge that in a summer where free agency will be a major part of how the roster is constructed, having your coach be (again, theoretically) locked in to more than one season is also helpful (if said player is signing on to play for this specific coach).

If D’Antoni is saying he wants the security and influence that comes with the team wanting him back for another season — and he seems to be — I don’t blame him. It is what anyone would want in his position. The question, however, is are the Lakers going to give it to him? The second question is how much does it matter?

We don’t yet know how serious the Lakers are, if at all, about bringing D’Antoni back. They have never been fond of paying people to go away and cutting D’Antoni loose at this stage, with another nice piece of change owed to him, would be exactly that. We also do not know how much that extra year of security matters to this coach. Is what we are seeing going to devolve into a game of chicken between the Lakers and D’Antoni? If so, who will blink first?

In an ideal world both sides would simply come to an agreement about what is going to be best for this team next season and beyond. While some don’t believe this to be true, a roster full of players who fit D’Antoni’s system and have the ability to play the style he wants can be very successful in the NBA. If those players are also strong individual defenders they can form the base of a team defense that performs well. On the other hand, a team built around Kobe and/or other post up threats who enjoy success playing in isolation and in drawing double teams near the paint and kicking out to shooters/slashers, both sides could also agree that it is better to part ways.

Which path ends up being the one the team goes down remains to be seen, but whichever direction they go here is hoping we know within the next couple of weeks.

ESPN Los Angeles’ Dave McMenamin first tweeted out the news that has seemed growingly inevitable as the season wears on- more likely than not, Steve Nash has played his last game this season.

There’s no other way to describe this news other than plain old sad. Nash has worked his tail off to get back to form this season and make due on that increasingly unexplainable contract that pays him upwards of $9 million per season. But when you’re body simply won’t cooperate, there’s nothing you can do.

I was one of the millions of Laker fans who was ecstatic when the news broke on July 4th, 2012 that the team had acquired the two-time MVP. Never in a million years did I expect Nash to function more as a cap-clogger than anything productive on the floor. It’s now a legitimate possibility that the Lakers use the stretch provision on Nash, would could end the future hall-of famers career. By exercising this provision, the Lakers would release Nash and his cap figure would be spread across three years, allowing the Lakers added flexibility to chase free agents.

If Nash has indeed played his last game in purple and gold, his final game tally in two years would be 60. Not what the Lakers had in mind.

Kobe’s in a similar position in the sense of not knowing whether he’ll suit up for another game this year. He’s still weeks away from an evaluation, and if he’s cleared to play then, he’d likely have to have at least a bit of practice time to get him back into game shape. And judging from the 4 games he played in his return from the achilles injury, he wouldn’t be his usual self- at least not at first- when he does make it back onto the court.

All of this injury news bodes well for those Laker fans aboard Team Tank. The Lakers enjoyed probably their best win of the season last night in snapping Portland’s five-game win streak. In Portland. The win was so surprising that it prompted this headline from the LA Times: “Lakers beat Trail Blazers…in Portland…really!” But despite this, and the win over Sacramento where the Lakers caught fiiiiire from three, the upcoming schedule remains brutal- six out of the next eight games are against teams above .500, including two each against the Thunder and Spurs (who are absolutely incredible. Nothing less. Each and every year I count them out, figuring Father Time will eventually prevail. Those who believe the age-old adage that Father Time is undefeated doesn’t know that Gregg Popovich exists. Okay, Spurs rant over).

Without Kobe and Nash for the foreseeable future, the Lakers should return to their losing ways in the next couple weeks. Of the remaining 22 games, 15 come against teams above .500. If you’re rooting for losses, things are working out quite nicely for you- the Lakers’ remaining schedule is brutal and they will be without the production of both Kobe and Nash, however limited that production might be, when they go toe-to-toe with these superior teams.

The news hit right before game time — Steve Blake was actually in his warm-ups and was ready to play against the Rockets — but in an instant the third longest tenured Laker (behind Kobe and Pau) was a Laker no more. Blake was shipped off to the Warriors in a 2-for-1 trade that netted the team young swingmen MarShon Brooks and Kent Bazemore.

The mechanics of the deal aren’t as straight forward as you’d think, but Amin Elhassan of ESPN summed up the deal as three separate trades:

  1. Steve Blake traded to the Warriors into a Traded Player Exception (TPE)
  2. MarShon Brooks traded to the Lakers into a TPE
  3. Kent Bazemore traded to the Lakers into a minimum salary exception

Those are the mechanics, the business side of this. Of course, that’s not the only part of a deal like this.

I, for one, will miss Steve Blake a great deal. Others may not feel this way and it is somewhat understandable when you consider the full picture of his time as a Laker. Blake was brought in as a $4 million/year point guard who was supposed to fit into the template as an ideal Triangle point guard. He had a reputation as a shooter, but not necessarily a playmaker and was supposed to thrive as an off-ball worker in Phil Jackson’s scheme. It didn’t play out that way, however. Blake had his moments under Phil, but never really flashed the consistency or high level three point shooting the team was hoping to get. That, combined with his salary, had fans turning on him early in his tenure and never really coming around on him as a player with value.

Which is a shame. Because while Blake’s salary should be a factor in how he’s viewed as a performer, what I saw when he played was someone who always gave his all while on the floor, always talked about the success of the team as his number one priority, and always carried a chip on his shoulder with an extra level of competitiveness that isn’t always seen in players — even at this level. He never wilted from a big moment, never blamed a teammate when something went wrong, and never did anything less than he could to try and help the team win. If that meant playing out of position at shooting guard, he’d do it. If it meant coming off the bench or having his minutes cut, he’d accept that too. Blake is the type of teammate everyone respects and the type of player who coaches love to have on their side.

The hardest part about trading Blake now is that he had finally come into his own as a contributor in a scheme that seemed to suit his skills best. Unlike the off-ball work he was asked to do under Phil Jackson and Mike Brown, Blake had the ball in his hands under Mike D’Antoni and was showing what he could do with the added responsibility. He proved he could make plays for his teammates in both the half court and when running the fast break. He also showed that he really could shoot well enough to be a long range threat. Blake had his best games under this head coach. Now he will try to do the same for Mark Jackson out in Oakland.

I wish him nothing but the best moving forward.

And speaking of moving forward, the players the Lakers got in this deal fit the profile of players they’ve been chasing for the past year. Brooks isn’t a former lottery pick, but he’s a former first round pick who has flashed an ability to score the ball well. His rookie season saw him score over 12 points a game while playing about 29 minutes per night. Since that point, however, he’s seen his minutes and production dip. In his 2nd season with the Nets he only played 12.5 minutes per night and in stints with the Celtics and Warriors this year he’s only appeared in 17 total games. Brooks’ issues seem to lie most with his shot selection and his ability to play NBA level defense. The latter is an issue most young players have, but that doesn’t alleviate the concern. The former is an issue that can also be aided with coaching, but that doesn’t mean it actually will be. Some players are what they are and never really grow out of the habits that they’ve had most of their basketball playing lives.

Whether Brooks is one of those players or not remains to be seen. But know that the Lakers acquired him to get a long look at whether he is redeemable as a player and whether the promise he showed as a rookie can be harnessed again. Brooks, after all, is only 25 and is only in his 3rd year. He is entering his prime and whatever skill he has is about to be combined with what should be his peak physical years. The Lakers, like they did with Xavier Henry and Wes Johnson and Kendall Marshall, are hoping he can show why he was a first round pick in the first place and do it under their watch.

As for Bazemore, he’s had a winding road to the NBA, going undrafted and then having spent time in the D-league trying to round his game into form. He’s probably best known for his legendary sideline celebrations, but he’s also been a summer league demon and flashed an ability to use his athleticism and physical gifts to look like a capable a pro. The issue is, however, that he hasn’t shown the skill level to match his physical tools and that has left him out of the Warriors’ rotation the past two seasons. This past summer they experimented with him as a point guard and tried to rework his jumper to get him to be a compliment to Steph Curry, allowing Steph to play off the ball more offensively and guard the lesser of the two guards defensively. That, though, never materialized and now the Warriors have turned to Steve Blake to do that job (after also failing with Toney Douglass and, to a lesser extent, Jordan Crawford).

If Bazemore is really going to stick in this league it will have to be as a “three and D” perimeter player in the half court and a guy who is opportunistic and a strong finisher in the open court. His defensive potential is enormous as he has great length and enough foot speed to guard three positions. That, like Brooks’ offensive talent, must be harnessed, though, if he is to become a rotation player in this league. Just as his offense will need to be at least replacement level. It’s one thing to have a somewhat broken jumper if you play Tony Allen level defense — but even that is getting harder to do as spacing has become so crucial in the league — but Bazemore is nowhere near that level now. So he must refine his offensive game so he can be a somewhat capable half court player. Because if he doesn’t, he’ll find himself sitting on the bench a lot in Los Angeles, just as he did in Oakland.

The Lakers will give him his shot, though. And he has some potential to make a wise man out of a gambler.

All in all, then, what these trades do is signal the continued transition of this team, in this season. Trading Blake means salary savings and a peek at two young players who have some promise. It maintains financial flexibility moving forward and, at least in the short term, actually adds healthy players to the rotation for coaches to evaluate. I can’t say from a management perspective I am mad at this approach. It is hard to see a player you like leave, however. And with the trade deadline nearly here, I don’t think it will be the last time I say that today.