Archives For Mike D’Antoni

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.

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.

The playoffs are underway and that means it is a great time to be a basketball fan. No, our Lakers aren’t in the second season but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy good basketball being played. I tried to catch as much hoops as I could over the weekend and I was pretty impressed with what I saw from everyone on the court (save the Pacers and the referees).

The start of the second season doesn’t just bring the on court stylings of the worlds best players, however. It also brings off court moves from the teams who were not good enough to qualify for extended seasons. In other words, coaching changes are afoot across the league with three head men leaving their posts today.

In Minnesota, Rick Adelman stepped down from his position, retiring after a fine career that saw him reach high levels of success at nearly every spot. As coach of the Blazers he reached two NBA Finals and was a major thorn in the side of the Lakers in the late 80’s and early 90’s. A decade later he helped turn around a terrible Kings franchise and turned them into real title contenders, pushing the Shaq/Kobe Lakers as hard as anyone in the playoffs in the process. He then moved onto Houston where he coached Yao, McGrady, and our old friend Ron Artest to results severely impacted by injuries to his stars.

His latest run with the Wolves was unspectacular in many ways — he failed to reach the post season a single time — but that should not diminish what he accomplished in previous stops. Adelman was a great coach who just so happened to have his best teams at the same times when the Showtime Lakers, Bad Boy Pistons, Jordan Bulls, and Shaq/Kobe Lakers were also at their best. Sometimes bad timing trumps ability.

While Adelman stepped away under his own power, the other two vacancies were not choices made by the coaches. In New York and Utah respectively, Mike Woodson and Ty Corbin both received their walking papers after poor seasons.

Woodson, only a year removed from a 50 win season saw a major regression from his Knicks this season. Poor defense, an offensive strategy that diverted from what worked last season, and injuries derailed his team’s season. And while the latter can’t be blamed on him, the former two certainly can be. Add in Phil Jackson coming in as the top basketball decision maker and it was only a matter of time before Woodson was shown the door in favor of a coach that fits what he wants to do (i.e. run the Triangle).

As for the Jazz, they let go of Corbin after 3 seasons of “rebuilding” that has not produced any tangible results. After trading Deron Williams, the Jazz have been one of the worst teams in the league, drafting in the lottery each season but not developing that talent into the types of high end contributors that change a team’s fortunes from cellar dweller to playoff team. Some of that must be placed at the feet of Corbin, a coach who hasn’t deployed rotations in a way that seem to make sense often enough while also not being creative enough on both sides of the ball schematically to support those decisions. Soon it will be someone else’s turn to try and optimize that talent and grow it in a way that returns the Jazz to the days they saw under Jerry Sloan. That is a tall task, of course, and following in a legend coach’s footsteps is never easy. Maybe the next coach will have enough distance from those days to escape that shadow.

As for the Lakers, there is no news on Mike D’Antoni’s status and there likely won’t be any coming soon. Coming out of the team’s exit interviews last week, the only definitive statements made from either Mitch Kupchak or D’Antoni was that no decision would happen quickly and that the coach is under contract for at least one more season (the Lakers have a team option for the coach’s 4th season). Purposely vague, those statements shed zero light on the situation and don’t even give a hint as to what the organization is thinking.

I, for one, am okay with this for now. Unlike what occurred with Jazz, for example, the Lakers haven’t had a slew of high picks go underdeveloped or underused. And unlike in NY, the Lakers have been brutalized by injuries to the point that it’s difficult seeing how coaching to a different style would have made a huge difference in their win/loss record (though, to be fair, the Knicks have also dealt with injuries — just not to the level the Lakers have).

So, we wait. The front office is preaching patience and I think that has as much to do with them asking for fans understanding that there is a rebuild (or a drastic retooling) upon us, but also because they will simply take their time to make a decision. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, even though it’s a perfectly reasonable argument that the team should know what it has in this coach at this point. Yes, the injuries matter and so do a slew of other factors, but they understand his philosophy and tendencies by now. Weighing those things against each other is worth exploring, but it should not take forever. I would imagine that at some point in the next two to three weeks we will know for sure what’s what.

In the meantime, watch some playoff hoops. The games are good, even if they do serve as a daily reminder that the Lakers need to get much better.

With only 15 games left in this forgettable campaign — or maybe it is a memorable one for all the wrong reasons — the shift in focus from this season to next is basically complete. Wins and losses this year matter more from the perspective of how they impact lottery odds and draft position than anything else.

With that, the questions that are being asked now relate to prospect watching and the NCAA tournament, who the team should draft should players X/Y/Z be available, what free agents the Lakers should chase, and whether or not Mike D’Antoni should be retained. Nearly everyone has strong opinions on these questions (especially the last one) and these have become the major talking points in this final month of the season.

I would argue, however, that the biggest question isn’t any of those listed above, but a more foundational one: whoever coaches the team next year, will he be flexible enough to adapt his philosophy to the roster he has at his disposal?

If Mike D’Antoni is that man, I think it is very much fair to doubt that this will be the case.

Whatever you think of D’Antoni, it cannot be argued that last season he showed a fair amount of flexibility in what offense he ran in attempting to maximize his roster. No, Pau Gasol wasn’t optimized, but at least he played next to Dwight Howard often. He was also utilized as a decision maker in the team’s HORNS sets, playing a fair amount at the elbows with the ball in his hands.

Beyond Gasol, the Lakers’ offense also featured a fair amount of direct post ups for Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant. Both preferred to work from the post and both got opportunities to do so — even if both would likely say they wanted more of those chances. Both also got to work in isolation more than a typical D’Antoni offense would allow. Go back and watch the tape and you will find many times where Kobe and Dwight got the ball in the mid post (or further), had teammates clear a side, and then got a chance to work one-on-one against their defender. These are the types of actions both players have utilized most of their careers and D’Antoni did a decent job of accommodating them last season — something I don’t think he got enough credit for.

This year, however, those adjustments have not been present. Gasol is better utilized this season than last, but has been used more as the lone big man on the floor in an offense that resembles what D’Antoni would traditionally run. The HORNS sets that were so prevalent last year have all but vanished and have been replaced almost entirely by sets predicated on pick and rolls or ball reversals through the big men at the top of the key.

This style has also led to an abandonment of nearly all lineups that feature two traditional big men, especially as the season has progressed. This has translated to D’Antoni swapping out Hill and Kaman in favor of Shawne Williams, Ryan Kelly and Wes Johnson as the primary frontcourt partners for Pau. And while all three of the latter players have their strengths (with Kelly projecting well as a nice offensive player as a stretch big man), I don’t think it can be argued who the more effective players are at this stage of their respective careers.

The counter to this is that lineup data shows what groups have been more effective this season and an examination of these groups point to the more successful lineups having guys like Williams, Kelly, and Johnson playing the PF. However, when adjustments to playing style are not necessarily made and there is an emphasis on pushing the pace and taking shots early in the clock (the Lakers play at the 2nd fastest pace this year), I would argue you are probably not going to get the most out of a lineup that features two of the Pau/Kaman/Hill trio on the floor together.

Ultimately, maybe D’Antoni didn’t see enough of a talent disparity between the bigs he chose to play versus the ones he did not to make the types of adjustments he did the year before. It’s not like Hill and Kaman are Dwight Howard and necessarily deserve to be catered to. It probably also helped that Kobe wasn’t on the floor to dictate more of how the offense was deployed — remember, he was a major beneficiary of the teams HORNS sets last year. In the end, though, what D’Antoni showed this year was that his marriage to his system mattered more than making adjustments to maximize the likes of Hill or Kaman.

This was his right, of course. He is the head coach. And I have long argued that if you’re going to be held accountable for the results the team produces, you might as well go about achieving those results in whatever manner you see fit. That said, when heading into the next season the Lakers must ask themselves if this year’s inflexibility in terms of style of play and in lineup deployment will carry over into future seasons. If that answer is “yes”, the answer to whether this coach stays on may be the opposite.

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.