Mike D’Antoni is unlikely to receive any votes for NBA coach of the year, but he was part of a stunning turnaround that saw the Lakers climb from a record of 17-25 and 12th place in the Western Conference to finish at 45-37 and seventh.
Since the team’s crucial meeting to clear the air after a Jan. 23 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, the Lakers won 28 of 40 games. That’s a 70% winning percentage through that stretch -- a 57-win pace over a full 82-game schedule.
“We never stopped playing,” center Dwight Howard said after the Lakers clinched the seventh seed in the conference playoffs. “We’re playing great defense and trusting each other.”
How much credit should go to the coach? How much should go to the players?
D’Antoni joined the Lakers after Mike Brown was fired following a 1-4 start. Interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff (4-1) did well over one of lightest stretches in the schedule. D’Antoni (40-32) took over just in time for the Lakers to play four games in five nights with point guards Steve Nash and Steve Blake sidelined with significant injuries.
The Lakers dealt with injuries all season and while the notion of “next man up” is a nice sound bite, Chris Duhon and Darius Morris aren’t going to play like battle-tested veterans Nash and Blake.
The Oklahoma City Thunder (60-22) had a great season. Is Scott Brooks a genius coach or did it have more to do with his five starters missing a combined total of 14 games?
Lionel Hollins, coach of the Memphis Grizzlies (56-26), saw his starters miss 15 total games. Kevin McHale, with the Houston Rockets (45-37), had his starters sit a combined 17
The Lakers saw their starters sit for a combined 82 games, including 33 from Pau Gasol and 32 from Nash while Howard played the first half of the season at less than full strength after recovering from back surgery.
In two additional games, Nash left at halftime -- one with a broken leg. Another he lasted only two minutes before asking out with hip and hamstring soreness. Howard also left a pair of games early with shoulder problems (torn labrum).
The Clippers lost a comparable number of games among their starting five (78), but 60 of them involved Chauncey Billups. The team was well aware of Billups’ injury before the season and put together a deep roster to compensate for his potential loss.
While the Clippers’ strength is depth, the Lakers are top-heavy with talent -- built around four stars with a combination of over-30 veterans (Antawn Jamison, Metta World Peace, etc.) and younger, relatively inexperienced players (Earl Clark, Jodie Meeks, Morris, etc.).
Whatever the depth the Lakers had on paper, injuries took their toll. The Lakers lost Blake for 37 games, Jordan Hill for 53 games, World Peace for seven, Howard for six and Kobe Bryant for four, not to mention the postseason.
The top seven Miami Heat players sat for a combined 52 games, some voluntarily after they clinched the top seeding in the Eastern Conference.
The San Antonio Spurs lost about 85 games among their top seven.
The Lakers’ top seven lost 172 games and yet the team still finished the season winning 70% of its final 40 games.
“Since All-Star break, we just fought,” Howard said. “Our coach said if we go 20-8, we’ll make the playoffs. [We went] 20-8.”
There’s a notion that the Lakers won in spite of their coach, but if the players get all the credit they in turn should get all the blame.
If the answer for their second-half success is that Howard returned to health, then the reason they weren’t very good in the first half is because Howard was still recovering from surgery.
The All-Star center wasn’t expected to start playing for the Lakers until December or even January -- instead he was ready for the home opener in November. Howard acknowledged months into the season that he would find himself fatigued after playing only 10 minutes. Before his injury he could play 40 minutes without pause.
D’Antoni joined the Lakers with some preconceived notions about how he would run the team. Everyone on the roster had to compromise to find a way out of the hole they were in.
“We have to believe. He’s our coach. We have to listen to everything he says,” Howard said. “Sometimes we may not like it, but we have to sell out to whatever he’s telling us to do. That’s the only way we’re going to make it.”
Despite falling to 12th place in the West, the Lakers did make it. Seventh place isn’t where the team expected to be. This is a proud franchise that expects to win titles and finish at the top of the conference.
The defining characteristic for the Lakers’ season will be injuries, culminating in Bryant limping to the free-throw line with a torn left Achilles’ tendon to score his final two points of the season, helping the Lakers beat the Golden State Warriors. That win gave the Lakers a prayer in the playoffs against the San Antonio Spurs, even if it may be a slim one.
D’Antoni didn’t fire Mike Brown. He didn’t break Nash’s leg. He might have overworked Bryant, but the prevalent take from the medical community is that the All-Star guard’s Achilles’ tendon tear was not brought on by excessive playing time.
One thing D’Antoni is not is the legendary Phil Jackson, who casts a long, long shadow.
It’s difficult to tell if D’Antoni is the right coach for the Lakers. That’s something time will eventually tell.
This season he was given a stacked but flawed deck, yet he still made it to the final table of 16. It hasn’t been pretty but they are here.
The Lakers start with a clean slate, albeit with no Bryant. They start their postseason journey on Sunday against the San Antonio Spurs.