Lakers season wrap: Coach Mike D’Antoni worthy of blame or credit?
In a year defined by injury, Coach Mike D’Antoni became a lightning rod for criticism, despite leading the Lakers (45-37) team to a 28-12, seventh-place finish.
In the closing moments of the Lakers’ sweep by the San Antonio Spurs, the familiar chant of “We want Phil” echoed through Staples Center. It would appear many fans thought D’Antoni had everything to do with what went wrong this past season -- and nothing to do with the team’s 70% winning-percentage over nearly half the season.
When D’Antoni took over for Mike Brown and Bernie Bickerstaff, he was short Steve Nash (leg) and Steve Blake (abdominal strain). When he finished the season, he was forced to start a D-League backcourt of Andrew Goudelock and Darius Morris against the Spurs, with predictable results, because Kobe Bryant, Nash, Blake, Metta World Peace and Jodie Meeks were sidelined with injuries.
Throughout the season, the team saw players sit about 175 games with Pau Gasol out 33, Jordan Hill 53, Howard six, Nash 32, Blake 37, World Peace seven and Bryant four.
D’Antoni played Bryant heavy, heavy minutes leading up to his Achilles’ tendon tear, but Bryant took full responsibility. His specific injury is not considered to be caused by repetitive stress.
“Mike’s really going to tell me when to go in and out of the game?” scoffed Bryant after the season. “You guys can’t really ride Mike too hard about this. Magic [Johnson] used to check himself into games too. [Michael Jordan] used to check into games too and I’m just following their example. I used to do the same things with Phil [Jackson].”
Climbing out of Jackson’s shadow proved impossible for D’Antoni. The team’s flirtation with Jackson and apparent snubbing of him for D’Antoni turned public opinion against D’Antoni before the Lakers played a game with him as coach.
D’Antoni had a very specific vision but the Lakers struggled to play without Nash, who was out until late December. When Nash returned, the results weren’t much better.
A team meeting after a Jan. 23 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies was the turning point as the players asked D’Antoni to let them play at a slower pace.
The Lakers coach consented, as long as the individual players would collectively agree to give a greater effort on the defensive end, especially in transition.
A peace was made and the Lakers went on to win 28 of their final 40, despite playing 20 games without Gasol.
Gasol was rankled throughout the season with an uncomfortable role in the offense, playing away from the basket to make room for Howard in the paint. D’Antoni benched Gasol for a stretch, unsure Howard and Gasol could play together.
By the end of the season, once Gasol was back from a six-week absence because of a foot injury, a chemistry finally began to develop between the two Lakers big men.
How much of the turnaround should be credited to D’Antoni? He adjusted his vision to his roster, kept the team playing despite falling eight games below .500 -- all while facing multiple injuries.
Was it a case of the players taking over and coaching themselves? It’s a common question from fans but an unrealistic one -- although the players certainly had a say in changing the style of play.
When the Lakers needed two final wins, after Bryant was out for the season, the team beat both the Houston Rockets and Spurs. Bryant was the driving force for the Lakers’ second-half charge but what coach is better than the players on the floor?
Did D’Antoni, who had 32 games of confusion, injuries and inconsistent play, prove himself over the final 40 that he’s the right guy for the job? Did he take too long to adjust to the roster he had?
What’s the appropriate number of games for a coach to come in without training camp, fresh off of his own knee surgery, with a broken-down, injured roster?
Public perception might suggest D’Antoni be defined by his failure to immediately get results with the Lakers, along with his shaky track record in New York as coach of the Knicks.
A more-reasoned view would give him some of the credit for the team’s turnaround. At worst, D’Antoni should get an incomplete mark for a strange, strange season.
He may be a championship-level coach but to date he’s not since the closest he’s come to the NBA Finals is making two Western Conference championship series with the Nash-led Phoenix Suns.
General Manager Mitch Kupchak has made it clear the team has every intention of keeping D’Antoni next season. Bryant’s status is a question mark with the Achilles’ tendon injury. Howard, a free agent, has yet to reveal his intentions.
Given the backlash the team received for not hiring Jackson in the first place, they’re stuck with D’Antoni until Jackson takes a position with another team, likely in basketball operations. If they fired D’Antoni and didn’t hire Jackson any sooner, they’d be right back in the same situation with the next coach.
Of course, if they changed course and brought Jackson back, that’d be an entirely different story, but the Lakers have apparently moved on.
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