When the Lakers floundered last season, it was easy to blame Coach Mike D’Antoni.
His biggest crime was not being Phil Jackson.
The team spent most of the year pushing through injuries (Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol, Steve Blake, Jordan Hill, Antawn Jamison and Metta World Peace) and chemistry issues (Howard) -- and yet the Lakers won 28 of their final 40 games to make the playoffs.
By the time the Lakers faced the San Antonio Spurs, Kobe Bryant was out with a torn Achilles’ tendon. The postseason ended quickly with a four-game sweep by the Spurs.
Bryant is set to return Sunday night when the Lakers host the Toronto Raptors.
In Bryant’s absence, D’Antoni did a tremendous job of getting his odd mix of players to win 10 of their first 19 games.
For the Lakers, celebrating a record just one game above .500 isn’t normal, but then Bryant’s injury was an extreme circumstance.
When the season started, D’Antoni said the team had a short list of needs to be successful this season, starting with resurgent years from Nash and Gasol, plus a strong return from Bryant.
Instead Nash has missed most of the season with back trouble, and Gasol spent the first few weeks of the season getting back into shape after offseason knee procedures and more recently has been playing through a sprained ankle.
Bryant sat out past opening night, beyond Thanksgiving and into December.
And yet the Lakers stand at 10-9, which would slot the team third in the anemic Eastern Conference.
It’s far more difficult in the West, where the Lakers are in 10th place -- and yet the Pacific Division rival Clippers are only 2½ games ahead, the Golden State Warriors only up by a half.
The Lakers weren’t supposed to make the playoffs this season, according to many experts, and yet with Bryant about to make his debut, his team still has a very real chance to win the division.
D’Antoni has managed to get the most out of first-round castoffs like Wesley Johnson, Jordan Hill, Xavier Henry and Shawne Williams.
Robert Sacre, the 60th overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft, helped take it to DeMarcus Cousins, fifth overall pick in 2010, in a 106-100 win over the Sacramento Kings on Friday night.
Blake was the hero with a game-winning shot over Howard and the Houston Rockets.
Nick Young took a game-saving charge against the Pistons in Detroit.
Jordan Farmar, Henry and Hill helped take out the Clippers on opening night.
Who exactly Bryant will be this season, post-Achilles’ tendon tear, remains to be seen.
Integrating the All-Star guard into the lineup won’t be seamless, but D’Antoni deserves credit for what he’s already accomplished this season with a rag-tag lot that never seems to quit.
D’Antoni is not Jackson, but then General Manager Mitch Kupchak isn’t Jerry West. Kupchak, though, has managed to build a reputation as one of the best in the business.
The Lakers have a long road ahead but the chemistry is strong, the team plays hard and D’Antoni has shown that he deserves serious consideration as a coach capable of guiding a team in transition.