Los Angeles Lakers: How Much Credit Does Mike D’Antoni Deserve?

Mike D'Antoni

Mike D’Antoni has never been able to duplicate the success he enjoyed with the Phoenix Suns in subsequent coaching stops with the New York Knicks and, currently, the Los Angeles Lakers. D’Antoni has shown himself to be quite inflexible in adapting his system to changing personnel. (Photo by Matt Hickey/Flickr.com)

The Los Angeles Lakers have somehow clawed their way back into the NBA playoffs, despite that awful start to the season. The question is how much credit does coach Mike D’Antoni deserve for the resurgence?

With such a star-studded, yet underperforming cast, D’Antoni found the shot at glory all too enticing and hopped on the three-year, $12 million offer. Little did he know the role involved more drama than a Hollywood blockbuster, as the injuries and egos hit the Lakers like a ton of bricks.

Newly acquired superstar point guard, Steve Nash, went down just 16 minutes into his second game as a Laker, missing large chunks of the season. Pau Gasol and the already thin bench followed, falling like flies as L.A. plummeted to a sub-.500 record.

Then the post-All-Star weekend period came and in traditional L.A. Lakers fashion, they kicked it up a gear. Thanks to some improved play from Dwight Howard and Gasol they won 20 of their remaining 28 games. Obviously D’Antoni didn’t get much love even though he did his best to adjust after a 17-25 start.

I’m not D’Antoni’s biggest fan but I do sympathize with him.

Being a coach of the Los Angeles Lakers is already difficult enough. The cameras and the spotlight are always on you. The fans expect championship contention year after year at the least and you have to compete with Kobe Bryant as the true leader of the team.

When the Mamba’s season was ended by an Achilles’ tendon tear, many were out for D’Antoni’s head, claiming that Kobe was overworked in his 17th NBA season. He probably was fatigued, but the truth is if you’re going with that story, then Bryant is the one to blame.

The 34-year-old racked up seven straight games with at least 40 minutes leading up to the injury. That’s because he was determined to get his team to the NBA playoffs as he promised and Bryant has been known to refuse to come out of games at times, as he often did this season.

Nonetheless, D’Antoni is the head coach and as such he should be able to control his players, otherwise his authority will be undermined. Though he didn’t really do himself any favors after labeling Bryant as just “a fan” following Bryant’s well-documented running commentary on Twitter of the Lakers’ Game 1 loss to the San Antonio Spurs.

The only person to ever manage to truly run this storied franchise the way he wanted (kind of) since the turn of the century has been Phil Jackson and even he had a love-hate relationship with his superstar. Remember Jackson’s book “The Last Season” in which he teed off on Bryant?

I’m not saying Kobe Bryant is some sort of monster who is uncoachable, but you’d rather have him on your side rather than against you.

Speaking of Jackson, D’Antoni hasn’t just been competing with the opposing coaches and players, he’s been competing with the Zen Master, too.

The Lakers had the chance to bring back Jackson after prematurely ending Mike Brown’s tenure after just five games with the new superstars in town. That is until the ego of the less than popular now team owner Jim Buss got the better of him.

Sadly for D’Antoni, Lakers Nation now only had eyes for their former coach after being teased with the prospect of the 11-time NBA champion’s return. The fans let the world (and Jim Buss) hear it while Shaquille O’Neal was having his jersey hung up in the rafters.

It didn’t really help, either, that Jackson has been critical of D’Antoni’s system, claiming that Howard is being misused. To a degree, I’d have to agree with Jackson’s criticisms; after all, D’Antoni’s system is essentially run-and-gun. And if that doesn’t work, he relies on perimeter shots in spread sets.

Problem is, compared to his previous stops, this year he hardly had a 3-point game to work with. L.A. attempted the third-most 3-pointers (24.6) in the regular season, but was only 19th in 3-point percentage at 35 percent.

However, true to Mike D’Antoni fashion, the Lakers’ offense was still pretty strong, ranking sixth in points per game with 102 a contest, though that’s mainly because of Kobe Bryant. He 27 points a night, third-best in the NBA. If it wasn’t for Howard’s poor 49 percent freethrow shooting, the Lakers may have actually had the best offense in the NBA. Especially when you consider that they lived at the line with a league-best of nearly 28 attempts a game, but had the worst conversion rate, making just 69 percent.

Even so, they say: “Defense wins championships” and that’s exactly where the team’s problems lay.

By no means is Mike D’Antoni a defensive guru. In his last full season with the New York Knicks, the team ranked 28th in points per game allowed and his best finish while in Phoenix was 23rd in the same category. So with that said, it’s not really that surprising the Los Angeles Lakers couldn’t stop anyone on defensively this year. OK, I’m lying, it’s very surprising. Steve Nash is a defensive liability, that much we know. But this is a team with two 7-footers protecting the rim, one of whom is a three-time Defensive Player of the Year.  That’s not to mention Kobe Bryant and Metta World Peace, who are still very capable defenders. With that blend of players, this should be a top five defensive team–or top 10 at the very least.

The Los Angeles Lakers maybe in the NBA playoffs, but don’t expect that to last for long. D’Antoni’s “who gives a crap” attitude towards defense with will ultimately be the team’s downfall.

Also, offensively, Mike D’Antoni’s system doesn’t exactly suit all the players, but it could still work. Hear me out:

His system is based around giving the pick-and-roll space to work. Swapping in Earl Clark for Gasol at the 4 would lead to better spacing on the court, leaving the elbow area (which Gasol currently operates in) open. This allows Nash and Howard to the run pick-and-roll all day long. Those two would make a pretty scary pick-and-roll duo, in my opinion.

Plus, moving the Spaniard to the bench would make go a long way to improving their bench, which racked up 17.5 points per 48 minutes, which is good enough for 21st in the league. It’s a win-win situation, right?

But hey, I’m not an NBA coach.

Topics: Dwight Howard, Earl Clarke, Kobe Bryant, Mike D'Antoni, Pau Gasol, Phil Jackson, Shaquille O'neal, Steve Nash

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  • Greg

    Mike didn’t say Kobe was “just” a fan. He called him a fan, which is kind of what he is now at home, watching the games.

    • Sipho Mangoye

      Ok, fair enough he didn’t call him “just” a fan but Kobe still wasn’t exactly thrilled about it.

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