MDA 101: Walking Tightope Over Crocs, Ticked-off Fans to the Future

Can the Lakers win a title with D’Antoni?

Personally, I wouldn’t expect the team that got ever older and slower under Jackson to win one for him now, after aging for another three years?

People asked that question—can he win a title?—about every coach who ever won one, including Jackson, whose hippie rep kept him from getting an assistant’s job until he stopped showing up for interviews with his panama hat with the big feather.

I understand why it seems more to the point with D’Antoni.

His Suns fired the first shots in the revolution from the Old NBA Way, as exemplified by the Shaquille O’Neal Lakers, to the New NBA Way that’s no longer big man-centric, exemplified by the Heat with Chris Bosh at center and LeBron James at power forward.

The old principle was, “Live by the jump shot, die by the jump shot.”

The new principle is, “Spread the floor, take whatever’s there.”

Spreading the floor means having enough shooters to bring the defense out of the lane, as Miami does—and good-but-flawed teams, like Memphis, don’t.

Of course, there’s one more imperative to going small:

You’ve still got to D it up.

One big reason this revolution is ongoing is that coaches have devised defensive schemes–“loading the strong side,” or, in other words, playing man with zone principles—enabling them to neutralize bigger opponents’ size.

Not that D’Antoni’s high-scoring Suns worried about defense.

Defining ‘unguardable,” they just ran up 110 and let opponents see how close they could come.

That was in 2004-05, Mike’s first full season in Phoenix, when he took a 29-53 team to 62-20.

They averaged 110 a game. No. 2 Sacramento was almost seven points back. Only four more teams average 100.

The Suns averaged 58 wins in his four full seasons, losing in the West Finals twice.

If that’s not enough for his critics, the Suns were cheated out of their best shot in his third season.

En route to winning in San Antonio in Game 4 of their 2007 second-round series, they saw Robert Horry hip-check Nash into the scorer’s table, starting the melee—no punches were thrown—that got Amar’e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw suspended for leaving the bench.

At home for Game 5 in the 2-2 series down two player, the Suns fell, 88-85, and succumbed in six.

Had they broken through, they had only to beat the young Jazz in the West Finals and the up-past-their-bedtime Cavaliers, whom the Spurs swept in the Finals.

No, there was no certainty the Suns would have won the title everyone said D’Antoni could never get.

Nevertheless, in what could be described as the charmed/haunted nature of his career, they definitely deserved the chance to play for it.

What about his time with the Knicks?

What about it?

This is commonly regarded as a failure for D’Antoni.

Actually, it was looking quite good by year three, considering they started by dumping their high-salaried players, notably Zach Randolph and Jamal Crawford, to become players in summer of 2010.

If that wound up bringing Amar’e, not LeBron, as hoped, they put a nice little Suns-type-but-not-as-good team around him, featuring Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler.

Better yet, they would have two max slots in 2012 for Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul.

CP3 even joked about it, suggesting he, Melo and Amare form their own Big 3 to challenge Miami’s new one, at Melo’s 2010 wedding.

Meanwhile, the Nuggets, recognizing Melo would leave, began trying to trade him.

Knick Pres. Donnie Walsh drew the line at one starting player, noting they could sign him for nothing in summer.

Unfortunately for the Knicks, owner Jim Dolan then took over, made the deal (and, a year later, guided Walsh back to Indiana, where he helped rebuild the Pacers).

The Knicks wound up wit Melo and the mixed message of a team they’re still trying to sort out.

The Nuggets got Felton, Gallinari, Chandler and Timofey Mozgov—so many players, they let Felton walk, ultimately returning to the Knicks.

Several more Knicks had to be dumped for cap room—including Corey Brewer, now a Nugget rotation player.

In the worst part—yes, it got even worse–it cost the Knicks their salary flexibility.

With the salary cap newly projected to dip in the coming 2011-12 season, the Knicks, locked into Melo and Amare, were now $4 million shy of that last max slot.

Giving up their plans to sign CP3 the following summer, they signed Tyson Chandler.

Surprise!

The cap didn’t dip, after all. Had the Knicks stood pat, they’d have signed Paul and lived happily ever after, or, at least, happier.

CP3 tried an end run before the 2011-12 season, asking to be traded to New York but turned to the west when it became clear the Hornets wouldn’t take Amare and the Knicks had no one else to offer.

D’Antoni resigned during the 2011-12 season, at odds with Melo, who celebrated his departure by playing his best ball—even if this, his second trip beyond the first round, doesn’t look promising.

D’Antoni wound up with Kobe, Howard, Nash and more trouble than anyone imagined.

So, D’Antoni’s a great coach who’s been a victim of circumstances?

I don’t know about “great” but I’d definitely go with “good,” as well as the “victim of circumstances.”

Nevertheless, there is the matter of his defense, a topic he bristles at when raised.

His last Knick team actually had decent numbers, running in the top 10 in points allowed per possession.

On the other hand, I don’t know what to make of that season: Lost with Melo and Amar’e at the start… captivated by the Jeremy Lin Experience in the middle… picking up at the end with Melo embracing D’Antoni’s successor, Mike Woodson.

In any case, you can’t just out-score everyone. Today’s elite teams, the Heat, Spurs and Thunder (when healthy) are not only among the leaders on O but D.

The Lakers made two miscalculations when they hired D’Antoni:

1) They could “endure the PR backlash,” as Kupchak put it. If they have endured it so far, it doesn’t mean it hasn’t dialed up the pressure on D’Antoni with those “We Want Phil!” chants in the playoffs.

2) D’Antoni was a better fit. He was a better fit for what Jerry Buss wanted, and for what the Lakers hope to become.

As constituted—and as they’re likely to be constituted next season—they’re Jackson’s kind of team.

So, yeah, a bright Laker future is possible under D’Antoni.

All they have to do is walk a high wire over crocodiles and ticked off Laker fans to get there.

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