As soon as Mike D’Antoni was named head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers last November, he was met with hostility.
Had the reports of Phil Jackson’s almost finalized return not surfaced, perhaps D’Antoni would’ve had a chance with Lakers fans. But this is Lakerland, where we as fans demand the absolute best and even when we have the best, we demand more.
Personally, I was excited to see what D’Antoni could do with his favorite point guard, Steve Nash, in addition to other elite players such as Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, and Pau Gasol.
At the same time, it was Phil Jackson who management had just passed up, and I was pretty disappointed.
I gave D’Antoni a shot, but the persistent misuse of Pau Gasol and the insistence on running pick-and-rolls all the time when there were extremely capable post players present (Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant) was discouraging, and I was one of the many fans not very happy with his coaching. I knew the Lakers hiring another head coach mid-season was simply out of the question, so there was really not much that could be done despite the ever-present “We want Phil!” chants at Staples Center.
However, D’Antoni eventually realized that he couldn’t be successful using some of his patented philosophies, and went the complete opposite way. He changed his tone from banning Pau Gasol from coming near the paint to acknowledging that Pau absolutely must spend time in the post, and the offense has to run through him.
During this process, the Lakers went 28-12 to end the season, and toward the very end of the season Gasol notched two triple-doubles — finally being fully utilized.
At that time, some credit was to be given, but the Lakers got swept in the first round of the playoffs and many felt that the Lakers didn’t live up to expectations, even after taking into consideration the slew of injuries the team sustained.
Following the departure of Dwight Howard, I wrote an article on how it was time for fans to embrace Mike D’Antoni. Essentially, my argument was that even if you don’t agree with D’Antoni being the right coach for the Lakers, we as Lakers fans are all stuck with him because the team is in “money saving mode” this season and won’t pay out an $8 million contact (including this season and next).
Additionally, I explained how if the Lakers underachieved or if they felt a different coach would attract one of the 2014 superstar free agents, they’d certainly consider letting D’Antoni go and pay the $4 million left on his contract at that point. If they overachieved, however, D’Antoni would likely be retained.
Either way, D’Antoni was to be the coach of the Lakers for the foreseeable future and fans had two choices: Either continue to berate him and call for his head, or embrace him and see how far he could take the team following an infusion of some youth and athleticism. I chose to do the latter, and implored others to do the same.
Naturally, my assertion was met with some backlash, but surprisingly more than half of the responses were actually in agreeance with embracing D’Antoni and giving him a second chance.
Since then, I must say that I am quite impressed with what the head coach has done.
For one, he hired Kurt Rambis as the team’s defensive coordinator after the Lakers finished 19th in Defensive Efficiency last season, which showed that he truly recognized the need for a strong defensive team and sought out the necessary help to do so. This certainly eased fans’ minds a bit — including mine — and has helped his credibility overall.
Secondly, players’ receptiveness toward him this season has also given fans comfort.
Last season, it was no secret that Dwight Howard didn’t buy into what D’Antoni’s philosophies and Pau Gasol was unhappy with his role as a stretch four and sometimes being relegated to coming off the bench. Kobe Bryant even had to step in and say “this isn’t working” and that the players had to “get back to the basics” at one point, following the under-utilization of Gasol. Kobe otherwise stood by the coach, and placed the responsibility on himself to right the ship.
Prior to this season, however, D’Antoni being the head coach actually factored into some players’ decisions to come to the Lakers. Jordan Farmar said he “dreamed of being in Mike D’Antoni’s system” for years, and Nick Young, who’s not shy about being a scorer, is a perfect fit for the system and his scoring mentality is embraced by the coaching staff.
Additionally, Pau Gasol seems comfortable and excited about what his role will be this season. D’Antoni recently called Gasol “the best center in the NBA,” perhaps indirectly apologizing for any frustration he may have put the Spaniard through last season. Overall, the rest of the players seem on board with what the head coach is trying to do and are generally excited about the style of play.
Players’ embracing Mike D’Antoni and his system has deadened some of the negativity towards him, but one more factor really impressed me recently.
Mike D’Antoni started both of his seven-footers — Pau Gasol and Chris Kaman — in the third preseason game, and it looked like the two had been playing together for years. The chemistry was natural, but it was a configuration D’Antoni typically doesn’t prefer, as he prefers to have an athletic, stretch four at the power forward position.
However, D’Antoni acknowledged this and was open to the idea of it nonetheless. Per Eric Pincus of the L.A. Times, he had this to say last week following the game:
“The two bigs can play together. I didn’t know that. I’ve not traditionally loved two bigs together, but they have nice chemistry and they both are skilled. We’ll see going forward, but it looked good last night.”
It may have not been something he traditionally likes to do, but it was his choice to give it a chance, and he’s at the very least open to the possibility of it — which is something that may not have even been an option last season as D’Antoni was hesitant to play Gasol and Dwight Howard together at times. Kaman and Gasol are seemingly better complements to each other, and it appears D’Antoni is willing to give it a shot if it translates into efficiency on offense and defense.
Perhaps Mike D’Antoni isn’t the best coach out there. Maybe he’s not even the best coach suited to coach this current Lakers team.
But, he is a man who acknowledged when his coaching philosophy wasn’t working with the team he was given and completely reversed it, sought out the necessary outside help to better his team’s weaknesses, and continually learned from his mistakes. He’s also a coach who’s taken some of what worked last season (high-low action between Pau Gasol and the other big man on the floor) and given it a chance in a season where his current personnel allows him to play more of his style of basketball.
It may only be the preseason, and true success has yet to be seen, but the overall optimism and edge the team has mentally indicates the promise of an exciting season.
There’s no question D’Antoni is still in the “hot seat” and won’t truly have unanimous approval from fans until he at the very least gets his team to “overachieve” this season, or even until he wins a championship for other fans, but he’s certainly doing everything in his power to help his team win as many games as possible. He’s also maintained thick skin in a hostile environment that’s supposed to be considered home court, while
attempting expected to fill (no pun intended) the giant shoes set in front of him.
You won’t hear many people admit it, but Mike D’Antoni is slowly earning Lakers fans’ acceptance, even he doesn’t have their full approval just yet.