The mistake the Lakers made with Mike D’Antoni was hiring him in the first place.
Jim and Jerry Buss — the hiring was one of the last things the late, great Lakers owner consulted on — have longed for a return to “Showtime” when winning and entertainment went hand-in-hand. They won titles with Phil Jackson, but it wasn’t the same. They saw D’Antoni as a potential path back to the best of both worlds, back to the best of times.
Instead, the Lakers got the worst of times.
However, there is a lesson in what the Lakers did wrong, and before them what the Knicks did wrong with D’Antoni, one that can help future teams thinking of hiring him as their coach:
Mike D’Antoni can win in this league as a coach — but you have to FULLY commit to building his kind of team.
The Lakers were never a good fit. First, D’Antoni was hired 10-games into a season where he was a 180 degree spin from Mike Brown, yet he had no training camp to figure things out. Pau Gasol is not a stretch four who wants to run to the arc in transition, he’s a skilled post player. Kobe Bryant circa 2004 would have been brilliant in a D’Antoni system, but the 2014 Kobe is a post/elbow player who needs to operate in a slowed down half-court system to thrive. Steve Nash’s mind is willing but his flesh is weak.
Then there is Dwight Howard — he could be a great fit as a D’Antoni big man, because he is quick and fantastic as the roll man. Dwight Howard chooses not to be. He demands the ball in the post. In a D’Antoni system where “the ball needs energy” and has to move Howard causes it to stick and the offense to stall.
Add into this that dynamic that D’Antoni is simply not a good communicator with his players and it all collapsed. (As for the 2015 Lakers, D’Antoni did as much as anyone could have with that injury-riddled, odd-fitting roster. No coach dead or alive could have made the playoffs with that group.)
What happened in Los Angeles was an accelerated version of what happened to D’Antoni in New York — they hired him to save the franchise, then after missing out on LeBron James they brought in Amar’e Stoudemire and paired him with Raymond Felton as the point guard and Danilo Gallinari as a stretch four… and it worked okay. The Knicks were improved, entertaining and on their way to being a playoff team.
Then James Dolan gutted the roster of athletes to bring in the ball stopper that is Carmelo Anthony. Everything fell apart (save for a couple weeks of Linsanity when Anthony was out injured). D’Antoni was doomed as a future coach.
Mike D’Antoni is not flexible — team’s can’t bring him in and expect him to dramatically modify what he does to fit the pieces they already have. D’Antoni needs to win his way, to prove that what he does works and works well.
And it does work. Despite what some Lakers and Knicks fans think.Phoenix was not a fluke. Watch the Miami Heat play and you see a whole lot of D’Antoni offense. None other than Gregg Popovich admits stealing things from D’Antoni. Those teams do some things differently (a focus on defense is higher on the priority list, for one) but they are indebted to D’Antoni.
Eventually some other team is going to give D’Antoni a shot (the NBA is all about recycling coaches). That’s fine. Someone should give him a real shot.
But if you hire him just know what you are getting.
And give him HIS roster.