Los Angeles Lakers get: Mike D'Antoni
Mike D'Antoni gets: 3 years, $12 million (fourth year team option), a chance at redemption
Phil Jackson gets: A bowl of regret
Just three days removed from the last surprise development in LA, the Lakers decided not to hold back on the next one. The speculation throughout the weekend was that the recently fired Mike Brown would be replaced by 11-time NBA Champion head coach Phil Jackson. In the 11th hour, the front office shifted weight almost entirely the other way, it would seem, as they went out and signed former Phoenix Suns and New York Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni. Whoa.
For many Lakers fans, myself included, we were waiting for an iPad and instead got a Nook Color. In the end, both could reach the same result, but ultimately you're not getting the product you want.
There's two seperate schools of thought on the hire right now, either round approval or damning criticism. D'Antoni has always been a polarizing figure in both of his head coaching stints and his time in LA won't be any different. The biggest knock on MDA is his alleged indifference to defense, which was punctuated by the "Seven Seconds or Less" style and pace at which his Phoenix teams played. Led by current Laker Steve Nash, D'Antoni's offensive philosophy counted on his squads getting up the floor as quick as possible, relying on his point guards propensity on the fast break and versatile wing players' ability to finish at the rack or make long jumpers with no more than 17 seconds left on the shot clock. Essentially, they put up the rock as much as they could and let the defense sort itself out. Not exactly how Dr. Naismith wrote it up, but then again he used a peach basket for a hoop. And he was Canadian. Can't trust him.
Whether you hated it or not, there's no denying that the MDA Suns were one of the most exciting teams to come along in two decades of NBA basketball. They scored at a high rate and did so with style, leaving the viewer just as breathless as the athletes that raced up the court just in time to catch a perfect lob from the Nash's hands. However, the price of such a highly touted scoring binge was seemingly the defense. Whether or not he actually stressed defense or spent any time coaching it during practices (which has been subject to much dispute), Mike's squads have never been anything more than middling defensively. Here's where MDA-led (full season) squads have ranked amongst the league in defensive efficiency, which is points per 100 possessions:
2004-2005 Phoenix Suns: 17th
2005-2006 Phoenix Suns: 16th
2006-2007 Phoenix Suns: 13th
2007-2008 Phoenix Suns: 16th
2008-2009 New York Knicks: 23rd
2009-2010 New York Knicks: 27th
2010-2011 New York Knicks: 22nd
Therein lies the problem. D'Antoni's best teams, the 2004-2008 Suns, weren't nearly as awful defensively as reputed. In fact, they were fairly overblown. Between Shawn Marion (a very able defender whose reputation precedes him--he's never made an All-Defense team), Raja Bell, Kurt Thomas, Boris Diaw and Joe Johnson, PHX had several capable defenders, so their transition defense was always much better than it had any right to be. The Suns regularly ranked in the top half of the league in fast break defense, with the low water mark of 14th in 2004-2005 and all the way up to 6th in 2006-2007. Mike D'Antoni had the horses to not only execute his famed Seven Seconds or Less offense, but also to run a corresponding defense. In essence, if you throw up a quick shot, you better be able to run back and defend if you miss.
The problem for the Suns was always D in the half-court set, which nearly doomed them against the lowly Smush Parker-era Lakers in 2005 and helped lead to their demise against the Mavericks in 2006 and San Antonio in 2007 and 2008. Of course, with the Lakers, MDA will be defending with Dwight Howard patrolling the middle, which is the furthest cry from Amar'e Stoudemire looking longingly at the other side of the court as another guard moves past his purview. However, it's important to remember that the Lakers still don't have the requisite athletes to guard the perimeter, no matter how much more in shape Howard gets.
The biggest problem with D'Antoni isn't offensively--this team will drop 110 nightly. It's that they won't have enough gas to defend in a transition situation, at all. The Lakers simply don't have the players to get back down the court at the rate MDA will need them to. In the case that he does, Jordan Hill, Devin Ebanks and Metta World Peace might not be the right guys to run the offense. It's a case of mismatched personnel that doesn't quite make the team right for the new regime's defense, not offense, oddly enough.
Offensively, I still have questions. I'm not sure this team has quite the amount of shooters necessary to carry run on Nash's wings, nor do they have the athletic finishers. Of course, Darius Morris, Devin Ebanks and Jordan Hill could all step up and surprise, but a lot of D'Antoni's schemes are going to be put on the shoulders of Steve Blake, Pau Gasol and Antawn Jamison.
On the other side of the gig, D'Antoni is walking into a team full of crisis. He's got one of, if not the most talented teams he's ever coached. This is going to be an extremely difficult assignment no matter if Phil Jackson, John Wooden or Red Auerbach got the job. Let's not forget, MDA was ousted from Madison Square Garden just eight months ago after a full blown mutiny from his team. The circumstances were quite different (Carmelo Anthony being the primary culprit), but it's hard not to question the leadership of a guy that got fired in the early spring. Of this year. I don't think it bodes well for the man seeing as the only time he'd been asked to manage multiple superstars along with massive expectations in a big market, he failed miserably. It's hard to compare the Knicks, their massive dysfunction and their buffoon-ish owners to anyone else, but similar demands are going to hit MDA in Los Angeles.
There's a lot of reasons to be optimistic about this though, as El Miz will soon get into. Ian Thompsen of Sports Illustrated recently stated that if D'Antoni ever were to come back to coaching, that he'd have a much greater focus on defense, even to the point that he'd hire a "defensive coordinator" assistant coach, in the mold of Tom Thibodeau for the 2008 NBA Champion Celtics. More importantly, let's face it: this is still a team with Nash, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol. I can visualize Nash running the pick and roll with all three of his Hall of Fame starters, and kicking out to MWP, Jodie Meeks and Jamison for dagger three pointers. The best case scenario is that MDA's Lakers will be able to play an extremely versatile style of ball, being able to score in any type of set, with any mixture of personnel on the floor and be able to shut down an opposing team's half court game, which is exactly what happens in the playoffs.
I'm pessimistic that this will work out this year, UNLESS a trade goes through that turns this team into a more athletic squad capable of going small and still being able to defend in the half court. As odd as it is, the D'Antoni hire is as much as a move for the future as it is for the present. He's 61 (six years younger than Phil Jackson) and more than willing to coach past two years from now. The Lakers, like any smart NBA franchise, want to build a sense of continuity amongst their players and organization, and picking a slightly younger head coach with more to prove was the better move long term. Don't get me wrong: this was the best possible hire the Lakers could have made for the situation they were in. Contrary to what a lot of people are saying, this wasn't a decision based on style ("bringing Showtime back!"). After releasing Mike Brown, Mitch Kupchak and the Buss family had to select the coach that fit a long series of criteria: regular season success, postseason success, coaching in big market, coaching stars, relationship to the team's current stars, willingness/ability to start immediately, recent experience with the NBA, "name" value to satiate the fans and season ticket holders, offensive system to match the personnel and willingness to tackle championship expectations. That's a long list, but all things considered, MDA was the best match aside from Jackson. They didn't pick style over substance--the front office did what they could.
But that doesn't mean it will lead to success. These Lakers could still win the NBA title based on an overwhelming amount of talent, but I'd have to be very surprised with what type of defensive adjustments that D'Antoni can bring to the table.