Mike D’Antoni used to look like he was having so much fun. When his teams in Phoenix were operating at a frenetic pace offensively and playing better than advertised defensively, the coach often seemed to have a bemused smile on his face, even after most losses. The man could coach, everyone knew it, and everyone seemed to appreciate it.
Then D’Antoni went to New York and the fun disappeared. The pressure to win with the Knicks, who had not done a whole lot of winning in the decade prior to his arrival, wore on D’Antoni. And now he is walking into an even more pressure-filled situation in Los Angeles as the head coach of the legendary Lakers, where style will trump substance even more than it did in New York.
Phil Jackson would have had no trouble dealing with that pressure, if there would have been any pressure at all for the coach of 11 championship teams. Jackson would have had the immediate support of the players and the fans, as well as the tacit approval of the media, and the uproar on Monday after the Lakers hired D’Antoni therefore was predictable.
If everyone would just settle down for a minute, though, they might realize that D’Antoni actually makes a lot of sense for these Lakers.
The first fallacy we can reject is that Jackson’s triangle offense would have been unquestionably better for the current Lakers personnel than D’Antoni’s “seven seconds or less.” The chief promoters of this argument would not know the triangle from Shaquille O’Neal‘s “RAH!” defense, anyway, and are merely going off the assumption that because Jackson won a bunch of rings with something called the triangle, his offense must be better.
Good coaches — which both Jackson and D’Antoni are — do not have one offensive option that pigeonholes players into unalterable roles. That flexibility is how Jackson and assistant coach Tex Winter were able to adjust the triangle from one that de-emphasized the center position in Chicago to one that hyper-emphasized O’Neal in L.A. It is how D’Antoni was able to be successful with Steve Nash, Raymond Felton and Jeremy Lin, three very distinct players in terms of strengths, weaknesses and skill levels, operating at point guard. Jackson would have tweaked the triangle to make Nash into more than an outside set shooter, as Derek Fisher, Steve Kerr and other point guards were in earlier iterations of the triangle. Likewise, D’Antoni will figure out a way for Kobe Bryant to be more than a 3-point outlet off of the pick and roll.
The other myth involves the defensive acumen of D’Antoni-coached teams. For a while last season, it was maddening to listen to so-called experts critique the Knicks under D’Antoni and go back to that time-tested cliché that one of the greatest offensive minds in the modern game was clueless at coaching defense. Eventually, the maddening gave way to a simple deadening of the senses, because no matter how greatly the facts pointed to the contrary, reputations were established and opinions were set.
The Knicks’ biggest problem under D’Antoni was not their defense, which played at a playoff-caliber level with Tyson Chandler and Mike Woodson coordinating on the court and from the bench, respectively. Their issue was Carmelo Anthony‘s penchant for hijacking the offense at the worst times. Anthony actually assisted a greater percentage of his teammates’ field goals than ever before, but just when the Knicks needed a smart swing pass to a shooter in the corner, Anthony would play hero ball against a double team.
As long as D’Antoni finds a competent assistant to oversee the defense — and honestly, he should, given the many ways to deploy Dwight Howard on that end, and that a job with the Lakers still carries cache — the Lakers should be as good defensively under D’Antoni as they would have been under Jackson. The rub, of course, is that the Lakers have defensive liabilities in Bryant, Nash and Metta World Peace no matter who is coaching. That is why Mike Brown, a well-regarded defensive gameplanner, was never able to get the Lakers to defend in his season-plus on the bench.
The hubbub over Jackson is understandable. No coach has won more titles, and when combined with the 1973 championship he won as a player with the Knicks, only Bill Russell and K.C. Jones have as many NBA championship rings combined as a player and coach. Had the Lakers hired Jackson, all the arguing over whether the coach was a hindrance on a star-studded roster would have ceased. As it is with D’Antoni, that controversy will only continue until the Lakers finally win it all.
But spare us the indignation over the D’Antoni hiring. It may not have been the most popular move, but it was hardly a crime against the sport of basketball. The Lakers should be just fine with D’Antoni on the bench, and if they fail to win the title this season, it is unlikely that D’Antoni will be solely to blame.
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Thumbnail photo via Facebook/LA Lakers