Nothing like starting your work week off with a jolt, I suppose.
Hollywood’s team is in the business of making headlines, and hiring Mike D’Antoni over presumed-favorite candidate Phil Jackson is just the latest move in Lakerland that will launch a thousand blog posts. Still, even if we as fans are conditioned to expect dramatic storylines and unforeseen plot-twists with this franchise, this decision has to rank as a true Shyamalan.
So much for this being Big Chief Triangle’s “job to turndown” And so much for conventional thinking.
On the surface, a typical observer would think that if you have someone with 11 rings ready to come back at guide your team, you don’t think twice about it. If you have a coaching vacancy, and you use a coach’s CV as the determining factor in hiring decision, when Phil Jackson is available and interested, that is the play. Period. There simply is no other equally qualified candidate alive where past success is concerned.
If you were hoping to commission a painting for the ceiling of your church, and Michelangelo is reportedly interested, there is no debate. It’s not that there aren’t other candidates who may bring talent and insight to the job – it’s just that they aren’t immortal in their field.
It is not an indictment of Mike D’Antoni’s qualifications to say his hiring is a surprise. It’s just that if The Bard is ready and willing to write you a play, you probably don’t hire George Barnard Shaw. Yet that is the direction the Lakers have gone in, leaving NBA fans and Jackson similarly “stunned”.
When we start to assess the decision on a tactical level, it begins to make a great deal more sense. This is owed primarily to the Lakers personnel. While he is one of the greatest shooters of all-time and could have thrived in the Craig Hodges-Steve Kerr role, Nash’s unique talents as a playmaker would have been stifled in the Triangle. There would have been legitimate concerns about whether or not Howard is a good enough passer to have had the triple-post work through him. The Lakers’ bench, already hard-pressed to outscore even most starting units at elite D1 schools, would have had to learn a complex offense without the benefit of training camp.
All these and more are the most likely reasons D’Antoni, not Jackson, is going to have the chance to try to right this ship.
Given the early hour at which this news broke, one could make the case that there are really only three things we – the non-Mark Steins of this world - know right now:
· Nashy will be ecstatic to have one more run at a title with The ‘Tasche;
· Kobe will be disappointed not to have PJ’s book recommendations to ignore, but will likely be contented given his affection for D’Antoni;
· Jerry Buss’ accountants are thrilled to not have to call Brinks for a truck to back up to Jackson’s house.
For the sake of symmetry then, let’s also work off the idea that there are three critical things we do not know right now:
· Will a “7 Seconds or Less” philosophy work for a team this old?
· Will the team’s chances of resigning Dwight be impacted by this move?
· Could this lead to roster changes?
In addressing the first unknown, we are assuming D’Antoni will be bringing his fabled run-and-shoot system with him to Los Angeles, which is likely a good bet. Whether or not it will be a good fit remains to be seen. The D'Antoni-Era Suns were able to play at the pace they did because they had the personnel to make the majority of their shots, particularly from three. This Lakers’ team does not have the shooters on it to suggest a similar plan will be successful. They are old, big, and slow in comparison to those Phoenix teams. Yet they also have four Hall of Famers though, which tends to make up for other shortcomings.
With respect to the impact this will have on Dwight Howard specifically, one would have to assume he can still thrive in D’Antoni’s system, as other mobile bigs have in the past. The question will be how D’Antoni’s staff will approach defense, and whether or not they stress a commitment to both sides of the ball so that Howard is not constantly being asked to bail his teammates out because of missed rotations and matador ball-defending. It is a positive sign for LA fans that Howard and D’Antoni have an existing relationship from the 2008 Olympic team, something that may be a building block to greater trust and communication, and a familiarity he would not have had with Jackson. Still though, whether or not he and D’Antoni align philosophically will play a role in his decision about re-signing with the team this summer – the Busses had better hoped to bet correctly here.
Finally, there is the question or whether or not the Lakers will make any significant roster shakeups to better accommodate to D’Antoni’s system. There is a distinct possibility that the team now looks to acquire players in the mold from those Suns’ team: shooters with infinite range and no conscience who can run the floor and drive up the total number of possession each game. There is already (extremely premature and unfounded) talk afoot that they should look to trade Pau Gasol for a more athletic big to stand-in as in-his-athletic-prime Amare Stoudemire. The idea that Josh Smith – a childhood friend of Dwight Howard’s – might be available is tantalizing, since on paper he would be the ideal asset for this team, but it ignores the truth that the team has yet to properly explore the type of partnership Nash could form with Gasol, and is based more in fantasy than fact.
Perhaps that is to be expected though – on Friday morning Mike Brown was still the coach of this team, and the “facts” all seemed to point to him getting more time to figure out how to use all of the assets at his disposal. It was mere fantasy at that point that over the next 72 hours the team would be in a position to court, and ultimately reject, the greatest coach in NBA history, and yet that is exactly what happened.
Never say never with the Lakers. The organization has the mechanics of plot twists down pate – and they know we will all tune in next spring for this story’s ultimate surprise ending.