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National Columnist

Lakers need D'Antoni to act as caretaker, not as some sort of genius coach


LOS ANGELES -- The Lakers don't need a coach. They need a sports psychologist. That's what they had when Phil Jackson was here, figuring out how to manage Shaquille O'Neal's ego with Kobe Bryant's sense of entitlement. Jackson did it by confusing the hell out of everyone, handing out books to read and talking about Zen and not coaching the team during timeouts -- letting the players sit there and figure it out for themselves, because that's what this whole thing was about for Phil Jackson. It was a journey of self discovery, or something like that.

Now I'm getting confused.

But that silly stuff worked for the Lakers. Conventional coaching sure didn't.

Mike Brown is a conventional coach, the kind of guy who will spend hours breaking down tape because he thinks the secret to beating another team is somewhere inside his own head -- not within the 40-inch vertical leap of freak center Dwight Howard or the supernatural scoring ability of Kobe Bryant. Brown thought he was more important than he is. He thought being a coach mattered, when it doesn't. Not to a team as talented and experienced as the Lakers.

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Brown coached his ass off, and he went 1-4. Bernie Bickerstaff didn't coach at all. Not really. He rolled the ball onto the floor, told Kobe to go get it, and watched as the wins mounted. The Lakers beat Golden State by 24. They beat Sacramento by 13. They almost beat the Western Conference-leading Spurs on Tuesday night, falling 84-82 only because Danny Green of all people hit a clutch 3-pointer with 9.3 seconds left and then Pau Gasol, of all people, tried to make a 3-pointer of his own in the final seconds and missed.

"We had a brain fart," Kobe Bryant said.

The shot was supposed to be Kobe's. That's what Bickerstaff drew up in the huddle before the final play, though he drew it in Crayon. Bickerstaff's genius is that, unlike Mike Brown, he knows he's no genius. The Lakers will win most of the time because they have Kobe and Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol and Steve Nash, and because you don't. Understanding that is the key to coaching this team, and Mike Brown didn't understand it.

Will Mike D'Antoni understand it? Kobe thinks so, but I'm going to need to see it for myself. D'Antoni is known as an offensive guru -- a "mastermind," according to Lakers veteran Antawn Jamison -- and offensive gurus, or masterminds, tend to make the game about themselves. Think about the last several coaches to win an NBA title. Any masterminds in that mix? Not Phil Jackson. Not Doc Rivers. Not Erik Spoelstra. Gregg Popovich? Well, maybe. But Popovich gets in his players' heads as much as anything, and also he has had superior veteran talent. And that's what the NBA comes down to in the end: Your talent against mine. Is yours better? Then your team will win. This league just isn't that hard to figure out.

Now it's D'Antoni's turn to figure it out, and it's our turn to figure out D'Antoni. Does he fancy himself a genius? If so, forget it. Geniuses don't win in this league and never have, maybe because there are no geniuses in the NBA, no matter how much some media myth-makers want to pretend. Not even Bernie Bickerstaff, a head coach in this league for parts of 14 seasons dating to 1985, can play that charade. I gave him the chance before the game, asking him if the Lakers have been running any plays at all during his time as interim coach.

"We do run plays," he said, but he couldn't leave his half-truth alone. "Well, abstracts. They're playing on instincts. Look, it's all been done. What's the key play in basketball?"

Media member: Screen and roll?

"Right," Bickerstaff said. "The screen and roll."

And there was nothing else to say about the Lakers' plays under Bernie Bickerstaff. They've been running the screen and roll, and when it's a 30,000-point scorer like Kobe dribbling and a skilled big man like Pau Gasol screening and a freak of nature like Dwight Howard lurking near the rim, what else is there to draw up?

"[Bickerstaff's] approach has been keeping it simple and letting us play," Gasol said. "He's just setting a simple game plan defensive and offensively. He is just playing out of pretty simple actions. It's nothing fancy."

After the Lakers lost all fancy-like under Brown and then won their first two games all vanilla-like under Bickerstaff, I had to ask Lakers veteran Steve Blake if this team could win without a head coach.

"That's kind of what ..." and then Blake stopped. He was smiling.

I told Blake, "You were about to say, 'That's kind of what we're doing right now,' weren't you?"

"No," Blake said, but he was smiling. Because he was busted. Because the truth is, a team like the Lakers -- with more experience than you, more physical ability than you, and more skill than you -- doesn't need a coach. It needs someone to handle the psychology, the egos, the fragile wants and needs of the rich and famous.

It needs Mike D'Antoni to roll the ball onto the floor and get out of the way. If he can draw up a winning play from time to time, like Popovich did for Danny Green on Tuesday night, fantastic.

Better yet, though, make Dwight Howard play hard and Metta World Peace play smart and Pau Gasol play tough. Do that, and get out of Kobe Bryant's way, and Mike D'Antoni might just be a genius after all.

Gregg Doyel is a columnist for CBSSports.com. He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.

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