|New Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni is on crutches while recovering from surgery. (US Presswire)|
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- The Lakers made the coaching choice that they knew would lose the press conference, lose in the court of public opinion, but work out for the best on the only court that matters.
Then, something strange and wonderful happened. From the sights and sounds of this first day of the Mike D'Antoni era in Los Angeles, it turned out that the Lakers chose the coach who managed to win the press conference, too.
|More on Lakers|
|More NBA coverage|
Nobody expected that. The crowd of media at the team's practice facility, like nothing D'Antoni had seen in four years in New York, was something you'd expect for the triumphant return of Phil Jackson. Seriously, this crowd was for D'Antoni? A man who's never been to the Finals (much less won an NBA title) and whose acumen, style, philosophy, defects, playoff failures and demise in New York have been dissected for five days since the stunning decision of his hiring was announced?
Then D'Antoni, whose arrival on the West Coast was delayed while he recovered from knee replacement surgery that had him walking with a crutch at his first practice with the Lakers, started talking. And the more he talked, the better this hiring sounded. The more he explained what he believes in and how the talent-rich Lakers can thrive under his free-wheeling, player-driven style like no other team he's coached, the more his critics presumably slumped in their chairs.
"We're built to win this year," D'Antoni said Thursday. "This is not a project. We have a window and we're going to try and get through it."
He was direct. He was blunt. He was funny. He didn't try to cover the blemishes on his resume with white-out or canned excuses. He didn't try to come off as the smartest guy in the room, whose X's-and-O's brilliance would outsmart the rest of the coaching profession all the way to the top of the championship mountain in June.
For those who didn't know -- or, for those in New York who never saw this relaxed, forthright, engaging D'Antoni because he was cloaked in the dark paranoia of Madison Square Garden -- get used to it. If D'Antoni's debut on the court is anything close to as entertaining and informative as his debut in front of a microphone, then behold the return of the Showtime era in L.A.
"I love basketball," D'Antoni said. "I don't do anything else. I can't do anything else. I'm 61 years old, putting on tennis shoes and going to work? Are you kidding me? What's there not to like?"
As D'Antoni puts in the bare bones of his offensive system for Friday's game against Phoenix and then for his eventual debut on the sideline Sunday against Houston, understand this: Rhythm, trust, timing and everything else that comes with the D'Antoni way are not going to come overnight. And more importantly, this: The two most important pieces for making this a success are 1) Steve Nash, the point guard who's made a Hall of Fame career out of running D'Antoni's system; and 2) Dwight Howard, the dominant, athletic center in his prime that D'Antoni's never had before.
It sounds like Nash's return may coincide with D'Antoni's anticipated first game Sunday. Howard, playing at about 75-80 percent effectiveness as he recovers from back surgery, is going to need weeks -- maybe even a couple of months -- to get all the way back.
Nash, if he can get healthy and stay that way at 38, will use the freedom D'Antoni gives his point guards to set the RPMs just right and get everybody involved. But the overwhelming key to whether the Lakers can win this way -- now, and in the future -- is Howard. What Howard can do defensively for D'Antoni -- "put the 'D' back in my name," as D'Antoni said Thursday --- and what D'Antoni can do for Howard on the other end is everything.
"I know that the point guard is the one running the ship, but I told Dwight today he can be in every play," D'Antoni said. "We don't call plays. So he can run down and pick the ball and he's rolling to the basket. One of the least efficient plays in basketball is just the straight post-up. It's just not efficient. ... His touches should increase, his ability to get to the rim should increase and it should be a lot easier for Dwight."
Howard's eyes seemed to widen, almost in disbelief, when he revealed Thursday that D'Antoni told the Lakers they "should be scoring 110 points a game or something like that," Howard said. The big fella should be a big part of it --- "The big man should eat," Howard said -- because he's never become a straight post-up player in the traditional sense to begin with. But he also understands that his unexpected marriage to D'Antoni and his offensive system really starts at the end of the floor Howard has dominated as the three-time defensive player of the year.
Four times in a five-minute post-practice interview, Howard emphasized the importance of "getting stops." Nash will be Nash and Kobe will be Kobe, but this whole plan begins and ends with Dwight putting the "D" back in D'Antoni and the coach putting the dominance back in Dwight.
"I expect Dwight Howard -- as soon as he gets healthy, because he's not healthy right now -- to be unstoppable," D'Antoni said. "And I don't care what they do, they're not stopping him."
For the confused, uninitiated, or those who've bought the silly notion that D'Antoni can't win in the playoffs with a style built strictly around bringing out his players' talent, let me allow him to sum it up for you on every conceivable level:
• On how Bryant will fit in the offense: "I don't like to call a lot of plays. I like a flow. Offense should flow, and the ball should find energy and the ball should find our best guys. ... I hate when guys say, 'I didn't get my touches.' That doesn't make any sense. Everybody gets touches. That ball should go around. If a team is guarding these two guys and leaving these three guys open, these three guys are gonna score. If Kobe's being double-teamed, then we'll bust 'em someplace else." I'll simplify this even more: This is called playing basketball the right way.
• On beating teams with pace and shrinking the margin for error: "If you've got the best team, why wouldn't you play the most possessions that you can play defensively and offensively? Any time the possessions are cut down, then a bad call, a missed shot, you've got a chance to lose. But if we keep the possessions up here, to me we've got a lot better chance to win when we're playing a lot of reps."
• When asked, basically, so why have you never been to the Finals?: "Freakin' San Antonio, you'll have to criticize them. They were better than us."
• On what sets certain coaches apart in the NBA: "Players. ... In the Olympics, I think they do a good thing. They give the gold medal to the players. Coaches don't get gold medals. I think we have guys who can get rings, and they're the ones who are going to get 'em. ... You're not going to outcoach other coaches. Everybody's too prepared. Everybody works too hard to think that I'm going to sit there and figure out something that they haven't figured out. You just don't do that. Players have to eventually be accountable and they have to be the ones to go win the game for you."
• On getting more out of the Lakers' disappointing bench, which by the way includes Chris Duhon, who played the best basketball of his career under D'Antoni, and Steve Blake, who D'Antoni has been trying to acquire for a decade: "Jodie Meeks for example, I told him today: The only time he needs to shoot is when he touches the ball. Other than that, don't shoot." In other words, D'Antoni isn't so stubborn and full of himself to force players to do things they can't do. Just let them do what they can.
• On his style of making it about the players and not so much about the coach, an anathema to the control-freak coaching culture in the NBA: "Well, the advantage is, if you've got good players, it works. If you've got bad players, it doesn't work. And that would be anywhere."
And on and on and on. I think you get the picture. D'Antoni with the Lakers is going to be different, and it's going to be fun. It's going to be Showtime, of sorts.
But for it to be a success? That would require Nash to get his giddy-up on and do at 38 what he did for D'Antoni in his prime. And most of all, it'll require a gradual, mutually beneficial bond to form between D'Antoni and Howard. They have to be good for each other for this to work. And it has to work for them to stay together.
Bryant and his old coach, Jackson, were the focal point of the Lakers for so long. And Kobe would've been Kobe whether the Lakers had hired Jackson, D'Antoni or Kobe himself to coach this team. But the decision to go with D'Antoni finally became clear Thursday afternoon when you realized that it was made not only for the goal of winning now, but with the bet that D'Antoni and Howard would be good together in the future.
Players like Bryant come along once in a generation, if you're lucky. So when it's over, when he finally walks away with however many championships he has, don't hold your breath for another one to come along. The Lakers aren't.
If Howard and D'Antoni work, it's a much safer bet for the Lakers to find a point guard to run D'Antoni's offense than it would be to wait for another top-five player of all time to come along. So this is the Lakers doubling down on D'Antoni -- hoping that he and Nash can squeeze Howard's massive body through this tight championship window, deliver Bryant's sixth title and leave the blueprint in place for someone else to do it again down the road.
If it works -- if any part of it works -- the Lakers will wind up winning a lot more than a press conference.