The Lakers shocked the NBA when they spurned Phil Jackson and chose Mike D'Antoni as their next head coach Monday morning, but D'Antoni may be a better fit than you think.
It was just over a week ago that the Lakers had lost back-to-back games to open the season, and we said that the drama was only going to get more ridiculous. Now, here we are. The Lakers fired their coach after five games, nearly brought the winningest coach of all time back to the bench for a triumphant return, only to flip the story on its head to roll the dice with Mike D'Antoni. The most insane experiment of all time just keeps getting better!
Now, there are the obvious sportswriter-y questions:
- Can D'Antoni keep Kobe Bryant under control?
- Can he get through to Dwight Howard?
- Can he get the Lakers defense on track?
- Can he stop himself from running Nash into the ground?
- Will Phil Jackson haunt the Lakers all season?
But really, the number one question is the same: Can the Lakers win it all?
That's how we'll measure the D'Antoni decision, it's how the Lakers will measure themselves, and until May, everything's more or less irrelevant. But since it's still November and everyone wants to gauge what the Lakers just did, let's work backwards.
Did It Make Sense To Fire?
Compare the two biggest bombshells of the NBA season so far — the night we found outgot traded and the morning we found out Mike Brown got fired — and you begin to see why the Mike Brown decision was so easy.
When Harden got traded, everyone who loves the NBA was in shock. Harden turned into a star last year and OKC turned into a title contender that was supposed to contend for the next 10 years. Breaking up the nucleus seemed unthinkable, especially since Harden wouldn’t have to sign until next summer, so at worst they had at least one more year together. Even two weeks later, it’s still kind of unthinkable.
This is not something we’ll say about Mike Brown in two weeks. Even Friday, nobody was shocked that Mike Brown got fired, it was just the timing of the whole thing that caught everyone off guard. The world’s been waiting for Mike Brown to be fired since the day he was hired.
Mike Brown got fired now? Yeah, because Brown was a bad fit with the Lakers last year, and the problems were only to get worse when daily scrutiny compounded coaching that was always a longshot to work with the roster they had. The Lakers have a two-year window to work with here, and the clock was ticking. Firing Mike Brown in November gave them the best possible chance to click with whoever they brought in next. Speaking of which ...
Was Mike D'Antoni A Smart Choice?
This Lakers team is too old for nightly half-court battles that hinge on precise execution and rugged defense on the other end. They need to make the games easier on themselves. For all his failures in the past, Mike D'Antoni has always made offense look far too easy.
Where Brown failed is where D'Antoni excels. Kobe will get easy buckets, Steve Nash will return to his professional nirvana once he comes back from injury and the grinding gears of the Lakers offense under Brown should give way to something more like a well-oiled machine.
There are worries about defense and depth, but those were both problems under Brown, too, and would've been issues with any other coach L.A. hired. And as much as D'Antoni makes life easier for aging superstars like Kobe and Nash, it'll also help turn guys like Darius Morris and Jodie Meeks into solid options off the bench. He's done it over and over again elsewhere, and if there's one thing the ultra-thin Lakers need, it's a guy who can make the most of spare parts.
This Lakers team was designed to compensate for those issues by blowing people off the court with offensive firepower, and D'Antoni is headed to L.A. because there's nobody in basketball better equipped to make that vision work. The Lakers' best hope was always that great offense would beget better defense, and Dwight Howard would be good enough to make the Lakers solid on D all by himself. With D'Antoni, they're far closer to that reality than they were two weeks ago.
Was D'Antoni A Better Choice Than Phil Jackson?
If D'Antoni doesn't win a title, the world will always say Phil would've solved everything. But divorced from the 11 rings mystique, D'Antoni's probably the better choice regardless.
L.A. didn't need another complacent Hall of Famer to put them over the top. For instance: Everyone worried about defense under D'Antoni must have forgotten how awful the Lakers were on D in the Mavericks series two years ago. Phil was in full-fledged IDGAF mode at that point, and for all the excitement he apparently had about coaching this Lakers team, we have no idea whether his fire would last if things went bad three months from how. We don't know if Nash would've excelled in the triangle offense or whether Phil could've made a difference on defense.
Yes: It'll be impossible to watch this Lakers team the rest of the year without wondering how they might have looked under Phil, but while we wonder, let's not forget how joyless and hopeless they looked two years ago, when Phil had basically thrown up his hands and checked out. For a coach that was painted as the inevitable savior, Phil came with plenty of question marks.
So what does this mean now? With Brown, the Lakers were a grinding team whose offense had the entire roster showing its age. More than anything, D'Antoni makes sense because this Lakers team was supposed to be fun. A fun team that makes old superstars look young.
And as idiotic as it sounds, "fun" matters here. The Lakers stars know how to win, but especially with the avalanche of scrutiny hovering over everything, making basketball fun for three very different superstars could go a long way toward helping the pieces click.
With Phil, there would've been instant pressure on everyone to adjust to the triangle and get the offense going. For a team preordained to greatness, adding the greatest coach of all time wasn't going to alleviate the pressure to execute so much as double down on everything. Instead, the Lakers can just be the team everyone expected when they traded for Steve Nash last summer -- gunning for a title with the most terrifying fast break since the Showtime Lakers.
The Nash trade is what makes this decision easy. They pinned their title hopes to him, and trying to fit Nash into the triangle would've been every bit as risky as rolling the dice with D'Antoni and hoping his system can work in the playoffs. Rather than forcing square pegs into a triangle, D'Antoni makes the Lakers puzzle simple. This team was meant to (1) run with Nash and Kobe, (2) rely on Dwight to anchor the defense and murder people on the secondary break, (3) pick-and-roll people to death in the half court, and (4) outscore everyone. D'Antoni gives them the best chance to do it all.
Once the playoffs get here, it'll be up to Kobe and Nash and Dwight to stay healthy and hit another level -- same as it would've been with anyone else. There's no guarantee they win a title, but success wasn't guaranteed with anyone they hired.
We know this, though: Talent trumps everything in the NBA, and instead of betting big on a Hall of Fame coach to save everyone, the Lakers just went all-in on their brand new superstars. It'll be months before we know whether this can really work, but whatever happens, I can't wait to watch them try.