Mike D'Antoni is being handed a Los Angeles Lakers roster that isn't exactly like any roster he's ever been gifted before. It's rich in star power, no question, but it also lacks the speed that his Phoenix Suns and even his brief pre-Carmelo Anthony/post Amar'e Stoudemire New York Knicks teams had. It's a fantasy to expect D'Antoni to fully implement a "Seven Seconds or Less" offensive system with a much older Steve Nash, an older Kobe Bryant and a bigger power forward like Pau Gasol.
So, there will need to be adjustments. D'Antoni may be the most dogmatic head coach of the last 10 years, but he's smart enough to at least know that. In particular, I see four major areas where D'Antoni can (and will) meet his team halfway.
How to use Kobe Bryant and Metta World Peace
Nash and Dwight Howard fit in seamlessly with a pick-and-roll-heavy offense like D'Antoni's, but Bryant and World Peace are trickier fits. Neither are great spot-up shooters (though Bryant probably could be if he dialed his offensive role back a bit), and both tend to catch and hold the ball rather than keeping it moving. For D'Antoni to get the most out of them, he may need to dial back his distaste for milking mismatches and get both players some easy post touches.
But there is some precedent for this. Back when D'Antoni was coaching the Knicks, he would occasionally have tall wings like Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler set screens for the point guard, then immediately slip (basketball vernacular for diving to the basket before making contact with the screen) to force a mismatch with the point guard's defender. Eventually, the ball would get swung around for a quick post touch.
Here are a couple examples. This first one involves Gallinari, a tall combo forward that can shoot over smaller players in the post. This is from a game against the Hawks during the 2010-11 season, and it involves Raymond Felton as the point guard and Wilson Chandler as one of the other forwards.
Felton and Gallinari are setting up a pick and roll here, but watch how Gallinari immediately slips the screen as soon as the primary defender jumps out. That forces Bibby to switch onto Gallinari, and the post isolation is just two quick passes away.
This would be an easy way to get Metta World Peace a post touch against a smaller defender while still sticking to D'Antoni's ethos of moving the ball quickly and running pick and roll.
The same type of action also applies to wing players. Here's a similar play that got Chandler a jump shot over a much smaller defender. Chandler and Toney Douglas run a pick and roll, and just like in the previous play, the screener dives into the post as soon as his defender steps up to cut off the ball-handler.
This time, Bill Walker is the one in the corner. Douglas delivers the pass to the wing and Walker finds Chandler in the post against Lou Williams. All Chandler has to do is turn and shoot the jumper.
This is the kind of thing you should expect to see with Kobe Bryant, for example.
There are also other ways for Bryant to get easy shots in D'Antoni's offense without just being a spot-up shooter. I would expect to see D'Antoni sometimes use Bryant as the screener for Nash, especially if it helps get Bryant the ball in open space. The Lakers actually did this a couple times in their most recent win over the Sacramento Kings with Bernie Bickerstaff as head coach. Here's one example.
This is the end of Bryant's screen for Steve Blake. As he fades into the corner, Blake delivers a pinpoint pass for a wide-open three.
These plays weren't necessarily D'Antoni staples, but he was willing to use them when they fit his personnel. I suspect we'll see a lot more of them as a way to get Bryant and World Peace the ball closer to the basket without having to run a simple isolation that kills ball movement.
Using Pau Gasol
Gasol might be even more of a unique challenge for D'Antoni. D'Antoni has dealt with skilled big men before -- he was primarily responsible for Boris Diaw's rise -- but none like Gasol. Diaw was a reluctant scorer that used his speed to beat slower centers. Gasol is a power forward that possesses the post-up ability to dominate smaller forwards, the perimeter touch to hit 19-footers and the passing skills to get easy looks for all of his teammates. D'Antoni could take a full year and still never figure out all the different ways to use Gasol. (Consider: Mike Brown got a full year and never figured it out).
On the one hand, Gasol is an awkward fit for D'Antoni's style. D'Antoni has traditionally spread the floor with a three-point shooter playing the power forward position, which gave Nash more room to unleash devastating pick and rolls with Amar'e Stoudemire. Gasol doesn't quite have the three-point range or speed of, say, Shawn Marion, who was so instrumental for D'Antoni's teams.
On the other hand, D'Antoni has found ways to make his offense work at times with his power forward playing inside the three-point line. There were times where Carmelo Anthony, Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler played together with the Knicks, and during those moments, D'Antoni would use the threat of Stoudemire as a way to get Chandler easy looks.
Consider this play against the Bobcats. Here, Anthony runs a pick and roll with Chandler, and rather than trying to make the pass to the rolling Chandler himself, he feeds Stoudemire, who has a better passing angle. Chandler has a layup two passes later
Now, imagine Gasol in Stoudemire's place. Stoudemire isn't a great passer from that spot. Gasol might be the very best passer from that spot in the entire league, and he's arguably an even better jump-shooter. It's a much more natural fit to have Gasol and another big instead of Stoudemire and another big.
If Gasol can make plays from the high post, it'll force defenders to honor him, which will open up the lane for the big man to roll. This next play, also involving Anthony, Stoudemire and Chandler, is an example of a team paying too close attention to Stoudemire, opening up the lane.
Markieff Morris is so concerned about Stoudemire that he lets Chandler cut right behind him for the layup. Again, this sequence will be even more effective with Nash, Gasol and Howard as the three players instead of Anthony, Stoudemire and Chandler.
Finally, don't be surprised to see D'Antoni use Gasol as a decoy screener for Bryant on the opposite side as Howard and Nash run pick and roll. This was one way D'Antoni was able to mask his lack of perimeter shooting during the end of his Knicks tenure. Notice what is happening in this sequence.
The Nuggets have to honor any action that involves both Stoudemire and Anthony, so Danilo Gallinari and Nene have their backs turned to the lane. Meanwhile, Fields is finding Chandler wide open for the layup.
The Nuggets had to pick their poison in this set. Either surrender a layup for Chandler, or live with an open jumper for Stoudemire from the elbow. They chose to honor Stoudemire and surrendered the lane.
Again, consider the players D'Antoni could use for a similar set in Los Angeles. Instead of Chandler screening for Fields, he would have Howard, arguably the most devastating roll man of the last five years, screening for Nash, arguably the best pick and roll passer of the last five years. On the opposite side, instead of Anthony screening for Stoudemire, he could have Gasol screening for Bryant, or vice versa. Defenders have to honor Stoudemire, but not nearly as much as they'd have to honor Bryant. The decision of whether to find Howard rolling to the rim or Bryant popping out for an open jumper would be in Nash's hands.
No matter what, D'Antoni has ways to mask Gasol's lack of three-point shooting.
How to get his team to run
Clearly, there's a bit of a stylistic disconnect between D'Antoni's high-octane reputation and the Lakers' older roster. However, I think there's plenty of room for the two to meet each other halfway. Yes, D'Antoni's Suns were among the fastest-paced teams in the league, but the rest of the league began to catch up a bit in his last few years. D'Antoni's Knicks also never led the league in pace, even before the Carmelo Anthony trade. The frantic Seven Seconds or Less style was beginning to be replaced by a smarter, more efficient break that devastated teams with smart drag screens and quick-hitters.
That style should suit the Lakers well. The Lakers currently rank 17th in pace, and given the on-court intelligence of Nash, Bryant and Gasol (not to mention the athleticism of Howard), they should be higher. They won't streak up the court and have guys run to the corners like the 2006 Suns, but they can get the ball up quickly, run something quick to take advantage of cross-matches and get one of their stars something easy. They should have been doing this under Brown as well, but Brown won't stress running like D'Antoni will.
I suspect that D'Antoni will be willing to adjust if the Lakers can remain efficient on these fast-break opportunities. If the Lakers get enough stops, they'll get chances to create transition mismatches and pump that pace factor number closer to where D'Antoni's old teams once were.
This is the area where D'Antoni will have to compromise most for his new team. Statistically, D'Antoni's clubs have always been average defensively (average, not bad), but he also has been criticized for not practicing defensive sets enough. His decision to pursue Nate McMillan to be his lead defensive assistant is also questionable; McMillan-coached teams have never been better than 13th in points allowed per 100 possessions. He will have to at least make it seem like he's committed to defense more as a way to keep his team.
But it's also worth noting that none of his Suns teams ever had a defensive anchor like Dwight Howard. This will be an interesting case study in what factor is most important in a good defense. Is it a strong coach that demands his players defend and designs schemes to put them in the ideal position to do so, or is it a dominant defensive big man that covers up his teammates' issues?
In D'Antoni's case, there's some evidence that it might be the latter. The Knicks were a top-10 defensive team per 100 possessions before he got fired last year, and you can thank the presence of Tyson Chandler for a lot of that. A healthy Howard is arguably a better defender than even Chandler was last year, and while Howard is playing a step slower than usual right now due to a back injury, it's reasonable to expect Howard to bounce back and cover up a lot of issues D'Antoni may have as a defensive tactician.
Bottom line: no matter how one might feel about D'Antoni as a defensive coach, he won't have the Lakers as the 25th-best defensive team in the league like they were through five games under Brown.
I get the sense that the D'Antoni of 2006 may not have worked with this roster. Back then, he was trying to prove that his unique way of looking at the game was going to usher in changes larger than winning a championship. Six years later, the league has adopted a lot of his innovations. Now, it should be all about winning for D'Antoni. Given the embarrassment of what happened with the Knicks, I suspect D'Antoni is willing to compromise some of himself if it means winning a championship.