So Mike D’Antoni is headed to Hollywood, and the Internet is ablaze trying to determine just how much this helps or hurts the Lakers, everybody’s favorite talking point this season. The Lakers are a superstar team, in a superstar town, and D’Antoni is now a superstar coach, at least that’s what Kupchak and crew are betting on with their three-year deal to bring in the former Knicks and Suns coach. But aside from his MVP in Phoenix, Steve Nash, and one half of a productive season with Amar’e Stoudemire in New York (as well as fleeting moments in the desert), superstars haven’t been an integral part of D’Antoni’s coaching experience, and in those instances when a superstar’s distinct blip did appear on his radar, it wasn’t always smooth sailing afterwards. Furthermore, D’Antoni’s inability to meet any personal issues with his superstar directly – preferring to shirk any of that responsibility – also leaves a lot to be desired. If a superstar publicly disagrees with D’Antoni’s “spread the floor and give it to Nash” offense, he can’t slink off into the sunset; it’s just a dark open Pacific west of Los Angeles.
D’Antoni’s SSOL philosophy might appear to be the perfect anecdote for the Lakers’ (not really awful) offense this season, but how will he handle the myriad of egos that comprise the current Lakers roster? How will he handle Orlando coach-killer, Dwight Howard? How will he handle the hyper-competitive Jordan sycophant and five-time NBA champion, Kobe Bryant, when D’Antoni’s never advanced past a conference final? How will he handle the emotional instability of Pau Gasol or Metta World Peace? If his past resume is any indication, he’ll handle the interpersonal dynamics of this current Lakers iteration like he always does: by avoiding any and all confrontation with the aggrieved party. Unfortunately, that’s not really a blueprint for success.
Jack McCallum‘s book from the Suns bench, Seven Seconds or Less, has become so ubiquitous it’s now an acronym for Mike D’Antoni’s offensive coaching philosophy. D’Antoni and his Suns espoused a let ‘er rip schema for any and all open looks, but in that same book D’Antoni’s hands-off approach to dealing with troubled superstars was also evident. Stoudemire’s recovery from his initial knee injury and ensuing microfracture surgery was a black mark on D’Antoni and the Suns’ ’05-’06 season documented by McCallum. Stoudemire appeared disinterested in the Suns’ progress and his own attempts at convalescence. He clashed with D’Antoni’s coaching staff, who wanted him to play a role with the team even as he attempted to come back from his injury.
When D’Antoni moved on to New York, he inherited a roster that featured only one borderline superstar: Stephon Marbury. D’Antoni might have loved point guard play after his years with Nash, but when his initial Knicks season started – even with Marbury in great shape coming into training camp – D’Antoni still relegated “Starbury” to the bench behind career backup, Chris Duhon. D’Antoni failed to heed calls for Marbury to play early in the ’08-’09 season, and there was some “he said/she said” rhetoric after a roster dump opened up playing time for Steph off the bench, which resulted in dressing only seven players one night. Eventually, the team banned Marbury from practices or games, and only reached a buyout with him in December of that year.
Starbury and D’Antoni’s feuding was reinvigorated after D’Antoni’s resignation from the Knicks this past spring, even going so far as to become “buzz-worthy.” Regardless of Marbury’s sanity, which is certainly up in the air, D’Antoni failed to play his superior point guard, and mishandled the early publicity that came with Marbury’s benching in his inaugural season in New York. Why would things be different in the L.A. microcosm that’s already shown it’s abrasive enough to get a coach fired after just five games?
Let’s not forget about the Carmelo Anthony saga, either. GM Donnie Walsh and D’Antoni were both totally against bringing Carmelo to New York, but Jimmy Dolan heeded Isiah Thomas‘ whispers, and brought in ‘Melo anyway. In exchange for Denver’s superstar, the Knicks handed over the entirety of the roster Walsh and D’Antoni had built to complement D’Antoni’s offensive stylings. Doesn’t that sound like something Jim Buss would do with this Lakers team? Anyway, we now know that D’Antoni and ‘Melo clashed last year, and that was the primary reason D’Antoni stepped down – although, neither party admitted as much.
Even with Amar’e playing one half of a year in 2010 at an MVP/superstar level with Mike D’Antoni as his coach, they differed in Phoenix during STAT’s churlish early years. D’Antoni also bungled the Starbury situation almost as much as Starbury bungled any chance he had to be an NBA star. Then, most recently, we have the Carmelo saga. Three superstars, and three relationships that either ended badly or were handled poorly by not being handled at all.
Burying one’s head in the sand might be Mike D’Antoni’s modus operandi when faced with a strong-willed superstar, but this Lakers team needs a wakeup call, and the Zen Master could have at least spoken some truth to power, which is possibly why Phil’s not in power anymore (ahem, Jimmy Buss). Conversely, Mike D’Antoni is only successful when dealt players – like Nash – who are internally motivated to succeed, and who follow the coach without question. Yes, Nash is in L.A. too, but how healthy will he be without the Suns’ leading training staff?
Dwight Howard is the ideal contemporary superstar to annoy D’Antoni’s no-frills brand of coaching, and dumping the ball down low in the post – where Howard lives – is almost as frowned upon as passing up an open three.
Metta could become more meta as his quickness continues to be sapped, and Pau is still experiencing the psychological torment in his current spot as the Lakers’ biggest trade chip for the Chris Pauls, Dwight Howards, or – in just two years time – Kevin Loves of the world. Kobe Bryant has only two years left on his contract, and eventually even his platelet-rich German doctors won’t have an answer for his knee’s deterioration. What happens when Kobe can no longer perform and looks for scapegoats when his double-teamed, off-balance shots to end the game aren’t even drawing iron? These are all issues D’Antoni will have to deal with, whether he likes it or not.
This Lakers team came into the season facing a mountain of question marks, and with the early season firing of Mike Brown, that list of questions became longer and murkier. Now, with the polarizing Mike D’Antoni replacing Brown on the Lakers’ bench, those questions have amplified. Most prior evidence suggests this coach is the last guy you want coaching a team of superstars. Even Steve Nash won’t be enough to save Mike D’Antoni if he loses a grasp on Kobe or Dwight, and there’s very little reason to believe D’Antoni has the experience necessary to challenge those two superstars. Even if he did, the guy does not like confrontation. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what D’Antoni will be forced to contend with in Los Angeles. A team of superstars, in a city of superstars, coached by a guy that doesn’t really like dealing with superstars.
Now is about the time Phil Jackson is lighting up his peace pipe in some cabin. Unfortunately, D’Antoni could use a couple hits. He’s got a long road ahead of him.
Will this coaching change work out for the Lakers?
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