He is not a genius anymore. It has been years since he revolutionized tempo. These days every team has figured out a way to run a hybrid version of Mike D’Antoni’s system that turned Phoenix into a contender. That is the problem with innovation, with being the first to do something, and being ahead of your time. It is stunning in the moment when everyone is caught unaware but after awhile it loses its effect.
Mike D’Antoni was hired to bring his offense to Los Angeles. When he was hired last year the Lakers had a 3-5 record after eight games. This year they have a 3-5 record after eight games. What else is there to say about D’Antoni’s effectiveness other than he is an average coach who has survived. So far, over the past year, he has not changed anyone’s opinion of him. His ego often gets in the way. He is burdened by his own self adoration. He is not a tactician. He is not a motivator either. And his offense is not that good. Last year the Lakers were sixth in points scored. This year they are nineteenth. Don’t use the Kobe excuse. If you truly are a genius you can motivate both the weak and the strong. Lineups do not have to be changed every other game.
This is the dumbing down of Mike D’Antoni. All anyone wants from him is a team that shows something. Or for him to display his offensive skill set. He is not instructing Kobe Bryant or Dwight Howard or a healthy Steve Nash. He is coaching a group of average players no one else wanted. D’Antoni prefers this sort of mediocrity. He is uncomfortable with the ecosystem of the NBA, players whose talent identified them as special when they were twelve or thirteen and have been entitled to exert their own level of power.
Go back a few decades when D’Antoni played and you realize he experienced hardship. He did not have much of a NBA career. Teams cut him or rarely used him. So he has empathy for players who are similar to himself, journey men, underdogs, the ones who have to work hard to get noticed. Early in the season with this group D’Antoni has had some success. The game in Houston, for one, in which the team played a tough and gritty game. But the blowout losses to Golden State, Dallas and at home to Minnesota, were atrocious attempts at team fundamentals and competition. He and his team were an embarrassment.
Some speak of it as infamy, November 12, 2012, the day D’Antoni was hired. It is pretty clear D’Antoni was not prepared to be blamed for the absence of a god. He walked into a volcano; hate dripped from the city streets. In the same way Dwight Howard was uncomfortable with the agitated passion of the Laker followers, so too was D’Antoni. The gates of hell opened up and he burned in the flames. Of course there was reason for the hostility. Everything the Laker brand stands for is nothing D’Antoni has ever been associated with.
His career is pretty self explanatory. He failed in New York City partly because he could never create an allegiance of trust between himself and Carmelo Anthony. He failed in Phoenix because his offense did not automatically bestow discipline. He failed in Denver because it was the lockout year.
Perhaps pride does go before the fall. But before the fall, usually, there is a lie. The one the Lakers were fond of repeating last year was that D’antoni’s scheme fit the players better than Phil Jackson’s triangle offense. Of course that was absurd. Three dominant post players do not fit a coach who wants to spread the floor and jack up three point shots.
365 days later the Lakers are in a different place but the same place. They are still struggling and perhaps are cursed by the balance of time. They have been good for so long; it is someone else’s turn. The faces at Laker practice are different without Kobe directing the show. Kobe’s absence gives D’Antoni relief, a lot of losses and some breathing room to do what he wants.
D’Antoni has the type of underprivileged players he believes are coachable and can run his system because his system does not depend on a hero. But it has passed its time, its usefulness. Every team needs a dominating star who can do something in the paint to complement perimeter scoring. Still, D’Antoni has had success in a small way. His bench players are the leading bench offense in the NBA, if that means anything. He has the support of the front office for the time being until free agency hits and then all bets are off.
This year the team was expected to start 1-7. They are 3-5. For the three wins D’Antoni gets credit for getting the team to play hard. For the five losses he deserves blame. In those games the Lakers did not contest shoots, did not get back on transition defense, and exhibited little to no mental toughness. Their defense ranking is at the bottom. The starters are the worst in the NBA which seems incredible since D’Antoni’s reputation is based on efficient offense. Steve Nash is shooting 27%. Pau Gasol is shooting 35% . Steve Blake is shooting 34%. Part of that is the fault of the offense D’Antoni designed which relies on the three point shot and dismisses the mid range shot to the team’s peril. He wants threes or layups. But his team is made up of inconsistent or old mediocre perimeter shooters who have trouble finishing around the rim. It makes no sense but it is the D’Antoni way.
After the humiliating loss to the Timberwolves on Sunday night D’Antoni talked a lot about Steve Nash’s ailing back, and the players who were not ready to play. He did not talk about himself. D’Antoni has never been looked at as a general or a father. Immersed in his own self absorption he follows a predictable pattern of sniper attack. Blame players for everything that is wrong without self reflection. In all human things there is the heart and there is the spine. There needs to be accountability on both ends. Yes, some days this team of average players is not going to hit their three point shots. They are not going to play hard enough to make up the difference between talent and effort. And some days D’Antoni is going to lose the game because, well, he is Mike D’Antoni. He is as ordinary as some of his run of the mill players. He is just as inadequate.
And yet, despite all of that, in this year of mediocrity, D’Antoni is untarnished even as he divides organizations. This is an experiment. It is filling a hole with sand instead of dirt. If the Lakers win more games than people thought D’Antoni will be redeemed on a certain level. No, he will never be extraordinary. But people will point and say- look at what he did. If the opposite happens, if the team meets its low expectations then it is the mediocre players who will be the cause of the disaster, who will be ruined. No one will care who the coach is.
It is funny or perhaps it is ironic that in D’Antoni’s career nothing ever falls upon his shoulders. It pours rain; he never is wet. He is never the problem and he is never the solution. Perhaps because he never risks his own life. In Phoenix it was the players who could not restrain themselves from leaving the bench. In New York it was Carmelo Anthony’s resistance to ball movement. Last year it was Dwight Howard’s refusal to participate in pick and roll offense. D’Antoni is always separate from the tsunami he creates.
He is an invisible man. He will continue to hang on because he grabs other people’s leftovers. That is why he is never to blame. It is never his offense, never his defense, never the way he coaches. He never suffers the cost. It is what makes this year an ideal situation for him and this team, why he claims he is rejuvenated after last year. He cannot lose. Whatever is good, whatever is disastrous, however it ends up, D’Antoni will be the last one to fall on his sword. Some will celebrate the mortal wound. Some will think he got what he deserved. Many will wonder what took so long.