The exhaustion of losing notwithstanding, at different points in the game last night the Lakers were disastrously overwhelmed by the Suns offensive behavior, their three point shot making, their dribble penetration, their selfless execution. It was a revealing performance, punctuating what we know already about the Lakers terrible defense and the man that coaches them into submission. There he was along the sidelines with his usual grimace and frown and stiff upper lip. Mike D’Antoni stalked the edges like a mad bear, he even yelled some. But the truth is the truth. D’Antoni is not the genius he has been made out to be, that is his myth. He is no different than any other coach trying to get a group of mediocre players to be competitive and finding the task one of misery.
At the core of D’Antoni’s coaching style is an enormous arrogance about what is right about his system not what is wrong. He cannot fathom or accept his system’s singular weaknesses even as his team is continually bullied and humiliated. When D’Antoni is boxed into a corner because of his own deficiencies-he created this one dimensional offense and abject defense- D’Antoni then defends his own failure by refusing responsibility and turning it into something else, by turning on an innocent party, by sabotaging them.
The game was terrible. The team did not compete. Afterwards it was the same routine, a crowd of reporters asking D’Antoni questions about what went wrong on this Monday night. It was a loop of clichéd inquiries all coaches must endure. Questions were asked and answered and it was pretty routine. It was the same old thing that happens in ever NBA game.
But when things are going badly and your ego is at stake you say things you should not say, you do things you do not want to do. Losing takes away flesh, it crushes the ego. Beneath its weight some men shrink. Others take it proudly. But most cannot. Mike D’Antoni cannot. And so he took a deep breath last night and Mike D’Antoni did what all Lakers fans knew he would eventually do. He finally fell on his sword.
He was asked about the fans, about what he would say to them. They are discouraged. A 27 point loss to the Suns. A 19 point loss to the Warriors. These are Lakers fans, the most dedicated, demanding fans in basketball; they expect answers for what was worse than mediocrity. There was no interest in defense. There was no interest in scoring. There was no interest in moving the ball. There was no interest in taking good shots. It was a team going through the motions, almost as if they no longer cared. All of this was the back story, what was revealed on television. That was when the question came about- what would he say to the discouraged fans.
Go find another team.
That was D’Antoni’s brilliance, a sort of pep talk, a way to present himself as the hero and the fans as the villains, the fans whose support and loyalty is the only lifeline for keeping this mediocre ship from sinking into apathy. D’Antoni followed his go-find-another-team-to-support with a comment on how his team is a bunch of good guys which in this case has nothing to do with the bottom line of losing by 27 points to the Phoenix Suns. Who in the hell cares if they are good guys? The question is are they good players? The question is can you coach them? The question is are they listening to you? The question is why is the boat sinking? The question is when are you going to take responsibility for an offense that at its best is jacking up shots and at its worse is ignoring the paint? The question is when are you going to admit your defense is deplorable, your skills as a defensive coach is questionable and being next to last in the NBA in defense is a crime against everything the Lakers have ever stood for. But of course D’Antoni was D’Antoni meaning he was unrepentant about all of it.
The memory of how D’Antoni took someone else’s job still has the taste of bitter fruit. The irony in all of it is that Lakers fans had found a way to divorce themselves from last year. If it was not a new marriage with D’Antoni it was a courtship, a new look at an old relationship, a second chance at best. It had taken a year to get over how he had ruined the Lakers with his alienation of Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol, with his perimeter offense is better than paint offense, with his spinelessness regarding Kobe Bryant. Now, without Kobe, the fans were realistic and suppressed their antipathy of D’Antoni’s system as long as it yielded results. The fact is the players did play hard. The bad injury luck was not D’Antoni’s fault. Kobe Bryant was injured (again). Steve Nash was injured (again). Steve Blake was injured again. Jordan Farmar was injured.
But it was D’Antoni’s fault that he tried to make a point guard out of Xavier Henry, that he refused to play Chris Kaman for nearly a month, that he once again got Pau Gasol all worked up. That he had thirteen different lineups. These are the small things that ruin seasons.
And then D’Antoni drew a line in the sand. Laker fans are on one side. D’Antoni and his perimeter offense and terrible defense on the other. The Lakers lost by 27 points to a good Phoenix Suns team. The open shots, the effortless defense, the refusal to rebound, the lack of offensive cohesion, the bad shots, were enough to repulse any fan. Who would not be discouraged? It is one thing to see players play their hearts out and lose. But this, this was embarrassment Mike D’Antoni style. So he did what D’Atnoni does. In a selfless act of protecting his players- who must be reminded are men- he turned the conversation around, he unsheathed the knife in the back. He said of Laker fans, the most loyal and vigilant in the NBA, he said: please go away.
Of course the rebuttal to that is obvious: You go away. Take your terrible defense and disappear. Take your three point shots and disappear. Take your no offensive rebounding and disappear.
Nothing is ever gained by attacking the clients, the customers, the ones who continue to make your career relevant. Much to D’Antoni’s dismay the fans of the Lakers are not going to find another team to obsess about because there is no other team that closely resembles what has happened in Los Angeles for the past fifty years, what Los Angeles basketball means. That he had the audacity to say it out loud was offensive and it was misplaced aggression. But because it was Mike D’Antoni, a stranger to how things are done here, to what fans expect, it was part of his talent for doing the wrong thing, coaching the wrong way, insulting the wrong players, having a war with the most loyal of all fans. All of it done without a single shred of remorse.