They were born in the same year-1951- but it feels different, like they were born a thousand years apart, there is such a gap in everything. Their common geography, Los Angeles in 2001 and Los Angeles in 2012, is the reason comparisons are made. But it ends with the Southern California address; they coach differently, they live differently. When you see Pete Carroll on the sidelines and you see Mike D’antoni on the sidelines there is nothing about one man you can affix to the other. Of course the obvious observation is that Pete is much happier, especially now, especially after last night. All Pete has to worry about is continuing his success and finding a way to improve upon his defensive formula for next year. In contrast, Mike D’antoni wears an expression Pete does not even own, one of being beaten into the ground. D’antoni has to worry about tomorrow night and playing in Minnesota and who is in and who is out and will Pau Gasol be traded soon.
They share something. They share us. Their link to Los Angeles is Los Angeles itself, Pete Carroll and Mike D’antoni both worked here. Yet they are far apart, as far as alpha is to omega, as far as the earth is to the planet Neptune. They share nothing in personal philosophies other than they want to win but how they go about it, how they treat players, talk to them, talk about them, how they go about the construction of winning- that is what separates these two coaches who both came upon the Los Angeles landscape with a history of mediocrity. But Pete Carroll who is beloved by every player who played for him as well as the gang members he mentored, won a college championship in 2003 and 2004 and a professional championship in 2014 because he had a ferocious defense. Mike D’antoni who is despised by some of the great players in this current era- Carmelo Anthony, Pau Gasol, Antwan Jamison- has never won anything and his defense has always been mediocre or worse.
If Mike D’Antoni were Pete Carroll he would look upon coaching as an opportunity to build relationships. He would understand, as Pete likes to say, players who are happy just play better. Everyone wants someone to think they are special. Pete invests in his players as good men, that is first and then he looks at their particular strengths and weaknesses as athletes as he tries to get the most out of what his players can do. He gets it: when players succeed, well, so does he. In that vein, he does not force a system upon his players carte blanche because to do so might precipitate their failure. Former USC quarterback Matt Leinart is a perfect example of this. He was an average athlete with average arm velocity but Pete made him look better than he was because he figured out pretty early on what Leinart could and could not do. With Mike D’antoni it is the opposite. He is so driven by his system he allows it to inhibit his players basketball truth as he tries to reinvent them and have them do things they are not capable of doing over a 82 game season. Wes Johnson is not a distance shooter. He is hyper athletic, he is a slasher. He should be doing back cuts and using ball or head fakes and taking his man to the rim. He should play like the rookie Blake Griffin, getting to the rim repeatedly. But all he does he jack up perimeter shots, failing the team but failing himself and failing D’antoni as well.
If Mike D’antoni were Pete Carroll he would know winning the last game of the season is the point of it all. It is the most important measure in which a coach is judged. Being the team that holds the trophy is only possible when defense is cultivated, nurtured, honored and most importantly repeatedly practiced. Modern athletes are gifted with speed, explosiveness, agility, intellect. There has to be a system in which to thwart them, otherwise, as a team, you are doomed, regardless of how dynamic your players are. In Game 7 against the Celtics, Kobe Bryant was 6-24, and it took a pass to Metta World Peace to seal the victory in the last few minutes; had the Celtics embraced the D’antoni style of defense, let players score, don’t contest shots, rotate late, miss assignments, don’t offensive rebound (Pau had nine offensive rebounds in game 7), the game would have been over at halftime instead of waiting for a pair of Sasha Vujacic free throws. Pete was a defensive back in college and the pros. He was a head coach who emphasized defense in his first run in the NFL. He had a defensive identity with USC and Reggie Bush aside, his best NFL players were defensive players. D’antoni was an offensive player, a scorer but not a terrible good one, he came off the bench and then before he had a chance to blink his NBA career was over and he had to go to Europe. His lack of respect for defense as the foundation for winning at this level is its own cautionary tale. It was his demise in Phoenix, his demise in New York and is his demise here. It is not the players. Charlotte’s defense is ranked 6th. Teams score less points against the Bobcats than they do the Heat. The Celtics defense is ranked 8th. Teams score the same amount of points against the Celtics as they do the Heat. Why, with average players, are the Bobcats and Celtics so good defensively? Like all things it starts at the top. It is the commitment from the head coach that makes it clear to his players: before we do anything, before we dunk, before we jack up impossible threes, before bounce passes and lobs, we stop offense, we make the players playing against us so frustrated they want to quit.
If Mike D’Antoni were Pete Carroll he would hold players accountable for their casualness or laziness. He would challenge Nick Young for coming into a game and jacking up an impossible three with 18 seconds left on the shot clock. He would punish his guards every time they refuse to go and get their own rebound from a perimeter shot. He would demand that his players fight on possessions. He would reward a player each time they make a game altering player, whether it be a rebound, a block, a steal, a hustle for a 50-50 ball. But with D’antoni there are no consequences and yet he expects his players to get better. It was one of Carmelo Anthony’s biggest gripes about Mike D’antoni. Players do what they want because he lets them. Mike Brown was heavily questioned when he benched Kobe in the fourth quarter in a game against Memphis but as ridiculous as it was he was letting Kobe know he had a line in the sand and Kobe had crossed it. Sometimes when D’antoni is asked by the media a question about Kobe, D’antoni will smirk and say- “you go ask him that”- referring to Bryant, and there is a sense that D’antoni has a certain fear of Kobe. Pete Carroll fears no one, not even the gang members in South Central he would mentor on weekday nights, encouraging them to change their life because that is what Pete is about, changing a person’s life, whether it be a player or a kid caught up in violence. He is a players coach and players love him because he builds a relationship with them individually on the first day of training camp. When it is time to get tough with a player, to chastise them, to rein them in as he did with Richard Sherman, he is seen as being authoritative but caring, disciplining yet gentle.
If Mike D’antoni were Pete Carroll, come July 1st the top free agents would consider coming to the Lakers. They would be impressed with his success, with his defensive pedigree, with his compassionate nature. They would consider investing in the Lakers future because the coach of the Lakers believes in investing in them. Modern athletes are besieged by people who want things from them, who only care about them because of who they are and what they have achieved. To have your coach want the best for you and it has nothing to do with winning and it has everything to do with who you are, that is inspiring and it draws people to you.
This is the biggest difference of all and of course the one that counts, especially in star driven Los Angeles. Athletes are drawn to Pete Carroll, to his personality, his optimism, his faith in them, his attention towards them, his genuine interest in their mental health and physical health. He is parental and at the same time he is brotherly. He reflects goodwill and it is all so magnetic. The affection is circular, it is returned to him. Pete’s motto is the same as it has always been: always compete. D’antoni’s motto is the same too: always score and the Lakers will pay the price for it. Athletes avoid Mike D’antoni; Dwight Howard was the most public. D’antoni has never won on any level, and the perception is, with his disdain of defensive strategy, focus and commitment, he will never, ever hold a championship trophy.