He is a man on an island who witnessed a disaster. Like all disasters, there was the ordinary, the typical destruction. For Mike D’antoni, what happened to him last night was his most recent chapter in a long line of ‘what happened here’ moments. Though not on purpose, D’antoni has always taken a team in the opposite direction they wanted to go. So this is not new, this continuation of his own ruin. A deficit that hovered around the 50 point mark puts him into the record books, into Lakers history for the wrong reasons. For much of Mike D’antoni’s coaching career he has been a magician. Sprinkle dust and his failures disappear. His Suns teams never reached the Finals; the Knicks job was his reward. He had a contentious era in New York; the Lakers job was his reward. In Los Angeles he feuded with Pau Gasol. There are no more rewards.
It is hard to conceptualize how D’antoni justifies this latest fall. He has never been a coach to take responsibility for anything that has gone wrong with any of his teams. In Phoenix it was the league who sabotaged him by suspending Amare Stoudamire. In New York it was Carmelo Anthony. This year it is his mediocre players. When does he link all the dots together and say: it is because of me. I am at fault.
The sports historians will point to last night’s game as a watershed mark for the Lakers franchise. All of the numbers are true, the 142 points, the 57 field goals made, the 113 points in three quarters. But last night happened because Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss decided to make it happen. In that sense everything that has taken place with D’antoni these last two years has been preventable; that is the pill the Lakers front office has to swallow. They did this to themselves. They stabbed their own team in the heart.
The anti- D’antoni crowd does not want to hear this but the coach they love to ridicule has had a huge impact on the NBA. Every team is running a truncated version of the D’antoni offensive system. Spread the floor, move the ball from side to side, work the ball inside, find shooters. In the course of ten years it has changed the approach of the NBA game. But while teams have adopted parts of Mike D’antoni’s system into their philosophy, Mike D’antoni has refused to adopt their philosophy into his system. His teams have never been tough. They have never utilized size in the paint. They have been atrocious rebounders. They play too fast. Their attention to detail on the defensive end comes and goes. The irony is glaring. Players suffer financially for a lack of versatility. But Mike D’antoni’s one sided approach makes him rich.
His latest adjustment is to enact a small ball offense even if it is not effective. Multiple possessions means multiple chances at failure. Jordan Hill and Chris Kaman may not play again this season. Consider that in a near 50 point loss neither were in the game. Small players are effective if they are versatile, if they can score and rebound or score and defend or score and create havoc. But small players who struggle to score and then do almost nothing else are prey for the predators of this league. D’antoni remarked that the Clippers smelled, “blood in the water.” The problem with Mike D’antoni as a coach is that nearly every team he faces has the same sort of glee on their face when matched up against the Lakers. His small ball cannot sustain itself over time. It was successful in Portland. But does anyone with a brain think it is going to pay dividends against the Thunder and San Antonio?
The Lakers lost last night in a repetitive fashion. It was the same way they lost to the Clippers on January 10th. They were humiliated in the second quarter and by the end of the quarter the game was over. As was the case then, Darren Collison destroyed every remnant of guard play that the Lakers had. Collison, a 46% shooter, shot 75%. D’antoni’s adjustment to what happened in January was to not change a thing, not have any size in the paint even as his perimeter players were not quick enough to stay with Collison. They were beaten off the dribble and they were beaten inside and they were psychologically beaten. D’antoni just sat there and took the pain and the punishment. If there is anything that lingers around the D’antoni mystique it is this particular flaw of his. He refuses to look at what is in front of him in order to manage the game. Instead he is intent on trying to force his image upon the game. And when it falls apart he refuses to look in the mirror.
In 1973 Mike D’antoni was a rookie in the NBA. He lost 11 games in a row. His team, the Kansas City-Omaha Kings, gave up more points than they scored. They were last in rebounding and Hall of Famer Bob Cousy, who was their coach, was fired. D’antoni, shot 40%. He made the playoffs in his second year and in his third year his shooting was dismal, 25%. He was waived by the Kings and signed with the Spirits of St. Louis where he was the fourth guard in the rotation. It was one more D’antoni team that gave up more points than they scored even though they had a young Maurice Lucas and a young Moses Malone. Eventually D’antoni signed with the Spurs and played two games before going to Europe.
Mike D’antoni is 63 years old. It is hard to imagine a NBA team that he can have success with only because the game has changed so dramatically. Yes, scoring from the perimeter is a staple of the game but so is scoring in the paint. High possession basketball is losing basketball. Consider the past five NBA champions, the Heat, Mavericks, Lakers. They averaged 94 possessions per game. D’antoni’s team this year averages 100 possessions per game. In fact, the top 4 teams in terms of pace are lottery teams. The 76ers, Lakers, Timberwolves and Nuggets. It doesn’t take a scientist to figure out the correlation between playing at a reckless pace and losing. Yet this is the D’antoni system, what has been on display the past two seasons; speed. And losing.
There are no such things as accidents. In 2010, in January, the New York Knicks, hosted the Dallas Mavericks in historic Madison Square Garden which has hosted iconic events in popular culture: the first televised college basketball game, Marilyn Monroe singing her infamous birthday song to President Kennedy. Also Ali and Frazier, both unbeaten, fought in the Garden in 1971 and then the rematch was in 1974. But on January 24, 2010, the Knicks, coached by Mike D’antoni, lost to the Dallas Mavericks by 50 points. They trailed by 2 points at the end of the first quarter. They were trounced in the second quarter. And in the third quarter. And in the fourth. Dallas shot 57%. Dallas had three straight 30+ quarters.
At the end of this year, when Mike D’antoni meets with Mitch Kupchak and he is asked what did you accomplish, how will he answer? There is no way to dress it all up. Yes, he had a few brief high points. Winning in Brooklyn and Toronto and Memphis and Portland. Beating Dwight Howard in Houston. Winning on opening night, a night that felt magical. His team was supposed to be tragic. They are. So it has been a pretty predictable outcome. No one changes. Not even Mike D’antoni. He is the same New York coach whose team gave up 50 points. He is the same Lakers coach who alienated several star players. He is the same Phoenix coach whose defense was at the bottom of the league. We knew before it all started, we knew this was never going to be a masterpiece. All that is left now is a raging storm in the lives of men who had careers they hoped would last a little longer. It is what Mike D’antoni hoped for six months ago. But that was then. A wish. The wanting of a dream to come true. The reality has descended upon us. The Lakers are a miserable team and Mike D’antoni is their woeful leader.