First on the docket for Mitch Kupchak are exit interviews with players and then the coaching staff will have their day in court. Then and only then will beleaguered and often confused Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni know his fate. No more hanging by a vine that continually snaps around his neck. No more daily abuse, even for D’Antoni this year has been draining. A decision on his continued employment with the Lakers is expected sooner than later, as it should be. Kupchak has reinforced the sole opinion that D’Antoni has done the best job possible considering everything that has happened on the injury front. But Kupchak has also said that D’Antoni is going to be judged on wins and losses. At the end of the day a coach is defined by his record. D’Antoni was a great coach when he was with Phoenix because his teams won 62 games, 54 games, 61 games and 55 games. He was a terrible coach in New York because his teams won 32 games, 29 games, 42 games and 18 games. This year his team amassed the worst record in Los Angeles Lakers history. Last year his team scrapped his offense and barely made the playoffs. They were swept in the first round. His record speaks for itself. In the past six years he has lost 50+ games, three separate times.
D’Antoni has been hailed for the offense he debuted when Steve Nash left the Mavericks and signed with the Suns. Steve Nash was the perfect point guard to run it. Amare Stoudemire was the perfect power forward to execute the pick and roll. Shawn Marion was the perfect small forward to get into the seams and hit the three and guard the best player on the floor. Leandro Barbosa and Raja Bell were the best bench players, guys who could make threes and explode off of screens. In essence they were the perfect team of trust. Until they weren’t. Since they left Phoenix their careers have taken them in different directions. Nash slowed down and then was injured. Amare was injured. Marion’s production decreased but he won a ring. Barbosa was injured and Raja is no longer in the league. And D’Antoni has been a terrible coach.
Judge D’Antoni on his wins and losses. But also judge him on how he has related with his players. Did the Lakers want to win specifically because of D’Antoni? It was shocking to hear Chris Kaman say he had not spoken to D’Antoni in weeks. But very few were really surprised. Antawn Jamison had a frosty relationship with D’Antoni the year before. It makes no sense when you consider the coach’s primary responsibility is to lead and inspire. At media day in October, Kupchak publicly challenged D’Antoni to form a relationship with the team’s best player. Advice not taken. Kobe’s disinterest in playing for D’Antoni is reflective of all D’Antoni did not do. And yet Steve Blake was a huge D’Antoni supporter. As are some of the younger players who love his offense. But what they also love is that D’Antoni, unlike Phil Jackson and Greg Popovich, does not make players accountable. It is why the Lakers of March are the Lakers of December, making the same mistakes over and over again. With D’Antoni there is no punishment. Move the ball and play hard are his requirements. Popovich and Jackson’s requirements are pay attention to detail and execute the game plan. Therein lies the difference in the records and the success.
Judge D’Antoni on his wins and losses. But also ask: did his team get better in any facet of the game? The three-point shot is D’Antoni’s specialty. And yet the Lakers have not matched the November average of 10.6 three pointers made per game. They have regressed each month with their lowest month being December when they averaged 7.9 made threes per game. Their three-point field goal percentage has plummeted as well. In November and February they shot 40% and 45% respectively. The rest of the season they averaged 35%. Their rebounding has been hibernating for the winter. They started out averaging 44 rebounds a game. Then 41. Now it is 38 rebounds per game. Not surprisingly their low rebounding production coincided with the coach’s decision: no playing time for Chris Kaman and Jordan Hill. Was it D’Antoni’s intention not to rebound, not to establish strength in the paint? The Lakers have remained a solid assist team every month. Only one month did the team average less than 24 assists a game. Their steals average has steadily increased the last three months from 6.3 per game to almost 9. But neither factor has influenced wins. Not surprisingly the Lakers +/- has crashed. In November, their best month of the year it was -0.7. In December it fell to -7.5. In January it was -8.1. In March and April it is a woeful -9.5. As expected their defense is even worse. Since January 1st the Lakers have given up 130 points, five times. They have given up 140 points twice. The worst team in the NBA, the Milwaukee Bucks, have never given up 130 points.
Judge D’Antoni on wins and losses. But with a lottery pick coming in ask yourself can D’Antoni develop their talent? In New York he was shamed into playing Jeremy Lin and only did so because everyone else was injured. But what happens if the Lakers draft Julius Randle, a post player? How is D’Antoni, who has made it public his aversion to post players, going to help him mature as a player? What if the Lakers draft Joel Embiid? He is projected to be, at worse, Serge Ibaka, and at best Hakeem Olajuwon. How will that function in D’Antoni’s perimeter offense. If the Lakers draft Andrew Wiggins, a young player who is a good defender, how is D’Antoni going to improve his defense? What about Jabari Parker?
Judge D’antoni on wins and losses. But with Kobe coming back for what he calls ‘his wild ride’ how is D’Antoni’s perimeter scheme going to fit in with Kobe’s post play. He has played 18 years one way. D’Antoni has coached 10 years another way. Their last go round wasn’t particularly pretty, Kobe retooling the offense on his own without D’Antoni’s approval or input. Kobe is a veteran whose basketball opinion other veteran’s respect. He has already downgraded D’Antoni as a coach, he has marginalized him. What free agent would want to play for him?
And so here we are, finally at the end of the line. Of course, it was a mistake at the very start. It was bungled badly and D’Antoni never got a fair shot. The perception always was that he stole something from Phil Jackson. While that was not particularly true it was true he stole something from us in this season of Lakers worst ever. Worst ever defense. Worst ever record. Worst ever beatings. It might have caught Mike D’Antoni by surprise, what the job entailed. Coaching the Lakers has never been easy. His first game there were chants: we want Phil. His last game may happen in ten days. The chants will be gone, but the anticipation of his exit will serve the same purpose. It will make almost everyone happy.