Last summer Mike D’antoni was asked to do the unthinkable. He was challenged to bring cohesion to a collection of rag tag players, a group forced to accept one year deals. Usually that is chaos for a NBA coach; everyone thinking about contracts means everyone is not thinking about the team and their principles. But the motivation of trying to recover a career was something D’antoni was familiar with. He had been there himself. Besides, what he liked about this group was what he disliked about Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant and their traditional way of executing an offense. D’antoni coached pace. He coached ball movement. He coached perimeter shots quick in the offense. He was ready to put the nightmare season of 2012-13 behind him. But then, a few weeks into the summer, Mitch Kupchak signed Chris Kaman, a big man with excellent post footwork and skill. He was the sort of player D’antoni had spent most of his career trying to avoid, the ones who ruin spacing and clog the paint and hold the ball too long. Plus Kaman was a veteran with a veteran’s disposition. If Kaman wasn’t happy he was not going to be silent about it.
In September, when most of the players assembled at the Lakers training facility to begin learning the offense D’antoni was clear about what he was seeing and more importantly what the future held. “If Pau has a great year, an All Star year and if we are lucky we might make the playoffs.” Of course D’antoni knew what he was saying was a long shot. Pau Gasol would never have an All Star year. The system did not extract Pau’s strengths which was his skill around the basket and rim, his innate passing sense and his poise in a slower paced game. Whatever optimism D’antoni had for Pau was only p.r. double speak. D’antoni knew the truth. The Lakers of 2013-14 were going nowhere.
He was right. But even he did not expect everything that happened. But did that mean his season was a failed one, one more flawed year as a coach? Consider that a coach is judged in five areas: wins and losses, accountability, player development, leadership, and game strategy/ management. In some areas D’antoni was good, in others he was miserable. As is always the case with D’antoni, it was a mixed bag.
Wins and Losses: They Lakers beat the Clippers on the first night of the season and they beat the Spurs on the last. Between the two their victories were sparse. They beat Golden State once, Brooklyn once, Charlotte once, Memphis once, Houston once, Toronto once, Portland once and Oklahoma City once. These were their 10 wins against playoff teams scattered over a season. They lost 35 games to playoff teams. They lost 55 games overall. No other Lakers team, whether in Minneapolis or in Los Angeles had ever lost 55 games in a season. It never happened. Ever. The Lakers lost 11 games by 20+ points, a Lakers record. They lost 4 games by 30+ points, a Lakers record. They were the worst 3rd quarter team in the NBA. Their average lead in a game was 9 points, the second worst among all teams. They were 29th in defense. They allowed the most rebounds of any team in the NBA. Except for Philadelphia, they allowed the most assists. They allowed the most steals of any team in the NBA. These are areas of coaching. Shooting is the hardest skill a NBA player has to develop. Effort, running, energy, rebounding, those are the easy things, the one that are instilled as habits. Or not. These lead to wins or they lead to losses Grade: F.
Accountability: Yesterday two coaches, after playoff losses, in their post game remarks, said the same exact thing. Tom Thibedau and Doc Rivers both said of their teams losses: It is my fault. I am to blame. I did not do enough to get my guys ready to win. It is my responsibility to have them ready. Of course it is never any one person’s fault for losing but the point was well taken. A coach sets the tone. If he is not accountable for his mistakes how can he expect his players to be accountable for their mistakes? A coach, from time to time, has to provide cover for his players, he has to take the beating even if it is not deserved. Rare was the occasion that Mike D’antoni said the Lakers woeful third quarters were his fault. He never said he did not prepare them correctly coming out of the locker room. Rarely did he say their lack of effort in rebounding was his fault, that he was not preparing them in practice the way he should. Rarely did he say the Lakers shot selection was his fault. Most often what D’antoni did say was that it was the players who were to blame. They were not athletic. Or they played with no energy. Or they were not good enough to just go through the motions and win. He always drew a line: Me vs. Them. Grade: F
Player Development: Nick Young had career assist numbers. He had a career high in scoring. Jodie Meeks had a career high in points, field goal percentage, rebounds, assists, steals. Kendall Marshall had a career high in minutes, field goal percentage, rebounds, assists. So did Kent Bazemore and Wesley Johnson and Xavier Henry. But as their offensive numbers increased their turnovers were regressive. They worsened as the months continued. Nick Young turned the ball over 200+ times. Jodie Meeks turned the ball over 130+ times. Kendall Marshall turned the ball over 162+ times. Wesley Johnson turned the ball over 162+ times. Nearly all of their turnovers were on the perimeter and led to fast breaks of the other team. Grade: B+
Leadership: The coach determines the culture of the team. Are we a tough team? Are we an excuse making team? Are we a team that is happy just to go out and play? Are we a team that has a casual approach? Are we a team that punishes mistakes? Or are we a team that embraces bad habits? Shawne Williams said of Kobe’s first practice: the entire atmosphere changed, everyone was serious. Kobe said of that day: everyone knew they had to bring their “A” game. Consider what that means. A player establishes intensity. A player establishes focus. Not the coach. It was clear as the season progressed that D’antoni had no interest in punishing players for their mistakes. As the tone setter his message was you can make mistakes, you can continue bad habits. Communication is part of leadership. You have to have a rapport with the players you are asking to sacrifice. But as he did with Antawn Jamison last year, D’antoni went through a long period of not speaking to Chris Kaman. He changed lineups on a whim and did not warn or explain to players why suddenly they were on the bench. Or why they did not play. You can’t expect true loyalty if you are not willing to give true loyalty. Grade: D
Game Strategy: Mike D’antoni went into this year with one objective. Make the players run a three point system. Individually they were not skilled. He had very few ball handlers or shot creators. It was a worthwhile strategy in the beginning. But it would never be able to sustain itself because there was too much game film, too much emphasis on looking at tape and figuring out how to take away what a team is good at. Once teams figured the system out, once they ran the Lakers off the three point line, once they understood D’antoni had no interest in sending guards into the paint to rebound their misses, it was pretty easy to play them and to win. D’antoni had no plan “B”. What happens when the threes aren’t falling? What happens when the Lakers play the Clippers, the best three point defense team? D’antoni had no other way of getting points because he did not allow for post ups. Perplexing for D’antoni who had this group since Septemeber was that a key feature of his system was never run. The team did not move the ball. Rarely did the ball go from one side of the floor to the other. Two people would touch it and then take an ill advised shot. Or they would pass it to the wrong person and he would take a bad shot, like Jordan Hill and his infamous failed mid range jumpers. It was as if the Lakers players did not know their own personnel. Grade: C-
The Lakers have not acknowledged it but it is presumed they are bringing D’antoni back for one more year. He had a tough year as far as personnel and injuries are concerned. Bringing D’antoni back isn’t a disaster but it is going to be a rageful year. With Kobe at 100% health D’antoni’s control over the team, as tenuous as it always is, will be frayed. Kobe does it the way Kobe has always done it. He is going to play in the post. He is going to demand toughness. He is going to break off D’antoni’s offense the same way he broke off Phil’s offense. D’antoni is not tough enough as a leader or a communicator to challenge him. And he is intimidated by rageful players. Kobe knows, the team knows this, Mitch Kupchak knows this.
The Knicks, in D’antoni’s last year, hired Mike Woodson to be the assistant coach, just in case. It was the handwriting on the wall. D’antoni quit in the middle of the year. They already had a proven coach in the ranks.The Lakers would be smart to follow that model. Hire a former head coach as an assistant and then just wait it out.