He could not satisfy the yearning; he was not of the past. His hiring, rushed the way it was, made him the enemy. It was inevitable, all of the low points. But Mike D’Antoni did not enter into this Lakers gig blind. There are some men who want what they cannot have. And there are some men who receive another man’s riches. And finally-and this is where D’Antoni fits in – there are some men who leave before they are ready. Or maybe that is not exactly true, maybe D’Antoni is leaving exactly when he is ready. He knew the fine print. With a one-year deal it would be impossible to establish what he wanted. Having to earn that second year would interfere with his authority. His communication skills being what they are, he would not be able to convince a team or inspire a team to fight for him when adversity hit. And so D’Antoni had a choice, succumb or quit. He quit.
Mike D’Antoni never had a honeymoon. So from that standpoint it was an uphill climb. No matter how hard he tried he just could not make the trajectory – the second coach hired to replace the first coach fired – work. In his first year the team had a dismal record by the All Star break but they were 20-8 afterwards, even if it cost Kobe his Achilles. Even then, during a mad, frenetic push to get into the playoffs, it wasn’t D’Antoni’s style of play that won games. It was a post offense that got the Lakers victories. D’Antoni went along for the ride. He was masquerading as something he was not. He had yet to figure out he could have two things at the same time. He could have the type of small ball offense he craved and he could compromise for the sake of his veteran players. But his flawed nature made it impossible to straddle both worlds, to give and to receive and so it became a waiting game, waiting on Dwight. When Dwight left, D’Antoni felt empowered. Kobe was going to be out a long time which was a separate relief. The result was D’Antoni could do what he longed to do before coming here. He could build a team in his image. Except for this one small detail. His job wasn’t to build a team. D’Antoni’s job was to coach a team. And to win games.
We can be judgmental people. D’Antoni was the repository for our rage, the one to take on the burden of blame. To take on despair. To take on disgust. It was no longer a point of fact on whether he deserved it or not. Because, really, who gets what they deserve anyway. There was a lot of blame this year that fell upon the shoulders of Mike D’Antoni. The Lakers lost 11 games by more than 20+ points. They lost 5 games by more than 30+ points. They recorded the worst record in Los Angeles Lakers history. They recorded the most losses in Lakers history. They had the second worst defense in the NBA. They gave up more rebounds than every NBA team. They gave up too many assists. It goes on and on and on, the futility list and lack of competency. Whether D’Antoni was at fault is irrelevant. All that matters is he was the coach. So he was responsible.
As awkward as it has been for Mike D’Antoni he was not a stranger to this world. He went through this in New York. He went through this in Phoenix at the end. He knows how the game is played, that you are punished on the way out, that you are the barbarian to everyone else’s victim. His leverage was very small and this year, for everything he didn’t do, and there was plenty, he extracted every last bit he could from the wing players who became addicted to the freeing nature of his coaching. Simply, they had the best year they ever had. But in a cruel irony that is just one more in the coaching career of Mike D’Antoni, it is also how he is damned. He will never get credit for that which he did right, for bringing the best out of Nick Young, Xavier Henry, Kent Bazemore, Jodie Meeks. He is remembered for his consistently terrible defense. He is remembered for telling the Lakers fans to stay away. He is remembered for benching Pau Gasol in the 4th quarter of a game, ruining their relationship forever. And yet with all of that back story, with all of those D’Antoni blunders and mistakes and his lack of self consciousness, he still could have been the Lakers coach in 2014-15. If only he had accepted a one year deal.
D’Antoni was always the consolation prize. It was a fragile alliance made worse because D’Antoni did not treat Lakers history with any more reverence than he would an annoying ghost that comes out at night and haunts while sleeping. Perhaps we are to blame for some of it – not the bad defense, not the fast paced offense -but there is nostalgia in sports. It allows us our past, of how things used to be. We hoard our memories like one of those mentally ill homeless people who have boxes filled with stuff. The truth is the game has changed. D’Antoni understood that. Dr. Buss, at the end of his life, understood that. Even Kupchak understands that. Perhaps if D’Antoni’s system would have worked right away, if the injuries had not decimated the team, if the season had not been about recovery, stability, recovery, struggle, there would have been a little more leverage afforded him. But when you lose by 48 points to the Clippers the season becomes a test of survival and destruction. It was a brazen offense that D’Antoni put together. It always pushed the envelope. Sadly, it was a reluctant defense that would not conform. And so this is how you get to the hate part of Mike D’Antoni. It was not an accident. It was not all at once. It happened one game at a time. It happened when the Lakers were out-rebounded by 23 in a game in Phoenix. It happened when the Lakers lost at home to the worst team in the NBA, the Milwaukee Bucks. It happened when the Lakers gave up 134 points to the Houston Rockets.
If there was anything heroic about D’Antoni it was in that first year in Phoenix when no one in the NBA could figure his system out. They did not know what to do with all that dribbling Steve Nash did and all that dunking Amare did and the perimeter shooting of Shawn Marion and Leandro Barbosa. But years later it is a system that has been copied, repeated, identified, cut apart, dissected, put back together again. It is not a stranger. It is not a friend. It is just the way the NBA does business these days. Quick players on the perimeter, guards in the paint, big men who play like guards. Everyone has an identity crises. But because everyone plays that way it works and because it works it is the reverse of having Steve Nash on your team. It makes D’Antoni irrelevant. He lost what he had, what he thought he owned, he lost it to the rest of the NBA. He is emulated just as he is excoriated which of course is the hypocrisy that hangs over D’Antoni’s entire career.
That said, his career arc makes him a survivor. He worked miracles in Phoenix by identifying a system, cultivating and winning with it. He went to New York and the trade for Carmelo decimated the team he thought he would have. Yes there was that mysterious and magical Jeremy Lin ride but it collapsed. He came to the Lakers because they had Steve Nash. He is just one of those lucky people who always lands on his feet. But he is unlucky too because he always falls into a ditch.
There’s no point in remembering that he was hired because of a dying man; the dying man still hangs over the franchise. But as far as D’Antoni is concerned he took the hits and hung in there or he tried to, even as his communication skills nearly sunk his ship. He loved certain players; he will miss them, especially Nash. He will not miss this city and their disgust of him although D’Antoni seemed to relish the hate, to take it as a badge of courage. He never crumbled. If he wanted to he could brag and say I went to L.A. and they did not change me. I stayed true to my values and principles. But the truth is this was a terrible two years of D’Antoni only because he was an awful leader, an average coach, a developer of perimeter guards, a bad comic (his jokes always fell flat). He should have turned the job down. His ego wouldn’t let him. What was supposed to be redemption after New York became failure after New York. He was despised on two coasts. Failure visits us all- but that is not even the point once you have been through what D’Antoni has been through. He is one of those people who make you feel something, who you react to. When he is gone, not associated with your team anymore, when he quits because he knew he had to quit, that thing you feel most often is relief. And then you wait for the happiness to come. It does.