During the most trying days of MIke D’antoni’s tenure there was not much to embrace on and off the court. He had a detached style that discouraged affection. The normal grace period every new coach is given was a small window for him. He was an outsider. He did not seem to appreciate what he had been given. His system of pace, based on the principles of feast or famine, did not fit yet he tried to make it work in a desperate, stubborn sort of egomaniacal way. He kept at it even if much of it was forcing players to do what was not natural. D’antoni’s most fatal flaw was that he refused to adapt, he was tone deaf when it came to the idea that his offense wasn’t the pretty girl at the prom. There was exhaustion the two years D’antoni was here, a mind bending fatigue watching the same thing fail night after night. The Lakers were always in defense mode having to explain D’antoni without really understanding D’antoni. So much was wrong and so much did not fit and it was not something that could be forgiven. So his exit was a relief, it meant the Lakers could exhale, could breathe fresh air again. Of course it also meant, in a very practical sense, they had to go backwards. Nearly everything was gone. It’s like that sandcastle the beach waves destroy. The foundation is there but the castle is ruined. So the building starts all over again.
Great leaders fight for something other than themselves, it is how their greatness is defined in the larger world. It is absent of ego. D’antoni fought for himself and his offense, not necessarily the men who ran it. There was a line between the haves and the have-nots as D’antoni displayed favoritism. Of course coaches are human, they like who they like, usually those willing to run their system. But D’antoni had a history of burning through players, of creating animosity and then leaving the ruins for someone else to sort through. It’s a particular specialty of his, his war games. It demands of players to take sides. The new coach, whoever he may be, with his energy and dedication and optimism, has to create a locker room of “we” where everyone is included even when they are not. The reality is the 10th, 11th and 12th man are not going to get much time on the court. But the special coach makes him feel like his contribution is just as necessary. The season is hard enough, the games are hard enough, injuries are tough to fight through, the media can be critical and unfair, things go wrong in your personal life. The coach is as vulnerable as everyone else, he just can’t act like it. Otherwise how can he inspire and lead.
A team without a coach is in a very unique position to reshape their destiny. If nothing else life is always about staring over and beginning again. But the questions linger. What is it that the Lakers want? There have been 3 different coaches in four years. One was a system coach who was an inspirational and moral leader. One was a defensive coach who stressed practice and commitment. One was an offensive coach who believed in scoring and pace. What sort of identity is going to define the Lakers for the next five years, when Kobe is here and when Kobe is gone? Do the Lakers want a coach who is defensive oriented like Tom Thibodeau or Lionel Hollins? Do they want a coach who is a communicator and a survivor, someone who players will fight for all the way to the bitter end like John Calipari or George Karl? Do they want a coach who is intense and outspoken like Jeff Van Gundy, someone who makes players accountable? Do they want a Laker family member, one who is adored in Los Angeles and who would be instantly accepted by the season ticket holders like Byron Scott or Derek Fisher? Do they want a former Coach of the Year? Their last three coaches have won a Coach of the Year award: Mike D’antoni, Mike Brown, Phil Jackson. Do they want a coach who is versatile? The team in 2014-15 will be different than the team in 2015-16 and will be different than 2016-17. Do they care about the style of play? Do they want to play a fast, entertaining game? A game featuring post players? A hybrid in the paint, perimeter shooting sort of game that matches styles and who teams have trouble defending?
The truth is Jim Buss-Mitch Kupchak are skilled at this hiring thing. They hired a coach who wowed them in the interview. His name was Mike Brown. They hired a coach a dying man wanted. His name was Mike D’antoni. They hired a coach who had coached them before. His name was Phil Jackson. They hired a coach who won back to back titles and who was a player himself. His name was Rudy Tomjanovich. They hired a coach who cared about defense. They hired a coach who cared about offense. This hire is going to be their toughest one yet and the most scrutinized.
In a strange way Mike D’antoni’s freedom is Mike D’antoni’s reinvention, not for him but for the Lakers who want the opposite. He taught them what they did not know, D’antoni gave them an education. His fast pace did not work, it wreaked any sort of defensive continuity. His three point shooting offense worked when shots fell, otherwise it was a recipe for disaster. His marginalization of big men ruined the psyche of proud players. It turned Chris Kaman into a D’antoni enemy and made Pau Gasol sullen. D’antoni’s lack of accountability reinforced habits that another coach has to fix. His defensive “schemes” were a joke. But to his credit Mike D’antoni did what he was asked. He developed perimeter players who had the best individual seasons of their careers. And that is the D’antoni miracle and curse, the good and the oh-no. Because what is the point of individual accomplishments if the team suffers because of it? Kendall Marshall’s assist numbers and Nick Young’s scoring numbers and Jodie Meeks’ 42 points and Xavier Henry’s driving to the rim and Kent Bazemore’s athleticism were great for them as they negotiate contracts. But lost in the translation of all the numbers is that their achievements were responsible for 27 wins.
Not so long ago the Lakers dropped a bombshell and announced Mike D’antoni was the coach. And then for two years everything went wrong. The on court imagery was wrong, the off court distance made him a villain. There was no other choice but to fire him and call it a resignation or however the Lakers are spinning it. The truth is the bottom line- it was the end of D’antoni. Someone new will take his place on the sidelines come October, will have to deal with Kobe’s willfulness, will have to have Jim Buss as his boss, will have to embrace the fans as the emotional and loyal group that they are, will have to want to beat the Celtics and the Clippers, will have to believe what we who were born in this country were taught to believe: you can start over. You can make yourself relevant once again.