A Message to D’Antoni: Real Leaders Take Responsibility


Jan 24, 2014; Orlando, FL, USA; Los Angeles Lakers head coach Mike D

There is no vaccine for disgrace. It does not evaporate, disgrace lingers like a virus. Some things are meant to last forever. It has been a full forty eight hours since the Lakers were humiliated on national television. Ask anyone who could bear to watch all of it: on so many levels it was wrong. Losing the way the Lakers lost is something that will not be forgotten anytime soon. If ever. The taste in the mouth is bitter, still. The day after, there were many who considered the Lakers quitters. There were many who wanted Mike D’antoni fired. They were many who could not bear to be reminded of what happened. It was such a serious transgression that D’antoni was forced to meet with Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss separately after it happened. For those who thought it could not get any worse, well, welcome to these last coaching days of Mike D’antoni.

It would be understandable if D’antoni was a blind man. If for some reason he could not see. Or, if his motivation was a pathetic attempt to save his job with the Lakers or to save his future career or even his reputation. But what has been on display these last forty eight hours is the D’antoni of Phoenix and the D’antoni of New York. When the pressure mounts until he is almost choking on his own sweat he tosses everyone else overboard and takes the last life vest on deck. Earlier in the season D’antoni’s dismissal was towards the fans. Today it was Kent Bazemore and MarShon Brooks. According to D’antoni, Bazemore and Brooks struggles have driven this boat into shark infested water: 132 points to the Pelicans, 142 points to the Clippers, 134 points to the Nuggets. It is not to say that Bazemore and Brooks are not part of a team that is defensively so disconnected and flawed they cannot get out of their own way. But real leaders do not blame or point fingers. Leaders lead. Two weeks ago D’antoni said Bazemore played with defensive energy and had a future as a really good defensive player. Now his weaknesses are derailing…what? Before Bazemore and Brooks arrived the Lakers gave up 114 points to Orlando, a lottery team. They gave up 110 points to the Knicks, a lottery team. They gave up 109 points to the Timberwolves, a lottery team. They gave up 108 points to the Cavaliers, a lottery team.

D’antoni likes to say his practices are devoted to defense. Really, that is like saying the milk man’s refrigerator is cold. Of course he practices defense; he is an NBA coach. But it is not how much time you devote to defense. It is not how much time you devote to pick and roll. But are you committed to the very thing you may hate? Either defense  is what you stake your reputation on, where you draw the line in the sand or it isn’t.

Don’t defend or you won’t play. Don’t defend and I cannot trust you. If you are a Chicago Bulls player and you don’t defend Tom Thibodeau will sit you. If you play for Greg Popovich and you don’t defend he will dismiss you. If you play for Mike D’antoni and you don’t defend you will be rewarded. You will be given a place in the starting lineup. D’antoni’s best defensive post player is Jordan HIll. He hasn’t played in a week. The question is not about practicing defense but about absorbing defense. Breathing it. You know who the defensive coaches in the league are. D’antoni is not one of them.

Ask yourself this: is D’antoni willing to give up his offense? Is he willing to slow the game down to play a tough, grind it out style? Would he revert from small ball if it would create more intensity or toughness? Would he enable more post play if that alone would help get more offensive rebounds? Or is D’antoni like every other human on earth? Is his past behavior indicative of future behavior? It was Winston Churchill who said, “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.”

He is as far away from perfect as the moon is from the sun. His first year in Phoenix his defense gave up the most points in the NBA. His second year in Phoenix his defense was ranked 28th. Then 25th. It did not get any better in New York and why would it? You are what your record says you are. D’antoni’s first two years in New York his defense was ranked 28th. And so it went, bottom feeders on defense which is the D’antoni miracle, the fact that he was not last every year. To my knowledge Kent Bazemore and MarShon Brooks weren’t on any of those Phoenix or New York teams. To my knowledge Mike D’antoni was, he coached all of them. He led all of them. He inspired all of them. The funny thing is D’antoni is always talking about his team having to be tougher and his team having to be grittier and his team having to fight. More often than not a team reflects the head coach. Perhaps he needs to be tougher. Perhaps he needs to be grittier. Perhaps he needs to fight more.

If D’Antoni wanted to call out names, then start with the point guards. These last three games the Lakers point guard tandem of Jordan Farmar and Kendall Marshall have given up 105 points. They have been beaten off the dribble, beaten off of pick and roll, beaten in the lane. They had 15 turnovers and 63 points. The power forward tandem of Wes Johnson and Ryan Kelly were equally tragic, giving up 102 points and 47 rebounds as they were the walking dead against Kenneth Faried, Blake Griffin and Anthony Davis.

Reggie Miller had an interesting twist on things. To his way of thinking the Lakers players should be happy they are playing at all because come next year they will be someone’s 11th or 12th man or perhaps in Europe. This opportunity is lightening in a bottle; it only comes around once. While that may be a stark reality for NBA role players whereas you are here today, gone tomorrow, it is not the case for coaches who have done nothing but make fans suffer. Mike D’antoni was the same person yesterday as he is today as he will be tomorrow. You saw it in Phoenix and you saw it in New York and you see it now. Someone great once said this: “Winning is a habit. Unfortunately so is losing.”

Losing is the only habit Mike D’antoni has perfected.