Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Lakers Hire D'Antoni, But Not in a Panic

Pau Gasol and Steve Nash practice Mike D'Antoni's "Synchronized Swimming" defense. (AP photo)

The Los Angeles Lakers fired Mike Brown on Friday and by Saturday afternoon it was a foregone conclusion that Phil Jackson would be returning to the head coaching job from which he had retired twice before. The word circulating was that the organization already had a handshake agreement with the 11-ringed Zen Master and pen would be put to paper yesterday afternoon.

Until Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak called Jackson and told him otherwise on Sunday evening.

Instead, the only NBA franchise with a $100 million payroll opted to hire Mike D'Antoni, a run-and-gun master and pick-and-roll enthusiast who guided new Laker Steve Nash to two Most Valuable Player awards when the point guard played under him in Phoenix.

For all the rampant scoring done and individual honors gathered those Suns runs, though, the teams' postseason appearances never breached Finals competition. More recently, D'Antoni was ousted as the head coach of the New York Knicks in favor of Mike Woodson, a man who values defense more than putting triple-digit numbers on the scoreboard.

But just because D'Antoni's never helmed a title-winning campaign doesn't mean he never will. Remember: at one point in each of their respective careers Michael Jordan, Dirk Nowitzki and LeBron James were players who could never win a ring. Then they did.

The Lakers' current lineup boasts more latent talent than any NBA team D'Antoni's ever coached. Nash, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol are all in their 30s, but are still capable of playing at an All-Star level. Dwight Howard protects the rim better than most basketball players in the world and the best of his Los Angeles stint is probably ahead of him, when he is fully recovered from back surgery.

The bench is still an issue. The age and durability of Bryant and Nash are issues. The possibility of D'Anonti's favored PNR offense could also be problematic, positioning Gasol and Howard away from the points where they play some of their best ball.

There will not be instant success for the yellow-and-purple clad lads in Staples Center just because there's a different man in a suit sitting on the sidelines. These are all men willing to adapt, though. D'Antoni has history with two of the major cogs in the Lakers' system through his work with USA Basketball. His success with Nash is being retread time and again for stories about their reunion, and he has at least a slight familiarity with Gasol after coaching the Lakers' division rival.

Bryant is still the heart, the vocal leader of this team. A Facebook post may not mean much in the days of new media, but Bryant seems to be buying in early, no matter how much he may have wanted his old coach back.

A title isn't guaranteed, but if Jackson was asking for too much for his return, the Lakers got the second-best available option. As long as the front office doesn't trade for Carmelo Anthony, everything should be fine.

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