Ever since the Los Angeles Lakers hired Mike D’Antoni on Monday, November 12th instead of the “Zen Master” Phil Jackson, the outcry from Laker fans and the basketball world in general has been loud and resounding: the Lakers made the wrong move! Would hiring Phil Jackson have been a coup for the Lakers? Yes, you can’t go wrong with a coach who has won 11 championship rings, five of which came while coaching the Los Angeles Lakers, but talks broke down for a myriad of reasons in which the details are murky at best. Mike D’Antoni wasn’t a bad second option to fall back on. He is a fairly accomplished coach, but has often been savaged on social networks and by the worldwide leader in sports journalism, ESPN. The summary of these critiques are basically state that he does not coach defense, he has a big ego, he won’t be able to handle the pressure of coaching in Los Angeles, and his flawed system will not be able to help bring the Lakers another championship. While professional analysts will spew these opinions verbatim, I say to you these assertions are absolutely ridiculous and very short sighted. I understand that Lakers fans really wanted Phil Jackson, but if memory serves, the last time Phil Jackson coached the Lakers they were swept in the second round by the Dallas Mavericks in unceremonious fashion. Does the image of a broom with a purple and gold back drop ring a bell? Not to mention that Jackson has had hip and knee replacement surgery recently, is 67 years old, and wasn’t sure if he still had the fire to coach. The major knock on D’Antoni is that while his offensive system is entertaining and can win games in the regular season, his defensive philosophy will leave his teams exposed in the playoffs. If you listen to First Take or Kurt Rambis (a Phil Jackson acolyte) on Sports Center, you would think the Lakers just hired a high school coach. But Mike D’Antoni’s record as a coach deserves a MUCH closer look.
In Mike D’Antoni’s first full season as coach of the Phoenix Suns, he won coach of the year, the Suns won 62 games, and made it to the Western Conference Finals. Winning a championship was a realistic possibility within reach had it not been for the fall of Joe Johnson, the Suns’ best wing defender and pseudo back-up point guard fracturing his orbital bone in the series before the Conference Finals. D’Antoni is credited with pushing the league in a more “offensive” direction, due to the success of their “Seven seconds or less” fast breaking offense; a strategy that yielded a league high average 110.4 PPG. On the flipside, he was criticized for his team’s poor defense which allowed an also league high, 103.3 PPG. However you view those two stats, the fact remains that D’Antoni’s system had Phoenix winning games by an average of 7.1 PPG. The only team that had a larger margin of victory became the eventual NBA Champions, the San Antonio Spurs. The biggest Impact that D’Antoni’s system had was maximizing the players that were on the roster. He turned Steve Nash, a two-time all-star, whom had never averaged more than 8.8 Assists, even while playing for “fun ball” coach Don Nelson, into a two-time NBA MVP. Joe Johnson’s lone year under D’Antoni’s system resulted in a 48% shooting percentage from the three point line while still averaging over five rebounds per game. To date, both of these stats are Johnson’s best in his 12 year career, never even approaching 40% while playing for Atlanta. Quentin Richardson was a vital cog in the system during his only season as a member of the Suns, and he hasn’t really done much since that 2004-2005 season.
Two players who peaked as members of the Phoenix Suns, Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion, can attribute a great deal of their success to Coach D’Antoni. Stoudemire’s scoring average jumped from 20.6 PPG in 2004 to 26.0 PPG in 2005, including a 29.9 PPG 10.7 RPG tear in the 2005 playoffs in which he dressed down the greatest power forward of all-time Tim Duncan. In 2010, Stoudemire was thought to be an injury risk and on the downturn of his career. But when reunited with D’Antoni while playing for the Knicks, Stoudemire had a great season and was an early MVP candidate and an All-Star starter. However, the greatest beneficiary of any player in the Mike D’antoni system was “stretch 4” Shawn Marion. A shadow of his former self, Marion went from averaging 21.8 PPG and 11.8 RPG and the only quality defender in Phoenix, to being a role player for the Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks after being traded for Shaquille O’Neal in 2008. It’s no secret that playing under direction of Mike D’Antoni has led to career leading seasons for many players that otherwise struggled on other teams. The same can be said for Phil Jackson and Greg Popavich, because they are great teachers of the game and always put their players in the best position to win. So the obvious question here is can Mike D’Antoni win with the Los Angeles Lakers?
TALENT. You cannot win without a great deal of talent. The Lakers have plenty of talent, but will Coach D’Antoni be able to put the team in the right position to win? Let’s not kid ourselves; from 1999 to 2010 only five coaches won NBA championships. Phil Jackson won five, Greg Popavich won four, and Pat Riley, Larry Brown, and Doc Rivers each won one championship a piece. It’s no coincidence that Jackson and Popavich won nine of the twelve, they only had rosters boasting Tim Duncan and, Shaq and Kobe, respectively. Pat Riley won in 2006 because he had his own version of Kobe and Shaq (Lite), Dwayne Wade and Shaq. Larry Brown snuck a championship in 2004 because of a historic defense, and the fact that Kobe and Shaq were bigger opponents than teammates. Doc Rivers won a ring in 2008, a year after garnering a mere 24 wins with a 19 game losing streak somewhere in between, by revitalizing the team with smart trades for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. Does coaching matter? In one word, indubitably (look it up). The last two coaches to win an NBA championship are Rick Carlisle of the Dallas Mavericks and Erik Spolestra of the Miami Heat. Although Carlisle is perceived as a solid coach, the general public had little knowledge of the calculating tactician prior to his team’s Championship route losing only 5 total games in the 2011 post season. The same cannot be said for Spolestra. The world of sports moves fast, but does anybody remember the outpouring of criticism for Coach Spolestra before the Heat won the NBA Championship? You couldn’t turn on ESPN or read an article without everyone calling for him to be fired and for Pat Riley to swoop in and save the day. Those who are saying the Lakers can only win with Phil Jackson and need a better coach have to disconnect from Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith, and let the RESULTS dictate our views on Coach D’Antoni and the Los Angeles Lakers. Critics will declare that under D’Antoni, Phoenix always fell short in the playoffs, and New York never got off the ground, yet those same critics fail to take into account the circumstances. In 2005 the Suns were beaten by the Spurs in five games in the conference finals, but were missing Joe Johnson due to an orbital bone fracture for the first three games. In 2006, they made it all the way to the Conference Finals without Amare Stoudemire, depending heavily on role players Boris Diaw and Tim Thomas. The next year in 2007 the Suns were tied 2-2 with the spurs but Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw were suspended for a pivotal game five because they left bench during an altercation in the last minute of game four. These factors provide context to an otherwise shallow debate. We have to remember that sports do not happen in a vacuum, events happen a certain way due to circumstance, so we must have PERSPECTIVE!!!!
The Lakers have the oldest starting five in the league, this is a fact. So will the “Seven seconds or less” philosophy be used with this team? Probably not. But they will likely increase their pace from a dysfunctional offense under the control of ex-coach Mike Brown. The Lakers have both the most efficient Pick & Roll scorer and passer, respectively a la Dwight Howard and Steve Nash (according to Synergy Sports), so they will Pick & Roll people to death. Meanwhile they also have Pau Gasol, who is a very effective Pick & Pop player and a GREAT passer, especially for a post player. The last member of the “fantastic four” is the great Kobe Bryant, who has been experiencing a sort of renaissance in his 17th season, because of the level of efficiency in his offensive game. D’Antoni’s system might also help find shots and opportunities for players like Devin Ebanks, Jodie Meeks, Earl Clark and Antwan Jamison, who seem to have been left out of the Lakers offense in the first eight games. But what about defense? That is the looming question. The Lakers won’t be a great defensive team this year because of their lack of quickness on the perimeter but they also won’t be bums on defense either. Let’s face it; they do have the best defensive player in the league in Dwight Howard, and two very defensive minded wings in Kobe Bryant and Ron Artest. While you may not want to put the defensive debate to rest on that statement alone, there is no denying that D’Antoni’s Lakers have a better defensive foundation than his previous teams in Phoenix and New York. Spare me the craziness that D’Antoni doesn’t coach defense, or that his Phoenix teams were terrible defensively. They ranked right around the league average in points allowed per possession during most of his tenure there. Our addiction to points per game and ignorance about PACE made it appear the Suns were hemorrhaging points like the Don Nelson Warriors. And simply put, they were not. Let’s not even talk about the Knicks and their bare bones roster that was flung together in hopes of clearing enough cap space to land LeBron James as a free agent in 2010. Tony Douglas was their starting point guard for a large amount of his tenure and the half season he had Raymond Felton and Amare Stoudemire running Pick & Roll they were the fourth seed in the east until the Carmelo Anthony trade submarined the season. The Lakers most likely will not win the NBA championship this season, that is a given. But it will not be due to absence of Phil Jackson or the presence of Mike D’Antoni.