Wait a second, Los Angeles. New York thought it had a lock on NBA weirdness.
The Knicks dump their most popular player and sign a bunch of old guys (though, to be fair, New York is 4-0, and the only undefeated team left in the NBA. So that strategy might be sound). New York hasn’t seen a championship since 1973. The Lakers, on the other hand, win titles all the time.
This year, they were supposed to contend for another. In the off-season, L.A. acquired Steve Nash and traded for Dwight Howard. The team was going to import the “Princeton offense,” which emphasizes sharing the ball and player movement. That move seemed like a risk, as Nash is more effective spending possessions dribbling into the lane, and finding teammates for open shots. Kobe Bryant isn’t always fond of sharing. And passing was never a big part of Howard’s game.
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Still, no one expected the Lakers to start off 1-4. It would have been reasonable to give coach Mike Brown and his new offense time to adjust. The NBA season is long, and no matter how good the players, when you throw together stars like Nash, Bryant, and Howard, they need time to develop chemistry (remember, two seasons ago, when the Miami Heat struggled in the early going?). And over 82 games, talent tends to win out.
But the Lakers are now weird, and fired Brown after just five games. We never loved Brown’s creativity as a coach. But the Lakers picked him to succeed Phil Jackson before last season. If you’re going to hire the guy and give him all these big-name players, why not give him, say, 10 games to succeed?
This past weekend, it sounded inevitable that Jackson would return to coach the Lakers, for a third time. After all, Jackson, winner of 11 titles, loves nothing more than having a bunch of stars, offering some Zen wisdom to meld their egos together, and collecting championship rings. But it turns out Jackson doesn’t get along with Lakers executive vice president Jim Buss, brother of Lakers executive vice president of Jeanie Buss — who has been dating Jackson for years. So the negotiations were bound to be tense.
Jackson said the Lakers gave him until Monday to decide on whether he wanted to coach and he also said he told general manager Mitch Kupchak and Buss that he had “confidence that (he) could do the job.” But ahead of the deadline the team made a surprise hire, tapping former Phoenix Suns and New York Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni – who apparently spent last week in an old folks’ home near New York, recovering from knee replacement surgery — for the job. D’Antoni, however, is not cleared to travel, so he might not make it out west for a while.
Jackson felt blindsided. His agent felt that he deserved more respect, given that Jackson did win five titles with the Lakers. D’Antoni, in contrast, has never even made the Finals. Jackson’s camp also denied reports that he asked to skip some road games if he came back (that February 1 game in Minnesota, why don’t we draw an X through that?) That demand seemed insane; we’ll pay you millions to coach, but you don’t always have to coach. Did Buss, or someone else within the Lakers, or someone in D’Antoni’s camp, leak this info, to make Jackson look bad?
And why D’Antoni, anyhow? Mostly, it seems, to mollify Nash, who had his best years in Phoenix playing for the pick-and-roll loving coach. Nash, by the way, just fractured his leg; the Lakers hired a coach, who can’t yet coach, to get the most out of the team’s point guard, who can’t yet play point guard. (He should be back in a week or so, if not sooner). But once D’Antoni does arrive in L.A., and Nash does return, the Lakers may be explosive. Bryant idolized D’Antoni as a youngster; his new coach starred in Italy, where Bryant hung around his father’s Italian pro team. They’ve worked together during the last two Olympics: D’Antoni was one of Mike Krzyzewski’s assistants in both Beijing and London.
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Less clear, however, is how D’Antoni will benefit Howard, a three-time defensive player of the year, now playing for a coach who doesn’t think much about defense. His up-tempo system also hasn’t traditionally done much for big men in the post. Gasol, also, seems more suited to a cerebral offense attack. Jackson’s triangle, which stressed movement and clever passing in the half-court sets, was a perfect fit. If D’Antoni goes chuck and duck, are Gasol’s strengths being utilized?
We’ll find out soon enough. But just to keep things bizarre in L.A., here’s a dream scenario: D’Antoni needs, say, two weeks to recover and return to the bench. Meanwhile, interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff wins all of his games (he’s already 2-0). So D’Antoni would replace an undefeated coach.
That would serve the Lakers right.