The Lakers have now made their second consecutive questionable coaching hire with news that Mike D'Antoni will take over the squad. The D'Antoni decision is puzzling on many levels.
Before I list my reasons for disliking this move, I'll state that I've always been a big Mike D'Antoni fan. His up-tempo offense in Phoenix helped make the NBA more watchable again in the mid-2000s. I completely disagree with those who say that D'Antoni's system isn't conducive to winning championships. The 2007 Phoenix Suns could very well have won the NBA title if not for controversial suspensions of Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw during the playoffs. The 2008 Suns never had a chance because the organization made the bizarre decision to trade for Shaquille O'Neal in the twilight of his career.
D'Antoni is one of the game's great innovators, bringing in elements from the European game to create a fast-paced high-octane offense that more teams should employ. Despite criticism that his team's can't defend, I've long believed that with the right personnel, D'Antoni can be a championship coach.
Steve Nash thrived under D'Antoni in Phoenix, going from an above-average NBA point guard to a two-time MVP. Kobe Bryant also highly respects D'Antoni from his time as an assistant coach on the 2008 and 2012 Olympic teams. I also think that Pau Gasol would fit well in D'Antoni's system, considering his ability to pass and move smoothly in and out of the lane.
That all being said, this seems like the wrong fit on many levels. First off, D'Antoni is recovering from knee surgery, and it's not clear exactly when he'll be cleared to travel. Any concerns about Phil Jackson potentially missing a few road trips seem ridiculous in comparison to a guy who may not be completely available to teach a radically new system until more time in this quickly moving season has passed.
Second, D'Antoni's system works extremely well with young, athletic, and deep teams. Unfortunately, the Lakers have one of the oldest teams in the NBA and their lack of depth has plagued them for years. What happens when the starting five is exhausted from running the floor, and the best guys off the bench are a 36-year old Antawn Jamison and a struggling Jodie Meeks? What is the likelihood that their older starters will get injured from using more of their bodies on more possessions in a game? Dwight Howard is still recovering from back surgery and his conditioning isn't quite there yet. Bryant has had knee issues in recent years. Gasol has definitely lost a step. Metta World Peace has lost multiple steps. And Steve Nash is going to turn 39 this year and already has a fracture in his fibula.
People may already forget, but D'Antoni's four years in New York didn't go very well. The team was horrible for his first two years while they struggled to learn his offense. Although, in his defense, the roster was pretty lousy too. The Knicks finally improved in D'Antoni's third year when they were able to assemble the deep athletic team he needed. Unfortunately, the Knicks traded most of that depth for Carmelo Anthony, who never fit in the D'Antoni system. With D'Antoni unable to control the circus surrounding the organization, he resigned last spring.
Ultimately, the biggest question I have surrounding the D'Antoni hire is how he'll mesh with Dwight Howard. If there was one Laker who the organization needed to appease with this hire, it was Howard. He's still a free agent after this year, and if he doesn't like the D'Antoni system, then he could very easily bolt for Dallas, Atlanta, or magically finagle his way to Brooklyn.
The Lakers knew they were trading for Howard while he was in the final year of his contract, but they were convinced it was worth the risk because once Howard was exposed to the Lakers culture, they felt he'd want to stay. Well, Howard has now witnessed the organization fire their head coach five games into the season, spurn a legend who he wanted in Phil Jackson, and then make a bizarre coaching hire in D'Antoni. If they wanted to expose Howard to typical Lakers drama, then they've already succeeded.
D'Antoni's system doesn't work particularly well with a center who plays with his back to the basket, as Shaq could tell you. While Howard is more versatile offensively, he's still a post-up player, and I just don't know if he'll fit with D'Antoni.
It's disappointing that the Lakers would make this questionable hire when they could have had Phil Jackson. There were plenty of reasons to hire Jackson, but I'd argue the main one was cultural. We know that Jackson fits with the organization's culture and we know that he gels well with three of the Lakers starting five. We don't know what we'll get with D'Antoni.
Jackson is the calming influence that the Lakers needed. He's the established coach that their veteran players would definitely respect. He's someone who already has a place in the fabric of the organization, and could pick up right where he left off.
Unlike some Lakers fans, I wasn't concerned about Jackson introducing the triangle offense to a team that struggled to run the Princeton offense. For one, Bryant, Gasol and World Peace already knew it. Howard would fit well in it. And they could easily run pick-and-rolls within it to work with Nash's game. The learning curve wouldn't be nearly as steep as it will be with D'Antoni.
I also wasn't concerned about Jackson's desire to miss a few road trips. Hiring someone like Kurt Rambis as Associate Coach, and then grooming him for the top job actually made a lot of sense. Rambis was the wrong fit in Minnesota, but he knows the triangle and knows the Lakers organization. He could easily have been the steward for a road trip here and there while Jackson preserved his body.
Since I don't control the Lakers finances, it's easy for me to sit here and say that the organization should have just given into Jackson's contract demands. Admittedly, partial ownership does sound a little excessive, but if this hire didn't happen because of mere dollars, then that's disappointing. The Lakers already have the highest payroll in the NBA after the acquisitions of Nash and Howard. But it's a huge waste of money if they don't have the right coach to win the championship they believe they're paying for.
I know Phil Jackson can win that championship. I don't know if Mike D'Antoni can.