Los Angeles Lakers: Mike D'Antoni
The Los Angeles Lakers are in the market to hire the 25th head coach in franchise history, and now, several weeks after the job became available, it seems as if there are 25 candidates to fill the position.
The Lakers have still not reached out to any of the names they are considering, according to a team source familiar with the coaching search. They are expected to commence a preliminary round of phone interviews soon, but will not schedule any sit-down sessions until later in the month.
As the clock keeps ticking since Mike D’Antoni resigned April 30, three pertinent questions spring to mind:
1. What should the Lakers be looking for in their next coach?
2. Who are the Lakers considering?
3. What is taking so long?
We’ll start in reverse order.
While it’s natural to assume the Lakers should have a sense of urgency about finding their coach -- particularly as other jobs open up around the league (Golden State, New York, Utah, Minnesota and, presumably, Detroit) -- the Lakers are in something resembling a high-stakes game of Texas hold ‘em.
They know what cards they’re holding: two aging future Hall of Famers in Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash under contract for close to $34 million for next season; a significant chunk of cap space beyond that; and, of course, the intangible asset of calling Southern California home -- plus a prestigious résumé as one of the most storied franchises in the league.
The draft lottery
What they’re waiting for is the flop. In this case, the information that will determine how they play their hand will come May 20, when the NBA conducts the draft lottery in Times Square.
The Lakers’ 27-55 record was sixth worst in the league this season, thus giving them a 43.9 percent chance of ending up with the No. 6 pick. But in the lottery system, it’s a crapshoot. The Lakers have a 6.3 percent chance of ending up with the No. 1 pick and a 21.5 percent chance of ending up in the top three. Then again, they have a 34.6 percent chance of picking somewhere in the Nos. 7-9 range, worse than their finishing slot.
In a New York minute, everything can change, as they say. The Lakers are hoping for a little luck on their side when they send the last No. 1 overall pick in team history, James Worthy, to New York to represent them for the night.
Whichever draft tier they ultimately find themselves in -- picks Nos. 1-3, standing pat at No. 6 (they are ineligible to move up to 4-5 in the current system) or falling to 7-9 -- could lead the franchise in drastically different directions on its coaching quest.
Let’s say they luck out and catapult into the top three. The Lakers will find themselves in a win-win situation. On one side of this coin, they believe that one of the top prospects -- Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, etc. -- will be an immediate franchise-changer, a player they can bring into the program to learn from Bryant for a couple of seasons before he takes the reins alongside whichever max-level free agent they bring in over the next two summers. On the other, they find another team that believes there is transformative talent available at the top of this draft and trade the pick.
Both are enviable positions for the Lakers to find themselves in, but they are the starting points for vastly divergent paths. If they use their top pick on a player they think can lead the team for years, then the coaching hire will surely be expected to cater to that prospect’s strengths as his top priority. While the sun and moon in the Lakers’ universe have revolved around Bryant for nearly the past two decades, developing that young player would suddenly become an even more important task for the franchise than protecting Bryant’s legacy as he plays out the final two years of his contract for $48.5 million.
If the Lakers trade the pick for an established veteran such as Minnesota’s Kevin Love, for instance, it puts the franchise on a totally different trajectory. Suddenly, by pairing Bryant with another star in his prime, the Lakers are theoretically back to being a factor right away, even in the stacked Western Conference.
Let’s say the pick ends up being worse than they were hoping for, in the Nos. 7-9 range. Maybe they fall in love with a prospect and take him at that spot, but maybe the pick is expendable. And while a selection that late in the draft surely wouldn’t be enough to land a vet like Love, it might be enough to convince the Chicago Bulls to let Tom Thibodeau out of his contract to coach the Lakers.
The opt-out options
If the draft lotto is the flop, then seeing which players choose to opt out of their current contracts and test free agency come July 1 represents the turn in this big poker game.
Why hire a coach in June if it develops come July that LeBron James is looking to leave Miami? Why commit prematurely to a coach -- and, subsequently, a certain style of play -- and potentially shut yourself out from consideration by James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and others when it comes time to decide on their futures?
That's another major variable the Lakers are weighing. When it comes to landing a marquee free agent, you want any edge you can garner over the other teams competing for his services. The Lakers could be in a position where they can tell James or whomever else they target, “Not only do we want you, but we want you so much we’ll let you help pick who is going to be your coach.” For some players, that could be a major incentive.
With all that in mind, it should offer some clarity as to why the Lakers’ candidate pool is so deep at this point.
They have different coaches in mind who would be specific fits for every different direction they could end up heading in.
If they are going to be a rebuilding team, why not take a chance on a younger coach who can grow with those young players? It worked in Phoenix this season with first-time head coach Jeff Hornacek. Why not hire Kevin Ollie, fresh off taking Connecticut to a surprise NCAA title, to lead that transition and cut his teeth in the league without the pressure to win every night? Or maybe Atlanta Hawks assistant coach Quin Snyder becomes that guy. Or Derek Fisher should he retire from playing after the Oklahoma City Thunder finish their current playoff run.
Veteran coaches who are looking for work, like Lionel Hollins, George Karl and Mike Dunleavy, have all expressed interest, but they are at points where they have little leverage. They would take the Lakers job whether they end up with the No. 1 pick or the No. 9 pick; whether Los Angeles signed a big-name free agent or held onto its cap space for the summer of 2015; whether Nash and Bryant were healthy or they were going to continue to struggle with injuries.
But making moves to become a more veteran-laden squad could coax Jeff Van Gundy or Stan Van Gundy to leave their broadcast jobs. Equipping their team to be competitive right away next season could get Thibodeau to tell Chicago to listen to the Lakers’ pitch. Bringing in guys who already know how to win could convince Mark Jackson to come on board. Going that route could get John Calipari to consider leaving his ready-made gig at Kentucky. It might even get Steve Kerr, who seems to have his pick between the Knicks and the Warriors at the moment, to want to don the purple and gold.
All of the names mentioned above have surely already been bandied about by the Lakers’ front office. Throw in Byron Scott, Kurt Rambis, Ettore Messina, Roy Williams and Larry Brown. There are others, undoubtedly.
The Lakers just don’t have enough information at this point to start eliminating any, nor do they really have enough to rank names properly, either.
Which brings us back to the first question: What should the Lakers be looking for in their next head coach?
There are three job requirements that he must be able to handle, no matter what happens in the lottery or in free agency. First and foremost, he must have a clear vision defensively. Seeing the video-game-like numbers opponents put up against the Lakers this season -- including that terrible stretch when they gave up an unthinkable 408 points over three non-overtime games -- convinced Lakers execs they have to go back to a coach who will make it a priority.
The Kobe factor
Second, the coach must be able to coexist with Bryant. The Bryant-D’Antoni relationship deteriorated to the point where the pair barely spoke by the end of their tenure together. Even in D’Antoni’s first season in L.A., when the Lakers still managed to win 28 of their final 40 games to make the playoffs, there was conflict.
Bryant would often use the Lakers’ shootaround time to receive treatment in the training room. When D’Antoni thought this was causing a disconnect between Bryant and his teammates, the coach asked the star guard to change his routine, according to a league source. As a compromise, Bryant still often used shootaround for treatment, only he had the training table brought out next to the practice court so he was physically present, technically, during the sessions. After playing such a long time at an elite level, it was understandable for Bryant to need extra time to get his body ready, but it led to occasions on the court where the team would be executing one way based on adjustments made during shootaround that morning -- and Bryant would be executing another.
With the financial commitment the Lakers have made to Bryant and the clout he has in both the locker room -- several of Bryant’s younger teammates grew up idolizing him the way that he grew up idolizing Michael Jordan -- and with the fans in Los Angeles, to whom he has helped deliver five championships, the coach must have a rapport with Bryant if the team is going to have any chance at real success.
Bryant won't necessarily be best friends with whomever gets put on the sidelines next to him -- he even famously clashed with Phil Jackson at times -- but will buy in if he is convinced the coach is capable.
So the fact that Bryant, as a rookie, was teammates with Scott and has been in contact with him in recent weeks, according to Chris Broussard of ESPN the Magazine, cannot be understated. Then again, he has relationships with many of the other coaches mentioned above, from Thibodeau (who was an assistant with Philadelphia when a high school-aged Bryant used to practice with the 76ers) to Rambis, Snyder and Messina (who all have coached him in L.A.) to Fisher, of course, a fellow rookie on that 1996 Lakers squad.
Third, the coach had better be just as astute at recruiting as he is with X’s and O’s. With the restrictive nature of the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement preventing the Lakers from going over the luxury tax as willingly as they did in the past, having a coach who attracts top talent can be a workaround. The best players in basketball generally go on to win championships. Teams like the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks or 2003-04 Detroit Pistons that win as a collective are much more rare than James and the Heat, or Bryant and the Lakers, or Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs stacking titles because they have the best individual talent on the court.
With that said, if whomever the Lakers choose arrives with the promise of getting one of those top-tier players to join him in L.A. down the line, it makes that candidate all the more attractive. Scott is a nice coach and all, but Scott plus Kyrie Irving is a pretty package. Same goes for Calipari if he can leverage his relationship with James, or Ollie or Fisher if they can sway Kevin Durant to head West.
The chips are down in the Lakers' coaching search. The stakes are high. But don't expect to spot any tell signs until the draft lottery May 20. And even at that point, there could still be a lot more poker to play before the hand is decided.
You wouldn't know it from talking to Mike D'Antoni after the game. The coach stood in the cramped AT&T Center hallway outside the visitor's locker room looking as glum as Eeyore, sounding as beaten as an old rug.
It was beautiful basketball, a real life interpretation of the vision how D'Antoni believes the game is meant to be played.
And it cloaked D'Antoni in melancholy as it played out, making him wonder if this would be it for him. Maybe he should take it in one last time, make like Walter White as he revels in the perfect functionality of his lab equipment in his final moments.
It's no secret that his coaching seat has gotten mighty warm in the last couple of months. From the Lakers stumbling to a 27-55 record, the worst season in the history of the franchise since the team moved from Minneapolis to L.A., to Kobe Bryant -- whose relationship with the coach has deteriorated to the point where the two rarely speak to each another -- openly questioning whether D'Antoni should be retained or not, it wouldn't shock anyone if the Lakers showed him the door as they go into one of the most important summers they've ever had.
Yes, the Lakers owe D'Antoni $4 million for next season and yes, several Lakers players -- Jodie Meeks, Nick Young, Kent Bazemore, even Jordan Hill -- had career years playing in his system.
But sometimes there needs to be a scapegoat, and in a league that saw 12 of its head coaches fired last season -- including several who led their teams to the playoffs -- the coach is usually the one to go.
"I knew he was going to get caught," D’Antoni said before the Lakers played the Detroit Pistons on Friday when asked about Kidd's being fined $50,000 by the league for the incident. "You can't do that. That's crazy. He can't do that. It's cute for a lot of people, but you can't do that."
With 8.3 seconds left and his team out of timeouts in the Lakers' 99-94 win over the Nets on Wednesday, Kidd, who was holding a cup of soda on ice, appeared to say "hit me" to point guard Tyshawn Taylor to delay the game and give him and his team time to draw up a last-second offensive play.
Both Kidd and Taylor initially denied the collision was planned but on Friday Kidd basically admitted it was intentional. "Paul [Pierce] got a great look, but the league fined me for something that I probably shouldn't have done," Kidd said. "We'll move on."
Said D'Antoni of Kidd initially claiming innocence: "I don't buy it."
D'Antoni said he did not notice how the spill happened, but his players picked up on it immediately. Both Steve Blake and Xavier Henry hovered around the Nets' impromptu huddle to spy on the play being drawn up.
"I'm glad they did," D'Antoni said of Blake's and Henry’s bit of gamesmanship in response to Kidd's move. "They should have."
D'Antoni said "you can't do that" or "he can't do that" no less than seven times in the two minutes he discussed the incident Friday, adding that it was "nuts" to try such a stunt.
"That's against the rules," D'Antoni said. "I don't think that's very savvy or cool. I love Jason to death, he's going to be a great coach, but no, you don't do that."
D'Antoni, the NBA's Coach of the Year in 2004-05 with the Phoenix Suns, admitted there are tricks that a coach can attempt to try to affect the outcome of a game outside of simply drawing up plays, making substitutions, working the referees and calling timeouts, but that Kidd crossed the boundary of fair game.
"You can catch somebody's eye on the baseline on foul shots and stuff, as long as you stay off the court and in the rules," D'Antoni said. "You can do those things, but you shouldn't get on the court. You shouldn't run into people on the court. You shouldn't drop things on the court, especially when they're not warranted [from an accident]. You can't do that."
“Mike hasn’t had a chance in L.A., he really hasn’t,” Jackson said back in May while appearing as a guest on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," after audience members booed the mention of D'Antoni's name.
D’Antoni has been maligned by some Lakers faithful for the team's disappointing 2012-13 season, and perceived by many to be at least partially responsible for Howard's departure. And although he replaced Mike Brown five games into last season, plenty of Lakers fans feel he actually replaced Jackson, since the 11-time champion had interviewed for the job before D’Antoni did back in November, and seemed to have landed it until a notorious late-night call from Lakers management informed him otherwise.
But grumbling aside, D'Antoni remains in the job, and has the backing of the front office heading into the 2013-14 season. Executive vice president Jim Buss and general manager Mitch Kupchak believe that the coach’s flexibility in the second half of last season was a key factor in the team finishing 28-12 and want to give him a full training camp and a healthy roster in 2013-14 in order to show what he can do.
Several times last season, D’Antoni paraphrased Winston Churchill in describing his approach to the Lakers' ups and downs, “When you're going through hell, you put your head down and keep going, and that's what we're going to do.”
The pressure of a $100 million payroll that was built to be a contender and was struggling just to play .500 ball was persistent and intense. The Lakers are hoping that Howard’s departure will perhaps act as a sort of pressure release valve heading into the upcoming season.
“Expectations should be lower and I think that will ease the pressure on him,” said a source familiar with the Lakers front office’s thinking.
“I think every year's fun,” D’Antoni recently told Fox Sports when asked how grateful he was to have a traditional offseason to prepare his team. “Coaching's fun, so I'm not complaining the other way, but this is a lot better. Some of the best times are training camp and getting your ideas in how you'd like them.”
None of Churchill's grim determination there.
Late last season D’Antoni told ESPNLosAngeles.com, “We're not running anything that I would normally run,” but the moves the Lakers have made since Howard left for Houston have been more in step with the system for which D’Antoni is known.
Johnson, an analyst for ESPN appearing on KIA NBA Countdown during the NBA Finals, was on a conference call Wednesday with reporters to discuss the Finals and not surprisingly, the subject of the Lakers came up.
Below is a transcript of Johnson's latest thoughts on the purple and gold:
Q: What do you think of Dwight Howard, what is best for him?
JOHNSON: "I can't tell you what's best for him -- for Dwight Howard. I think that he'll probably make the best decision possible for him.
"I would say that he will probably enjoy playing for Kevin McHale, because Coach McHale, not only was he a Hall of Fame player – and I feel with Tim Duncan, the best power forwards that have ever played the game – but you have an emerging superstar and a guy that you can definitely play with James Harden.
"And I think that the other young players that they have, (Omer) Asik and (Jeremy) Lin, (Chandler) Parsons, those guys are right there too, with Dwight Howard, will take the next step as being one of the elite teams – one of the best four or five teams in the league and definitely will give themselves a chance to win a championship.
"So that's really where it is. The Lakers have to decide what they want to do. Dwight has to decide what he wants to do.
"I don't think you're going to have enough money for Chris (Paul) and Dwight. I think you're going to have to concentrate on one or the other probably, and I don't know if they want to play together; if one will decide to take lesser money. Now, one might decide to take lesser money and join forces there. But if they both command top dollar, that's going to be hard for Houston to pull off."
Q: The state of the Lakers, where you see them now and a year from now?
JOHNSON: "The state now is really just making a decision on Dwight Howard. I know that the Buss family, Jim Buss, are interested in sitting down and trying to strategize to find out, what do they want to do. And once they make that decision, then the next thing is Kobe Bryant, his return. Hopefully he can come back strong and healthy. And then they have to decide if they want to add somebody or not.
"But a year from now, with all the cap space that they will have, I think the Lakers will be able to sign two or three players and I think it puts them right in position to be a great franchise for the next five years if they make the right decisions and the right moves.
"So I'm excited about next summer for the Lakers. I think it's going to be tremendous. The Lakers just can't make dumb decisions right now to mess up that cap space."
As he sat in front of his locker following the media scrum he said, “Look at what the Kings did last year. They got into the playoffs as the eight seed and won the Stanley Cup. We’re trying to do the same thing.”
Bryant attended a number of the Los Angeles Kings' playoff games with his daughters during their magical and improbable run to the Stanley Cup last summer and didn’t understand why it couldn’t be duplicated on the basketball court this summer.
Of course, that was before Bryant was lost for the season and we found out that Steve Nash's assortment of injuries weren’t just day-to-day bad but taking-two-epidurals-just-to-practice bad. Nevertheless, Bryant’s stance doesn’t change and neither does the Lakers’ goal heading into the playoffs.
After the Lakers clinched a playoff berth that Bryant promised would happen back when the Lakers were well below .500, he tweeted, “And to think some said we wouldn’t make it.. #keepcalm #believe #playoffs now #makehistory”
He later tweeted, “Playoff promise fulfilled #ontothenext”
It doesn’t make sense that the Lakers will be entering the playoffs, without Bryant and possibly without Nash, as confident as they’ve been all season. But that’s exactly the way the Lakers were feeling after their 99-95 overtime win over the Houston Rockets on Wednesday to clinch the seventh seed and a first round match-up against the San Antonio Spurs which begins on Sunday.
They are finally moving the ball the way Mike D’Antoni envisioned they could. They are finally playing defense with the kind of intensity that Dwight Howard hoped they would. And they are playing inside-out and relying on their bigs as Pau Gasol and Howard have pleaded for since November.
Phil Jackson was at center court Tuesday. He had the microphone in his hand and was speaking at Shaquille O'Neal's jersey retirement ceremony in front of a sold-out arena full of fans who wanted to remember the glory days as they were in the midst of muddling through the disappointing haze that has permeated the current Los Angeles Lakers season.
"We want Phil! We want Phil! We want Phil!" the crowd cheered. The sound cascaded onto the court and might have even crept into the Lakers' locker room, where coach Mike D'Antoni was addressing the team at halftime.
As enticing as it might be to wonder "What if?" when considering the team's decision to hire D'Antoni on that Sunday night back in November, instead of giving Jackson the weekend to think about his answer, even the winningest championship coach in NBA history would have faced serious challenges with the Lakers this season.
It might be easy to yearn for Jackson, but it's not so simple as placing the blame on D'Antoni for the fact that the Lakers are fighting just to get into the playoffs with two weeks left in the regular season rather than jockeying with the top seeds in the Western Conference for home-court advantage.
Here are four reasons D'Antoni shouldn't end up being the scapegoat should the Lakers ultimately stumble down the stretch, and one reason he should shoulder some of that responsibility:
WHY NOT TO BLAME D'ANTONI
1. He didn't have a training camp.
Think about it: The Lakers were in such shambles to start the season with new personnel and a new offensive system that even with a monthlong training camp, former coach Mike Brown directed the Lakers to an 0-8 preseason and a 1-4 mark in games that mattered before he lost his job. D'Antoni was thrust into a situation in which he had no familiarity with half the roster, and had to use games to figure out how to divide minutes among Earl Clark, Antawn Jamison, Jordan Hill and Devin Ebanks. Or among Ebanks and Jodie Meeks. Or among Meeks, Steve Blake, Chris Duhon and Darius Morris. He had to decide whether he liked Metta World Peace, Jamison and Clark better at the 4 or at the 3. He had to feel out Pau Gasol's game. He had to get to know Kobe Bryant's and Dwight Howard's contrasting personalities. And he had to do it all on the fly, under the microscope in one of the NBA's biggest media markets while not feeling physically up to par himself as he recovered from knee surgery.
"We're not going there," D'Antoni said. "We're not going there. We're not going there. We don't need to go there yet, do we? We can have that uproar later on. OK?"
The uproar he was referring to was the potential backlash that could occur when Pau Gasol returns from the plantar fascia injury in his right foot and D'Antoni chooses to bring the four-time All-Star off the bench.
Gasol graduated from elliptical machine workouts to running on the "AlterG" anti-gravity treadmill with 75 percent of his body weight Thursday. The Lakers' plan is to have Gasol gradually add weight day by day to the point where Gasol is able to do on-court running next week when he accompanies the team on their three-game trip.
Whether Gasol starts or not, D'Antoni said it would be unlikely the Lakers' forward would play during the trip to Orlando, Atlanta and Indiana.
"I don't think so," D'Antoni said. "I don't think that's the plan. Now, if trainers tell me he's ready to go, but I don't think we're there yet."
Gasol was originally estimated to be sidelined 6-8 weeks.
Tuesday marked the fourth week that Gasol has been out since injuring his foot against Brooklyn. The Lakers have gone 8-5 in the 13 games without Gasol, heading into Friday's game against the Raptors.
If Gasol returns on the early end of that timeline, he could be back the week of March 18 at Phoenix or at home against Washington.
D'Antoni says he is already thinking about the prospect of having the two-time champion back at his disposal.
"You think about it every day," D'Antoni said. "That's what coaches do.
"In my mind [there is a plan], but it never works out, so we'll see how that goes. You can't predict anything. When he comes back, obviously he'll be a big part of what we do and getting back to the level that he was at when he got hurt. If he does that, he's going to help a heck of a lot."
D'Antoni told reporters earlier in the season that he believed the team performed better with Gasol backing up Dwight Howard at center than putting the two on the floor together, and Earl Clark has become the regular starter at power forward since Gasol went out.
Gasol is averaging 13.4 points, 8.0 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 34.7 minutes per game overall this season. In seven games coming off the bench, Gasol is averaging 13.1 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.3 assists in 28.7 minutes per game.
Gasol is shooting 53.0 percent from the field coming off the bench, compared to 43.8 percent from the field as a starter this season.
LOS ANGELES -- It was easy to summon the kind of emotion and passion that would have made their late, great owner Dr. Jerry Buss proud and get a win over the Boston Celtics on Wednesday.
It was easy to back up Kobe Bryant's playoff guarantee at shootaround on Friday.
But Friday night it was back to the reality of a season where nothing has come easy, as the Lakers needed all of Kobe Bryant's 40 points to eke out a close 111-107 win over the Portland Trail Blazers at Staples Center.
Bryant hit 15 of his 23 shots and all nine of his free throws to lead the Lakers to their second straight win. Dwight Howard added 19 points and 16 rebounds, even though he re-injured his right shoulder near the end of the first half.
J.J. Hickson and Nicolas Batum each had 22 points for Portland, which lost its seventh straight game.
How it happened: Once again the Lakers let a struggling young team gain confidence and shoot the lights out in the first half (51 percent).
But Bryant kept them in it with 18 points in the third quarter, and the Lakers finally pulled it out late in the fourth with several key defensive stands and four clutch free throws by Bryant over the final 12.9 seconds to preserve the win.
What it means: The Lakers have known for a while now they need to win about 70 percent of their remaining 27 games. There is very little room for error anymore. Games like this one -- against a Trail Blazer team they'd finally passed in the Western Conference standings -- are essentially must-wins if the Lakers have any hope of getting into the playoffs.
Hits: Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni revealed before Friday's game that Kobe Bryant has been dealing with a shoulder injury and said it may have been the cause of his 1-for-35 shooting on 3-pointers coming into the game.
Bryant might be in pain, but it didn't show in his performance Friday. He scored 29 of his game-high 40 points in the second half, keeping the Lakers in the game just when it seemed as if the Blazers might steal this one.
Misses: Steve Nash had a terrible shooting night, missing nine of his first 10 shots, and finishing with just four points on 2-for-11 shooting. He even missed a technical foul shot late in the fourth quarter. You know it's bad when Steve Nash is missing free throws.
Stat of the night: For once the Lakers got a lift from their second unit as Antawn Jamison (16) and Jodie Meeks (10) combined to outscore Portland's reserves, 26-14.
What's next: The Lakers head to Dallas for an early game on Sunday (10 a.m.), when Bryant can share his thoughts -- or respond as he sees fit on the court -- to Mavericks owner Mark Cuban after his comments Friday that the team should consider whether to amnesty the final year and $30 million on his contract.
Now that they're out of the break, coach Mike D'Antoni has quantified just how good the Lakers have to play.
"I think everybody can do the math," D'Antoni said before practice Tuesday. "We got to get in the 20s -- 20 or up. You're not going to make the playoffs, I don't think, with less than 45 wins. You kind of count it off from there. You might need more, you might need a little bit less, but it's got to be in that area somewhere."
Going 20-8 to end the season would be a winning percentage of .714. The Lakers, at 25-29, won just 46.3 percent of the time through the first 54 games of the season.
"We need to make the playoffs," D'Antoni said. "We have to make a run. Every game is going to be extremely important. They were before, even more now. Historically everybody kind of ups their game a little bit and you try to make the last run. We're going to see if we can get it done. It's a heck of a challenge, but I think guys are up for it and I'm looking forward to it."
The Lakers are currently 3 1/2 games behind the Houston Rockets for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West.
"Hopefully there's urgency," D'Antoni said. "We've turned the corner 15 times so far, but we keep falling back into the same traps and maybe the urgency will keep us on the right path. No guarantees, but that's definitely our plan."
D'Antoni's coaching tactics in utilizing Dwight Howard were recently called into question by Phil Jackson, who said, "They've basically eliminated [Howard's] assets."
The embattled Lakers coach, who admitted Wednesday this has been the toughest coaching stretch of his 11 seasons in the NBA, said he was willing to make changes to reach his postseason goal.
"We're going to try everything," D'Antoni said. "We'll probably try to expand some guys’ games, maybe. Maybe throw a couple wrinkles in, which you always will do. Approach-wise, I don't know if there's something that I thought of like, 'Oh, this will work.' "
D'Antoni maintained that the Lakers' struggles this season have been less about attitude and more about execution.
"Chemistry will go back to personalities and I think those are things that are sometimes blown out of [proportion]," D'Antoni said. "Sometimes games don't fit and you just got to be able to fit the pieces together and make sure the ball's being put in places that people can feel more comfortable in what they do. We got to get Steve [Nash] more pick-and-rolls. We got to get Dwight to post up more. We got to get that ball moving a little bit so that people can feel better about their game. I do think a lot has been made on the personality side and whether it's blown out of proportion or there's some truth to it, big deal. On the court is where we're having problems with the chemistry."
In the last three full NBA seasons, the West's eighth seed has averaged 48 wins. To reach that mark, the Lakers would have to finish the season 23-5.
He has had to adjust those expectations, obviously.
The Lakers have won six out of their last seven games and have cracked 110 points just twice in that stretch, proving they can grind games out to get the victory even if it goes against the style D'Antoni is known for.
Things could get even slower for the Lakers offense with Pau Gasol out indefinitely and Dwight Howard still sidelined because of a sore right shoulder. L.A. will likely turn to the less-mobile Robert Sacre, whose game is suited for a plodding type of play, to plug up the middle in their absence.
D'Antoni claims he has already adapted to fit the Lakers this season and is ready to continue to do so in light of the injury news.
"We had a system that we ran in Phoenix that was different and it was really successful and I liked it obviously," D'Antoni told the Mason & Ireland Show on ESPNLA 710 radio on Wednesday. "It was fun to play that way, but I don't have a system. I just think we try to play what's best for our personnel and what's best for the game of basketball that's kind of evolving in the last few years. A lot of teams are going a lot smaller, they're spreading the floor more, they're using the 3-point shot a lot more. Basketball has changed and it's changed how you can't guard with your hands on the perimeter and the players have changed -- much more skilled, better shooters, better passers. So, that's where it is today."
D'Antoni's point about the direction the league is heading was evidenced by last year's NBA Finals matchup between the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder that was dominated by wing players on both teams and marginalized the use of back-to-the-basket big men in their approach to the game.
"I can play any way," D'Antoni said. "I don't care if we run, if we slow it down, we want to win and we want to try to get the best out of every player and I do believe that opening the floor up and playing at a faster pace is a lot better for a lot of players.
"Now, we've struggled with that and we weren't built to be the Phoenix team. We weren't built to be real fast. I would like to get there some day, but we're trying to play at the speed that is more conducive to how we are. But, I do believe in a certain way and I do believe certain things in basketball do not change -- that's sharing the ball, spreading the floor, playing great defense, everybody playing for everybody else and not being selfish. I think every coach is more or less the same. I don't think coaches are that much different. It's just how you get your message across and can you get it across."
The Lakers are sixth in the league in points per game this season at 102.12 points per game and eighth in offensive efficiency, averaging 105.3 points per 100 possessions. The Lakers are the only team in the top 10 in the NBA in offensive efficiency with a sub-.500 record, suggesting that while D'Antoni's offense gets most of the attention when figuring out what's wrong with the Lakers, their defense is probably the real culprit.
"Maybe he can put the D back in my name," D'Antoni said of Dwight Howard at the coach's introductory news conference after being hired by the Los Angeles Lakers in November. "That would be nice. Some people have been taking that out."
Howard, the former three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, hasn't changed that reputation for D'Antoni just yet.
So far the proof is in the numbers regarding the Lakers' defensive performance with D'Antoni in charge. In five games with former coach Mike Brown this season, the Lakers allowed their opponents to score 98.8 points per game. In five games with interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff, opponents averaged 92.2 points. In 24 games with D'Antoni, opposing teams are putting up a whopping 104 points per game.
Does that number, coupled with the fact that D'Antoni's teams in Phoenix and New York never got enough consistent stops to rank in the top 10 in defensive efficiency, mean that D'Antoni is just incapable of coaching at that end of the court?
Not so, says San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who blamed the media for the guff D'Antoni gets about his teams' defense, or lack thereof.
"I think in this business, it's a small fraternity [in the press] and once you get a reputation for something, it pretty much sticks," Popovich said before the Lakers played the Spurs on Wednesday. "It doesn't matter what you do about it. I think Mike could probably do defensive drills all day long and somebody would still get after him for not caring about defense."
Earlier in the season, a reporter needled D'Antoni about how little time he spends teaching defense following a road loss in Cleveland and D'Antoni shot back, clearly irritated by the insinuation.
"He's probably by now stopped trying to convince people he cares about defense because he's not an idiot," Popovich said. "He knows you have to play defense. People act like he's never heard of the word, doesn't know how to spell it, and nothing could be farther from the truth. But he's wasting his time trying to convince all you guys that he cares about defense because it’s a better story the other way."
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.
“I don’t think there’s a doubt about that,” Bryant told Colin Cowherd Wednesday on ESPN Radio when asked if the Lakers were built for the playoffs. “The problem is we’ve dug ourselves such a deep hole we got to do a lot of fighting just to catch up and get in that conversation. We firmly believe it’s going to happen but we have to do a lot of fighting just to get there.”
The Lakers are currently 9.5 games behind the Los Angeles Clippers in the Pacific Division and are the tenth place team in the Western Conference, 1.5 games behind the Portland Trailblazers for the eighth and final playoff seed. The Lakers can cut into that deficit on Friday night when they play the Clippers at Staples Center.
“It’s very deep, we’re very concerned but we’ve been playing well lately,” Bryant said of his concern for the Lakers right now. “The last eight games we’ve been playing pretty well but the hole we dug ourselves in the start is very deep so every loss now cuts a little deeper than it should. So we have to keep focused on how we’ve been playing lately and just continuing to get better from that.”
The one thing Bryant is not concerned about is possible dysfunction within the team about Pau Gasol’s role, Dwight Howard’s health, Mike D’Antoni’s rotation or anything else. Bryant actually thinks a little confrontation could be good for the team.
“I’ve been on teams where we’ve confronted each with Phil (Jackson) and Shaq (O’Neal) and we had altercations and yelled at each other and then you figure things out,” Bryant said. “I don’t want to be on a type of team where you feel like you’re afraid of confrontation or afraid of a little dysfunction because without having those things you really cannot get on the same page. You just walk around and everybody is comfortable being whatever and whispering about what they should be doing and what they want to be doing instead of having confrontations and ironing things out.”
Listen to full interview here.
You can certainly ask him; just don’t expect to get much of a response. Not yet anyway.
Moments after streamers came down onto the court at Staples Center as the Lakers celebrated a 101-100 win over the Charlotte Bobcats -- a game in which they were behind by as many as 18 points in the third quarter -- D’Antoni could only smile as he sat in front of a room full of speechless reporters.
“It’s hard to ask questions, I know,” D’Antoni said. “I feel for you. I don’t know what to answer and I don’t think you guys know what to ask but I think we’ll try.”
That seems to be D’Antoni’s philosophy when it comes to figuring out the Lakers as well. He might not know the answers but he’s certainly trying to find them.
Coaches normally hate lineup and rotation questions. They’ll tell you they aren’t looking to change anything and if they do, well, you’ll be the last to find out.
D’Antoni, on the other hand, nodded his head Tuesday night whenever he was asked about a player changing his role with the team. Whether that’s Metta World Peace coming off the bench, as he did Tuesday, Jodie Meeks becoming the starting shooting guard, Kobe Bryant moving to small forward or Antawn Jamison and Jordan Hill being taken out of the rotation. Everything is seemingly on the table at the moment and few things, if any, are set in stone.
The first domino in what could be a never-ending spiral of lineup changes this season was Devin Ebanks starting at small forward with World Peace coming off the bench and playing power forward. Ebanks wound up playing less than five minutes but the tweak and the return of Pau Gasol earned Jamison and Hill DNP-CDs and a spot at the end of the bench next to Robert Sacre’s dance party.
“I want (World Peace) to play the four,” D’Antoni said. “We have to be able to change our team. I hate it for Jordan Hill right now, because he's the odd man out. He's played well. He's a good player. But for us to have a different team, a different look, Metta has to play the four. If he starts at the three, then once I get him to the four, it's too many minutes for him. He needs rest. So that's a whole process. And I think Metta, going forward, once he gets more comfortable with the four role, will be very productive as a four and our team will be very productive.”
As D’Antoni explained his reasoning, he finally paused before saying, “That's the thought. We'll keep looking at it.”
These are the kind of thoughts and moves a coach would fiddle with in training camp or the preseason or maybe in the first few games of the season. D’Antoni, of course, didn’t have the luxury of doing that so he is doing it now, as the 12-14 Lakers try to work their way above .500 for the first time since they were 6-5, following D’Antoni’s debut with the team last month.
“I'm just trying to figure out the best way to play the team,” D’Antoni said. “We'll keep looking at film, keep revisiting it. We have a couple of practices, and we'll keep looking at different combinations. And there'll be a couple of times during the season, injuries, sicknesses, illnesses, whatever, that we'll give another look to different people. And hopefully they'll be ready. I hope they understand. I tried to talk to them and get them to understand, but . . .”
Everyone won’t understand right now because D’Antoni doesn’t even fully understand at the moment. He’s still trying to figure out what kind of team he has and he’s not the only one with questions. His players are still trying to figure out what kind of coach they have and how they fit into his system.
Even when Steve Nash returns to the lineup, D’Antoni still wasn’t sure how much that would settle things.
“Obviously, I'll have Nash at the point guard, “ D’Antoni said. “But other than that, I've still got the same little problem.”
That “little” problem is figuring out where to play everyone else around Nash. It may seem like a daunting task at the moment but Kobe Bryant, who has had countless conversations with D’Antoni about his rotations and adjustments, thinks the Lakers are closer to figuring it out than it looks.
“I'm probably the one that's enjoying this process the most because it's the most challenging,” Bryant said. “I'm focused; I enjoy being focused about something and digging my heels in and figuring out the puzzle…. It's coming. We're still going to have peaks and valleys, but it's coming.”