Give the Lakers credit. They never run out of ways to keep the world guessing. One day after giving Mike Brown a public vote of confidence, they send the guy packing. And then upon prepping everyone for the “Godfather Part III” installment of Phil Jackson in L.A. (“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”), an audible is called for Mike D’Antoni, the man painted as the distant second choice. There’s a reason this franchise has flourished in Hollywood.
Given how “We want Phil” chants have echoed through Staples Center the past two days, I know this decision will leave many fans disappointed. Each of Jackson’s stints in L.A. have featured multiple championships, and this is a team built to immediately carry that tradition. In theory, what’s not to like?
However, something about hiring Jackson always struck me as overly familiar. Predictable. A bit too convenient. You could hear the wheels turning inside the heads of fans, media and players alike. "Phil is available. ... He lives in the South Bay. ... Eleven titles. ... Zen Master. ... Of course he's the guy."
Except, of course, most complex situations typically don't resolve in ready-made, neat solutions. And I wasn’t entirely convinced another go-round with Phil was quite the slam dunk most people thought.
To begin with, the seamless-return narrative was exaggerated. Only five current Lakers players have played under Jackson, and three had relatively short stints. A few notable highs notwithstanding, Metta World Peace’s time in PJ's system was, to say the least, turbulent. Steve Blake played one year under Jackson and was visibly uncomfortable in the triangle. During Devin Ebanks' lone campaign with Phil, the then-rookie rarely removed his warm-ups. Only Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol have truly flourished in the triangle. As Bryant noted after Friday's win, the 1999-2000 squad won a title in its first triangular season, but it was also loaded with veterans who spent years playing against Jackson's Chicago Bulls, which created some degree of familiarity. This 2012-13 roster wouldn't figure to benefit from that luxury.
There was also the issue of Steve Nash, who remains the same odd fit in the triangle as he was in the Princeton. Either the Hall of Fame point guard would have endured another learning curve in a system that doesn't cater to his style, or Jackson would have been forced to tweak his offense to accommodate a type of player he's never coached. Both approaches could have meant more heads bumping, and at least one reason Brown was fired was to avoid such a scenario.
It's also worth remembering that Jackson's last season with the Lakers didn't end particularly well, beyond just the second-round sweep at the hands of Dallas. As I wrote at the time, 2010-11 wasn't a strong season for Jackson. He had to be cajoled into returning, then throughout the season often seemed disconnected with players, unable to reach and motivate them. The team appeared less prepared than it should have been at key moments, and that lack of poise reared its ugly head during a playoff run that went from wobbly to disastrous. Too often Jackson relied too heavily on his established approach rather than venturing out of his comfort zone to address what clearly wasn’t working with the team. Truth be told, he appeared tired of the NBA grind, like a man who realized he might have made a mistake in returning.
That Jackson might be feeling the coaching itch doesn’t surprise me. As the saying goes, it’s in his blood. But I wonder what might have happened once that itch had been scratched, and he found himself staring down a seven-game road trip. Would he stay energized or feel burned out?
In the meantime, Mike D’Antoni has a long-standing relationship with Nash and a system well-suited not just for the point guard, but for many of his teammates as well. With Kobe, Gasol and Howard, you have three potentially deadly options to pair with Nash on a pick-and-roll. This may not be the right roster for a “7 seconds or less” pace, but that’s not necessarily a problem. Those Phoenix Suns teams from the mid-2000s used to also pick opponents apart in the half court, and when the time is right to run, there are plenty of Lakers who can answer the bell. Either way, D’Antoni represents an antidote to the sluggish pace that has hurt the Lakers the past few seasons.
As for the other side of the ball, D’Antoni will never be mistaken for Tom Thibodeau, but his best Suns teams (2005-06 to 2007-08) weren’t quite the sieves some people remember. They were middle-of-the-pack in defensive rating, and that was without the benefit of a force like Howard in the middle.
And the “If D’Antoni’s system was so good, how come it never won a title?” cries also don't ring true to me. The 2004-05 squad lost Joe Johnson during the playoffs, and it was the first run with Nash. In 2005-06, they competed in the postseason without Amaré Stoudemire (their best interior player), Kurt Thomas (their best interior defender) and eventually Raja Bell (their best 3-point threat and arguably their best wing defender). Such absences will catch up to most squads. In 2006-07, their second-round series against the eventual champion Spurs saw Nash’s nose bleed uncontrollably during a bizarre Game 1, followed by controversial suspensions for Stoudemire and Boris Diaw for Game 5, which Phoenix lost.
The Suns encountered some legitimately bad luck during D’Antoni’s prime years. Yes, all teams negotiate some degree of adversity during the playoffs, but my point is simply that the Suns’ breaks were tough enough that an outright damning of D’Antoni’s system feels wrong-headed. I’ve never bought the idea that those Suns teams were held back by their coach’s philosophy. Plus, D’Antoni makes basketball fun, and the Lakers desperately need a break from a couple of seasons' worth of slogging.
While there are certainly other names worthy of consideration (in particular, Nate McMillan), between the two leading candidates, I’d have picked D’Antoni, too.
Obviously, Jackson wouldn’t have been a "bad" hire by any stretch. We are talking about the most successful coach in NBA history, much less this franchise's. He's tight with Kobe and Gasol, the Lakers' co-captains and most championship-decorated players. Jackson is among a select few NBA coaches with instant credibility and gravitas, the kind who have everybody's ear. Getting this disorganized, heretofore dispirited group on the same page ASAP is a must, and PJ generally thrives in this setting. I get why his name was at or near the top of the Lakers’ list -- not to mention Kobe’s.
D’Antoni, however, makes more sense.