|ESPN.com: NBA||[Print without images]|
LOS ANGELES -- It's been nearly a month since Dwight Howard spurned the Los Angeles Lakers for the Houston Rockets and Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni is still puzzled by the center's decision.
"It's hard for me to sit here and criticize or even to understand why he left a place like L.A.," D'Antoni told "ESPN L.A. Now" hosts Mark Willard and Mychal Thompson on ESPN LA 710 radio Tuesday. "That's kind of mind-boggling a little bit, but that's in his DNA and what he wants to do."
D'Antoni has avoided the limelight outside of a few brief interviews during the Las Vegas Summer League since Howard informed the Lakers on July 5 that he was taking Houston's four-year, $88 million offer and leaving L.A.'s five-year, $118 million deal on the table.
"Everybody has got to make that decision," D'Antoni said. "You can debate it all you want. Only Dwight knows. Obviously, he didn't think he would be as happy here as he will be in Houston. That might be the case and he had to make that decision. There will be a lot of speculation; we tried it, it didn't work out and we go forward. So be it. You hate it. Dwight's one of the better centers in the league and it would have been a long-term thing, but I looked at it like, 'OK, you don't have Dwight but you got Pau [Gasol].' So, we'll see. In the short run, we'll see what happens. In the long run, obviously 10 years from now Dwight might still be playing and maybe Pau is retired, but everybody has got to do [what's best for them]."
D'Antoni's main goal since Howard's departure has been to do what's best for the team moving forward, and that meant hiring Kurt Rambis, the best available assistant coaching candidate, regardless of his connection to Phil Jackson as an assistant on the former coach's staff.
"Phil casts a big shadow and he should," D'Antoni said. "He had unbelievable success, he's a great coach, but it is what it is. I'm just trying to hire the best guys qualified and Kurt is that. So, you don't want to start, 'OK, this guy is not quite as good, but let's get him,' because you're afraid of something that happened in the past. We got to go forward and we got to try to make this team as good as we can."
Just how good the Lakers can be will likely hinge on the health of Kobe Bryant, who is still recovering from Achilles surgery he underwent in April.
"I wouldn't put anything past him, but nobody knows. We'll just have to wait and see in a month or two. Having said that, Kobe is a competitor, and once he is back on the floor -- Father Time does march on and things happen -- I don't know if you can say he's going to average 25 [points], he's going to average 30, he's going to average 18, nobody knows. But one thing I do know -- he'll give it his all, and it will be interesting to see. It will be a heck of a battle, that's for sure."
There could also be a bit of a side battle between D'Antoni and Bryant to limit the amount of minutes the 18-year veteran guard will play. Bryant averaged 45.7 minutes in the seven games leading up to his Achilles tear.
"He's very determined in what he does, and we'll work together on it, hopefully," D'Antoni said. "We'll see. But that will all be determined when we see how he feels and where he is and where he is with the team and all that. We'll work through those issues and try to do the best that we can for him."
What will be best for D'Antoni's chance for success next season is a full training camp, something he went without last year after taking over following Mike Brown's dismissal just five games into the season.
"This year we should start off finding and solving some problems in October and in September when you watch guys play and [find out] what's their tendencies, and then you formulate your ideas and you try to get it going by November," D'Antoni said. "It just makes it a little more difficult [not having a training camp] and the injuries didn't help any, but I thought at the end of the year we were playing at a pretty good rate."
D'Antoni detailed the adjustments he has planned for next season, including expanding his eight- or nine-man rotation to 11 players. "I foresee 11 guys playing a lot of minutes and 11 guys getting involved and 11 guys getting to where we can be more up-tempo and put a lot of pressure on teams," the coach said. D'Antoni also wants to get back to the freewheeling style he's known for.
"Do we want to shoot a lot of 3s? Yeah," D'Antoni said. "That's kind of where the league is going. If you look at it analytically, that's a better shot than some of the traditional one [foot] inside the arc jumper. It just mathematically makes sense that you want to try to get 3s, layups and foul [shots], and we will try to get a system that maximizes our offense [and] at the same time get better defensively."
D'Antoni, who believes the Lakers "can be better than a lot of people think," added that his longtime point guard, Steve Nash, will be leading the way.
"Just knowing [Nash] and watching him, he's going to have as good of a year as he's had in a while because he's hell-bent on coming back and giving Los Angeles their money's worth because that's the type of person he is," D'Antoni said.