Mike D'Antoni had them at hello
New Lakers coach has a different way, but his players already are buying in
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- As introductions go, the visual on this one wasn't great. Mike D'Antoni, the offensive genius touting a return to the run-and-gun glory days of Showtime, is moving pretty slowly these days.
He needed crutches to coach his first practice with the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday afternoon. He needed blood thinners to be cleared to get on a plane from New York and fly out to Los Angeles on Wednesday. He needs painkillers to get through the day just a few weeks after knee replacement surgery.
A week ago he was lying in bed listening to Motown on his iPad, his Internet, television and power at home in New York having been knocked out by Hurricane Sandy, and the NBA felt a million miles away.
"I'm thinking to myself, 'This is great. My future looks great,'" he said.
Fast-forward to Thursday when D'Antoni is introduced as coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, a team whose goals this year are something along the lines of "win a championship or don't bother coming back."
Within five minutes he was asked questions about how the Lakers could possibly choose him over former coach Phil Jackson and his 11 NBA titles, and how he felt when he heard Lakers legend Magic Johnson say on national television Wednesday that he was the wrong hire.
Oh, and it's already the middle of November, not September, so if he could hurry up and install that offense and get the team rolling, that'd be good, too.
Not even Vegas stacks the deck this steeply.
But D'Antoni had one very important thing going for him that his predecessor, Mike Brown, did not.
The second he walked in the room to meet his new players Thursday, he already had them. All of them. Kobe Bryant has called him an "offensive genius." Steve Nash's affection for him is both assumed from their days scoring a billion points together in Phoenix and obvious from the smile that has been on his face all week. Pau Gasol has offered praise. Dwight Howard is getting there with his as well. Everybody else will fall into place soon, if they haven't already.
The only Lakers player who showed up to his introductory news conference some 18 months ago -- yes, that's all he lasted -- was Matt Barnes. It took months for Bryant to say anything publicly about the hire. Gasol and Derek Fisher offered tepid enthusiasm through Twitter. Then came the lockout. Then came the condensed season in which Brown tried to cram in way too much way too fast and ended up alienating most of the team within months.
He worked hard. He slept in his office at Staples Center watching tape and ordering in food all the time from the Yard House across the street. Pushing, prodding, but ultimately over-coaching the team and making them less than the sum of their fantastic parts. This season the team regressed even more, and Brown was out before he could settle on a rotation.
A week ago Friday, D'Antoni got a call from his agent Warren LeGarie, telling him the Lakers job was open and that they were interested in him.
A day later, he interviewed over the phone with Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak and executive vice president Jim Buss.
By Sunday evening, D'Antoni was told he had the job.
"Elated?" D'Antoni said, recalling his reaction to being told by Kupchak that he was their guy. "I looked at Warren and I go, 'Are you kidding me? Did this just happen?' It was just an unbelievable feeling. I got a real shot."
After coming up painfully short of championships in Phoenix, then surviving three painful years with the New York Knicks, a 'real shot' is about the best D'Antoni, 61, can ask for at this stage in his career. And you figure he actually has one here because the superteam he's coaching has already bought into what he's going to start selling as soon as he gets off the painkillers and feels well enough to shed the crutches and coach a game.
Is he Phil Jackson? No. Does he have anything like Jackson's credibility? Not even close. But is that what will ultimately matter? So long as the Lakers win, no.
Jackson would've had the same buy-in from the Lakers' players as D'Antoni. More, even. But he commands the room from a different place than D'Antoni. Jackson rules from a pedestal, casting an enormous shadow that blocks out the sun and muffles all the noise so the team can grow together peacefully.
D'Antoni starts with the heart, not the soul. He loves basketball, not the journey. He opens the window to let in the sunlight.
In New York, backup point guard Chris Duhon said D'Antoni started his first practice by showing highlights of each player. The message was pretty simple: "You guys are here for a reason. I'm here to give you a platform to showcase those abilities."
"We like to stay positive," D'Antoni said. "We like to show film before we go on the floor of Dwight dunking or Steve dealing. Everything's positive, everything's flowing, everything is Showtime, let's go do it."
Or, as Kobe Bryant said: "Let's go kick ass."
What the two coaches share is an ability to elevate a team into something greater than the sum of its parts. To make great players like Bryant (Jackson) and Nash (D'Antoni) transcendent and role players better than they have been anywhere else.
Jackson won championships because he helped Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal reach their enormous potentials. But really, he won championships because he got the most out of guys such as Horace Grant, Steve Kerr, Rick Fox and Fisher.
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"I think the thing about Phil and great coaches is they make the role players play very well," Bryant said the other night. "Guys like myself and Shaq, MJ, Pippen, our numbers are always going to be excellent no matter who you put us with. That's just what we do.
"But for them to install confidence in the rest of the group, putting them in positions to be successful, allowing them to play in the fourth quarter when they blow a lead and then develop, those are the things that make a great coach."
D'Antoni hasn't won any championships. But everywhere he has been, he has made his role players better. Thursday he even joked that his job with the Knicks was basically to get everyone's stats up so "we could trade 'em" in the pursuit of clearing enough room under the salary cap to chase LeBron James as a free agent in 2010.
He does it in a different way than Jackson, preaching the power of positivity rather than Zen philosophies. But there's a reason so many of his players had the best seasons of their careers under him.
"Mike has some of the same characteristics [as Jackson] in terms of not micromanaging the team," Bryant said. "Setting guys up and putting guys in the right positions to be successful. He's probably one altercation in San Antonio away from getting to the Finals."
That's the part we'll keep coming back to. The point D'Antoni won't be able to argue until he wins a title. It's why the idea of reuniting with Jackson felt so wonderful to Lakers fans and players this past week and why hiring D'Antoni feels so risky. There's comfort in the old. Trust. Like a good, long marriage in which love grows and deepens through the years, it's hard to picture life without that bond.
But Jackson is not an option anymore. After the way the Lakers treated him during this process, it's hard to imagine he'd ever come back.
The job is D'Antoni's now. And while he started it slowly Thursday -- hobbling around on a new knee, going nowhere quickly -- he started off in a much better place than the last guy.
The second he started talking, these Lakers were listening. He had them at "Hello."