Lakers can finally move forward
After D'Antoni's debut in win over Nets, L.A. feels it's headed somewhere now
LOS ANGELES -- A week has passed since the Los Angeles Lakers chose Mike D'Antoni as their head coach, and when he looks back on it years from now, he probably won't remember much about it except that he was on a lot of painkillers as he was forced to come back too quickly on his surgically replaced knee.
But a lot has happened in a week. In practice, as he has installed bits and pieces of the offense he somehow needs his new team to feel, not simply learn. In his team, which had a week to decompress from Mike Brown's heavy hand under light-hearted interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff. And perhaps most important, in this city, where Lakers fans had been chanting for Phil Jackson to return and rescue them on the same night the team was negotiating with D'Antoni.
D'Antoni won't escape Jackson's shadow until he delivers a title here. Heck, he can barely get a chair on the bench in which Jackson hasn't sat.
There's no use fighting it. But there's also no use dwelling on it either. And somehow, with just the simple passage of some time, it seems as if the Lakers and the city itself have been able to move into a better space. A clearer space.
Eleven games into a season that never really felt as if it started, the Lakers finally feel as if they're on a road to somewhere.
Whether that's the road to a championship, only time will tell. But on the first night of this new journey, at least it felt as though there is direction now.
D'Antoni's Lakers will be very different than Brown's Lakers. They'll be different than what Jackson would've made this team into.
They'll be faster and freer. Success will be letting go, not learning where to go. Patience, at least on offense, is no longer a virtue. If there's a good shot, it should be taken.
"The biggest thing is, you can't play basketball thinking," D'Antoni said. "It takes a while to develop all the little habits and just get 'em to react and let 'em play."
It's going to take longer for that process to happen while Steve Nash and Steve Blake are still on the mend. Nash knows the rhythm D'Antoni is trying to create on offense the way you just remember all the words to songs you had on loop back in the seventh grade.
But sometimes learning something new the hard way has hidden benefits down the road. The Lakers who are standing right now will have to fight through this stage and learn it themselves.
And in the short term, it's going to be painful -- physically. Aside from Bryant and maybe Metta World Peace, it didn't look as though any player is in the kind of shape they'll need to be in to play at the pace D'Antoni wants them too.
There won't be many breaks either. D'Antoni spent most of the moments he was up off his seat waving his arm like a third-base coach waving runners home. The message was pretty clear: Get your minds around this first, your legs will catch up.
"They're getting paid a lot of money," D'Antoni said afterward. "And they're going to earn every cent of it. I'll wear 'em out."
It's the way he believes basketball should be played. And it's why the Lakers hired him instead of Jackson, believing this vision fit their roster better than the man who had taken then to five titles but hesitated slightly when asked if he wanted to do it again.
Over the course of this season, D'Antoni will continue to be measured against Jackson. He knows that.
For as long as his knee hurts, he'll be walking a bit like him, too.
Fortunately, Lakers trainer Gary Vitti had the good sense not to make him sit in the same elevated chair Jackson came to rely on to ease the pressure on his joints.
Those chairs, the thrones, are mostly out of commission now. Too beat up from years of being thrown into cargo holds of airplanes and buses. Only one is functional enough to be used in any capacity, and it's at the Lakers' practice facility. The company that manufactured them is out of business.
So when D'Antoni stepped on to the court Tuesday night for his first game as the Lakers coach, he had a new seat that was his own. A booster seat that gave him an extra foot or two of lift so he could extend his leg while seated.
The picture was oddly familiar: a Lakers coach sitting on high.
But for the first time in a while, it seemed as if he had a good view.