Lakers, D'Antoni still learning
It's a process, with some bumps along the way, but everyone seems committed
Dwight Howard was going to have a real Thanksgiving dinner in his new home.
It wasn't going to be a long one -- the Lakers had flown back to Los Angeles very late Wednesday night and were scheduled to leave again Thursday evening -- but he was committed. He could walk again, he could play again, and it was time to give thanks.
Since taking the Lakers job on Nov. 12, D'Antoni has been playing catch-up. On a bum leg. He wakes up early and in pain, as the medicine he took the night before wears off, checks to see if his surgically replaced knee still seems OK, then gets up, watches film of his new team and prepares for practice.
When he had surgery at the beginning of November, the Lakers job wasn't even on the horizon. Heck, no job was on the horizon. NBA teams don't generally fire coaches during the first two weeks of the season. Then again, NBA teams don't generally come into a season with the kind of expectations the Lakers did, either. So instead of laying in bed at his home in New York for another month, recuperating like a normal patient, D'Antoni is hobbling around Los Angeles trying to rehabilitate the Lakers.
There is no way to rush the healing process, for either his knee or the team, but D'Antoni has to try.
So where did he go on Thanksgiving instead of joining Howard?
"Nowhere. I was in bed, curled up in the fetal position."
By Friday morning he was back on his feet, pacing the sideline of the FedExForum in Memphis after shootaround, itching to go.
Knowing how badly his knee is hurting, I ask if he wants to sit down. He says he's fine.
At some point over the last 48 hours he's been able to reset. The sting from an awful 113-97 loss in Sacramento on Wednesday night has worn off, and the pain in his knee has dulled. Or at least he's pretending it has.
He may not have had time to eat on Thanksgiving, but he has plenty to be grateful for.
"You don't get many second chances in life," he says. "This is definitely a big one."
The guy he came back for is limping, too.
D'Antoni's right knee is grossly swollen and stiff. I ask if he's wearing a brace, he rolls up his pant leg to reveal a puffy mushroom of a joint that's being held together with black surgical tape.
"Yikes, is that what you've been walking around on?" I ask.
He grins and rolls his pant leg back down.
His fibula fractured ever so slightly. The nerves in the area weren't happy, either. He hasn't been on the court since. He's miserable sitting out, but it's not in Nash's nature to give in to depression. Not after all those years in Phoenix, he and D'Antoni winning all those games together but never the game they had to win to get over the hump. So close, an inch here or there, a break that went another way and they're wearing rings.
The year Joe Johnson broke his face (2005) . . . the year Raja Bell hurt his calf (2006) . . . the Amar'e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw suspensions (2007) . . . the 3-pointer Tim Duncan hit (2008). Nash remembers all of it.
"It was a [Manu] Ginobili pick-and-roll. And, it's not like we were trying to take a 3 away from Tim," he says, narrating the past and reliving it at the same time. "He made one 3 all season. Sometimes you just have to say, 'He made a big shot.'"
His voice gets a little deeper as he runs through the details. There's pain there.
"I do remember those things," Nash says. "But I don't look back on them. That's life. You move on. We never got to the Finals, we never were a championship team. But we also accomplished a lot and had a lot of success.
"We also never played with a defensive center. We were a flawed team that got pretty dang close to our potential and maybe it was never quite good enough."
He looks up at me to make sure that last part sinks in. It's not a line. It's his truth.
Enough time has passed now that D'Antoni can admit where he went wrong. It's not one of those plays he regrets, it's a decision.
His decision to leave.
"I shouldn't have gone to New York," he says, looking down at the sideline in Memphis, pacing on that unstable right leg.
"I should have stuck in there and battled. You don't get to coach somebody like him [Nash] too many times. It's pretty sacred and you need to take care of it. I didn't."
D'Antoni has never told Nash this.
It feels good to confess.
"I think we got frustrated and I got frustrated. That's why I left. We were there, it seemed like we deserved it, and then it seemed like something happened all the time. Maybe we weren't good enough either. We have to understand that.
"I probably irrationally made a decision right when the season was over. You should take a month to figure it out. I shouldn't have left. That was my fault."
The story I've always heard is that it was a mutual parting. The Suns' ownership group and new general manager Steve Kerr pushed him to hire a defensive assistant. His system was questioned. Everything was.
Sure the Suns could outscore everyone, but could they win a championship? Could D'Antoni? Was the team flawed? Was he? Did they just have horrible luck? Did he need to change? Could he?
When the Knicks job came open in the spring of 2008, the Suns let him go.
"No. It was me," D'Antoni admits now. "I initiated it and I probably shouldn't have."
Everything about New York felt wrong. The Knicks weren't built to win any time soon. In fact, it was probably better if they lost enough to get lottery picks. D'Antoni's job was to build his players' statistics up enough so that the Knicks could trade them and clear more salary-cap space for the summer of 2010 and make a run at LeBron James and the other stars of that free-agent class.
Chris Duhon was the point guard on D'Antoni's first team in New York.
"It was tough for him because as soon as a guy learned his system, he might be gone," Duhon says. "It was tough for us, too. I mean, we made like three big trades that year. We started off like 8-3 and we made a trade, then we made another trade close to Christmas, and another one near the trade deadline. It was hard to get comfortable."
Trust was impossible. Joy was fleeting. D'Antoni might have learned to accept losing huge games to San Antonio in the playoffs, but this was different.
"We had a three-year plan and it was good," D'Antoni says. "There were good aspects of it. But it was better the other way [in Phoenix]."
And it's better now.
Opening night in Sacramento this year was a joke. A black tarp covering the old advertisement for Power Balance, the former naming-rights holder of this decrepit arena, fell to the floor in the middle of the game. Kings coach Keith Smart darted onto the court as play continued at the other end, grabbed the tarp and dragged it off before the referees could whistle the play dead. The rare sellout crowd cheered wildly.
The building is now officially called Sleep Train Arena, but you still have to type either Power Balance Pavilion or Arco Arena into your GPS to find it.
The Lakers found their way there on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. But then, like so many other things in this basketball wasteland, they began to fall apart.
Their legs were tired after pushing so hard to beat the Brooklyn Nets the night before. So were their minds. Howard had trouble getting a shot off and took just four all night. His teammates had trouble making anything. Pau Gasol looked lethargic and lost.
It's hard for D'Antoni to watch when things aren't right. Basketball is supposed to be fun. Flowing. But on this night his team looked flawed.
Can this aging roster really play at the pace he wants? Can Howard and Gasol adapt their back-to-the-basket games to D'Antoni's pick-and-roll action? Will they trust him to figure it out? To adapt his system to their talents? To change?
It's often written that D'Antoni wants his teams to play fast. But that's not really it. Yeah, he wants them to get up and down the court, but mostly he wants them to play free.
The genius of his offense is its spacing and timing more than its pace. He will get you good shots. Open shots you should be able to make. But first you have to let go of what you think you know and have a little faith in the possibility that D'Antoni might know more.
During a second-quarter timeout against the Kings, D'Antoni walks out on the court, looks at his brother Dan, who has come aboard as an assistant coach, and shakes his head.
"This is awful," D'Antoni says to his brother. There's no flow. No trust. No fun. Before Dan can answer, Metta World Peace clanks a shot off the rim. The rebound nearly hits D'Antoni.
Dwight Howard began the night in a great mood. He doesn't give interviews before the game, but he'll talk about anything else, to anyone else.
"Did you know I almost went to USC for performing arts?" Howard asks. "Yeah. But I couldn't pass up the NBA."
I'm not sure if he's kidding. I never am. But it's more fun to play along, so I remind him he still can. Or, better yet, take acting lessons from one of the hundreds of acting coaches in Los Angeles.
"How about method acting?"
Howard grows serious as he considers his response. This time he's not joking.
"No. I don't like method acting," he says. "You have to get into character and be that character for like a month."
After the game Howard is in a very different mood. He never seemed involved in the game. The Kings swarmed him every time he touched the ball in the post. He had no good options: Force a tough shot in traffic or kick it back out to a guard and probably never see it again.
When the Lakers struggled to knock down outside shots, it allowed the Kings to cheat and collapse on Howard even more.
What offensive genius designed a system where this could happen? Where were all the great open-court looks he was supposed to get?
When he wasn't getting surrounded in the post, he was spread out along the baseline or on the perimeter, too far away from the basket to do anything, and out of position for offensive rebounds.
"There's no explanation for it," Howard says after the game, choosing his words carefully. "They came out and played harder than us from the beginning to the end. That's why they won. It has nothing to do with Mike, his offense, his defense, they just played harder than us."
I'm not sure if he's acting. I never am.
Kobe Bryant has always been clear with Howard. For the next two years, the Lakers are his team. After that he'll pass the mantle on to Howard. It will be a peaceful transfer of power so long as Howard proves worthy of leading basketball's most glamorous franchise.
He realized he should've done things differently. That he still had something to learn.
So now when Bryant talks, he listens. And Bryant's message after the Kings game was clear: It's on him to make this work. It's on all of them.
"You've just got to learn from what happened, figure some things out and be better," Bryant says, making his allegiance to D'Antoni known.
"He has a very bright future. It's about constantly improving for him. Obviously he's playing with myself, he's playing with Steve [Nash], two pretty good guys he can learn from."
The next game in Memphis, Howard still only gets seven shots, but he plays the kind of impact, energetic defense that won him three Defensive Player of the Year awards.
"We're going to have ups and downs, obstacles, but that's what happens when you're trying to win a championship," he says. "I'm not going to tell you it's an easy road. But this is the road that a lot of people don't want to travel, and for us to go down and get there, we've got to go down that road and do our job.
"We can't lose our chemistry, we can't lose each other."
For now he trusts.
Gasol is another story. He always is. There's no one way to reach him. He might have the highest IQ in the league. So sometimes you have to appeal to his intellect. He also might be the most sensitive guy in the league. So other times you have to appeal to his heart.
But the one thing people always miss is how much pride he takes in his craft. How much he cares. That's how Bryant has learned to connect with him.
That's also where D'Antoni went wrong in Memphis. Since he took the job, D'Antoni has rightly called Gasol the most skilled big man in the league. But so far, in this offense, he's only been able to make use of a few of Gasol's skills: Passing and jump-shooting. The rest of it is going to come once Nash gets back and unlocks the mysteries of the universe. D'Antoni knows that. But Gasol doesn't. He couldn't. And instead of encouraging him to be patient and assuring him it won't always be like this, D'Antoni challenges Gasol to accept this new reality by benching him for the fourth quarter.
When asked afterward what he was thinking, D'Antoni pulls no punches: "I was thinking. 'Boy, I'd like to win this game.' That was the reason."
It's out of character for D'Antoni. He can be glib, he gets frustrated and competitive, but rarely does he make it personal.
Gasol seems discouraged afterward. He can't remember the last time he didn't play in the fourth quarter of a meaningful game. And for it to happen here in Memphis, the town in which he started his NBA career, against the team his younger brother, Marc, now stars for, it's hard to swallow.
Now a coach he has just met is taking a swing at him? That's too much for his pride to take.
"All my looks are jumpshots," Gasol explains. "I would like to see something closer to the basket and not just rolling, especially when Dwight is there. We have to find our best formula of how we maximize our personnel with the system that the coach wants us to play."
D'Antoni seems to know he has overstepped immediately. He approaches Gasol on the bus ride to the airport that night and tries to make it right.
Bryant's already done the hard part, though.
"If [Gasol] feels like he needs to get more touches down there, then we'll get him some more," Bryant says when told of Gasol's comments. "This isn't going to be a team where you sit here and feel like you're not getting the most out of yourself, where we're not getting the most out of you.
"Where you say something about it and we just ignore it. That's not what teammates are for."
D'Antoni had one big decision to make as soon as he took over. With both Nash and Steve Blake out with injuries, the Lakers point guard situation was pretty bleak. Morris was athletic, but raw. Duhon was more experienced, but had reached his ceiling as a player a while ago.
The easy play would've been to turn to Duhon, who at least knew his system from their days together in New York. But that would completely discount the fact that Morris had beaten Duhon out in training camp and had been starting since "the Steves" went down with injuries.
What would that do to Morris' confidence? How could the kid trust this new coach if his first act was to demote him without cause?
No, the right move was the show the kid some love. To trust him and then trust that good things happen when you empower people. When you believe in them.
That's something D'Antoni believes deep in his core. If you're on the floor, it's because he wants you out there. If there's an open shot, he wants you to take it and he thinks you'll make it.
He doesn't want you doubting yourself. Not for a second. Play free, not fast. Shoot if you're open. Believe that you'll make it. Let your instincts take over, not your fears.
"He's hands-on in a unique way. He gives you advice, but I don't feel stressed about it. He kind of just lets me play," Morris says. "He's really positive, really encouraging. I think that comes from him being a player himself. If you turn the ball over, it's not the end of the world. Nobody is going to be perfect. I think him being a former player, especially a good one, he knows mistakes are going to happen."
It was never like this when Brown was the head coach. Morris hardly even got off the bench in the preseason. A kid who needed desperately to play and gain experience couldn't even be trusted to play in games that meant nothing.
"The leash was a lot shorter," Morris says.
And it wasn't just him. In Brown's only win before he was fired, a 108-79 rout of the Detroit Pistons on Nov. 4, he put a sore-footed Bryant back into the game in the fourth quarter when the Pistons made a mini-run. When things got tense, Brown held on tighter.
It's hard to reconcile the soft hand D'Antoni has used with Morris with the stinging jabs he threw at Gasol.
Did he just lose himself in a moment of frustration? Or has he changed? Maybe this is what he's doing different this time around?
"I wouldn't say [Mike] is frustrated," Bryant explains. "He just knows what we can be and he's constantly pushing for it."
It's not OK this time to fall short. Flaws and fate don't have to matter.
"That's the sentiment on the team," Bryant says. "Come hell or high water, you've just got to figure it out. There's no pouting, you've just got to figure it out."
The D'Antoni brothers grew up in a place that didn't change. Way up in the hills of West Virginia where a strong rain could wash out the only road in and out of town for months.
"Beckley was the closest town to Mullens, where we grew up," Dan says. "It took you an hour and 30 minutes to get there and by the time you got there you were sick even though it was only 26 miles.
"The road was so bad, once you were in, you didn't go back. What was in there, stayed there. Your stores did well because everybody stayed there."
I know of a place like that, too. My family lives way up in the hills of Arizona in a place called Pleasant Valley, out behind Roosevelt Dam. The only road in or out is 40 miles long and still isn't paved. The locals prefer it that way. It keeps things the same. On warm summer nights you can lay down in the middle of the road, staring up at the moon for hours, and never worry that a car might drive by.
I mention this to Dan. He says he knows the place.
"All those years in Phoenix," he says.
I nod. Of course.
"When they built the roads after we left, Mullens changed," he says. "Now the downtown sucks. There's nobody there anymore."
Dan left Mullens first, heading to play basketball at Marshall University in 1966. Mike followed him to Marshall a few years later.
Basketball took them both around the world. But the place that didn't change, changed while they were gone. That happens sometimes.
I ask D'Antoni if he's different now. If New York changed him. If Phoenix did.
"Yeah," he says. "I'm older."
I ask if any of it scarred him.
He stops pacing the sideline in Memphis and looks up.
"You know what? It's basketball. This is great," he says. "How do you get scars from something you love? You can get some regrets, 'I wish I would've done that.' But there's no scars. This is too good."