There are many words that one could use to describe Mike D'Antoni's first season in charge of the Los Angeles Lakers: Tumultuous, difficult and frustrating first come to mind. But one word that does not belong on the list is success. There are two fairly immutable truths about D'Antoni's reign to date. The first truth is that, from the way he was hired to the expectations his team faced to the injuries his players suffered, D'Antoni was dealt a terrible hand. The second is that he didn't do a very good job with that hand. Team weaknesses improved slowly, if at all. Team morale remained low throughout. And the Lakers lost a lot of basketball games, far more than one could have reasonably expected.
By season's end, progress was made on many fronts. The offense was finally adapted to the personnel on hand, the defense improved from terrible to mediocre, and the team somehow managed to string together enough wins to sneak into the playoffs despite one of the worst injury runs the Lakers have ever faced. However, between Kobe Bryant's ruptured Achilles tendon, the embarrassing and absurd sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs in the playoffs and Dwight Howard's quick departure in the off-season, whatever small amount of momentum built by the team's decent finish to the regular season has been destroyed with a wrecking ball. The only positive thing the Lakers have going for them right now is that they have arrived at a new season, and can begin the process of moving on from last year's disaster with (hopefully) a little bit more luck in their corner.
Moving on from last year's disaster, ironically, requires the Lakers to continue carrying out the plan that they started with in the first place - building towards the 2014 free agency period. Because of that plan, the priorities for this season are unlike any that the Lakers have ever faced. Put simply, this year doesn't matter. The Lakers are not strong enough to contend for a championship, and they are not bad enough to "contend" for a high draft pick (unless their severe injury troubles continue), and they have specifically built their roster to expire at the end of the year. After this year, only Steve Nash will be under contract.
Well, only Steve Nash will be under contract as a player. The other person under contract will be Mike D'Antoni. But should he be? Plenty of folks don't think he should be under contract now, that last season's failure was comprehensive enough to show definitively that D'Antoni was always the wrong man for the job. However, to make that kind of decision before a coach has even had a single training camp with which to work with his players is extreme. So what happens if the Lakers fail again? What happens if their record is terrible, and they miss the playoffs, and the team under-performs for the second season in a row under D'Antoni's leadership. Should the Lakers then pull the trigger on firing their coach again?
It is a difficult question to answer. On the one hand, team performance is the only thing you can really measure a coach on. On the other hand, this Lakers team was not built with performance as the first priority. Every new player brought in was signed to a one year contract, which limited the pool of talent who might be willing to play for the Lakers at prices they could offer. The team's biggest off-season signing (by dollar value, at least) is a big plodding center who doesn't fit into D'Antoni's offensive system at all. The rest of the pieces fit his system better, but do very little to address the weaknesses which the team displayed last season. And everybody on the roster, from Kobe Bryant down to Darius Johnson-Odom, is a risk. The best three players on the roster are all old, and coming off of seasons in which they suffered severe injury trouble. Every other player on the roster is a gamble, either of health or effectiveness. All those rolls of the dice could come up sevens, or they could all come up snake eyes, and that variability must be taken into account in judging the team's performance.
It would be unfair of the Lakers to build a roster for this season with one eye firmly cast on the next season while also judging D'Antoni's performance this season without doing the same. However, the Lakers also cannot afford to simply give D'Antoni a pass, because ensuring that they have the right coach with which to enact their vision in 2014 (when their vision actually starts) is of monumental importance. Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak have a truly difficult task ahead of them. They must determine whether D'Antoni is the coach of the future without giving much weight to the evidence of whether D'Antoni is doing a good job as coach of the present, at least as measured by wins and losses. There exists a reality in which the Lakers win 50 games, make the playoffs comfortably, and D'Antoni could still be justifiably fired. There also exists a reality in which the Lakers win 25 games, never even remotely contend for a playoff spot, and I would want D'Antoni to be retained for 2014 and beyond.
Wins and losses just aren't a good indicator for this team and this coach. Instead, the Lakers will have to take a more nuanced approach to coach evaluation this season. They will have to monitor how D'Antoni relates to his players, how he handles the pressure from the media if the Lakers struggle (as they are expected to do). Does the team concept improve from the beginning of the season to the end? Do they make effective adjustments to combat what other teams are doing? Do they cause problems of their own for the other teams to deal with, exploit other teams weaknesses?
Those questions can be applied to last year, and the answers don't reflect well on D'Antoni. But last year was a unique situation, one in which there were massive expectations without any real hope of fulfilling those expectations because of the severe injury trouble. There is also the very real possibility that the Kobe Bryant-Dwight Howard dynamic was a cancer that kept the roster from having any chance of positive fulfillment. None of these difficulties remain. Expectations are tempered. The pressure is significantly down-played.
D'Antoni doesn't need to win games to impress this year, but he does need to have players who want to play for him, that play effectively within the roles they are capable of playing, and he needs to play players in logical combinations that most properly utilize them instead of trying to shoehorn them into what he would prefer a more capable player to do. At the end of it all, the Lakers could miss the playoffs without him being a failure. Or they could make the playoffs without him being a success.
The Lakers front office desperately needs to figure out which one is which, because the choice of coach with which to hand their blank slate and build their roster for is the most important decision they have to make over the next nine months. In fact, with a roster that shouts "We don't care that much about this year", you could argue it is the only important decision they have to make over the next nine months. Too bad the only criteria that might normally apply to such a decision isn't worth much in this case.