More than any other person involved with the debacle that was the Los Angeles Lakers last season, Mike D'Antoni has rebounded well. In fact, through twenty games of the current NBA season, there aren't too many coaches who have performed better at their job than Mike D'Antoni. If you were taking a straw poll for NBA Coach of the Year, his name would probably be included. Maybe not on the top of the list, not with the league's two best records coming from surprising sources in Portland and Indiana. D'Antoni may not even have been in charge of the most surprising underdog, with competition coming from Phoenix (11-9) and Boston (10-11). His exact position in the hierarchy with fellow candidates like Terry Stotts (Portland) and Jeff Hornacek (Phoenix) is irrelevant; the point is that he's up there.
What D'Antoni has done with this Lakers team is awesome. He has led a team of NBA cast-offs, dudes who might not even have a job in the league if they did not play for the Lakers, to a .500 record, despite playing one of the toughest schedules in the league to date, per Basketball-reference.com. The Lakers have managed this record without their best player, with their second best player managing to be only slightly better than your average NBA player in general, and with their third best player halfway to the glue factory.
To put it another way, dating back to last season, the Los Angeles Lakers roster was built to be a star-driven vehicle, with four stars and not much else. This season, they have had zero stars. Dwight's gone, Kobe's (been) out, Steve's done, and Pau Gasol is mediocre at best. And yet the team is still .500. If you take out the massive salaries of the above players who are still on the team, the Lakers who are primarily responsible for winning games are receiving an astronomically low $17.7 million dollars. Take out Chris Kaman's salary and the number drops to $14.6 million. No team in the league is getting more value from their role players, and (aside from Robert Sacre) there isn't a single artificially-deflated rookie salary in the mix. The Lakers are paying guys as much money as the open market determined they were worth, and Mike D'Antoni has them playing well enough together to be a decent sqaud.
Coach Mike deserves the lion's share of the credit for all of this. He's got the team buying in to his offensive scheme, with the 3rd fastest pace in the league and the 4th most assists per game as well. He's got the team playing with a team first attitude, routinely going with the hot hand, even if it means the starters don't even see the court down the stretch in close ball games. Most miraculously of all, he has the team playing OK defense. They currently rank 20th out of 30 teams, which doesn't sound that great until you consider that last year's team, the one that had Dwight Howard in the middle and Metta World Peace on the wing, was also ranked 20th. This team doesn't have near the defensive talent that last year's did, but they have way, way more defensive energy and heart. And I've lost count of the number of times I've thought to myself "WTF is D'Antoni thinking" as he trots out a lineup, only to have that lineup be successful (Seriously, Xavier Henry as a point guard? Who saw that one coming?)
The offense, the defense, the energy, the team chemistry, the schemes, the lineups ... it's all been pretty good. There's no way the Lakers should be the position they are in right now, just a couple games back of a playoff spot, considering all the obstacles they've faced in the early season. And yet, here they are, with Kobe back in the fold, right where they hoped they could be. It is a huge credit to D'Antoni's coaching.
Too bad it doesn't mean anything anymore.
D'Antoni has done well enough in the first 20 games of this season to be rewarded: Rewarded with the confidence of Lakers Nation that he might be the right man for the job. Rewarded with a foundation with which to continue to build this team into something successful. Rewarded with recognition for the fine job he's done in rehabilitating the careers of cast-off players. Rewarded with the destruction of talking points about how he can't tailor his system to his players and doesn't care about defense. Instead, he will be rewarded with a simple edict - Do it all over again.
Everything D'Antoni has done will now need to be re-done because of Kobe Bryant's return to the team. The offense centered around Steve Blake as the orchestrator of the pick and roll? That didn't last one game, with Kobe taking over as the team's primary ball handler for nearly all of his 28 minutes on the court. The defensive energy? If he wants that to stick around, he'll have to convince Kobe to focus far more on defense than he did last season. The lineups? Go ahead and try sitting Kobe in the fourth because Xavier Henry has a hot hand. The chemistry? Kobe changes the whole reaction.
None of this is unsolvable, and the concept that the Lakers are somehow better off without Kobe is laughable unless the worst of the doomsday scenarios regarding his health and capability after injury come true. And it's not like Kobe just disappeared for eight months and then showed up last Sunday at Staples Center out of the blue. He's been there with the team, in the locker room, on the bench, in the training sessions. Whatever magic D'Antoni has cooked up to help this team get to where they are now, he's already been working with Kobe Bryant as an ingredient. Once Kobe kicks off the rust, an offense with him as the primary ball handler and play-maker certainly has a higher upside than one run by Steve Blake. If Kobe doesn't return to last year's form on defense, there's no reason for the team's overall defense to suffer because of him. And, as I've pointed out many times, there's precedent for a fun-loving great-chemistry team centered around Kobe Bryant (see: Lakers circa 2008).
But make no mistake; Kobe changes everything. If everything is changed, that means Mike D'Antoni will have to embark on another journey to find out exactly what works, exactly what makes this collection of players become more than the sum of their parts. He's done a great job of doing just that through the first 20 games of the season, but if he can't repeat the process, if he can't tame the new Lakers eco-system with Hurricane Kobe at the center of it all, then nobody will remember. Mike D'Antoni has done a fantastic, incredible, wonderful, very good job coaching the Los Angeles Lakers so far this season. But, if he can't do it again, it'll be like he never did it at all.