Mike D'Antoni has had the type of year you would wish upon no coach. In fact, I would question whether any coach in history faced as difficult a challenge as Mike D'Antoni this season. He inherited a team that didn't quite fit his style. He inherited a coaching staff he had never worked with. He had no training camp to implement his system and feel out his personnel. His team was hit by the injury bug worse than any season I can recall. He was constantly having to deal with the bright lights that comes with being the coach of the premier franchise in the league, all while battling the expectations of "championship or bust", with a fan base that never fully supported him from the start. Mike D'Antoni has earned every cent of his paycheck this season and even if the Lakers' season ends tonight, he should be right back on the sidelines next season earning more.
There has been an ever-growing group of fans clamoring for the firing of Mike D'Antoni. Many felt scorned when D'Antoni was hired over their coaching idol, Phil Jackson. Others jumped on board the "Fire D'Antoni Train" when the Lakers started 4-9 with the new coach at the helm. A few more found room on this train when Pau Gasol was benched. When Earl Clark was given minutes and emerged as a quality player, some additional seats were taken as people wondered how a coach could have such a talent glued to the bench. The train was almost filled when the Lakers dropped back-to-back games against Phoenix and Washington, putting their playoff hopes in peril. Then last week when Kobe Bryant ruptured his Achilles, an angry mob filled with not only Lakers fans, but also NBA fans in general, stormed the train, claiming whatever room was available. The train was full. Hell, it was over-crowded. It is only with a cool head can we look back and see that the occupying of that train was a poor decision to begin with.
When Mike D'Antoni took over, the season was already underway. He did not get the benefit of a training camp and pre-season games. This 3-to-4 week period is the time where the offensive and defensive systems are taught to the players. The pre-season games are a great opportunity for the coach to see what he has on the bench without the pressures of winning the game. Mike D'Antoni was not given this luxury. He was forced to teach his system to the players in the midst of the regular season. During the first three weeks of D'Antoni's tenure, the Lakers played 13 games in 23 nights. With eight of the thirteen games on the road, many other days became "travel days" with little time on the court. D'Antoni might have had five, maybe seven days at best, to practice. The Lakers struggled during this transition period going only 4-9.
Even when the Lakers were able to practice and learn the system, D'Antoni still had to use game time to see how players would perform. As injuries began to pile up he started trying different line-ups to see what he had and what worked. The loss of Steve Nash and Steve Blake meant a lot of experimentation in the back-court. Darius Morris began starting as D'Antoni looked for athleticism and defense. Once it became clear that Morris was not ready for such a role, Chris Duhon was inserted. Shortly after Nash returned, and the Lakers back-court rotation began to stabilize, the front court took a big hit. In one night Jordan Hill was lost for the season, and Howard and Gasol were also injured. D'Antoni then gave Robert Sacre and Earl Clark a shot and discovered the latter could contribute. Through all the injuries and discovering who could and couldn't play, the Lakers continued to struggle.
The Lakers hit a low point right around the Memphis game on January 23rd. The Lakers had lost two nights before in Chicago and had a meeting that morning in which the players aired everything out. Whether one feels these types of meetings actually lead to results is up for debate; however the Lakers came out that night against Memphis and played great to start the game. They eventually lost, dropping to 17-25, but perhaps they found something during that start because the Lakers have been much better since then.
Over the last half of the season the Lakers' roles have become defined. D'Antoni has played out his training camp. He knows how each of his players can contribute. He is finding ways for both Pau and Dwight to play together and get touches inside. For a man that supposedly can't adapt to his players, he sure has bent over backwards in search of something that works. After the 17-25 start, the Lakers have gone 27-12 since, a 57-win pace. Yet no one really talks about that success.
Most people recall the awful home loss to Wizards and feel like the Lakers haven't improved much. Does anyone realize that since January 25th the Lakers are 16-2 at home? That home loss to the Wizards is more or less the outlier in what has become a very good home team. During that stretch the Lakers have beat seven playoff bound teams with the only other loss coming to the Clippers. The 16-2 home record results in the second highest home winning percentage in the Western Conference during that span. Only the Denver Nuggets, and their ridiculous 21-0 home record, are better. Some will say that good teams win at home, but great teams win on the road.
During that same stretch the Lakers have been a very solid 11-10 on the road. People recall the bad losses (like both games against Phoenix) but fail to remember how well the Lakers have played otherwise. Only three other Western Conference teams have played above .500 on the road during the same stretch (Oklahoma City 12-8, Denver, 9-7, and Memphis 13-9). The Lakers aren't far behind them.
A big reason for the Lakers success has been an improving defense. Defense is a common criticism of D'Antoni. Outside of Bryant's season-ending injury, the biggest injury impacting the Lakers was the one Howard suffered last year in Orlando. Howard, to his credit, rushed to get back on the court but he wasn't nearly the player at the beginning of the season that he is now. His athleticism and explosiveness are returning and it is showing up on the defensive end. In December the Lakers' defensive rating was 26th in the league. It improved to 21st during the month of January, 18th in February, 15th in March, and is 13th in April so far. This trend has been glossed over by many who feel like D'Antoni isn't doing anything about defense.
One other common criticism is D'Antoni's managing of minutes and the bench. When Kobe went down with the torn Achilles, the majority of people immediately pointed to D'Antoni as the cause by playing Bryant too many minutes. After discussions with experts in the medical field, the evolving consensus is that Bryant's injury is not one caused by fatigue. In light of this, some people still feel that resting Bryant was needed but I am of the opinion that D'Antoni may not have had much of an option. D'Antoni has had virtually no margin for error down the stretch. If the Lakers missed the playoffs this gradual improvement would probably be forgotten and perhaps he would be shown the door. He might have had visions of the Memphis game running through his head.
In Memphis the Lakers held a 4 point lead in the 4th quarter when D'Antoni took Kobe out to give him some rest. Not more than two and a half minutes later is the lead down to 1. Kobe finished the night +6 in a game decided by 2 points. Maybe every minute mattered and if Kobe said he could go then he let him. Kobe isn't some fresh faced rookie and he knows his body better than anyone else.
With the Lakers' improved play and the idea that D'Antoni caused Kobe's injury off the table, what other reason would there be to fire him? If D'Antoni is given a relatively healthy squad, a training camp to work with, and less pressures of saving a sinking ship in the middle of a media storm, maybe he can lead the Lakers to success in the future. He has certainly dealt with enough obstacles this season to earn a fresh crack at it next season.
Then again, with Phil Jackson's recent comments about his "itching" to get back to work, I am sure the pro-Phil pundits will be quite vocal in support of replacing D'Antoni. After all, nothing solves the problem of having a coach who supposedly only knows how to coach his system by replacing him with a coach who only knows how to coach his system.