When Mike D’Antoni and Dwight Howard were first brought together, they were supposed to fix a would-be Lakers dynasty gone askew. Instead, their disastrous pairing brought the purple and gold to ruin, so it’s fitting that in the first appearance the Lakers have made in the NBA playoffs since D’Antoni was their coach, they’ll be facing him and the Houston Rockets team that Howard left them for, in the second round of the postseason that the two of them couldn’t succeed in getting Los Angeles to.
The superstar empowerment era has turned the NBA into a tangled web of connections, but the link between these two teams, D’Antoni and Howard is more full of feuds than most. It’s safe to say that D’Antoni has no love lost for the Lakers and Howard, while Howard surely holds few fuzzy feelings towards the Rockets, or his old coach.
To understand why, we have to jump back in time, all the way back to 2012.
When the Lakers fired Mike Brown just five games into the 2012-13 season, Howard — a star and impending free agent at the time — knew who he wanted his new team to bring in as coach: Phil Jackson. And Jackson was seriously considering coming out of retirement at the time, taking meetings with the Lakers as they searched for Brown’s replacement. Howard himself has admitted on the record that he pushed for Jackson, something that clearly didn’t get his partnership with D’Antoni — who the Lakers hired instead — off to the greatest start. It clearly didn’t leave Howard thrilled with the Lakers, either. And despite everyone’s attempts to make it appear they were getting along all year, the relationship never got much better.
During the season, Howard took thinly veiled shots at D’Antoni in the press for his limited focus on defense, while D’Antoni sent even more barely hidden disdain back in Howard’s direction. On the other end of the floor, Howard “felt marginalized” by D’Antoni all season, something he reportedly let be known in meetings with then Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak after the year was over.
In retrospect, given that the Lakers opted to retain D’Antoni, it was hardly surprising that Howard left for the Rockets in free agency after the season. At the time, D’Antoni publicly blasted Howard for refusing to accept his role with the Lakers, and made fun of the team he chose instead:
In fact, D’Antoni noticed a bit of irony in Howard choosing Houston, considering the Rockets run an offense every bit as wide open as the one D’Antoni prefers and the one Howard resisted conforming to last year. ‘The thing that cracks me up is Houston, they do the exact same thing,’ D’Antoni said, laughing. ‘And so (Howard) is gonna go to Houston? OK, so did they talk about change there? Don’t tell me that it’s that different.’
But while the Lakers stood by their coach and Howard fled for pastures he perceived as greener, it wasn’t long until both men’s relationship with their new franchise’s would sour. D’Antoni only lasted one more lame-duck season in L.A. as Lakers legend Magic Johnson led a fanbase insurrection against him on Twitter and TV, culminating in an infamous farewell message:
Happy days are here again! Mike D'Antoni resigns as the Lakers coach. I couldn't be happier!— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) May 1, 2014
At the time, things were going a bit better for Howard in Houston, but it wouldn’t be long before his fond feelings for the Rockets would fade. Howard became frustrated by his role becoming more and more limited as time went on with the Rockets as James Harden morphed into one of the best players in the NBA. Harden and Howard didn’t click as a pairing, either, with one anonymous team source describing their relationship to ESPN as “cordially bad.” And while Howard has admitted his dynamic with Harden wasn’t good, both he and Harden have since claimed they don’t have hate for each other. The same seemingly can’t be said for Howard and D’Antoni.
In 2016, D’Antoni was hired as the new head coach of the Rockets. Houston general manager Daryl Morey insisted that he and D’Antoni would welcome Howard back, but a reunion wasn’t in the cards. One month later, Howard left in free agency for his hometown Hawks.
Now, four years later, Howard back where it all started, going through a redemption season for the ages with the Lakers, with his and his franchise’s former coach and foe standing in the way of their path to the Western Conference Finals, and D’Antoni looking to get revenge on the organization and fanbase that kicked him on the way out.
Has the beef between all these parties cooled? It certainly doesn’t appear so. Remember that Magic Johnson tweet about D’Antoni’s dismissal? Nearly four years later, D’Antoni’s wife, Laurel, fired back at the Lakers after her husband’s team beat the squad Johnson put together during his time running the purple and gold, asking reporters “is it classless to say Happy days are here again?” after the victory. When Howard returned to Houston as a Laker this year, D’Antoni praised his play on its face, but also took what could be perceived as a subtle shot by crediting it to Howard accepting who he is instead of trying to do more.
“Dwight is a very talented basketball player. If he’s happy and wants to [come off the bench], which obviously he does, then no reason he wouldn’t be successful,” D’Antoni told reporters then.
Meanwhile, Jeanie Buss has been incredibly candid about her lack of fondness for D’Antoni. At an event for season ticket holders this year, she blamed Howard’s departure and failure during his first run with the Lakers on her brother hiring D’Antoni that first time around, saying that the Lakers had “hired a coach that didn’t respect his game and wasn’t going to put him in a position to succeed.” For his part, Howard said he didn’t want to comment on stuff that happened in 2013, but that didn’t leave Buss as the only Laker to take shots at the Rockets this year.
Lakers star LeBron James has seemed a little irritated going into this series. He batted away questions about if his use of the step-back three was inspired at all by Harden’s success with it, and seemed to take exception to the idea that Houston is some revolutionary offense.
It’s not hard to trace his disdain for the franchise back very far. They traded his close friend — and NBPA president — Chris Paul to a destination he wasn’t seeking. While things worked out for Paul with the Thunder, it’s not hard to guess that James didn’t appreciate Morey doing that to his close friend. James also was upset by the timing of Morey’s “Free Hong Kong” tweet during the preseason coming when the Lakers and their families were in China, causing the entire team to have to go on lockdown, and was reportedly incensed enough to ask NBA commissioner Adam Silver to fine Morey (Silver declined). Whether one thinks James is right or wrong for his position, it’s obvious there is bad blood between him and Morey at this point.
All of it has led us here. Howard vs. D’Antoni. Howard vs. the Rockets. D’Antoni vs. the Lakers. LeBron vs. Morey. It all comes to a head when the Lakers and Rockets begin their playoff series tonight. These may not be two franchises people typically associate as rivals, but there are enough connections here to make for some compelling drama in the second round. Most of it leads back to the ill-fated connection between Howard and D’Antoni. They were clearly never meant to succeed together as allies. But maybe they can at least manage to give us some fireworks as foes.