It was LeBron James’ astoundingly clutch, one-eyed, one-legged desperation three that put the Lakers ahead and ultimately delivered their victory against the Golden State Warriors in this week’s thrilling, back-and-forth play-in game, but that shot may not have been possible if Steve Nash had gotten what he wanted in October.
Way back in October, Nash — who played under Phil Handy during the veteran player development coach’s first stint as a Lakers assistant — was recruiting Handy hard to join his Nets coaching staff. But after more than a month of rumors, Handy announced on Instagram that he would stay with the Lakers to defend their title.
What does this have to do with James’ shot? Hold on, I’m getting there.
Before James iced the game for the Lakers, there was another key play to set up the 97th game-winning/tying shot of his career. With the Lakers and Warriors tied at 98 as the fourth quarter wound towards its close, Alex Caruso drove to the basket and drew the attention of Draymond Green with just a hint of a shot fake before dropping the ball to Anthony Davis for a go-ahead dunk.
That play didn’t win the game, but without it, the Lakers wouldn’t have been tied with the Warriors for James’ three, and would have only been up by one point afterwards, potentially creating an entirely different game and situation.
What does that have to do with Handy and Nash? That part goes back to a few weeks ago, when James was still sidelined with injury, and Dennis Schröder was still in isolation due to the health and safety protocols. Those absences forced Caruso to take on a more traditional point guard role than he’s probably played since college or even high school, and at the time, he credited Handy with telling him to stay aggressive, to keep going to the basket before looking for others.
If Caruso wasn’t forced into that role, does he have the playmaking rhythm and chops to execute that split-second blow-by and dump-off under pressure? Does he naturally shift into attack mode like that without hearing the disembodied voice of Handy in his ear after hearing nothing but “attack” from the veteran assistant for weeks prior? Maybe he does, or maybe he doesn’t, but if Nash had hired Handy for his staff, maybe the Lakers would have the ones playing the Grizzlies in a play-in game on Friday night instead of the Warriors. To paraphrase Phil Jackson, fortunes can turn on a trifle in the playoffs.
Now maybe all of this is melodramatic. Maybe the Lakers win that game without Handy. But the small parts that help make a difference in these victories deserve to be lauded too, and when I asked Caruso all those weeks ago about what makes Handy someone who is so highly regarded as a player development coach, he didn’t hesitate to effusively praise Handy’s contributions.
“Phil is a former player himself, so he’s relatable. He understands the mental aspect of what guys are going through. He’s played basketball before, so he knows what it’s like out on the court,” Caruso said.
Those qualities have clearly helped Handy impact quite a few players over the course of his career. I mean, there is a reason he’s been to five-straight NBA Finals with three different teams and has the ear of players ranging from stars like LeBron, to stars in their roles like Caruso.
But in terms of specifics, Caruso didn’t want to give away what makes Handy’s tips special, even if they’ve clearly resonated with him.
“Without giving too much away, he just has great stuff. Like the stuff he teaches us is stuff that I hadn’t learned from anybody else. Just ways to set up ball screens, different skill development drills,” Caruso said.
There is also the fact that Handy is just clearly fun to be around. Whether he’s on video coaching up the Lakers’ kids in the NBA bubble or going to bat for his guys on Instagram by clapping back at fans on his endearingly unfiltered Instagram account, Handy is a players’ coach through and through.
“I just enjoy being around him. That’s one of the things that really makes it great,” Caruso said. “We do a great job, the front office here, of putting together a team of high-character guys, high-character coaches, support staff... It just makes it easy when you show up and guys have energy, or people like Phil have your best interests in mind.”
It’s not just Caruso that has felt Handy’s value, although he’s been the most recent display of it. Stars from Kobe Bryant, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant have all sought out and worked with Handy at different times. Nash, one of the greatest point guards in NBA history, clearly thought highly enough of Handy’s tips during their time together in Los Angeles to put on a public offseason recruiting blitz. And during the height of those same Nets rumors, current Lakers head coach Frank Vogel praised Handy as an “integral” part of his coaching staff.
So maybe the Lakers would have avoided the play-in game without Handy, and of course Caruso deserves credit for the work he put in — and the play he made — more than anyone else does. But as Handy looks to make Andre Drummond his next success story, seeking to coax the inner grizzly bear out of a teddy, it’s worth appreciating the skillset he brings to this team as he looks to make his sixth straight trip to the NBA Finals. With how much success he’s been a part of, Handy may be moving on to bigger and better opportunities before long, but the Lakers are lucky to have him for as long as he’s around.