Just past midnight on November 12, 2012, the news broke that Mike D'Antoni agreed upon a four year contract to be the new head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers.
I'm up writing this, and as of now, the specific details of the contract are unknown. However, rumor has it that the contract is worth $12 million over three years, with a team option for the fourth year.
What I do know is that this signing marks a significant shift in the direction of the franchise. Specifically, it means that Phil Jackson won't be coming back to Los Angeles, and that my friends, is not what anyone in Los Angeles wants to hear.
If you are an unfortunate DirectTV subscriber, then you have been missing out on the crowd at Staples Center thunderously chanting "We want Phil!" these past two games since the firing of Mike Brown. It's unlike anything I've ever heard before. Seriously, can you recall a time when a head coach received yearning chants of any sort, especially during a free throw — a time when most fans chant "MVP" like drones — ? We've all heard the boos and the fire so and so chants, but I've never heard such boisterous chants for a coach.
The fans at Staples are not the only ones who feel this way. Jackson is so well respected, he essentially holds unanimous respect all throughout Los Angeles. Despite a bitter divorce from the organization the first time around, and a humiliating sweep that ended his days the second time, Jackson is beloved, the coolest of cool, the "Zen Master." The man is a winner, arguably the greatest coach of all-time, regardless of sport. In modern basketball, he is the most successful head coach, with 11 championship rings since 1991 to prove it, and another two from his playing days to put him at 13 rings. In basketball coaching history, he's on a short list along with Red Auerbach and John Wooden as the only possible candidates for the title of greatest ever. Simply put, there is no better candidate than Phil Jackson.
With that in mind, the announcement of D'Antoni as the new head coach essentially comes off as a settlement, a second best candidate, a cheaper, easier choice that will have far less power within the organization. I think we can all agree, D'Antoni is nowhere near the level of Jackson. Just typing them in the same sentence seems blasphemous. That's not as much of a slap to the face to D'Antoni as it is a kudos to the brilliance of Jackson. One man has never been to the Finals, the other has 13 championship rings, and 15 trips to the grandest stage.
But as the Rolling Stones famously wrote, "You can't always get what you want." For fans of the Lakers, this means no Jackson. Specifically, it laments that the organization was unwilling to accept four key conditions.
First, salary. The Lakers did not want to eat Mike Brown's contract, pay over $100 million of player salary, pay luxury tax fines, and tack on Jackson's rumored contract talk of numbers near his previous run as the head coach — anywhere from $10-15 million per year. That's a lot of benjamins, folks. If you don't happen to remember, after winning back to back titles in '09 and '10, the organization asked Jackson to take a 60% pay cut. If they didn't want to pay him then, they definitely don't want to now. This reality is disappointing, but it is understandable. However, the official contract negotiations are officially unknown, and if Jackson was willing to sign for less, then the Lakers royally screwed up.
Assuming Jackson wants top dollar, if the organization believes that D'Antoni can deliver a ring, why would they pay an extra $6-11 million per year? Organizationally, it doesn't make sense, right? Well, wrong, but, I believe in this team regardless of the coach. In fact, I believed that Brown would lead the Lakers to a championship this season, but Jackson is a proven commodity, and he's as close to a sure thing as there is. If the organization wants to cut costs, whatever, it's their money and their decision, but I'm sure that there's some money floating around following the deal with Time Warner that is reportedly $3 billion over 20 years. Yes, billion.
Secondly, it also means that the Lakers weren't thrilled about Jackson demanding the right to not travel to select road games. Jackson has a long history of health problems, and at 67 years of age, with hip problems a constant toll on his body, he let the organization know that he would possibly have to skip a couple of road games.
Not a big deal. I happen to remember Brian Shaw doing just fine when he ran the team a couple times in 2010 while Jackson missed games due to his health conditions. In any case, a couple missed games is no big deal in the grand scheme of things. Home court advantage is great, but this team has enough talent to overcome those types of obstacles.
The third condition is most likely the biggest demand that the organization was unwilling to give in to, and I'm assuming it was Jim Buss who specifically cringed upon hearing it — Jackson wanted to gain greater control over player personnel decisions. Jim, the executive vice president of player personnel, and son of owner, Jerry, has had his stamp all over player personnel since 2007. Jim and Phil have had their dustups over the years, and the claim that Jackson wanted to poach on Jim's responsibilities is surely an indication that he wanted more power within the front office.
This situation is a bit stickier. Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak have made some excellent choices over the years, and I'm sure they weren't too thrilled about Jackson wanting to have more say about front office type decisions. Instead, they probably would prefer Jackson to stick to his forte, coaching. Considering, Jackson's history with Jim — Jim was the biggest proponent of distancing the organization from Jackson's principles following Jackson's retirement, specifically, the Lakers never really gave popular candidate, and Jackson groomed, Brian Shaw a chance to win the job, and instead Mike Brown was hired, signaling a complete 180° from the Jackson era — this condition clearly was an attack upon Jim and hinted at a power struggle.
Finally, Jackson hinted that he would groom his eventual replacement. Once again, this points to front office decision making, and it hints at Jackson leaving a lasting imprint upon the Lakers. Sounds great, right? Apparently, for the organization, not so much.
In an ode to Tex Winter, the originator of the Triangle offense, Jackson wants to pass the torch along to a successor. With candidates such as Brian Shaw and Scottie Pippen likely to join his staff, Jackson would have some very bright candidates. If anything, the organization should love the opportunity to employ a Jackson disciple in about three years for pretty much next to nothing salary wise. I can understand the trepidation of committing to an unknown successor, but if it that's what it takes to get Jackson, then it should be done.
With those conditions likely serving as deterrents on all counts, it makes the hire of D'Antoni that much easier (for the organization). It seems like Jackson was ready to accept the job, but the organization decided to go another way and instead announced this hire before Jackson could give his final response Monday morning.
Whatever news comes out, don't believe the hype surrounding the organizational statement that D'Antoni is the best guy for the job. He's not, and only a fool would think otherwise. You just can't touch 11 head coaching rings. With Bryant, Nash, and Gasol having about a three year max window, this team needs to win now. And if anybody is qualified to lead a team with championship expectations, it's Jackson. In case you have forgotten what I wrote earlier, D'Antoni has never been to the Finals. Better hire? Come on.
With the hiring process out of the way, let me run down a couple of on court points. Namely, what is this team's identity going to be?
D'Antoni is famous for his "7 seconds or less" philosophy. If you are unaware, D'Antoni's most successful Suns' teams would race up the court and fire up any open shot, regardless of the time remaining on the shot clock. If the team didn't have an open shot early in the shot clock, then Nash would run a pick and roll from either the top of the key or the side wings. Following that, Nash had a multitude of options, and if the pick and roll/pop/slip didn't produce, the Suns would drive and kick out to open shooters. With great shooters spotting up in the corners and wings, the Suns thrived with excellent floor spacing that produced open runs to the rim or open shots from deep. The Suns played exciting ball, and they often led the league in scoring. Valuing increased possessions, the Suns didn't worry about missed shots because they upped the tempo and relied on the three ball to make up the difference.
None of this coincides with the setup of the Lakers. The Lakers are old, plodding, and don't shoot very well from deep. As great as Nash is, his pick and roll relies on spacing and deep threats. Without shooting threats, teams can hedge the pick hard and make Nash swing the ball to a non threat on the weak side. Furthermore, if Nash turns the corner on the hedge, teams can cave into the paint and converge on the roll man, either Howard or Gasol. Howard is one of the best pick and roll finishers in the NBA, but his Orlando teams were stacked with shooters spacing the floor. On the Lakers, the lane will be packed, thus forcing kick outs to perimeter players for threes. The Lakers have just four viable three point shooters, Nash, Bryant, Jodie Meeks, and Steve Blake. Often times, the open man is going to be Metta World Peace or Antawn Jamison (each has been horrible from deep this season). Peace is nowhere near reliable from deep, and honestly, other than Nash, none of the Lakers are true threats. Bryant, Meeks, Blake, and possibly Darius Morris will hit shots, but it won't be consistent enough to truly do damage and produce successful results.
So with the pick and roll game nowhere near a threat as those Suns' teams, how will D'Antoni utilize the Lakers biggest advantage, namely, size? In Phoenix, Amare Stoudemire racked up his points on rolls to the basket that produced dunks. He didn't necessarily rely on back to the basket moves, or even much of a face up game. With Howard and Gasol at his disposal, it will be interesting to see how D'Antoni decides to get them the ball. I'm not really sure what type of offense this team will run, but I do know that it won't be "7 seconds or less," and I do know that it will require D'Antoni to shift his tendencies.
In my opinion, the Triangle offense would serve this team well. Although the Lakers have struggled with the Princeton (a similar type of offense), I believe that Jackson would be wise enough to ease Howard and Nash, along with the rest of the team, into the intricacies of the Triangle. While Brown forced the Princeton down the team's throat, causing the team to over think and constantly turn the ball over, Jackson would certainly introduce key concepts and ask the players to read and react upon basic reads. Howard would certainly benefit on the box, and Nash would be the greatest spot up shooter the Triangle has ever known. Even further, within the Triangle, Nash would be able to play two man games on the weak side (aka the pick and roll), something not difficult to pick up on, and something he's quite comfortable with. Meanwhile, Howard would have the ability to blossom in a Shaquille O'Neal manner with great spacing giving him numerous entry angles along with enough space to operate on the box. Essentially, the Triangle would play to the strengths of the Lakers.
On the other side of the ball, I hope the Lakers don't fall into the offense happy trap and abandon their defensive capabilities. With a twin tower setup, the Lakers should be a top five defense. However, D'Antoni has never coached a team like this, and his teams have often been bottom dwellers regarding defensive performance. While this can be attributed to the tempo of his offenses, it also indicates a lack of premium paid to the defensive end. This Lakers team is capable of some amazing things defensively, and D'Antoni will have to come up with defensive principles that he's seemed to avoid his entire coaching career. I won't doubt his capabilities, but it's definitely something that I've never really seen him do.
Essentially, D'Antoni will have to coach in a manner that he's never coached before. Honestly, that doesn't sound all that promising. I hope D'Antoni can get the job done, but his style certainly doesn't fit the makeup of this squad. I'm sure that D'Antoni is wise enough to play to the strengths of this team, but his track record certainly doesn't provide any examples, simply because he's never had a team like this.
Compared to Jackson, D'Antoni has his hands full. Although the organization may think he is the best man for the job, much of Los Angeles disagrees. There's only one way to silence that noise, and D'Antoni understands this, otherwise he wouldn't have taken the job. Win a ring, and Jackson will be but a distant memory. Come up short, well, I don't even want to ponder that possibility.
Good luck coach D'Antoni. I wish you the best. I don't believe that you are the best man for the job, but you certainly have a prime opportunity to prove me, along with any other detractor, wrong. With Nash, Bryant, Gasol, and Howard on this squad, you have been chosen as the head man over Phil Jackson. If you can't win a ring with these guys, you never will. For your sake, get the job done.