Thursday, May 1, 2014

Mike D'Antoni Resigns, Rejoice LA (4.30.14)

Los Angeles has yet another reason to celebrate.

On Wednesday, April 30, 2014, Mike D'Antoni tendered his resignation as the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. Pop bottles everyone!

Fresh off the heels of the historic Donald Sterling ban for life, and just prior to the Los Angeles Kings epic comeback from a 3-0 series deficit to win Game 7 against the San Jose Sharks, the announcement that D'Antoni decided to step down from his putrid reign rang loud, to considerable cheers — check Magic Johnson's take on Twitter.

While this proceeding isn't anywhere near as historically significant as championing civil rights, or becoming just the fourth team in NHL history to come back and win following a 3-0 series deficit, it sure does feel good.

How could it not?

The D'Antoni era was absolutely atrocious. Everything about it was just terrible. Seriously, it was awful — do I need to add more synonyms here? It was unprecedented, an abomination to the standard of excellence historically promoted by Lakers basketball.

First and foremost, D'Antoni was chosen over the greatest head coach in all of professional sports — it was all downhill from here. 

This decision came after the hasty, panicked decision to fire coach Mike Brown just five games into the 2012-13 season. To make matters worse, it was clear that Phil Jackson desired to return as head coach of the Lakers, thus making Jim Buss's skeevy decision to hire D'Antoni on a late Sunday night just hours before Jackson's final decision all the more distressing.

Even worse, it was speculated that D'Antoni was chosen due to his relationship with Steve Nash, a 38-year-old point guard that fractured his leg in the second game of the season. Nash would not play for two months following the injury, and he would never fully recover to his former level of play, as nerve damage would wreck his body, and game.

Then, fresh off of knee surgery, D'Antoni could not even coach the team for just under two weeks. In this time, the interim head coach, Bernie Bickerstaff, led the team to a 4-1 record. Once D'Antoni finally arrived to the sideline, the team got off to a slow start with a 4-9 record in his first 13 games as head coach.

In fact, in just his third game of the season, D'Antoni benched Pau Gasol the entire fourth quarter of a close game against the Memphis Grizzles. After the game, D'Antoni bluntly stated, "I was thinking 'Oh, I'd like to win this game.'" Within a couple of weeks, D'Antoni would remove Gasol from the starting lineup in favor of Earl Clark. Who? Exactly. 

From there, the team kept sliding with a 12-20 record under D'Antoni by the midway point of the season, and an overall team record of 17-25, good for 12th place in the Western Conference. Rumors were rampant of team discord, especially among the newly acquired superstar, Dwight Howard, and the old guard, Kobe Bryant.

With Bryant delivering an all-time season for a 34-year-old shooting guard, and Howard clearly laboring from offseason back surgery, things were not cordial — on numerous occasions Bryant challenged Howard to essentially man up and play better, this was not taken well.

Stuck smack dab in the middle of it was D'Antoni, a man trying to suck up to Howard in an effort to make sure he re-signed with the Lakers, while truly knowing that he needed Bryant to carry the team to victories.

Then, things began to turn around. The Lakers actually began to play smart, cohesive basketball. The squad began to play hard, unwilling to become the first team featuring four future Hall of Famers to miss the playoffs, and they finished 28-12 in the second half of the season — sneaking into the playoffs in the ultra-competitive Western Conference with the seventh seed.

However, such stellar play would not last. In the 80th game of the season, Bryant tore his achilles. Some attributed this injury to the heavy minutes D'Antoni was allotting Bryant — in the game prior to tearing his achilles, Bryant played all 48 minutes against the Portland Trail Blazers on the second night of a back to back, delivering an epic, all-time performance in the process. I refuse to blame D'Antoni for Bryant's injury, however, such sentiment is held by a large faction.

Following that came a 4-0 sweep in the opening round of the playoffs against the San Antonio Spurs, and Howard's departure in free agency. Clearly miffed that the team did not sign Jackson, Howard chose a new running mate in James Harden, and in an unprecedented move, he opted for $30 million less to join the Houston Rockets, leaving the Lakers in the dust despite some desperate ad campaigns.

This past season, 2013-14, just about everything went wrong. Injury after injury absolutely decimated the team at one point, there seemed to be a point guard curse as Nash, Steve Blake, Jordan Farmar, and then wing-turned-point-guard Xavier Henry, all suffered consecutive injuries that kept them out for extended stretches, one after another.

Even worse, Bryant returned from his achilles injury in the 20th game of the season, with the Lakers sporting a respectable 10-9 record, only to fracture his kneecap just six games later, effectively ending his season. Nash would play in just 15 games. Gasol would soldier on, flanked by players on one year contracts and D-League call-ups, for 60 dispiriting games before finally calling it a season due to "vertigo."

With a 27-55 record, the Lakers finished with the worst record in the history of the franchise since moving to Los Angeles — and just behind the 19-53 record of the 1957-58 Minneapolis Lakers.

If that two year run isn't one of the worst ever, tell me what is, especially for this franchise — from championship expectations to bottom of the West in dramatic fashion. Clearly D'Antoni did not get the fairest of shakes — Nick Young may have said it best nearly two weeks ago, stating in a drunken haze, "Damn man, that's a shame what happened to D'Antoni."

Obviously, everything was not D'Antoni's fault. His 67-87 coaching record in his near two full seasons were not completely his doing. He clearly did not have a team suited to his style of play.

He had to deal with a petulant superstar that refused to run the pick and roll  a staple of D'Antoni's system — and was far more interested in his long term future. He also had to deal with a win at all costs, stubborn, "I have five rings, let's do it my way," super-duper-star. He battled with a big man that did not fit his style of play at all, hindering his coveted stretch-four type of system. Lastly, he had a broken down point guard that likely could have provided the necessary rock for the team, but instead proved to be the first breakdown, and symbolic demise, of the entire operation.

No, it's not all D'Antoni's fault, that's safe to say. But that certainly does not mean that he should have coached next season either.

He struggled to adapt his coaching style to the type of team he had to work with. He clearly did not emphasize strong, sound defensive principles. He failed to make Howard and Bryant a devastating combo. He alienated Gasol in his third game as head coach. He hitched his wagon to a broken down point guard, and failed to have a reliable backup plan that could take the team in a different direction.

Furthermore, disinterest in the Lakers reached an all-time high under D'Antoni's reign. The Lakers suffered nine non-sellouts at Staples Center this past season, with the first non-sellout snapping a 320 home sellout streak. Even more damning, Time Warner Cable SportsNet's ratings dropped 55% compared to the prior season. To make matters worse, the Los Angeles Clippers, once the laughingstock of the NBA, became the darling of Los Angeles, posting their greatest season ever in what could be construed as a modern day Shakespearean comedy.

Overall, D'Antoni was clearly despised by the fan base, and with every loss, the calls for his firing grew hell, listen to these chants just days before D'Antoni's hiring, the man had no chance. With a comparison to Jackson hanging over his head throughout his entire reign, D'Antoni could not come out on top.

Historically, the D'Antoni period served as the worst of the franchise. D'Antoni finished with the worst win percentage (minimum 100 games) in franchise history, amassing a deplorable .435 record. Furthermore, D'Antoni became the first Lakers coach to not tally at least one playoff victory in his first two seasons with the team.

With management making it clear that they would not be picking up his fourth year team option, a decision that would have relegated D'Antoni to lame duck status for next season before his assumed dismissal, D'Antoni, not wanting to be a pawn, and essentially, a scapegoat in the Lakers rebuilding process, chose the high road and resigned.

Thank goodness.

Honestly, that's the best move D'Antoni has made in two seasons — and hey, he settled for a compensation of more than half of his upcoming salary due next season.

Now the question is, who's next?

Thankfully there are plenty of great candidates: Byron Scott, Lionel Hollins, Kevin Ollie, John Calipari, George Karl, the Van Gundy brothers, Kurt Rambis, and recent Lakers such as Tyronn Lue, Mark Madsen, and possibly, even Derek Fisher, as well as an out of the box candidate, Ettore Messina. Any of these guys will be welcomed as a breath of fresh air.

After the disastrous run of the past two years, fresh air is about all Lakers fans can ask for and, fortunately for the next guy, with Jackson clearly out of the running, the fan base can move forward. Whoever is hired, he will likely be the antithesis of D'Antoni in just about every aspect, from demeanor to style of play, expect major changes.

Just know, the Lakers probably won't be very good next season — can't blame D'Antoni for that one. However, the following season, expect the Lakers to be right back in the thick of things — with Jimmy Buss's self-appointed contention mandate, the pressure is on to make up for the D'Antoni disaster.

Next season, the new coach can develop the top lottery pick, and Bryant can prove that he is back as the "Mamba." The following season, Bryant, possibly in his final as a pro, will likely be teamed with one superstar free agent, possibly two, that lottery pick, and hopefully, some solid role playing talent.

It shouldn't be long before the Lakers are contending once again, and this head coaching change is the first step in that direction.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

It's Not Ego Preventing Jim Buss from Hiring Phil Jackson (3.12.14)

With Phil Jackson's eventual signing as the president of basketball operations for the New York Knicks, a wave of criticism is being cast toward Jim Buss, the current executive vice president of player personnel for the Los Angeles Lakers  otherwise known as the bumbling son of the late, great, Dr. Jerry Buss.

Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson, two cornerstones of the franchise, are just the latest to make a call for action "at the top," meanwhile, reporters and analysts have been hounding Jim's decisions since his promotion to a more prominent role in the franchise back in 2005.

According to multiple reports, it was the dying wish of Dr. Buss for his son, Jim, to run the basketball side of the Lakers, while his adored daughter, Jeanie, would run the business side of the franchise. While not necessarily an oppressive form of patriarchy, this ruling has surely had its faults, and it has led to the demise of the Lakers organization, including what is amounting to be the worst season in the history of the franchise.

Things have not gone quite so smoothly throughout the Jim Buss era, notably his failed head coaching hires of Rudy Tomjanovich, Mike Brown, and Mike D'Antoni, to the recent spurning from Dwight Howard — the first big name player to ever leave the Lakers with big money on the table. Jim's most egregious failure certainly has to be the dangling of a head coaching gig over Jackson's head in 2012 before abruptly hiring D'Antoni — this failure led to numerous, thundering, "We want Phil," chants, including, memorably, the night Shaquille O' Neal's jersey was retired.

Clearly, things have not gone quite as planned under Jim's reign. While the Lakers have enjoyed considerable success throughout his time, including two championships, and three consecutive NBA Finals appearances, many attribute such success to the efforts of Jackson in tandem with an all-time great in Bryant, and veteran talents such as Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and Derek Fisher — and undoubtedly, Dr. Buss's willingness to spend money and pay the luxury tax.

Now, with the Lakers at their lowest, Los Angeles is clamoring for Jackson's return, a beacon of hope, with the desire that he turn around the franchise. The claim that the Lakers are to be a "family run business," doesn't necessarily hold credence considering the fact that Jackson is engaged to Jeanie, and the two are soon to be married. His last name may not be Buss, but it is clear that Jackson carries the best interests of the Lakers with him. So what gives?

Well, obviously, ego. Hiring Jackson at this point in time to be the president of basketball operations would ultimately mean that Jim would, essentially, be firing himself. Lakers fans surely want Jim to sacrifice such ego for the better of the franchise, and Jeanie has certainly endorsed Jackson, but this just isn't going to happen. Jim is not going to step aside for his condescending brother-in-law. He clearly has problems with Jackson that run deeper than a workplace relationship, and despite Jackson's wealth of basketball knowledge, he simply has no interest in hiring him to take his place at the top of the mountain.

And I can understand why. It really isn't all that difficult to comprehend. It's not just ego, or spite, that is holding Jim back, it is the almost certain promise of redemption. It is the, "I can do this, I can be great," mentality. It is the need to prove himself. It is the desire to live up to his father's dying wish, the hunger for credibility.

Jim believes that in two to three years, the Lakers are once again going to be the marquee franchise of the NBA. Simply put, Jim does not want Jackson claiming credit for "turning the franchise around," he believes he can do it himself.

And honestly, he's probably right. While the Lakers could definitely use Jackson as a head coach, that is not the position Jackson desires, thus making Jackson rather superfluous in the ability for the franchise to once again be a contender. The Lakers are set up rather nicely for a relatively quick reload, and Jim knows it.

So how exactly are the Lakers going to turn this thing around?

Well, this coming summer, the Lakers will land a lottery draft pick in what is considered one of the most talented draft classes in a long time  a first for the franchise since Andrew Bynum went 10th overall in the 2005 NBA Draft. This pick is going to be the future of the franchise, whether it is Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, Julius Randle, Dante Exum, or Marcus Smart. Each of these guys is considered to be supremely talented, and while none of them may be on the level of a transformational player such as LeBron James or Kevin Durant, each of them possess considerable upside.

Then there's the summer of 2015 when it is all but assumed that Kevin Love is going to become a Laker in free agency — and if the Timberwolves are competent in any form, they should trade him before he straight up leaves them. If Love isn't nabbed, there are numerous talented options: Rajon Rondo, Kyrie Irving, LaMarcus Aldridge, Roy Hibbert, Marc Gasol, Nikola Vucevic, Klay Thompson, and Kawhi Leonard, among others. There's plenty of big names here, and certainly one of these guys won't mind a huge pay day while leading the turnaround of the franchise. With plenty of cap room, the Lakers can sign any of these free agents to a max deal.

And that is just the beginning. That 2015-16 season will likely be Bryant's last, as his current two year extension will expire. With a top-flite free agent, a budding young draft pick, and an all-time great leading the squad, the Lakers will likely make some noise in the playoffs — not necessarily championship noise, but surely advancement in the postseason, a great building block for sure.

Following that, comes the summer of 2016, with the likes of Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Andre Drummond, Joakim Noah, Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal, and Harrison Barnes all available as free agents.

Depending upon Bryant, the Lakers may or may not have room for these 2016 free agents. Bryant's current extension will be expired, but he may not be ready to retire  especially if he feels that the first year of his extension was wasted. If he does retire, the Lakers, if wise in their signings, will certainly have the cap room to offer one of them a max contract to team with Love and the budding young draftee of 2014 who will still be on a cheap rookie deal. If Bryant decides to instead come back, he certainly won't cost himself a shot at championship number six by demanding top dollar, and instead, he'll much more likely be willing to accommodate the franchise in the hopes of bringing another max level free agent to the franchise.

So let's run this down. Top level draft pick in 2014. Top level free agent in 2015. Possible top level free agent in 2016. Unfortunately, the Lakers will not accumulate a top draft pick in 2015, that pick belongs to the Phoenix Suns due to the ill-fated Steve Nash trade. Despite this blunder, and the unknown future of Bryant, the Lakers are set up to reload relatively quickly.

Yes, a two to three year wait for greatness seems like a long time for Lakers' fans accustomed to championships, however, it's really not that long in the grand scheme of things, and as Jim sees it, it's not like Jackson is going to make this process move along any faster.

If Jim truly felt that he wouldn't be able to turn the franchise around, I believe that he would bite the bullet, even with all of the past transgressions, but at this point in time, that just isn't the case. Jackson is sure to bring an aura of greatness to New York, but that is a franchise that hasn't done anything of importance since 1972-73. Jackson's impact will be far greater in New York than it would be in Los Angeles. The Knicks need Jackson to counteract the failure of Jim Dolan's ownership. Meanwhile, the Lakers are just four seasons removed from their last championship.

No matter what, the Lakers are going to have to wait a couple of seasons to once again be great. Next season will likely be rough once again, but as soon as the 2014-15 season ends, things will be looking up. If you think free agents are going to avoid Los Angeles, a marquee franchise with championship pedigree, Hollywood endorsements, the night life, the weather, the beach, and everything else that comes with the franchise, you, simply, are wrong.

Howard may have put a scare in the franchise, but he undoubtedly is an aberration, not the norm. Howard isn't necessarily a young star, and he saw the writing on the wall for the Lakers' problems, as well as the opportunity for immediate success in Houston. His decision had more to do with basketball reasons relative to his age than anything else.

Simply put, Jim Buss will lead the Lakers back to prominence, and when everyone is kissing his ass, he'll beam with an "I told you so," arrogance, an air of intellectual superiority. In actuality, he may have more in common with his father than we know.