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.

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