Give And Go: All angles on the Lakers’ hire of D’Antoni over Jackson
Give And Go is a recurring feature in which The Point Forward’s Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney bat an NBA topic du jour back and forth.
The Lakers’ soap opera just won’t stop. On Friday, Mike Brown was canned. On Saturday, Phil Jackson was courted. On Sunday, Mike D’Antoni was hired. On Monday, all hell broke loose, with accusations of mistreatment directed at the Lakers for how they conducted the quick search. The speed with which this unfolded leaves plenty of room for questions about what just happened, and what is coming over the next 12 months.
Let’s dig in.
1. Did Phil Jackson deserve special treatment in the Lakers’ coaching search or even more time to make his decision?
Rob Mahoney: Only if the Lakers were set on Jackson, which clearly wasn’t the case. Otherwise, Jackson was merely a candidate — and presumed favorite — in a coaching search, albeit a particularly accomplished candidate. The man is a living legend, but if he didn’t turn out to be the Lakers’ first choice, then Mitch Kupchak and the Busses were right to move on with the coach who was.
That said, if Jackson was told that he could have two days to deliberate before making a final decision and was basically assured that the job was his, then the Lakers are very clearly in the wrong. That’s not “special treatment” — just fair practice. One would hope that the captains of the Lakers’ franchise would appreciate their debt to Jackson enough not to lead him on or make him the fool in some ploy, but per a tell-all from Kevin Ding of the Orange County Register, that may have been what transpired. There’s no rule that teams have to do well by their saviors, but it’s an unwritten law at the least to not use franchise idols as a PR device.
Ben Golliver: In 99 percent of in-season coaching searches, my take would be simple: Feelings be damned, the organization needs to do what it believes is in its best interests and move forward as quickly as reasonably possible. Phil Jackson definitely qualifies as the 1 percent. His list of accomplishments doesn’t need to be recited in full here; just mentioning his 11 coaching rings and the fact that he was central in restoring the Lakers to glory should suffice. The Lakers didn’t owe him everything. As his agent conceded, the Lakers didn’t even owe Jackson the job, or the first crack at it, not even if he badly wanted it. They did owe him a level of communication in which feelings wouldn’t be hurt, egos wouldn’t be bruised and reputations wouldn’t be needlessly besmirched.
Because of his extraordinary accomplishments, personal ties to Lakers employees and relationships with all involved, the team owed him a crystal-clear understanding of where he stood in its thought process. If he was simply one of two candidates, he never should have been given a specific timeline to weigh the job, as that implies it’s his to lose. Once the decision to extend a timeline for reflection was given to him, it should have been adhered to by the Lakers. That’s basic protocol for any discussion, let alone a headline-grabbing back-and-forth with a legend. The end result is an awful appearance. The Lakers now look as if they dealt with Jackson merely to say they had done so before hiring D’Antoni, the guy they wanted all along. Should that narrative stick, and there’s reason to believe it will, it will be far more damaging to the Lakers than to Jackson, especially if D’Antoni fails to meet championship expectations.
2. Does the Lakers’ coaching change affect their championship outlook?
BG: I picked the Thunder to win the West during the preseason and nothing that’s unfolded in an incredible first month — the James Harden trade, the Mike Brown firing — has shifted my thinking. On the contrary, the prediction has only been reinforced. The proper alignment of parts from the very top of the organization down to the 12th man is one of those virtues of championship teams. The Thunder, even though they are now Beard-less, seem to be of one mind and body. Look at how seamlessly Kevin Martin has fit in. Look at their composure after a slow start. Look at the fact that they are right back on top of the Northwest Division standings as if nothing happened.
The Lakers, though, made the correct decision to fire a coach who wasn’t working or going to work, and then opened up a giant firestorm with their treatment of Jackson. Lakers management tried to argue that Jerry Buss, Jim Buss and Kupchak were all on the same page with the D’Antoni hire, which is fine. Then they are all responsible for the treatment of Jackson, which has been the low point of the season. On the court, the Lakers haven’t taken a single step toward a cohesive identity in the six weeks since training camp opened. Injuries have certainly slowed that process and a lack of depth and an old roster don’t help either. To me, big picture, the D’Antoni hire is a definite upgrade because he will command respect. But I don’t see him guiding the Lakers past the Western Conference finals.
RM: If we’re subscribing to the idea that Brown would have been unable to persuade his players to buy into his schemes and concepts, then a change to a coach with any kind of authority is a clear improvement on the Lakers’ title chances. D’Antoni is certainly that, and L.A. got the best of both worlds in an impressive basketball mind with a big name, thus replacing Brown with a strategic upgrade who should also deliver a higher level of execution.
But D’Antoni, ultimately, is a course correction. He’s here to get the Lakers playing up to their talent, and to get their trajectory back in line with the franchise’s expectations. His job is to restore the assumed status quo and establish a simplicity of movement in the Lakers’ offense. That doesn’t make the Lakers any more formidable a contender than they were once thought to be, nor does it drastically change the orientation of the Western Conference elite. The Lakers should still be more or less where we left them. Regardless of whether you favored the Thunder, Lakers or Spurs going into the season, we haven’t seen enough of any of the three teams to alter our initial projections.
3. Did the end result (Mike D’Antoni for Mike Brown) justify the process?
RM: No. I understand that the Lakers were short on time, but Brown — a hard worker and earnest hire — deserved a chance to fail before termination. Five games isn’t an adequate sample from which to make that kind of determination, even if the Lakers’ defense had been problematic enough to drag them to a 1-4 record. It was likely in L.A.’s best interest to make this change as soon as it knew a change needed to be made (as opposed to tabling the inevitable until January), but serving the team’s prospects doesn’t make this a fair situation for Brown, nor a particularly acceptable way of doing business.
We shouldn’t cry for Brown, who will be paid handsomely for his troubles and did far from perfect work in his year and change in Los Angeles. But this is simply the latest example of the Lakers’ endemic personnel mismanagement and the backward operations of the franchise in general.
BG: Sans the Jackson sideshow, which enveloped this entire coaching change, the Lakers did really well. Upgrading from Brown to D’Antoni is a total no-brainer. That’s an “A” coaching move given how little Brown was getting out of his team. They excised a problem in Brown, something that was going to be necessary sooner rather than later. The quick hook shifted the discussion and bought them some time on the court. They then hired D’Antoni, who was the best available head coach not named Jackson, and also the best available fit not named Jackson. They got him at a pretty affordable figure, and he’s fully motivated to put the Knicks’ era of his career behind him and newly blessed with more talent than he’s ever had to work with in his life. While the speed of the change left Jackson looking run over and raised anew questions about Jim Buss’ tact, management avoided leaving the team in limbo while dragging out the search unnecessarily. The page does turn here, soon, and the Lakers will be better for it. There will always be opportunities in the future to make amends with Jackson; the Lakers would be well served to take advantage of them.
4. Biggest fear factor for D’Antoni’s Lakers?
BG: The fact that Pau Gasol is 32 and that the Lakers have played at an average pace or slower every year since 2009-10 is a good one. The “Seven Seconds Or Less” Suns were ranked No. 3 and No. 1 in pace during their two Western Conference finals runs; D’Antoni’s offense was at its best when it was playing at warp speed, not just above average. Dwight Howard, when healthy, could thrive in warp speed, and Kobe Bryant is so skilled at finishing plays and drawing fouls in the open court that he should be more than fine. It’s the lumbering Gasol who sticks out like a sore thumb here.
Gasol is a good answer, but I think the best answer is 38-year-old Steve Nash’s health. This only works — meaning, championship contention — with him healthy and fully productive. Nash peaked as a player during Phoenix’s two deep playoff runs and he’s held on remarkably well until this season, when he went down with a leg injury in just the Lakers’ second game. D’Antoni needs that to be a fluke rather than a bad omen. A less-than-healthy Nash, or one who can’t recapture the mid-decade magic, would make it virtually impossible for D’Antoni to live up to expectations.
RM: I’m not so concerned about the pace. Though streaking up and down the court was important to D’Antoni’s Suns, their more impressive accomplishments came in the pacing and spacing of their half-court work. It didn’t take but a single play action — a high pick set for Nash by Amar’e Stoudemire — to set everything in motion. Shooters dotted the perimeter, Nash picked his spots and a quality shot was created before the opponent could even fully evaluate all the threats on the floor. Together, Nash and D’Antoni can do wonders, which should only add to your aforementioned concern over Nash’s health.
But I think the spacing concerns are a very real issue. D’Antoni will find ways to orient Gasol and Howard in order to maximize the space inside, but the idea of Metta World Peace’s defender shrinking the floor from the weak-side corner is troublesome. Couple that with the ever-problematic bench, and I’m not sure D’Antoni will have the resources at his disposal to create an offense capable of overwhelming other contenders.
Plus, lest we forget, defense is where the Lakers went wrong under Brown, and with Howard still recovering from back surgery, he won’t fully be able to compensate for the lack of quickness on the perimeter. Nash is a liability, World Peace can be exploited with off-ball movement and Bryant isn’t nearly the defender he used to be. There’s still solid defensive potential overall (Howard earns a team that much just by showing up), but there are no assurances that the composite product of a D’Antoni-ish offense and a merely solid defense will be enough to get L.A. through the West.
5. Who is the under-the-radar winner of the coaching change?
RM: Based on this report from Ken Berger of CBS Sports, I think Nate McMillan might be a surprising winner here. He didn’t get the head-coaching job, but with Jackson and D’Antoni both more accomplished and bringing more cachet, McMillan was to be considered a long shot at best. But D’Antoni’s pulling the upset over Jackson means that McMillan is a likely assistant for one of the most talented teams in basketball, the proud owner of a defensive coordinator job that he hasn’t exactly earned (his teams have largely been average — or worse — on D) and a probable next-in-line candidate should things go south with D’Antoni this year or in the future. Not bad for a guy who was unemployed and not even on the Lakers’ short list.
BG: Agent Warren LeGarie, who tends to win every coaching change, doesn’t he? LeGarie got Brown a three-year guaranteed deal in the first place, ensuring an $11 million payoff. He then got D’Antoni a three-year guaranteed deal with a high-profile team loaded with talent, one that includes the point guard who has proved to be most effective utilizing his principles. Because of the quick nature of the firing, his overall winning percentage and the fact that he now has the Lakers on his résumé, Brown will land on his feet without question. In other words, LeGarie will wind up getting three coaching jobs out of one organization when this is all said and done. Maestro stuff.