D’Antoni debuts with Lakers amid impressive starts for new coaches
By Ben Golliver
Mike D’Antoni is finally set to make his coaching debut with the Lakers on Tuesday night. He faces a brick wall of expectations that seemingly gets higher by the day. If it wasn’t enough that he takes over an injury-riddled, aging, underperforming roster with a mandate to turn it into a champion, he watched interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff guide the squad to a 4-1 record over the last 10 days, including consecutive games scoring 114 and 119 points. Now, suddenly, he needs to reshape the team without messing it up, and do so with the full brunt of the NBA media’s attention upon him.
Elsewhere around the league, coaches assuming new full-time positions have generally beaten expectations through the first three weeks of the season. As we await the early returns from D’Antoni’s Lakers, here’s a look at how the new coaches have fared, with an eye toward a lesson that D’Antoni can take from each.
Mike Woodson, Knicks
Woodson succeeded D’Antoni in New York back in March, of course, but wasn’t given his contract extension until late May. Given New York’s red-hot start and last week’s rumors in Lakerland, it feels like years ago that Phil Jackson was linked to the Knicks and that Woodson was kept waiting, if briefly, to get the full-time gig.
Whether there was validity to that chatter or not, Knicks ownership and management look like geniuses, so far, for sticking with Woodson, who is the very early favorite for Coach of the Year. The Knicks are 7-1, best in the Eastern Conference, and they rank No. 1 in offensive efficiency (points scored per possession) and No. 5 in defensive efficiency (points allowed per possession). They’ve dealt with injury absences, they’ve integrated multiple key new pieces and they’ve fully bought into Woodson’s emphasis on professionalism, consistently delivering “whole is better than the sum of its parts” play through defensive effort, good ball movement and the wide-open shots created by good ball movement.
D’Antoni doesn’t need to stretch much to understand the theme of Woodson’s early-season work: Great things can happen when a team’s best player buys all the way in. Carmelo Anthony is averaging 23.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.5 assists, but his commitment to his conditioning, his team, his defense and making the right play as opposed to the flashy one has been infectious in a locker room full of his friends and players who look up to him. D’Antoni was unable to tap into this Anthony, and resigned in March. He now joins the Lakers, where he can expect to get the best from Steve Nash and an open mind from Kobe Bryant. He can’t ask for more than that.
Mike Dunlap, Bobcats
Coming off of a seven-win season that ended with a 23-game losing streak, Bobcats fans, survivalists by nature, could be forgiven if they weren’t quite sure how to act when Charlotte won its season opener against the well-regarded Pacers. Shock? Elation? Paranoia, that this might be the season’s high point? Dunlap, an out-of-nowhere hire plucked from a job as a college assistant, built off that win and now has his team sitting at 5-4. He could very well scrounge up more wins in November than Paul Silas managed all of last season, making the most of four newcomers in do-everything rookie forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and veterans Ben Gordon, Ramon Sessions and Brendan Haywood.
This Bobcats story seems to be twofold. First, that the youthful, demanding Dunlap is clearly a better fit for a talent-deficient, young team than the aging Silas. Second, that young players, when comfortable and confident, can make significant strides. Second-year guard Kemba Walker, who has upped his numbers across the board and already provided a dramatic game-winner, is the prime example of the latter point. The Bobcats have turned nothing into something with 23-year-old center Byron Mullens, too.
Both developments have application to the Lakers. It’s an absolute certainty that D’Antoni will have better command of the Lakers’ locker room than his predecessor, Mike Brown, who couldn’t get Andrew Bynum to pay attention in huddles and who couldn’t get the Lakers to play better than terrible defense this year. D’Antoni also took a few stabs at internal improvement during his press conference, specifically indicating that reserve guard Jodie Meeks would have a green light and lavishing the underwhelming Steve Blake with praise, going so far as to say he had spent a decade pursuing the journeyman as a free agent and trade target. Those statements seemed to be a nod toward the importance of contributions from all corners, something that top-heavy teams like the Lakers and bottom-feeders like the Bobcats have in common.
Terry Stotts, Trail Blazers
Through a series of critical injuries and questionable decisions from ownership and management, the Blazers find themselves negotiating a tricky transition from being a solid playoff team to one that needs to rebuild around a younger core. New general manager Neil Olshey tapped Stotts for his third head-coaching gig, hoping that his movement-based offensive philosophy and experience working with Dirk Nowitzki as a Mavericks assistant could get the most out of a young roster lacking in depth while also keeping All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge happy and productive.
Despite one of the worst benches in the NBA, a group so weak that Stotts has four starters averaging at least 38 minutes a night, and a hole at the center position that’s left Portland with the league’s third-worst defense, the Blazers have climbed back to .500 thanks to a three-game winning streak. The Blazers’ top-10 offense has proved to be the team’s engine; all five starters are averaging in double figures and the younger players are able to move past the losses relatively easily, knowing they will have opportunity after opportunity over the next five months. That’s important, because the Blazers are soon heading on a seven-game road trip, followed shortly thereafter by a six-game trip, and there’s a good chance their winning percentage is due for a plunge.
The Lakers, like Portland, have depth issues, but D’Antoni will not be able to ride his starting lineup as heavily as Stotts. The Lakers’ starting five, once Nash is back from injury, will average 32.6 years old; the Blazers’ average age is just 24.4. Stotts’ creative lineup juggling, and its goal of keeping a majority of his starters on the court at the same time, will be of interest to D’Antoni, who will surely want to accomplish the same goal with his core four stars: Nash, Bryant, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol. Gasol’s ability to play either the four or the five, with or without Howard, gives D’Antoni flexibility in his post rotations, much like Stotts enjoys with Aldridge.
The point guard options, aside from Nash, are the Lakers’ clear weakness, one that has become even more obvious as he and Blake have missed time due to injury. Whereas the Blazers have struggled to find a second ball-handler besides rookie Damian Lillard, Bryant’s recent play has offered hope that juggling the Lakers’ lineups could be easier than expected. Since Bickerstaff took over, Bryant has emerged as a distributor, averaging 7.6 assists over five games, highlighted by an 11-assist performance against the Rockets on Sunday. Should Bryant commit to continuing that approach, D’Antoni’s life will be significantly easier and the Lakers will surely be better for it.
Jacque Vaughn, Magic
The Magic blew everyone’s mind by starting the season 2-0. Since then, Orlando has quickly fallen back to the lower ranks, losing five straight games in mid-November and seven of their last eight overall. The Magic have mustered league-average defensive numbers but the offense has been sad. Orlando ranks No. 29 in offensive efficiency and has already failed to top 75 points on four occasions. Oof. It’s been a tough turn of events for Vaughn — a first-time head coaching replacing the fired Stan Van Gundy — who seemed poised for sainthood after the impressive start.
There are all sorts of explanations. Howard departed in a blockbuster trade, and the Magic didn’t receive a No. 1 option in return. Big man Glen Davis, never a particularly efficient offensive player, is being asked to do way too much, attempting 16 shots a night. Forward Al Harrington has yet to play because of injury. Forward Hedo Turkoglu was lost to a broken hand. The biggest loss, though, seems to be point guard Jameer Nelson, as the Magic went 1-5 while he sat with a hamstring injury. Although Nelson ranked No. 38 among point guards in Player Efficiency Rating last season, the drop-off without him is steep, as his replacements lack his experience as a leader and playmaker. The Magic aren’t much to look at with Nelson, but they are a true eyesore without him.
This is more of a cautionary tale for D’Antoni than an actual lesson, as he knows the importance of a point guard better than anyone, given his history with Nash in Phoenix and Jeremy Lin’s triumphant burst that fizzled after a knee injury last season. Nash’s return date keeps getting bumped, so this is a good time for an important reminder: During the four seasons D’Antoni and Nash spent together in Phoenix, Nash played in 311 of a possible 328 regular-season games. The “Seven Seconds or Less” glory days were powered by Nash’s peerless passing and excellent shooting, but also by the fact that, in his early 30s, he was available for 94.8 percent of the Suns’ games from 2004-05 to 2007-08.
Clearly, the Lakers aren’t in the same league as the Magic when it comes to overall talent, and the ability to withstand an injury. But just as Nelson is the key to making life livable for Magic fans, Nash is the key to unlocking the “Showtime” style and the 110-115 points per game that D’Antoni is expecting. That demands excellent health from a player who is set to turn 39 in February and who was lost for weeks on a low-contact bump in just the second game of the season.
Randy Wittman, Wizards
Wittman, like Woodson, was bumped from assistant to head coach in the middle of last season, taking over for Flip Saunders, who was fired after a 2-15 start. He apparently showed management enough to earn a two-year contract in June, although there was a reluctant feel to his retention. The Wizards, who were supposed to be gearing up for a playoff run after spending to acquire veterans last summer, are off to a pathetic start, ranking last in offense and second-to-last in rebounding. Injuries to John Wall and Nene have been crippling and the resulting 0-9 start leaves little room for “glass is half full” optimism for Wittman. Indeed, he melted down recently, blasting his team’s shot selection and lack of consistency. It’s tempting to say that this can’t get worse, but it’s the Wizards, so don’t rule anything out.
For D’Antoni’s purposes, the Wizards serve as a symbolic reminder of how the other half lives. Sure, the Buss family’s internal workings might be convoluted, and the dalliance with Jackson was a major distraction. Nobody brought guns to the arena, though. Yes, the Lakers’ bench might be terrible, but take a gander at Washington’s current starters. Dealing with expectations is a fact of life for every NBA coach, even Wittman, and the lesson is simple: It’s always better to take on high expectations with sufficient talent to achieve them than to strive for “slightly better than awful” with absolute dregs.