Mike D'Antoni wants to know if you're yankin' his chain. (Getty Images)In the hours since news broke that the Los Angeles Lakers had hired Mike D'Antoni as their new head coach, interestingly enough, more attention's been paid to the man who didn't get the gig — Phil Jackson, the most decorated head coach in NBA history who many presumed would walk gingerly back into the Staples Center, plop down on his stack of seat cushions, whistle and throw up the Triangle, and promptly lead $100 million worth of talent to his 12th title ring. As we learned early Monday morning, it didn't play out that way — Yahoo! Sports NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski has the details on why — and responsibility for delivering the Lakers' 17th NBA title now falls to D'Antoni, the former Phoenix Suns and New York Knicks head coach.
If you're like me, all this might have you wondering just what D'Antoni himself thinks about the remarkable situation in which he finds himself just eight months after exiting Madison Square Garden. For the answer, we turn to veteran NBA scribe Jack McCallum, who spent a season with D'Antoni's Suns for his landmark 2006 book, ":07 Seconds or Less" ... but while McCallum's Monday reaction piece for Sports Illustrated did reveal that the 61-year-old D'Antoni spent last week in a Westchester, N.Y., nursing home as he recuperated from knee surgery and that he'll "fly to L.A. on Wednesday morning but will take at least a few days to acclimate himself," it didn't offer a whole lot of insight into the 61-year-old coach's mindset or plans: "They asked me not to talk, so I'm not going to."
Apparently, the Lakers' caveat didn't extend to Mike Lupica at the New York Daily News, because D'Antoni did speak to him on Monday morning. According to Lupica, D'Antoni's reaction to the opportunity to replace fired coach Mike Brown mirrored that of plenty of Lakers fans:
"I am so happy to be back with Steve Nash," D'Antoni is saying late on Monday morning. "To get one more chance to have him run the thing the way he did for me before [in Phoenix], well, that's the kind of thing you never think is going to happen. But now it has."
I asked him if he thought Phil Jackson, with all that winning in the books in Los Angeles, was a lock to return to the bench [...] D'Antoni laughed again, harder than the first time.
"Sure I did," he said. "For sure I did. Didn't everybody? When I got the call that it was me, my first reaction was, 'Are you serious?'"
On that score, D'Antoni is right on the money; just about everybody in the basketball-watching world figured that Jackson's return to the Lakers' bench was all but preordained, merely a matter of dotting some i's, crossing some t's and filling out a check with an awful lot of zeroes on the back end. Instead, it wound up being D'Antoni who was the beneficiary of the Busses' big checkbook, netting what's been reported as a three-year, $12 million contract.
There is, of course, another way to read "Are you serious?" — a saints-be-praised exclamation of excitement and gratitude for the chance to not only link back up with Nash, but also to go from a three-year stint in New York during which he repeatedly had to juggle whichever mismatched, ill-fitting pieces ownership saw fit to toss into the locker room into a situation where he'll have the game's best defensive player, a second talented playmaking big man, a maniacally competitive leading scorer with whom he has a good relationship and, with a three-year pact in his back pocket, at least a little bit of rope from ownership. (Maybe.)
That said, this isn't quite a D'Antoni dream team from a roster construction standpoint. L.A.'s depth chart features precious few reliable long-range shooters to space the floor in D'Antoni's spread pick-and-roll system, meaning driving lanes could be a bit more congested after Nash comes off a high Dwight Howard screen. It'll be interesting to see how the coach adjusts for Bryant's brand of high-volume scoring after never really having a two-guard like him (and not faring so well the last time he bashed heads with a ball-dominating wing). Gasol's per-minute production's been down, the spatial issues that have at times cropped up when he's shared the floor with Howard are unlikely to disappear with a wave of D'Antoni's magic wand and it just seems weird to envision him playing, like, Super Boris Diaw in forum blue and gold. This roster doesn't have anything approximating a Shawn Marion or in-shape/engaged Lamar Odom type, so problems on the wing may continue. And as we said when Brown was still on the bench, that offense isn't really the primary issue anyway; the Lakers will rise and fall based on their ability to stop opponents more effectively than they did through the season's first five games.
Still, with Howard continuing to work his way into shape after April back surgery (and, even as a shell of himself, averaging right around 21 points, 11 boards, 2.5 blocks and 2.5 assists per 36 minutes) and the inevitable bounce-back from a roster too talented to win 25 percent of its games for long (which, naturally, began with two wins this last weekend), you could forgive D'Antoni for being surprised at his good fortune. More from Lupica:
"Sometimes you have to be lucky," he said on Monday morning. "Lucky or even blessed. I look back over my career, just what I've been able to do so far, and feel like nobody has been more blessed than I've been. Now this happens and I look at myself and I really do say, 'Are you kidding me? I get to come back and coach these guys?'"
"I like this team," D'Antoni said. "We're good, and we're gonna get better."
They always were, whether it was Brown, D'Antoni, Jackson or Whoopi Goldberg on the sidelines. But after an inauspicious end to his time in Manhattan, it's D'Antoni who's set to reap the benefits of that natural, inevitable improvement. Nice work if you can get it, huh?
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