MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Beyond the personal animus and the uncertainty over Phil Jackson's willingness to endure the job's grind, the biggest issue Lakers vice president Jim Buss had with choosing Jackson over Mike D'Antoni as head coach centered on the consequences for Steve Nash. With no use for this point guard in the triangle offense, Buss's fear was that Jackson would've pushed to move Nash out, sources said.
Buss passed on the Lakers' glorious championship legacy to attach his franchise to the desert mirage of D'Antoni and Nash, a reunion tour born of a one-dimensional, gimmick offense and a point guard pushing 39 years old.
"The way this turns out," one league source connected to the hiring process said, "you've chosen not only Steve Nash over [Pau] Gasol, but maybe over Gasol and Dwight [Howard]."
These Lakers are missing the athleticism and perimeter quickness to contend for a championship. This 106-93 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday at FedEx Forum was one more installment in a debacle of a season that the mere presence of D'Antoni worsens every day.
The Lakers are a flat-lined, free-falling folly, an embarrassment of excess, a mangle of mismatched and non-connective parts. Whatever confrontational message Kobe Bryant delivered to Howard in a team meeting reported by the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday morning, make no mistake: The Bryant-Howard dynamic is the most minimal of the Lakers' issues.
Under Jackson, the Lakers would've played through Gasol, Howard and Bryant in the post, would've dictated terms through the strengths of the franchise's Hall of Fame players. Under Jackson, the Lakers would've had a leader of men to gather them out of this rubble.
Gasol could go in a trade come mid-February, and Howard – if faced with a Lakers future that includes D'Antoni – could leave the Lakers come July in free agency.
Buss doubled down on the wrong coach, and wrong player. D'Antoni and Nash are busts, unable to bring the systematic and connective threads to a lineup that they were charged to regenerate. As far back out of the playoffs as these Lakers have dropped, here's the most disturbing truth: Los Angeles is closer to the drop-dead bottom of the Western Conference with Phoenix and New Orleans – three games – than they are climbing four games to reach the eighth spot in the Western Conference playoffs.
The Lakers haven't won a game outside of Staples Center in a month. These Lakers resemble D'Antoni in every way: Mumbling, soft and shrouded in marketed mythology.
"We've got an All-Star team," D'Antoni said. "Have you ever watched an All-Star Game? It's God-awful because everybody gets the ball, they go one-on-one and then they play no defense. That's our team."
D'Antoni is far stronger with the glib quotes than he is substantive solutions.
Howard declared himself "immature" for marching around the locker room after a loss to the Chicago Bulls, and insisting that reporters and hangers-on study the stat sheet to understand his frustration. Bryant did challenge him in a team meeting on Wednesday morning, but he's done that often this season. Howard needs Bryant to play that part, because D'Antoni has forever been part passive-aggressive and fully non-confrontational.
Howard is 27 years old, fresh off back surgery and struggling with a torn labrum that resurfaced Wednesday against the Grizzlies. Howard appeared to be in significant pain, couldn't make a shot, nor properly pursue rebounds. The Lakers will have him examined on Thursday in Los Angeles, but one source insisted that it didn't appear to be a significant injury.
This has rapidly turned into a lost season for Howard, but it would be foolish to declare his Lakers career a lost cause. For those who've called the Lakers on Howard's availability – the Dallas Mavericks and the Atlanta Hawks – the message has been unmistakable: Howard isn't available, nor will that change before the February deadline.
Bryant won't chase Howard out of here, but multiple sources tell Yahoo! Sports that the only issue that would give Howard pause on re-signing with the Lakers would be D'Antoni. In the end, D'Antoni is a coach who fundamentally doesn't believe in post play, who sees franchise centers as intrusive cloggers of the lane.
As the New York Knicks' coach, D'Antoni issued a clear stance in organizational discussions on a possible pursuit of Howard: He wasn't a fan. He told Knicks front-office staff stories about how the elders of USA Basketball preferred Tyson Chandler to Howard, and that the Knicks would be wise to adopt that thinking, a source with knowledge of the conversations told Yahoo! Sports.
The best thing to ever happen to Howard's career was Stan Van Gundy coming into his life in Orlando. He pushed him, tested him and brought out the best in Howard. In Los Angeles, Bryant plays the part now. They were never destined to have a close relationship. Bryant can't tolerate the tone that Howard sets, the clowning on the floor, the grabbing of the microphone on team charter flights to do impressions, the locker-room revelry.
Nevertheless, these Lakers are doomed without Howard dominating on defense. Hours before telling D'Antoni to get him out of Wednesday night's loss with a recurrence of the labrum injury that cost him three games earlier this month, Howard had left that morning team meeting apologetic and promising to redirect his frustrations on offense into a disposition of defensive dominance.
The Lakers understand that Los Angeles gives everything Howard wants to be a global star, gives him the guarantee of a five-year, $100 million extension this summer. They don't believe he'll walk, and yet as one source tied to the Lakers and Howard says: "Even if they're right, and Dwight stays, do you want Dwight unhappy and feeling uninvolved with D'Antoni?"
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For the Lakers to fire D'Antoni with three years left on his new contract – just after they fired Mike Brown with three years left – would leave them buried with $25 million in coaching payouts. And then, who do you get? Forget Jackson. That can't happen now. Funny, but everyone on the Lakers knows that the best week this team played happened to be under Bernie Bickerstaff, who simplified the offense, played traditional sets and had the Lakers hustling on defense in winning four of five games in November.
Nevertheless, D'Antoni has marginalized Gasol, leaving him livid and privately expecting to be traded before the February deadline for an athletic forward who fits his coaching designs. Buss believed that Nash had been neutralized in the Princeton offense, sources say, and that he would never flourish with the changes – blessed by the organization over the summer, by the way – that Brown implemented for the season.
Two years ago, Buss chose Mike Brown over Kupchak's choice, Rick Adelman. This time, it was the desert myth of D'Antoni and Nash, a reunion that feels like it should be touring state fairs with REO Speedwagon.
In so many ways, Nash made D'Antoni, but he can't bail him out anymore. The Lakers are burying themselves, deeper and deeper, and the coach doesn't have the stomach, nor the brass, to elevate them out of the mess. His system is flawed for this franchise, and beyond that, he brings nothing to a basketball team.
Perhaps Nash can still make a difference on these Lakers, but the franchise's future never should've been thrust on hiring a coach to protect his interests. No one wants to hear this now, but it's true: Beyond Kobe Bryant's era, the future of these Lakers has to be Dwight Howard. He hasn't been himself this season and maybe needs a full summer of recovery for that back and shoulder, but the Lakers have no choice.
They need Howard to be dominant again, need him flanked with Gasol on the frontline. Only this is the wrong coach, running the wrong system to make the most of that partnership.
Somehow, the Los Angeles Lakers doubled down on the washed-up, banner-less legacy of the Phoenix Suns, and yet somehow they still wonder how everything could've unraveled this way. Mike D'Antoni was never the return of Showtime, but merely a mirage that came out of the desert and ultimately will blow out of Los Angeles like tumbleweed.
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