It took the Los Angeles Lakers only five games this season to get rid of head coach Mike Brown, so maybe Mike D’Antoni can point to this as one of his few accomplishments since taking over the job: He made it more than twice as far before it became time to wonder if the same fate should await him.
If that sounds like crazy talk, well, so does the fact that the Lakers are 4-8 under D’Antoni, 9-13 overall, 12th in the Western Conference and on Tuesday night were manhandled by a Cleveland Cavaliers team that entered the game with just four wins.
There’s also the fact it would be absurd to pay three coaches — Mike Brown and, if he were fired, D’Antoni and presumably Phil Jackson — for the same season. The question is whether it would be more absurd to miss the playoffs with a team featuring Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard, to say nothing of the now-injured Pau Gasol and Steve Nash.
This Lakers team is built around the same concept that defined the Heat during the Big Three’s inaugural season — win a championship or fail, and no excuses will do. Not injuries, not Nash’s absence, not time needed to adjust to a new system, not the fact Howard and Kobe still are figuring out how to play together, not the fact patience is preferred to panic. Those things did not save Brown. They won’t save D’Antoni either.
There’s also a short window that’s closing here for the kind of greatness the Lakers’ faithful and bosses planned for. Nash is 38, Bryant 34, Gasol 32.
As the pressure mounts, most of it will point, fairly or otherwise, toward D’Antoni and his abysmal beginning to this much-hyped season. Somewhere Mike Brown knows what I’m talking about. Magic Johnson knows, too, so much so he voiced his displeasure this week. Kobe Bryant knows, which may be why in a long interview with ESPN on Wednesday, he gave a defense of D’Antoni’s ability to be flexible with his up-tempo system that sounded a lot like a Phil Jackson-style psychological shot at that very thing.
“He wants to be successful more than anything,” Bryant said. “It’s not just about implementing his system as the end goal. The end goal is to win a championship. It’s not playing a certain way.”
As with Brown before him, the most damning evidence staring at D’Antoni, the Lakers brass and the legion of purple-and-gold fans is recent history. For Brown, that was the winless preseason and the end of last season with the Lakers. For D’Antoni, it’s these first 12 games with the Lakers — and his three-plus years with their next opponent, the New York Knicks.
The Knicks this season have been defined by Carmelo Anthony, who after helping force out D’Antoni last March has made his team into a winner. The Lakers, since Brown’s exit, have been defined by D’Antoni, who landed in Los Angeles and just kept on losing.
The Knicks were 121-167 under D’Antoni, including 18-24 last season despite the Linsanity phenomenon. Mike Woodson, who took over after D’Antoni resigned in March, has minted a 34-11 regular-season record, including a 16-5 mark so far this season that has the Knicks atop the Eastern Conference going into Thursday night’s matchup with the Lakers at Madison Square Garden.
There’s no doubting that D’Antoni has succeeded with his system in the past. He could have won an NBA Finals during his Phoenix days, he helped spur Steve Nash to two MVP awards and he established himself as one of the game’s best offensive coaches.
It’s also true that D’Antoni left the Knicks in better shape then he found them — poised, if nothing else, for a turnaround at another coach’s hand — and that he has enjoyed absolutely no honeymoon period in L.A. because most Lakers fans, hoping for the return of Jackson, weren’t happy with his arrival to begin with.
But that’s life in one of the biggest and flashiest of cities. That’s the deal.
What D’Antoni is finding is that Hollywood and the Big Apple play by different rules than other cities. In LA and NYC, you are a star or a failure; a prodigy or a washout; a commodity or a burden. There is no middle ground, not in those places, not with those teams, not in 2012.
Right now D’Antoni is a failure; he’s washed up, a burden. And his hope for changing that rests in a 38-year-old point guard salvaging the Lakers’ season. Remarkable reversals of fortune are also hallmarks of L.A. and New York, but that’s a lot riding on Nash.
What if it doesn’t work? What if Nash, a nice piece but not the savior most thought Howard to be, can’t turn around a team that’s too slow, porous on defense, lethargic on offense and hearing about its shortcomings from Lakers luminaries such as Kobe and Magic?
What if D’Antoni’s system won’t work because Nash can’t replicate his younger days in Phoenix? What if Gasol and Howard thrive in the low post rather than setting screens in the pick-and-roll? What if the old, slow Lakers belong in a half-court offense instead of D’Antoni’s "seven seconds or less" system against younger, more athletic teams?
What if Kobe – God help the Lakers – cools off?!
Well, then maybe what D’Antoni told a reporter a few weeks ago would really be true: He should never have left Phoenix in the first place.