Mike D'Antoni at ease in L.A. spotlight
NOV 15, 2012 4:23p ET
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Say what you will about new Los Angeles Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni and his ability to lead the team to a championship. But one thing is for sure: he is a man not afraid of challenges or taking responsibility if they don't work out the way he wants.
“We're built to win this year – that's no secret,” were the first words spoken by D'Antoni at his introductory news conference after coaching his first Lakers practice. “We have a window and we're going to try to get through it. I've got a great group of guys, I'm looking forward to it and I'm excited.
“I know what the reaction is going to be if we don't win. But I'm good with that.”
So why does he seem so comfortable taking over the highest-profile team in the NBA with a yearly mandate – win or else? And in a city where some of the fans and some of the media might not be supporters of his until he shows he's the right man for the gig?
“Maybe I'm not smart enough to know any different,” the personable coach said, laughing as he delivered one of his many punch lines during a 40-minute meeting with the media at the Lakers practice facility.
“It's basketball,” D'Antoni continued. “I've coached Steve (Nash), so I know how much fun I'm going to have. I've coached Kobe (Bryant). I've coached Dwight (Howard). I know the possibilities that we have – it's endless. But we have to win. We don't win; coming close isn't good enough.”
The 61-year-old West Virginian said he doesn't feel any pressure coaching a team that is expected to win a championship every year.
“Expectations are something every team has,” he said, “but there are some situations where expectations are too high and you can't get ... there. But that's not the case here.
“The expectation is to win a championship; we have the team and players to do that. It's going to take everybody to do that, but, boy, it's fun trying. I can't think of a better group, a better city and a better fan base to try and get it done.”
The Lakers are D'Antoni's fourth NBA stop. He spent 50 games coaching Denver in 1998-99, then five years in Phoenix and four with the New York Knicks. He is 388-339 during the regular season, but 26-29 in the postseason. He made the conference finals with the Suns in 2005 and '06, but lost to eventual champion San Antonio in '05 and Finals loser Dallas in '06.
Much of the criticism of D'Antoni's coaching stems from his lack of success in the playoffs, which is why there was an uproar in Los Angeles when he was chosen over Phil Jackson, who has coached 11 title winners. But with the exception of Nash, Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony, he's never had close to the type of talent he has with the Lakers.
“I understand the criticism,” said D'Antoni, who had knee replacement surgery on October 31 and likely won't take the Lakers' bench until Sunday against the Houston Rockets. “Phil's a great coach and always has been and always will be a great coach with what he's done. But I like the possibilities here.”
The new coach also said that he loves challenges, and one of his biggest will be to win over one of L.A.'s all-time most popular athletes, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who tweeted that he went into mourning when Jackson wasn't re-hired. Magic added: “My mother always taught me that if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the new coach.
Despite the tough welcome, D'Antoni reached out to Johnson during the news conference, welcoming a chance to meet with the Laker legend.
“Magic ... when you think of the Lakers you think of him,” D'Antoni said in a serious tone. “We would love to be able to play 'Showtime' basketball. We would like to get someplace close to that. I think that would be awesome, and there's no better person to talk to and pick his brain (than Magic).”
Johnson responded with another tweet: “The decision's been made that D'Antoni is the coach so we must support him. I appreciate him reaching out to me & look forward to speaking.”
So while D'Antoni would have the right to feel like he's the ball in the middle of some weird bumper pool game, he seems fired up and ready to go. And the players seem to be right in step with him.
Kobe has already lauded his childhood idol for his “offensive genius." And Pau Gasol is ready for everything to get going for real, which should be Sunday night against James Harden and the Rockets at Staples Center.
“This is a different style of basketball than we've played here," said Gasol. We're going to have to be in great condition – better than the other team – because we're going to do a lot of running and moving.
“Hopefully this is going to be a lot of fun.”
And for D'Antoni's sake, a lot of winning, too.