Ironically, it was Phil Jackson who may have best summed up Mike D’Antoni’s first season as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers.
“Mike hasn’t had a chance in L.A., he really hasn’t,” Jackson said back in May while appearing as a guest on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," after audience members booed the mention of D'Antoni's name.
And that was before Dwight Howard left for Houston, making it clear on his way out the door that he would have preferred Jackson over D’Antoni as the Lakers' head coach.
D’Antoni has been maligned by some Lakers faithful for the team's disappointing 2012-13 season, and perceived by many to be at least partially responsible for Howard's departure. And although he replaced Mike Brown five games into last season, plenty of Lakers fans feel he actually replaced Jackson, since the 11-time champion had interviewed for the job before D’Antoni did back in November, and seemed to have landed it until a notorious late-night call from Lakers management informed him otherwise.
But grumbling aside, D'Antoni remains in the job, and has the backing of the front office heading into the 2013-14 season. Executive vice president Jim Buss and general manager Mitch Kupchak believe that the coach’s flexibility in the second half of last season was a key factor in the team finishing 28-12 and want to give him a full training camp and a healthy roster in 2013-14 in order to show what he can do.
Several times last season, D’Antoni paraphrased Winston Churchill in describing his approach to the Lakers' ups and downs, “When you're going through hell, you put your head down and keep going, and that's what we're going to do.”
The pressure of a $100 million payroll that was built to be a contender and was struggling just to play .500 ball was persistent and intense. The Lakers are hoping that Howard’s departure will perhaps act as a sort of pressure release valve heading into the upcoming season.
“Expectations should be lower and I think that will ease the pressure on him,” said a source familiar with the Lakers front office’s thinking.
“I think every year's fun,” D’Antoni recently told Fox Sports when asked how grateful he was to have a traditional offseason to prepare his team. “Coaching's fun, so I'm not complaining the other way, but this is a lot better. Some of the best times are training camp and getting your ideas in how you'd like them.”
None of Churchill's grim determination there.
Late last season D’Antoni told ESPNLosAngeles.com, “We're not running anything that I would normally run,” but the moves the Lakers have made since Howard left for Houston have been more in step with the system for which D’Antoni is known.
L.A. added Chris Kaman, a sweet-shooting center who none other than Shaquille O’Neal said was a perfect fit for what D’Antoni likes to do; Nick Young, a potent scorer with the requisite young legs to push the tempo; Jordan Farmar (pending a buyout from his team in Turkey), a playmaker who can occupy both guard spots seamlessly; Wesley Johnson, who gives D’Antoni another long, young, athletic player to work with; and drafted Ryan Kelly, who the Lakers hope can play the stretch-four position.
While nobody is calling the Lakers favorites to hang banner No. 17, there may be reason to think they could surprise some people.
“I think he’s a bright coach and I think he’s got a good touch with the team and I think depending on how this roster rounds out, I don’t mind Mike D’Antoni in an underdog situation when everybody’s kind of written him off,” Steve Nash recently told ESPN LA 710 radio.
Still, a lot has to go right for the team to make the playoffs. Kobe Bryant is, of course, recovering from Achilles surgery and overall team health may remain a concern, as Bryant, Nash and Gasol are all over 33 years old and each has recently battled significant injuries. Competition for the lower seeds in the West could be stiff as well, with teams like Portland, Minnesota and New Orleans all making solid offseason moves.
And in or out of the playoffs, things could get even more challenging for D'Antoni in the summer of 2014, as the team prepares to make a splash in the free agency pool, when they will have approximately $50 million in cap space and are said to be interested in a potential run at current Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony, with whom D'Antoni's relationship reportedly soured before he resigned as coach of the Knicks in March, 2012.
But that's down the line a bit. The task for Mike D'Antoni in the here and now is to bring together the Lakers' new, post-Howard roster, and to see what this team is capable of.