The Lakers Have Hired Mike D’Antoni

  • Glenn Davis

Well, the Los Angeles Lakers have Mike Brown’s replacement… and to no one’s surprise, it’s a guy with bad knees. To just about everyone’s surprise, though, it’s not a bad-kneed guy with 11 NBA titles under his belt. That’s right: the team decided late last night to hire former Suns and Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni (a.k.a. Not Phil Jackson), giving the Lakers someone who’s had tremendous success with their new point guard, but who brings with him plenty of questions, too. The news was first reported by the Los Angeles Times.

First things first, though: why not Jackson? Sure, he’s old and had bad knees, but D’Antoni’s recovering from knee surgery himself and might not even be able to coach right away. There are probably a few hints in Marc J. Spears’ piece here:

Jackson, league sources said, was seeking greater personnel control, a relaxed travel schedule and a two-year contract that would pay him at least $10 million a season.

With D’Antoni, the Lakers got a longer commitment (three years with a team option for a fourth) for way cheaper ($12 million over those three years). And again, there’s the Nash connection – the D’Antoni-Nash partnership resulted in two 60-win seasons with the Suns, and Laker brass (who claimed in a statement to have unanimously decided on D’Antoni as the best choice) had to be enticed by the possibility of teaming them up again with a better team surrounding Nash.

Still, this hiring was a stunning development. Don’t believe us? Just ask D’Antoni. Wrote Spears:

“Mike thought it was a done deal that Phil Jackson was going to be the Lakers coach again,” one league source said. “No one was more surprised that it didn’t happen than Mike.”

Well, we’re not so sure about that, because…

Phil Jackson was prepared to return to the Los Angeles Lakers on Monday morning if negotiations between his agent and the team went well, a league source told late Sunday night.

When the Lakers called to tell Jackson that they had instead chosen Mike D’Antoni to be their next head coach, he was “stunned,” according to the source, because he had been under the impression “it was his job to turn down” although no formal offer had ever been made.

In truth, the Lakers had no perfect option here. Jackson appeared totally spent at the end of his last Lakers stint, which ended in an embarrassing playoff sweep at the hands of the Mavericks, and there’s no guarantee it would have ended any better this time around. NBA coaches have to be fully invested in the job. From that standpoint, Jackson was a gamble.

But so’s D’Antoni. For all the promise of that flashy offense and (eventually) working with Nash again, it’s easy to overlook that even though Jim Bus might have thought so, the offense wasn’t the Lakers’ problem in the early going. In fact, they were sixth in the NBA in offensive efficiency at the time of Mike Brown’s firing and currently sit at eighth in the league. The team’s defensive efficiency is actually substantially worse, though they’re now at a not-terrible 16th in the league after winning a couple games under interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff.

Of course, to say D’Antoni isn’t a defensive guy would be an understatement. His Suns won because they scored and scored. And his Knicks teams won because… well, actually, his Knicks teams didn’t win all that much, another reason to have reservations about the hire. There was the 2010-11 playoff appearance (and resulting sweep) and the brief Lin-led resurgence last season, but the team quickly fell off, D’Antoni got canned… and the Knicks have been playing better ever since.

So for now the Lakers just have to hope D’Antoni’s the right guy to breathe new life into the roster. At least the early returns from some important players are good. Kobe said this in am email to ESPN:

“I love PJ but I’m very excited about D’Antoni.”

And before the hiring, Nash raved about his former coach:

“Obviously I think everyone knows how much I love Mike. If (D’Antoni) were to coach, it would be seamless and terrific for me, and I think the team as well.”

Well, now’s Nash’s – and D’Antoni’s – chance to prove it (well, once Nash and D’Antoni return from their injuries, anyway). The Lakers better hope Nash’s “seamless” prediction is on the money, or their superteam experiment is going to end in some super-disappointment.

Getty photo, by Rob Carr