HANGTIME SOUTHWEST — Most disappointing about Mike D’Antoni‘s 10-13 start with the Los Angeles Lakers is the smug realization that he took seven seconds or less to contemplate his stubborn, unbending tactics. Rather than modify the ideas that suffocated the New York Knicks and sent him packing, D’Antoni instead shoved that baggage into the overhead compartment and set out for sunny L.A., where the skies have quickly darkened to a shade of misery and contempt.
His Lakers are in a deeper hole today at 15-18 — with Steve Nash back for the last seven games — than the day D’Antoni limped into Tinseltown on a freshly implanted, still-stiff and achy knee. Phil Jackson, rejected by a surprise midnight phone call, was the favorite to take over by many. But he was left to blissfully carry on his shopping for a rock to slip on the waiting finger of the daughter of D’Antoni’s new boss.
Perhaps D’Antoni — arms crossed, lips pursed and eyes vacant sitting while on the Lakers bench — simply tuned out the “We want Phil” chant in the Staples Center during Sunday’s most recent implosion, just as he has dialed down his interest level in his veteran players. As the Lakers were again being pulverized at home in the fourth quarter by the Denver Nuggets, the 112-105 loss their third straight loss, the cry of the fandom began to swirl.
The “We want Phil” chorus didn’t rock the house as it did two months ago, but it did rise up for the first time since the glorious interim era of Bernie Bickerstaff, the only coach of this season’s trio (including Chick-Fil-A-loving Mike Brown) to post a winning record. Bickerstaff took four of five just as it seemed Jackson was saddling up his white stallion.
Now, D’Antoni’s lifeless Lakers have lost four of five, and the suffering promises to deepen considering Monday’s catastrophic injury news: Dwight Howard (torn labrum), Pau Gasol (concussion) and Jordan Hill (hip) will be sidelined indefinitely.
With L.A.’s front line out of commission, winning at red-hot Houston on Tuesday night, at San Antonio on Wednesday and then Friday at home against Oklahoma City just got harder than quieting former Lakers great Magic Johnson’s criticism on Twitter.
In his most recent social-media monologue, Johnson, unabashedly critical of D’Antoni’s hiring and over the weeks his failure to tailor his system to his talent, says he’s tired of blaming the coach. It’s time, he tweeted, to expect more from the players if this wreck is to be yanked from the ditch.
But lumping all this on the Lakers’ luxury-tax-blasting roster of All-Stars would be to allow a perplexingly defiant D’Antoni to wiggle off the hook. Through 23 games, more than one-quarter of a regular season, D’Antoni has only provided his critics with ammunition.
His teams will never defend at a championship level because there is no foundation for defending. Offensively, he’ll jam his genius, guard-heavy system down his players’ throats, fit be damned, forcing square pegs into round holes with Gasol being the biggest square of all.
In Friday’s loss to the Clippers, Gasol wandered aimlessly around the arc where D’Antoni wants him, ineffective as a jump shooter, appearing terribly uncomfortable mechanically, forcibly bending his knees and flicking his wrist like some ill-formed shooting guard, all the while out of position to snare offensive rebounds, a category in which he is averaging a career low.
Two nights later against Denver, Gasol was far more active in the first half, backing down on the block, rolling to the basket for an alley-oop pass from Kobe Bryant, who has consistently championed his championship-winning big man’s need for the ball on the block to little avail. And then in the second half, Gasol disappeared, a non-factor, a figment of D’Antoni’s imagination until a blow bloodied Gasol’s nose and jarred his brain.
If D’Antoni is too entrenched in his beliefs to use Gasol in his rightful place, then what’s the use? Trade him already for shooters and legs better suited for the system.
Meanwhile, Antawn Jamison, a member of L.A.’s shallow bench who is capable of fulfilling the stretch-4 role and stands to see increased playing time in wake of the injury explosion, is now a walking ball of confusion. The coaching staff told him more than a month ago that he could be this team’s equivalent to Shawn Marion on D’Antoni and Nash’s old blazing Suns teams. Only Jamison is 36, not 27, and has never defended quite the way Marion still can.
Still, Jamison expressed school-boy giddiness in early December about playing in D’Antoni’s system and he nearly burst with exuberance about Nash’s impending return. And then, without explanation, the 15-year vet fell out of the rotation. After five consecutive DNP-Coach’s Decision, he vented to the media over D’Antoni’s inexplicable lack of communication.
For these Lakers, who one-by-one have taken turns being agitated, everything looks to be a struggle. The offense shifts from Howard fighting off collapsing defenses with teammates hopelessly standing around the arc, to Kobe going full-on Black Mamba as his teammates watch. Turnovers, even with Nash, are prevalent. The defense is atrocious.
Trust on the most basic level — between players, and between players and the head coach — appears nonexistent.
If D’Antoni wants to prove he is a great leader then he must bend, prove his system to be pliable, reveal a human touch. Or, with that stiff upper lip, he will continue to defy the obvious and arrogantly self-destruct, taking this team with him.