HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — As much as the rest of this season for the Los Angeles Lakers is about Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol, Steve Nash and Metta World Peace, the responsibility for how the Lakers finish sits squarely on the shoulders of one Mike D’Antoni.
The Lakers’ coach lost the cloak of Kobe Bryant, who is recovering from Saturday surgery to repair his torn Achilles and will be out for at least the next six months. D’Antoni no longer has the option of allowing Bryant to answer for the Lakers basketball sins this season. He can’t ease into the background as Bryant explains away one of the great botched chemistry experiments in pro sports history.
All of that internal security from doubters, both near and far, evaporated with just over three minutes to play Friday night at Staples Center, when Bryant’s season came to an abrupt end.
This season’s defining moment will come without Bryant in uniform, it could come as early as tonight’s showdown with the San Antonio Spurs (9:30 p.m. ET, NBA TV), with D’Antoni clearly at the controls of a team he had no says so in building after taking over for Mike Brown in November.
The style disconnect that has existed all season can no longer be used as an excuse, not with both Howard and Gasol playing their old selves in recent weeks. Nash is a non-factor and has been for much of the season, due to injuries, and World Peace is going to bring the same frenetic energy he always does, regardless of who is and is not in uniform.
D’Atnoni is now the wild card. Can he cajole this team into the playoffs, making good on Bryant’s guarantee, and ensure that they make the noise Bryant swore they would once they got in? D’Antoni’s future with the Lakers depends on it. D’Antoni has a chance to reintroduce himself to this team in ways that he simply could not when Bryant was at the center of all things.
Unlike some, I don’t blame D’Antoni for pushing Bryant too hard, playing him a merciless amount of minutes as the Lakers clawed their way back into playoff contention after the All-Star break. There’s enough of Southland bashing of D’Antoni, Lakers’ owner Jim Buss and general manager Mitch Kupchak to fill every minutes of every day until Bryant returns, and you know he’s coming back from this.
Bryant was in the midst of a seven-game stretch where he was averaging 46 physically taxing minutes a night trying to rescue a team that plenty of us feel has been mismanaged since Bernie Bickerstaff‘s brief tenure at the helm, he bridged the gap between Brown and D’Antoni. Even a freak injury like the one Bryant suffered looks a bit curious to those of us who don’t buy into the conspiracy theories.
I blame D’Antoni for dropping the ball and not being able to reign in Bryant’s wicked competitive streak at a time when it was clear the seemingly ageless wonder was laboring. I blame him for being too stubborn to adjust his own philosophy to fit the talent on the roster he inherited. Game after game Bryant was forced to carry the Lakers in ways that were really unnecessary, given the fact that remain the only team in the league with two elite 7-footers at their disposal.
Lucky for D’Antoni, he has a chance to make it all right. If can guide the Lakers past the Spurs tonight, he could set up a weekend date with Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and the Spurs. Or maybe it’s Scott Brooks, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder.
There is room for redemption if D’Antoni can claw his way out of this weekend’s and this season’s mess. But it has to include the Lakers finishing this playoff fight with the Utah Jazz right and following it with a playoff run as spirited as anything Bryant did during his one-man rescue of the Lakers before Friday night.
We can all agree that D’Antoni is an offensive genius and visionary in a league filled with followers. But if he can’t engineer the Lakers’ rise from this latest fall, if he can’t go back to the drawing board and pull out the motivational tactics to inspire this team, then he might very well be devoured by the Lakers’ season on the brink.
But if he wants out of Phil Jackson‘s shadow and wants to write his own chapter in Lakers’ lore, he has to step into the void now and run with it for as long as humanly possible.