HANG TIME, Texas — It turns out Kobe Bryant isn’t the only one thinking the experts will be eating crow when he and his teammates report for duty in the playoffs next spring.
While he isn’t quite cackling on national TV with Jimmy Kimmel, coach Mike D’Antoni insists that the Lakers can improve on their 45-37 record from last season. At least that’s what he told Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times:
“I don’t see why not,” he said. “I think we can be better because I don’t think we reached our potential last year. Our lack of defense came mostly from lack of energy from guys that didn’t feel right in their place on the team. Defense is energy, concentration and the desire to do it.
“If something is sapping that energy — distractions, injuries, not feeling good about the team — then you’re not going to put your heart and soul into it and it comes out on the defensive end. They just didn’t feel each other.”
It’s a simple recipe, really. You simply subtract a seven-time All-Star, three-time Defensive Player of the Year, five-time NBA rebounding leader — including last season when he wasn’t fully fit — and the kumbaya spirit of cooperation lifts the entire boat.
Of course, D’Antoni didn’t mention Dwight Howard by name and we think that’s a good thing, since there has been far too much dredging up the pains of the past by everyone in the Laker organization from team president Jim Buss down to the valet parking attendants at the Staples Center. It is time — way past time, in fact — for the Lakers to move on and part of that has to be adopting the old Stuart Smalley from the long ago days of Saturday Night Live: “We’re good enough.”
Can the Lakers be good enough in a Western Conference where they had to go to the final night of the regular season in 2012-13 to finally secure the No. 7 spot in the playoffs and where Houston (with Howard) and Golden State (with Andre Iguodala) would clearly rank ahead of them now in the pecking order. Then there’s the matter of teams such as Minnesota, Portland and New Orleans coming up from behind. The Timberwolves are rebounding from a season fraught with injuries, while the Blazers and Pelicans have made moves to improve their talent.
The Lakers still have the biggest question mark in the league on their side of the ledger, wondering when — and really if — at age 35, Bryant can return to his Black Mamba form. Until that time, they must rely on 39-year-old Steve Nash and 33-year-old Pau Gasol to carry the load with aging bodies that both broke down last season. D’Antoni’ said he believes that Nash and Gasol will be 100 percent healthy heading into training camp, but this is certainly a time, for their own good and that of the team, that their minutes will have to be monitored closely and likely limited. The defending Western Conference champion Spurs have been able to get away with fewer minutes from Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili because young guys such as Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green are rising through the pipeline. That’s not quite the case with the Lakers, whose offseason additions have been Nick Young, Jordan Farmar, Wesley Johnson and Chris Kaman.
D’Antoni says he’s not going into the season looking over his shoulder in terms of his job security, especially after surviving a summer of blood-letting in the NBA coaching ranks.
“I’m sure it’s out there. If you don’t win, it’s there,” he said. “If you’re coaching in Fort Wayne, it’s going to be the same thing. I think the Lakers are a special case because they’re the No. 1 team that’s on ESPN. You just do the best job you can do and go on. If you get caught up in what they’re saying, you can’t do your job.”
Then he mentioned his peers in what was a surprisingly cranky, impatient off-season.
“Look at what happened to coaches this year. Eleven get let go. And three or four of them had the best years the franchise has ever had,” D’Antoni said. “So who am I to say they’re treating me bad? What about all those other guys?”
D’Antoni never feared for his job security despite the first-round playoff flameout.
“No, because Mitch [Kupchak] and Jim Buss were really supportive and great,” he said of the team’s front-office executives. “I couldn’t ask for anything better from the staff and franchise. I don’t want to be flippant, but you also have to have an attitude of, ‘To hell with everything. Concentrate. Go forward.’ You can’t get distracted by the noise.”