Bring Phil back and blame D'Antoni? It's not that easy

April, 4, 2013
4/04/13
11:11
PM PT
McMenamin By Dave McMenamin
ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- It was easy to see coming.

Phil Jackson was at center court Tuesday. He had the microphone in his hand and was speaking at Shaquille O'Neal's jersey retirement ceremony in front of a sold-out arena full of fans who wanted to remember the glory days as they were in the midst of muddling through the disappointing haze that has permeated the current Los Angeles Lakers season.

"We want Phil! We want Phil! We want Phil!" the crowd cheered. The sound cascaded onto the court and might have even crept into the Lakers' locker room, where coach Mike D'Antoni was addressing the team at halftime.

[+] EnlargeMike D'Antoni
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsTo say Mike D'Antoni's first season as Lakers coach has been a challenge would be an understatement. With the season winding down, he finally seems to have them on the right path.
“He's only won 58 rings, why wouldn't they?" D'Antoni quipped after the game.

As enticing as it might be to wonder "What if?" when considering the team's decision to hire D'Antoni on that Sunday night back in November, instead of giving Jackson the weekend to think about his answer, even the winningest championship coach in NBA history would have faced serious challenges with the Lakers this season.

It might be easy to yearn for Jackson, but it's not so simple as placing the blame on D'Antoni for the fact that the Lakers are fighting just to get into the playoffs with two weeks left in the regular season rather than jockeying with the top seeds in the Western Conference for home-court advantage.

Here are four reasons D'Antoni shouldn't end up being the scapegoat should the Lakers ultimately stumble down the stretch, and one reason he should shoulder some of that responsibility:

WHY NOT TO BLAME D'ANTONI

1. He didn't have a training camp.

Think about it: The Lakers were in such shambles to start the season with new personnel and a new offensive system that even with a monthlong training camp, former coach Mike Brown directed the Lakers to an 0-8 preseason and a 1-4 mark in games that mattered before he lost his job. D'Antoni was thrust into a situation in which he had no familiarity with half the roster, and had to use games to figure out how to divide minutes among Earl Clark, Antawn Jamison, Jordan Hill and Devin Ebanks. Or among Ebanks and Jodie Meeks. Or among Meeks, Steve Blake, Chris Duhon and Darius Morris. He had to decide whether he liked Metta World Peace, Jamison and Clark better at the 4 or at the 3. He had to feel out Pau Gasol's game. He had to get to know Kobe Bryant's and Dwight Howard's contrasting personalities. And he had to do it all on the fly, under the microscope in one of the NBA's biggest media markets while not feeling physically up to par himself as he recovered from knee surgery.

He got it wrong sometimes -- that string of DNP-CDs for Jamison being the most glaring example -- but he got it right sometimes, too, unearthing a gem in Clark, who previously had been considered a bust by the league.

2. The injuries have been pervasive.

When D'Antoni took the Lakers job, he figured he would have Steve Nash as his point guard almost immediately as Nash recovered from an odd collision with Portland's Damian Lillard. Then Nash missed another six weeks because of a broken leg. Then Blake was out even longer because of a lingering groin and abdomen issue. Then Howard suffered a torn labrum in his right shoulder in January, followed by Gasol missing time for knee tendinitis, a concussion and later a torn plantar fascia. Don't forget season-ending hip surgery for Hill and potentially season-ending knee surgery for World Peace. And a severely sprained ankle for Bryant. Oh, and Howard coming off back surgery all the while.

"I can't remember if it's [World Peace] or Nash or Jordan Hill or Pau's foot," D'Antoni said Thursday after mistakenly saying World Peace's time frame for recovery was four to six weeks instead of using the six-week figure the team had announced. "I can't remember all the damn injuries we have."

Not surprisingly, D'Antoni credits health as the biggest reason for L.A.'s turnaround.

"I think the biggest improvement is Dwight's healthier," D'Antoni said. "I think that's it and Pau's healthier, in the sense of he's gotten something back. I know he's hurting right now, but he went through a period where he was feeling good and playing well. Once we got those two straight, the rest of the stuff I thought was better. Then we got at least one of the Steves back, then we got two of them back and that's helped."

3. He had no hand in the roster and coaching staff.

Other than bringing in his brother Dan D'Antoni as an assistant, Mike D'Antoni was just handed over the mess Brown had made, along with general manager Mitch Kupchak and vice president Jim Buss, and told to fix it. He didn't get to bring in players tailored to how he likes to run his team -- the Lakers never even brought in a 15th player to fill out the roster when Darius Johnson-Odom was cut. Eddie Jordan was brought in to run the Princeton offense, not D'Antoni's sets. Chuck Person was brought in by Jackson. Steve Clifford, Bernie Bickerstaff, Darvin Ham and Phil Handy were brought in by Brown. D'Antoni was asked to cook the meal without picking the ingredients or picking out his kitchen staff.

4. He should get credit for instigating the meeting to turn things around.

The Lakers host the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday. The last time they played the Grizzlies, in late January, they lost and hit rock bottom at 17-25. Their lowest mark under .500 all season. Before that Memphis loss, D'Antoni decided he had seen enough and orchestrated an air-it-out meeting at the morning shootaround.

"We'd been talking about it [with the coaching staff] for a little bit," D'Antoni told ESPNLosAngeles.com on Thursday. "It's more or less how your gut feels and you go into it and you go, 'You know what, let's not leave here without something happening.'

"That was the watershed moment. It could have either sunk the boat or we got to right it. I think we had to go through that and had to hit the rock bottom before we could start coming back up.

"It just got to a point where it was so bad in a sense of, 'Yeah, we can't leave the locker room without getting this straight.' You try to massage it, you try to think it will work itself out. But we just felt like, no, we have to have it out."

Since then, the Lakers are 22-11 (.667).

Jackson liked to say that everything turns on a trifle; well, D'Antoni provided the trifle.

WHY YOU CAN BLAME D'ANTONI

1. D'Antoni came in with the wrong vision.

Remember this quote from D'Antoni's introductory news conference?

"I told the team if we're not averaging 110-115 points a game, we need to talk," D'Antoni said. "That's our goal. It should be easily done."

Err. Wrong.

D'Antoni was trying to fit a round peg into a square hole from the beginning. The Lakers weren't the Phoenix Suns Part 2 and never were going to be so. Nash was 39 years old, not a two-time MVP. The rest of the roster wasn't tailored to run-and-gun.

If you're going to blame D'Antoni, blame him for taking too long to come to that realization. But, at the same time, praise him for finally realizing it.

"We had to adjust a lot," D'Antoni said. "We're not running anything that I would normally run. But, we feel like what we're doing is better for the team to win right now, and I'm comfortable with that. I think everybody in every role should say, 'What does the team need to win?' I can't be selfish and have them be unselfish; that's not fair. But, trying to figure out what it is [took time], and I think we've come to a pretty good balance of what we need to do."

It hasn't been perfect -- in fact, it's been a "sham-mockery" at times -- but D'Antoni finally has the Lakers on the right path.

"Every coach has challenges and obstacles," D'Antoni said. "It's just trying to get guys on the same page and accept roles -- accept personalities and roles. We had to work through that, and I think we're in a good place mentally, and then we worked through injuries. Since probably the middle of January when we had that big discussion, we've been playing at about a 68 percent clip. Too bad it didn't start earlier, but maybe we would have never got there if we didn't go through our trials and tribulations. But again, it's disappointing for everybody, this season. ... We expected better, expected more and that didn't happen but now we still control our destiny and we'll see what we can do.

"The biggest thing is accepting who we are and this is what we got to do."

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TEAM LEADERS

POINTS
Nick Young
PTS AST STL MIN
17.9 1.5 0.7 28.3
OTHER LEADERS
ReboundsJ. Hill 7.4
AssistsK. Bryant 6.3
StealsK. Bryant 1.2
BlocksW. Johnson 1.0