Sports Sermon: D’Antoni’s chance for redemption

November 15, 2012

Phil Jackson is considered by many to be the greatest basketball coach in the history of the NBA. He won 11 championships in 20 years—a record unheard of in coaching at any level, in any sport.

There’s one big caveat here: for every one of his coaching stints, he has been handed a ridiculously stacked roster. In Chicago, he had this guy named Michael Jordan, who some people might consider to be a decent basketball player. With his second stop in Los Angeles, he had Shaquille O’Neal in the prime of his career and a young Kobe Bryant at his disposal. A few years later, he came back to coach Bryant in his prime with a formidable supporting cast of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol around him.

But the track record speaks for itself—with all the talent in the world, teams have to execute and part of that has to do with coaching. A lot of it has to do with developing trust in a coach’s system, something Jackson did to perfection with Jordan and then Bryant. It’s also something Laker management never allowed former coach Mike Brown to develop with the team before summarily dismissing him five games into this year’s season.

LeBron James for one, who played under Brown in Cleveland, felt it was an unfair move by Laker management. “I think it’s unfortunate,” James said. “I just don’t think he got a fair shake, honestly. With the shortened season last year, and five games into this year, he didn’t really get a full season.”

It’s a fair point, especially considering the new personnel Brown had to work with. Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, despite their immense talent, needed some time to gel with mainstays Gasol and Bryant. Add Nash’s injury to that mix, and it’s no wonder the Lakers couldn’t mesh.

But they would have. There was far too much talent on their roster and too many pieces that ostensibly fit into a dominant lineup to assume otherwise. Eventually, Brown’s iteration of the Princeton offense would have worked with the group of cerebral players assembled in Los Angeles.

Now, the Lakers stand at a precarious crossroads, having deemed Brown’s tenure a failure and not bending over backwards to give Jackson the job in his place. Instead, they opted for offensive guru Mike D’Antoni, of the Suns’ “seven seconds or less” notoriety. His teams in Phoenix and New York were unreal offensively, as he made players like Chris Duhon look like legitimate NBA players. Boris Diaw, once deemed the worst player in the NBA, revitalized his career under D’Antoni.

Offense, simply put, has never been a problem for D’Antoni. In Los Angeles, he will be reunited with Nash and have the ultimate pick-and-roll partner for him in Howard. Couple that with Gasol’s preternatural passing ability and Kobe’s, well, Kobe-ness, and the expectations grow once more to championship or bust.

It’s the other side of the ball where D’Antoni has often been criticized. Here, though, where I believe the majority of pundits are wrong about D’Antoni. In Phoenix, with such a rapid offense, more possessions will naturally lead to a higher scoring output from the opposition—it doesn’t mean there’s no defense present.

His undoing in both Phoenix and New York was the personnel present, factors that were beyond his control. In Phoenix, management became stingy and failed to bring back players like Joe Johnson. The other guys present, players like Amar’e Stoudemire, were brilliant offensively but fairly suspect on the defensive end. When D’Antoni was reunited with Stoudemire in New York, the same defensive liability became visible. Coupled with Carmelo Anthony’s sporadic defensive effort and penchant for ball-stopping isolation plays on the offensive end, D’Antoni never stood a chance.

This is where the mature personnel on the Lakers will help him. The Pringle man look-alike has never had a post defender like Howard (Tyson Chandler comes close, but we’ll cancel that out because of Stoudemire), let alone a seven-footer in Gasol to complement him. Bryant and Metta World Peace are two of the greatest defensive players in the game at their respective positions.

This time, for someone like me who doesn’t think D’Antoni is a bad defensive coach, there’s no excuse to fail. In a similar sense to Brown, though, the current Laker coach has never had a fair ending. He’s been made to be a scapegoat in both Phoenix and New York. Phoenix never got over that hump because of the coach’s defensive shortcomings or it was D’Antoni’s fault that he couldn’t harness the talent of Anthony and Stoudemire.

In both cases, the pundits have been wrong. D’Antoni has often worked with flawed rosters and in some cases, has encountered bad luck. This time, the former problem is erased. Like Jackson in his successful years, he has a full deck to work with. With his latest stop, he just needs to deliver.

Kevin Joseph
Kevin Joseph is a Contributor Editor and former Sports Editor for the The Georgetown Voice.

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