1. How D'Antoni Fits With Howard Crucial
By J.A. Adande
LOS ANGELES -- OK, we know Steve Nash will be thrilled with the Lakers' sudden reversal that went from Phil Jackson to Mike D'Antoni. Kobe Bryant was lobbying hard for Phil, but he likes D'Antoni enough that he won't be making McKayla Maroney faces at the notion of getting his second choice. The big question is how this plays out forDwight Howard, the one whose opinion will ultimately matter most of all.
Howard is the only one of the Lakers stars' (you can include Pau Gasol in that group, if you wish) who will be a free agent after the season. With D'Antoni signing a four-year deal to coach the Lakers, Howard is the one who will have to decide if it's the right coach and system with which to spend the prime years of his career.
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Among other things, Jackson had proven he could win a championship with a big man as the focal point of the team, having done so three times with Shaquille O'Neal and the Lakers. Jackson even did it to the detriment of his relationship with Bryant by siding with Shaq in the ongoing debate over who should get the ball the most. But Jackson won over Bryant in their second go-round, from 2005-2011, winning two more championships and gaining Bryant's utmost respect. Howard would almost have no choice in the matter; as if the rings didn't carry enough authority, Bryant would be in his ear saying, "Yo, you've got to listen to this dude."
Howard already has a relationship with D'Antoni, who coached him and Bryant on the 2008 U.S. Olympic team and seemed to end that summer on good terms with every player. There were even some fears around the league that the top free agents -- primarily LeBron James and Dwyane Wade -- would gravitate to wherever D'Antoni was coaching.
It turned out that wasn't the case. Wade and James valued playing in Miami, along with a third star in Chris Bosh, under the franchise guidance of Pat Riley. Talent, location and front office stability matter more than coaches. Coaches can always be replaced, as Howard just saw first-hand with dismissal of Mike Brown five games into Howard's stay with the Lakers.
So it might not be the coach so much as the process of hiring the coach. How much was Howard taken into consideration for this one? How much would he be consulted for the next one? Would the organization make a move without having a primary target ready to move in, as was the case this time?
At the moment, the critical question is if they hired the right coach to get Howard, Kobe, Nash, the Buss family and every single Laker Girl to the championship? That is the only way the series of transactions dating back to the July 4 acquisition of Nash will be considered a success. That's the only way Howard's time in Los Angeles can be considered a success. Those are the standards set by the franchise and the four Hall of Fame centers who came before him. That is the immense pressure that comes with playing for the Lakers, particularly at the center position.
It's extra pressure on D'Antoni as well, occupying the seat once held by the likes of Bill Sharman, Pat Riley and Jackson (whom the fans were chanting for).
And this roster is drastically different from the squad that had so much success under D'Antoni in Phoenix with Nash running the show. That team operated under the premise of taking the first good shot, playing at a pace that would produce a high number of shots, counting on the fact that the Suns would make a higher percentage of their shots -- particularly the three-point shots. These Lakers are older, bigger and slower. It takes more time and patience to allow a big man to establish post position. They don't have the outside shooters the Suns did.
That's not to say there's no place for big men in D'Antoni's world. Shaq averaged 18 points per game during his lone full season in Phoenix. That was only two points off his average during his championship season with the Miami Heat three years earlier.
Marcin Gortat averaged a career-high 15.4 points playing with Nash in Phoenix last season, with coach Alvin Gentry essentially running D'Antoni's system.
Can D'Antoni put all the pieces together? Can he get the offense flowing and oversee a defense that gets stops regularly? These are questions that we don't know the answer. It's rare that any coach can provide the answers. Phil Jackson could, which is why he demanded so much money and control. Ultimately the Lakers weren't willing to give him what he wanted. Talks fell apart Sunday night, and while the players were reveling in their victory over the Sacramento Kings the Lakers were reaching out to D'Antoni. The call came "out of the blue", according to a source close to D'Antoni.
That didn't prevent a deal from getting consummated in about the same amount of time it takes Dwight Howard to shower, get dressed and meet with the media.
"This organization moves pretty quickly once they have a direction," Bryant observed a little earlier in the night.
Quickly doesn't always mean properly. They misjudged when they hired Mike Brown. If they don't get this one right it might mean they'll not only have to find another coach, they'll have to find another center.