LOS ANGELES — “Championship”, the Lakers shouted at the end of practice Thursday. A 3-5 team with a sidelined point guard, a flawed bench, and a head coach on crutches who was still introducing himself to some of the players. Nearly 10 percent of the season is over and it’s been a disaster for the Lakers. They lost four of the first five games, fired Mike Brown, negotiated with Phil Jackson, hired Mike D’Antoni and were ripped by Magic Johnson for the turnabout. But as D’Antoni hobbled into the Lakers practice facility, still recovering from knee surgery, he made it sound like this talented and troubled team could be mended faster than a stubbed toe.
With Dwight Howard set to become a free agent July 1, and Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol due to follow him in July 2014, the Lakers did not want to wait for new players to learn Jackson’s Triangle Offense, as they already tried and failed to do with Brown’s Princeton Offense. When Steve Nash arrived in Phoenix, he picked up D’Antoni’s system in about an hour-and-a-half, and that’s the time frame for the Lakers right now. They will not run called plays. They will rarely run traditional post-ups. They will just implement the D’Antoni flow, dozens of pick-and-rolls with the floor spaced, theoretically leading to lobs and open threes.
“If we’re not averaging 110-115 points per game, we need to talk,” D’Antoni said in his introductory press conference Thursday. “That’s our goal. It should be easily done.” He said Gasol should be firing 20-foot jumpers without hesitation. He said Howard should be “unstoppable” coming off screens. He even said Jodie Meeks, a bench-warmer under Brown, “only needs to shoot when he touches the ball.” Of course, four Lakers starters are 32 or over, but D’Antoni scoffed at the notion they can’t sprint 94 feet. “If you got the best team,” he said, “why wouldn’t you play the most possessions you can?”
Coaches who land new jobs typically tamp down expectations and prattle on about processes. D’Antoni, aware of his impatient audience, took the opposite tack. “We’re built to win this year,” he said. “This is not a project….The process should not be long. It should not be tedious….I know the possibilities we have. They’re endless….The expectation is to win a championship and we have the team and the players to do it. There’s no reason we can’t be great.”
D’Antoni’s folksy personality, and self-deprecating sense of humor, will serve him well given that he is not Phil Jackson. “I have some dear friends, Lakers fans, who were disappointed I got the job,” he admitted. Johnson is the first one he will attempt to win over. He has already tried reaching out to the legend-turned-analyst, who has been tweaking the Lakers on a daily basis this week. “We would love to play Showtime type basketball,” D’Antoni said, “and there’s no better person to talk to.”
Perhaps D’Antoni is delusional about what the Lakers can be. A week ago he was lying on his back in a New York nursing home, displaced by Hurricane Sandy, listening to Motown and popping pain pills. “Great, this is my future, it looks bright,” the 61-year-old told himself. When Nash called to talk about the Lakers job, D’Antoni told him: “Come on, Steve.” Because the hurricane took out his TV signal, he had barely even watched the team.
But the confidence D’Antoni expressed in his press conference must have helped in his interview and again in his first team meeting. The message, according to Bryant, was simple: “Let’s go kick a–.” D’Antoni believes the Lakers can be fixed by a coach who is willing to get out of their way and let the talent take over. “We try to open the floor and make things easier for players,” D’Antoni said. “It’s Steve’s job to get everybody on the same page.” Nash is still recovering from a broken bone in his leg and D’Antoni doesn’t expect to coach until Sunday because of his knee. Neither of them will likely be active for tomorrow night’s game against the Suns, but to hear D’Antoni, it’s Opening Night. The season is starting over for the Lakers.
“Friday is a step,” he said, “on the road to a championship.”