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Surprise! D'Antoni, not Jackson, gets Lakers job

Aside from turning around the Lakers’ 1-4 start, one of Mike D'Antoni's most important tasks is to become a coach that Dwight Howard likes and respects, writes Sam Smith.
The Lakers on Sunday confirmed that the team had signed Mike D'Antoni to a multi-year contract. Steve Nash, who played for D'Antoni in Phoenix, was among those to express his support to bring his former coach to Los Angeles.
(Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty Images)

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

Sam Smith Mailbag

Here we go again? The big NBA news last week, obviously, was Toronto’s… OK, it was the Lakers firing Mike Brown and Phil Jackson’s expected three repeat. Except it turned out to be Mike D’Antoni’s as the Lakers became his fourth NBA head coaching job after Denver, Phoenix and the Knicks.

There was much speculation, obviously, about the reasons for Brown’s firing after five games, the apparent inequity and whether Brown now would join Paul Krugman to teach economics at Princeton since the economy was good to at least Brown. There certainly was much expectation regarding this Lakers team, though few bothered to notice the bench was poor and the legs were spongy. Still, they like a happy ending in L.A., and frankly, if you have decided to make a change there’s no point in waiting. Of course, how come they didn’t notice this before about Brown, that the franchise known for Showtime decided to hire the coach known most for inspiring accountants, is a question the Lakers remain uncomfortable considering.

But perhaps the biggest reason behind all this is Dwight Howard. You get the sense someone in Lakersland woke up one morning on the way to 1-4 and noticed Howard could be a free agent after this season. And this was a guy who probably changed underwear less than he changed his mind.

So if you are the Nets, do you start thinking again that, well, maybe Dwight doesn’t like it there, and he did want say his goal was to get to Brooklyn. And last week amidst all the talk about Jackson, Howard did say he wanted Jackson. Of course, that may have been because someone told him Stan Van Gundy was unemployed as well. Maybe this time you package up Brook Lopez with Deron Williams and see where that goes. Hey, Chris Paul also is a free agent this summer. And you know what Mark Cuban is thinking with Dirk and a bunch of one year contracts. And with Omer Asik becoming a rebounding machine, maybe Houston deals him and makes its bid for Howard now that they have James Harden.

Yes, the Lakers very much need to find a coach Howard likes, respects and isn’t named Van Gundy.

Gasol for Smith deal makes more sense than ever

-- Now that the Lakers have D’Antoni, it’s time to fix the team. This one has been speculated about for at least a year, including here. And Magic Johnson suggested it as well last week. But now it makes sense to do Pau Gasol for a Josh Smith trade. D’Antoni is a pick-and-roll coach, which obviously involves Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. Gasol is actually a better at the pick-and-roll with Nash because of his ability to pop out and shoot a jumper, which Howard cannot. But you can’t put Howard in the corner, for he can’t shoot at all. So the Lakers have no choice but to play pick-and-roll with Howard. He’s not going to have any place for Gasol, who is not the stretch four shooter for his offenses. The Hawks have struggled, predictably enough, given they are so small. Smith is a free agent after this season and probably doesn’t re-sign. He gives the Lakers a little bit of defense, whether D’Antoni wants it or not. And he gives them a little more youth to run with Howard. Meanwhile, Pau becomes one of the top centers in the East and allows Al Horford to go back to playing power forward, where he belongs. OK, guys, it’s in your court now.

What about Coach K?

-- Phil Jackson was the expected choice for the Lakers, and if Michael Jordan could make three comebacks, why not Phil? Mike D’Antoni, given his success with Steve Nash, became the guy. He does fit the Showtime brand the Lakers can play with Nash and Dwight Howard. But I was a little surprised not to hear one name, Mike Krzyzewski. He’s 65, but that’s relatively young in the Lakers’ coaching search. I know he’s sworn forever allegiance to Duke, and given his status, success and happiness there it does make sense to stay. But among college coaches he is an exception given his exemplary work with the USA Basketball teams and his close relationship with Kobe Bryant. The Lakers given their unusual $3 billion local TV contract are in position to make that offer you can’t refuse: $20 million a year for four years, $25 million? There’s probably never been a college coach with the credibility and professional resume, and it’s not like the Lakers don’t have the talent. You know, if this doesn’t work out after 10 games, who knows?

Need a stat? Just ask Harvey Pollack

-- Did you know that Monta Ellis led the league on finger roll baskets last season? Or that Marc Gasol led the league in winning opening taps? Joakim Noah was ninth, by the way. Or that the league’s most dominant team last season measured by margin of victory over the second best team’s margin of victory was the Bulls? I didn’t either. But you’ll find those tidbits among many, many, many others in the best annual NBA statistical book, Harvey Pollack’s Statistical Yearbook. I know my head hurts when I try to figure out some of those analytical stats that get guys who hate basketball jobs with NBA teams. But Pollack, the last remaining person to have worked in the NBA since its inception in 1946, annually puts together the most fun sports/statistical read anywhere. This year he’s added rebounds secured after free throws and field goals and field goals with assists and without. There’s plenty of great historical record stuff on the draft, the history of the coin flips, the history of rules changes, the names of every lefty and every seven footer by height, all the retired numbers and what the tattoos of every player mean. And a bunch of other things you can never find out calling the NBA offices. There’s plenty of good argument stuff, like the Bulls Bench Mob last season. The Bulls ranked 23rd in reserves’ scoring. Actually, the Bulls were only 18th in games lost to injury. And in total minutes played, Luol Deng wasn’t even in the top 10. So you think Carlos Boozer gets his shot blocked most among the Bulls’ players? No, it’s Joakim Noah, actually second most in the NBA. Measured plus/minus, LeBron James was best in the league and Deng fifth. And Bulls using amnesty? Yes, it was Eddie Robinson. It should be the ideal holiday book gift of choice for $20 to Harvey Pollack, Philadelphia 76ers, Wells Fargo Center, 3601 South Broad Street, Philadelphia, Pa. 19148.

Celtics also off to a slow start

-- The Bulls get a look Monday at the team that was supposed to challenge Miami in the East, the Boston Celtics. Not so fast. So far they haven’t been scaring much anyone but their staff and fans. I was talking to a scout who’s been following them this season and the report is: “Poor in transition, inconsistent bench, struggle badly when Garnett isn’t on the floor.” We have the “early” explanation for everyone, and here it is. They are awaiting the return from injury of projected shooting guard starter Avery Bradley, a top defender to go with Rajon Rondo. Plus, they have a lot of new players and Jeff Green has been slow, understandably despite a good preseason, to return from missing a full season. But so far it’s been a poor defense with the Celtics in the bottom third in the league in most of the significant defensive categories, like opponent field goal percentage, scoring and three point shooting. “Chaos. Nobody’s doing anything right,” Rondo told the Boston Herald. “We do a better job when Kevin is on the floor. The plus/minus with him, they showed it during the playoffs last year, isn’t carrying over when he goes out. Things change. Teams have gone on runs for some reason the last couple of games when he goes out. Kevin does a great job of talking, and it’s a case of follow the leader. Some guys just don’t talk. For us to win we need guys who come out of their comfort zone and do something they’re not comfortable with. But we’re not panicking. We have the right guys and the right mindset. It’s just a matter of doing it.” Given Garnett is 36, this is his 18th NBA season, he’s playing center, the Celtics without him are small, he is over 50,000 minutes in his career with playoffs (already past Jordan) and the Celtics are managing his minutes to get him through the season, it could be a long, delicate process for Boston. Better to jump on them right away. ... The Celtics brought back good guy Keyon Dooling in their front office. ... The Grizzlies delivered the Heat quite a beating Sunday, exposing one issue with Miami the Bulls understood well: Front court size. Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol battered Miami inside and on the boards. The game also presented that amazing promise of Rudy Gay, who should on some level be LeBron James. Gay is one of the most talented players in the league, but it doesn’t often come through as he pulls up for a lot of long jump shots at bad times. But an energized Gay matched James, and even left James waving at air at a late crossover, blowing by James and dunking in an exclamation point that sent Miami signaling for the starters to leave with five minutes left. With Miami trying to react to the inside, Wayne Ellington made seven threes. Meanwhile, the Grizzlies are off to a franchise best start.

Life after the Bulls Bench Mob

-- It’s been a little mixed for the Bulls bench graduates from last season, though they are adjusting reasonably well. Omer Asik, third in the league in rebounding at 12.8, is probably the most productive, followed by Ronnie Brewer, averaging 10.5 points and seven rebounds starting for the hot Knicks. C.J. Watson also has done nicely off the bench for the Nets averaging nine points on 56 percent shooting, 43 percent on threes. John Lucas III, though, isn’t even shooting 10 percent and Kyle Korver is just over 30 percent on threes and averaging about seven points. ... Well, Lawrence does know losing. Pistons coach Lawrence Frank, who was fired by the Nets in 2010 after starting 0-16, is working on 0-7 now. But it’s a mess of a roster now as the Pistons are basically starting again and trying to get cap space after off loaded Ben Gordon for a first round draft pick to Charlotte. Rodney Stuckey is shooting a brutal 24 percent as the Pistons are trying to work in rookie Andre Drummond with Greg Monroe, basically their only NBA quality starter on the roster with second year man Brandon Knight a possibility. But the Pistons do routinely get brutal opening schedules. They started 4-20 last season and finished .500 in their last 42 games.

NBA news and notes

-- Big year for former Bull Chet Walker, who was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame and will be a guest at the presidential inauguration. ... The Bulls are one of eight teams projected to pay the luxury tax this season. ... One big issue with the slow start of the Pacers is they are being led in three point attempts by their point guard, George Hill. Never a good indicator. Meanwhile, mechanical center Roy Hibbert is averaging 8.7 points and shooting 38 percent after the Pacers matched a $58 million offer paying him almost $15 million annually. How do you shoot 38 percent from that distance? ... The Knicks are attempting almost 30 threes per game, which suggests that can’t last as they’re shooting almost 44 percent as a team. The Rockets are second at 28 threes per game, though defenses have found James Harden. After that sizzling start, he’s shooting 32 percent the last four games and four of 23 on threes. The Rockets are worst in the league averaging 19 turnovers per game as Harden has also had to become a primary playmaker. But like Miami in last season’s finals, teams are trapping Harden and making his playmaking and scoring difficult ... It figures to even out as he’s a career 43 percent shooter, but O.J. Mayo has been excellent shooting 61 percent on threes for the Mavs while averaging 21.9 per game. If the Grizzlies had any inkling, I assume they’d have kept him. Also in Dallas after a long time of apparently failed expectations, Brandon Wright is averaging 11.4 points and shooting 67 percent. ... While Kyle Lowry was an excellent pickup by the Raptors, free agent Landry Fields is shooting 21 percent and John Lucas III is shooting eight percent in about 11 minutes per game ... Tyson Chandler with the exclamation dunk to put away Dallas Friday. The Knicks remain the only undefeated team being led by former championship Mavs like Chandler and Jason Kidd. Little is mentioned about it given the urban legend of Mark Cuban that “Just let him run your team and you’ll win.” Cuban does try. But he gambled and lost in free agency. He doesn’t have bottomless assets. Said Chandler to New York media: “I’m glad because I’m here. It’s a great situation. I definitely think we had an opportunity to win back-to-back. Unfortunately things were blown up. That’s the business side of it.” ... Amusing to hear Rasheed Wallace declare: “I accept my Brian Scalabrine role.”

-- Philadelphia media, basically supportive of the surprising 76ers last season, is growing restless with the team’s total blackout on information regarding Andrew Bynum’s health. There’s growing suspicion and speculation that Bynum doesn’t want to play and prefers to save himself for a return later in the season when he can be in better shape for the summer’s free agency. You’d think that would worry potential suitors if it were true. In the meantime, coach Doug Collins has cobbled together an offense behind point guard Jrue Holiday. On Monday, the Sixers announced Bynum is expected to be cleared to practice Dec. 10 and then will need one to four weeks of conditioning before a return. ... Big Brother is watching with Cleveland as owner Dan Gilbert tweeted his upset when the Cavs blew a 26-point lead and lost in Phoenix. ... One of the surprises of the young season for the competitive Bucks has been Larry Sanders, getting the bulk of the inside playing time over Samuel Dalembert and averaging 12.2 points and 9.2 rebounds on 66 percent shooting. Said coach Scott Skiles: “He's one of those guys that really about all he has to have is energy and focus in a game and he'll get something done. He'll block a shot, he'll rebound the ball and be around the basket. He'll get a dunk. Small guys you can't really say that about.” ... One of the whatever happened to guys is Devin Harris, having fallen behind Jeff Teague in Atlanta, averaging six points and shooting 37 percent as a free agent-to-be. ... Luol Deng’s former agent, Jason Levien, is in charge of basketball operations with new ownership in Memphis. Coach Lionel Hollins is in his final season, and while new management generally wants its own team, the Grizzlies continue to improve under Hollins even with losing O.J. Mayo ... Impressive return from a concussion for rookie Anthony Davis with 23 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks in a win over Charlotte with the Hornets coming off a franchise low 62 points. Charlotte then beat Dallas.

-- DeMarcus Cousins, who certainly would have been a brain surgeon had he not gone into basketball, got a two-game suspension Sunday for what the NBA termed a hostile confrontation with Spurs announcer Sean Elliott. Physically threatening critics is probably not the smartest thing to do. Elliott had criticized Cousins during the broadcast of the Spurs/Kings game for Cousins cursing out Tim Duncan. Cousins objected to Elliott’s comments. But what got me was Cousins’ explanation: "Trash-talking is part of the game. I have the utmost respect for Tim Duncan. So me trash-talking Tim Duncan is not being disrespectful.” Perhaps it is quaint, but since when is cursing out your opponent legitimate discourse during a game? Certainly it is for some, but this is getting ridiculous. Duncan, of course, had basically no response but badly outplaying Cousins, the response we always hope for. Meanwhile, Duncan at 36 continues a remarkable renaissance with a career high field goal and free throw shooting and fewest turnovers while averaging 18.9, his best in three years, and 2.4 blocks, his most in five years. ... One of the ancillary benefits for the Rockets in what is proving an excellent deal for James Harden is no one is talking anymore about Royce White, the rookie who fears traveling. He hasn’t played yet. ... You’ve got to credit Jamaal Tinsley, who was part of the posse that doomed the Pacers. He’s been professional and quiet in Utah (I know, what else is there to do?), and with Mo Williams out had 14 assists in a win over the Suns. With Earl Watson returning from injury and Randy Foye there, you can see the Jazz trying to put together a package involving Al Jefferson or Paul Millsap. ... Least surprising headline was in the Salt Lake Tribune: “Marvin Williams says he’s not in slump.” Trading for Williams was one of the head scratchers of the summer with Williams shooting 44 percent and 21 percent on threes. ... It’s been some amazing performances from the Nuggets Kenneth Faried, the undersized but physical Nuggets power forward from Morehead State, picked 22nd in 2011. He’s averaging 13.9 points and 10.7 rebounds and shooting 56 percent after a slow start. He’s averaging 17.3 points and 14.3 rebounds as the Nuggets won the last three. ... Wilson Chandler is finally due back from injury this week. ... Before he sat out Saturday against the Bulls, Brandon Roy was shooting 31 percent and hadn’t made a three in averaging about six points. Tough for Roy, though it’s hard to see how he can be relied upon given his physical condition.

-- Michael Beasley’s put up some big games for the Suns, but also several bad ones, which explains an all or nothing team. Beasley is shooting under 35 percent and 26 percent with four threes per game ... Tough break for Chase Budinger, who'll miss two months with knee surgery after that fall against the Bulls Saturday. Though some Timberwolves complained, Marco Belinelli, whom Budinger ran into, hardly is the dirtier, physical player. … Kirk Hinrich got off easier, but he could miss a few games this week recovering from his hip strain. … Jamal Crawford is off to his best start averaging 21.8 with 42 percent three point shooting and 53 percent overall. Crawford’s 77 points in the first three games was the most for a reserve in 12 years. ... Carl Landry continues to be huge for Golden State, averaging 16 points in just 26 minutes off the bench. But, uh oh, they sat down Andrew Bogut again and he already was skipping back to backs with his recovering ankle. ... Tough finish for Klay Thompson, an 86 percent shooter who bricked two free throws that could have beaten Denver Saturday as the Warriors lost in overtime. A distraught Thompson left the arena still wearing his uniform. Yes, guys do care. ... Jack Ramsay was once fired after seven games with the Pacers, and last season Paul Westphal made it seven games before Cousins had him run out. The NHL Blackhawks, of course, fired Denis Savard four games into the season, and he must be wondering what he could have done with a run like Mike Brown through game five. ... With Bernie Bickerstaff’s Lakers with another blowout win Sunday, the talk is Bickerstaff is angling for an extension through Thursday. It seems obvious with not very good Warriors and Kings teams coming in, the Lakers wanted to get Mike Brown out before he could get a few wins.

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