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Future of the Lakers in D'Antoni's hands

By all accounts among insiders in L.A., it was owner Jerry Buss who overturned the recommendations of many within his family and staff to go with Mike D’Antoni over Phil Jackson. Will that also be the legacy he leaves? And how successful will it be? The future of the Lakers’ franchise appears at stake.
"While D’Antoni is an excellent coach who can succeed with any group, he disdains post play," writes Smith. "He’s talked at many coaching clinics about how he doesn’t believe in post play at all and prefers the court spaced for his big men to pick and roll or pick and pop."
(Stephen Dunn/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

Lakers owner Jerry Buss has molded the model franchise of this era with the Los Angeles Lakers, the rival to the New York Yankees of the one team in American team sports that prospers and excels through decades.

Buss was thus deservedly enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. But will Buss’ legacy also include the decline of the great franchise?

The latest era begins this week with Mike D’Antoni’s first game as head coach. But is that something of a beginning to an end because it isn’t Phil Jackson? Which is also not to say Jackson is the difference between winning or losing for the Lakers. Or, really, for any team.

We likely won’t know for sure until next summer. The future of the Lakers now, as pretty much everyone acknowledges, is the team’s ability to retain Dwight Howard, a potential free agent this summer. Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol to an extent and certainly Steve Nash are nearing the end of their careers. Howard is approaching his prime and is a player you can build around. Jackson even said a few years ago during the Lakers second title run with him if he had to pick one player to start a franchise it would be Howard.

That’s because even with the success Jackson has had with Michael Jordan and Bryant, Jackson is a top coach for big men and post play. While D’Antoni is an excellent coach who can succeed with any group, he disdains post play. He’s talked at many coaching clinics about how he doesn’t believe in post play at all and prefers the court spaced for his big men to pick and roll or pick and pop. Howard has played pick and roll in Orlando. But he’s not the classic such player as who’d be defending him on his shot? Teams often just sag in the lane against him, making it more difficult, an issue which will be intriguing for D’Antoni.

It’s perhaps one reason Howard, who had been the joking and buoyant one among the Lakers during this dysfunctional coaching process since the firing of Mike Brown after five games, was the most subdued among the players during media interviews after D’Antoni’s hiring was made official.

It’s not like Howard doesn’t like D’Antoni. But in Jackson he saw a coach who believed in him as a star option. It’s one reason he was initially hesitant to go to the Lakers and talked about Brooklyn. It was not only having the shadow of Shaquille O’Neal over him, but the various styles of play.

So how did Jackson’s name even get in the discussions after Los Angeles media reported last week Jackson had met with GM Mitch Kupchak recently and said he wasn’t interested in coaching again? Sources close to Howard said it was Howard’s advisors who urged the Lakers to contact Jackson when they decided to fire Brown.

The Lakers, based on that conversation with Kupchak, believed Jackson was done. But Jackson did have a change of heart given it was players he won with, Kobe and Pau, and players he admired in Steve Nash and Howard. And it’s not like he had much else going.

It’s also why, sources say, Bryant said D’Antoni was his first choice. Even Bryant didn’t believe or know Jackson would relent and coach again.

But when Jackson obviously expressed interest, Howard was thrilled. He’d have the greatest coach ever who happened to be a big fan and believer. Howard felt it would also be a chance to finally expand his game with a coach who treasured big men.

Thus Howard’s muted reaction.

Sure, if the Lakers win a title, you figure Howard stays as the adulation and credit will grow. But the Lakers seem to be making a huge gamble. Similarly, many are watching the Clippers. They appear to be a contender as well, though Chris Paul can be a free agent after the season. It’s been noted he and Howard are friends and could be planning one of those star reunions as well. All indications are Paul likes his Clippers situation. But we know things change quickly in the NBA.

There’s Atlanta sitting there with loads of cap room and Al Horford. That would be quite the Big Three. If Dallas can move Shawn Marion, they could be in position for a Big Three with Dirk Nowitzki. You have to figure both franchises are watching carefully.

By all accounts among insiders in L.A., it was owner Jerry Buss who overturned the recommendations of many within his family and staff to go with D’Antoni over Jackson. Will that also be the legacy he leaves? And how successful will it be? The future of the Lakers’ franchise appears at stake.

‘From the Sports World to the Third World: A Journey to Cambodia’

-- If you want to see a truly remarkable story, you have to watch Comcast SportsNet Chicago on these dates:

Thanksgiving 11/22 – 7:00 – 8:00 Parts 1 & 2
Thursday, 11/29 – 12:30 Part 1 & 2
Christmas Eve – 10:30 p.m. Part 1
Christmas Day – 10:30 p.m. Part 2

It’s the wonderful story of the rescue of children who literally had to work garbage dumps in Cambodia for food and necessities for their family. Bulls photographer Bill Smith, his wife Lauren, and Bulls executive Joe O’Neil effectively built a school to not only educate scores of these children but give them a life they never would have had or even known. It makes you proud to know the great work being done by so many Americans, and this is one fabulous example. It’s a story worth watching, repeating, being thankful for that you are not in such circumstances and grateful we have people like this who are willing to help the people of the world.

NBA news and notes

-- The Pacers have been a trendy pick, though not so much anymore with a gruesome offense that would make Mike Fratello look like Paul Westhead. Indiana lost to the Raptors last week even with Toronto scoring five fourth quarter points and shooting one of 15 in the fourth. Indiana is playing at a brutally dull pace, so slow, in fact, that Roy Hibbert almost looks athletic. ... The Knicks have been impressive with their spread offense and Carmelo Anthony at power forward. Though they have to continue making threes. So with winning everyone is a good guy, and J.R. Smith did a bunch of interviews last week that depicted him as a new man and giving up the New York nightlife that hampered him last week. Then he cheapshotted Jerryd Bayless in the neck, got a technical for going after Tony Allen and challenged “fake tough guys” on Twitter. We think he was also after Zach Randolph. So how bad was that Denver nightlife? But while we can joke about Smith, it’s no joke how much difference Jason Kidd makes. He’s shooting an amazing 52 percent on threes (and when he came into the NBA no one guarded him). But more so he’s the sort of leader the Knicks haven’t had and is obviously making Anthony play basketball. Kidd could be the real difference with that team. ... Everyone was making light of the ESPN story of Andrew Bynum doing more damage to his knee bowling. But don’t you see a lot of fat guys bowling? The larger point is obvious. If he can exacerbate his problems that way, what chance does he stand of playing in the NBA? Seemingly little now. The 76ers took a risk. They were having issues with Andre Iguodala and wanted to move his contract. Bynum had one year left. It was worth a shot. It doesn’t appear it’s going to work. And though many say Bynum will get his free agent money next summer, it’s hard to see how given his history of knee issues in which last season was his only healthy one.

-- So called small ball has been all the rage with Miami’s title, though having LeBron James helps. The Celtics are trying it and it’s been a disaster and though veteran teams gel later, Boston is hardly a lock for their supposed top four spot in the East. They get dominated on the boards every game and are last in the league in rebounding, offensive rebounding and among the bottom third in team defense. "It’s all about our effort, our grit, how bad we want the ball when it goes up. We have to do a better job," said Paul Pierce as they lost to the Pistons by 20. The Pistons! ... One of the surprises of the early season has been the high flying Bucks. The Bucks? Yes, the grind it out guys are among the leaders in scoring, shooting, assists and steals with coach Scott Skiles emphasizing a guard oriented game. Though most doubted Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis could coexist, they’ve been effective and that’s even with Ersan Ilyasova off to a poor start. Even Jennings, the worldwide leader in bad shots, has been solid. You want to have fun: Watch the Bucks. Haven’t heard that since Nellie’s fish tie. ... They’re not quite a threat yet, but the Bobcats have been competitive thanks to their mini backcourt with Kemba Walker and Ramon Sessions. Credit Walker, the league’s worst shooting guard last season who you now have to guard and averaging 18.8. The Bobcats, meanwhile, traded for Hakim Warrick and Tyrus Thomas obviously got the message as he left the next game with a calf strain, hobbling in a walking boot.

-- The Grizzlies have been perhaps the most impressive team of the young season, and front court bigs Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol get lots of credit. They always have, and it’s quietly been an issue with Rudy Gay. Gay has long been one of the more mystifying players in the league, just about as talented as LeBron James, though misdirected as he never could fit and seemed actually at odds with teammates getting credit. Though not shooting well, Gay feels he has been a changed teammate as he told the Memphis Commercial Appeal: "There were times when a lot of things I did were spiteful. Maybe I would try to shoot my way out of a slump. I always felt like I could out jump people, outshoot someone. One thing I'm learning is to be tactical and know when it's time to be that person. I feel like I've changed a lot of people's perspective of me. I'm doing just enough. I'm doing things within the confines of the team. I really just came into the season thinking how am I going to help the team?" If that Gay remains, the Grizzlies may just be for real. ... That didn’t take long. The Jazz benched blasé Marvin Williams to play Paul Millsap at small forward. ... Taj Gibson is hardly the only one of the newly compensated players struggling to justify their big raises. Milwaukee’s Ilyasova said he barely sleeps at night thinking about his poor play and the trust the team had in him, and Ty Lawson in Denver is shooting career lows and 24 percent on threes. ... Anthony Davis and Damian Lillard have quickly made it a two-man rookie of the year race busting out well ahead of all the other top picks. Though searching for a point guard, the Kings passed on Lillard for Thomas Robinson, who has had trouble finding a role. Lillard hit the Kings for 22 and nine last week in an easy Portland win. ... One of the best post season individual races is going to be Sixth Man with Jamal Crawford, Kevin Martin, J.R. Smith, Ray Allen and Carl Landry all playing well enough to win. And there are at least 10 other players averaging double figures off the bench, including Ramon Sessions, Mike Dunleavy, Marcus Thornton, Shannon Brown and Vince Carter. ... James Johnson put on glasses for the first time this season and then went out and shot one of seven. The Kings were booed off the floor at home after a blowout loss to Atlanta and proceeded to have a team meeting in which it was agreed there was too much selfish play and complaining. And on a team with DeMarcus Cousins. Go figure.

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