Lakers Ready for D'Antoni
Picture this: Steve Nash pushes the ball up the court with Kobe Bryant running to one wing and Metta World Peace to the other corner. Pau Gasol flashes to the high post, and Dwight Howard sprints down the floor as a trailer before setting a screen for Nash.
The defenders switch, and since Kobe's man doesn't want to leave him, Howard slips the pick with no help from the strong side and loads up to skyrocket towards the rim. Nash, who saw the alley-oop develop in his mind seconds earlier, lobs a pass that finds Howard mid leap for a two-handed flush.
Cut away to a shot of Mike D'Antoni on the sideline, clapping his hands in approval.
On the next possession, Kobe's defender cheats in to help on the Nash/Howard screen roll, and Nash hits Bryant with a no look pass for an open three (swish).
When Bryant's man stays tight the next time and the defenders rotate correctly to take away Howard's cutting lane, Nash points Gasol to the left block, the Spaniard sinks a left-handed hook over a mismatched defender scrambling over to check him.
The possibilities seem endless with Sunday night's news that D'Antoni had agreed to a multiyear contract to coach the Lakers.
"I think we’re all excited to have (Mike D’Antoni) here and learn his principles and offense and defense, and make it work for the best of us," said Gasol after Monday's practice. "It should be a fun system to play in. There are a lot of opportunities with an up tempo kind of game, unselfish kind of game, too. We all look forward to working with it and exploiting the options."
The news came as a surprise to many Lakers fans that were hoping for a third shot with Hall of Famer Phil Jackson, but according to team spokesman John Black, owner Dr. Jerry Bus, VP Jim Buss and GM Mitch Kupchak were unanimous that D'Antoni was "the best coach for the team at this time."
Nash — who won two MVP awards while averaging 17.5 points and 11.2 assist on 51.3 percent field goals, 45.1 percent threes and 90.4 percent free throws under D'Antoni — couldn't be happier, naturally. D'Antoni's career winning percentage with Nash running his show is .733 (without him, it's .385).
"Obviously I think everyone knows how much I love Mike," the Canadian told reporters before Sunday's game. "If [D'Antoni] were to coach, it would be seamless and terrific for me and I think the team as well."
Suns head coach Alvin Gentry, an assistant on that D'Antoni staff, certainly liked the move.
"I know some people have doubts about the way it fits in," he told the Arizona Republic's Paul Coro. "But it's going to be great for them."
When D'Antoni interviewed with L.A.'s brass over the phone, he had to convince them that he could tweak his famed "7 seconds or less" system to fit L.A.'s roster. Apparently, that worked out OK.
“After speaking with several excellent and well-respected coaching candidates, Dr. Buss, Jim and I all agreed that Mike was the right person at this time to lead the Lakers forward,” said Kupchak. “Knowing his style of play and given the current make-up of our roster, we feel Mike is a great fit, are excited to have him as our next head coach and hope he will help our team reach its full potential.”
Bryant, who may have worn the No. 8 jersey to start his career because that was childhood idol D'Antoni's number in the Italian League Bryant's father played in*, told reporters that he "loved" D'Antoni after Friday night's win against Golden State. Bryant, obviously an ardent Phil loyalist, added that he fully trusted L.A.'s front office because they "always seem to make the right decisions." Kobe wasn't available after practice to address the topic … because he was using his helicopter to fly teammate Steve Blake to Orange County. Blake needed to get in to see the team's preferred ultra sound doctor after aggravating a strained abdomen in the first quarter against Sacramento.
*Others say No. 8 was the combined total of his ABCD camp numbers.
In the meantime, Howard offered his take on his new coach.
"We’re excited for (Mike) D’Antoni," said the 3-time Defensive Player of the Year. "It’s a fast-paced offense and everything he’s done with the teams he’s had in terms of how they push the ball and how they play in the open court, I think it’ll be good for Steve (Nash) and for all of us."
Speaking of Howard … how about the defense?
A common misconception is that D'Antoni's squads gave up a lot of points and thus were terrible on D, but adjusting to their up tempo system, Phoenix had a defensive rating of 106.4* in 2006-07 (13th in the NBA) and 105.8 in 2005-06 (16th). Granted, they weren't elite defensive groups by any means, but all told, D'Antoni's teams were mostly in the middle of the pack, and that was with Amar'e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw in the defensive paint instead of the league's best defensive player in Howard.
*According to BasketballReference.com.
D'Antoni had plenty of shooters on his Suns teams with whom to surround Nash, particularly by using stretch four men to spread the floor as Stoudemire – more of a prototypical power forward – played the 5. Ditto at his last gig in New York, with gunners like Steve Novak and J.R. Smith surrounding Jeremy Lin during the "Linsanity" stint that lit New York on fire.
L.A. isn't know for its shooting, but it could be better than might appear particularly in the system D'Antoni teaches. Bryant is a knock down shooter with any kind of space, space he typically hasn't had in the past few seasons; Nash is Nash; Jodie Meeks led the NBA in shooting percentage out of spot up looks in pick and roll sets last season (per Sports Illustrated and Syngery Sports); Metta World Peace is solid from the corners when balanced; Steve Blake has improved his spot up game; and Antawn Jamison is a capable of filling the stretch four slot.
"(D'Antoni's) philosophy of playing free basketball and utilizing our talents is what suits us best right now," summarized Jamison, noting his ability to spread the floor from the 4 slot. "A lot of pick and rolls have benefitted me (in the past). It was difficult going up against (D'Antoni's Suns), and now you have (Nash to work with) Dwight and Pau for pick and rolls, making it even more difficult."
Needless to say, there will be an adjustment period when D'Antoni arrives in Los Angeles, particularly since Nash remains sidelined as he recovers from a non-displaced fibula fracture. But the beauty of D'Antoni's system comes with its simplicity, something the Lakers can surely use as they aim to maximize the talent on the floor towards a "win now" mandate.
D'Antoni is expected to arrive at LAX on Wednesday or Thursday. Soon enough, we'll get to see for ourselves if the thought of alley-oops and wide open shots off screen/roll and early transition action will look as pretty as they might appear in our minds.