D'Antoni Looks Ahead to 2013-14
Just a day away from the start of training camp, we sat down with Lakers head coach Mike D'Antoni to get some advance notice on how he's approaching the 2013-14 campaign. D'Antoni detailed his (improved) point guard situation, shared his extended thoughts on Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash, offered his thoughts on L.A.'s new acquisitions and more.
Below is a transcription of the conversation:
MT: A big issue last season was the health of your point guards, which seemed to plague your ability to install a system for much of the season. Were the injuries the whole story?
D'Antoni: When Steve Blake came back last year, we were pretty good. We were 28-12 to finish the season*. But we could never get both of our point guards healthy all year, as either one or both were out, including in the playoffs. That really hurt us.
MT: Well, both Steves are healthy coming into this season and have been at the facility scrimmaging all month. Meanwhile, Jordan Farmar is back on the scene, a guy who shot 44 percent from three for the Nets in his most recent NBA stint, and can both get to and finish at the basket. How do you anticipate the minutes going around with those three, and depending on how and when Kobe Bryant returns?
D'Antoni: Obviously, the Kobe thing will dictate a lot of stuff, but the beauty about those three guys is they all shoot the ball extremely well*, they all can make plays and they can all guard bigger guys, especially Blake. They can play with each other or instead of each other, where we can limit minutes a little bit and not have to play one guy so long. The combination of what we can do there is (varied), so to have one more point guard like Farmar who is really good is going to help things a lot.
*Nash's 43.8 percent from three last season was fifth in the NBA, while Blake's 42.1 percent was 13th.
MT: How would you describe your first year with Bryant, and how you're thinking about the coming season as he aims to return from Achilles surgery?
D'Antoni: Everybody knows the accolades, how tough he is, how determined and all that. A lot of it for this season is going to depend upon when and how he comes back. But he'll get back to where he was, and he had his best statistical year ever last year. I don't see why at some point -- I don't know when that will be -- he'll get back to that level and be that way for the next two or three years.
MT: There's no question that Kobe was terrific last season, proven by another selection to the All-NBA First Team. He was also third in the league in usage rate; is it a challenge to build a cohesive system without him to start camp and run until he gets back when he plays such a huge role?
D'Antoni: Oh yeah, he has a big impact on everything you do. It's another piece to fit in, and it's not ideal, because -- like last year -- you have a new piece coming in to deal with. But with Kobe, you can drop him in on any basketball team, on any playground around the world, and he's going to figure out how to fit in and get his. You don't have to worry about that one.
MT: You want him on your side of a fight …
D'Antoni: Oh yeah. You know what you're getting, and that’s a pit bull attacking the game. That's what you want. You wouldn't want to go into battle with anybody other than him.
MT: In Memphis last season, you made the comment that you took Gasol out because you "Wanted to win the game." Now, it seemed that you were directing that more at the reporter, and that you took Gasol out because he wasn't healthy, wasn't moving well at all. What's the real story?
D'Antoni: Well, I kind of screwed that up. I wasn't thinking about Pau, I was thinking about who asked me the question, so it's more being a smart aleck on my part. I shouldn't have said it that way, because I didn't really mean it that way. Without a doubt, I (took Gasol out because) he wasn't healthy. I shouldn't have been flippant where I was. But the premise of it is silly, when someone asks you why wouldn't you play a guy. Obviously, you're trying to win the game. And at that point, whether the guy is hurt or not, you're trying to do things you think will help the team.
But let me say this about Pau Gasol: to me, he's the best center in the NBA. I can say that now, and whether I'm totally 100 percent right, people can argue with me. They may rank him second, or third, or eighth. I don't know, but his pedigree is he wins at everything he does. He has two championships (and international titles). I don't think there's even an argument about who the most skilled big man is, when you put it all together. There are some that look at a Picasso or a Monet, and like one or the other, and that’s why they have talk shows. But it's silly to think anything different than that he's a great, great player.
MT: Even with Dwight Howard on the block last season, Gasol averaged 17.5 points, 12.4 rebounds, 6.6 assists and 1.3 blocks on 51.3 percent shooting in April once he began to get healthier and more involved. But it's been a unique set of circumstances the last few seasons when the league's most skilled big has had to shift his game more away from the rim due to the presence of Andrew Bynum and Howard, who can only play on the block.
D'Antoni: Without a doubt, he's had to adjust his game. He's been playing out of position, and people forget that when the Lakers were winning championship, it was Pau at the five and Lamar Odom at the four, and that's where you put fear in opponent's hearts. That's where we'll try to get this year with Pau at the five, which is his natural position, even though he can play other positions. That's where he's best. He probably felt slighted last year, but everybody knew the road the Lakers were taking, and we tried to go down that road. He did what he could, sacrificed his game, and I felt badly about the situation. But obviously, I don't even have a doubt that he's a great player. He can do everything. It doesn't matter where you put him. We'll just try to find the right kind of combination of people around him. His whole thing is if he can be injury free, and pain free, which he wasn't last year. He played through a lot of pain. He wasn't moving well until later in the season, and he had two triple-doubles in the final few games at that point. He's only 33 years old, and he hasn't lost anything. I'm excited about what he can do and where we can use him.
MT: If there's a question about the bigs, it's if they can protect the rim. Gasol was able to do it well during the 2009 and 2010 championship runs, but had some help from Bynum in particular over the course of 82 games. How do you protect the rim, especially late in games, this season?
D'Antoni: Without a doubt, that's one of the factors in winning games. That's going to be our challenge this year. We're going to be better offensively, be quicker and all that, but can we protect the paint as well as we did in certain games at certain times? We weren't consistent at it last year because of the chemistry problems and worries on offense carrying over to defense saps your energy and collective team spirit, except at times. But we couldn't sustain it. And we will need to play team defense this year to protect the paint; the rest of the stuff, we're going to do fine.
MT: Last year was almost an exception for you in terms of what you were able to run, given the personnel, lack of training camp and other factors; to what extent can you get back to the way you want to play as a coach this season?
D'Antoni: I think we will definitely see more, but we'll have to see how much. Every team will find its own pace, so we'll see how that goes. But obviously, we've added a lot of athletic and younger guys on the team, so the pace is going to increase. We'll try to push tempo a little bit more, for sure. We hope that if we can play the right way in a sense of how the ball moves, how we run, how we space the floor, that guys like Wesley Johnson, Nick Young, Farmar, Xavier Henry and Elias Harris can maximize their productivity. You may have one guy explode on the scene, because we have some talented guys still trying to find their footing in the NBA. Hopefully, we can facilitate that. Playing them with guards like Blake and Nash is going to help with that, as is playing with Pau Gasol, who is an extremely gifted passer. Everyone should flourish from the ball moving and playing a certain type of basketball.
MT: Speaking of Nash – he really never got healthy last season. When he broke his leg, he wasn't able to stay on top of back issues that lingered throughout the season even after he returned …
D'Antoni: Without a doubt, it was a messed up year for him. There were also a lot of other factors, like coming to a new team and wanting to succeed when not physically feeling well, trying to worry about his game, his body but yet having other problems on the floor that he had to deal with. There was not one thing he could put his hat on like, 'I've done this for the last 15 years and don't have to worry about it,' because everything was new. The way he felt, his teammates, the system, the city, living in a different place, all kinds of stuff he had to deal with. And when you're not well physically, it's hard to get into a groove. I don't think he ever found his footing last year.
MT: Being 39, there will be questions about his physical readiness all season. How has Nash looked to you in workouts this summer in comparison to how he was last season?
D'Antoni: I'd be crazy to say he isn't pushing the boundaries, but I wouldn't bet against him. I've seen it before. I'm very confident it's not a problem, but I know why there would be questions about it. Just looking at how he moves, how he trains … most of the time what goes first is the will to play at a high level, the will to train, and he hasn't lost that. I've been watching, and his body hasn't slowed down much at all. I'm sure there will be days that he doesn't bounce back quite as quickly — maybe back to backs will be problematic — and we'll look at that as we go forward. But I just wouldn't bet against him, just like I wouldn't bet against Kobe coming back from an injury, because they have the same type of mental approach.
MT: Does he look like the Steve Nash of old in these scrimmages?
D'Antoni: Oh yeah. He's much more comfortable with his body, and in great shape. He's looked great out here, he's played well.
MT: Many teams have adapted to a type of similar you've gotten credit for developing in Phoenix. How important is a differentiating system versus just having better players?
D'Antoni: There have been changes since the rules were adjusted, with coaches developing along the way. You'll see a lot more small ball now, a lot more four's playing (away from the rim). You'll see more threes, more teams trying to spread everyone out. It does come down to the best five playing together, not necessarily just the five most talented players. Hopefully we can go to Pau or Kobe in the post when it's needed, but otherwise spread the ball around the floor. Ultimately, we're trying to get layups, foul shots and threes, statistically the best types of shots. That's league-wide now, and you can break it down further from that template. Whatever people want to run specifically within that, that's fine. Two big guys, two little guys, whatever. You have to try and do that while keeping the best defensive team on the floor as you can, and keeping a balance. The teams that win the title are your collectively best offensive and defensive teams.
MT: To apply that to guys like Jordan Hill, Chris Kaman or even a Shawne Williams, all of whom play very differently, how do you figure that out to work best around Gasol, for example?
D'Antoni: We'll see who plays the best together, how it's affected by Steve Nash, and so on. We have a whole month of camp to look at it, and we'll get data from the preseason games to go deeper. You just try to figure out what the best line up that's most effective most of the time, and that's what you go with.
MT: Williams shot 40 percent from three for you at the four slot in New York in 2010-11. He's been out of the league for a bit, but how much can he potentially change what you do if you want to go small?
D'Antoni: First of all, he was the 17th overall pick in 2006, and is 6-9 with big hands and long arms. He is not a little guy at all, and he can guard in the low post in addition to shooting threes. He's strong and big. Now, he hasn't played for a while, but that's a possibility. Now we also have Elias Harris, who's 6-9 and very athletic, who can give us a different dimension. We want to see if Ryan Kelly can guard the low post, because we know he can shoot at 6-11. We have a lot of guys that we can make different combinations with. We have a lot of guys competing for spots, and for time. We'll take the data, and coaches' gut instincts, and try to figure out the best group.
MT: Nick Young's a terrific 1-on-1 scorer, but moving the ball hasn't always been a strength, as witnessed by his 1.0 career assists average. How do you get a player like that to fit into a system where you don't want the ball to stick?
D'Antoni: He can pass the ball … you just talk to him; he's a good kid. He does what he does really well, so you want to be careful about trying to change everything. You just want to get him in with the group, and he can adjust.
MT: Last season, you inherited Mike Brown's coaching staff, bringing only your brother Dan into the group. This season, you've hired Kurt Rambis, Johnny Davis and player personnel coaches Larry Lewis and Mark Madsen, and they've been with you for most of the summer. What difference can that make?
D'Antoni: I don't have any complaints about the other staff, that was good, they just didn't know me and we were trying to learn on the fly. The thing that this helps is having all August and September to know each other, and figure out how we want to play and what we want to do. From that aspect, we're going to hit the ground running, where last year the staff didn't know how I wanted to play when I came in. It took us a month to get comfortable, but this year we get to start from the beginning.