With one game remaining before 2013 ends, the Lakers are currently riding a five-game losing streak, the two most recent losses coming against the Jazz and Sixers, who both became nine-win teams as a result. The Lakers have also lost seven of their last ten games, perhaps a sign this once plucky squad is crashing down to Earth. And the Lakers are nothing if not a franchise with a demanding fan base, meaning such developments aren’t received like water on a duck’s back. Particularly when the Lakers are coached by Mike D’Antoni, who’s been exceptionally unpopular since the moment
he had the nerve not to be Phil Jackson he was hired. Thus, after Sunday’s loss to Philly, our Twitter timeline was flooded with cries to fire “Pringles” ASAP.
Such a reaction is completely predictable.
It would also be a terrible idea.
Whenever possible, teams look to avoid firing coaches midseason. It creates the appearance of instability, of a franchise spinning out of control. When that midseason firing comes directly on the heels of another midseason firing, and paired with the death of quite possibly the greatest owner in professional sports history, it’s an even worse look. This scenario should be avoided unless a high-end roster is being blatantly mismanaged or a bubbling sense of urgency leaves the front office with no outs.
For the time being, it’s exceptionally difficult to argue the Lakers have reached this point on either count.
To begin, what exactly has D’Antoni done to merit being fired right now? Really, truly, what? With all hands on deck, the Lakers are a fringe playoff team in a loaded Western Conference, and that’s being optimistic. Beyond Kobe Bryant and (on his best days) Pau Gasol, the roster at FULL STRENGTH is composed entirely of players best suited as players off the bench. Some might only play 10-15 minutes a night on a good team. Others might not even make a good team. On the Lakers, they’re being asked to start or make major contributions as reserves. Even more so now, since half the roster apparently shares the same disease as Samuel L. Jackson’s character in “Unbreakable.”
Kobe is coming off a major, brutal injury at age 35, and played a grand total of six games before landing on the shelf again.
Steve Nash hasn’t even been on the court enough to provide tangible evidence of being the shell of himself most envision.
Pau’s health, performance — and frankly, his attitude — have been erratic.
Steve Blake, heretofore the season’s best player, is out. (And no disrespect to Blake and what had been a legitimately terrific showing before the elbow injury, but if he’s the top Laker, that doesn’t bode well for success.)
Jordan Farmar is currently the only point guard with any NBA experience, and he’s nursing a hamstring injury. Xavier Henry, the resident quasi-point guard, is much closer to a small forward, or even a small power forward, than someone who should be quarterbacking an offense. Oh, and he’s out at least 7-10 days with a knee injury. Thus, Kendall Marshall (Phoenix’s abandoned 2013 lottery pick) and Nick Young (because why not?) will be charged with running chunks of the offense, a Band Aid solution I don’t anticipate offsetting the team’s lack of natural playmakers.
Which means the slew of turnovers will likely continue… which means the Lakers will continue to get killed in transition… which doesn’t necessarily even matter, because the halfcourt defense is also problematic with no accomplished perimeter defenders nor reliable rim protection. Yes, guys like Wes Johnson, Jordan Hill and Robert Sacre possess defensive utility, but it’s limited. God knows Jodie Meeks will never give up on a play. Hell, even Swaggy P is busting his ass on D. But as a collective, this team’s defensive effort clearly outshines its inherent defensive prowess.
Put bluntly, there’s absolutely no coach on the planet who could turn this crew as currently constructed into a consistent winner. Not Phil Jackson. Not Greg Popovich. Not Gene Hackman. Nobody. Yes, it’s possible someone else could squeeze out a few extra victories, but insofar as a substantially improved product goes, that’s a pipe dream. And anybody with a rational view of the situation knows this to be true. It’s far easier to argue this team has overachieved than failed to meet expectations. Thus, firing D’Antoni doesn’t really “accomplish” anything, because the results won’t likely change unless the new coach happens to double as a faith healer.
As I Tweeted Sunday night, the most appropriate reason to fire D’Antoni under these circumstances would be if guys stop playing hard, which couldn’t be further from the case. Save Gasol, nobody has come even remotely close to dogging it. Even an openly disgruntled Chris Kaman gives a quality effort. With this team, five guys not going balls to the walls is a pretty rare sight. Many will contend that’s because most players are either established veterans in contract years or unproven youngsters on one-year deals. Maybe that’s true, but it’s also not fair to penalize D’Antoni for this, especially considering there’s been no shortage of athletes who pissed away a theoretical last chance or huge opportunity. Plus, if the collectively overriding motivation was the next contract, you’d see more transparent stat-padding attempts than typically selfless play.
All things considered, this team’s attitude is pretty positive, and that should at least partially reflect on the coach.
It’s also worth considering the message being sent to prospective hires by firing D’Antoni for what is essentially the failure to transform shit into sugar. My guess is most coaches, whether in or out of the league, think the guy’s done a pretty good job playing the cards he’s been dealt. Showing D’Antoni the door would probably strike the majority of his peers as a raw deal, rather than the Lakers upholding high standards, and that could dampen enthusiasm to become his successor. Were D’Antoni axed now, I imagine any potential candidate will question how secure his job will ever truly grow.
Remember, we’re less than a year removed from a summer where George Karl was fired as the reigning Coach of the Year. Lionel Hollins lost his job after guiding the Grizzlies to the Western Conference Finals. And Vinny Del Negro became unemployed upon crafting the most successful season in Clippers franchise history. There are extenuating circumstances in every case, but the fact remains coaches have talked openly about seeing themselves as increasingly expendable in the eyes of management. Across the league, the gig has become a turnstile of late. As somebody who already exacerbated that narrative by firing Mike Brown five games into last season (a decision I backed, for what it’s worth), and is fighting an enigmatic persona, Jim Buss would be wise not to further feed that beast. In my opinion, he stands to gain far more by patiently backing a coach paddling turbulent waters than changing horses midstream yet again for seemingly little reason other than to make a “statement” of sorts.
I’m pretty confident that statement would paint Buss as the Bizarro-Johnny Rotten, a man who knows what he wants but doesn’t know how to get it.
To be clear, D’Antoni has made mistakes since arriving in L.A. He unnecessarily got off on a bad foot with Pau, and it’s unlikely that relationship can be salvaged. He was initially stubborn about jamming square pegs into round holes when it came to last season’s roster and his system. (He was also far more flexible as the season progressed than typically credited.) He can display Nathan Thurm-esque paranoia if he feels media types are questioning his decisions. For a guy who’s spent a lot of his life in front of a microphone, he’s remarkably prone to “foot in mouth” syndrome. He is “a” reason (although hardly the only one) that Dwight Howard bailed for Houston.
And while I do think D’Antoni is a good, offensively innovative coach, he’s far from bulletproof, which leaves him vulnerable to change.
Should the Lakers decide this offseason to go in a different direction, fine. That ultimately may not be fair to D’Antoni, given the chaos often beyond his control throughout his tenure, but “fair” ain’t got nothing to do with it. I’ve lost jobs through zero fault of my own, and I’m certain many people reading this column are in the same boat. That’s just life, particularly as a coach in professional sports. The Lakers don’t need to justify their decision to anybody.
However, the decision still needs to be handled smartly. And for the time being, firing D’Antoni midseason would be anything but smart business.