Maybe not, notes Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report.
If you haven’t already smashed your screen with the nearest rock, kudos. I suspect there are Lakers faithful out there in the market for new devices. And no question, the embattled Mike D’Antoni is at the center of city’s hurricane of discontent. The Lakers Wednesday clinched their first 50-loss season in nearly 40 years. They likely will become the franchise’s worst incarnation since moving from Minneapolis. There is talk Kobe Bryant, advocate of the accelerated rebuild, wants a new coach next season. Fans egg cars at random around Los Angeles, hoping they’ll one day hit his. Congress cringes at D’Antoni’s unpopularity.
But I’ve said it a few times, and I’ll say it again: There are a lot of legitimate reasons to delay a coaching change one more year. For example…
- There’s a good chance the Lakers don’t make big waves in free agency this summer. Should that be the case, likely they’ll return a roster similar to this year’s mosh pit of young players and short contracts. Equally strong is the likelihood that group won’t be relevant in the 2015 playoff race, and that the roster will be reconstructed again next summer. All told, it makes the job less appealing. Future Coach won’t know what things will look like in 2015-16. I’ve watched enough HGTV to know even the nicest houses sell better when fixed up and staged properly. The Lakers would be putting themselves on the market while needing a new roof, foundation repairs, and new hardwood floors.
- Moreover, it would be harder to match Future Coach to Future Franchise Player. The most important superstar the Lakers have to appease with their next coach isn’t Bryant, it’s some guy currently playing on another roster. Let’s say the Lakers name Stan Van Gundy or Lionel Hollins as D’Antoni’s replacement in the offseason. What if Kevin’s Love or Durant don’t like those guys? Talent drives everything in the NBA. Doing anything that might make acquiring it more difficult is a mistake. Match the coach to the next star/supporting cast, not the other way around.
- If the Lakers are relatively short on high end talent next year, D’Antoni is actually a pretty good match, given his track record of squeezing decent performances out of more marginal players.
It’s not about believing D’Antoni is a brilliant coach. He unquestionably has some significant flaws. His communication skills are poor, and he’s not political enough to thrive in this market. There are times when D’Antoni seems constitutionally incapable of lying when asked a question, even if it’s the right thing to do. Other times, he tries and can’t pull it off. That his flexibility is sometimes ignored doesn’t mean he’s not prone to dogmatic decision making. Et cetera, et cetera. Nor is it about giving D’Antoni a fair shake. I don’t care if he’s treated fairly*. Mike Brown wasn’t treated “fairly” either, but the Lakers should have fired him faster than they did. The team’s obligation is to make sound strategic decisions. If that means canning a guy who may not have had a real chance to succeed, so be it. Except as things lay out today, they’d likely be canning D’Antoni for the wrong reasons.
I’ve heard it said by a few people the Lakers can’t go through another season like this one. Fans are too accustomed to success, won’t tolerate it, and will stop showing up. Kobe won’t put up with it. The heat will be too hot.
Fans will be pissed off if D’Antoni returns, and Staples might have some empty seats next year (though fewer assuming Kobe plays, which is why they gave him $48.5 million). Bryant will indeed be chippy, and likely they’ll have to install a panic room in Jim Buss’ office. But these are p.r., not basketball, considerations. (Except the panic room, which might require permitting from the city.) It’s about looking like they’re doing something! That dammit, someone must be held accountable!
But accountable for what? Going into the season, the generally accepted best case scenario said that if everything went well the Lakers might – might – contend for a playoff spot. And fair to say everything has not gone well. No reasonably sane observer of basketball could possibly claim this team should be significantly better than their 25-50 record. They could lose differently, but under any coach, these guys would lose. (It’s actually easier to argue that the Lakers have slightly overachieved.) Walking D’Antoni to the top of the volcano and pushing him in feels good as ritual sacrifice, but unless it advances the rebuilding plan would constitute a cosmetic fix, not anything substantial.
What the fans really ought to demand from ownership is the willingness not to act for the sake of public opinion. To have the strength do to nothing if nothing best serves larger goals, just as nothing did when Bryant clamored for the Lakers to trade Andrew Bynum for any name brand not nailed to another team’s floor. If Kobe is ticked this time around, so be it. I sympathize with his desire to contend for another title, or at the very least not play on a really shitty team next year. This is how the guy is wired, but the Lakers don’t owe him anything else. They can’t. Each side has paid his debt to the other. And if fans are mad, so what? They’ll come back if the franchise does. What will make them angrier is a team perpetually stuck in that space between real contention and genuine rebuilding, Sixtoeightseedville.
Maybe the summer plays out more positively than I’m anticipating. Surprises happen, and certainly Mitch Kupchak has shown an ability to produce rabbits from hats. If the Lakers can make sound moves to transform a three year rebuild into essentially one, great. I’m all for it. Nobody in LA (save Clipper Darrell) likes watching the Lakers suck. But they can’t screw this up. Despite the cap space upcoming, the Lakers are still in very fragile space. They have few assets to parlay into pieces of a championship team. Small mistakes will have disproportionately large impacts. Large mistakes will almost impossible to unwind.
It’s hard enough to build an elite roster without taking aesthetics into consideration. If the Lakers complicate matters by allowing public opinion (or the opinion of the incumbent star) to factor in, they’re likely screwed. So if firing D’Antoni this summer makes good basketball sense, allowing them to better construct a winning product down the road, go for it. He’ll be gone in a year, anyway. But if they do it because they feel they have to, because the masses won’t be satisfied without their share of red meat, Lakers fans should watch out because it’s a bad sign of things to come.
*I’ve long maintained D’Antoni was screwed from the start, after the front office dangled Phil not only to the fans, but the players. Meaning psychologically MDA didn’t replace the very unpopular Mike Brown, but Phil Jackson. Once that happened and the 2012-13 season became a struggle, that D’Antoni’s tenure in L.A. would end sooner rather than later became a foregone conclusion. The only question would be the timing. So overall, I don’t think “fair,” particularly when this year’s limited roster and catastrophic injury issues are factored in, is the best word to describe the context in which D’Antoni has worked. But fairness shouldn’t be a primary concern for a front office. If axing a guy is unfair but improves the team’s fortunes, so be it. That’s life.
**NOTE: A few people in the comments and over Twitter have pointed out something that would change my perspective, here: If the Lakers were to hire a younger, less experienced coach with potential who could use a relatively consequence-free year to learn, I’d can D’Antoni without second thoughts. I love the idea of expanding the coaching search beyond the big FA names we all know – Van Gundy, Karl, Hollins, etc. – but as I’ve noted on the podcast, I don’t think the front office has the stones to go the direction of a bold-but-risky hire and groom talent. Not after Brown and D’Antoni. I wish they would, but don’t think it’ll happen.