NBA: High drama as Lakers hand coaching reins to Mike D'Antoni
Even in a city that thrives on high-level drama and plot twists, no Hollywood screenwriter could envision the script that ended with Mike D'Antoni becoming the Lakers head coach.
Act I: A star-studded lineup featuring an elite scorer (Kobe Bryant), elite post-up players (Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol) elite passer (Steve Nash) and elite defender (Metta World Peace) begins the season with its worst start in 19 years.
Act II: The Lakers fire coach Mike Brown on Friday only five games into the season.
Act III: Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak and executive vice president of player personnel Jim Buss meet with Hall-of-Fame coach Phil Jackson at his Playa del Rey home for 90 minutes Saturday about possibly making his third stint with the Lakers. All accounts say they agree to meet again in a couple days. They also suggest Jackson can take the job if he wants it.
Act IV: The Lakers hire D'Antoni shortly after the team's win Sunday night against Sacramento. The news stuns their fans, players, Jackson and even D'Antoni. As one source close to D'Antoni said, "he was clearly convinced this was Phil's job to lose."
In a move more swift than his famed offense that preaches players to shoot in seven seconds or less, D'Antoni signed a three-year, $12 million deal to coach the Lakers. The team holds an option for the fourth year.
According to sources familiar with the negotiations, D'Antoni's phone interview with the Lakers on Saturday soon morphed into another discussion prior to the team's 103-90 victory Sunday over the Sacramento Kings. After that, D'Antoni faxed the signed contract to the Lakers between 11:30-11:45 p.m. Lakers spokesman John Black added that owner Jerry Buss, Jim Buss and Kupchak "were unanimous that Mike was the best coach for the team at this time."
Jackson said he heard Kupchak utter similar words when he called him at midnight to deliver the news. Sources close to Jackson indicated his agent, Todd Musberger, planned to take a red-eye flight Monday morning to Los Angeles to continue negotiating.
"We concluded with a handshake and an understanding that I would have until Monday to come back to them with my decision," Jackson said in a statement. "I did convey to them that I did have the confidence that I could do the job."
Plenty of others felt the same way.
The sellout crowds at Staples Center loudly yelled, "We want Phil," during the Lakers' regular-season games Friday and Sunday against the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings. The Lakers' Bryant, Nash and Gasol publicly endorsed Jackson, who won five of his 11 NBA titles in two separate stints with the team (1999-2004, 2006-11).
It seemed like a foregone conclusion. But then it wasn't.
The Lakers turned down Jackson, his famed triangle offense, his Zen-like teachings and, more importantly, his vast championship experience. Some close to Jackson shot down reports suggesting he made over-the-top demands, including excessive pay, ownership of the team and reduced travel.
Accounts suggest Jackson's health improved, including having recent knee and hip operations.
"It's just strange and peculiar that you would leak and build a crowd up about wanting him and having players coming forth and endorsing him and then go the other way," one source close to Jackson said. "You got the people working for you saying one thing and then doing another."
Still, the Lakers maintained D'Antoni's hiring simply reflected basketball manners.
The Lakers' poor start partly reflected their struggles with the Princeton-based offense that centers on spacing, ball movement and cutting. Although Bryant and Gasol have vast experience with the triangle system, worries persisted over their teammates' learning curve and to what degree the offense would center on Nash running pick-and-roll sets.
Meanwhile, D'Antoni doesn't have NBA championship experience. But his various NBA stints, most recently with Phoenix and New York, featured a high-octane offense that could maximize Nash's pick-and-roll abilities if used in Los Angeles.
"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," Kupchak said in a statement.
"Knowing his style of play and given the current makeup 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."
It remains unclear when that process will start. After having knee replacement surgery in November, D'Antoni needs a doctor's clearance before flying to Los Angeles. A source close to D'Antoni said late Sunday night that process could take at least a day. That means interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff will coach his third consecutive game when the Lakers host the San Antonio Spurs Tuesday night at Staples Center.
An introductory news conference could happen as early as Wednesday, though it's unlikely.
The Lakers players added little to the drama.
Bryant and Nash both endorsed D'Antoni before the hire. Bryant played for the 2008 and 2012 Olympic teams on which D'Antoni was an assistant coach. Meanwhile, Nash won two league MVPs playing under D'Antoni in Phoenix. Even though the hire caught them by surprise, the other Lakers sounded thrilled with D'Antoni too.
"We're excited for D'Antoni and an up-paced offense," said Howard, who will be a free agent next season. "Everything he's done with the teams he's had as far as how they pushed the ball and how they play in an open court, I think it will be good for (Nash) and for all of us to put some points on the board."
How that plays out remains to be seen. After all, no one could have predicted how the Lakers' soap opera would have played out only days ago.