Mike D'Antoni might be the luckiest person on the planet right now.
Yes, that Mike D'Antoni, the same guy who just had knee replacement surgery and will be limping into his new gig as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers with the words "Not Phil Jackson" tattooed across his forehead.
That is, unless D'Antoni proves to be as successful with these Lakers as he was with the Phoenix Suns once upon a time. And certainly if he fares far better in L.A. than he did during his recent stint with the New York Knicks.
To be sure, these Lakers don't have quite the depth or particular personnel to be the three-ballin', uptempo club that the Suns so often were at the height of the D'Antoni-Steve Nash era. L.A. currently ranks 18th in the NBA in three-point percentage (.331) and 17th in pace, all while sporting one of the league's least productive benches.
Oh, and Steve Nash, who orchestrated D'Antoni's "Seven Seconds or Less" scheme to back-to-back MVPs, is a bit older now and has been out since Halloween with a slight fracture in his left fibula.
Kobe will be, far and away, the best wing D'Antoni has ever coached in the NBA, among a group that includes no fewer than three All-Stars—Carmelo Anthony, Joe Johnson and Shawn Marion. There is sure to be some concern that Bryant, as an isolation scorer, could see his relationship with D'Antoni go south in a hurry—much like the way Carmelo's did—should their philosophies clash.
Except, Kobe has long been an admirer of D'Antoni's work, dating back to Bryant's childhood days in Italy spent watching Mike play for Olimpia Milano. They may have been rivals during those epic playoff battles between the Lakers and the Suns of not so long ago, but Bryant has the utmost respect for his new coach.
And, after winning two Olympic gold medals running D'Antoni's system, he understands how effective the pick-and-roll-heavy offense can be.
So, too, should Howard, who was a member of Team USA in 2008. In Dwight, D'Antoni now has at his disposal a player who embodies the best of what he has always wanted in a big man. With Nash's help, D'Antoni turned Amar'e Stoudemire, a menacing athlete and powerful finisher (sound familiar?), into one of the finest pick-and-roll players the game has ever seen.
In Howard, he now has perhaps the most imposing, mobile and pick-and-roll-friendly pivot in basketball. Comparatively, Howard is a bigger, stronger, more skilled and more agile version of Amar'e, whose knee went balky during D'Antoni's second full season in Phoenix.
More importantly, while Stoudemire has long been one of the league's worst defenders, Howard remains its best, and should only get better once the rest of his body fully recovers from back surgery. D'Antoni's Suns teams were typically middle-of-the-pack on that end of the floor, but never employed a player in Dwight's stratosphere.
Interestingly enough, his Knicks vaulted into the top-10 in defensive efficiency once Tyson Chandler, who broke Dwight's string of Defensive Player of the Year wins in 2012, arrived in the Big Apple. Surely, then, D'Antoni's teams are capable of no worse than adequacy on the defensive end with a backstop to protect the rim.
All told, Dwight will be the best big man D'Antoni has ever had on hand, and will also present him with the sort of back-to-the-basket presence in the half court that he wanted Shaquille O'Neal to be. D'Antoni famously agitated for the Suns to acquire Shaq from the Miami Heat in 2008 in a move that was panned by many. O'Neal enjoyed a brief renaissance in the Valley of the Sun, though the Suns themselves faltered with him, in part because his presence forced the entire team to slow down to accommodate him.
Howard should have no such issues with running the floor and rolling to the hoop. If anything, Dwight's about as close to a perfect blend between Stoudemire and O'Neal as D'Antoni could ever hope to find. He will have every opportunity to thrive in D'Antoni's system, which could mean plenty to the Lakers' attempts to retain him this summer.
And, for his part, D'Antoni should be thrilled to have Howard and Nash on the floor together. As he recently told Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated:
In October, D'Antoni said of Howard/Nash pick-and-roll pairing: "That's as good as it can get."— Lee Jenkins (@SI_LeeJenkins) November 12, 2012
Meanwhile, Pau Gasol checks in as the most skilled seven-footer under D'Antoni's control. Gasol is head-and-shoulders above Boris Diaw as far as multi-talented European big men are concerned.
And if D'Antoni could turn Diaw into one of the league's better role players, imagine what he might accomplish with Pau, a four-time All-Star and pick-and-pop aficionado in his own right.
Metta World Peace is no Raja Bell, James Jones, Quentin Richardson or even Shawn Marion as far as floor-spacing corner-three specialists are concerned. Nonetheless, he is passable in that regard (6-of-17, per NBA.com's stats tool) and is playing much better across the board this season after coming into camp slimmed down and injury-free.
D'Antoni might also have the chops to squeeze something out of a disappointing second unit. He won't have any illusions about trying to force Antawn Jamison, a defensive sieve, to play small forward. Instead, Jamison should get plenty of burn as a "stretch four," a role to which he is more naturally suited.
As mightily as Jodie Meeks has struggled to shoot to this point (6-of-21 from the field, 3-of-14 from three), he will now be valued as someone capable of spacing the floor for the Lakers' soon-to-be-burgeoning pick-and-roll game, as opposed to be being buried on the bench.
Once Nash returns, Steve Blake could see time as a shooter at the off-guard spot while Chris Duhon, an oft-maligned player who thrived under D'Antoni in New York, mans the point.
D'Antoni is no miracle worker, though. He will still be hard-pressed to fashion LA's bench-filling flotsam into a serviceable second unit.
Then again, he doesn't have to be basketball's Anne Sullivan to turn the Lakers into title contenders. Once Nash returns to action, D'Antoni will have four All-Star-caliber players on whom to lean and a veteran-laden roster with no worse than a passing familiarity with his system, either from playing in it or against it.
The Lakers lack young legs and the sheer quantity of bodies to be a fast-break-friendly team, but D'Antoni's system is about much more than just getting out in transition. His patented pick-and-roll game is made for the half court, wherein the Lakers have thus far thrived offensively. Kobe is enough of a defensive magnet on the perimeter, and Pau a mid-range shooter, to make the Nash-Howard pick-and-roll a successful pairing at the center of the team's attack.
With these pieces in place, D'Antoni will finally have another opportunity to prove that he can, indeed, lead a championship-caliber club. His Suns squads were victimized by poor health (Joe Johnson's eye injury, Amar'e's torn-up knee), bad luck (Diaw and Stoudemire's suspensions vs. the San Antonio Spurs in 2007) and ownership that was either too cheap to keep its young stars or didn't act quickly enough to do so (Joe Johnson).
And his Knicks...well, they were subjected to the usual bouts of James Dolan chicanery. They appeared to be a team on the rise in 2010-11 until Dolan pushed for Carmelo Anthony, and really fell off D'Antoni's wagon once Chauncey Billups was offered up as amnesty sacrifice.
There will be no concerns about penny-pinching owners or players going mutinous on D'Antoni, at least for now.
The talent is there, the organizational support is there and the team's historical mojo can only help.
Now, the Buss family gets the shot at a "Showtime" sequel it's long been searching for. In turn, D'Antoni is granted a golden opportunity to validate his own coaching career and the pick-and-roll revolution he brought to the NBA.
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