LOS ANGELES—What a pitiful existence.
The word "beat" has lost its power in sports, but when the numbers are that big, along with a season-long pile of losses so high, they do feel like beatings for the losing coach. Rivers knows, having endured a 24-win season—or more accurately, a 58-loss season, because that's what he remembers—as coach of the 2006-07 Boston Celtics.
"The losing affects you," Rivers said.
Unlike much-maligned Lakers vice president Jim Buss, reviled Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni has nothing to do but trudge into that depleted, divided locker room every day and watch lack of talent devolve into selfish play from his spot on the bench.
He has been unable to do much to stop it. There is no greater goal, no meaningful journey.
"Sit there every day. It's hard," Rivers said. "Every night, you have to try to get your troops up. It's no longer about the season. It's about that night."
Rivers said it was far harder for him to lose like that than for Celtics general manager Danny Ainge, who had big-picture ideas to ponder besides hoping the lottery balls would lead him to Greg Oden or Kevin Durant in the following NBA draft. The head coach's entire job is to prepare the team. No one—no player, no assistant, no executive, no fan—has to absorb defeat as completely.
When asked about how hard this losing is, D'Antoni offers brief responses these days.
"Play the cards you're dealt," D'Antoni said. "Hang in there the best you can."
You know it's difficult when men don't want to talk about it.
Twenty-six times this season the Lakers have lost by 10 or more points, meaning lopsided losses have occurred more than victories of any sort (24), even after the Lakers won their past two games against fellow bad teams.
Lakers legend Byron Scott began studio TV work for the team at Time Warner Cable SportsNet this season, giving him a unique perspective on D'Antoni's struggles to go with the suffering of a last-place coach.
Scott lost an NBA-record 26 consecutive games in his first season coaching the post-LeBron James Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010-11. Scott declined to be interviewed for this story.
See, men don't want to talk about it.
Especially men who've had prior success as NBA head coaches such as D'Antoni and Scott. Overseeing a rebuilding team with no chance of success is a young coach's game, and when you look at the NBA's inverse standings of the teams vying for the most draft lottery balls, you see a lot of those guys.
Brett Brown is in his first year as a head coach, and his Philadelphia 76ers will tie Scott's inglorious 26-game streak with a loss Thursday night against the Houston Rockets. Brown has been able to manage it, largely because the work feels like novelty to him and his spirit is so new it needs no renewing.
On the cusp of the record-tying loss, Brown told reporters in Philadelphia: "It's those short-term real pains for what we hope will be a bunch of long-term gains. This period of time is not pleasant for any of us. But it's necessary."
Like Brown, Jacque Vaughn came from San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich's coaching tree, meaning Brown and Vaughn were champions as Spurs assistants. Now, they're the dregs of the league.
While Brown is sunny-side-up, Vaughn is hard-boiled about it. Vaughn was practically indignant when asked about losing.
"At the core, I'm about winning—and that doesn't change," Vaughn said. "It's all geared toward getting the most out of your team, whether that's the first game of the year, whether that's playoff basketball. It just doesn't happen overnight. Those days in San Antonio didn't happen overnight. There's a lot that goes into it, and that's the process that we're involved in right now."
Vaughn is 39; Brown is 53. They also have very young players they're trying to develop into franchise cornerstones.
D'Antoni is 62. He has some young, some old and mostly a bunch of guys who don't know if they'll be back next season. He has told them time after time how they need to value this opportunity to prove themselves to all of the general managers out there, how going one-on-one out there only makes them all look bad. He has threatened them by saying: "This is not just, 'Oh, we're having a bad year.' No. Your next stop is Europe."
If we learned last season that D'Antoni has no patience for entitled veteran egos unwilling to play consistently hard and together, we've learned this season that he has no patience for ignorant youngsters failing to bring it either. D'Antoni is a purist, operating from a baseline belief that players should give great effort all the time in any role—and it sets him up for profound disappointment when it doesn't happen.
Those close to him have seen it building over the past month. Ever since the Lakers traded Steve Blake, a D'Antoni favorite because of the fierce way Blake competed, the coach's shoulders have slumped more easily. Unlike Brown in Philadelphia or Vaughn in Orlando, D'Antoni has slipped into defeatist thinking, frequently lamenting the Lakers' small margin for error and referring to his challenges as the "job."
Even after the Lakers beat the Oklahoma City Thunder at home March 9, by the time D'Antoni was back for the next home game a week and a half later, he had lost faith. After losing that game to the Spurs, D'Antoni said: "We just don't have enough collectively to hang in and compete with a team like this for 48 minutes."
Disappointed one second, discouraged the next, sometimes angry, other times a smart aleck about those around him who are failing...it's a whole lot for the head coach to absorb. Making matters worse for D'Antoni, the one certainty for the future is Kobe Bryant, who has made clear he isn't real keen on D'Antoni being around anymore.
But is it just D'Antoni's age and experience here—or is it an inability to weather adversity?
Life is supposed to teach you resilience and make you more bulletproof, but D'Antoni has seen enough better days in Phoenix to long for those and throw his palms up over these. Frustrated by all of the injuries, D'Antoni's quick wit has dried up—though he did bring it back briefly after beating Vaughn's Orlando team Sunday. Asked to tell assembled reporters a joke, D'Antoni said: "All year, you've seen it."
Mostly, though, D'Antoni has been neither a steadying nor uplifting influence. He has exacerbated the injury-caused instability by shuffling through lineups and styles and playing hot hands instead of knowing which players will be more consistent and trusting them—or, even better, eliciting consistency from what talents guys like Wesley Johnson or Jordan Hill have.
Overall, no matter how artfully he can draw up an inbounds play, according to those in the team's inner circle, D'Antoni prefers to settle for the basics as opposed to more sophisticated concepts of the game—another reason the Lakers are so slow to make adjustments. Some of the players enjoy the freedom they get from D'Antoni's light touch, but others, such as Pau Gasol, Chris Kaman, Hill and Bryant, have concluded he flat-out fails at communication and leadership.
Lakers management knows D'Antoni didn't get training camp last season and has encountered rampant injuries last and this season. And because hopes are not high for 2014-15 anyway, the Lakers are currently inclined to have D'Antoni fulfill his contract's final guaranteed year for $4 million.
So this pity party doesn't appear to have the makings of a farewell one, which is what many Lakers fans would celebrate more than any victory on the court or in the draft.
What Rivers would offer as a reminder to those thinking negatively is that there is a real person in that suit who already feels awfully negative about it.
"I respect anyone who goes through that, because I've been through it." Rivers said. "And it's very, very difficult."
Will it get any easier? Contrary to what Vaughn said, it can happen overnight with the right coach.
Rivers' Celtics didn't get Oden or Durant and turned to try another path, trading their fifth overall pick for Ray Allen—and selling the Minnesota Timberwolves on taking their trade package over the Lakers' offer for Kevin Garnett. Rivers and the Celtics beat the Lakers the very next spring to win the 2008 NBA title.
When Popovich took his hit, he got the fix fast, too. A 48-year-old Popovich took over the Spurs early in the 1996-97 season, and a slew of injuries resulted in a 20-62 record...but also Tim Duncan in the ensuing draft. The Spurs were champs two years later.
If James signed to play for D'Antoni and the New York Knicks in 2010, how much smarter would D'Antoni be? If Steve Nash was still able to be Steve Nash as a Laker, how much better a coach would D'Antoni be in L.A.?
How much can you tell about a coach when he just doesn't have the players?
Well, don't tell me you still cannot tell how he communicates, teaches and inspires. You can determine whether a leader cultivates peace and hope in his community at any time—especially amid adversity.
After 12 more games, this will probably be the worst season in L.A. Lakers history. The injuries have been real, and you can and should feel sorry for D'Antoni for that.
But this has not solely been done to him.
D'Antoni has played his part in the undoing.
Kevin Ding covers the Lakers for Bleacher Report.
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