With rumored interest from his alma mater, dysfunction in his current situation and a second loss to the worst team in the NBA, there's never been a better time for Los Angeles Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni to consider taking his talents to the college ranks.
That isn't analysis, either. Just a recognition of the sign delivered by the basketball gods, the one adorned in flashing lights and stretching every bit as high as those fruitless billboards to keep Dwight Howard in Hollywood last summer.
D'Antoni's rocky relationship with the Lakers grew even rockier after Thursday's 108-105 loss to the 14-58 Milwaukee Bucks, which gave the best unintentional tankers the basketball world has ever seen a season sweep over this once-proud franchise.
It would be nice to call this the low point—both for D'Antoni and the Lakers—but it's impossible to chose just one. The 2013-14 campaign has been that brutal in L.A.
The 2014-15 season could be equally uplifting for the coach, if he seizes this opportunity and regains control of his coaching career.
A Sinking Ship and a Life Preserver
D'Antoni has one guaranteed year left on his contract, but this failed experiment needs to end sooner than later.
By all accounts, it will.
Hobbled Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant reportedly has "no interest" in spending another season under D'Antoni, sources told Sean Deveney of Sporting News. Both Bryant and former Laker great Magic Johnson ripped the franchise for letting its old coach (and current New York Knicks president) Phil Jackson slip out of its hands, via Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times.
Chris Kaman, who started Thursday night's debacle, reportedly "hasn't spoken to Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni in three weeks," per ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin.
There's dysfunction and then there's the 2013-14 Lakers, a grotesque group of medical red flags, junior varsity talent and a coach who overstayed his welcome the moment he accepted the position.
It's a matter of when—not if—D'Antoni goes out looking for his next coaching gig. If he plays this right, though, that open door has already found him.
Sources told ESPN's Jeff Goodman and Marc Stein that Marshall, D'Antoni's alma mater, has contacted the coach "to gauge his interest" in filling its coaching vacancy. A second report, from CBS Sports' Jeff Borzello, said the West Virginia native and Thundering Herd Hall of Famer would consider making the switch.
"I would think his days are numbered based on Kobe saying he had no interest in playing for him next year," the source told Borzello. "If he isn't with the Lakers, I believe he will be at Marshall because there is mutual interest."
That's apparently news to the coach.
"Come on, guys," D'Antoni said when asked about the rumor following Thursday's loss, via Goodman and Stein. "Come on. OK, good. That ESPN is all over it. That's good."
This is actually good. Not the story itself, but rather the chance for D'Antoni to repair a once-bright coaching image tarnished during his latest NBA stop.
The situation that appeared packed with promise in L.A. was simply a mirage. With a round-hole system and square-peg players, his window for success never opened.
That line about the captain going down with the ship doesn't apply here. D'Antoni would have needed to actually been given a captain's chair first.
That position was never offered. It can't even exist under a fractured front office.
D'Antoni owes it to no one to treat the Lakers' demise as his own. Not when the road to recovery is readily available.
There are two separate writings on the wall for D'Antoni to read.
One is a tragedy, the tale of a lost opportunity plagued by ill-fitting pieces and a destructive visit by the injury bug. But the second is one of redemption, the story of a man returning to his home to build something out of nothing and etch his name in the annals of basketball history.
The college game offers the one thing he desperately needed with the Lakers: personnel control.
The recruiting trail is foreign—he's never coached at the collegiate level—but it's brimming with potential.
After failed repeat run-ins with ego-driven superstars (Carmelo Anthony in New York, Bryant and Howard in L.A.), D'Antoni could get back to coaching the talents needed for his selfless system.
We've all witnessed its magic before. We're even seeing some of it now. When a forgettable journeyman like Jodie Meeks is having a 42-point night and the tattered remains of the Lakers are dropping 51 points in a single frame, it's impossible to pretend that the system is to blame for the team's troubles.
If we've taken note of that, imagine the impact it could have on hoop-dreaming high school prospects. You think they wouldn't want to play for a coach with a rich NBA background and a stat-sheet-padding offense?
The balance of power shifts heavily toward the coach at the college ranks. That doesn't happen in the superstar-slanted NBA.
D'Antoni wouldn't be pleading with well-to-do 30-somethings to break a sweat every now and again over the course of 48 minutes. He'd be demanding a group of 18- to 22-year-olds to play full-throttle for two 20-minute halves with the authority necessary to complete the task
Maybe Marshall wouldn't put up Grinnell College-type numbers under D'Antoni. Then again, if his seven-seconds-or-less system was bolstered by blue-chippers, maybe the Thundering Herd would surpass them.
But imagine the standings seeing a similar spike to the scoreboard's. Imagine if he could turn Marshall—a school that last made the NCAA tournament in 1987 and has never won a game in it—into something of a national power.
The path from scapegoat to savior is there for the taking.
Realizations and Ramifications
The dead horse is officially beaten in L.A.
If overseeing one of the worst seasons in franchise history put his Lakers' tenure on life support, then Bryant's reported desire for a coaching change pulled the plug. There is no alternate ending to this script.
So, what would happen if D'Antoni really embraced the college game?
For starters, he'd put the kibosh on his NBA coaching days.
Of course, that might be the case anyway. Right or wrong, perception has his last two coaching gigs pegged as failures (first with the Knicks, now with the Lakers). Already 62 years old, he's running out of time to debunk those myths.
If he can find work in the NBA, it's hard to see an immediate path back to the head coach's box. That means, his next job would be as an overqualified (and probably overpaid) assistant.
The media wouldn't miss this. There's massive frenzy potential here and a very real chance he'd be perceived as a constant threat to the very coach he was brought in to assist.
It's uncomfortable just writing about the idea, and it hasn't even happened yet.
The college game offers so many possibilities and limitless perks: roster control, fully committed players, unwavering franchise support. Perks that aren't available to D'Antoni now and won't be as long as he stays in L.A.
He has to see this perfect exit strategy sitting in front of him. It sure seems like everyone else can.
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