One of the first things that Lakers fans emotionally invested in the return of Phil Jackson pointed to in the hiring of Mike D’Antoni was that he apparently doesn’t coach defense.
D’Antoni, 61, who has never before had a player on a level with Dwight Howard – the three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year -- had something to say about that in his introductory press conference last week.
“Maybe he can put the D back in my name, that would be nice,” he said about Howard. “Some people have been taking that out, that’s not fair. But he’ll definitely do that.”
In practice before Sunday’s game against the Houston Rockets, D’Antoni continued to joke about the comments on his defense, or lack thereof. The Lakers had emerged victorious over the Phoenix Suns on Friday, but gave up 64 points in the paint.
“Yeah, well see my coaching already took over,” D’Antoni laughed in response to a reporter’s question. But he explained: “I thought we were a little tired. I didn’t think we were aggressive early. In the second half we were a lot better … put a little more energy into it.”
While concerns about defense have been the center of debate, D’Antoni’s fast-paced offense has also raised questions about whether he was the appropriate fit for the Lakers.
The 2004-05 NBA Coach of the Year won that title for guiding the Phoenix Suns to 33 more wins than the previous season. He also was behind Jeremy Lin’s explosive “Linsanity” stint with the New York Knicks last year. But Steve Nash is older now, as are the Lakers starters, so his ‘Showtime’ style of play and “seven seconds or less offense” may not deliver.
Among the biggest critics of the front office’s choice of D’Antoni over the Zen – and ring – Master, Jackson, was Magic Johnson, a model of ‘Showtime’.
D’Antoni addressed this too in his press conference: “We would love to be able to play ‘Showtime’ basketball. They might have done it the best that you can do it. We would like to get someplace close to that but that’s the type of basketball, so no better person to talk to and pick his brain than him (Johnson).”
Is his defense as bad as you think?
In fact, numbers show that D’Antoni’s defense is not as poor as the media has suggested and fans have perpetuated. While D’Antoni’s defenses have historically ranked near the bottom of the NBA in post allowed per game, that statistic isn’t necessarily the best measuring stick.
If you play faster, you get more opportunities to score – as does your opponent – so you are likely to give up more points per game. A more telling stat is points allowed per possession. By that measure, D’Antoni’s defenses typically rank in the middle of the pack, and last year’s Knicks team actually ranked fifth in the NBA.
Commentators in Time Warner Cable SportsNet’s “Access SportsNet: Lakers” show have also come to D’Antoni’s defense, to a degree.
“They’ve got to correct that defense but the last time I checked, no coach has ever built a wall and took a charge,” said former NBA coach and SportsNet analyst Dave Miller. “It’s the five guys that are on the court that have to come through in a collective effort.”
Miller added that he wants to challenge the team to increase their defense because being able to run off turnovers, rebounding and pushing the ball will lead to easier shots.
“You can duplicate and try and replicate that fast break basketball but it all started with defense, am I correct?” Miller said.
“Without a question,” said former Lakers champion and SportsNet analyst James Worthy. “No defense, no rebound, no rings.”
D’Antoni, who has kept calm and carried on amidst all the talk, is expected to make his much-anticipated debut with the Lakers tonight against the Brooklyn Nets. The expectations are high and he knows it.
“We’re built to win this year, this is not a project,” he said at the start of his press conference. “We have a window and we’re going to try to get through it.”