This column originally appeared at SeattleWeekly.com
As blasphemous as this may sound in these formerly NBA parts, I must admit that I’m worried about the Los Angeles Lakers. I know, I know. Beat El-Lay, and all that. But, conceivably the NBA will be back in Seattle, and we all want to be part of a thriving venture, the better the odds that we have the SuperSonics for at least another 40 uninterrupted years. And for that to happen, it’s essential to wish at least a little positive karma upon the City of Angels.
No matter how much it fancies itself a globally relevant enterprise, the NBA long has been a league that has thrived when its bicoastal American anchors also have. On the Left Coast, L.A. by far is the most meaningful pushpin on the basketball map.
I started covering the NBA when it was pulling itself out of the ashes, previously branded a “drug league” or “too black,” and badly trailing the NFL and Major League Baseball in sports relevancy. It may have re-branded itself as more accessible and fan-friendly, but the NBA’s reanimation came mainly on coattails of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, two polar opposites in style, personality and geography. So the Lakers are my frame of NBA bling reference — Magic to Worthy, Riley in Armani, the Sky Hook, Coop-a-Loops, the Laker Girls, Showtime.
Laker sway stretches further back, of course, to the days of Wilt, West and Baylor, 33 straight wins and even George Mikan, the league’s first real superstar (the team was then based in Minneapolis, where the nickname “Lakers” is far more pertinent). The Lakers also held the most prominently villainous place in Sonic lore, always lurking just ahead or behind. They were the ones who overtook the championship-era Supes, the team that George Karl’s crew hip-hopped over, and the Kobe-powered club that surpassed the post-Glove, post-Reignman Sonics once and for all before they bolted for Oklahoma City.
Loathe them or love them, we need the Lakers. That’s why my heart swelled when the romancing of Phil Jackson appeared to be in earnest, and skipped a beat when the Lakers abruptly swerved and hired Mike D’Antoni instead. It all boils down to this: Mike D’Antoni is a fine coach who engineered some wildly entertaining teams in Phoenix. But he’s no Phil Jackson.
Before we examine his lack of Phil-ness, let’s first acknowledge this about D’Antoni: He might have been the right choice in the short, short term under certain assumptions, those being that NBA players are a bunch of hand-held, intellectually challenged babies who require at least a training camp to understand an offensive system. Judging by their failure to grasp the Princeton offense of D’Antoni’s predecessor, Mike Brown, this group of Lakers may need a training camp, an entire season, another training camp and maybe a GPS unit to learn D’Antoni’s system.
With Jackson comes the triangle offense, which is not for the faint of heart, or any player devoid of basketball IQ. It is a read-and-proceed attack that can develop shots all over the floor, nicely accommodating a versatile scorer – say, the likes of Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan. I once was convinced to install the triangle on my club team by a couple of former NBA coaches I won’t name to protect the innocent and well-meaning. A half season in, we barely got past mastering the entry passes. If teenaged girls can’t get it down, I pity a group of guys getting paid to try.
D’Antoni, however, has his former Suns point guard, Steve Nash, to deploy, with maybe the game’s best rolling big man in Dwight Howard to–along with Kobe and Pau Gasol–run, gun and pick-and-roll to their hearts’ content. But here’s the first caveat: Defense wins championships, and D’Antoni’s teams don’t apply any brakes – to themselves or, unfortunately, their opponents. This approach creates gape-inducing 135-121 results, but no titles. Why? Because, again, defense rules in every sport during the playoffs, where plays and tendencies have been microscopically diagnosed and remedied.
Caveat No. 2: Owner Jim Buss is said to desire a return to Showtime, instead of a rerun of the cerebral (but championship-winning) Jackson way. However, consider that Bryant is a beat-up 34, Gasol is 32 and Nash is 38, downright prehistoric for a point guard. Even Metta World Peace is 33. Buss had better be ready for Slowtime. A proven halfcourt offense, no matter how sophisticated, might’ve saved these aging legs for postseason defense.
Caveat No. 3: Managing a nut job like Metta World Peace (nee, Ron Artest) wouldn’t even have occupied one cell in the brain of the Zen Master, who had cross-dressing, chroma-domed Dennis Rodman and I-refuse-to-go-back-in Scottie Pippen in Chicago and the Kobe-Shaq drama in Jackson’s previous Laker incarnation. Management busted up what had been a typically free-wheeling D’Antoni team to acquire Carmelo Anthony, who now passes as the team’s “super” star. The coach thereafter needed Jeremy Lin to temporarily “save” his job in New York last season. Turns out, Linsanity was just a distraction from D’Antoni’s inability to mesh his new point guard with Anthony and one of his former Sun players, Amare Stoudamire . Not to mention that the only D the former Knick coach tolerated in Gotham City was the one in his name. After D’Antoni resigned amid the rubble, assistant Mike Woodson picked up the pieces and shaped the Knicks into a playoff team.
A lot of the challenges that D’Antoni inherits in L.A. scream for a Phil pill. He has to meld four major offensive forces and personalities (five, counting World Peace). He has to navigate the cultural and basketball transitions from Kobe Bryant to Dwight Howard. He is entering a high-profile, high-pressure job in mid-stream. He will have the shadow of Jackson himself towering over him, not to mention the We-want-Phil chants at all home games.
Worst of all, D’Antoni will be working for Jim Buss. His father, Dr. Jerry Buss, put the fab in the Fabulous Forum. Jim Buss already has made two bad coaching hires, which includes D’Antoni, and presided over the dunder-headed trade of Lamar Odom.
Because of who they are, where they are, what they’ve done, as well as the assets they possess – for the time being, at least – the Lakers could have anyone they wanted to be their coach. Heck, they could’ve had Phil Jackson, who’s already put five championship trophies in the case and a smile on the face of Jeanie, widely considered the more competent of the Buss siblings. The Lakers didn’t need to retread a couple of coaches who never won a single ring and whose previous jobs ended in failure. Really, do you cast Kate Hudson when Charlize Theron asks for the part?
It once could be argued without much debate that the most glamorous coaching positions in the NBA were in Los Angeles and New York. Shoot, Pat Riley slicked back his hair in both. Now the two megatropolises have been rendered coaching no-fly zones because of insecure, egomaniacal ownership. At this point, it’s difficult to forecast who eventually will emerge as the lesser of two evils, Jim Buss or James Dolan. They have Mike D’Antoni in common, which isn’t exactly fortuitous for the Laker remake.
The real fear is that the Lakers really screwed the long-term pooch. This essentially is a one-year audition by them for Dwight Howard, their supposed focus of the future, whose contract runs out after this season. If D’Antoni fails in a way that Jackson would not have, the Lakers will lose Howard and become the Knicks. Such regress will re-expose the wound of de-Commissioner David Stern nullifying the trade of Chris Paul to the Lakers, where he belongs. It’s an unacceptable outcome for the league.
When it comes down to it, the NBA is a popular yet franchise-bloated and bewildering thicket of American outposts, including a place called Oklahoma City. It needs its brightest lights in its biggest cities. Otherwise you have Houston vs. Orlando, San Antonio vs. Cleveland, or San Antonio vs. anyone in the NBA Finals. Yawn. The NBA is not the NFL. It needs Los Angeles represented, and the counterfeiting Clippers do not count.
If Seattle wants to be a part of a strong, compelling NBA, it needs the Lakers to be as dangerous and beautiful as a Bond girl. It may be painful to ponder, but without a Lakers team worth beating, we might as well skip the NBA and stick to watching 1-0 soccer games in the rain or, worse, similarly offense-starved baseball in the sun.