No matter where they turned, the Lakers’ players seemed convinced Phil Jackson would be their next coach.
Lakers fans clamored for it as they shouted “We Want Phil” chants. Lakers players endorsed it, ranging from Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash. Even the Lakers publicly talked about it, providing details on how general manager Mitch Kupchak and vice president of player personnel Jim Buss met Jackson at his Playa del Rey home on Saturday and expected to meet again a few days later.
That’s why it was only human nature that plenty of the Lakers initially felt surprised that they ultimately hired Mike D’Antoni.
“Everybody had expectations about it,” Gasol said. “They were all pretty high. We understand what Phil brings to the table and how successful it’s been and how successful he’s been here and what he means to the city and the franchise. It couldn’t happen for whatever the reasons are. We move forward. That’s what we do as professionals.”
Make no mistake. There’s plenty of reasons to question the move. The Lakers went against their word in giving Jackson time to mull the decision over until Monday. For unknown reasons, the Lakers quickly ironed out D’Antoni’s contract late Sunday night following the team’s win over the Sacramento Kings. Jackson’s the keeper of 11 NBA championship rings, including five with the Lakers in two separate stints (1999-2004, 2005-2011).
Still, none of the players bothered wondering about those elements.
“We just have to play,” Lakers center Dwight Howard said. “The fans got to us cheer us on. I know they wanted Phil to be here, but management had to do what they felt was best for the team. We as players have to find a way to win. We want the fans to cheer us on.”
The Lakers believe fans will soon do that as D’Antoni’s high-octane offense could further maximize the Lakers’ immense talent. Steve Nash, who collected two league MVPS in his four seasons playing with him in Phoenix, will play endless amounts of pick-and-roll. The Lakers can continue the free wheeling spirit that’s empowered them the past two games since Mike Brown’s firing. Kobe Bryant will find plenty of scoring opportunities in D’Antoni’s system.
For a team that has lacked fun and overthinking in the Princeton-based system, the Lakers sounded more than eager in embracing an offense that sounds more simple. Meanwhile, inconsistent outside shooters in Jamison, Jodie Meeks and Steve Blake should find easier opportunities to reestablish their rhythm. Add all these elements up together, and the Lakers could see another version of Showtime.
“It should be a fun system to play in,” Gasol said. “There’s a lot of opportunities and up tempo kind of game and unselfish kind of game. We all look forward to working with it and exploiting the options.”
Still, there could be plenty of adjustments.
Nash has a sore fracture in his left leg and it’s unclear if he will play Friday against his former team, the Phoenix Suns. The Lakers average 32 years old in age. Aside from Howard and World Peace, the Lakers don’t have the athleticism and speed that D’Antoni’s past teams had. His system also doesn’t put a huge reliance on defensive principles.
“It’ll be good for us, but we have a lot of old guys,” Howard said. “We all have to get in shape so we can play that up tempo style.”
Howard kept reiterating that could become a “process,” his favorite buzz word when he pleaded patience during the team’s poor start. Yet, the Lakers sound optimistic it will come to form. Howard and World Peace are elite defenders. The offense won’t involve as much memorization as the Princeton-based and triangle systems. And as Chris Duhon, who played for D’Antoni with the Knicks pointed out, he’ll change his offensive structure to fit the current personnel too.
“Don’t get it wrong, he has plays to slow it down and get guys shots,” Duhon said. “His offensive brilliance is amazing. His creative mind is second to none. He’s free-going, a player’s coach, easy to talk to. Like a teammate, a guy who can make adjustments on the fly. You have a lot of freedom.”
Hence, why the Lakers appeared in a good mood following Monday’s practice and quickly moved past Jackson’s snubbing.
“You heard the fans chanting, we want Phil and it seemed like the perfect scenario that probably would’ve happened,” Lakers reserve forward Antawn Jamison conceded. “But this is the National Basketball Association. You’re never surprised about what takes place and what doesn’t. For us, D’Antoni is a great coach. We know what he brings to the table. His resume speaks for itself. With the makeup of the guys we have here, he can really help us out a lot.”
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