A day after Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak provided public assurances that he’ll return next season, Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni was named the NBA’s Western Conference coach of the month.
The Lakers went 7-1 in April, the league’s best record in this month shared with the Denver Nuggets and the Clippers. The Lakers’ last three wins also came against playoff bounds teams in Golden State, San Antonio and Houston, the latter two victories without Kobe Bryant because of a season-ending torn Achilles’ tendon.
D’Antoni went 40-32 in his first season, but the Lakers went 28-12 since the day after the Lakers had a team meeting in Memphis in January. Kupchak had remained publicly supportive of D’Antoni, citing the lack of training camp and overlapping injuries as extenuating circumstances that made it hard to evaluate him fully.
Yet, plenty of blame has fallen on D’Antoni’s shoulders for the Lakers squeaking into the playoffs with a first-round matchup against the San Antonio Spurs as a seventh seed. When Bryant suffered a season-ending injury last week with a torn Achilles’tendon, D’Antoni became a lightning rod of criticism over the heavy minutes he granted the Lakers’ star. Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard expressed frustration at times over their role in the offense. Everyone from Bryant, Gasol and Howard pleaded they needed to play at a slower pace than D’Antoni commanded. And Lakers forward Antawn Jamison publicly griped about sitting out for five consecutive games without D’Antoni explaining the thought process directly to him.
After the Lakers’ air-it-out meeting, D’Antoni showed more flexibility with slowing the tempo down, having a more firm rotation and featuring Gasol and Howard more on offense.
“He had it etched in his mind that we were going to play a certain way. He probably couldn’t play the way he thought he would,” Kupchak said. “To his credit, he listened to the players and was flexible. He changed the way he approached our team in the last three months.”
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