Mike D’Antoni on Lakers: “We can be better than most people think”

Nothing regarding Mike D’Antoni’s first season with the Lakers went according to plan.

He envisioned the Lakers restoring Showtime. Instead, they struggled throwing the ball in the ocean. He wanted the Lakers to play at a fast pace. Instead, they appeared too old and hurt. He believed his reunion with Steve Nash would lead to instant offense. Instead, Nash’s injury competing with philosophical differences among Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and D’Antoni led to little clarity on offense.

Oh yeah, and then there’s the offseason where Howard jetted to Houston and the Lakers lost Metta World Peace and Earl Clark for financial reasons stemmed from more punitive tax measures in the NBA’s recent labor deal. What did D’Antoni make of Howard’s decision to leave?

“Only Dwight knows. Obviously he doesn’t think he’d be as happy here as he would be in Houston, D’Antoni said Tuesday on 710 ESPN. “That might be the case and he had to make that decision. He tried it and didn’t work out. We move forward. So be it. You hate it. Dwight’s one of the better centers in the league and it wouldve been a long term thing. It’s hard for me to sit here and criticizse and even understand why he left a place like L.A. Thats kind of mind boggling a little bit. But that’s his DNA in what he wants to do.”

Plenty share Howard’s pessimism on if the Lakers would be the best chance to help him win an NBA championship. Some are even skeptical if the Lakers could even make the playoffs, something that has happened only four times in franchise history.

“We can be better than what most people think,” D’Antoni said. “Where that goes depends on the players.”

The most notable one involves Kobe Bryant, who has nursed a torn left Achilles tendon. Lakers executive Jim Buss recently made headlines for saying he’d bet money Bryant would return in the preseason. But he may have lost his chips. D’Antoni conceded uncertainty when Bryant will return. The Lakers haven’t wavered from their six to nine month timetable, putting Bryant’s return between October and January.

D’Antoni also struggled predicting whether Bryant could come close to replicating last season’s output where he averaged 27.3 points on 46.3 percent shooting and six assists.

“Everyone is hoping for the best. Everyone can say what they want, but doctors don’t really know for another month or two,” D’Antoni said. “Then they can make an assessment at that point. I know his work ethic and way he attacks the injury, I’ve never seen anything like this with the hours he puts in and the ability he has to play with pain and problems.”

Still, D’Antoni sounded clear on one thing.

“I wouldn’t put anything past him, but nobody knows,” D’Antoni said. “Kobe is a competitor once he’s back that on the floor. But Father times marches on and things happen. I don’t jnow if hes going to average 30, 20 or 18 [points], nobody knows. But one thing I do know – he’ll give it his all. That’ll be interesting to see. That’s for sure.”

One of the focal points regarding that development will involve how D’Antoni handles Bryant’s playing time. He averaged 38.6 minutes last season, a product of a revamped diet improving his conditioning and the Lakers hoping to squeak into the playoffs. But after averaging 45.1 minutes through six April games leading into his injury, D’Antoni earned heavy criticism for how he handled Bryant’s playing time.

D’Antoni talked all season about hoping to lower Bryant’s minutes. But D’Antoni’s insecurity with the Lakers’ supporting cast and Bryant’s demand to play more minutes prevented that from happening.

How will D’Antoni handle that dynamic this season?

“Talking with Kobe,” D’Antoni said. “That’s the thing we need to do. He’s very determined in what he does. We work together on it, hopefully. We’ll see. That will all be determined to see where he feels and is with the team. We’ll work through those issues. We’ll try to do the best we can for him.”

It wouldn’t hurt for the Lakers to have reliable support around him. Most of that responsibility will likely fall on Steve Nash and Pau Gasol.

Nash came off a season where he missed a combined 32 games because of a fractured left left leg (24 games) and a bothersome hamstring (eight games). He’s rehabbed effectively enough at least to feel comfortable trying out Tuesday for the soccer team, Inter Milan.

Does D’Antoni fear he’ll lose his star point guard again?

“He would do a great job, but I think Steve’s a great basketball player,” D’Antoni said with a laugh. “He knows better than that. Knowing him and watching him, he’s going to have a good of a year as he’s had in a while. He’s healthy and will give Los Angeles his money’s worth. That’s the type of person he is. He was disappointed what happened last year and most of it was out of his control. They’re going to work hard and be ready to go. I’m looking forward to having Steve at 100%.”

D’Antoni also sounded particularly excited about working with Gasol again With Howard gone, D’Antoni strongly suggested he’ll feature Gasol plenty more on offense. Last season, Gasol averaged a career-low 13.7 points on 46.6 percent shooting and played more as a facilitator in the high post instead of inside, a role that helped the Lakers to two NBA championships and three consecutive NBA Finals appearances. It didn’t help Gasol missed a combined 33 games because of knee tendinitis, a concussion and plantar fascia in his right foot.

“I expect him to have the best year he’s ever had coming up,” D’Antoni said. “I’m extremely happy he’s on the team. We’ll see where it goes. He’ll be a big piece for this. Hopefully he has the best year he’s ever had.”

But what about everyone else?

The Lakers’ most notable off-season signings involved one-year deals to veteran center Chris Kaman, former USC product Nick Young, perimeter swingman Wesley Johnson and former UCLA product Jordan Farmar.

D’Antoni remained coy on who will start beyond Bryant, Gasol and Nash. But he openly talked about having an 11-man rotation as opposed to the seven players he used last season. D’Antoni also suggested he’ll run more of his system that calls for a faster pace.

“Will we be more up tempo? I’d like to be, in theory,” D’Antoni said. “But I have to watch the players and see where they can go with it. I do want to shoot a lot of 3’s. That’s where the league is going. If you look at it analytically, it’s a better shot than your old traditional inside the arc jumpers. That mathetmatically makes sense. You want to try to get 3’s layups and fouls. You want o get a system that maximizes our offense.”

But what about defense?

“That’s going to be our key next year and come together as a group and defend,” D’Antoni said. “We’re going to score. We have a lot of scorers out there. When you think a lot about our players they can score, but defense might not be the first thing on their mind. But can we get a mindset where we can defend. If we can, we’ll be really good.”

Overseeing that responsibility will be Kurt Rambis, who spent 10 seasons as Phil Jackson’s lead assistant coach. Rambis also had head-coaching stints with both the Lakers (1999) and Minnesota Timberwolves (2009-11). He won four NBA titles in his nine-year career with the Lakers during the Showtime Era.

Rambis supported Jackson to replace Mike Brown last season for understandable reasons. Rambis also openly albeit tactfully criticized the Lakers for their play at times when he worked last year as an analyst both for ESPN and Time Warner Cable SportsNet.

Does such a hiring just bring another reminder about Jackson?

“Nobody needs any reminders,” D’Antoni said. “I’m pretty good at remembering. I don’t look at it that way. Phil cast a big shadow. He should. He had unbelievable success and he’s a great coach. It is what it is. I’m trying to hire the best guy qualified. Kurt is that. You dont want to say this guy is not quite as good and let’s get him because you’re afraid of something that happened in the past. We got to go forward and make this team as good as we can.”


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Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at mark.medina@dailynews.com