Two prevailing themes emerged throughout my recent half hour phone interview with NBA TV analyst Rick Fox.
The Lakers have too many question marks heading into this offseason, including who they will draft, who they can acquire via free agency, which of the team’s 12 free agents will stay next season and how Kobe Bryant will recover next season. The Lakers also will have to decide what they will do with coach Mike D’Antoni, who has yet to meet with the front office since last week’s exit meetings. With each day that passes, Fox believes that means D’Antoni’s job appears more and more secure despite overseeing the Lakers (27-55) worst mark in L.A. franchise history.
Below is part one of my transcript with Fox, the former three-time NBA champion with the Lakers who touched on nearly everything pertaining to the purple and gold.
Do you think Mike D’Antoni will be the Lakers’ head coach next season?
Fox: (laughs). If they were to do something, they would have done it already. He has the confidence of the owners and Mitch Kupchak. It was a difficult year. That’s clearly evident to all. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they see Mike as fully responsible for the breakdown physically of the team and the roster that lost Dwight Howard. With their plan for the future, they seem to be planning to rebuild this offseason. It’s very clear to me, and they expressed that, that they want to spend their money down the line. In spending money down the line, such free agents I’m sure will have questions about who their coach is going to be and even want a voice in that. I don’t know how you turn around and hire a new coach right now when a year from now you’re going to be addressing the same situation.
How do you evaluate how Mike did this year?
Fox: Some would say he did an admirable job amid the chaos. It’s just hard for Lakers fans to see or endorse a season that happened last year. It’s so uncharacteristic of the organization to be faced with such challenges. But if you really look at the history, it’s once or twice before and the turnaround has been quick. The challenges to do that may be different than they were then with the salary cap and the way the league operates now. But only time will tell.
From a system approach, Mike’s system has an entertaining quality to it, but it also has its critics. If he had won a championship at this point, maybe it wouldn’t be so maligned. In that regard, it puts him in the firing line. It’s a lot easier to take shots at him. But at the end of the day, I don’t know if any coach put in the same position would have been able to do better. They likely would have done the same thing, if not worse.
When you talk to the Lakers, it seems like if you talk to a guard or role player, they love Mike’s system, but if you talk to a big or Kobe Bryant, they don’t. How do the Lakers overcome those philosophical differences?
Fox: From what I can tell, it’s a pretty equal opportunity system. That makes sense that man 6 through 12 is going to love it. It gives the green light for anyone with the ball. In that respect, you see if you look at the roster of the players that he has coached, everyone to a man ends up with career statistical numbers. You have to take the side of numbers never lie. Or the numbers can tell a story that appears attractive, but it’s really fool’s gold.
If the roster on this year’s team with the numbers guys put up, how would that float on other teams or other scenarios in other systems? What’s been glaringly apparent and where the criticism comes in is on the defensive end of the floor. I don’t think you go anywhere in this league if you don’t have the ability to play some level of defense. I don’t think there’s a strong emphasis in the system. Mike might say otherwise. But if it’s something that was clear, we’d all see it. Great basketball analysts, players and knowledgeable basketball fans alike were digging for it. We just don’t it.
So how do the Lakers fix up their defense?
How do they go about fixing the defense? Mike’s best defense in his system is his offense. It’s a personnel battle. How do you get the personnel to join that team that looks more like the Phoenix teams he coached when he had a two-time MVP in Steve Nash, Joe Johnson and Shawn Marion and Amare Stoudemire and a bunch of talent that could overwhelm an opponent for 48 minutes? But even then, none of those teams made it to the Finals or won a championship. You become a very successful regular season team. In the case of the Lakers and the Knicks teams, they struggled with chemistry and became very below average teams. Your best hope is you are entertaining as can be and can catch lightning in a bottle in the playoffs and you play the type of teams that play your style and you just happen to be better than them.
What’s your sense with what Kobe is going through with his injuries?
He’s in the lab. He’s in his own world and back in the gym at 7 o’clock in the morning and starting his journey back to being ready for a season of redemption. I think nothing less from him to at least return a monocle of his greatness and ability to suit up and get on the floor. I think he’s striving to return to that form. I know he will put the time in over the next few months and I look forward toward seeing him in October.
Obviously you and everyone knows about Kobe’s talent, work ethic and history of overcoming injuries. But how do you compartmentalize that history versus the reality of him coming off two major injuries and them being different animals than what he’s gone through before?
I’m sure he’s trained to get ready for every season in the past 15-16 years. Then he’s going to tax his body.There’s no way most professional athletes don’t tax their body in a regular season to begin with. He will get that workload in a few months just getting ready for the season. That’s a heavy push. More and more and more doesn’t necessarily create the results you want as you get into your late 30’s.
I never question his basketball IQ. It’s higher than any of ours. No one is more in tune with his body than he is. He lives with it daily. But I know he’s going to push himself. I just hope he thinks about the ramifications of really tackling the offseason as he has in the past and adding more wear and tear before he even starts the regular season. I trust Kobe to know what’s best for Kobe. I just know that he’s very willful and very determined and that he’s never been in this position before. Pushing through, you’re capable of doing that in your younger days, but that isn’t necessarily the answer as you get older.
I know some of this hinges on what their pick is, who they draft and who’s available on the free agency market. But considering what you saw this season, which guys they signed on one-year deals worth trying to keep?
First of all, if you tell me next year as Kobe as alluded to, needs to be treated the same way every single season in fielding a team that can compete for a championship, that would require the Lakers to head out into the market place and make some moves for some of the free agents ahead of time before they’re off the books next year. There might be teams who know they will lose a certain player to free agency and they don’t want to lose them and get nothing or deal with the debate and conversation that ruins a locker room and ruins a season by wondering if that guy needs to be started at the start of the season, middle of the season or after the All-Star break. Then the player has all the power and gets held over a barrel. Some teams may consider doing something this season earlier. If that’s the case, that draft pick becomes pretty attractive. You’re giving up some young talent that has posted some impressive numbers statistically this past season and they become attractive pieces to add to trades.
But if you’re saying you’re going to wait like I’ve seen Mitch say and we’re going to use some of our money next year and save some for next year and maybe use none of it. The gameplan is we didn’t create this leverage of cap space to just blow it away with impatience. So if the game is to still be patient for another year, then I have to think all the talent that you have seen develop, you want to hold onto it. They’re not going to sign long-term deals. Swaggy P [Nick Young] might be thinking it’s time for me to stay a Laker and get paid. But I don’t know how much you are investing in Swaggy P if Swaggy P can get $6 million out in the open market. I don’t know if that’s the smartest money spent if you’re the Lakers. We know what he’s developed into in Mike’s system. If you bring another coach in with a different system, is Swaggy P still Swaggy P?.
The Wesley Johnsons are extremely talented, Xavier Henry hasn’t been able to stay healthy. But Kent Bazemore goes down when you make that trade. He ruptured the same tendon that ended my career. I’m quite worried for that young man and his future. Jordan Hill, I haven’t understood why he hasn’t played more consistently all season long. But he’s obviously frustrated and is a free agent. I can guarantee you that someone will sign him if the Lakers don’t. There are some young pieces to me that might not initially appear to be part of championship level team, but they are nice pieces that you want to entertain keeping around if you’re looking to build around two pieces that are coming in going forward.
Then, what happens with Pau Gasol? I would say that Pau Gasol has some options now that the ball is in his court. I know New York reuniting with Phil [Jackson] would be attractive, reuniting with his brother in Memphis could be extremely attractive for him, staying in L.A. could be an option. But Pau is on the last legs of his career and I’m sure he wants to go to a winning environment. But he loves Kobe and he loves L.A. He’s working on his relationship and working on a clear understanding with Mike D’Antoni with how they will all collectively pursue championships. That’s something that will also have to go down this offseason.
Can Mike and Pau find a more common ground if both stay?
That would have to happen. I think that’s the only way that Pau stays is if he gets to a place with Mike where they have an understanding. But they’ve had enough years to do that. If it hasn’t happened by now, I don’t think it’s ever going to happen. So the Lakers are really choosing one over the other.