Nash-D'Antoni reunion won't be Showtime, but it'll be fascinating
It wasn't too long ago that Mike D'Antoni looked, in his own words, "like a West Virginia bootlegger."
"Well, hell," said his brother Danny, a West Virginia native like Mike. "It's in your lineage."
Today? He looks like a million bucks. Four million of them actually, the annual salary he'll get for coaching the Lakers.
It's not the $6 million he got to coach the Knicks, but, on the other hand, Jim Dolan and the craziness of Madison Square Garden will be 3,000 miles away.
D'Antoni is still on crutches after a knee replacement but feeling much better than he did last week when he was limping around, unshaven and slurping Jell-O, at an old folks' home in Westchester, N.Y. His wife, Laurel, had found him a room there when a power outage had killed his access to the outside world.
"It was pretty much a low point," D'Antoni said on Friday, the last time he had been in full communiqué mode.
Reached at his home on Monday morning, D'Antoni would not provide details of his plans with the Lakers, who finalized a deal with their new head coach at 3 a.m. ET that morning. "They asked me not to talk, so I'm not going to," said D'Antoni.
But a few other details were pieced together from other sources and casual conversations I've had with D'Antoni in the months since he abruptly resigned from the New York Knicks in March.
• He will fly to L.A. on Wednesday morning but will take at least a few days to acclimate himself. He is still on crutches but, then, in a metaphorical sense, so are the Lakers, who are 3-4.
• Steve Nash is supposed to return from a small fracture in his left fibula early next week. An educated guess would put D'Antoni in charge by that date.
I've asked D'Antoni in recent months if he thought that Nash, at 38, could still play a high-octane offense. "Steve can still do anything," responded D'Antoni, who is -- and this is beyond obvious -- said to be thrilled to be rejoining the quarterback he helped turn into a two-time MVP in Phoenix.
The best guess, though, is that this will not be a seven-second offense. Nash at 38 is not Nash at 30. The underrated aspect of D'Antoni's up-tempo offense, however, is its half-court proficiency. It wasn't all long passes and easy transition baskets. It was based on quick decisions made on pick-and-rolls, dribble-ats, handoffs and lobs performed in the half court.
When it didn't work it was because of clock-killing isolations, the specialty of Carmelo Anthony, which is why New York was an awful fit for D'Antoni's schemes. Anthony never adjusted to D'Antoni, and D'Antoni never adjusted to Anthony.
• D'Antoni has a solid relationship with Kobe Bryant. Their shared past in Italy is well known -- Bryant at first wore No. 8 in homage to D'Antoni, a star in Italy during Kobe's boyhood -- but the relationship went through a testy period years ago. D'Antoni's Suns had a particularly antagonistic 2006 first-round playoff series with Bryant's Lakers, and Kobe was in the middle of most of it, especially battles both physical and verbal with Suns guard Raja Bell.
But Bryant and D'Antoni have spent a lot of time talking during their Team USA stints together. They were particularly friendly last summer during the London Olympics. (I witnessed their exchanges.) They still share stories about Italy and talk to each other in Italian from time to time. And D'Antoni's respect for Bryant as a player has never wavered. "Kobe's a bitch to guard," D'Antoni would say time and time again. That is his highest compliment.
The new coach's biggest challenge just might be incorporating Bryant's post-ups into a D'Antoni offense. But Kobe isn't Carmelo. He plays the whole game. Getting out and running, and depending on a healthy Nash to figure out when Bryant's isolations are called for, will be crucial to D'Antoni's success in L.A.
• Another challenge will be getting a wing man involved when a track meet is called for. Shawn Marion's speed was a key element to the success in Phoenix, and neither Pau Gasol nor Metta World Peace is Marion. But in my conversations with D'Antoni, he has always spoken highly of Gasol, whose intelligence he respects and who he believes can be a runner, not just a back-to-the-basket player.
• D'Antoni knows Lakers assistants Bernie Bickerstaff and Eddie Jordan and respects both of them. He will depend on their input during the transition, and the only coaching change that is solidified so far is that brother Dan will be joining him in L.A. His other predictable hire would be Phil Weber, who, like Danny, was on his staff with the Suns and Knicks. But Weber's status is still up in the air.
• Finally, the presence of Dwight Howard should help D'Antoni. No matter how much he insists that his teams have never been as bad defensively as critics have claimed, he is an offensive-oriented coach. That is his priority at practice and during games. Having a shot-blocker like Howard to clean up mistakes is something he never had in Phoenix. Tyson Chandler gave him some of that element in New York, but Chandler is not quite Howard.
"The best time they ever had out in L.A. was Showtime," said someone close to D'Antoni, "and I think Mike can bring some of that back."
No, it won't be Showtime. But it won't be Slowtime either. It will be fascinating to see if D'Antoni and his two offensive stars, Bryant and Nash, can figure out a winning compromise.