The Lakers' hiring of Mike D'Antoni shows that he and his up-tempo methods are no longer ahead of their time.
When D'Antoni's Phoenix Suns failed to reach the NBA Finals during their run of four years with 54 victories or more, the mainstream criticism was that he could never win a championship by trying to run up the score. That old-school judgment followed him to New York, where -- apart from the first two months of his final season -- he was dealt lousy rosters and mismanaged promises that the Knicks would recruit LeBron James.
Now the NBA has caught up to D'Antoni. His view of basketball is in the mainstream at last.
The Spurs, who used to beat D'Antoni's Suns by slowing the game with their defense, have gone up-tempo while elevating Tony Parker to MVP consideration. They tied for the league's best record last season by ranking No. 1 in shooting and No. 2 in scoring.
The Heat won the championship by playing faster and basing their principles on the offense that Chip Kelly has established at Oregon -- a style that is revolutionizing football throughout the NCAA and the NFL. Miami coach Erik Spoelstra entered this season with the goal of playing faster than ever.
Which route were the Lakers going to pursue after firing Mike Brown last week? The fans wanted them to bring back Phil Jackson, who is far and away the greatest NBA coach of modern times. D'Antoni will never come close to equaling Jackson's achievements.
But Jackson's style is to slow the game and execute in the half court. I'm not daring to predict that he couldn't have won another championship for the Lakers with that approach. (Phil Jackson, like Chuck Norris, can accomplish anything.) What is obvious, however, is that the league is moving to a faster pace than the Lakers played during the final years under Jackson.
The game has changed. D'Antoni helped change it, and now the Lakers are planning to take advantage of his institutional knowledge.
Think about how the league has evolved since 2008, when the Celtics won the championship by emphasizing defense above all else. While the champions since then -- the Lakers, Mavericks and Heat (who ranked No. 6 in field-goal defense during the playoffs last spring) -- have all been strong defensively, none of them has played the high level of shutdown defense that dominated the league in previous years.
The title contenders of today have too many options and are too fluid to guard. They thrive by attacking while the defense is unsettled, and D'Antoni's offense is in the vanguard of that trend. While his original seven-seconds-or-less team in Phoenix was unbelievably quick -- every starter could claim to be among the speediest in the league at his position -- he can live with players who aren't fast. The key to D'Antoni's approach is ball movement, and the ball will always move faster than any player's ability to run.
The hiring of D'Antoni makes sense for now and for the future. The Lakers should be able to pick up his offense in relatively little time because it was made for Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol should thrive in it and it will create easy baskets for Dwight Howard in transition as well as in the half court. While the Suns won by keeping the middle wide open, D'Antoni has always wanted to develop a style of play around a dominant big man who could also anchor the defense -- after all, he asked the Suns to acquire Shaquille O'Neal in 2008.
The Lakers' bench is going to look more impressive under D'Antoni because open shots will be created for players who are capable of making them -- Antawn Jamison, Steve Blake, Jodie Meeks, Chris Duhon and even Darius Morris. Think about how Raymond Felton looked like an All-Star and how Shawne Williams (now seeking employment in the NBA) looked like a keeper while playing for D'Antoni in New York. D'Antoni has a longstanding record of making a half-empty glass look half-full.
Now consider the long-term impact for the Lakers if they thrive in his system. If D'Antoni restores "Showtime'' baskeball to Los Angeles, then the Lakers will be able to recruit the biggest stars more effectively than ever. Jackson was only going to remain in his high chair for a year or two, but D'Antoni could start a wave of momentum that could last for years.
The pressure to win a championship is going to be enormous, especially since D'Antoni will be working in Jackson's shadow. But that pressure is going to be shared across the board. Bryant, who likes D'Antoni, needs to win a sixth title in order to pull even with Michael Jordan; Nash and Howard desperately need to win their first championships. They should be drawn around D'Antoni by their common interests, as should Gasol, who will love playing in that offense.
The entire NBA became more interesting with this hire. If it works out as expected, the league will be more entertaining than ever, and a high-paced NBA Finals between the Heat and Lakers should be the greatest thing since Magic Johnson met Larry Bird. But it isn't just about aesthetics. I said it last week and I'll say it again: D'Antoni improves the Lakers' chances of winning the final game.