Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni has offered his two cents in response to the widely held notion that he was one of a number of contributing factors that pushed Dwight Howard to choose the Rockets in free agency.
The Los Angeles Daily News reported the specifics of D'Antoni's defense against accusations that his offense failed to suit Howard's strengths and needs. D'Antoni makes two major points. First, that Howard's health limited D'Antoni's ability to feature him. Second, that D'Antoni's famously fast-paced system shouldn't be blamed for turning off Howard, because the Rockets, who ranked No. 1 in pace last year, take a similar approach.
"The only thing that cracks me up is (the question) 'Why didn't you go through him more?' " D'Antoni said. "Well, he was hurt. Why would we go through him if he's hurt? You have to (factor) that in. Why would we do that with Kobe [Bryant] and [Steve] Nash and (Pau) Gasol on the floor? That doesn't make a lot of sense."
"The thing that cracks me up is Houston, they do the exact same thing," D'Antoni said, laughing. "And so (Howard) is gonna go to Houston? OK, so did they talk about change there? Don't tell me that it's that different."
It's a reflexive response for a coach, especially one who is known as a brilliant offensive thinker, to defend his system and approach from outside criticism. But this seems like a classic case of a "It's not what you say, but how you say it" breakdown between coach and player.
Without total buy-in from their star players, NBA coaches don't stand a chance. Without a positive, two-way rapport between player and coach, that level of buy-in is very difficult to achieve, with or without health issues or other external factors (ego struggles, the presence of a No. 1 option in Bryant, etc.).
To answer D'Antoni's question: What's different in Houston, at least for now, is that Howard seems genuinely excited to play for Rockets coach Kevin McHale and work with franchise legend Hakeem Olajuwon, who is expected to mentor Houston's big men in an official capacity. Should Houston's hardcore recruiting really matter? No, it shouldn't. Howard should be pursuing greatness, first and foremost, through his own internal drive. Should Howard only play hard for former Hall of Fame big men? No, again, he should bring his A-game, whether he loves, hates or idolizes the guy drawing up the plays.
Judging by Howard's play and behavior last season, though, that's just not how he works. The Rockets seem to have pushed his buttons and established meaningful relationships in ways the Lakers never did. Howard said more believable, genuinely nice things about McHale in 24 hours than he said about D'Antoni in eight months. Howard already seems to have a better bond with Chandler Parsons than with any of his key Lakers teammates.
At some point, those chemistry questions and communication problems fall on a coach's shoulders. Can D'Antoni honestly say that he positively impacted Howard's approach to the game? Can he look in the mirror and say that he helped Howard develop into a better player? Can he look back on how Howard's season went without regrets? It's safe to say that the Lakers -- with their age, injury issues and personality conflicts -- were impossible for any coach to salvage. But D'Antoni is doomed to repeat his same mistakes if his major response to the last 12 months is to offer a knee-jerk defense of his offensive philosophy. If he is to last with the Lakers long term, D'Antoni will need to find a way to connect more effectively with whatever star eventually takes Howard's place.