Fast Breaks: The Lakers Bet on Mike D’Antoni
The Lakers Bet on Mike D’Antoni
Not too long ago, Mike Brown was fired from his head-coaching job with the Los Angeles Lakers. His firing had a little to do with his team’s exceptionally slow start and (probably) even more to do with the old-time back-cut Princeton Offense he tried to impose on a roster filled with future Hall of Famers. The Interregnum was brief, which would have probably been a relief to most Lakers fans, but during the course of its search for a replacement, the organization abruptly jumped from the seemingly done-deal track of Phil Jackson and hired Mike D’Antoni.
The sports world—not just the Lakers fan base—pretty much lost its mind. Obviously, there is good reason for the outrage: Phil Jackson has 11 championships as a head coach to Mike D’Antoni’s 0. Even if you take away the six that Jackson won while overseeing the G.O.A.T. Michael Jordan Bulls, he still has five rings. But the championship comparison leads to a facile discussion that plays perfectly into the mock-outrage that fuels 24-hour news cycles. There are bigger issues at play with this coaching change, and only a few people seemed to have focused on that.
Magic Johnson probably said it best. Why keep Mike Brown around during training camp and the beginning of the off-season if there was no faith that he was the guy who could bring back the O’Brien trophy to Los Angeles? As soon as Steve Nash and Dwight Howard’s deals were complete, the coaching change should have been made, if it were going to come at all. Secondly, and probably more importantly, the high-octane offensive style that D’Antoni made himself (and Nash) famous for probably isn’t going to work with a point guard pushing forty and a shooting guard whose mileage is becoming increasingly formidable. Yes, Phil Jackson’s patented Triangle Offense isn’t all that different from a Princeton Offense, but what sets P-Jax apart from his competition is his proven ability to manage big egos—something D’Antoni was not able to do during his last season in New York.
So far, the returns have been mixed. D’Antoni himself is not 100 percent (he is recovering from knee surgery), and neither is his squad. However, if he wants to coach in Los Angeles beyond 2013, he’s going to have to find a way to put the pieces together with a squad that was assembled to either take home a championship or bust completely.
Bowling: The Silent Killer
This August, Sixers fans found themselves on the losing end of a blockbuster deal. A lot of people were expecting the 76ers to pick up where they left off last season—a young, talented team just starting to make some noise in the East—but after dealing Olympic gold medalist Andre Iguodala (yeah, he was there, too) to Denver in a deal that brought them Andrew Bynum, they haven’t had the same charisma or winning record. The big reason for this set back has been the right knee injury that was keeping Bynum sidelined. Conventional wisdom said that as long as the Sixers could make it through the first quarter of a season or so with a total collapse, they could still make the playoffs once they were back to full strength.
Those plans were put on hold last week, when it was announced that Bynum’s debut with the Sixers was going to be further delayed. Most fans probably assumed that rehabbing his right knee was not going as smoothly as planned and the team was just being cautious with their brand-new investment. Unfortunately for those people, that’s not exactly how it went down. Basically, Andrew Bynum injured his other knee—his left one—while bowling. Yes, bowling. I’m not sure how many fans outside of the NBA die-hards and the Philadelphia market know about this story. Perhaps it’s not really news at all (except if you’re one of those stodgy fans always bemoaning that professional athletes are over-paid children).
The problem, of course, is that while you lose your mind that someone like Bynum (or Yankees pitcher Joba Chamberlain, who had a significant injury due to a trampoline accident) isn’t taking his rehab and conditioning seriously, you have to take into consideration that these are young guys trying to live a normal life. It’s easy to say that Bynum should be focused on his sport all hours of the day, but I’m not sure whether or not this actually classifies as a knucklehead injury. Who would really think that bowling would sideline a star center for a couple of weeks?
Hail to the King (For Now)
A few seasons ago, you couldn’t get away from chatter about the Miami Heat. If you weren’t careful, it would be easy to mistake LeBron James as the real culprit for bloated athlete’s salaries and egos, the plight of small market teams, the Great Recession, manufacturing outsourcing, the national deficit and our debt to China and Adam and Eve’s banishment from Eden. He was reviled by many, supported by few, and discussed by anyone with an opinion on the sport of professional basketball (informed or not). In the two years following The Decision, the schadenfreude shared by almost all fans outside of the Miami metropolitan area was enormous.
Now, after winning their first championship together, LBJ and the Heat have become only mildly annoying. Fans that had no ties to the Cleveland Cavaliers have relaxed a little bit: even if they don’t like LeBron James, they realize that he’s good for the sport and that he’s a uniquely talented player, possibly on the level of Michael Jordan. I’ve long suspected that, with time, LeBron would win back most of his supporters. We might not get back to the days of the “We Are All Witnesses” ad campaign (and do we really want to?), but support around the Association is growing. Just look at jersey sales: Miami is the forty-fourth most populated city in the United States, but LeBron James is once again the top-selling jersey.
Right now, Miami is sitting in first place in the Eastern Conference. But will they be the dynasty or basketball juggernaut everyone feared back in the summer of 2010? They’ll be a contender for several more seasons, but Dwyane Wade is on the decline, and there’s no guarantee that Pat Reilly can do anything more than lure veterans in search of their first (or just one more) championship ring before retirement. The parity in the Association is pretty high right now, and LeBron will have to become even more of a baller sui generis than he already is. I’m not sure this is possible, but those who underestimate LeBron James do so at their own peril.
The Clash of the Boroughs
The first regular-season Knicks-Nets showdown was supposed to take place on November 1. Then Mother Nature intervened. As a result, the anticipation for this cross-town rivalry that no one wants to call a rivalry continued to build in proportion to the hype attached to each team.
The Knicks were off to an incredible start, despite being short-handed by injuries to Amar’e Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert. They were playing defense, moving the ball around, and doing the sorts of things that egocentric superstars (read: Carmelo Anthony) are often wont to do. The little bit of positive momentum that the Knicks were able to put together when Mike Woodson took over last spring seemed to have carried over into the fall. Then there was a slight stumble when they dropped a game to the Dallas Mavericks, and from there things started to trend downward.
Across the river, the Nets were stuck somewhere in between the team they were hyped to be and the struggling squad that labored through a losing season in Newark last year. After starting out 1-2, they patched together a winning streak that lasted until the final two games of their first west coast trip (including a close, tense loss to the aforementioned Lakers). By the time the showdown with their rivals from Manhattan finally arrived, they were an admirable 8-4, which was good for second place in the Atlantic Division and third in the Eastern Conference.
The game itself was hyped, and with an overtime victory, the Nets took a big step forward in proving themselves to be more than a flash. The teams will face off a few more times, and there’s a lot of basketball left to play, but to chant the orange and blue out of the still-new-car-smelling Barclays Center was an important obstacle in transforming preseason hype into a long-term brand. Knicks fans will obviously disagree, but it’s hard to think that Woodson and his team will treat the next face-off against the Nets as if it were just another regular season game.
The Fountain of Youth?
Based on the early returns of the 2012-2013 season, there are plenty of guys around the league who have somehow found the proverbial fountain of youth. This number is shrinking, as it always is, but the fact that a sport as grueling as basketball still sees a number of guys in their mid-to-late thirties competing at a high level says something about the improvements in conditioning, rehabbing and sports medicine in general. The continued relevance of Rasheed Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse is easily complemented by a number of veterans, most of which are starting for their teams: Tim Duncan, Jason Kidd, Kurt Thomas, Steve Nash, and Kevin Garnett.
And although questions must be asked—how come Steve Nash is currently on the bench? will Jason Kidd’s back spasms, which kept him out of the Clash of the Boroughs, flare up all season? can Stackhouse continue to be one of the best-rated plus-minus guys on the Nets? can Sheed handle a full season of zero defense?—I have nothing but respect for these guys. Can you imagine the difficultly of grinding out an 82-game season after you’ve made the switch from relying on natural ability to learning how to play smarter to guarding guys in their twenties?
Before NBA Jam (more on this in some future post), there really wasn’t a good way to replicate the game of basketball on any of the most popular video game consoles. Controlling five different players was way too challenging for the kind of gameplay that was possible on the Nintendo Entertainment System, and the 8-bit system was too pixilated to look good with such a crowded court. The move to 16-bit Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo made the graphics a little more palatable, but the games themselves were still clunky and weird. Of course, they didn’t come much weirder than Bill Laimbeer’s Combat Basketball. Named for one of the more notorious members of the bad-boy Detroit Pistons of the 1980s, this game was set at some point in the future (whenever the basketball world unanimously adopted the trapezoidal key of international play, apparently) and featured athletes outfitted in some kind of Robocop-meets-the-Arena Football League uniforms/pads. Of all the misses and near-misses, this game was the equivalent of an air-balled free throw. I only played this game once, possibly at a friend or neighbor’s house, and I genuinely feel bad for whoever paid actual money for it.
Over the course of this season, I’m sure that I’ll be paying homage to a lot of throwback media, merchandise, and miscellany connected with previous eras of the NBA. For this week’s entry, it’s gotta be the shoes.
I’m no sneaker head, but it would totally be possible to dedicate an entire blog to classic Nike basketball shoes. As such, there will definitely be more where this came from, but I wanted to start by celebrating the ’94 Air Max Barkleys. For reasons that are too numerous to list here, 1994 is my all-time favorite year, and it’s only fitting that the Air Max Barkleys are my all-time favorite shoes. I owned these and ran them into the ground at a time in my life when all I did was look forward to a new basketball season and a new opportunity to buy that year’s vintage. I’m sure they were neither the most comfortable, most supportive, nor, as my parents can probably attest, the most cost-efficient pair of sneakers, but they were definitely the coolest. For an eleven-year-old, the 360-degree visibility wrap-around Air Max cushion was basically the equivalent of walking on clouds—and certainly made said eleven-year-old feel that he was this close to being able to dunk. Neither was true, of course, but it piqued imagination and ushered in the next big thing in sneakers: seeing how much of the signature air cushioning could be made visible in a single sole.