The hiring of Mike D’Antoni as coach of the Los Angeles Lakers shows that Kobe Bryant’s influence with team management is waning, said Steve Mills, a former president of Madison Square Garden sports.
Bryant, 34, has won five National Basketball Association titles in 16 seasons with the Lakers, who opted for D’Antoni over Phil Jackson, the winner of five of his record 11 coaching titles with the franchise. Bryant publicly lobbied for Jackson to replace Mike Brown, who was fired last week after a 1-4 start.
“It’s clear the Lakers are at a point where they’re going to do things that are in the best interest of the team regardless of what Kobe thinks,” Mills said in a telephone interview.
Brown signed a four-year, $18 million contract prior to last season. The 61-year-old D’Antoni received a three-year contract worth $12 million. All that guaranteed money makes it unlikely that management would make another change even if Bryant, who is third in the league in scoring at 26.1 points a game, becomes displeased as he enters the final part of his career, Mills said.
“The combination brings them to a point where it’s going to be very difficult to make drastic changes,” he said. “Kobe is still going to have a voice in the team, but I don’t think he’s in a position to mandate where certain things happen.”
Bryant’s agent, Rob Pelinka, didn’t immediately return a message left at his office seeking comment on the coaching situation.
D’Antoni is reunited with point guard Steve Nash, a two- time Most Valuable Player who, like three-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard, joined the Lakers via trade during the offseason.
Nash flourished with the Phoenix Suns under D’Antoni, who preaches an up-tempo, pick-and-roll offense and encourages his players to take the best shot available in the first seven seconds of the shot clock.
A D’Antoni-coached team might be reminiscent of the Magic Johnson-fueled “Showtime” Lakers, who won five championships during the 1980s.
Unlike the fast-paced D’Antoni, Jackson endorses the so- called triangle offense, where players are asked to read the defense and react by making the proper pass. He utilized the triangle with the Lakers, who had Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, and the Chicago Bulls, who won six championships with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
Jackson’s contract demands included an ownership stake in the team, the Los Angeles Times reporting, citing an unidentified person familiar with the situation.
Jackson, 67, is the only coach that would’ve improved the team’s title chances, said RJ Bell, founder of Las Vegas handicapping information website Pregame.com.
The Lakers are the second favorite to win the title behind the defending champion Miami Heat.
D’Antoni was quoted as telling the New York Daily News that he, like most in the basketball community, figured Jackson was a shoo-in for the job.
“For sure I did, didn’t everybody?” he was quoted as saying. “When I got the call that it was me, my first reaction was, ‘Are you serious?’”
Jackson was “stunned” that he didn’t get the job, ESPN said, citing a person in the league who it didn’t identify.
Lakers owner Jerry Buss; his son, Executive Vice President Jim Buss; and General Manager Mitch Kupchak were unanimous that D’Antoni was the best coach at this time, team spokesman John Black said on the club website.
“Part of this is Jim Buss putting his stamp on what’s going on within the team and taking the reins in a bigger way,” said Mills, who oversaw business operations of the NBA’s New York Knicks and hockey’s New York Rangers while at MSG.
Former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy, now an analyst with ESPN, said who is playing, and how they’re playing, is more important to the league’s most valuable franchise than who is coaching the team. The Lakers have a payroll of more than $100 million this season and are valued at $900 million by Forbes magazine.
Nash, 38, was hurt in the second game of the season, while Howard says he’s still rounding into form after offseason back surgery that forced him to skip the London Olympics for the U.S. team. Bryant played on the team, which included D’Antoni as an assistant and won the gold medal.
“Once Steve comes back they’ll flourish,” said Mills, who started three seasons for Hall of Fame coach Pete Carril at Princeton University.
The Lakers this season have created 18.1 pick-and-roll possessions per game, the lowest in the 30-team NBA, according to Synergy Sports Technology. Howard was the most efficient finisher last season in the pick-and-roll among players with at least 35 possessions, while Nash was the most efficient creator with at least 315.
Howard shot 74 percent last season in pick-and-roll situations. Nash by himself created more points via pick-and- roll plays than 10 teams in the league, according to Synergy, a sports statistics and data company based in Woodinville, Washington.
D’Antoni most recently spent three-plus seasons as coach of the Knicks, resigning last season with the team 18-24. Houston Rockets point guard Jeremy Lin, a Nash disciple who spent last season with the Knicks, credited D’Antoni for his success. Lin took over in midseason and helped lead a surge that resulted in the Knicks’ first postseason win since 2001.
“He changed my career, he changed my life,” Lin was quoted by the Houston Chronicle as saying. “I’m always thankful to him for that. I wish him the best of luck in L.A.”
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