Thursday, April 17, 2014
FAIRFIELD-SUISUN, CALIFORNIA
99 CENTS

On crutches, Mike D’Antoni takes over the Lakers

Mike D'Antoni

New Los Angeles Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni during a news conference at the team's basketball training facility in El Segundo, Calif., Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

EL SEGUNDO — Mike D’Antoni circled the court 2 feet at a time, moving smoothly on crutches while his Los Angeles Lakers went through drills orchestrated by his assistant coach and brother, Dan.

Although D’Antoni’s surgically replaced knee is slowing him down a bit, he couldn’t wait any longer to get the Lakers rolling.

D’Antoni formally took over the Lakers on Thursday, four days after the slow-starting club hired him to replace Mike Brown. The former Knicks and Suns coach is still on crutches and pain medication after surgery earlier this month, but thinks he’ll soon be back to normal while he attempts to transform the Lakers into his vision of an up-tempo, high-scoring team.

“I’m really happy to be here — excited,” D’Antoni said. “(We’re) starting to put stuff in now. Might take a little bit, but … we’re built to win this year. This is not a five-year project. We have a window, and we’re going to try to get through it.”

Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak welcomed D’Antoni after practice at a news conference packed with dozens of media members. Given his limited mobility, D’Antoni isn’t likely to make his sideline debut until Sunday night against Houston, with interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff probably manning the bench again Friday night against Phoenix.

“This is a great city to have an up-tempo, exciting game that has a legitimate shot to win a championship,” D’Antoni said. “I can’t ask for anything more.”

D’Antoni’s affable charm immediately worked on the Lakers, who praised their new coach’s demeanor during their first few hours together. The coach acknowledged few qualms about taking over the star-studded roster that got off to a 1-4 start to the season, speaking instead of the limitless possibilities of the Lakers’ talent within his creative style of coaching.

D’Antoni said he rooted for Jerry West’s Lakers while growing up in 1960s West Virginia, and he won’t have any problem transferring his allegiances after trying to beat L.A. for so many years in Phoenix. The coach also realizes his up-tempo style of play will mesh nicely with the Lakers’ heritage under Magic Johnson — who has already criticized D’Antoni’s hire.

“We would love to be able to play Showtime-type basketball,” D’Antoni said. “Now, they might have done it the best that you can do it. We would like to get some place close to that. I think that would be awesome.”

Los Angeles has gone 2-1 under Bickerstaff since Brown’s firing, and the veteran coach was in practice Thursday along with Brown’s entire staff. They finished their workout with a huddle around D’Antoni, followed by a one-word cheer: “Championship!”

D’Antoni isn’t likely to have much trouble meshing with Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant. Nash became a two-time NBA MVP running D’Antoni’s offense in Phoenix, while Bryant has played for D’Antoni on the U.S. national team. The coach also recalls the 12-year-old Bryant hanging out at his games in the Italian league.

“He can come over and cuss me out in Italian, and you guys might not even know it,” D’Antoni said.

D’Antoni also has ties to Howard, who has been on U.S. national teams with D’Antoni on the coaching staff, and backup forward Jordan Hill, who briefly played for the coach in New York.

How quickly that familiarity translates into wins will decide how quickly D’Antoni is comfortable in his new job. His greatest task might be forming a bond with Howard, the defense-minded center who will be the Lakers’ top star for many more years if he re-signs with the club next summer.

Howard was intrigued by his first practice under D’Antoni, but realizes the process takes time.

“We can’t just expect for him to come in and we have one day of practice, and then the next day we’re scoring 150 points,” Howard said. “I don’t think it works like that.”

D’Antoni ran his first practice without his top two point guards: Nash is still out with a small fracture in his leg, while Steve Blake missed the Lakers’ last game with a minor abdominal strain. D’Antoni is excited for his reunion with Nash, but he’s also thrilled by his first chance to coach Blake, a player he identified as an ideal fit for his system a decade ago.

“He said we should be scoring 110 points a game, or something like that,” said Bryant, who isn’t worried about how the veteran Lakers will play defense. “How many defensive players do you need on one team? At some point, you just throw the ball out there and let us figure things out on our own, which is really what we do best, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

Kupchak also shed more light on the Lakers’ decision to choose D’Antoni over 11-time champion coach Phil Jackson, who seemed interested in a third stint on Los Angeles’ bench. Kupchak and Lakers owner Jim Buss wanted to see more aggression and freedom for the Lakers, identifying D’Antoni as their top choice early in their search, but strongly considered Jackson after the Lakers crowd’s chants of “We want Phil!” last weekend.

“We just felt there was so much public support that we felt it might be difficult not to hire him,” Kupchak said. “My feeling (before Saturday’s meeting with Jackson) was that he didn’t want to coach any more, and when he left two years ago, he felt he stayed a year too long. We gradually got to the position where we could do what we think is right for the team. It took us a couple of days to sort through that, and we knew there would be a ridiculous amount of criticism for making this decision, but it was clearly and only a basketball decision.”

The Associated Press

The Associated Press

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