Lakers fans had to be overjoyed this summer when Steve Nash and Dwight Howard were air-dropped into Hollywood from heaven, ostensibly putting Kobe Bryant back on track to collect more jewelry.
What about coach Mike Brown? Overjoyed? Not so much.
The former Mesa Community College coach knows better than most what a burden expectation can be. He had LeBron James in Cleveland and didn’t win a ring. He inherited the disinterested trio of Kobe, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum in the post-Phil Jackson Era in L.A., which is a lot like an American Idol semifinalist following Sinatra on stage.
All the Lakers were missing last year, the experts decided, was a point guard and defensive stopper in the middle. Enter Nash – a two-time MVP and one of the league’s most maniacal basketball minds, and Howard, who was finally freed from Orlando and ready to follow in Shaq’s footsteps to a three-peat in Los Angeles.
Ownership expected to dominate. The parade route was drawn up. The fans, spoiled in a way only New York Yankees fans can understand, would wait impatiently for June and the matchup with LeBron and Miami. Our stars against your stars: Ready … set …
But after a 1-4 start, Coach Brown is out of town. Never mind that the Heat was limping along at 9-8 after 17 games last season, but stuck with embattled coach Eric Spoelstra and went the distance. Never mind that Nash has a leg fracture, Howard nowhere near recovered from back surgery and Kobe has a bad foot – it’s obviously about the X’s and O’s. It’s obviously Brown, who at least publicly was backed by Kobe himself.
The Lakers are known for canning coaches early. After winning an NBA title two years earlier, Paul Westhead was fired by Magic Johnson, oops, I mean the Lakers, 11 games into the 1982-83 season. Del Harris got the gate after just 12 games in 1999.
But past Lakers management showed patience compared to this year, when Brown was given just six percent of the season to prove himself. Even for Hollywood, that’s a quick cancellation.
Word is Jackson is on the short list of names who will be pursued, and why not? He’s had a little break. The deck is stacked in his favor – something that has always been a must for the Zen Master. And while Kobe and Phil have had their tiffs, Kobe can count: Five rings with Phil, none without him.
But as wasted as Nash was in Brown’s system, tossing him into Tex Winter’s triangle offense doesn’t seem to be the best use of his talents. Taking over a team in the middle of the season doesn’t feel like Jackson’s style, karma-wise.
And that’s why another name on the short list with Arizona ties is particularly intriguing: Mike D’Antoni.
Think about this now – both D’Antoni and Nash joining forces with Kobe! It sounds like a bad comic book or WWF script. One guy (Nash) stole Bryant’s MVP Award in 2006 (sourced from the gospel according to Kobe) and the other … well, when asked last year why he averaged 34 points a game in eight games against the Knicks while D’Antoni was coach, Kobe quipped “It has a lot to do with Mike D’Antoni being over there. We want to stick it to him every time we play against him.”
Bryant was joking. Although the relationship was strained when the Suns were knocking the Lakers out of the playoffs twice, they have spent a lot of time together with Team USA and there is a mutual respect. D’Antoni didn’t trash Kobe in a book like Jackson did. They both speak Italian and they both enjoy scoring as many points as they possibly can. Neither suffer fools greatly or have much use for anything that doesn’t involve winning.
There are drawbacks. D’Antoni is laid up following knee replacement surgery and about a month away from coaching. His son is in his senior year of high school. And D’Antoni’s penchant for doing things his way, all the time, has ruffled more than one owner in his time.
But having all that talent in Los Angeles with a coach who loves rolling out the basketball and saying “Have Fun Guys?”
That sure sounds intriguing.
Jerry Brown is a contributing columnist who appears every Sunday in the Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.