Los Angeles Times
7:37 AM CST, November 16, 2012
LOS ANGELES -- Mike D'Antoni hobbled to his first news conference as the Lakers' coach. He used a crutch on his left side, still recovering from knee-replacement surgery.
He finished a distant second to Phil Jackson in the popular vote among Lakers fans, but he wasn't the one receiving an awkward midnight rejection call from General Manager Mitch Kupchak on Sunday.
"We're built to win this year. This is not a project," D'Antoni said Thursday about his new team. "We have a window."
It's a tiny one, with an aging roster and thinning patience among fans who expected a roaring start, not a 3-5 record and sagging offense.
"We would love to be able to play 'Showtime' basketball," D'Antoni said. "We would like to get someplace close to it."
He coached his first practice Thursday and, in a savvy PR move, planned to consult with Magic Johnson on how to re-create the buzz in the team's foundering offense.
After the Lakers finished practice, they huddled and said simultaneously, "Championship."
"There's no hiding it," D'Antoni said. "That's our goal."
He showed plenty of humor in his 45-minute news conference and had an idea of how to revive almost every player.
Pau Gasol is shooting 40% this season, a huge drop-off for a former All-Star. D'Antoni called Gasol "the best big man that's played the game in a lot of years. Skilled for sure.
"We'll try to open it up a little bit more for him. We'll try to move him around and get him comfortable."
D'Antoni also predicted a Dwight Howard surge in the near future, saying the "dominant center in the league" was able to show only 75% to 80% of what he could do. "Every month he'll get better with his back and his timing," he said.
D'Antoni has a tremendous comfort level with Steve Nash, whom he coached for four seasons in Phoenix. Nash, 38, has missed the last six games because of a small fracture in his left leg and there is no timetable for his return.
"I can't wait to get him back. I think he's got another two or three years in him," D'Antoni said. "He didn't have a whole lot of speed when he was in Phoenix, so he hasn't lost anything. I think the people of Los Angeles will come to appreciate an unbelievable player."
Of the Lakers' struggling reserves, D'Antoni said there would be everything but open tryouts among them. "We'll look at who adapts," he said.
Not surprisingly, D'Antoni suggested there was nothing to change in Kobe Bryant's game: "He's playing as good as he's ever played."
D'Antoni probably won't coach Friday's game against Phoenix but will make his Lakers debut Sunday against Houston.
He laughed when asked about the playoff run-ins the Lakers had with his Phoenix teams in 2006 and 2007. "I hated you guys forever and you all hated me," he said. "As soon as Mitch gave me the word [Sunday]…Hey, I love you guys."
Kupchak was the one who told D'Antoni he got the coaching job.
With all the pro-Phil sentiment bouncing around the city, it seemed uncertain D'Antoni would get a fair chance.
"Probably not, but that's L.A. for you," Bryant said. "He understands the situation. He's not going to sit around and 'Poor me' type of thing. He's pretty sarcastic, so he'll fit in with this bunch quite well."
As the soap-opera plots criss-crossed again Thursday, Bryant heard what Johnson said about Lakers Vice President Jim Buss. It wasn't kind.
But Bryant said he'd had no problem with the younger Buss.
"[Johnson's] opinion is valued greater than most others because of what he's done here with this franchise. I can only speak from my perspective in my dealings with Jim. He's been phenomenal," Bryant said. "He's seemingly made all the right choices. Going back in time, I'm sure he would have called me and consulted me on the Mike Brown hiring, but that is what it is. Other than that, he's been behind some pretty good moves."
Johnson said Wednesday on Twitter he was "mourning" because the Lakers hired D'Antoni instead of Jackson.
Johnson later said on ESPN that "I don't believe in Jim Buss. He's made two critical mistakes already," the hiring of Brown and the hiring of D'Antoni.
Bryant didn't agree about D'Antoni.
"The fact that I'm genuinely excited about it, Steve is, Dwight is, Pau is. It makes it easy for everybody else to fall behind that," Bryant said.
As the doors opened for reporters to view Thursday's practice, the Lakers were completing a series of pick-and-roll drills. It looked more like a training-camp session.
D'Antoni's brother, Dan, was the only addition to the Lakers' assistant coaches. Bernie Bickerstaff, Chuck Person and Eddie Jordan were among the holdovers.
Bryant was impressed with the D'Antoni brothers. "They're enthusiastic, very smart and in a very short period of time, they were able to give us a shell and structure of what they want us to do," Bryant said.
It has been a strange week, the Lakers firing Brown last Friday and junking the Princeton offense immediately.
"It's not like we're having to kind of re-learn things. We never really learned what we were doing in the first place," Bryant said, adding, "Hopefully, we'll start winning some games here."