One-on-One With Mike D'Antoni
Before the Lakers played back-to-back games at Boston and Charlotte, we sat down with Mike D'Antoni to cover a variety of topics: how the team got where it is right now; how and why Kobe Bryant turned into more of a facilitator; why the team's pace has slowed down; what he and his staff focus on defensively; what he's learned during a challenging season; and what the team needs to do to get out of the big hole they dug for themselves in the first three months.
Below is a transcription of the conversation:
Trudell: Kobe's emergence as a facilitator seems to have really sparked the most recent winning streak, with six victories in seven games (prior to splitting the roadies at Boston and Charlotte) behind much-improved ball movement on offense and better energy on defense. How did that change come about?
Mike D'Antoni: The only thing I try to do as a coach is just stay on message and pound the points home. You never know when something is going to (fully) take hold - you hope it's immediately, but sometimes it depends on if guys are happy with their roles. You just keep working with them and stay on message; you don't scold them. Eventually, if you stay on message and if they're serious about winning, hopefully they'll get it.
Trudell: How did that process of moving Kobe on the ball more, and Steve Nash off it, originate?
D'Antoni: It's always (a) combined effort. I couldn't do it without the players buying in, and if they don't buy in, they'll never get it done by themselves. I think the whole time we've wanted Kobe to do that, because statistically, Kobe's really good in the pick and roll. We always encouraged that, and encouraged him to be a facilitator, but I never wanted him to only be a facilitator or only be a scorer. He has to find a happy medium between both, and he can do that. That's what great point guards do - being able to run the team while also being dangerous. And at a certain point, Kobe realized that to make the team win, he had to do it. It's worked out so far. The hardest thing about the transition was getting everyone to stay on message when things were going bad, when everyone is telling these guys to play a certain way. You're swimming upstream, with the noise being really loud in markets like L.A. and New York, but thank goodness, I think we have it turned around a little bit. But we still have a long ways to go.
Trudell: You came into the job without training camp, on a bum knee, with your two top point guards hurt, and Murphy's Law has continued with injuries to your big men. Injuries aside, what's been the most difficult thing?
D'Antoni: The hardest thing was having to go through the whole bench to find the combinations of what I liked, and who I liked. It took me three weeks to get to Earl Clark, after trying various guys - Devin Ebanks, Jodie Meeks, Darius Morris, Antawn Jamison - and they're going to look good sometimes, but (it's about) the combinations. Usually you do that in September, watch them play at the practice facility and then iron things out in training camp, in addition to half of November to get your rotations down. With the losing on top of that, it made it really difficult. You don't get it right all the time; sometimes it's a gut feeling that changes from day to day.
Trudell: When you were introduced as the new coach, you said you thought the team could score 110-115 points easily, and I don't think anybody at the presser really disagreed when considering the personnel. But through injuries and personnel and players being uncomfortable in spots, how have you had to adjust?
D'Antoni: We've had to learn. I took for granted some things we weren't that good at. The relationship with pick and rolls has been a bit slow in developing; getting guys comfortable in their roles with the ball flowing around took a long time. I do think we can get back there, but now we're playing at a bit slower pace, which probably is better. I'm OK with that. Shooting has been inconsistent, and I think we need to make shots, but I think we found a happy medium.
Trudell: When you got hired, Kobe said one of the primary reasons he liked you so much from playing against you and for you at the Olympics was your competitive nature and feistiness, where he obviously sets himself apart from everybody. What's it been like being around Bryant?
D'Antoni: You can't help but appreciate what he goes through to get himself ready physically and mentally to play. He's shown that his whole career, but when you're around him every day, you realize that he's just not normal. I like to think I'm competitive, but I'm not on his level. You do appreciate that, and you know he's gonna give you everything he's got, even if sometimes you may have to tone it down a little bit. It's great going into battle with him.
Trudell: How have you been learning how to operate with Kobe's crazy competitive drive and fire, which is usually for the better… does it take any finessing?
D'Antoni: The bottom line is that he really wants to win, and he'll do anything it takes to do so. It may take a while to come to an agreement of what that means at times, but you can always count on him doing what it takes to win. I just have to be myself, be open and honest, and keep a dialogue going. You try to ride with Kobe as he goes to certain places, and eventually it ends up in a good place. When you're dealing with men, you have to be open and honest and give your assessment. I found out a long time ago that if the players don't want to do it, they're not gonna do it. But if they believe in it and you can sell it, you have a chance. So we may have preached some about the facilitating, but he really had to come to that conclusion on his own, realizing that's what we have to do.
Trudell: Nash has looked more like Steve Nash in the past few games. Kobe suggested that he's just trying to play, being less concerned about feeding everybody else. Is it also related to him just getting his legs back after so much time off the court?
D'Antoni: I think so from a physical perspective, but it's also being comfortable with what to do on the floor. He's always had the ball, but he's playing off the ball more now. For awhile when he was trying to involve four other guys, he could lose his game at times. It's also the confidence level in a new place, building a level of (comfort) when he's 39 with a new organization. He's trying to prove himself, and is now getting more comfortable. Now, Steve's always been the best team player, the best teammate; just look at the high fives he gives. I think it's invaluable, and if you ever get a chance to play with a teammate like him, you're lucky.
Trudell: How do you gauge when to practice, when to run schemes and what not with a team this old and beat up, but still needing to work on things both offensively and defensively?
D'Antoni: We have a lot of voluntary workouts where the younger guys go in and try to get better, but as a team, you have to give up some execution and some stuff in the middle of the year because you have to save their legs. One of the biggest things about winning games in the NBA is how much energy you bring to the floor, and if you practice it out of them, it doesn't help. I'm a real believer in rest, from my playing career to wherever I've coached. We do film and shooting, but I'm not going to (beat up guys) too much in practice. Like in football, we won't have many contact practices. I try to prepare for the next day and the next game the same way whether we won or lost.
Trudell: Opponents are shooting around 41 percent from the field during the recent winning streak. What's been working better defensively?
D'Antoni: I think the players are getting the schemes a little bit better. You have to play offense and defense without thinking, and react like you know what to do, but if you're thinking of where to be and 1,000 other things you can lose focus. You're trying to play hard, but you're overthinking. That's true with everything, and it’s why chemistry is so important, why chemistry off the court has to be solved. The defense can be affected by certain guys not being comfortable in the offense, and then not just playing and reacting on the other end. You don't play as efficient or hard with things like that going on, and it's gotten better overall in the past few weeks. But the schemes are similar to what everybody does. Last year maybe they helped in a different place here and there; we've just changed the way to do it.
Trudell: What specifically have you been doing - for example, on screen/roll schemes - that the players are executing more regularly?
D'Antoni: On screen/rolls, half of the teams force middle and half the teams force baseline. We force baseline. On the high pick and roll, half the teams show, and half the teams zone and over. We zone and over. So you can find different examples everywhere. Now, every team tries to have players stay in front of their man and collectively rebound; everybody tries to block out. One thing we try to get to focus on is getting on the nail a lot on the weak side; we have spots we have our guys try to get to on the weak side. That's something we stress, but it's taken a bit longer for our guys to get on their spots. It's kind of like zoning up on the back side of the defense, and a lot of times we don't do that as well as we should. Ultimately, you try to fit your personnel and what you can do as well into what you run. For example, when we go over Boston's plays, we'll go over exactly what they do, but the defensive concepts stay the same with most teams. It's the same theme over and over again, and we try to keep it as simple as we can.
Trudell: So if most teams run similar schemes on defense, certain teams do focus in specific places, but for you guys, has improved ball movement on offense led to guys simply trying harder on D, regardless of scheme, thus the improvement in the numbers?
D'Antoni: Sure, I do think the offense has helped us on defense, because guys feel better about themselves when we're moving the ball and not forcing shots.
Trudell: What have you learned since taking this job?
D'Antoni: Every situation is different, but blending the personalities together has been the hardest thing here. It still is hard. (Players can have an idea) of what they think works best, and (winning) takes a lot of giving and compromise.
Trudell: The Lakers were ranked sixth in offensive efficiency (per ESPN) for much of the season, dropping recently to eighth, so that wouldn't appear to be the problem no matter what you run. Is it true that what matters most is simply effort on defense for this team?
D'Antoni: For sure. Like Nash has said, it shouldn't matter how we play on offense, or what we run, and he's right. If we just play hard defensively, we'll be OK.
Trudell: Gasol's plantar fascia tear was a blow, as he was beginning to really fit in well playing more at the center position, which has been his best position his whole career. Was that the idea behind putting him on the bench?
D'Antoni: Right, getting him at center more was the idea. I told that to Pau. Part of the idea is to rest Dwight more, and spread the opponent out more for both players to have room to operate. To run pick and rolls with Nash or Kobe, there's just more room if we have Metta or Earl out there as opposed to also have Pau inside next to Dwight. Regardless, we'd finish most games with Pau and Dwight; there are just certain matchups - like when New Orleans went really small and I wanted someone to chase Ryan Anderson around the three-point line - where we'd go smaller.
Trudell: With Gasol out for 6-8 weeks, will you most often go small?
D'Antoni: Yes, we'll just work around it. We'll use (rookie center) Robert Sacre sparingly, and (most often) Earl at the five and Metta or Antawn (Jamison) at the four when Howard sits. Most teams will match up with us anyways, because they can't handle us on the other side of the floor. Now that we're playing the right way, it can work. Before, we weren't playing the right way, so it was counterproductive because we weren't taking good shots. Now it's better.
Trudell: How do you manage the personalities of basically an All-Star team, as you described it before that Memphis game, due to the lack of D at the time and everybody wanting to score.
D'Antoni: We had the big meeting in Memphis, and I think emotionally we weren’t quite ready to sustain anything in the game that night. Feelings were pretty raw. I thought we played better in spurts in that game, and it built from there once we got home.
Trudell: So you respond by winning three straight at home, beating Utah, OKC and New Orleans, and get Phoenix down by 13 before blowing the lead and losing after Howard aggravated his shoulder injury in the fourth quarter. I know you were frustrated about that, but Kobe said after the game not to worry, that it was different from earlier in the season.
D'Antoni: That was great. And we talked about it as a team after the Phoenix game. Every good team loses 25 games, and every bad team wins 25, so don't think that if you're playing the right way and lose one, to revert to what was happening before. We just blew that game, didn't hit some shots we should have, but we got it right the next game.
Trudell: Finally, Mike, how would you define what you need more than anything else moving forward for this team to have a chance to reach the vaunted preseason expectations, now against the odds?
D'Antoni: I just need everybody's total commitment on offense and defense, regardless of personal wants. It has to be all for the Lakers. And if we do that, we will get out of this hole.