Throughout his career as an NBA head coach, Mike D’Antoni has tried to write the perfect tragedy.
He was so close in Phoenix. Almost by accident, D’Antoni found the most compelling protagonist of the decade in Steve Nash. Together, D’Antoni and Nash built Seven Seconds or Less, the offensive equivalent of a Ferrari. A Ferrari destined to drive off a cliff. D’Antoni envisioned Nash and the Suns as James Dean. Sexy, but ultimately destined to play fast and die young. Tragically young. Instead, the plucky Suns played the loveable underdog for four years. Despite happening upon a fantastic villain, the unapologetic, hip-checking Robert Horry, every time D’Antoni’s Suns fell short of the NBA Finals, they were viewed less like tragic heroes and more like the guys from Cool Runnings. A team which overachieved and ultimately succumbed to bad luck was not the great American tragedy Mike D’Antoni had hoped for. Frustrated but not deterred, he left the desert for the most fertile tragedy ground in the world, New York, New York. The city that never sleeps because all the dreams are long gone.
D’Antoni didn’t blindly race to NYC without learning a few lessons along the way. He realized the protagonist in a great tragedy can’t be a new upstart like the Suns were. Hamlet wasn’t some random newb. He was a prince. He had a pedigree. He had the potential energy for a big time fall. D’Antoni needed a team with a history. A team with a cathedral he could metaphorically tear down. Enter the New York Knickerbockers.
When D’Antoni took over, the Knicks were in a bad way. New York hadn’t been relevant in some time and the future was bleak. Undeterred, D’Antoni jumped in with both feet. Like a pig, he sniffed for tragedy truffles and mired himself in the Knicks’ losing culture. He toiled along while the stink of Isiah Thomas wore off and the horizon of Carmelo Anthony got closer. Carmelo was supposed to be his Hamlet. The price the Knicks paid was certainly a prince’s ransom. But after Anthony’s arrival, the Knicks continued to disappoint, and D’Antoni became the tragic figure. Not even Linsanity could save him. He resigned unceremoniously, and Mike Woodson slid into the coach’s seat like an understudy taking over for the 5th male lead. No one really noticed. New York wasn’t at all the tragic masterpiece D’Antoni had hoped to author.
The offseason came and went. Mike grew a beard and had knee surgery. He spent his days cursing his two Olympic Gold Medals as though the success he contributed to in London and Beijing had someone how ruined his tragic karma. His quest seemed fated to remain unfulfilled. But serendipity still had a part to play.
Mike Brown, a coach whose tenure in Cleveland had inspired D’Antoni’s quest for basketball tragedy, stumbled mightily out of the gate in LA. The Lakers had spent their offseason flipping semi-pro bowler and cosplay enthusiast Andrew Bynum for Dwight Howard, and signing Steve Nash for an Eastwood-in-Unforgiven last ride. Adding them to a roster which already included “motivated to the point of homicide” Kobe Bryant and Tony Robbins-impersonator Pau Gasol had caused the Laker hype bubble to swell to “mortgage backed securities in 2006” levels. But the Lakers started the season 1-4. And doing what they do best, the City of Los Angeles freaked the @#$% out. Total panic. Five games into the season.
There is perhaps no environment better for fostering tragedy than obscenely unreasonable panic. Panic causes people to make rash decisions. In severe cases, multiple bad decisions are made in a row. Case in point: the Lakers fired Mike Brown with $8 million left on his contract, then rebuffed NBA title machine/basketball Dumbledore Phil Jackson in order to hire Mike D’Antoni. D’Antoni couldn’t have known at the time, but his tragic opus was about to play out all over TNT.
The Lakers are the most vaunted franchise in the NBA. They’ve won five titles in this century and 16 overall. They’ve been mediocre in the past, but never talented and mediocre. On paper, the Lakers should have been great. Nash, Kobe, Pau, and D12 seem like pieces that fit. Putting them together was supposed to build LA a 17th Championship. But as the season under D’Antoni wore on, that promised title crumbled brick by brick.
The biggest blow to the Lakers’ foundation was injuries. It started with Dwight’s slow recovery from back surgery and Nash’s broken leg. Nash was supposed to aid D’Antoni in converting the team into a purple and gold Ferrari. Without him, D’Antoni’s efforts served only to stuff Pau, Dwight, and Kobe into a clown car. As the Lakers continued to struggle, the Mamba brought the drama, calling out Howard for not playing through the pain.
With the Lakers mired in lottery position, looking up at the Warriors and Clippers for the first time ever, it looked as though their tragic season had reached its low. But D’Antoni wasn’t finished. Great tragedy is like a rollercoaster. The can be no butterfly-inducing drops without the occasional climb. And climb they did.
LA finally found its stride and began clawing their way back to relevancy in late January. Even when the injury bug popped up again to claim Pau, the Lake Show went on thanks to Kobe’s most generous and efficient season in years. It was all looking up. The playoff seemed like a real possibility and the Spurs looked hobbled and ripe for upset.
And then the Kobe’s Achilles burst. Ironic how a tendon can play a central role in two of the great tragedies of all-time. With all due respect to Homer (the epic poet, not the loveable yellow dolt) however, D’Antoni’s masterpiece cut more deeply than The Iliad, especially for Laker fans who know it only as the movie, Troy. Yes the Lakers still made the playoffs and somehow vaulted past the Rockets to reach the previously unthinkable height of the seventh seed, but the death blow had already been dealt. The injury bug became a full-blown plague in the Lakers’ locker room. LA traded the Hall of Fame/MVP backcourt of Kobe and Nash for Andrew Goudelock. The Spurs swept the Lakers so succinctly it seemed as though San Antonio almost felt bad about. The Lakers’ demise culminated with Dwight, the purported future of the team, getting thrown out of the game for whining, as Kobe limped like a fallen hero to the bench to bask in the adulation of one last ovation. The final horn sounded and the D’Antoni’s tragic opus was complete.
The Lakers fell from preseason title contenders to a franchise in peril in just six short months. Their franchise-defining superstar is staring down the barrel of a painful and daunting recovery. The front office must decide whether or not to amnesty him, a cowardly but fiscally defensible decision which would surely cause riots both on the streets of LA and Twitter. Kobe’s two 7-foot sidekicks are free agents and one or both will likely be gone soon. For the first time since 1996, the Lakers and their fans have no hope for next season.
The departure of hope is the final orchestral crescendo of great tragedy. Mike D’Antoni waved his baton vigorously all season long, and conducted a downfall for the ages. He achieved tragic perfection. His quest is now complete.