Kobe Bryant speaks to then-Lakers coach Phil Jackson during the 2011 playoffs. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
Kobe Bryant didn't envision Mike D'Antoni becoming the Lakers' next coach. It surely would be Phil Jackson, no?
"I think we were all kind of thinking it was going to be Phil," Bryant said Tuesday. "It probably caught Mike [D'Antoni] off guard a little bit too. But I'm excited."
Jackson coached Bryant for 11 seasons on the Lakers, the two of them winning five championships together.
"Phil and I have gone back since I was 20 years old and everything he's taught me and so forth," said Bryant, normally not the nostalgic type. "There's a little bit of that. At the same time, I'm very excited about Coach D. I know Phil will be enjoying his retirement and looking to get back in the game, although probably not in a coaching standpoint, probably a managerial role at some point."
Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak and team executive Jim Buss asked Bryant, Steve Nash and Dwight Howard who they thought would be the best candidates for the position.
"To be honest, I said D'Antoni was my first choice because I didn't even know Phil was going to be an option," Bryant said. "And then Jimmy's the one that brought up Phil's name. I didn't even know that was a consideration. They said, 'Well it is, and I want to know how you feel about it.' I said 'I love it' and that was it. They knew my two guys that I liked. If one didn't work out obviously with Phil, they knew that they had my approval to pull the trigger on the other one."
Bryant said he "very much" appreciated Kupchak and Buss going to him to seek his opinion.
"Our relationship has been much more open and much more fluid," he said.
Bryant spoke briefly to D'Antoni on Tuesday morning. The Lakers' coach will meet with players Wednesday and then reporters Thursday at his official news conference. D'Antoni is recovering from knee-replacement surgery and probably won't coach until Sunday's game against Houston.
D'Antoni has coached the Phoenix Suns and New York Knicks. He was also an assistant on the last two U.S. Olympic teams.
"He's an offensive genius," Bryant said. "We have a great relationship. The offense that he installed for our U.S. team is the offense that we've run to the tune of two gold medals. We all know the type of talent that we have on that team so it was important for us to have an offense that was flexible, that was open, that kept everybody involved. It worked pretty well for us."
But the Lakers don't have the same shooters and speed that D'Antoni had when his Phoenix teams were consistently breaking 100 points.
"It's going to be fine," Bryant said. "It's not like he takes the same thing that he did in Phoenix and incorporates that here. He has different personnel. He can use Steve to his greatest advantages, and me to mine, and Dwight to his and Pau [Gasol] to his, and so forth and so on."
What about D'Antoni's reputation as a poor defensive coach?
"That's just because he hasn't won any championships," Bryant said. "To be honest, we might have done in all the years I've been with Phil maybe three defensive drills. I'm not understating it at all. But his philosophy was you guys need to figure it out on your own, and that's what made him a phenomenal coach. He was able to sit back and trust the process. As a result, we've had some great defensive teams."
Bryant then added, "With all the chatter that's going on, particularly about how he's not a good defensive coach, I think we'll rally around that and come out with a point to prove. The last two games, we honestly have had no defensive system whatsoever. We've been reading and reacting to each other and studying personnel. We did pretty good. Tonight is going to be a different animal but we're looking forward to it."
The Lakers (3-4) play San Antonio (6-1) on Tuesday at Staples Center. In their last two games, the Lakers beat Golden State, 101-77, and Sacramento, 103-90.
Whereas Jackson was reflective and calm on the sidelines, D'Antoni was often more vocal.
"I know how competitive he is," Bryant said. "He's a feisty, feisty dude, man. Temperamental, even. I like that."
Phil Jackson gets call from Lakers and it's not what he expected
Lakers players surprised but enthused by hiring of Mike D'Antoni
It's unanimous: Lakers' selection of Mike D'Antoni over Phil Jackson is wrong