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.
Then he spoke about the need to be strong. He wasn’t the popular choice among Lakers fans, finishing a distant second to Phil Jackson, but he wasn’t the one receiving a midnight call from General Manager Mitch Kupchak last Sunday.
“We’re built to win this year. This is not a project,” D’Antoni said Thursday. “We have a window.”
It’s a short one, with an aging roster and thinning patience among fans who expected a roaring start, not a 3-5 record and a sagging offense.
“We would love to be able to play ‘Showtime’ basketball,” D’Antoni said. “We would like to get some place close to it.”
He coached his first practice Thursday and, in a solid 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 lengthy 45-minute meeting with media members and had an idea how to revive almost every player.
Pau Gasol is shooting 40% this season, a huge drop-off for a former All-Star in a funk extending to last season.
D’Antoni called Gasol “the best big man that’s played the game in a lot of years. Skilled for sure.
“I just want him comfortable in what he does. We’ll try to open it up a little bit more for him. We’ll try to move him around and get him comfortable with all kinds of elements.”
D’Antoni also predicted a Dwight Howard surge in the near future.
“He is the dominant center in the league. There’s nobody like him,” D’Antoni said, adding that Howard 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.”
D’Antoni has a tremendous comfort level with Steve Nash, whom he coached for four seasons in Phoenix. The problem is that 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. We’ve got to get his leg well. I think the people of Los Angeles will come to appreciate an unbelievable player.”
Of the Lakers’ severely struggling reserves, D’Antoni said there would be everything but open tryouts among the backups.
“We’ll look at who adapts. Guys will come out. The bench will help us,” he promised.
Not surprisingly, D’Antoni said there was nothing to change in Bryant’s game.
“That’s the most competitive guy I’ve ever been around. He’s playing great basketball right now,” D’Antoni said. “He’s playing as good as he’s ever played.”
D'Antoni laughed when asked about the playoff run-ins the Lakers had with his Phoenix teams in 2006 and 2007. The Suns won both series.
“I hated you guys forever and you all hated me,” he said. “As soon as Mitch gave me the word, hey, I love you guys.”
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