D’Antoni Turns Back the Clock
January 17, 2017 by Ross Lancaster • Print Story •
In the spring of 2004, the NBA wasn't a particularly entertaining league. Games, especially in the playoffs, were slow, grind-out affairs with a severe lack of shot-making. The league suffered from a lack of star power in a post-Michael Jordan world, and casual fans generally didn't watch if the Shaq and Kobe Lakers weren't involved.
The epitome of this period in basketball, to me, was that year's Eastern Conference Finals between the Pistons and the Pacers. The Pistons won in six games en route to that year's title, despite series averages of barely 75 points per game and shooting well below 40 percent from the floor.
The NBA knew this type of play wasn't sustainable or good for it's product, so it tightened up the rules on contact, especially on the perimeter.
That summer, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban elected not to re-sign then-two-time All-NBA point guard Steve Nash. He went to the Suns, where promoted assistant Mike D'Antoni was taking charge for his first 82-game season as an NBA head coach after flaming out as Nuggets head man in the lockout-shortened 1999 season and taking over the Suns on an interim basis for the final 61 games of the 2003-04 season.
D'Antoni and Nash teamed up to change pro basketball for the better.
In the 2004-05 season, the Suns, embracing uptempo basketball, small ball, the three-pointer and a spread pick-and-roll system, were not only a much-needed boost of adrenaline to the sport, they were its most entertaining team and posted unbelievable numbers relative to the league average.
During the 2004-05 season, six teams averaged more than 100 points per game. In 2016-17 all but seven clubs hit the century mark on average. The Suns, albeit playing the league's fastest pace, averaged more than 110 ppg, 6.7 points more than the next highest-scoring team that season. And most importantly, the Suns went from 29 wins in 2003-04 to 62 in 2004-05.
Of course, the D'Antoni/Nash Suns weren't perfect. Defense was too much of a weakness, and the more-disciplined Spurs were their playoff foil three times in D'Antoni's four-year run with Nash. They never won a title or got to an NBA Finals.
But when you watch a random NBA game in 2017, with scoring and pace at their highest levels since the early 1990s, and more than 30 percent of all attempted shots coming from behind the three-point line, the product looks a whole lot more reminiscent of the "Seven Seconds or Less" Suns era than anything from the rock-fights of the late 1990s or early 2000s.
The irony in all of this is that, until taking the helm in Houston before the start of this season, D'Antoni's coaching had been essentially discredited after utterly disappointing years with the Knicks and Lakers after leaving the Suns. In both those stops, D'Antoni tried to work square pegs into round holes with personnel that was a horrible fit for his system.
Impossibly, the coach that won 54 or more games in each of his four seasons with Phoenix hasn't guided one of his teams to a single playoff game win since Game 4 of the 2008 First Round against San Antonio.
However, in joining with James Harden in Houston, that drought for D'Antoni will almost surely end this year. And at this point, even with the chance of Russell Westbrook averaging a triple-double for an entire 82-game season, Harden is currently the favorite to win NBA MVP, much as Nash did under D'Antoni in 2005 and 2006.
Let's take a step back and remember the perception of Harden at the end of last season. In 2015-16, Harden averaged 29 ppg, 6 rebounds per contest, and 7.5 assists per game, but yet didn't make any of the three All-NBA teams, which was pretty much unprecedented for such a stat line.
It wasn't like he was an inefficient player, either, making 49 percent of his twos, 36 percent of his threes and getting to the line 10 times a night, making 86 percent of them. So why didn't the media vote for him? Quite simply, he was a bad defender and known chemistry issue on a team that massively underachieved.
Given D'Antoni's issues in the past with star players like Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard, you could be forgiven if you thought that teaming him with Harden, a player who got a reputation for individual basketball and occasional bad shots in isolation, was a very bad idea. Instead, D'Antoni officially moved Harden to the point.
Now, the Rockets are on roughly 60-win pace at the midpoint of the regular season, and Harden has become an absolutely magnificent passer, upping his assist totals by more than four per game.
Offseason acquisitions Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon are each hitting 40 percent of their threes for the Rockets (who shoot threes at a rate unlike any other team in league history), and big men like Clint Capela, Montrezl Harrell and Nene are good role-playing complements to Harden and the shooters.
Right now, it's such a good-looking and fun-to-watch team that you could make an argument that the Rockets, with a next-level Harden and amazing offense, and not the Spurs or Clippers, pose the biggest threat to Golden State come the playoffs.
Unsurprisingly, the Rockets don't have the best defensive profile, but they have been stronger since Patrick Beverley returned from injury in mid-November after missing the first 11 games of the season.
Against the odds, Mike D'Antoni has rejuvenated his coaching career and reminded basketball fans of how much fun his offensive system can be when firing on all cylinders. Whether the success of his time with the Suns can be duplicated or surpassed remains to be seen, but in Harden, he has the right man for his system.
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