The Rockets may not play defense this year and they may score a lot of points and their three point shooting may be off the charts but they won’t be boring, thanks to Mike D’Antoni, the offensive whisperer who can turn average players into sensational scorers and boring teams into must watch t.v. This season in H-town will be different than anything Houston has ever experienced.
Mike D’Antoni is always getting ripped for everything he doesn’t do. He had some Hall of Fame players that won’t exactly sing his praises. But every coach lives with what if . What this would have happened. What if that didn’t happen. Every coach has failure; he is not on the podium on the last day of the season. He is not in the locker room drenched in champagne. He is not being talked about three weeks into June.
Every coach has success. How he defines it says a little bit about him and his psychological makeup. Success can be a title. Or, it can be making the playoffs. Or, it can be improvement. Or, it can be, in Mike D’Antoni’s case, impacting the league with a revolutionary style of play, that, 13 years later, is adopted by every NBA team.
Mike D’Antoni was ahead of his time. In 2003, he introduced a space the floor, point guard dominant, fast paced offense, that had opponents out of breath and gasping and had the Phoenix Suns on top of the world until the playoffs rolled around, then it was all of D’Antoni’s flaws on center stage. But in games 1-82, D’Antoni’s new system was considered an anomaly and then it was slowly integrated, and now every team runs some version of spacing the floor with shooters moving the ball and teams de-emphasizing post play and the center position. It’s about guards and shot making. D’Antoni’s favorite saying, “shoot it or move it” is no longer a throwaway line.
D’Antoni has always bristled at the isolation game. It takes four other players out of the play, role players, players not as talented. D’Antoni knows what that feels like because he was that role player in his short lived NBA career before he became a star in Italy. To his way of thinking, it is boring to have the ball in the hands of a Hall of Fame player for 17 seconds while everyone else watches.
As a system, D’Antoni nirvana failed in New York and it failed in Los Angeles. It has only worked in Phoenix. Now it is Houston’s turn.
New York and Los Angeles had great iso players (Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant). Los Angeles had great post players in Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard. D’Antoni had no business taking the L.A. job but his ego got in the way. The Lakers just didn’t have the personnel to make what D’Antoni likes to do work and as long as Kobe Bryant was in the league, they were never going to be able to play D’Antoni’s way.
One of D’Antoni’s weaknesses as a coach is not being tougher than his star player, and avoiding confrontation. He just isn’t one to say, “my way or the highway.” He doesn’t challenge players or punish players. He isn’t into being right and his ego doesn’t get off on being the smartest guy in the room.
The biggest gripe in the locker room when D’Antoni was in New York was he didn’t hold players accountable. That just isn’t what he is comfortable with. What he is comfortable with is making sure non-star players thrive. Jeremy Lin had the best year of his career those few Linsanity months. Nick Young hasn’t been the same player since D’Antoni left Los Angeles. D’Antoni embraces the non-superstar role player, giving them confidence, an identity, freedom, and allowing them to reach beyond what many feel they can. They are the NBA players Mike D’Antoni loves the most.
The D’Antoni failures are well documented but this Houston team may reverse all of it. There are no dominant personalities that make D’Antoni uncomfortable. It’s a bunch of floor spacers who make threes and move the ball. The one exception: James Harden can iso the ball to death at the end of games, over dribbling and not passing. His teammates can get frustrated with him.
Harden’s year in 2015-16 brought a dose of humility, particularly when he was left off the All-NBA team. Harden was damaged by his on-again, off-again relationship with Dwight Howard. Harden was blamed. Add to that fact Harden played zero defense and was perceived by outsiders to be a bad teammate. Winning isn’t always about scoring. It’s about leading.
D’Antoni is the cure for Harden selfishness. Sliding him in at the point and pushing him to not hold the ball, to trust his teammates, will energize Harden and thrust him back into the MVP conversation.
It’s not an overreach to say this is the team D’Antoni has been waiting for. His talented scorers have all come from somewhere else, same as D’Antoni. It all fits.
James Harden was part of a Big Three in OKC. Eric Gordon was the Clippers prize first rounder until they had to give him up for Chris Paul. Ryan Anderson was a free agent pick up. Trevor Ariza has been here and there since he won his NBA title in 2009. Nene was in Denver then Washington.
Like Jeremy Lin and Nick Young, expect Ryan Anderson to have a monster year playing for D’Antoni. Expect the Rockets to have a blistering offense, not as spectacular as the Warriors, but defenders are going to have trouble staying with shooters if they move the ball the way D’Antoni likes. The Rockets defense will be crappy; who outside of Patrick Beverly and Corey Brewer can stop shooters? No one. But the offense will remind everyone how gifted Mike D’Antoni is as an offensive coach. The addition of Eric Gordon, if he can stay healthy, will take a lot of the scoring pressure off of Harden and add one more offensive player teams will have to control.
Will it win a title? Probably not. But it will resurrect the career and image of Mike D’Antoni, who failed in the big cities of New York and Los Angeles. Outside of the Suns, this Rockets bunch may be his favorite team of all.
photo via llananba