D’Antoni’s Fall

In the 2016 Olympic games, in just eight-tenths of a second, Usain Bolt took the gold medal from Justin Gatlin. It takes longer to blink your eye- between two and 10 seconds- then was the difference between Bolt and Gatlin. Eighty years earlier, it was one-tenth of a second that separated Jesse Owens gold medal in front of Adolf Hitler from silver medalist Ralph Metcalfe. We all know what Owens accomplished but Ralph Metcalfe had a distinguished career after his silver medal finish. But no one talks about him. (Metcalfe is credited with co-founding the Congressional Black Caucus. He was a long time Chicago politician and fought in World War II. He was an impressive human being but one-tenth of a second changed his life, from superstardom to obscurity.) We don’t care about second place.

Mike D’Antoni finds himself in a lot of second places. He isn’t favored by the Basketball Gods and because of it something always happens. In Phoenix, in Game 4 of the semi-finals in 2007, Amare Stoudamire and Boris Diaw left the bench. They were suspended for two games and the Suns couldn’t manage the disruption. They lost to the Spurs and Mike D’Antoni was gone from Phoenix in two years.

Next was New York. D’Antoni couldn’t co-exist with Carmelo Anthony and he was fired midseason. In Los Angeles, Kobe Bryant tore his Achilles and wasn’t a D’Antoni fan. (D’Antoni calls Bryant the toughest player he has ever coached. It wasn’t a compliment.) D’Antoni benched Pau Gasol for Earl Clark then feuded with Dwight Howard all season long.

In Houston, D’Antoni found a perfect player to run his system except for the D’Antoni kryptonite- no defense- followed him into disappointing playoff losses. D’Antoni was led to believe there was a market for him if he left Houston and he was ready to sign in Philadelphia. But Steve Ballmer fired Doc Rivers.

These things happen to Mike D’Antoni all the time. Now he is forced to play the second chair to his pupil Steve Nash on an intriguing but combustible team because Kyrie Irving apparently believes he doesn’t need a coach, that the team can coach itself.

How did D’Antoni go from James Harden whisperer to coaching hires gone bad? He’s regulated to an assistant in a city that hates him-New Yorkers have long memories- and it feels like he’s eating crow.

Mike D’Antoni is a Hall of Fame-bound coach who revolutionized the game when he initiated his 8 Seconds or Less offense and had the perfect point guard to run it. But since then nearly every team has adopted a form of D’Antoni’s offense, from three-point shooting to dribble handoff to an early offense. He’s not particularly special anymore as the league has caught up.

When D’Antoni and Steve Nash hooked up in 2004 the Suns were first in three-point attempts at 24 per game. At the time, that seemed astronomical and foolish. Some sixteen years later, in 2020, the Houston Rockets were first in three-point attempts at 46 per game. That’s + 22 in 16 years. The lowest 3-point attempts this past season belonged to Indiana. They were ranked 30th and attempted more threes than the Suns did in 2004, 28 per game. D’Antoni isn’t so special anymore.

Plus he brings baggage. He doesn’t like traditional big men and prefers to go small. But the NBA has reverted back to their roots. Of the last 4 teams left in the bubble playoffs, 3 of the 4 had big men. Nikola Jokic (Denver) 7’0. Anthony Davis (Lakers) 6’10. JaVale McGee (Lakers) 7’0. Bam Adebayo (Heat) 6’9. Meyers Leonard (Miami) 7’0. Daniel Theis (Celtics) 6’8.

Has Mike D’Antoni lost his relevance? Outside of Philly, he wasn’t on anyone’s must list. It made sense that Doc Rivers and Ty Lue got the glamour jobs. But Stan Van Gundy took the Pelicans job and he hasn’t coached in two years. The Nets hired an inexperienced Steve Nash. Chicago signed Billy Donovan to a contract. Indiana offered their head job to Nate Bjorkgren, a Raptors assistant.  OKC is on the clock and will probably hire an assistant.

Mike D’Antoni is 69 years old and his coaching career is winding down. He made it to three Conference Finals (2005, 06, 18) but the NBA Finals have alluded him mostly because skilled shooting often gives way to lockdown defense. Stop D’Antoni teams on offense, it’s a wrap.

But is his coaching career a wrap? Despite the 2020 miscalculation, D’Antoni still has one more job in him I think. He’ll be resurrected for one last shot. A team with a bunch of shooters who needs D’Antoni to greenlight them back to relevancy before losing in the playoffs. Then it’s retirement for good.