Los Angeles hates Mike D’Antoni. They blame him for Kobe Bryant’s ripped Achilles. New York hates Mike D’Antoni. He prioritized Jeremy Lin over Carmelo Anthony. Phoenix loves Mike D’Antoni. He gave them their glory years. Houston was all in on D’Antoni ball. He vaguely coached James Harden and let the ball pop around the perimeter and the Rockets were dominant in the regular season only to flame out in the postseason.
But while the fans may love how D’Antoni enabled James Harden’s version of iso basketball, Daryl Morey must be over his Mike D’Antoni crush. How do you explain Russell Westbrook in a D’Antoni offense? Westbrook doesn’t make threes. Westbrook dominates the ball. Westbrook is a relentless player and often throws the offense out the window. Westbrook is a difficult player to coach, if D’Antoni has interest in coaching players, which in Houston, hasn’t been part of the agenda. Rather, D’Antoni prefers to just let James Harden do his thing, let the other players revolve around the Harden sun and then complain, and afterwards collect his money.
Westbrook as the Rockets point guard means D’Antoni has to do something he just doesn’t want to do. He has to coach players. He has to create an offense that includes plays D’Antoni hates, the midrange. That is what Westbrook does best. He creates offense around the rim and he makes mid range shots. Mike D’Antoni will have to prove he has the ability to shape what he loves basketball to be about with the talent that Westbrook brings.
Russ is fearless, intense, and a despot on the court. He takes horrible shots over and over again and then he drives to the rim and finishes. He loves hero ball even if it means passing up the shot for a better shot. There isn’t a shot he doesn’t believe he cannot make but he cannot make a lot of shots. His free throw shooting last year was pathetic and no one really knows why. He did an admirable job of letting Paul George be Paul George until George got banged up and then Russ felt the pressure to be himself and it was always going to fail.
The secret about Westbrook, well it’s not much of a secret, what he brings to a team isn’t what you need in the last 5 minutes in a game. He is intensity and heart and guts. He’s tough. But in the last 5 minutes you need execution. You need composure. You need to utilize the entire offense. It’s not about being the star, it’s about winning the game. Westbrook often forgets that small detail.
He is back with his friend and their chemistry will carry them through many a night. They are opposite players, Harden and Westbrook, and they are the same. Harden is a 3-point shot maker extraordinaire. Westbrook is one of the speediest players in the NBA. They can play off of each other, plus Westbrook is a pretty sweet point guard. But like Harden, he’s a stat freak.
Russ likes his numbers. He wants to lead the league in triple doubles. He wants to crash the boards and yank a rebound just to pad his stats. Harden is similar scoring the ball. He’d rather pile up points in a blow out rather than sit on the bench. Westbrook runs rings around Harden’s defense though and is a much edgier personality.
Can D’Antoni be confrontational? Can he set the agenda and tone for what he needs to see on the court, and if one of his talented point guards isn’t following the game plan, will he make them accountable? It is the worst thing about coach Mike D’Antoni. He’s a player’s coach to the nth degree. He doesn’t want to be the bad guy. He wants to be the liked guy. But Westbrook runs rings around coaches who don’t stand up to him. Given carte blanche, he will be a bulldozer on the court and take the game into his own hands and cause D’Antoni trauma.
The Rockets had a good thing going these past two years but bringing in Westbrook is like snow on a summer day. It just doesn’t look right, all those snowflakes on the surface of the pool. Westbrook is talented but it just doesn’t look right playing with Harden when D’Antoni ball emphasizes shooting and spacing and letting the ball move from side to side.
Westbrook has to change. Harden has to be the same. D’Antoni has to reinvent the whole damn thing if any of it is going to work which isn’t just going to take time but a lot of patience.