Will Mike D’Antoni Save Phoenix (Again)?

The last time the Phoenix Suns were a mess they turned to Mike D’Antoni to rescue a 8-13 team. Initially, he wasn’t better than the man he replaced. While Frank Johnson won 38% of the games he coached, D’Antoni won 34% as a replacement coach, but here was the difference. D’Antoni had a plan. It centered around Steve Nash who was a free agent to be. D’Antoni sunk all of his energy and West Virginia charm into selling Nash on Phoenix and the Seven Seconds or Less offense once summer rolled around. Nash was available because Mark Cuban didn’t think he could play five more years at a high level; D’Antoni did. D’Antoni was right.

Twelve years after the first D’Antoni hire (2003), the Phoenix Suns are again a mess. Where to start? On Sunday, management fired the top two assistant coaches, Mike Longabardi and Jerry Sichting, against Jeff Hornacek’s wishes. Hornacek may be next given that the Suns next opponents are the Cavaliers, Spurs and Thunder.

From the very beginning ownership had unrealistic expectations for a three point shooting team without a perimeter defender and without a pure shooting guard, a 6-7 driver and scorer. It makes sense that the Suns players can drain threes and it also makes sense that they give up a lot of points. Like most awful NBA teams, they don’t have an identity.

It’s been a comedy of errors for Phoenix in the post-Steve Nash years.

In 2014, Eric Bledsoe, a restricted free agent, took a hardline approach to his contract situation and the Suns blinked, paying him $70 million dollars over five years. No one argues Eric Bledsoe’s defensive talent, offensive capabilities and mental toughness but he already had two injury years (out of four). His injury history is part of his narrative, so why go all in, at that price? (He’s out again with a torn meniscus.)

Before the Suns finally gave in to Bledsoe, they signed Isaiah Thomas when they already had a point guard in Goran Dragic, who was billed as the Steve Nash replacement. Dragic, a free agent to be, wasn’t particularly happy at the Thomas move. Besides, it didn’t work. Dragic, who was used to creating tempo and running things, became a glorified spot up shooter who waited in the corner for the ball. He was no longer a creator, felt marginalized because of it, played like he was unhappy, and finally wanted out. When he said he no longer “trusted” the Suns organization that was all it took to ship him out.

They traded Isaiah Thomas soon after and brought in Brandon Knight, a decent scorer, a reluctant defender. Because they are the Suns, they overpaid Knight in the off-season. He can never be what they want him to be.

More summer blues: in an attempt to snag LaMarcus Aldridge, a longshot at best, the Suns needed salary relief and traded Marcus Morris away from his twin brother which put Markieff Morris in a funk to which he has never really recovered, even though on media day he vowed to play nice.

His playing nice was throwing a towel in Jeff Hornacek’s face, a replay of the Robert Horry insurgency that got him out of Phoenix and to the Lakers in 1997. The Suns suspended Morris two games.

The latest, though perhaps not the last, indignity was losing to the 76ers, the worst scoring team in the NBA. The 76ers scored 111 points on the Suns home floor, beating them. It was the 76ers first road win and second win of the year.

If Jeff Hornacek is indeed the next one to be thrown overboard, who is waiting to pick up the pieces? Mike D’Antoni, of course. D’Antoni always fails up. He went from the Suns to the Knicks to the Lakers. A return to Phoenix could close the circle.

The last we saw of Mike D’Antoni in the Western Conference he was being exiled from Lakerland for a variety of reasons, their horrible record, notwithstanding. He helped run off Dwight Howard who he didn’t have any affection for and wasn’t shy about saying so. He battled Pau Gasol, the nicest human on earth, from day one. He loved his little second tier guards, Jodie Meeks and Nick Young, who had career years under D’Antoni and who have been marginal since. The fact is guards love playing for D’Antoni. Big men not so much.

Rightly or wrongly, D’Antoni was blamed for ruining Kobe’s foot because he didn’t have the cojones to stand up to Bryant, or, rather sit him down. He wasn’t a good Lakers fit; he didn’t get the history, the expectations, the lore. Nor, the toughness.

But in Phoenix, it would be a return to normal. The team is D’Antoni-like. They are small, they shoot threes and are very good at it- 2nd in the league (37%). They don’t play a lick of defense (27th in points allowed). They have a disgruntled power forward, and more importantly, they are the only NBA team that needs D’Antoni more than D’Antoni needs them. The Suns are clueless on the court. No one can really explain what they are trying to accomplish.

As marriages go, D’Antoni-Phoenix seems a perfect chance to renew their vows which is not to say D’Antoni will change his reputation into one that can win a title. With his aversion to rebounding, big men and defense, he can’t win the big prize. But, D’Antoni was the originator of this small ball love fest so why not bring the pioneer back home? The Suns will be exciting again with the D’Antoni schemes based on freedom and ball movement. And horribly sad with his defense as he tries to outscore everyone. It’s the D’Antoni way. Is it the Phoenix way?

photo via llananba