Mike D'Antoni: A Tale of Two Great Expectations
Mike D'Antoni, the once-heralded offensive guru who coached the Phoenix Suns to prominence not even a decade ago, has resigned from back-to-back marquee coaching gigs with the New York Knicks and the Los Angeles Lakers.
D'Antoni, NBA Coach of the Year in 2004-05, finds himself in an enigmatic situation in today's NBA climate. The former hot hire has flamed out and left both the Knicks and Lakers in a rather tumultuous manner.
D'Antoni of Old
Before looking at D'Antoni's shortcomings of late, let's not forget how successful D'Antoni once was.
Even though he struggled while taking over the Suns partway through the 2003-04 season, D'Antoni's uptempo offense received the perfect ingredient heading into the 2004-05 season. Pick-and-roll phenom Steve Nash signed with the Suns, and the team finished with an astounding 62-20 record. Those Suns finished first in both points per game (110.4), pace (95.9), and offensive rating (114.5). As a side effect, they allowed the most points in the league per game (103.3).
The Suns rode this offensive wave into the playoffs, sweeping the Memphis Grizzlies and beating the Dallas Mavericks in six games. Only once in those ten games did a team fail to reach 100 points. Phoenix's season ended when it ran into the San Antonio Spurs, who twice held the Suns under 100 points and averaged 108.2 points per game of their own over the five-game series in the Western Conference Finals.
Over D'Antoni's next three seasons, the Suns continued to score in bunches, leading the league in points per game in 2005-06 (108.4) and 2006-07 (110.2) while ending up third in his final year, 2007-08 (110.1). However, the fate of Phoenix stayed a constant as well. Texas was harsh on D'Antoni's route to the NBA Finals; the Suns suffered another Western Conference Finals defeat at the hands of the Mavericks in 2005-06 and were beaten by the Spurs in the semifinals and the first round over D'Antoni's final two seasons with the team.
After a 232-96 record in his four full seasons with the Suns (and a 26-25 playoff record), D'Antoni agreed to a four-year deal to coach the Knicks, a market which could ostensibly help build an optimal roster for his offense.
A New New York
D'Antoni inherited an abysmal Knicks team deep in the dregs of the league and far removed from the franchise's former glory. The Knicks in 2007-08, coached by Isaiah Thomas, finished 23-59, averaged 96.9 points per game (21st in the NBA) and allowed 103.5 per game (22nd). D'Antoni improved the Knicks, albeit slowly, while inheriting a team whose best player (by a large margin) was a fourth-year David Lee after the Knicks traded both Jamal Crawford and Zach Randolph in attempt to haul in a star from the 2010 free agency extravaganza.
Even with the hollowed roster, D'Antoni helped improve the team's offense and, marginally, its defense.
|2007-08 Knicks||2008-09 Knicks|
D'Antoni's revved-up attack had a largely positive return for the Knicks, and the team continued parting way with old players, including Lee. D'Antoni's second season with the Knicks, a 29-53 affair, was just a formality while gearing up to attract the 2010 free agents to basketball's biggest stage (see: LeBron James).
The Knicks, as you all know, missed out on James but did ink former Sun Amar'e Stoudemire to a massive deal. Stoudemire's first season as a Knick earned him his sixth All-Star appearance, and he went on to finish the season averaging 25.3 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks. Stoudemire, thought to be the face of the franchise under D'Antoni, was joined by D'Antoni's eventual bane: Carmelo Anthony.
In 2011-12, what would have been Anthony's first full season under D'Antoni, the former Syracuse star experienced his least efficient season since 2008-09 and finished with a nERD of 4.5. D'Antoni's Knicks were unlikely to repeat a playoff appearance, and D'Antoni left the team in March, concluding a 121-167 span as head coach of the Knicks.
In many ways, D'Antoni's coaching arc with the Lakers was a reversal of his career to that point.
In New York, D'Antoni bided his time while the team underwent the proverbial rebuilding phase. Marginal improvements were made while revamping the roster, freeing cap space, and searching for key free agents to fit his uptempo system. Stoudemire and Anthony joined the team for his third year and finally promised a return to prominence for the Knicks until struggles with the team's star, Anthony, overwhelmed the situation. D'Antoni resigned before finishing his fourth season with the team.
In Los Angeles, D'Antoni inherited a team deemed too promising for its current coach, Mike Brown, a team destined for open-court--dare I say--magic. The team's star, Kobe Bryant, welcomed D'Antoni, a close friend from overseas and Olympic basketball. The team had a pick-and-roll point guard after just having signed Nash, who won two MVP awards under D'Antoni in Phoenix. Dwight Howard was the prototypical pick-and-roll big man.
Everything was in place for success already even though Nash was missing time with a broken leg when D'Antoni took over a few games into the season. D'Antoni revised his approach mid-season and won Western Conference Coach of the Month by April. The Lakers snuck into the postseason on a 9-2 run.
Even after a coaching mess at the beginning of the season, the talent on the court (Kobe Bryant) was enough to reach the post-season. But along came those pesky Spurs, who swept the Lakers and ended D'Antoni's playoff hopes yet again.
The core of the team then imploded.
Howard left the team for the Houston Rockets; Nash and Bryant played a combined 21 games this season; Pau Gasol struggled mightily under D'Antoni. Gasol recorded a career low in nF Efficiency (0.2) and nERD (0.5) this season. (For a detailed look at these stats, click here.) Gasol also posted career lows in points per game (13.7 in 2012-13 and 17.4 in 2013-14), field goal percentage (46.6% and 48.0%), and his worst and third-worst seasons in free throw attempts per game (3.6 and 4.2).
As a result, the Lakers core more closely resembled the lowly Knicks he inherited a few years ago than the illustrious Lakers he was promised in 2012-13. Ultimately, the Lakers still mustered 103.0 points per game (11th-best in the league but allowed 109.2 (29th) en route to recording the fewest amount of wins in franchise history during an 82-game season, finishing 27-55.
D'Antoni resigned from his position on April 30, 2014.
D'Antoni's Next Move
D'Antoni's time with the Lakers, obviously, was disappointing. Whether it was a result of losing favor with his star players (Gasol, Howard, and possibly Bryant), unfortunate injuries (Nash and Bryant), or poor coaching (mismanaging Gasol) is hard to say. He did conclude both seasons drastically differently than he began them: taking time off to recover from knee surgery to coaching the Bryant-Howard-Nash(-Gasol) combination last year and losing his core again this year (and having Jodie Meeks and Wesley Johnson lead his team in minutes).
There are undeniable trends in D'Antoni's approach. He can get his team to score (and has never ranked worse than 10th in PPG over a full season), and he isn't interested in stopping the other team's offense (and has never ranked better than 22nd in PPG allowed). He can make his players succeed (Nash, Stoudemire, Shawn Marion), and he can struggle getting the best from his stars (Anthony, Howard, Bryant, Gasol). He can build a team, and he can see a team destroyed underneath him. He can't beat the Spurs or win in the playoffs, where he's 1-12 in his last three series.
But in a league as tiered as the NBA is, D'Antoni should be able to find work. He can get bad teams to score points and be exciting, but he may not have all the makings of a championship coach. Thankfully for D'Antoni, not all 30 NBA teams are championship-ready. Some offer situations less demanding than New York and Los Angeles but provide more help than some of the rosters he's dealt with in the past.
For instance, the Detroit Pistons could offer D'Antoni the speed and athleticism that made D'Antoni's Suns explosive. Andre Drummond has the potential to become the pick-and-roll nightmare that Howard could not be. Josh Smith could run wild, and Greg Monroe could be swapped (to avoid another Gasol scenario) for perimeter shooting to help Brandon Jennings have all the space he needs to make this Pistons team as fun as we all hoped it would be this year.
Or D'Antoni could take the year off like he had planned to do in 2012, refine his approach to balance his offensive prowess with some semblance of defense, and take over a team next year.
Even if D'Antoni's stock is lower than ever after his two failed head coaching gigs, it's obvious that he is a competent NBA coach who can generate offense with any group of players. Maybe his most successful days are in the past. Maybe not. Either way, his offense has already impacted the league. In 2003-04, the year prior to D'Antoni's first full season with Phoenix, only two teams attempted more than 20 three-point field goals per game. The Suns averaged at least 23 in his first three years with the team. This year? Twenty teams attempted at least 20 per game.
D'Antoni may be out of favor right now, but it's evident that, no matter his fate, he's deserving of another chance on a smaller stage.