The Madness of Mike D’Antoni

It was those magical weeks of February 2012 which propelled Jeremy Lin to international stardom. The Knicks were in search for answers to uplift their underwhelming performance to start the shortened season. Then, Lin came out of nowhere to put New York on his shoulders and carry them to a seven-game winning streak: the birth of Linsanity.

It was one of the best moments in the history of the NBA. Once a relative unknown who bounced in and out of the league for several seasons, Lin suddenly stumbled upon the opportunity to showcase his skills to the rest of the league. It was such a feel-good story, and the undrafted guard out of Harvard found his place in the NBA because of it.

But it wasn’t just Lin who should be credited to the worldwide phenomenon called Linsanity. What’s lost in the narrative was the brilliance of Coach Mike D’Antoni and how he was able to utilize Lin’s strengths during that stretch.

In New York, Lin was allowed to create shots or plays for his teammates off screens. That system wasn’t just drawn out of necessity or sheer luck. D’Antoni always had the affinity to run his main ball handler off screens like it was his go-to play. Lin fit right into the mold of D’Antoni’ss playbook.

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In fact, what Lin played in New York was a big part of D’Antoni’s revolutionary ‘Seven Seconds or Less’ offense. It was hinged on a simple concept: attack the defense before it could settle. He did this by filling the wings with shooters to space the floor. He also had an athletic big man to move inside the paint, and a ball handler who would orchestrate the offense after a screen play. He could either drive the paint, dump the ball to the roll man, or kick it out to an open shooter.

 

But it was considered as madness, borderline-crazy during the 2000s. At the dawn of the decade, the NBA was dominated by Shaquille O’Neal, so everyone was looking for big men to dominate the scoreboard through the post. D’Antoni was probably the only coach who went further away from the paint.

It paid dividends for Phoenix. The ‘SSOL’ offense brought huge success to the team from 2004 to 2008. Long before the Warriors became light years ahead of every NBA franchise, the Suns were already torching opponents on a nightly basis with small ball offense. With Nash running the offense, the Suns became a well-oiled, potent scoring machine.

But Phoenix was more than just an offensive juggernaut. With ‘SSOL’, the Suns started a revolution. At a time when slow-down, post-up offense was considered as the norm, D’Antoni went against the flow by pushing the pace and the range of the game way beyond the usual. At the peak of the ‘SSOL’ offense, Phoenix was ranked within the top five for pace and three point attempt rate. They led the league in that same category during the ‘04-‘05 and ‘05-’06 seasons.

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Even if the ‘SSOL’ Suns failed to clinch a title, their influence could be felt all over the league today. They became the prototype model for the pace and space offense, which became more relevant than ever. In ‘04-’05, the Phoenix Suns led the league in pace (95.9) and three point attempt rate (0.289). Last season, they would have been 19th in pace, and 22nd in three point attempt rate.

With the success of the Phoenix Suns, D’Antoni ushered the dawn of a new era for basketball. Post-up centers were no longer considered as prized jewels for NBA teams. Point guards were given more freedom to lead the offense, and athletic 3DA guys became a necessity. What was once his vision became a reality for the NBA.

 

After his failed stints in New York and Los Angeles, D’Antoni’s career seemed over. But in 2016, he found a perfect time to make a comeback. He was tasked to coach James Harden and the Houston Rockets. That year, he found another way to push the system that he pioneered into a whole new level. He turned the iso-heavy Rockets offense into something more potent and more fluid.

He assigned Harden to be the playmaker for the Rockets. It was a really crazy idea. Harden was already known as a potent scorer. It’s the brand of his game. But no one dared give him a role of primary ball handler. No one dared—except D’Antoni. It was madness all over again, but he pushed through with his new project.

And so, he surrounded The Beard with capable shooters in Eric Gordon, Lou Williams, Ryan Anderson, Patrick Beverley and Trevor Ariza. He placed an athletic center in Clint Capela in the paint. It was the revival of the ‘Seven Seconds or Less’ offense.

But it was a different breed of ‘SSOL’—one that was injected with the Super Soldier Serum. James was a better offensive weapon than Nash was. He was surrounded with more shooters compared to what Nash had. Capela was a great compliment to everything that D’Antoni ran around Harden.

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As a result, D’Antoni pushed Houston way beyond the limits, even in the standards of the best basketball league in the world. In ‘16-’17, the Rockets shot 46 percent of their shots from beyond the arc, and became the second-best scoring team behind Golden State. James Harden finished second in the MVP race with a monstrous 29-8-11 stat line. Houston finished the regular season as the third seed out West.

It was yet another success for Mike D’Antoni, but the mad genius in him wanted to completely change basketball as the NBA knew it. With the help of GM Daryl Morey, the Rockets acquired Chris Paul last offseason.

It would have been chaos with only one ball on the court, and two ball-heavy players in Paul and Harden to share it. But so far, D’Antoni looked like he found a way to make things work for Houston. The Rockets finished this year’s regular season with the best offense in the league (114.7 ORtg, 1st in the NBA). They shot over half of their attempts from the three point area, and led the NBA in three points made per game (15.3).

 

Time and time again, Mike D’Antoni did all those out-of-this-world schems to elevate basketball to new heights. And with all the trailblazing he did, he looks like he’s still not done yet. Who knows what he can still bring to the table? A working three-PG offense? A playoff-bound point-center system?

It’s for D’Antoni to answer. What’s clear is the NBA would not be what it is right now if not for him. He should be saluted and praised without any reservations.

All hail Mike D’Antoni: trendsetter, mad genius, revolutionary.

Photos from Getty Images, Stats from BasketballReference.com

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