Let me first point out that I called the Shaq trade a mistake from day one. It's interesting that the conventional wisdom at this point is that it was D'Antoni's idea, and first year GM Steve Kerr had to be convinced. The assumption early was that the new guy was the one pushing to shake things up. So D'Antoni would seem to be culpable in his own demise. Still, D'Antoni the coach should be separated from D'Antoni the GM.
Before I get too far into l'affaire d'Antoni let's look at what happened in this series. It seems pretty clear to me that the personnel, and not the coach, lost to the Spurs.
- Depth - Owner Robert Sarver's penny-pinching has deprived the Suns of several first round draft choices, as well as James Jones and Kurt Thomas over the last several seasons. Grant Hill was a gamble that, surprise, surprise, didn't pay off when he was injured at exactly the time they needed him most (the fact that it was an abdominal strain, and not ankle related, is little consolation). The Suns lacked depth three seasons ago - it has gotten progressively worse.
- Style - Steve Nash won MVP awards in 2005 and 2006, and was a leading contender in 2007 when he arguably had an even better season. Leandro Barbosa was the sixth man of the year in 2007. In this series, neither was a factor (16 points and 8 assists per game for Nash, 10 points for Barbosa). Did they each have a sub-par series, just one of those things? Maybe. Is Nash's age (34) catching up with him? That's part of it, undoubtedly. But let's face it - with Shaq and Amare clogging the middle and a dearth of three point shooters spreading the floor, Nash and Barbosa were not able to do what they do best - penetrate and dish (Nash) or penetrate and finish (Barbosa).
- Shaq - I think most would agree that Shaq played pretty well in Phoenix; better than many expected. But game 5 against the Spurs was a microcosm of why the trade was ill-advised. On at least three occasions, Nash threw lobs to the front of the rim for him - he finished one of them. The other two, he could not catch up to the ball, made the catch on the ground, and was immediately fouled. Likewise, Boris Diaw fed him at least two perfect passes under the basket. He missed layups as he was being fouled, and subsequently missed free throws (of course). This is Shaquille O'Neal we're talking about! His inability to finish around the basket is now entering Chris Kaman territory - and not Kaman 2.0 either, I'm talking Mr. Flippy here. In a game the Suns trailed by 2 points with 20 seconds to play, Shaq cost his team at least 8 points on gimmes. Forget about the free throws, since that was a known before the trade. Shaq's athleticism has diminished to the point that he can't finish with authority around the basket. Which makes him, what? Erick Dampier? Consider also that Shaq's well-known reluctance to give the regular season his all will likely doom the Suns to visitor status in the playoffs next season even in the best case scenario. Does his presence in the playoffs make up for the loss of home court advantage? Not if he can't finish.
So, like I said, the Suns lost this series because of the players on the floor. Not that I was particularly impressed with the Spurs, but these Suns just weren't going to beat them. Not running the offense through Boris Diaw in the low post.
So, I think it's dubious to conclude that the coach should be fired because the personnel is not as good as it once was. I suppose you could make an argument that a different coach would fit the current personnel better. But if you're taking that tack, it should also be noted that D'Antoni has had just over 2 months post trade. It's more than a little unfair to get rid of a guy (with two years left on his contract, no less) for not utilizing his personnel correctly, without even giving him a chance to have a training camp.
But the more practical question before this Star Chamber isn't 'Should he be fired?' but rather 'Whom do you hire?' Is there really a better coach out there, waiting for your call? (By the way, what a difference a year makes, right? Ten months ago, D'Antoni was the toast of the NBA, the genius credited with re-making Team USA in his offensive image, and top assistant Marc Iavaroni had been handed the head-coaching job at Memphis as D'Antoni-lite. Now Iavaroni is long gone in trouble [UPDATE: I jumped the fun on that one - Iavaroni was only gone in my head, I guess], and D'Antoni is as good as gone. I guess he'll have plenty of time to concentrate on Beijing.)
Mike D'Antoni's record coaching the Suns is 253 wins and 136 losses. In full seasons as the coach he has never won fewer than 54 games! And unlike fellow hot seat resident Avery Johnson who has an equally stellar winning percentage, D'Antoni did NOT inherit a 60 win team. D'Antoni took over a team that was 8-13 and whose point guard was Stephon Marbury. So recognize this: if you let him walk, his replacement will not be as good. Period. Maybe he will be less stubborn, maybe he will get along better with the GM, maybe he'll trim his mustache more judiciously, maybe he will throw better dinner parties: but he will not be as good a coach.
Another factor in all of this is entertainment value. If Robert Sarver is as aware of the bottom line as they say, he should realize that D'Antoni's coaching style puts butts in seats. It's certainly valid to question whether it can win a championship - obviously it hasn't so far. But no team is more fun to watch, and the Suns have been playing to full houses since he arrived in the Valley of the Sun.
Just as was the case with the Shaq trade, I of course cannot speak to the interpersonal issues involved. Was Shawn Marion a cancer in the locker room who simply had to go? Is the relationship between D'Antoni and Kerr untenable? I don't know. But if the Phoenix Suns allow Mike D'Antoni to leave, it will be the latest in a series of front office blunders that will take the Suns from the most entertaining in team in the NBA and one of the best, to a boring also-ran in the Western Conference. They're likely on their way to also-ran status regardless of the coach, and maybe the guy would be better off in Chicago with a bunch of young talent. But there's no question in my mind that he's a great coach, and the Suns will be a lesser team without him.