When it comes to pro sports, coaches are hired and fired for a myriad of reasons. Sometimes it's because of under-performance on the court. Sometimes it's to appease a soon to be free agent or superstar. Sometimes it's just time for a change. Since 2005, 4 coach-of-the-year award winners were fired (all within 2 years of winning the award). Fair or not, timing and roster talent are quite often as important as knowledge or teaching ability when it comes to job security for coaches in the professional ranks.
One of those resumes will likely be that of Mike D'Antoni, innovator of the 7 seconds or less offense, who was recently let go by the New York Knicks. D'Antoni came to the national spotlight while coaching the Phoenix Suns. D'Antoni took over the Phoenix Suns as an interim coach in 2003-2004 leading them to a 21-40 record (29-53 overall). The following season, Steve Nash arrived in the desert, and the D'Antoni suns became the highest scoring team in the league, finishing with a league best 62 wins. They would make it to the Western Conference Finals before being knocked off by the eventual NBA Champs, the San Antonio Spurs. The Suns never made an NBA finals under D'Antoni, twice being knocked out of the playoffs by the eventual Champion Spurs. But Between 04-05 and 07-08, the Suns would make two western conference finals and win no less than 54 games. In those 4 seasons, they were the top scoring offense three times, falling a few spots to third in the fourth and final season.
But Mike D'Antoni is a polarizing figure as a coach. The failure of the Suns to win a title or even make the NBA finals is seen as a shortcoming of his coaching. NBA analysts and fans are always very quick to argue that he "can't coach defense," using the points allowed statistic to back up their argument. On the surface, they would appear
to be correct. The Nash/D'Antoni Suns twice finished in the bottom two of the league in points allowed, and never finished better than 23rd. But the problem with that argument is that points allowed is the incorrect metric with which to evaluate the Suns defense. The 7 seconds or less offense meant more possessions per game for the Suns AND their opponents. Logically, Suns opponents scored more points per game, the result of the increased possessions. Therefore, The more accurate statistic to evaluate their defense is defensive rating, a statistic that determines the points allowed per 100 possessions. By this metric, the D'Antoni led suns were not terrible defensive teams. Rather they were right in the middle of the pack, finishing 16th,17th,13th,and 16th in the league in the Nash D'Antoni years. Would you have guessed that the 05-06 Suns were 6th best in the league at forcing turnovers? The truth is that Suns had two great defenders in Raja Bell and Shawn Marion who were able to cause a lot of problems for opposing wings. The problem was that Steve Nash, as great as he is, is not a good defender at all, and the Suns were playing Amare Stoudemire a great deal, who on top of not being considered an elite defender, is undersized when playing the 5. From that perspective, being a middle of the pack defensive team seems just about right. The the small ball lineup was an effective weapon offensively, causing matchup problems for most teams who did not have the offensive firepower to match them. The problem is that the Suns did not match up well with San Antonio Spurs, with a hall of fame F/C in Duncan, a slashing, scoring pg in Tony Parker, AND Manu Ginobli, who is a handful for even the best defenders. Add to those guys a roster full of veteran shooters and solid defenders, and the Suns were overmatched.
Which brings us to his stint in New York. D'Antoni is out, and clearly, something wasn't working. But was D'Antoni the problem? The 7 seconds or less philosophy requires a great passing guard who can push the tempo. D'Antoni has never had that in New York. The 08-09 suns had Chirs Duhon and Nate Robinson. There was some offensive firepower with Zach Randolph, Al Harrington, David Lee and Jamal Crawford, and they were the 4th best scoring team in the league. But that roster was legitimately terrible on defense, as you might expect with the players I just mentioned. That team could have played 6 guys and wouldn't have been able to get stops. The next year the Knicks were clearing cap space and unloading bad contracts, and they were very limited on talent. David Lee and Al Harrington, paired with a couple of talented young wings in Danilo Galinari and Wilson Chandler. Still without a starting caliber point guard on the roster, they managed to be a top ten team offensively. Year three under D'Antoni, the Knicks were the number 2 offense in the league, finished with a winning record, and made the playoffs. They had Amare Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony, and Chauncey Billups (the latter two acquired at the trade deadline). Despite the talent of the big three, the team was without a center and had virtually no depth (traded away for Carmelo and Billups). An injury to Chauncey Billups in the first round of their playoff matchup against the Celtics led to a quick exit. This season saw the Knicks amnesty Chauncey Billups in favor of signing Tyson Chandler. Again without a
point guard, D'Antoni was basically starting over with his offense, trying to figure out ways to win. They struggled this season, in part because of their point guard woes before Jeremy Lin arrived, in part because Carmelo Anthony, who is already not a great fit for a D'Antoni offense, has played well below his standards this season. The Knicks are a mess. Maybe D'Antoni should have been able to do more this year, but I think the roster has problems. There was a larger issue in New York, namely that the front office and D'Antoni were on a different page, and did not share the same vision for how to win basketball games.
So would D'Antoni fit with the Clippers? He would certainly have a point guard who could make his system work in Chris Paul (who would also be a significant defensive upgrade over Nash). Blake Griffin matches what Amare Stoudemire was able to contribute in Phoenix (even more so as he continues to develop his mid range jumper). On top of that, Deandre Jordan is an athletic center who can run the floor, thus not slowing down the tempo. His ability (or certainly his potential) to block shots and anchor a defense would be something D'Antoni sorely lacked in Phoenix, and in theory, would contribute to getting stops, allowing the team to push the ball. Beyond that, you would like to see the Clippers add some shooters, but even the current shooters would likely benefit from D'Antoni. The Suns always shot a great percentage from the three point line because the system allowed players to get great shots in rhythm. I think players are also more confident when their coach is telling them you better shoot the open shot early in the shot clock. It's contrary to what most guys have been taught. Players don't have to worry about being benched for shooting and missing. Leandro Barbosa, a decent three point shooter, shot above 40% from three twice, both under the D'ANtoni Suns.Tim Thomas also shot a career best percentage with the Suns, as did Raja Bell. What the Clippers don't have is,, well, Shawn Marion. It's easy to forget how great he was in Phoenix, but the guy was a monster. in 06-07, he averaged 17.5 pts, 9.8 rebounds, 1.5 blocks, 2 steals, 81% from the free throw line. In 05-06, when Stoudemire was out, he put up 21.8 ppg, 2 steals, 1.7 blocks, and 11.8 rebounds per game, for a PER of 23.6. The Clippers might not be able to add the Matrix, but they would need to find an athletic wing defender who can run the floor. In fact, they need to do this no matter who they hire as coach.
The coaches I most admire in the league? Greg Popovich, Rick Carlisle, Rick Adleman. All three are guys who craft great half court sets/schemes that still allow for creativity. In the case of Popovich and Carlisle, there is a particular emphasis on playing great team defense. D'Antoni is something different. Pushing the tempo whenever possible. Constantly running, putting the pressure on the opposing team. If any point guard in the league not named Steve Nash can operate the 7 seconds or less offense it's Chris Paul. The question Neil Olshey will have to answer is whether he believes that style of play can win when it counts- in the post season. It's interesting that one of the other high profile coaches available is Jerry Sloan, another coach who won a ton of games, never won a championship, and is terrific with point guards. He couldn't be more different from D'Antoni in terms of their systems. These guys are at opposite ends of the coaching spectrum. Yet no one believes that Jerry Sloan's system could NOT have won a championship, rather it was a problem with his roster and the bad luck of meeting Michael Jordan and the Bulls in the finals. Personally, I believe that success for the Clippers lies somewhere in between the contrasting styles of Sloan and D'Antoni. The team needs to improve defensively, play more uptempo at times, yet still take advantage of CP3 and Blake in the halfcourt, working ISO's and improving the pick n roll game with Paul and the two young bigs. Whoever the next coach is, Neil Olshey needs to be on the same page with him. The core of Griffin, Paul, and DJ is a solid one that will continue to get better, and management needs to surround them, and whoever the next coach is, with the right complimentary pieces to succeed.