Arena: Mike D’Antoni finds winning formula with the Houston Rockets
Last year, the Houston Rockets fired head coach Kevin McHale just 11 games into what was a tumultuous, disappointing season. This year, the Rockets have blitzed the NBA with an impressive barrage of threes and team-oriented basketball, on their way to the third-best record in the NBA. The key difference? Mike D’Antoni.
D’Antoni will likely run away with the 2017 Coach of the Year Award, while James Harden is likely to win MVP and Eric Gordon is expected to snag the Sixth Man of the Year Award.
Everybody talks about the Warriors, Cavaliers and even the Spurs when bringing up potential NBA champions for this season. However, the Rockets actually have a better record than the Cavs and are breaking all kinds of records for three-point shooting.
An unprecedented 46.4 percent of their shots come from behind the arc, an all-time NBA record which maximizes their potential scoring output and fits perfectly into D’Antoni’s style of attack. Known for his “Seven Seconds or Less” style of coaching, D’Antoni emphasizes a breakneck pace, smaller, quicker lineups and heavy use of the pick-and-roll with few actual set plays.
He took the league by storm in the NBA’s 2004-05 season when he implemented his transcendent scheme and won the Coach of the Year Award. D’Antoni unlocked the potential of former MVP Steve Nash and his all-star cohort Amar’e Stoudemire, but his teams always lacked the defensive acumen to compete in seven-game playoff series'. A perception started to develop that jump-shooting teams were not built to win championships.
Upset with his Phoenix squads being eliminated deep into playoff runs every year, the offensive savant decided to pack his bags for the bright lights of New York.
D’Antoni’s days with the Knicks are remembered as such: constant losing, 10 games of Linsanity, and one short playoff appearance that ended in a sweep. After resigning from the Knicks coaching job midseason in 2012 amidst rumors that he could not get along with star player Carmelo Anthony, D'Antoni was hired by another glitzy franchise.
At the time of his hiring, the Los Angeles Lakers were on top of the NBA. Kobe was still Kobe, they had just brought in perennial all-star Dwight Howard, and traded for D’Antoni’s former captain Steve Nash to man the point.
Yes, the Lakers were going to compete for a championship, only every possible thing went wrong.
Nash was constantly injured and was ineffective when healthy, Howard could not take a backseat to Kobe’s alpha personality and struggled with pick and roll concepts, and Kobe could no longer will his team to victory as father time began to take away his athleticism.
Everything went wrong with the Lakers, and D’Antoni was to blame. It was so bad, in fact, that D’Antoni resigned in 2014 and took some time off from coaching. Many figured that D’Antoni was done coaching in the NBA after flaming out with two high-profile franchises, but amidst his absence as a coach, something changed in the league.
The Golden State Warriors put the sport of basketball on its head with superb three-point shooting and an offensive arsenal that included many of the same principles that D’Antoni popularized. Steve Kerr, the Warriors current head coach, oversaw D’Antoni as the Phoenix Suns' general manager. Implementing many of D’Antoni’s “Seven Seconds or Less” principles, Golden State became an offensive juggernaut that, as we all know, won a championship in Kerr’s first year at the helm.
Suddenly, playing small-ball was en vogue and the perception that jump-shooting teams could not win championships was shattered. The NBA is a copycat league, thus everyone began shifting their rosters in an effort to emulate the Warriors.
Accompanying Golden State's rise has been the ever-so-steady increase in the use of analytics in basketball. It does not take a genius to figure out that three-point shots are worth more than twos, or that shooting closer to the basket yields higher percentage shooting; but paying close attention to advanced statistical analysis has shifted the thinking of many franchises.
One of the pioneers of prioritizing advanced analytics is the Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, the creator of the “true-shooting percentage” statistic.
As years have passed, Morey has insisted that his team take a bulk of their shots from beyond the arc or close into the paint. This made his hiring of D’Antoni, a coach whose offense manufactures such shots at will, the perfect marriage.
D’Antoni entered a Rockets organization coming off a befuddling season filled with Dwight Howard drama, lackadaisical defensive effort and a shattered morale.
What he did have, however, was a stud two guard in James Harden and an arsenal of capable three-point shooters that Morey had collected.
This past offseason, Morey signed stretch four Ryan Anderson and sixth man Eric Gordon from the Pelicans; two offensive-minded players who are not known to contribute on the defensive end. Those moves paired with D’Antoni’s signing had basketball critics chastising the direction, citing that defense – Houston’s main problem – would be even worse this year.
Their concerns have all but evaporated now as the Rockets are at the top of the league and on the precipice of contending for a championship.
D’Antoni’s happy-go-lucky presence has inspired his team to put forth more effort on the defensive end, and his decision to switch James Harden from shooting guard to point guard has unlocked The Beard’s potential and has him putting up MVP numbers. With Harden in the “Steve Nash role” the Rockets are perhaps even more electrifying than Nash’s Suns.
Harden has posted five triple-doubles this season while scoring more than 40 points, which ties Oscar Robertson for most ever in a season. Like Nash, Harden leads the league in assists, but unlike the retired legend, Harden is second in the league in points per game.
It is as if Kevin McHale had a gorgeous 6-speed Porsche, but he could not drive stick so he could hardly get it out of the driveway. Enter D’Antoni, who has been driving stick all his life, and suddenly, this Porsche is zooming at 120 mph, past Texas Highway Patrol cars that cannot catch up.
D’Antoni started this whole small-ball, fast paced mania that has taken over the NBA, and now he is back and ready to lead Houston to the promised land.