When Mike D'Antoni surveys the current state of the NBA, he must feel like a proud papa — but one whose progeny are trying to destroy him.
More than a decade ago, the sultan of seven seconds or less sought to revolutionize professional basketball. He joined forces with a slight Canadian suffering from a back injury to execute his vision of free-flowing, positionless basketball, where teams played their best five players at any given moment, regardless of the strictures of tradition.
Such disdain for dogma wasn't exactly new a decade ago; teams had dabbled with small ball here and there for as long as there had been an NBA. Combined with the league's growing affinity for the 3-pointer, though, D'Antoni was on the cusp of a revolution.
As is so often the case when conventional wisdom is overturned, D'Antoni's ideas spread like wildfire.
By 2011, the Dallas Mavericks were using aspects of the Seven Seconds or Less Suns to knock off LeBron James and the Miami Heat, who in turn incorporated small-ball to win two titles, only to be bested by the Spurs, who took D'Antoni's offense to new levels and knocked off The King.
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For his renaissance, D'Antoni was ridiculed.
His Suns constantly came up short of the NBA Finals despite several strong showings in the postseason. Conventional wisdom held that as fun as those Phoenix teams might have been, they were never a real threat because they didn't play defense.
The fates soon scattered the SSOL Suns to the winds. Steve Nash would end his career in flames with the Lakers. Amar'e Stoudemire brought joy to the Knicks, until New York traded for Carmelo Anthony and ruined its own version of small ball. Boris Diaw ... somehow wound up still in the league, playing a big part for a playoff team in 2017.
Yeah, we didn't see that one coming, either.
But before the players' exodus, D'Antoni was the first to leave.
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No longer enamored of Phoenix thanks to Steve Kerr's presence as general manager, D'Antoni left the Suns, winding up with the Knicks after a brief flirtation with the Bulls.
The results in New York were devastating, for both the franchise and D'Antoni. He clashed with Melo, watched Stoudemire fall apart due to injury and didn't have the temperament (or the desire) to deal with the Big Apple media.
Still, the shine wasn't completely off D'Antoni's coaching star. After his time in New York came to an unceremonious close, the Lakers came calling — passing on Phil Jackson in the process.
Los Angeles hoped D'Antoni could bring the best out of an aged Nash and a past-his-prime Dwight Howard, ignoring that the front office had given the coach a roster that made no sense for his scheme. In time, D'Antoni had fallings-out with both Howard and Pau Gasol, as he couldn't keep either big man happy, all while Nash faded into basketball oblivion.
With two epic failures under his belt, D'Antoni was buried by NBA observers. His style was a gimmick that could win regular-season games but wilted under the pressure of championship contention.
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A funny thing happened as we shoveled dirt on D'Antoni, though — the NBA's best realized he was right.
“As we got a little older and personnel changed, we were going to go from one of the best defensive teams to a more middle-of-the-road defensive team,” he said. “Something else had to change if we wanted to continue to win at a high level, so we went to the offense about two years ago and shifted it to pick up the pace to shift a little bit, went a little bit from Timmy to Manu and Tony and more attack early in the clock — kind of Mike D’Antoni-ish.”
The Spurs went from defensive juggernaut to playing beautiful offensive basketball specifically because they embraced D'Antoni's principles and gave them a San Antonio spin.
That trend came to a head in Tuesday's Game 5, much to D'Antoni's chagrin. The Rockets, without Nene, went super-small for large stretches, playing Ryan Anderson at center, and the Spurs responded in kind. At one point in the first half, San Antonio's "center" was David Lee. David Lee!
And here's where things get difficult for D'Antoni: The trend he popularized, the trend that helped vault the NBA into a new stratosphere of entertainment, is now his greatest enemy.
San Antonio beat Houston at its own game on Tuesday night; should the Spurs manage to close out the series, they'll do so with a hefty dose of small ball once more. How bitter a taste that must leave in D'Antoni's mouth, no matter how much he appreciates the flattery of imitation.
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Even if the Rockets recover and beat the Spurs in Games 6 and 7, they'll stare down the Platonic ideal of a D'Antoni offense in the Western Conference finals.
Kerr had ample opportunity to learn from D'Antoni while both were in Phoenix, and while Kerr might not be on the sideline in this series, this Warriors team is still his, through and through.
They took D'Antoni's approach to the game and jacked it up to 11 with the "Death Lineup," where Draymond Green plays center surrounded by some of the game's greatest scorers, coupled with a version of Nash that wants to score first, pass second and score again third in Curry.
Everything a Mike D'Antoni team does well, the Warriors do better — and there's one component of winning basketball where Houston can't touch the NBA's real contenders.
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The difference between the Rockets and the likes of the Spurs and Warriors is defense, plain and simple.
Popovich and Kerr know you can't win a championship without a top-10 defense. Although D'Antoni's Suns units were better than most people realized (per-possession stats, by which those early-aughts Phoenix teams were about league-average defensively, weren't yet in style), they didn't reach that title-contending echelon.
Even this year's Rockets squad, despite a strong showing over the second half of the season and with players like Clint Capela and Trevor Ariza, finished 18th in defensive efficiency. Only one team was that bad on defense and won a title in the past 30 years: the 2001 Shaquille O'Neal-wielding Los Angeles Lakers.
Suffice it to say Houston isn't that Lakers squad — and until D'Antoni learns to bolster his defense, the Rockets won't approach that level. They'll be the Suns 2.0, an entertaining team driven by its point guard that can't get the job done in the postseason.
Such a repeat of history would be a damn shame. D'Antoni deserves better as one of the game's true innovators. More than anyone other than LeBron James, he shepherded the Association through the dark times of the post-Michael Jordan era and showed how gorgeous the game could be when the rules changed to open up the floor for offenses.
He is the godfather to every championship-winning team that followed in the wake of the Kobe Lakers and the Kevin Garnett Celtics, and no one gives him his just due.
D'Antoni helped create today's NBA. You can't blame him if he regrets it just a little bit.