OAKLAND, Calif. – When Mike D’Antoni and the Los Angeles Lakers parted ways in May of 2014, it was far from clear that the man who played a large role in the NBA’s offensive revolution would ever get another chance to run a team.
Despite the unbelievable run of success he and Steve Nash shared over D’Antoni’s five-plus seasons running the Phoenix Suns in the middle portion of the last decade, lackluster stints with the New York Knicks and then the Lakers led many to believe D’Antoni had left the magic he created with those “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns back in Phoenix.
But D’Antoni was given one more crack when he was tapped to take over the Houston Rockets this spring. The result has led to — fittingly — a fast start for the Rockets, who sit in fourth place in the Western Conference with a 13-7 record. And they just completed what will be one of the best sweeps of a back-to-back set this season: winning a double-overtime thriller at Golden State Thursday night before arriving in Denver at 5 a.m. local time and winning a game at altitude against the Nuggets Friday night.
So why are things working out so well for D’Antoni this time around? For the first time since he left Phoenix, he is in an organization where everyone’s goals are aligned.
“From the owner to the general manager to the superstar, we want to play a certain way,” D’Antoni told The Washington Post last week. “Now, okay, that’s what we had in Phoenix, and that’s what we have here. There was always that piece missing [in New York and Los Angeles] where we had a couple people that didn’t want to do it. We tried, compromised, and it still didn’t work.
“[That] is on me, because I have to make it work. That’s a coach’s lot in life. But it didn’t work.”
It seems simple, right? If a team hires a coach known for playing a certain style of basketball – one that was a highly entertaining and successful, at that – said team should expect to play that way under that coach. But unlike at the college level where players come and go and the coach remains to mold the program to his liking, such logic is less strict in the NBA, which will always be a players-first league.
And it was the players – and specifically two players – that hampered D’Antoni’s efforts to employ the system he became famous for in both New York and Los Angeles. For brief stretches – when Amar’e Stoudemire was an MVP candidate in the first half of the 2010-11 season, and when Jeremy Lin became an international sensation for a brief period in the following season – D’Antoni’s teams began to resemble the ones he had in Phoenix.
But, for all intensive purposes, the Knicks said goodbye to D’Antoni’s system when they traded for Carmelo Anthony in the spring of 2011, breaking up a young team with Stoudemire as a focal point to bring in a dominant, ball-stopping wing. Things fell apart for D’Antoni in L.A. when Nash got hurt almost immediately, and Kobe Bryant fought D’Antoni’s system before eventually tearing his Achilles. Add in Bryant’s increasingly toxic relationship with Dwight Howard and D’Antoni never really had a chance.
“You can’t go into a system halfway,” D’Antoni said. “That’s kind of what we were trying to do in New York and in L.A. We tried to patch it up and do this and do that, but at the end of the day it’s not good enough.”
But there has been no patching up necessary in Houston. In many ways, a marriage between D’Antoni and Houston general manager Daryl Morey, while surprising when it happened, makes perfect sense. Morey was one of the first executives in the sport to harp on the importance of maximizing offensive efficiency by prioritizing three-pointers and shots at the rim – which is exactly what D’Antoni did with those Suns teams.
And, to that end, the Rockets have handed D’Antoni the first team he has had since leaving Phoenix eight years ago that can truly play the way he likes his teams to play. That begins with James Harden, who has been utterly fantastic as the primary ball-handler in D’Antoni’s offense, averaging 28.3 points, 7.6 rebounds and 11.8 assists.
Not since Nash was in his prime in Phoenix has D’Antoni had anything close to an above-average point guard to run his offense; now, with Harden, he has one of the league’s elite talents.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Harden said. “I know what Steve Nash did, but I didn’t know what to expect. Now it’s free flowing. He doesn’t try to control anything. If he has a play, he’ll throw it at me, and if I have something better, I’ll just tell him I have something better, and he’s cool with it.
“That kind of relationship, it goes a long way. We’re able to talk about anything. We’re still fairly new to each other, it’s only been a few months, but it’s fun.”
D’Antoni has also proven to be flexible with Harden. Every previous D’Antoni team has finished in top 10 in the NBA in pace, and all but one of them finished in the top five. This year, however, the Rockets are 14th. And while D’Antoni said part of that is a flaw in the way the stat is calculated, considering it doesn’t gauge how quickly the Rockets are running their sets once the ball gets over halfcourt, there’s little doubt the slower pace is, in part, because of Harden’s preference to walk the ball up the court at times.
“You can skin a cat all different ways,” D’Antoni said. “I don’t know what it is until James feels comfortable, this is what he feels comfortable at, and he’s the guy that sets the pace.
“When our second group comes in, we have a higher pace, because that’s what [backup Patrick Beverley] likes, he’s a higher pace guy. But you try to be effective with what you do.”
The roster’s fit to D’Antoni’s style doesn’t end with Harden, however. In free agency this summer, the Rockets poached two players from the New Orleans Pelicans – forward Ryan Anderson and guard Eric Gordon – with four-year deals for $80 million and $52 million, respectively. They were risky contracts, given both Anderson and Gordon have dealt with health issues in recent years.
But Anderson, as a floor-spacing power forward, and Gordon, as a sharpshooting guard to play next to Harden, were both ideal fits for the system, and both, to this point, have thrived in it. Anderson is shooting 43 percent from three-point range while averaging over six attempts per game this season, while Gordon is a leading candidate for NBA Sixth Man of the Year honors through the opening few weeks as he’s averaging over 16 points per game.
“It’s fun basketball,” Anderson said. “I’m not expected to do too much. Like in New Orleans, I would have to come off the bench and get post-ups, come off screens, do all this stuff. Here, my job is just to get in the flow of the offense and really help the guys around me and spread the floor.”
Everything’s fun in Houston right now, as the Rockets are humming with one of the league’s best offenses run by one of the league’s most dynamic ball-handling superstars. It’s taken Mike D’Antoni nearly a decade, but he’s finally found the pieces that have eluded him when a attempting to reconstruct the “Seven Seconds or Less” puzzle.
And, at least so far, the results are speaking for themselves.