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Why Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol Reject Mike D'Antoni's Proven Small-Ball Blueprint

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Why Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol Reject Mike D'Antoni's Proven Small-Ball Blueprint
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MIAMI – No one wants to believe his best days are behind him, and it’s unfair just to portray them as dinosaurs, but in one clear sense, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol are living in the past.

Bryant, Gasol and the Los Angeles Lakers aren’t even a ripple in the bay waters that the Miami Heat are navigating in search of a third consecutive NBA championship. The teams meet Thursday night, with Bryant still waiting for his fractured knee to heal, and Gasol hoping to get lots of simple post-up plays because he sees the Heat’s lack of height and girth and concludes: “Attack their weaknesses.”

Instead of admitting that the Heat’s consecutive titles in 2012 and ‘13 stand as proof of the ultimate validity of the Mike D’Antoni-crusading concepts of floor-spreading small ball, Bryant and Gasol remain clearly opposed to it.

They have their reasons—one being that they won their championships with a heavy emphasis on post-up play, another being that D’Antoni never came close to winning them that next championship last season.

Although it remains a fantastic mystery as to what would’ve happened with the 2012-13 Lakers had Phil Jackson and his triple-post offense been hired, there’s no mystery about what history shows:

The Heat’s titles sprung from Erik Spoelstra learning—the hard way in the 2011 NBA Finals against a Dallas Mavericks team led by a certain blond outside-shooting big man—that an open floor with smaller players made Miami more of a team.

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And the team the Heat barely beat to win the last title, for the record, was a San Antonio Spurs team with a certain old Air Force guy as coach who chose to abandon Bryant’s beloved smashmouth style and become a D’Antoni disciple.

And although D’Antoni is publicly reluctant to take too much credit for innovation or cite the people who have stolen from him, he knows the truth.

“San Antonio also,” D’Antoni said Wednesday when I asked him about it. “Both of ‘em could’ve won it last year.”

Where Jerry Buss, Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak missed wasn’t in the style decision. They believed it was the time and place for the Lakers to move ahead with D’Antoni and Steve Nash together playing a way that would maximize Dwight Howard’s skills and minimize Bryant’s burden.

That was a valid thought process. Where the Lakers missed, aside from the Mark Cuban-predicted element of Nash’s body breaking down, was in the reality that no one takes the fragile shells of NBA player egos and cooks the good stuff together into perfect omelettes like Jackson—certainly not D’Antoni.

D’Antoni’s gentle positivity helps free and develop players, no doubt. But where Jackson relishes the challenge of confusion and incongruity arising on the journey, D’Antoni gets frustrated when what he views as misplaced selfishness crops up.

It’s no coincidence that D’Antoni’s offensive system is about unselfishness—quick passing to the open man, every man more likely to be open with the help of his teammates’ spacing, screening and sharing. D’Antoni was a great player in Europe, but Europe became a core part of him, too, with the communal atmosphere of team dinners and the sort of unabashed togetherness the glad-handing Nash has cultivated throughout his career.

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Playing offense that way is absolutely a valid foundation for great teamwork and a championship team. Yes, D’Antoni’s Phoenix Suns teams benefited from a certain shock value of regular-season opponents not being ready for that style of play, but that doesn’t mean the system is flawed.

In fact, the system’s premise is much the same as Jackson’s triangle offense: The opposing defense can’t lock in on you doing the same thing time after time on offense because you’re going to be unpredictable and free-flowing. Jackson actually bashed the Heat back in March 2011 for depending too much on individual isolation offense, and he wound up being right—with Spoelstra sort of backing into the first inkling of the solution in the 2011 playoffs when Chris Bosh got hurt and Shane Battier served as a sweet-shooting power forward.

“When people said you can’t win going small, he did. He won,” D’Antoni said about Spoelstra last month. “When people said you can’t win two times going small, he did. He won. People keep saying he can’t do this and he can’t do that and he keeps doing it and he keeps pushing them.”

Spoelstra calls his system now a “hybrid,” but there’s no doubting the roots of it, as Spoelstra admitted last month when recalling his awe at D’Antoni’s initial masterpiece in Phoenix.

“The first year anybody in the league saw it, it took us all by storm,” Spoelstra said. “We were all scratching our heads and had no idea what we were seeing or how to defend it. 

“I still remember vividly: It was actually our first year when Stan (Van Gundy in 2003-04) was coaching, when we played them in Phoenix. That year, and the next year, we got the doors blown off by over 30 both games—and we were running around in circles. That was probably one of the biggest innovations of this game in the last 10 years. And now you see it trickle down all the way into the colleges. It's a much different game in college than it was before that. That’s a big credit to Mike and his creativity and his open-mindedness.”

I asked D’Antoni on Wednesday what he initially thought when other teams began to spread the floor the way the winning Suns did.

“I was hoping they wouldn’t do it,” he said.

That’s how sure D’Antoni has been about this being a way—bottom line—to get guys open.

And even now that Gasol is finally benefiting from it, with D’Antoni starting rookie Ryan Kelly as an outside-shooting power forward in a clear four-out, one-in format, Gasol shrugs.

“I’ve always been more of a fan of two bigs that can dominate the paint, can pound teams and take advantage of their size if you do have it,” Gasol said. “If you don’t have it, then you do whatever you can.”

Whenever Bryant, an even more accomplished post player than Gasol, returns from injury, it will be a renewed challenge for D’Antoni to meld his style with the one to which Bryant and Gasol remain married. It’s the same battle the Houston Rockets will wage as they run D’Antoni’s pick-and-roll offense while enduring Howard’s insistence on trusting his cold, mechanical, no-feel-for-the-moment post moves.

Bryant referred to it Monday as “small ball, which personally I don’t really care much for.” Jackson has referred to D’Antoni’s style as “speed ball,” which isn’t quite accurate either.

The whole point of it is team ball.

And by now, we know it is clearly a means to that end.

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