What punk rock was to the sterile, over-produced musical landscape of the 1970s, Mike D’Antoni’s Phoenix Suns were to the early 2000s NBA: uncompromisingly fast and furious, a full-frontal, almost anarchistic threat to the established order.
But like any movement that finds its conscience coopted by the greater culture, D’Antoni has, in the years following his halcyon team’s unlikely ascendance, become just another embattled denizen of the basketball establishment.
Four seasons of 50 or more wins, a trip to the Western Conference Finals, a savvy basketball savant in Steve Nash spearheading "Seven Seconds or Less": You’d be hard-pressed to author a more successful five-year story than the one D’Antoni experienced in Phoenix—albeit one written without a title.
When the bright lights and big money of New York beckoned, one could’ve forgiven D’Antoni for believing he could mold the long-suffering Knicks in his high-octane image.
Even if it meant two full seasons of cap-clearing moves and rancid rosters, such was a small price to pay for staging the world’s most exciting basketball in the World’s Most Famous arena—particularly if it meant landing LeBron James.
The gambit failed, of course, and the Knicks deigned instead to sign D’Antoni’s one-time high-flying finisher, Amar’e Stoudemire, to a five-year max contract.
For a while, it looked as though D’Antoni might’ve struck sparks anew: His fast-jelling Knicks, led by Stoudemire, Danilo Gallinari and Raymond Felton, were playing above-.500 basketball for the first time in seeming eons.
The dynamic changed drastically with the arrival of Carmelo Anthony, acquired via deadline trade that jettisoned most of New York’s young assets.
You could see the butting heads from a hundred miles away. There was simply no room in D’Antoni’s beloved system for an isolation-happy small forward with only a passing interest in playing defense and—more importantly—moving the basketball.
By the following March, the uneasy alliance had become too big a burden for D’Antoni, who resigned following a disappointing 18-24 start to the 2011-12 season.
Shortly thereafter, ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith opined what had been on the minds of many: that D’Antoni’s philosophical stubbornness had finally been his undoing.
Contrary to popular belief, acrimony is not what plagued Melo's relationship with D'Antoni or caused Stoudemire's growing frustration. No one disliked D'Antoni. No one thought he was a bad person. It's just that some Knicks thought D'Antoni's system was an exercise in futility.The D'Antoni detractors felt the Knicks' defense was porous at times not because they couldn't play it, but because they jacked up shots too quickly, too unexpectedly, preventing their defense from getting back and getting set.
New York would finish the season on an 18-6 tear under interim head coach Mike Woodson, further crystallizing in the minds of many that it was D’Antoni—not Anthony—who couldn’t adjust.
Seven months later, D’Antoni had inked a three-year, $12 million contract with the Lakers, who had broken the bank to add both Steve Nash and Dwight Howard aboard to the team’s core of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol.
It seemed like a righteous reunion made in basketball heaven. Instead, D’Antoni’s L.A. stint has been marred by many a setback: Injuries to his aging core, the death of longtime Lakers owner Jerry Buss, Howard’s soap-opera departure—the list goes on.
Worse still, if reports from Sporting News’ Sean Deveney are to be believed, Bryant has told certain sources he has “no interest” in having D’Antoni back next season.
In the court of the NBA, that’s about as close as it gets to a death sentence.
Assuming the Lakers’ current win percentage holds true for the duration, D’Antoni will have compiled a 188-253 record since his last season in Phoenix.
A partial result of an inflexible approach to implementing what is, at its core, a wholly flexible system? Probably. Bad enough to give any prospective employer pause? Absolutely.
The damning mark of a hoops huckster too long allowed atop his high horse? Hardly.
You can say Mike D’Antoni doesn’t care about defense, if only because the numbers bear it out. You can call him hard headed, citing smoke from bridges burned.
What you can’t do is blame him for running two teams with enough blunders and mishaps over the past few seasons to fill a Benny Hill montage.
When it comes to the Knicks and Lakers, seldom is a single splashy move the carrier of an underlying disease. If anything—and particularly with a commodity as fun-trendy as Mike D'Antoni's offense—it’s merely just another symptom.