There are no bigger spotlights in the NBA than the flickering, paparazzi-like flashes aimed at the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers.
Having failed spectacularly as the head coach of both storied franchises, Mike D'Antoni knows better than anyone that it's a long fall from the top, especially when everyone's watching and betting on disaster.
But here he is again, taking over the reins of the reeling Houston Rockets, a team coming off a lackluster 41-41 season mired in finger-pointing, fissured locker room relationships and a complete breakdown in chemistry. His mission? To steer the once-proud "Clutch City" Rockets back into championship orbit.
D'Antoni says he doesn't think too much about his time in L.A. and New York, but he's certainly aware of the main issues that plagued those locker rooms.
"I could never get the guys from the beginning to buy into the way we want to play," D'Antoni told Bleacher Report. "We never got everybody going into the same direction. That was my fault. It happened. That's in the past. This is a new team. Guys want to play the way we all want to play."
Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is betting that a change of scenery is all D'Antoni needs to flourish again. To Morey, a career .650 winning percentage over five years in Phoenix speaks louder than the well-publicized flameouts in the NBA's biggest markets.
"The players are improved under him, the teams have improved," Morey told B/R. "After he's left, the teams have done worse. We also have had a lot of success playing an uptempo, spread-floor style. Our players fit that, and having his level of experience and knowledge added to our personnel, which is already set up for his style of play, was a huge factor in us hiring him."
Morey's certainly right about that: Having the right personnel makes all the difference in the world.
"Every coach knows that this stuff only works when you have really good players," D'Antoni said.
D'Antoni's then-radical offensive philosophies only worked in Phoenix because the "seven seconds or less" offense demanded an ever-probing point guard like Steve Nash. The D'Antoni-Nash era netted 253 total wins, two 60-win seasons, two MVP awards, one Coach of the Year award and notoriety as the most entertaining show on the hardwood since the Showtime Lakers.
"I was blessed to have a lot of good point guards throughout," D'Antoni said. "We struggled when the point guard got hurt, or in New York when we had to put Chauncey Billups on amnesty to get Tyson Chandler, knowing that we were going to struggle until we found a point guard. And we did when we got Jeremy Lin. ... I mean, a team is, especially the way I like to play, you have to have somebody that can make those plays and understand what we want, and I've been fortunate."
Yet outside of Jeremy Lin's brief "Linsanity" run in New York, D'Antoni hasn't had the point guard his system requires since he left Phoenix. He's gone 188-254 since 2008. Despite his reputation as an offensive visionary, his post-Phoenix teams have only ranked in the top 10 in offensive rating twice in six years—seventh with the Knicks in 2010-11 and ninth with the Lakers in 2012-13.
Looking at Houston's point guard depth chart, Morey might feel pressure to find D'Antoni's next Nash. Patrick Beverley, the incumbent starting point guard, is known for his defensive tenacity but not much else.
But there's a top-tier playmaker already on the squad who might function as a de facto point guard.
"I think James [Harden] is our playmaker," D'Antoni said, quick to point out that Harden averaged 7.5 assists last year. "We're going to move him over a lot to the guy who's initiating the offense. ... I know he has a scoring mentality, which I want him to keep. But we're going to try to blend the two and give him a lot more responsibility running the team right off the initial bat. It'll be a little bit of a change for him, a little bit of a change for me, but I think it could be something that could be pretty special."
Harden, who is only one season removed from leading the Rockets to the Western Conference Finals with stellar MVP-caliber play, seems game for whatever D'Antoni has in store.
"We’ve talked a lot," Harden told Bleacher Report. "We’ve watched film together already. I love his vision. He’s excited about this opportunity. I know I am. He watched film with me and was showing me different positions and spots that he would like to see me in. That excites me, because it brings me back to the gym to figure out things I need to work on so that I can prepare for what he asks of me."
Harden has just as much to prove as D'Antoni. Despite leading the league in minutes played and finishing the season as the NBA's second-leading scorer with a career-best 29.0 points per game, Harden was left off all three All-NBA teams. His reputation for being aloof, inattentive on defense and full of hubris outweighed his production in critics' eyes.
Yet players view Harden differently—he earned the players' vote for MVP in 2015, and players voted him the fourth-toughest player to guard in an anonymous survey by the Los Angeles Times last year.
The media doesn't see him that way. Harden and the Rockets felt the heat in D'Antoni's introductory press conference on June 1, when normally reserved Houston owner Leslie Alexander scolded all of the "naysayers" responsible for the "bad rap" they gave Harden and the rest of the team this past season.
For his part, D'Antoni doesn't understand why Harden wasn't given any credit for the banner year he had last season in spite of the sudden coaching change and the clashes in the locker room.
"He had a great year," D’Antoni said of his star player. "Obviously, they had some chemistry issues, and it just didn't go as well. James Harden has been and is one of the top players in the league, and he's been that way.
"He can defend, he's strong, and offensively, he might be the best in the league. Some of this stuff happens when you don't have great chemistry on the team, and sadly, that's what happened last year, and everybody knows it. So we're going to make sure that doesn't happen again and see where it goes, but there's no doubt that he is a great player."
Indeed, Harden's arguably a top-five player, but D'Antoni has had one before. His relationships with Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant soured quickly after both repeatedly broke from D'Antoni's system in favor of hero ball.
So the question becomes: Can D'Antoni handle a ball-dominant guard like Harden and get him to buy into a playbook that eschews his bread-and-butter isolation plays?
"There will definitely be lots of ball movement," D'Antoni says. "We're even going to enhance it a little bit more. When I was in Phoenix, we believed in it, but we didn't know that analytically it was the right way to go. We were kind of testing the waters and making sure, but now I think we can go completely that way and keep the middle open.
"This will really help, and we really have some shooters this year in Houston. I think everybody's game is going to be enhanced, and I'm pretty excited about what we can do offensively."
On the surface, it appears Morey has addressed the team's need for three-point threats with the additions of Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson. Dwight Howard, lost in free agency to the Atlanta Hawks, has been replaced by veteran center Nene.
But the personnel moves are moot if they don't address the team's chemistry concerns.
"From the get-go, the players understood their problems from last year," D'Antoni said. "The players want to have a better feeling in the locker room and better chemistry, and it's a lot on them if they are serious about winning and serious about getting the job done."
The biggest concern for a team that ranked 25th overall in points allowed per game, 30th overall in personal fouls committed (i.e. the most personal fouls in the league), and dead last in defensive rebounding percentage last season is finding a way to get stops and limiting second-chance points.
Jeff Bzdelik, who has earned a reputation as one of the NBA's top defensive architects, joins D'Antoni as his top assistant coach. He comes from a Pat Riley background and proved his worth the last few years with the Memphis Grizzlies.
Bzdelik told the Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen what he's looking to do with the defense this season:
In defensive transition, we need three things. No. 1, you don't want to give up a coast-to-coast layup. You don't want to give up a layup off one pass. And you want to make them at least reverse the ball with two passes to the weakside where you can at least get back, build your shell and go back to making them take tough twos outside the paint, inside the arc.
Bzdelik is saying all of the right things, but will his philosophy work? Does Houston have the right players to carry out his plan?
"We're a lot better defensively than people think," D'Antoni said. "Pat Beverley is very tenacious, so we have guys that can defend. But most of the time, when chemistry breaks down in the locker room, it's the effort on defense that suffers the most. I don't know of anybody not trying on offense when they're upset."
Give D'Antoni credit for saying the right things. He's approaching the job with humility and addressing his glaring weakness directly. But this could be his last opportunity as an NBA head coach if he doesn't validate the buy-in from Alexander, Morey and Harden.
Bleacher Report writer Dan Favale contributed to the reporting of this article. Advanced statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.
Maurice Bobb is a writer based out of Houston, with over 11 years of experience covering the NBA for outlets such as the Houston Chronicle, The Shadow League, HOOP, Rolling Stone and SLAM. Follow him on Twitter at @ReeseReport. B
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