New York Knicks: Why Mike D'Antoni Will Never Win a Championship
There are some things we KNOW about NBA basketball. There are rock solid, unshakable truths against which there can be no argument.
First, we KNOW a team needs two star players because no one, not Michael Jordan or anyone else, can win it all alone.
The proof of this assertion is that Jordan scored 63 points against Larry Bird and the Celtics in the 1986 playoffs, and LOST both the game and the series!
Second, Conference Finals and Finals playoff series always come down to a few well-placed defensive stops. Why? It doesn't matter if your team scores 131 points if the opposing team scores 135.
We also know that acquiring two stars who work well together and have chemistry with their role players is hard. We know this because in the immortal words of Jimmy Dugan, "If it wasn't hard everybody would do it. It's the hard that makes it great."
Clearly, hiring a defensive-minded coach is hard too, because with all the irrefutable evidence that defense wins championships, teams continually fail at this essential first step to doing so.
Instead, there are many teams who keep re-living the same failed experiment over and over again.
Mike D'Antoni coaches a very exciting brand of basketball. Its fan appeal is undeniable because fans like fast-paced, high-scoring games with small, quick teams out-running and out-scoring their opponents.
D'Antoni's system lulls fans into believing that his teams are contenders. It’s fun to watch and they win in the regular season. Regular-season wins gets his teams into the first round of the playoffs lending credence to the illusion that D'Antoni's teams are perennial playoff teams when they are in fact perennial playoff losers.
In subsequent slides I will prove that the so called “seven-second offense” has a long and disastrous history in the NBA. Mike D'Antoni's offense is not as much innovation as it is resurrection of the style of play that has not won and will never win a championship in the NBA as we know it.
The Origins of the Run-and-Gun
Mike D'Antoni played in the NBA and ABA in the early-to-mid 1970s when they were competing for the players that would make their respective leagues great.
The two leagues merged in 1976.
D'Antoni played parts of four seasons in the NBA and one season in the ABA before leaving for Italy, where he played for 13 years and coached for eight.
The former NBA player's coaching career in Italy was distinguished by winning the Cup of Europe and Coppa Italia in 1995 and the Italian domestic league title in 1996–97.
D'Antoni's teams went to the playoffs in four straight years, during which time D'Antoni was named Coach of the year twice.
In Europe there isn't really much of a post-up game. The big men are generally skilled ball-handlers and spot-up shooters who “flash” in the paint rather than post.
The European game is predicated on spreading the floor, dribble penetration and kicking to cutters and open spot-up shooters.
What D'Antoni's done is combined the European style of play with the early offense, quick strike schemes of the 70s.
In the late 50s and 60s, the Boston Celtics pulled off the greatest championship run in the history of professional sports in the United States by winning 11 championships in 13 years. They managed this feat by executing the most devastating half-court defense the league had ever seen.
The Celtics' half-court defense was predicated on funneling their opponent’s offensive players toward the greatest shot blocker in the history of the game. It is not known how many shots Bill Russell blocked because blocked shots were not kept as a statistic until the 1973-74 season.
What we do know is that the other great shot blockers of the day, Wilt Chamberlain and Nate Thurmond, used shot blocking to intimidate opponents by knocking their shot into the stands to the delight of their fans.
When Bill Russell blocked a shot, he deflected it to himself or a teammate so a blocked shot was also a change of possession.
The Celtics brand of the defense changed the game. The strategy in the 70s was to get down court and score before the other team could set up their half-court defense.
And so began the run-and-gun era of basketball.
NBA History: The Failure of Doug Moe's Denver Nuggets
Doug Moe was an old ABA assistant who got his first job as a head coach with the San Antonio Spurs after the merger.
The Spurs may have moved over to the NBA, but they were an ABA team typified by one of the great stars in Spurs history, George "the Ice Man" Gervin.
Moe and Gervin got the San Antonio Spurs all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals in 1978-79 where they lost to Hall of Fame low post duo Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes.
The Spurs fired Doug Moe when they failed to make the playoffs following a subpar season in 1979-80.
Moe took over when Denver fired Donnie Walsh, who is now the Knicks’ President of Basketball Operations, 31 games into the 80-81 season.
Like San Antonio, Denver had also moved over from the ABA and had a classic ABA squad, including David Thompson in his last year of greatness before he blew out his knee, silky smooth Alex English, 10-year veteran Dan Issel and rookie Kiki Vandeweghe.
Moe immediately installed an offense based on getting the ball up the floor quickly and executing early offense replete with quick pick and rolls and backdoor cuts.
The Denver fans loved it.
Defense was an afterthought. Moe figured the other team scoring was a big mistake because then they had to give the ball back to his group of great scorers.
The Nuggets also had T.R. Dunn, who was one of the truly fine defenders in the league. As time went on, Denver acquired defensive players like Bill Hanzlik and Danny Schayes, and they made individual defensive plays, but it wasn't part of an overall scheme designed to get defensive stops in the playoffs.
In the 80s, the Lakers, the Celtics and Pistons began to beat teams by employing team defensive strategies that limited transition baskets, and final scores in the NBA began to drop, but not in Denver.
Moe was a run-and-gun coach from a run-and-gun league in a run-and-gun era. The NBA was evolving; Moe and the Nuggets were not.
Mike D'Antoni played for six years in that run-and-gun era. D'Antoni also played for Moe in San Antonio in the final two games of his NBA career before D'Antoni went to play and coach in Italy.
Doug Moe made the playoffs in each of the nine full seasons he coached in Denver. Denver was eliminated five times in the first round, three times in the second and once in the conference finals by the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers.
Everyone remembers the Showtime Lakers of the 80s. What people forget is that when a game or a series was on the line, they had the ability to deploy the most devastating weapon in history basketball, the “Sky Hook.”
The Denver Nuggets of the 80s never had an answer for a well-executed half-court offense with a low-post presence.
Moe was 406-332 in the regular season in Denver and was probably the best of the run-and-gun coaches. Still, no matter how many games he won the regular-season, or how many times Denver made the playoffs, he had no championships and no appearances in the Finals to show for it.
NBA History: The Failure of Don Nelson's Warriors in the 80s and 90s
The Golden State Warriors hired Don Nelson as head coach before the 1988-89 season. Nelson had not abandoned all thoughts of defense, yet.
Nelson coached some tough, gritty, defensive teams in Milwaukee. Teams that included the likes of Terry Cummings, Marques Johnson and Sidney Moncrief .
Nelson inherited a problem in Golden State. If a team’s best player, who must be on the floor during critical minutes, is a defensive liability, there will be no winning championships in the modern NBA.
Golden State's best player was original dream teamer Chris Mullin, and Mullin couldn't guard anyone.
When you build a team around a defensive liability, this severely limits your options. Mullin was the Golden State's ownership's guy and Don Nelson had to figure out a way to win with him.
Golden State drafted Tim Hardaway in 1989 and Run TMC was born.
TMC stood for Tim (Hardaway) Mitch (Richmond) and Chris Mullin. Mitch Richmond was a good individual defender and the Warriors had shot blocker Manute Bol, but by that time defense wasn't the gameplan.
Chris Mullin was a slow-footed shooting guard-small forward in a division with Clyde Drexler and Jerome Kersey of the Portland Trail Blazers and Byron Scott and James Worthy of the Los Angeles Lakers.
After Nelson exhausted all the avenues he had at his disposal to help Mullin guard a position where speed and quickness is at a premium, Nelson abandoned defense altogether and went to the run-and-gun game.
Wait a minute, wasn't Chris Mullin 34th all time in steals? Mullin had really quick hands and an uncanny ability to poke the ball away. But if a player who was fleet of foot lined up with Mullin one-on-one in the half-court offense, Mullin had no chance.
Larry Bird is 30th all time in steals. Bird and Mullin were comparable athletically. Bird played in a defensive system that covered his weaknesses and enhanced the strengths. Mullin didn't get a chance to play in that kind of system until he went to Indiana and played for Coach Larry Bird.
Nelson was 277-260 with four playoff appearances in six-and-a-half years with the Warriors. The Warriors lost in the first round in two of their playoff appearances and in the semis in the other two.
NBA History: The Failure of Mike D'Antoni's Phoenix Suns
The Suns were 232-96 in the regular season under D'Antoni, with four playoff berths and two trips to the Conference Finals. Why would the Suns fire a coach that had been so successful?
The Suns beat Don Nelson's Dallas Mavericks to get to the Western Conference Finals in 2004-05. The Suns and Mavericks were the same type of team, employing run-and-gun offenses and very little defense.
Don Nelson groomed Avery Johnson to be the coach of the Mavericks and turned over the reins with 18 games left in the 2004-05 regular season.
Those 18 games were not enough time for Johnson to teach the Mavericks that defense wins in the playoffs. The Suns simply beat the Mavericks at their own game.
The Suns lost to the eventual champions, Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs, in the 2004-05 Western Conference Finals. Losing to the Spurs would become a habit for both the Suns and Mavericks.
Avery Johnson coached the Mavericks for a full season in 2005-06. Though Don Nelson hadn't built a great defensive team, Johnson convinced the Mavericks to put forth a defensive effort, and that's all it took to beat the Suns in the Conference Finals.
Both the Suns and Mavericks were in the Conference Finals because the 2005-06 Spurs suffered key injuries and Kobe Bryant and the Lakers still had not yet learned that no one can do it alone.
The Suns lost to Tim Duncan and the Spurs for two out of the first three years under Mike D'Antoni. Phoenix traded Shawn Marion, their best defensive player, for Shaquille O’Neal during the fourth year of D'Antoni's tenure.
The Suns hoped O’Neal would give them a low-post presence to compete with Duncan in the playoffs.
D'Antoni's offensive schemes stalled and spluttered with O’Neal in the lineup and the Suns lost in the first round of the playoffs. He left after the 2007-08 season to coach the Knicks.
NBA History: The Failure of Don Nelson's Mavericks
When you look back at the roster of the 1998-1999 Dallas Mavericks, you can see why Don Nelson jumped at the chance to coach them. They appeared to have all the pieces in place.
Dirk Nowitzki and Don Nelson arrived in Dallas same year. Already in Dallas were Steve Nash, Michael Finley, Hubert Davis and Shawn Bradley.
You can see why a coach who is not defensive-minded might feel like he had fallen into a good thing.
Don Nelson always wanted a big man when he was in Milwaukee and Golden State. What he got was Alton Lister and Manute Bol. There was still hope at that time that Shawn Bradley would develop into a viable force down low.
Michael Finley turned out to be 15th all time in three-point field goals made, so he had a big man and a shooter. More importantly, Nowitzki and Nash looked to the entire world like a championship tandem for the ages.
The only thing they needed was a grunt to provide rebounding, interior defense and toughness. No problem right, you can always get one of those. Wrong! The Mavericks never did get that guy who consistently knocked other tough guys on their keisters.
They called Dirk Nowitzki a power forward, but he is actually more of a seven-foot, spot-up shooter.
What Nelson failed to see was that he bought into the same problem that he had in Golden State, only this time it was defensive liability times three. Just like Chris Mullin, Nowitzki, Nash and Finley could not guard anyone.
Highlights of players blowing by them on the dead run and dunking in Shawn Bradley's mug were nightly spectacles on SportsCenter.
Once again, Don Nelson figured out how to win with what he had, and went to the run and gun.
Just like all the other run-and-gun teams, Dallas put on a good show in the regular season. Fans and analysts alike touted the possibilities of a Dallas championship , but then the Mavs lost in the first or second round under Don Nelson.
It can be said that Nelson found a way to win with what he had in both his first stint in Golden State and in Dallas. What Nelson found was a way to get the playoffs and then lose.
NBA History: The Failure of Don Nelson's Warriors, Again
It can be argued that Don Nelson found a way to win with what he had during both his first stint in Golden State and in his tenure in Dallas.
However, Nelson's second stint in Golden State proved beyond doubt, who he is, what he does and what he does not do, which is win championships.
When Golden State hired Don Nelson in the 80s, his coaching resume consisted of what he had done in Milwaukee. That was a different Don Nelson than he has been for the last 30 years.
After years of doing the same thing and yielding the same result in Golden State and Dallas, it's hard to imagine why Golden State would re-hire Nelson. Isn't the definition of insanity doing the same thing and expecting different results?
Don Nelson left new owners Joe Lacob, Peter Guber and their partners with a ragtag collection of guards and small forwards that are further away from winning than they were when Nelson got the job before the 2006-07 season.
Don Nelson is the winningest coach in the history of the NBA with 1,335 regular-season wins, but is that really his legacy?
How about this? Milwaukee Bucks teams lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to the eventual NBA champions in 1983, 1984 and 1986. Since the 1985-86 season, no Don Nelson team has ever made it out of the semifinals.
Mike D'Antoni and Don Nelson are brothers under the skin. Their pick and roll, pick and pop, backdoor cut, run and gun offenses mirror each other in both structure and results.
A New Team, Same Old Mike D'Antoni
Mike D'Antoni is in his third year as head coach in New York. With the acquisition of Amar'e Stoudemire, D'Antoni has built the beginnings of a team that fits his system.
Other than rookie Timofey Mozgov, a European-style center, the Knicks do not have one player on their roster for which center is a natural position. In the beginning of the 2010-2011 season, D'Antoni started Ronny Turiaf at the center position.
Turiaf gave the Knicks interior defense and rebounding, but all that defense and rebounding slowed D'Antoni's offense down. D'Antoni benched Turiaf and moved Stoudemire to the center position.
Stoudemire is familiar with the center position in D'Antoni system, having played the position in Phoenix.
The offense began to click as the Knicks went on a roll.
In early January Stoudemire was quoted as saying that the Knicks could win the Eastern Conference title without Carmelo Anthony. You would think that Stoudemire, of all people, would be able to read the writing on the wall.
The Knicks will post a winning season, get to the playoffs and be ousted at the first team they meet with a legitimate low-post presence.
Knowledge of recent NBA history reveals that this is not a bold prediction.
The Types of Players That Fit Into the System
Whether by coincidence or by design, the types of players that fit in the run-and-gun style of offense are not the same types of players who delivered the gritty defensive performances required to win when a playoff game is on the line.
Furthermore, Doug Moe's Nuggets and Don Nelson's Warriors required an extensive rebuilding process to undo the damage done by building the team around those systems and the players that fit them.
Denver's trio of Alex English, Dan Issel and Kiki Vandeweghe was clearly never coached to play defense and it never did.
However, there were people playing for the Nuggets at the time who put forth a defensive effort every night. Is that the fault of player, the coach or the GM who assembled those players?
Alex English cited nagging injuries for his lack of effort on defense his whole career. Still, he always seemed to get down court when it was time to score.
Chris Mullin, Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki did not have the ability to be good one-on-one defenders at their position, but what about Amar’e Stoudemire in Phoenix?
I had Stoudemire on my “players who never win a championship” list because he took plays off; sometimes he didn't show up at all and gave inconstent effort on defense.
This year Stoudemire is fourth in the NBA in blocked shots. So was he dogging it in Phoenix? Are we now supposed to believe that this is a player who will show up every single night, on every single play and show the kind of constant leadership that enables him to will other players to a championship?
While I don't know what to make of Stoudemire's sudden bent towards veteran leadership, I do know that he is not fourth in blocked shots because he's a great one-on-one defender or a great help defender in the post.
Stoudemire gets blocks because he chases people down and blocks shots from behind. To his credit, after all these years, he is finally applying all that athleticism on the defensive end of the floor.
None of that will help New York against Shaq, Kevin Garnett and Dwight Howard when they back up Stoudemire down in the post, and he needs to make a play.
These are not the only players, on the only teams, who played for the only coaches who suffer from the lack of desire, ability or consistency required to playing defense at championship level.
However, it may be more than coincidence that these players are all on run-and-gun teams.
The Difference in Playoff Basketball: Points in the Paint
With the notable exception of the “Jordan Bulls, ” every franchise that has won multiple championships within a 10-year window has been anchored by a low-post presence.
Even the “Jordan Bulls” dump the ball down to a bevy of mediocre big men to establish the low-post portion of the triangle offense.
The Los Angeles Lakers were between big men Shaquille O'Neal and Pau Gasol from the 2004-05 through 2006-07 seasons. Without an experienced big man to establish the low-post element of the triangle, Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers missed the playoffs one year and were ousted in the first round in the following two.
The NBA is not college, it is not Europe and it is not the ABA. Attempting to win a championship without a low-post presence on both ends of the floor simply has not worked.
Placing Amar’e Stoudemire in the center position will only produce the same results that the same move produced in Phoenix. Fans will be excited and hopes will be raised and then dashed, again and again.
Can't you just stick a big man in the D'Antoni system and win?
It didn't work with Shaquille O’Neal. Granted, by 2007-08, Shaq was a shadow of his former dominant self. However, the point is that the rest of the offense fell apart with a low post element in Shaq. In this NBA, a low-post element is necessary to go all the way in the playoffs.
That is why Mike D'Antoni will NEVER win a championship.