Vindication at Last? Mike D'Antoni's Fingerprints All Over the NBA Finals

Howard Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterJune 14, 2015

Rocky Widner/Getty Images

OAKLAND, Calif. — The Golden State Warriors are two victories away from a championship, and Mike D'Antoni is feeling a surge of emotions.      

He is thrilled for his friend, Alvin Gentry, the Warriors associate head coach.

He is happy for David Lee and Leandro Barbosa, two veterans who thrived under D'Antoni earlier in their careers.

And yes, he is certainly pleased to see a team that embodies so much of his basketball philosophy—high pace, small lineups, three-point shooters everywhere—so close to an NBA championship.

The Warriors are tied with the Cleveland Cavaliers, 2-2, in the NBA Finals and have the home-court edge in what is now a best-of-three series.

D'Antoni, who 10 years ago infused the Phoenix Suns with the same electric style—but never won a title—calls the Warriors' rise satisfying, enjoyable, heartening. Just don't ask him to say the "V" word.

If D'Antoni feels vindicated, he won't say so, no matter how many different ways you might ask.

"Obviously, I enjoy watching it and I enjoy seeing it," D'Antoni said in a 30-minute interview last week. "Whether it validates what we were doing or not, I don't really (know)."

No, D'Antoni will not gloat or say "I told you so" or declare victory. Though he has certainly earned that right. Oh, has he earned it.

In 2004, D'Antoni launched a basketball revolution in the Arizona desert, turning the Suns into a running, gunning, three-point-shooting, pick-and-roll-happy offensive juggernaut.

The Suns ran opponents to exhaustion that year—D'Antoni's first full one in Phoenix—winning 62 games and sprinting all the way to the Western Conference Finals. And they kept on sprinting and dazzling fans across the nation for the following three years, averaging 58 wins over the four-year span, in which D'Antoni won a Coach of the Year award and Steve Nash a pair of Most Valuable Player trophies.

PHOENIX - MAY 8: Steve Nash #13 (C) of the Phoenix Suns, winner of the Maurice Podoloff Trophy as the NBA's Most Valuable Player for the 2004-2005 season, poses with Phoenix Suns Chairman and CEO Jerry Colangelo (L) and Phoenix Suns Head Coach Mike D'Anto
Barry Gossage/Getty Images

They were the darlings of the league.

But the Suns never won a championship, never made the Finals and never solved the more conventionally constructed San Antonio Spurs.

No matter how much excitement they generated, or how many games they won, the Suns were widely derided and dismissed.

"You can't win that way," critics howled.

A team might be about to win that way.

Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson lead a Warriors offense that is as frantically paced, as three-point-happy and as effervescent as any of D'Antoni's Suns teams. Actually, more so.

Yes, these Warriors are much better defensively than those Suns ever were. But offensively, they are virtual soul mates.

"You can see the influence, the imprint," said Cavaliers forward James Jones, who spent two seasons with the D'Antoni-era Suns. "You can see that style of play on everything that they do."

Indeed, Gentry, a former D'Antoni assistant, was hired by Warriors head coach Steve Kerr in part to implement the Suns' offensive principles. Barbosa, who played four-plus years under D'Antoni, was signed in part because of his familiarity with the system. And while the Golden State playbook also borrows heavily from San Antonio—where Kerr spent part of his playing career—the Warriors' personality is unmistakably D'Antonian.

"It's more Phoenix than anything," Barbosa said. "To be honest, before they showed a new play, I already know."

DALLAS - MAY 26:  Leandro Barbosa #10 of the Phoenix Suns listens to instructions by head coach Mike D'Antoni in game two of the Western Conference Finals against the Dallas Mavericks during the 2006 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Center on May 26, 200
Glenn James/Getty Images

Aesthetically, the NBA was in a rough period when D'Antoni took over in Phoenix. The game had become plodding, uncreative and overreliant on isolation play. D'Antoni, who had played and coached in Italy, brought a more European sensibility to Phoenix.

He wanted an offense built on pace, three-point shooting and a steady diet of pick-and-rolls. He downsized the lineup, shifting Amar'e Stoudemire from power forward to center and Shawn Marion from small forward to power forward to exploit defenders with their freakish athleticism.

Play fast, D'Antoni demanded, and if that doesn't work, play faster. Everyone had the green light to shoot.

In that first full season under D'Antoni, the Suns led the NBA in pace, averaging 98.62 possessions per game—a full possession (97.54) more than the next-best team and five more than the league average (93.57). They attempted 24.7 three-pointers per game—nearly nine more than the league average (15.8).

At the time, this was not viewed as a positive thing. Few believed a running team could win in the playoffs, when the game slowed and half-court teams built around post-up players generally thrived. And back then, the three-pointer was still widely viewed as a low-efficiency shot.

"Even when I went there as an assistant with Mike, I thought, 'We can't play like this!'" Gentry said, chuckling, "because everybody was so programmed in the league."

Much has changed in the last 10 years.

2014-15 NBA Pace Top 5Pace
Warriors100.69
Rockets99.25
Suns98.68
Nuggets98.67
Celtics98.40
2004-05 Suns98.62
2014-15 Three-Point Attempts Top 53PA
Rockets32.7
Cavaliers27.5
Trail Blazers27.2
Warriors27.0
Clippers26.9
2004-05 Suns24.7
NBA.com

The 2004-05 Suns would have ranked just fifth in pace this season, well behind the Warriors (100.69). They would have been 13th in three-point attempts—slightly above the league average (22.4 per game) and well behind the league-leading Houston Rockets (32.7) and the Warriors (27.0).

And consider this: The 20th-ranked team in three-point attempts this season, the Brooklyn Nets (19.9 per game), would have ranked sixth in 2004-05.

Today, no one flinches at the sight of an undersized, three-point-shooting power forward—or even an undersized, three-point-shooting center. Today, coaches speak enthusiastically about "positionless" basketball—whereas 10 years ago, D'Antoni had to sell Marion and Stoudemire on the concept.

The average pace of the NBA game has been steadily rising for a decade, from 90.9 possessions per game in 2004-05 to 93.9 this season, per Basketball-Reference.

It isn't just the Warriors who are now embodying D'Antoni's basketball philosophy. It's nearly the entire NBA.

"I think what teams do offensively, I see a lot of Mike D'Antoni in it," Gentry said. "He gets credit for a lot of things that are happening now. The pace of the game. If you look at the two teams in the Finals—actually if you look at the four teams that were left (Golden State, Houston, Cleveland and Atlanta), especially in the West, when you talk about Houston and us—and even the Clippers and the way they play—I think a lot of it is uptempo basketball."

The advanced-stats movement helped fuel the rise in three-point shooting, and even the league's higher pace. Players like Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki have helped redefine how we view big men.

But it was the mid-2000s Suns who provided a new template and made the style palatable to skeptics.

"Mike D'Antoni, to me, revolutionized basketball," Jeff Van Gundy, the ESPN analyst and former NBA coach, said in February, at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.

What D'Antoni failed to do in Phoenix was construct a defense to match his offense—although the Suns were not as defensively bereft as their reputation suggested. They ranked between 13th and 16th in defensive rating in D'Antoni's four full seasons, solidly in the middle of the pack.

Some of this was a simple matter of personnel. The Suns never had a rim-protector like the Warriors' Andrew Bogut. Although Marion and Raja Bell were great defenders, neither was as versatile as the Warriors' Draymond Green. And the Suns' two best players, Nash and Stoudemire, were poor defenders. No amount of defensive scheming would ever change that.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

"I think Mike changed the league forever, I really do," Gentry said. "I would say, if there was one thing that we didn't get done, that was that we should have improved defensively when we were there."

The Warriors ranked No. 1 in defensive efficiency this season, with two Defensive Player of the Year candidates (Green and Bogut) and an All-Defensive forward, Andre Iguodala, coming off the bench.

"If I was putting an ideal team on the floor…Golden State has everything you kind of look for," D'Antoni said. "A rim-protector, a [power forward] that can make plays and shoot threes. Great playmaking, great shooting everywhere. So they kind of embody everything.

"They play the way that the Suns would have liked to have got to, but they were able to do it defensively and offensively.

"And we weren't that good. We couldn't get to that level that quick. And we were kind of swimming upstream, a little bit. We were in as an organization, and as a management and coaches, but I don't know if we were totally in, because there was so much doubt out there. We were still tiptoeing, where now the floodgates are open now. It's like, 'OK, yeah, we can definitely go with it.'"

You could make the case that the D'Antoni Way has already earned its vindication.

The Miami Heat won two championships with a "pace-and-space" offense that was patterned after the Suns model, with Phil Weber—a former D'Antoni assistant—brought in as a consultant to help implement it. The Heat won titles with the 6'8" Shane Battier playing as the undersized power forward, shooting threes to stretch the defense.

Long after they had been written off as a contender, the Spurs adopted much of the Suns system to amp up their offense. They went to the Finals in 2013, ranking as one of the league's top three-point-shooting teams, but lost to the Heat, who were among the leaders. Then last June, the Spurs beat the Heat to add another title to their collection.

MILWAUKEE - JANUARY 26:  Raja Bell #19 of the Phoenix Suns listens to head coach Mike D'Antoni during practice before the game against the Milwaukee Bucks at the Bradley Center on January 26, 2007 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The Suns won 98-90. NOTE TO USER:
Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

"I firmly believe that a couple years ago that the Heat's model was a lot of what we did," said Bell, the former Suns guard, who is now working in the Cavaliers front office. "They had better players across the board, obviously, with LeBron [James] and those guys. But still, they were playing a lot like we played."

Jones, who played for those Heat teams, agreed that the system earned validation, though not necessarily the Suns.

"The game changes," Jones said. "If you ask, 'Could it win 10 years ago?' No, it couldn't. Because it didn't. Is the NBA game, are the players, are the skill sets the same as they were back then? No. It's totally different skill sets, totally different feel for the game. In today's era, that's what works, because the league has transitioned to it."

One way or another, the D'Antoni Suns—or some of them, anyway—will celebrate a title this week. The Warriors have Gentry, Barbosa and Kerr, who served as the Suns general manager in D'Antoni's last season. The Cavaliers have Jones, Marion, Bell and general manager David Griffin, who began his career in Phoenix.

While a Cavs championship would be mostly credited to LeBron's individual greatness, it should also be noted that Cleveland shot the second-most three-pointers (27.5 per game) in the NBA this season, with long-distance-shooting power forward Kevin Love helping to keep the floor spread.

And the revolution marches on. Gentry has been named the next head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans, who hired him to add some zip to their offense.

The Indiana Pacers, who became an Eastern Conference power with a defense built around the 7'2" Roy Hibbert, are now looking to diminish his role and play smaller and faster. Pacers star Paul George recently told the Indianapolis Star's Dana Hunsinger Benbow he's planning to play as a stretch-four in a small lineup.

After rough stints in New York and Los Angeles and a year out of the league, D'Antoni is poised to make a return. He has interviewed with the Denver Nuggets. During his time off, D'Antoni has visited with other coaches—including defensive technicians like Stan Van Gundy and Steve Clifford—trading ideas and broadening his own portfolio.

At the Sloan conference in February, D'Antoni was practically a rock star, his praises sung by the analytics crowd while young conference-goers sought him out for a conversation or a photo.

A decade ago, D'Antoni had the Suns poised to revolutionize the league, but they were repeatedly stymied by a superior opponent (mostly, the Spurs) and bad luck—Joe Johnson's fractured eye socket in the 2005 playoffs, the mid-series suspensions of Stoudemire and Boris Diaw in 2007.

"San Antonio was just better than us," D'Antoni said.

Eric Gay/Associated Press

Maybe the Suns just needed to tune up their defense. Maybe they were just too far ahead of their time.

Style and philosophy aside, D'Antoni said championships generally are decided by more basic factors: luck, heart and the human element.

Vindication? D'Antoni isn't seeking it, and he won't even say the word in a 30-minute conversation.

"But I enjoy watching it this way and I enjoyed coaching it that way," he said. "So to me, it's just fun. It's fun basketball."

But you can be sure he'd take great satisfaction in seeing the Warriors seize the title, carrying so much Suns DNA to the championship parade.

"I would like us to win the championship for a lot of reasons," Gentry said, "but one of them would be because Mike is still a dear friend of mine. He preached this six, seven, eight years ago, and everyone said, 'You can't win playing this kind of basketball.' I think you can win playing this kind of basketball."

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is a co-host of NBA Sunday Tip, 9-11 a.m. ET on SiriusXM Bleacher Report Radio. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.

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