Mike D'Antoni occupies a complicated space in the NBA landscape, so his agreement to become the Houston Rockets' next head coach, as first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical, raises appropriately complicated issues.
After spearheading an offensive revolution with the Phoenix Suns and enjoying wild success in the mid-2000s, D'Antoni flamed out with the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers. The ultimate question, then, is this: Which version of D'Antoni is the real one?
Are the Rockets getting the mind widely credited with altering offensive basketball? The guy who spaced the floor, championed pace, shrunk lineups and made the pick-and-roll the fulcrum of virtually every system since developed?
Unless you think his short tenure as an assistant with the Philadelphia 76ers sparked some kind of unlikely revelation, there's really no third option.
We'll get the answer to that big question when we see whether D'Antoni fails or succeeds in Houston. But there is a handful of smaller queries that should provide hints ahead of time.
Does This Work Without Steve Nash?
No matter how convinced you are of D'Antoni's revolutionary offensive thinking, you can't conclude he was solely responsible for the Suns' offensive innovation and success.
Not when Steve Nash was running top-tier attacks long before D'Antoni showed up.
NBA.com's John Schuhmann pulled together the numbers a couple of years ago when Nash's retirement began to appear imminent, and they're stunning.
Nash led the NBA's best offense for nine straight seasons from 2001 to 2002 until 2009-10. Three of those years came with the Dallas Mavericks, and the final two came after D'Antoni left Phoenix. So if you're looking for a common denominator here, it's not the coach.
It's the transcendent point guard.
D'Antoni never had anything approaching his Nash-era level of offensive success in his other stops, despite the respective scoring talents of Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant. That's a potential concern—one the presence of James Harden as a primary ball-handler may not mitigate.
And in terms of incumbent point guards, the best Houston has is Patrick Beverley—a good defender and capable shooter who is about as far from the Nash prototype as possible.
Toss in the other worries about the league adopting, improving and rendering obsolete many of D'Antoni's core offensive principles, and you've got a long way to go before reaching any certainty the Rockets will suddenly score like crazy just because they hired a new coach.
What About Dwight Howard?
This one's easy. Howard is gone.
With a player option allowing him to hit free agency and cash in on a multi-year deal (not to mention his obvious dissatisfaction in Houston), Howard was probably on the way out already. But this seals it.
Howard was unhappy with D'Antoni in Los Angeles, and he said so in exit interviews, per Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com:
According to sources with knowledge of the situation, part of the discussion between Howard and Kupchak centered around Howard's frustration with D'Antoni—particularly how the center felt marginalized as the coach looked to Bryant and Steve Nash for leadership and suggestions and discounted Howard's voice.
Howard has now offered similar complaints about his role in every stop of his career, so it's hard to fault D'Antoni in this instance. Given the way things were trending with Howard last year, the potential overpay it might take to keep him and his well-documented distaste for D'Antoni, it's not hard to see why Houston didn't seem too concerned about the soon-to-be-departed center's feelings.
So, Um, Defense?
Scoring wasn't the Rockets' problem last season. They ranked eighth in offensive efficiency, despite some key injuries (Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas) and failed roster additions (Ty Lawson and Josh Smith). All things considered, that's kind of impressive.
Less impressive: Trotting out the 20th-ranked defense in a season where Howard—theoretically still an impactful force on the interior—played 30 more games than he did in 2014-15. During that season, when Houston reached the conference finals, it posted the No. 6 defense in the league.
Maybe this is just another good-riddance condemnation of Howard. But maybe it's a clear signal that the Rockets' failures are in areas D'Antoni's not famous for caring much about.
Here's Matt Moore of CBSSports.com:
Since Phoenix, every team D'Antoni has coached has finished in the bottom half of the league in defensive rating, and often in the lower third. Players have constantly referenced the fact that D'Antoni doesn't spend any time on defense at practices and it has simply never really mattered to him.
Perhaps there's a case to be made that D'Antoni has learned from his mistakes, or that he'll galvanize the team and get better buy-in than either Kevin McHale or J.B. Bickerstaff could muster. More commitment and effort could go a long way toward Houston rediscovering its once-potent defense, but there's little in the historical record to suggest D'Antoni, as a strategist, has much to offer on that end.
So, he'll need help.
Which he'll get, per Wojnarowski: "The Rockets plan to build a veteran staff around D'Antoni, which likely will include Memphis Grizzlies defensive coordinator Jeff Bzdelik and Washington Wizards assistant Roy Rogers, league sources said."
I don't see Tom Thibodeau or Ron Adams or any other similarly revered defensive genius in that report...so let's just hope for the best.
How Does James Harden Fit?
D'Antoni's great Suns teams were defined by flow, movement, passing and unselfishness. And even though James Harden's individual brilliance has produced effective offensive numbers in Houston, you'd never catch yourself marveling at the fluidity or egalitarian way in which the Rockets scored.
Harden is a complete monster in isolation—a foul-magnet with an array of impossible-to-stop drives and step-backs. He's a true scoring outlier, an individual juggernaut in an era increasingly defined by ball movement and collaboration.How will D'Antoni convince Harden it's not always ideal to isolate at the top of the circle while four teammates spectate?
And perhaps this is the better question: Should he even try to convince Harden of this?
Again, we don't know for sure whether D'Antoni's principles even work anymore. We're certain Harden can generate efficient offense playing the way he prefers.
And if D'Antoni's not putting his stamp on the offense in Houston, what's he even doing there at all?
Can D'Antoni get through to his biggest talent? Past failures to connect with Anthony, Howard and Bryant don't exactly inspire confidence.
Time for Answers
It's entirely possible D'Antoni's last two stops were just bad situations—that his failures in New York and Los Angeles had more to do with shaky ownership, ill-fitting personnel and bad vibes than any shortcomings on his part. And whatever detractions seem fair when discussing his time in Phoenix, it's still true he presided over some of the best-looking, most effective offensive basketball we'd seen to that point.
Still, D'Antoni is a mixed bag at best—possibly brilliant and potentially disastrous.
Credit Houston for a bold move, because even after interviews and due diligence, it can't be totally certain who D'Antoni is as a head coach.
We'll all find out together.
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