Houston Rockets Hiring Mike D'Antoni Comes with Curious Questions​

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 26, 2016

Philadelphia 76ers' associate head coach Mike D'Antoni looks on during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Atlanta Hawks, Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016, in Philadelphia. The Hawks won 126-98. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)
Chris Szagola/Associated Press

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?

Or are they getting the guy who lost the locker room in New York and may well have deserved more blame for the implosion in L.A. than the more rigorously chronicled Kobe Bryant-Dwight Howard rift?

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?

PHOENIX - MARCH 31:  Head coach Mike D'Antoni of the Phoenix Suns talks with Steve Nash #13 during a time out as the Suns host the Denver Nuggets in an NBA game played at U.S. Airways Center March 31, 2008 in Phoenix, Arizona. NOTE TO USER: User expressly
Barry Gossage/Getty Images

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.

DALLAS - NOVEMBER 23:  Steve Nash #13 and Dirk Nowitzki #41 of the Dallas Mavericks celebrate during the game against the Seattle Sonics at American Airlines Center on November 23, 2002  in Dallas, Texas.  The Mavericks won 115-105.  NOTE TO USER: User ex
Glenn James/Getty Images

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?

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 14: Dwight Howard #12 of the Los Angeles Lakers celebrates while head coach Mike D'Antoni looks on during their game against the San Antonio Spurs at Staples Center on April 14, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User e
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

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?

Apr 24, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) reacts while playing against the Golden State Warriors in the second half in game four of the first round of the NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Golden State Warriors won 121 to 94. Ma
Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

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?

Harden's reputation as a team player took a hit this past season, and the fact that Houston is now on its third head coach in less than a year indicates he may not be the easiest guy to handle.

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

Dec 26, 2015; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Philadelphia 76ers associate head coach Mike D'Antoni prior to the game against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena. The 76ers defeated the Suns 111-104. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It's entirely possible D'Antoni's last two stops were just bad situationsthat 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.

Follow @gt_hughes on Twitter.


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