A Study In Glorious Failure Part 2: Mike D’Antoni

Yesterday, we did a deep dive into the legacy of Don Nelson, Hall of Famer, legendary coach…and one-time conference finalist without so much as an NBA Finals appearance, never mind a ring.

But no discussion of the Marty Schottenheimers of the NBA is complete without the recently-sacked maven of Houston Rockets playoff disappointment, good ol’ Mike D’Antoni.

Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely love MDA and campaigned for him to be the new head coach of my beloved Indiana Pacers.

But nobody in the history of basketball coaching embodied “live by the sword, die by the sword” like Mr. Seven Seconds Or Less himself.

The 2018 Western Conference Finals mark the most egregious case of this—a Rockets team built in slavish devotion to the notion that three is more than two, the first team in NBA history to finish a season with more three-point attempts than two-point attempts—missed 27 threes in a row in a game they only lost by nine points, a game that would’ve catapulted them to an NBA Finals against LeBron James and the Canton Charge in Cleveland Cavaliers uniforms.

Other than the ’07 Cavs, the ’18 Cavs might’ve had the worst roster of any team ever to make the Finals, especially if you’re talking about a roster minus their best player (that is, a supporting cast.)

Mike D’Antoni’s team failed him. Or perhaps MDA’s insistence on “dance with the one what brung ya”—he had Chris Paul. Any other coach in the league would’ve changed the geometry of the offense to let CP3 work in the midrange when the threes stopped falling. It would’ve been less efficient, but Houston only needed to find 10 points on 27 shots that didn’t go in.

But one conference finals collapse, you could conceivably blame the players. Three conference final collapses, you have to wonder if the coach has what it takes to get a team over the hump in the playoffs.

And that’s where those old Suns teams come in.

Like Nelson’s Mavericks before them, Phoenix shattered opposing defenses to the tune of some of the highest Offensive Ratings relative to league average in the history of the NBA.

The teams with Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire, and a collection of outside shooters to support them pulled the double threat of leading the league in both 3-point attempts and 3-point percentage in back-to-back years, and for perspective, the 3PAR of those ’05 and ’06 Suns teams were .289 and .293 respectively; in 2007 the league had started to catch on and Phoenix, while still leading the league in 3PT%, stood just second in 3-point attempts behind Don Nelson’s Warriors and second in 3PAR behind (of all teams, weirdly enough) a Jeff Van Gundy-coached Rockets squad that was still a year away from hiring Daryl Morey.

But the Suns died by the sword in the Western Conference Finals in 2005 against the Spurs and 2006 against a Mavericks team that managed the league’s top offense while playing the fourth-slowest pace and raining shots from every distance from 10 feet out to 3-point land on their opponents, led by Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry both shooting over 40 percent from beyond the arc.

The Suns then got robbed by the refs and screwed by the league office in the 2007 West semis against San Antonio—another missed opportunity for D’Antoni to get a ring as a coach against a wretched Cavaliers team that was LeBron and a pack of scrubs—and that was that. Phoenix’s window closed. Game over.

D’Antoni lived and died by the fast-paced, long-range-bombing offense, and unlike Nelson, whose teams tended to be hot garbage on defense, the Suns were right around league average.

D’Antoni’s reputation as a terrible defensive coach was purely because pace-adjusted stats weren’t really a thing in 2005. Nowadays, everyone understands what Offensive and Defensive Rating are, but in the mid-aughts, it was counting stats per game as unbreakable word-of-God holy gospel.

And by that metric, the 2005 Suns (17th in pace-adjusted defense) were dead last in points allowed per game.

Mike D’Antoni’s enduring legacy isn’t going to be his ability to win in the playoffs—he didn’t have it.

But it’s not even going to be his ability to win in the regular season, something he had in spades.

D’Antoni deserves to be remembered as the patron saint of every analytics-based writer talking NBA today. Because someone had to find a way to make sense of what the Suns were doing in 2005, and the quest for answers to how a “terrible” defensive team could make two conference finals and a disputed second round exit was the seed that grew into a movement that is the reason basketball is a far better sport for MDA having led it out of the Dark Ages.

But D’Antoni never got a ring. The closest he got was the biggest single-game playoff choke in NBA history with the man on the sideline lost for a way to make adjustments as a team built on the three left a steaming hot Number Two on their own floor against Steve Kerr—a D’Antoni disciple in his capacity in the Phoenix front office back in the glory days—and the Warriors.

Come to think of it, the Warriors died by the sword in Game 7 in 2016 against LeBron and friends when they went cold in the fourth quarter, but that’s a story for another day.

The simple fact remains that when you’re a .560 winning percentage coach in the regular season and a sub-.500 coach (54-56) in the playoffs, that’s a legacy of glorious failure.

Sorry, Mike…if you read this, I’m still a huge fan. But Sheed’s Law is absolute, and ball don’t lie.