I’m sure you’ve all heard some variation of this statement in the past two weeks following head coach Mike D’Antoni’s departure from the Houston Rockets and the Sixers’ subsequent interest in him.
“D’Antoni would never fit here. He’s all about shooting threes and we can’t shoot. Plus he’s bad in the playoffs. Anyways, don’t you think we should trade Joel Embiid and/or he should just get his butt in the post? ...”
Yes, D’Antoni-led teams typically take a large portion of their shots from behind the three-point line. From 2005-2008, the time in which D’Antoni had implemented the Seven Seconds or Less system with Steve Nash at the helm, the Phoenix Suns finished 1st, 1st, 2nd and 5th in the percentage three-pointers made of their total shot diet, excluding heaves and garbage time, according to Cleaning the Glass (also of note, the Suns finished top in the league in Effective FG Percentage in all four of those years). Likewise, from 2017-2020 the Houston Rockets finished 1st in relative three-point shot frequency every single year, and their 48.6 percent frequency in 2018-19 is the highest mark ever recorded.
But simply reducing D’Antoni down to an advisor of three-point chucking is not only far too simplistic but ignores the first half of that phrase everyone loves to use to describe the modern game — Pace and Space. Spacing the floor and being willing to launch from behind the arc might be a nearly immovable statue of D’Antoni’s philosophy, but he has shown that he is willing to change the speed at which his offense buzzes in order to best support his star players.
(Note: I’ll be using possessions per game to measure pace, which isn’t a perfect one-to-one conversion, but is about as good a measuring stick as we’re going to get.)
Nash was best in a free-flowing, race-car-style game, and so the Suns finished 1st, 1st, 3rd and 5th in possessions per game from 2005-08, according to TeamRankings.com. In his first year in Houston, D’Antoni sought to turn James Harden into a jumbo sized version of Nash, as the Rockets finished 4th in possessions per game and the Beard averaged a league-high 11.2 assists per game. But following a second round exit at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs, Houston traded for the Point God himself, Chris Paul.
Paul’s teams typically played at a slow, deliberate pace, as the diminutive floor general relishes methodically grinding out opposing defenses to find the best shot. From 2006-2017, CP3’s teams in New Orleans and Los Angeles held an average finish of just around 20th in possessions per game. His Hornets’ squads were particularly deliberate, finishing 27th, 28th and 29th in ‘08, ‘09 and ‘11 respectively, according to TeamRankings.
So, what does D’Antoni do? He turns the Rockets into an incredibly efficient offense (1st and 2nd in points scored per 100 in ‘17 and ‘18) without turbo charging their pace, as Houston finished 17th and 22nd in possessions per game. And what happens when Harden demands that Daryl Morey exchanges Paul plus picks for his former teammate Russell Westbrook, the equivalent of Sonic the Hedgehog in the open court? Well, D’Antoni adjusts again, empowers Russ and Harden to run, and the Rockets finish 5th in possessions per game, and still a respectable 7th in points scored per 100 possessions.
We haven’t even mentioned how he’s varied his teams’ pick-and-roll frequency through the years. The Harden-Clint Capela spread pick-and-roll was their bread-and-butter play, as the Rockets finished 10th and 12th in pick-and-roll ball handler frequency in 2016-17 and 2017-18, respectively, according to Synergy. But following a disastrous 11-14 start to their 2019 campaign, D’Antoni virtually scrapped all of their Capela ball screens, just having Harden get into his isolation game without bringing the second defender into his circumference. The Rockets finished 25th in pick-and-roll ball handler frequency in 2019, and went all the way down to 30th in 2020. In just four years, the Rockets morphed from pick-and-roll acolytes that ran 20.4 per game, to a team that used the action sparingly with only 10.8 per game. D’Antoni doesn’t have a system that his stars have to fit into. He fits a system around his stars and asks for role players to fill in roles around them.
That’s the kind of thinking that can help the Sixers. Brett Brown was a fine coach and an overall great guy, but listening to him defend putting a man in the dunker’s spot simply because “that’s what the Spurs and Tim Duncan did” grew tiresome. Sure, a baseline sneak lob threat works for some teams, but not one whose two best players are a post-up monster and a rim-running point guard who needs the interior of the half court clear in order to unlock the best version of himself.
Is Mike D’Antoni a perfect solution to all of the Sixers’ cesspool of problems? Probably not. His playoff record is undesirable, and his Rockets squads didn’t put up too much of a fight while being eliminated in ‘17, ‘19 and ‘20. I can understand if you don’t want him to coach the Sixers, preferring a proven champ like Ty Lue, or an up-and-coming assistant like Darvin Ham.
But if you’re going to say he shouldn’t coach simply because “his teams shoot too many threes”, that’s not good enough. D’Antoni would work to craft a system that fits the Sixers should he get the job. His track record of adaptability is above this lazy critique of his abilities.