Five years after the “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns were disbanded, Mike D’Antoni and Steve Nash have been unable to recapture the same magic with the Los Angeles Lakers. Nash, at the age of 38, is no longer the player he once was, but that’s not the biggest reason why Los Angeles has struggled with D’Antoni’s system. For any variation of SSOL to work successfully, the most important position on the floor is the power forward, not the point guard. The key to D’Antoni’s success in Phoenix wasn’t what he did with his guards, but what he did with his big men.
The Suns took off once they signed Nash away from Dallas, but it wasn’t the only personnel change D’Antoni made that offseason. Jake Voskuhl, a slow-footed 6’11 245 center, appeared in fewer games (37) in 2004 than he started (43) in 2003 under Frank Johnson. The Suns committed to going small full-time, moving Shawn Marion from the 3 to the 4 and Amar'e Stoudemire from the 4 to the 5. That allowed them to add another shooter (Quentin Richardson) to their starting lineup and blitz opposing teams off the floor.
Floor spacing, more than anything else, was what made the Suns so dangerous. Amar'e was the only traditional “big” on the floor and even he preferred to attack from 20-feet out rather than post up on the low block. In a traditional offense with two big men, there were at least four players near the paint at all times. In D’Antoni’s scheme, with Marion spotting up in the corner, there were only two. Sending a help defender on the Nash/Amar'e pick-and-roll created an open three-point shot, not sending someone usually created an easy shot for two All-NBA caliber players.
It’s not that D’Antoni was averse to coaching defense. He wasn’t running a system like the one at Division III Grinnell College, which recently produced the highest single game point total in NCAA history with strategies like cherry picking and playing 4-on-5 defense. What he wasn’t willing to do was sacrifice his floor spacing on offense in order to play more defensive-minded personnel, particularly upfront. That’s why a power forward who can stretch the floor on offense without compromising interior defense is so crucial to his system.
Marion, a versatile 6’7 230 combo forward with the wingspan of a center and the foot speed of a guard, was the key ingredient to SSOL. He was a mismatch nightmare for traditional power forwards, since he had the strength and defensive chops to defend them on the block and clear the defensive glass, but they didn’t have the speed to keep up with him on the break or along the three-point line. Neither of the Suns two offensive stars -- Nash or Amar'e -- could guard their own shadow, so it was left to Marion to defend everyone from Tony Parker to Dirk Nowitzki in the playoffs.
As great as Amar'e was, Phoenix plugged in Boris Diaw and went to the 2006 WCF without him. But, as soon as Marion was dealt for Shaq in 2007, the whole house of cards came crumbling down. The Suns' defense was rated between 13th and 17th every year between 2004-2007. Even with a more defensive-minded head coach (Terry Porter) in 2008, without Marion, their defensive rating slipped to 27th. Nash’s numbers on offense hardly slipped at all under Porter, which should tell you that something else was behind the outrageous success in Phoenix.
D’Antoni, meanwhile, resurfaced with New York, where a similar dynamic played out. After two years of muddling through with inferior rosters in order to clear cap space, the Knicks turned themselves into one of the most exciting teams in the NBA in 2010. They signed Amar'e to play center and played two versatile combo forwards (Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler) who could stretch the floor next to him. With so much floor space to operate, Ray Felton, whom they signed off the free agent scrap heap, played at a nearly an All-Star level. Landry Fields, an unknown rookie from Stanford whom they plucked out of the second round, became an instant starter and an All-Rookie team selection.
That success was short-lived, however, when New York blew up that team in order to acquire Carmelo Anthony. The fit between Amar'e, Carmelo and D’Antoni’s system never worked. Carmelo needed the ball in their hands, mitigating the role of the PG, and neither he nor Amar'e could consistently stretch the floor or play acceptable interior defense. It’s no coincidence that D’Antoni’s most successful stretch with the Knicks came when both Carmelo and Amar'e were injured, allowing him to use the players that fit his system.
“Linsanity” was the ultimate triumph of his system, turning an undrafted PG from Harvard on his third team in less than a year into a cultural icon. And, just like in Phoenix, all of the attention was focused on the guy with the ball in his hands when they key was a dominant defensive player in the frontcourt who could fit a specific role on offense. Tyson Chandler, like Marion, covered for the defensive shortcomings of guys like Lin and Steve Novak, while still giving you a double-double.
And while D’Antoni has never won a title with his system, his philosophy has steadily spread throughout the NBA. Mike Woodson made it work with Carmelo by moving him to the 4 and marginalizing Amar'e completely, all in the name of floor spacing. Oklahoma City’s most effective line-ups have come with Kevin Durant at the 4 and Serge Ibaka at the 5. The biggest difference in the NBA Finals was Erik Spoelstra’s decision to go small full-time, playing LeBron James at the 4 and Chris Bosh at the 5, while Scott Brooks stuck with Kendrick Perkins, compromising his team speed and allowing Miami to play 5-on-4 on defense.
In an NBA becoming more perimeter-oriented by the year, as fewer big men come into the league with the game or the desire to play out of the low block, D’Antoni’s four-out system has become the wave of the future. In much the same way that NFL offenses have slowly incorporated spread principles to take advantage of the skill-sets of college QB’s, NBA teams have needed to adjust to draft pools overflowing with 3/4 combo forwards. Rudy Gay will never be worth a max contract playing as a 3 next to two low-post scorers in Memphis; Derrick Williams will never be worth the No. 2 selection if he’s playing 20+ feet away from the rim in Minnesota.
What made the Lakers so intriguing this offseason was that they were zigging when most of the NBA was zagging. With Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol upfront, they were gambling they had the size to punish teams with small-ball front-courts on the block. That’s what makes the decision to hire a coach who popularized the four-out system, which needs a PF who can stretch the floor and run the break, not operate out of the post, so puzzling. Howard, if he regains his health, could be absolutely dominant in the role Amar'e and Chandler had for D’Antoni in his previous stops, but Gasol won’t fit, for the same reasons Amar'e doesn’t in New York.
Earl Clark, a former lottery pick out of Louisville who had been left for dead in NBA circles, has been a better fit at the 4 than Gasol, a future Hall of Famer. If they’re going to run D’Antoni’s system successfully, the Lakers will need to deal Gasol to upgrade their athleticism and shooting on the perimeter. The $64,000 question in Los Angeles is whether their two 7’0 would have fit in Phil Jackson’s triangle offense, which emphasizes ball movement and post play more than the dribble-drive. The Lakers, along the Grizzlies, were the last stand of the two-post offense, but they gave up the fight before it even began.