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Examining D'Antoni Minimalism For Lakers

The Los Angeles Lakers' hiring of Mike D’Antoni instead of Phil Jackson remains controversial. And the press in Los Angeles is stoking the collective anger of the fan base.

T.J. Simers of the Los Angeles Times claimed that the verdict against the D’Antoni hire is now “unanimous” (referring, I suppose, to himself and his equally outraged colleague Bill Plaschke).

In a related interview piece with D’Antoni, Simers seems to have even deliberately omitted the “D” from “D’Antoni,” referring to his reputation as running defensively inept teams, as simply “Antoni.” Fortunately for D’Antoni, he has spent the last three years getting bad-mouthed and otherwise generally abused by the New York press. 

With his last loss, a 95-86 defeat at Utah, I had a gut feeling that Mike Brown would get fired. You can’t start 1-4 (after having lost the entire preseason) with the most expensive—and arguably the most talented—roster in the NBA and expect to survive with the Lakers. And sure enough, the next day he was gone. Then my immediate thought was that they would hire Mike D’Antoni to replace him. My reasoning was simple (and, as we will see in a moment, perhaps simple-minded): Steve Nash, a once-a-generation point guard, with not just one but two of the best pick-and-roll big men in the league—one of them the most formidable center since Shaquille O’Neal—at his disposal.

Then on second thought, it seemed like choosing Phil Jackson was not only the most obvious Lakers thing to do but also the sanest. After all, Jackson’s already been there, winning five titles with the club, two of them with Bryant and Gasol who still make up the team’s core. Furthermore, having spent an entire training camp figuring out the Princeton Offense, the transition to its close cousin, the Triangle, would certainly be less jarring for the players than one to D’Antoni’s “7 seconds or less” run-and-gun offense.

Politically, it would have also made much better sense. With the entire city begging for Jackson, who is revered by the virtually the whole basketball community, the management could easily scapegoat one of the players should the team fall short of expectations. And for about a day, what with the Times reporting “95%” certainty of the Jackson hire, it seemed like a done deal.

But Jackson reportedly wanted too much money, including a stake in ownership and greater managerial control—essentially, wanting to become owner, GM and coach in one body—and, to the ire of the entire Lakers' nation, the Busses balked. And despite the availability of Nate McMillan, Jerry Sloan, Mike Dunleavy, and the current man at the helm, Bernie Bickerstaff, they have gone with Mike D’Antoni instead. But why?

I’ve already mentioned the obvious reason. Pairing Nash with Amar’e Stoudemire during Nash’s first season with the Suns, D’Antoni produced stunning pick-and-roll results. Putting Nash in control over two skilled pick-and-roll big men should yield similarly effective results. Right? However, what is often overlooked is that the Nash-Stoudemire Suns featured three-point snipers like Joe Johnson as well as fast, young athletes like Leandro Barbossa and Shawn Marion. I will return to this latter fact in a moment. But first, I think it’s safe to speculate about a deeper reason behind the D’Antoni hire.

D’Antoni has often been described as an “anti-coach.” In an era of carefully structured plays based on reams of computer-generated data on opposing teams, with long practices required to calibrate the players for such stringent demands, D’Antoni famously prefers short practice sessions under one hour and psyches up his players before games by showing them their own highlight reels. Rather than trying to squeeze talented players into the highly specified roles of an inflexible sequence, D’Antoni allows his key players an enormous—some might even say, reckless—amount of freedom to create on the go. Perhaps due to his own experience as a successful young player-coach in Italy, D’Antoni in a sense relies on his best players to literally coach the other players on his behalf, on the court—to, sort to speak, make up their own plays as they go along.

For less talented and—let us say—cognitively challenged players, this style of coaching can be disastrous. But with smart and gifted players, this kind of autonomy on the court can yield an embarrassment of riches in points and, hopefully thereby, wins. Steve Nash, with his savant-like court vision and eerily precise hand-eye coordination, thrived on this kind of freedom. And in Bryant and Gasol, the Lakers feature two more of the smartest and most experienced players in the league. By all accounts, Bryant in particular is already a player-coach, both on the floor and off it. For such a talent pool of basketball smarts, a minimalist coach like D’Antoni may just prove to be a winning choice. In a sense, with the Princeton Offense now off the table, Bickerstaff seems already to be doing something like that now: let Bryant and Gasol figure out their own plays, and let everyone else find Howard.

There is, however, a potentially catastrophic down side. But before getting into that, let me dismiss two very popular complaints about the D’Antoni hire.

First, as already mentioned, many have been complaining about D’Antoni’s putative weakness on defense. As better-informed commentators like Zach Lowe of Grantland have pointed out, D’Antoni’s teams have been, in terms of points per possession, average—and thus not especially terrible—defensive teams. Average defense running small ball should not be surprising: you need big enough bodies to stop the opposing side. And at the end of the day it’s about who has more points up on the board. If you play average defense but way above average offense (as the Suns used to and the Lakers are now expected to), you will end the game in the black—usually in the triple digits. In addition, as D’Antoni recently pointed out, he now has Dwight Howard on defense, flanked by Kobe and Metta World Peace. In short, no matter who’s doing the coaching, the Lakers will be fine defensively.

The second common complaint is to point at D’Antoni’s admittedly dismal record with his last employer, the New York Knicks. But why blame D’Antoni—or any coach not named Isaiah Thomas? Long a bloated and chaotic organization, when D’Antoni first arrived in New York he was saddled with Stephon Marbury—the closest thing in existence to an Anti-Nash—and an out of shape Eddy Curry. Eventually he was reunited with Stoudemire, but instead of a capable point guard to run p-and-r’s with him, they gave him Carmelo Anthony, a would-be superstar who neither picks nor rolls but contemplatively massages the ball in solipsistic isolation. D’Antoni was clearly the wrong coach for the Knicks, but they were also the wrong team for him.

But are the Lakers the right team for D’Antoni? The single greatest cause for concern can be gleaned by looking at what I think is the most revealing moment in D’Antoni’s NBA coaching career: the Suns’ playoff run in 2006, with both Stoudemire and Kurt Thomas out with injuries. That team was perhaps the purest embodiment of D’Antoni’s run-and-gun small ball philosophy. And, in addition to smarts, it involved two key ingredients: speed and sharp shooting. Because the Suns were replete with hyperkinetic athletes, fast breaks were the norm. And if you score quickly, it means more frequently you will score per quarter.

Typically, Nash—who has never been especially fast down the floor—would find a Barbossa or a Marion ahead of him for one of those preternaturally prescient Nash passes followed by a quick bucket. Should the fastbreak be halted, the shooters would spread out the floor enough so that, when the ballhandler kicked out the ball to a shooter, a defender usually couldn’t return to his man quickly enough from double-teaming the ballhandler to stop the shot. Should he succeed in returning quickly enough, however, the shooter would simply drive to the basket for a repeat of the whole process. And often, the shots from a kick-out were three-pointers; hence, the Suns’s much vaunted scoring advantage on offense. In contrast, pick-and-rolls—no matter how masterfully performed—yield only two points. So at the heart of the D’Antoni offensive advantage are greater frequency of scoring through a high number of fast breaks and greater number of points through consistent three-point shooting. Speed and sharpshooting, like I said.

The current Lakers' lineup features enough of neither fast players nor reliable sharpshooters for this kind of offense. Howard is fast—for his size. Gasol now literally lumbers from basket to basket. Bryant is a great finisher and shooter inside the parameter; but, despite some dramatic clutch shots from beyond the arc throughout his hall of fame career, he is in fact only an average three-point shooter. Nash is the only shooter on the team who excels at the three-point line. So the Lakers are missing two of the key ingredients needed in D’Antoni’s system. Their fastbreaks usually slow down into a conventional offense, and they can’t spread out the floor enough. Consequently, it’s hard to see what sort of offensive advantage they might enjoy under D’Antoni’s tutelage. And it’s hard to justify D’Antoni’s hire—as preferable to anyone else’s—without the teeth of his offense.

Instead, what the Lakers have in their starting lineup is a bizarre, almost schizophrenic set of redundancies. When Nash returns, we can expect pick-and-roll’s with Howard and Gasol. So two points on long possessions. But with Nash out, we are seeing Bryant running either screen and pops off of Howard and Gasol or some depleted version of the Triangle—in which case, with Gasol, because he can pass and has decent range, being the lynchpin. So, again, two points on long (and slow) possessions. In aggregate effect on offense, then, what’s the difference? With Bryant running the offense, Nash is gratuitous. Should D’Antoni hand over the keys to Nash, Bryant would wind up gratuitous. 

 

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