Talking about NBA coaching is a game of knowing very little bits of truth that inform the confidence to sound like you know quite a bit more.
Gregg Popovich is a good NBA coach. Kurt Rambis was not a very successful NBA coach. Steve Kerr and Phil Jackson have exclusively coached a handful of the most talented basketball players of all time, and while Kerr seems like a genuinely great guy and Jackson seems kind of like an asshole, both have to be pretty good at coaching because they’ve succeeded so frequently that there’s virtually no evidence of the contrary.
We basically know those things and then get greedy proposing real-time coaching theories that we don’t have enough evidence to support. We pretend to know whether there was a coach—dead or alive—who could have done more with the Toronto Raptors than Dwane Casey. Brad Stevens has a track record of being good at his job so we call him a “genius” when Terry Rozier hits a contested fade away that he was already planning on taking from the moment he was born. We don’t actually know who is the best coach among Rick Carlisle, Doc Rivers, and Erik Spoelstra. The very real—but very boring—answer is that they have different styles, different strengths, and would have entirely different unknown career trajectories if they’d coached different players. We call coaches chess masters, but wooden pawns and knights and queens don’t have agency. In basketball, players have the largest outcome in a game’s result, making conversations surrounding coaching superlatives relatively empty.
And yet Mike D’Antoni has made these discussions so easy and uncluttered for us. We know why he’s important. We know—in the broad sense—what he’s good at. And we know, even if we’ve taken it for granted, that he’s been trying to save us from predictability for over a decade.
I once heard D’Antoni sum up some version of his coaching style in a way I’ll never forget. I unfortunately can’t find a recording of that conversation so take my paraphrasing with a giant grain of salt or disregard it completely if you so choose. But I remember him expressing the general notion of If a player made it all the way to me then he made it to the NBA, and at some point in his basketball career he was wearing some opponents’ asses out. So I want him to do that for me.
The loosest translation of that is “Go get buckets.” It’s all any basketball player has ever wanted to hear. But his success goes further than a basketball version of The Secret. It’s empowerment meets precision. It’s “Shoot your shot…but do it from exactly this point on the court.”
Sports as entertainment relies on us embracing that anything can happen while ignoring that—like most of life—the most predictable thing will always have the best track record of actually happening. D’Antoni came to the NBA and combined underdog allure with functional aesthetics. People rooted for the 2004 Detroit Pistons for what they represented. People rooted for the 2007 Suns for what they represented and because without any context they were objectively fun to watch play basketball.
D’Antoni was a disrupter who should be in the Hall of Fame for the way he revolutionized the sport, but you never got the sense that he was hung up on being “light years” ahead of anyone. The guy has coached some really good teams, and he’s just been trying to win a championship. The status quo he’s been trying to take down hasn’t been antiquated basketball; it’s been the reigning champions.
At a time when not having Shaq, Duncan or Kobe on your team made you an underdog, D’Antoni threw out a game plan for Steve Nash, Amar'e Stoudemire, and Shawn Marion and pressed fast forward, and he was a few travesty-level suspensions away from pulling it off. Now, he’s staring down the barrel at what is probably the best team in NBA history, and once again the conversation around D’Antoni—or at least his narrative—is stark: He is the only one who can do anything to stop the Warriors from winning the championship. The upcoming season will be the Warriors versus the field, and D’Antoni is coaching the field.
The Rockets don’t have the talent that the Warriors have, but they’re the only ones remotely within striking distance. Just like D’Antoni’s Suns in a previous decade, an unavailable star likely prevented them from taking down the eventual champs last season. And now the Warriors have gotten stronger. And the Rockets, by losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, have gotten weaker.
It’s on D’Antoni to make up the difference. Sure, Mbah a Moute and Ariza are good players—and in an arms race against a team already carrying an ungodly amount of firepower every little bit matters—but in the grand scheme of things, there are a lot of NBA players better than them. It’s not unfair to say they fall into the category that’s been home to Raja Bell, late-stage Grant Hill, Quentin Richardson, Tim Thomas, Gerald Green, P.J. Tucker and others who have been maximized by playing under D’Antoni. To put it more harshly, it’s very unlikely we’ll spend a lot of time talking about Ariza and Mbah a Moute this upcoming season, but the players occupying their old minutes in Houston will know exactly what their jobs are. Houston rookie DeAnthony Melton, made his way to D’Antoni for a reason: There’s plenty of footage of him wearing opponents out.
Houston will miss the defense of those two players in some sense. Who will guard Kevin Durant. But the Rockets came within a Chris Paul hamstring of beating the Warriors last May, and Mbah a Moute played a combined 54 minutes in seven games Durant scored 30 points a game with Ariza guarding him.
D’Antoni can lose rotation players because his coaching style is to find equalizers. He might start a player that’s 55 percent as talented as the guy he’s matched up against, but he’ll figure out a way for him to score 80 percent as many points as that guy. Once you narrow the margins of a difficult math problem, you give yourself a better chance of guessing the right answer. The Rockets missed 27 threes in Game 7, and they were still close. Next season’s strategy isn’t rocket science: Make them.
But more importantly, they can maximize role players because D’Antoni unleashes the full extent of his superstars. No one would credit the MVPs of LeBron, Duncan, Kobe, Shaq, Nowitzki, Durant, or Curry with the men holding the clipboards on their sideline. But Nash and Harden’s MVPs are tied up in D’Antoni’s philosophy that the most efficient use of a franchise player is to take advantage of his skillset on every single possession. The advantage he likely feels he has over the Warriors is simple: We have James Harden and Chris Paul and you don’t.
The lesson here isn’t that D’Antoni will successfully do the unthinkable. The reality is that he’s come up short every time he’s tried. But if you want believe that the season’s outcome hasn’t already been written, you need to convince yourself that D’Antoni has mastered the art of high variance. And then you need to embrace the idea that while most of the NBA was shell shocked the day DeMarcus Cousins signed with the Warriors, D’Antoni may well have been sitting in his office chuckling to himself like a mad scientist at the thought of Cousins trying to play defense against his team.