Mike D’Antoni’s career hits its nadir around the time the Lakers started winning. This was 2013. He had failed in New York—Carmelo Anthony’s addiction to holding hours-long work dinners at the elbow scuttled that project—and was tasked with figuring out how to meld an incongruous super-team that included Pau Gasol, Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard. That the collective never looked like they could compete for a title wasn’t D’Antoni’s fault. He was brought in as an emergency appointment after Mike Brown false-started the regular season, and it turned out everyone involved was, by that point in their careers, chasing past versions of themselves.
But the team improved over the late winter and spring, once the creator of Seven Seconds or Less gave up on running a version of the offense he had been brought aboard to install. D’Antoni moved Nash off the ball, accepting that the best distributor of his generation was more useful as a spot-up shooter. He learned, as all of Dwight’s coaches have, that though he’s an ideal pick-and-roll big man, he hates running high screens and demands post touches despite his hook shots striking the rim like hailstones on pavement. Kobe played de facto point guard, priding himself on assist numbers one night and scoring ones the next. It worked, in its unwieldy way, and it got the Lakers into the playoffs after an abysmal first few months of the season, but it made little use of D’Antoni’s genius. His most noticeable in-game contributions were an occasional clever out-of-bounds set and yelling at the squad to get back on defense.
While D’Antoni was futzing with his uptempo scheme, trying to fit it to players who didn’t want to use it, the rest of the league was stealing from his Suns squads. His ideas didn’t take root in New York or Los Angeles, but they flourished elsewhere. The Big Three Heat lived on spread pick-and-rolls. San Antonio transitioned from a deliberate, Tim Duncan-centric offense to one that unsettled defenses with passing and pace. Dirk Nowitzki’s iso brilliance was the primary reason the Mavericks won a championship, but they were helped by Rick Carlisle’s decision to stop calling plays, stick a bunch of shooters on the floor, and give Jason Kidd free rein to make reads off high screens from Tyson Chandler. These days, in the same way every team borrows a few elements of The Triangle, they have consciously or otherwise lifted concepts from Seven Seconds or Less.
Picasso juggled several artistic movements on the pads of his fingers, but as a general rule, even geniuses do variations on one thing for their entire careers. Galeano perfected the poetic capsule. DJ Premier trafficks in boom bap. All of Charlie Kaufman’s movies fracture, then become about the fracture. D’Antoni builds translucent structure that creates the illusion of freedom. He teaches his teams, not where to stand, but how to move, and that movement gives his offense an improvisational feel. In spacing the floor the way he does and imploring his players to push the ball, he scrambles the defense and allows athletes to play instinctively. They express themselves while remaining part of a coherent whole. It’s beautiful. And if the roster is any good, it’s devastating.
Which is why the entire league looks a bit D’Antonian now. But what is the place in the world for a visionary who’s been ripped off so many times over that his once-novel mode has become the status quo? D’Antoni has no great second revolution in his back pocket. He’s 65, and this Rockets job might be his final one. If he finds triumph in Houston, it’s going to be of the Time Out of Mind variety, not some jarring departure from his style that turns the NBA on its ear.
But he has James Harden, who almost won the MVP two years ago and whom no coach has ever really figured out. The irksome all-hands push to turn him into a global icon has lessened—that trademark symbol hovering around his beard like a moth has finally kicked it, or at least shrunk down to size of a gnat—but he’s still widely loathed. With Dwight Howard in Atlanta, we’re staring down the prospect of Harden approaching Iversonian shot totals and No Limit music video levels of pointless shimmying. He could become the most reviled scoring champion since Rick Barry.
D’Antoni is perhaps uniquely suited to make Harden more appealing. There is something cosmically, faint-heartedly technical about the guard’s greatness. It’s the free throw-hounding, and the shot clock-swallowing size-ups, and the fussy inwardness of his stop-and-start drives. He’s weaselishly dominant. You get the sense that he checks out of hotels with as much free stuff in his bags as the front desk will allow him. Harden obviously doesn’t care about defense—there are spells where his feet are along the three-point arc and his head’s under a parasol—but his most egregious crime is that he cares about effectiveness at the expense of aesthetics. D’Antoni’s vocational mission has been locating confluences of the two.
Coaching isn’t an auteur’s craft. D’Antoni has leaned on other people. He wouldn’t have an estimable reputation to diminish if he hadn’t been running with Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire and Shawn Marion circa 2007, and he’s been sunk by players who either weren’t talented enough or wouldn’t meet him halfway. Harden is D’Antoni’s first opportunity in a while to do interesting work.
Beyond his annoying traits, Harden is a handsomely strange athlete. His body throws nothing but offspeed pitches. Those stuttering drives make unusual angles for passes he loops and bounces into spaces the defense can’t see. The eurostep is an elegant move that looks charmingly clumsy. He has the makings of a player we can enjoy, but Harden needs recontextualization. He needs to be sped up, made more fluid and less selfish. He needs a coach who won’t try to remake him so much as construct a system—one that’s glassy and slight, one that’s barely there when you look for it—that urges him to play in the surprising, spectacular fashion of which he’s capable. Mike D’Antoni has the mind for this sort of thing. Beautifying James Harden is a difficult task, but then the late minor masterpieces seem more labored over than the louder, earlier ones. And when they hit, they make you know what you’ve always known all over again.
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