When the Rockets hired Mike D’Antoni, no one would have asked you to stifle yourself if you snickered. He was only 2 years removed from the 2014 debacle in Los Angeles, when he coached the Lakers to a 27-55 record and out of the playoffs for the first time in 20 years (edit: Geez, that actually sounds pretty good now). Yup, all his fault. It didn’t matter that Kobe Bryant had only played 6 games or that Steve Nash had only played in 15, someone needed to be held responsible, and D’Antoni’s head was the one everyone wanted to roll.
That’s why when this season started, it was funny, to me anyways, hearing Laker fans and their supporters alike stating how “fun” the team was playing under first year coach Luke Walton. They were 10-10, the rookies were developing, and Nick Young pulled his best Walking Dead impression, coming back to life, when he seemed doomed to follow in the footsteps of Lamar Odom. He’s actually going to be in the 3-point contest this coming All Star Weekend.
But didn’t this team play a familiar style to anyone watching them? Perhaps not, the team has been almost unwatchable for years now. But to anyone that has hung around during these dark times to pay attention, they are actually mimicking the D’Antoni coached 2013-2014 Los Angeles Lakers. Look at the stats:
13-14 LA Lakers: 103.0 points, 24.8 3-pointers attempted, 45% field goals, 109.2 opposing team points per game
16-17 LA Lakers: 104.1 points, 26.3 3-pointers attempted, 44.5% field goals, 110.3 opposing team points per game
How’s that for strikingly similar? Now these same people who wanted to bound and gag D’Antoni are the same ones singing praises for Luke Walton. And to prove it’s not just two bad Laker teams, here are Byron Scott’s we’re-going-to-lose-and-it’s-going-to-be-boring Laker stats:
14-15 LA Lakers: 98.5 points, 6.5 3-pointers attempted, 43.5% field goals, 105.3 opposing team points per game
15-16 LA Lakers: 97.3 points, 7.8 3-pointers attempted, 41.4% field goals, 106.9 opposing team points per game
Now, Byron Scott is just other-world awful as a coach, but it’s very clear he wasn’t able to take the same talent D’Antoni had in that terrible season and do anything close or even similar. You could even argue Byron had better talent, and still managed to make the Lakers a complete mess. Imagine what D’Antoni could have done with a rookie guard like D’Angelo Russell? “Hey, we’ll never know, because he didn’t, so drop it please”, you’re saying? Well then, let’s look at who D’Antoni actually had to use:
Nick Young: 17.9 points, 1.5 assists (both career highs), 2.6 rebounds, 38.6% 3-pointers
Jodie Meeks: 15.7 points, 1.8 assists, 2.5 rebounds (all career highs), 40% 3-pointers
Jordan Farmar: 10.1 points, 4.9 assists (both 2nd highest averages in career), 2.5 rebounds (career high), 43.8% 3-pointers
Kendall Marshall (WHO?): 8.0 points, 8.8 assists, 2.9 rebounds, 39.9% 3-pointers (all career highs)
The most shocking player to read is Kendall Marshall, considering he was on a 10 day contract with the Lakers before he started putting up these numbers. He was able to sign a contract with Philadelphia shortly after, and I’m sure these D’Antoni inflated numbers had something to do with it. But the fact is, you can trace D’Antoni turning nobodies into somebodies going back to his New York days. Remember Linsanity? That happened under D’Antoni:
11-12: 14.6 points, 6.2 assists (both career highs), 3.1 rebounds
Now, these numbers all came down some after Carmelo Anthony rejoined the Knicks. But for a 10 game stretch, Lin was averaging 24 points, 9 assists, and 4 rebounds. Lin later went on to join the Lakers, but only after D’Antoni had resigned as coach, which was too bad for both individuals, as well as basketball.
So now you’re saying, “So, what? He can turn a couple jokers into role players in his offense. What’s your point?”. Yes, D’Antoni’s offense is special for even guards with limited abilities, but what if you’re already an established superstar? He did coach Kobe Bryant for one season, before running him into the ground. But before he did, Kobe put up some impressive numbers entering the twilight of his career. Folks started calling him Vino it was so impressive. Now, with a player like Kobe Bryant, it’s going to be hard to prove he played any better under Mike D’Antoni, but one stat that does pop out immediately are Kobe’s assists.
Kobe has always had a knock against him for not passing, and the numbers do not back this up completely. But following two back to back seasons of averaging just over 4.5 assists per contest, Kobe’s assists jumped to 6.0 per game, equalling a career high! Now, “equalling a career high” is to say he had done it before, but the last time he totaled 6 assists per game was in the prime of his career (04-05). The fact that Kobe was able to turn back the clock almost a decade later (when we now all know he didn’t get any more generous as he got older) is quite the feat.
So, this should all suggest that Mike D’Antoni’s offense is steroids for guards. The proof is all around his resume. And I haven’t even gotten to Steve Nash and his back to back MVP seasons. Recognize that this was (at the time), the perfect player operating in the perfect system, but I’m going to show that you could compare Nash’s stats to Harden’s at this point, and make the argument that Harden may be better suited running the offense than even Nash:
04-05: 15.5 points, 11.5 assists, 3.3 rebounds, 3.3 turnovers, 50.2% field goals, 43.1% 3-pointers, 88.7% free throws
05-06: 18.8 points, 10.5 assists, 4.2 rebounds, 3.5 turnovers, 51.2% field goals, 43.9% 3-pointers, 92.1% free throws
James Harden (as of 2/5/2017)
16-17: 28.9 points, 11.4 assists, 8.2 rebounds, 5.8 turnovers, 44.2% field goals, 34.6% 3-pointers, 85.5% free throws
underline = led/currently lead league
Harden’s numbers show that, although he is not as efficient as Nash was, the Rockets will welcome it, because he is leading the league in assists, while still averaging almost 30 points per game. His 8.2 rebounds per game are equally impressive, and the highest to date of any D’Antoni coached guard.
So much has been made about who the MVP is this season, with what Russell Westbrook is doing out in OKC and now with James Harden throwing his name in the hat. But perhaps lost in all of this has been the man behind the man behind the beard. Coaching defense and big men aside (edit: I got you, Dwight!), I say the stats back up that D’Antoni has been doing a fair job his entire career helping guards reach their full potential. He just needed the right fit, and he seems to have found it in Houston with James Harden.
All stats used are via www.basketball-reference.com. Let the record show I am a Laker fan first, and honestly cannot stand Mike D’Antoni for coaching the Phoenix Suns, Dwight Howard for being Dwight Howard, or James Harden for flopping around like a fish.