the ballad of mike d'antoni

words: nathaniel friedman

photography: ap photo/eric gay

Watching the Houston Rockets this year, it’s easy to forget how narrowly Mike D’Antoni avoided coaching perdition. D’Antoni, who in Phoenix devised the ingenious, joyous brand of basketball known as “Seven Seconds or Less,” has revived his career (and his puckish reputation) in Houston. He’s transformed volume scorer James Harden into a high-test lead guard and engineered an attack that’s at once inventive and intuitive; by capitalizing on a glut of shooters and willing passers, D’Antoni has turned the Rockets into one of the league’s most potent offenses. They’re up there in the vanguard of the NBA right alongside the Warriors—which only makes sense, seeing as SSOL augured much of what became Golden State’s signature style of basketball.

Everything about D’Antoni’s current situation smacks of a comeback, the vindication of a cult figure who had simply been ahead of his time. But before arriving in Houston, he’d been toiling away since 2015 as an assistant with the lowly Sixers, a fate more commonly associated with the middling “coaching carousel” than basketball revolutionaries waiting for the rest of the world to catch up. Even as Golden State soared and pieces of D’Antoni’s philosophy became a part of the new blueprint for NBA success, there was the real and distinct possibility that D’Antoni was finished, or at least demoted to the ranks of longshot coaching candidates. There was little question that his ideas mattered tremendously. The question was whether or not the man himself was the one to put them into practice.

The Suns may never have made it past the Conference Finals (granted, things might have been different if Amar’e Stoudemire hadn’t been suspended in the 2007 playoffs) but their impact was undeniable. In particular, the Spurs—cast as Phoenix’s stoic arch-rivals during their three-year run—started playing in a more free-flowing, wide-open style in the years that followed. It’s as if Gregg Popovich was just shaken enough by SSOL to investigate its root causes and adapt it to suit his own needs. The Suns were sometimes denigrated as frivolous, empty or one-sided, as if a team with this sheer level of entertainment value were somehow incapable of seriousness. But this style of play wasn’t a flashy gimmick or idle conjecture. The Suns won basketball games, and plenty of them. And they did it while a largely uncompromising D’Antoni did everything within his power to realize a vision of the game that, at the time, appeared frankly nonsensical.

Many people have revisited SSOL in the wake of Golden State, but it’s worth noting just how far out D’Antoni ventured. The Suns didn’t just play small, or rely heavily on long-range shooting, or install a system flexible enough to accommodate Steve Nash’s stream-of-consciousness playmaking. Rather than hewing to some pre-ordained set of positional responsibilities, D’Antoni let players’ skills define their roles on the court. The overall flow of the game took on an improvisatory life of its own, as did players’ individual contributions. That’s how you ended up with high-flying terror Amar’e Stoudemire at center or even more seminally, team-leading rebounder Shawn Marion guarding opposing point guards and knocking down corner threes. D’Antoni staked out a form of basketball extremism that, as the game evolves, becomes more relevant with each passing year. And yet at the same time, the man himself was continually diminished.

In light of the recent developments in Houston, it seems inconceivable that Mike D’Antoni could have ever sold out. In Phoenix, there was a purity to D’Antoni’s coaching that made wins and losses seem almost beside the point. SSOL presented itself as ideology, motivated as much by principle as on-court results. He was a seer who’d happened to strike gold with just the right roster—and, in Steve Nash, the near-ideal catalyst. Then at the 2008 deadline, the Suns dealt Marion to the Heat for a washed-up (and, according to SSOL’s logic, outmoded) Shaquille O’Neal. D’Antoni by all accounts agreed to the move; he’d brought on Steve Kerr as GM the year before after doing the job himself for two years. But symbolically, this trade was the beginning of the end; the Suns lost in the first round to the Spurs and D’Antoni exited abruptly to become head coach of the Knicks.

D’Antoni had always presented as too much of an original and too steadfast in his convictions to ever be tempted by a glitzy position, put up with a motley roster, or god forbid, cash out. But after presiding over the collapse of the Suns, he did just that, first with the Knicks from 2008 to 2012 and then with the Lakers from 2012 to 2014. The less said about these two stints the better—Linsanity was the lone highlight—but what’s most remarkable about both is just how ordinary Mike D’Antoni became. In both cases, he was saddled with leaden superstars in Carmelo Anthony and then Kobe Bryant, neither of whom seemed particularly able or willing to adapt their game to his whims. In Los Angeles, he was also expected to make sense of the star-laden clusterfuck, including a bittersweet reunion with a broken-down Steve Nash. But at the most basic level, the Knicks and Lakers failed to reflect D’Antoni’s thinking. There was no spark, no friendly reminder of his peculiar genius—Mike D’Antoni was just another big name struggling to live up to the hype in a major market. His fecklessness became his defining characteristic.

The legacy was never really tarnished. If anything, what D’Antoni accomplished in Phoenix only became more impressive with time. When Kerr and the Warriors took off in 2014, his influence on the new direction the game was taking became undeniable. But after his time in New York and Los Angeles, D’Antoni was damaged goods—and what’s worse, seemingly divorced from the changes percolating throughout the league. D’Antoni’s return to form in Houston is as much about reclaiming SSOL as his own as it is proving its relevance, of proving that he can not only win games but also still beguile us. It’s fortuitous that, in Harden, he found a franchise player looking to break out of a cynical, strategic style of play with clear limitations. Neither Mike D’Antoni or James Harden is trying to impress us. If for Harden this season is about reinvention, for D’Antoni it’s about getting back to his roots and laying claim to not only his past, but the possibility of a future.