To say the hiring of Mike D’Antoni as head coach of the Houston Rockets was not met with enthusiasm from the fanbase is a bit of an understatement. To many it was an illogical move, seeing as how D’Antoni’s preferred style of play is an extremely uptempo, high-scoring offense whereas the problems with the Rockets seemed to be centered more around awful defense.
It surely didn’t help that the name dangled for so long in front of the fanbase was that of Jeff Van Gundy, the former Rockets coach whose teams have always been known for low-scoring offenses with shutdown defenses. Van Gundy was said to be interested in returning, but ultimately it appeared that owner Les Alexander had no interest in re-hiring the guy he’d fired years earlier.
I’m probably the exact opposite of most Rockets fans, or rather, those Rockets fans who were pining for Jeff Van Gundy. I love Van Gundy on television. He’s a fantastic commentator who actually makes critical statements of players, coaches, officiating and the league. But I hated him as a coach. I so despised the style of basketball coached by Van Gundy that I virtually tuned out the entire NBA for several years. I grew up watching basketball in the 1970s, a time of fast breaks where the shot clock rarely approached the 24-second mark, whereas Van Gundy’s teams were slow, working the shot clock down toward zero before attempting a shot.
The one team I became a fan of was the Phoenix Suns, coached by Mike D’Antoni. It was pure joy watching Steve Nash push the ball up the court, with two players sprinting to the corners, one toward the free throw line, and a trailer; and Nash then using the space on the court to drive the lane and either getting a layup, going to the free throw line or dishing the ball to Joe Johnson, Shawn Marion or Quentin Richardson, all three positioned around the three point line. In many ways, it was the style of basketball preached by Daryl Morey, only D’Antoni’s offense played much faster, trying to get off a shot in seven seconds or less.
Rockets fans are undoubtedly worried, however, about D’Antoni’s Suns teams not being very good defensively. And fans might also be worried about D’Antoni’s head coaching stints with the New York Knicks and the Los Angeles Lakers. He was not truly successful at either of those stops, though in fairness, he did get both of those teams into the playoffs, and both teams have been pretty damn bad since he departed. As for defense, the argument can be made that when a team is in constant fast-break mode, the result is going to be that the opposition also scores lots of points. But it should also be noted that the Rockets are attempting to address defensive issues by hiring former Memphis Grizzlies assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik, who is known for his defensive acumen, to be one of D’Antoni’s assistant coaches.
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What Rockets fans should be worried about is whether the Rockets have a roster that meshes with D’Antoni’s style. He requires guys who aren’t afraid to shoot the basketball, and he needs a true point guard who can quickly eye the court and figure the options. The Rockets are stuffed with guys who’ll shoot the ball without thinking, but there aren’t really any guys who can consistently hit shots. And what the team truly lacks is a Steve Nash-type point guard who’ll look to pass first.
D’Antoni’s problems with the Knicks and the Lakers were much the same as those he possibly faces with the Rockets. Those teams just didn’t have the personnel to run his offense. Both teams had two of the game’s great players, Carmelo Anthony with the Knicks and Kobe Bryant with the Lakers. But both players were more in the ’90s mode, guys who needed the ball, who created their own shots and who weren’t known for their abilities to run fast breaks. And while he had an aging Nash to run point with the Lakers, what D’Antoni didn’t have at either stop was a point guard who could push the ball and dish it out like Nash could in his prime.
And that’s got to be a fear for the Rockets. James Harden has a lot of a young Steve Nash to his game — he’s really good at driving the lane and getting a Nash-type result of layup, free throw or assist off of a made three pointer. But Harden also exhibits a lot of the Anthony/Bryant style, dribbling endlessly while the shot clock ticks down, before making the dash down the lane and hoping for a good result before the shot clock expires.
If D’Antoni can get Harden to function in his offense, of which there are no signs to believe he can’t, and if Morey can actually get D’Antoni at least one guy who can consistently make a jump shot, then this Rockets team should be good. And while it might not be a popular move with the fans, hiring Mike D’Antoni might end up being just the right thing to do.