Mike D’Antoni was a paradigm-smashing charlatan in Phoenix; in New York, he was an inflexible ideologue, so wedded to his system that he quit rather than compromise to fit Carmelo Anthony’s game. These caricatures hardly seem to belong to the same man.
Both Anthony and the eternally dim Knicks front office were, in many ways, spared by D’Antoni’s exit. It was as clean and succinct a divorce as you see in sports, so abrupt that it suppressed whatever bluster lied beneath it. Melo and D’Antoni had a difference of opinion, not a player-coach conflagration. Things don’t go out the window this quickly with any other organization, but in this case, the Knicks avoided their usual soap opera.
What we’re left with, though, is yet another way to call D’Antoni a fraud. Conventional wisdom holds that the Suns won games through a combination of Steve Nash’s brilliance and D’Antoni’s willingness to try just about anything. There would be no center, maybe not even a power forward, or any positions at all outside of Nash. Players would be defined less by what they were expected to do and more by what might happen to them; the Suns, aggressive as they were, gave the impression of being at the mercy of the flow of the game. It was their cruel, destructive muse, and they in turn subjected other teams to this heady, chaotic brand of basketball. More accepted wisdom: the Suns didn’t play defense, suffered for their lack of a big man, and could be stopped by allowing Nash, and sometimes Amar’e Stoudemire, to score as much as they wanted.
In New York, D’Antoni came off quite differently. He was brought in as the ultimate glitz hire, guaranteed to bring excitement to the Garden. Yet almost immediately talk turned to the man’s system—unexpected, given the perception of the Suns as sheer anarchy loosed upon a slow-footed, tradition-bound league. The moderate, if disproportionate, success of remotely willing guards like Chris Duhon and Raymond Felton showed just how much Nash benefited from a very definite system. The Suns were loose, but they were spinning magic out of rudiments. The emperor was wearing so many clothes that no one even noticed.
D’Antoni wasn’t the high priest of improvisatory goodness: he was a doctrinaire coach whose system worked best when run at top speed by smart passers and athletic finishers. If this sounds shockingly ordinary, it’s because—for all of looseness we’ve come to associate with D’Antoni’s teams—they rely heavily on the pick-and-roll and perimeter ball movement. Watching the Jeremy Lin-led Knicks was especially instructive, since it stripped D’Antoni’s playbook down to its barest bones. Lin became a legend, Tyson Chandler was given new offensive life, and Steve Novak could not be left alone. It was top-down ingenuity, a machine that seemingly could run on its own if the pieces were up to snuff. That it continues to prove so confounding to defense is a testament not to D’Antoni’s capacity for strange thinking, but the elegant design of his offense. D’Antoni isn’t the heir to Don Nelson, he’s almost his opposite, turning fast-break basketball into a tactic, not a strategy; the small-ball revolution he perpetuated (the Suns won no title, but every team has copied them to some degree) was never as radical as was imagined. Unless, of course, you buy this month’s line that D’Antoni is Larry Brown with a higher tolerance for no-look passes.
What’s absent from both of these views of D’Antoni, though, is the context for his style. D’Antoni is neither out to destroy basketball nor a conservative with a slightly different cut of suit. In fact, he’s almost entirely a product of this era, less a dreamer or despot and more a pragmatist who didn’t see an opposition between extremes of order and fluidity. Between the new rules that made it easier for a point guard like Nash to maneuver around the floor and manipulate space with minimal intrusion, and the dwindling ranks of NBA big men, D’Antoni saw an opening and concocted means of exploiting it. Above all else, he’s an opportunist. Where Nellie saw the possibility of mind-expanding mismatches, D’Antoni used Shawn Marion everywhere at once because he could and had to. It was an experiment, or a luxury; the Matrix’s versatility wasn’t a challenge, but an attempt to compensate for what D’Antoni’s gambit (or his personnel) left unaccounted for.
The undervalued masterwork of D’Antoni’s career is what he did with the 2008 Olympic Team. In retrospect, he not only convinced Miami’s Big Three that they could play together, he showed that the key would be in establishing space, not waiting for it to open up and then deciding what it meant for them to share the floor (as they did last year). There would never be any ever-shifting Total Basketball, only players making decisions within a framework—one set up not to jar opponents from second-to-second, but rather, as in football, to give them a “look” for which they had absolutely no counter.
It was also the offense in which Melo worked convincingly as secondary, sometimes even tertiary, option, where he still managed to score as easily, and comfortably, as ever. This will likely be the system again in London this summer. The problem with the Knicks might not have been D’Antoni’s refusal to compromise, or Melo’s inflexibility as a player, but the coach’s dismal realization that the player he thought he knew wasn’t in the building. Brokering a peace is tough but necessary. What do you do, though, when faced with the possibility of having to solve a problem you think you’ve already dealt with?